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Mourning the Love of One’s Life

Issue 275

Playwright Karen Malpede lost her husband George Bartinieff, co-founder of Theatre for a New City, in July.

Karen Malpede Nov 21

Climate change, wars, nuclear threat, famine, what else… And perhaps the start of our collective sorrow is not the pandemic, but should be dated from September 11, 2001, the dawn of the 21st century. If the answers to “why do they hate us so much?” had been entirely different, there might have been a collective turning toward nonviolence, toward listening, the crucial nonviolent activity. 

Taking the knee in crowds, outside in parks and malls, as we did for George Floyd, to mourn both his murder and our violent history, silent for almost nine minutes, is as close as we’ve come to collective mourning for those killed and for the thousands who died alone in hospitals, prisons, on the street, victims of a plague that forbade human touch.

Given all the people who disappeared in clouds of sludgy ash on 9/11, or in Iraq, or behind plastic curtains, tubes down their throats, I must be lucky. George Bartinieff, my partner of 35 years, in life and creative work, died in my arms in our bed at 2:08 am on July 30. I felt his last heartbeat. He is nevertheless gone and my grief is a vast unknown I am lost in.

I had been reading him Romantic poetry much of that last night; his favorite poem of all time, “Ode to the West Wind.” The night before I had spoken with him, though he could no longer speak, most of the night through. We spoke of dying in this way: I repeated all the thoughts we had shared with each other as his illness worsened over several years. We both loved the natural world. “You will go back into life,” I said, using as many metaphors as I could. I quoted George Bernard Shaw, “Of life only there is no end.” In the early morning, he squeezed my hand, and managed to say, “that was good.” Did he mean this last talk, our whole time as partners on this earth, his entire life? All, perhaps.  

George fell in love with my play, Us. We worked together for the next 35 years.

One Saturday before, we made a trip by ambulance to the Brooklyn Hospital emergency room, where doctors rehydrated George, allowing him to live his last week. There, he said, “I feel I am losing language and sense.” I wept and wept in the frigid ER. Someone approached me from behind and put a heated sheet over my summer sweater. Suddenly warmed, I calmed. 

In the final week of his life, George was visited by family and close friends. George’s oncologist, who was also his primary care physician, made a house call, and then Fed Ex’ed me the supplies I would need to keep his mouth moist.

I sat on the bed near George and others stood or sat around. Collaborators in our theater or friends, all of whom adored George and were loved by him. Everyone spoke with great warmth, sharing memories of happy times. We laughed a lot. His eyes sparkled with that irrepressible joy he clung to even then. For the first few days, he could move his arms, as if holding the assembled company in a final embrace. His silence was a kind of holding court.

•  •  •

George was the co-founder of Theater for the New City and Theater Three Collaborative. He was a force that discerned and attracted the most innovative creators of the avant-garde: early gay theaters Angels of Light, and Bette Bourne’s Bloolips, Mabou Mines, Bread and Puppet, Irene Fornes, Spider Women, Anohni, everyone on the cutting edge, plus producing three eco-festivals, founding the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. He had no time to act, always raising funds so the building, whose future he secured, might survive. 

George Bartenieff as Uncle in “Extreme Whether,” written and directed by Karen Malpede, presented by La MaMa March 2018. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

We met at TNC in 1987. Judith Malina cast George in my play Us, a sensual-sexual drama of passion and abuse, in which two actors play six characters, themselves and their parents as lovers. There was some cross-dressing required, so in one scene in huge platform heels and a slinky dress, George played the narcissistic mother of one of his male characters. In another, he became a stallion striving to mate, and so it went. Us marked his return to what he did best, transformational acting in poetic plays. He’d trained in London on Shakespeare. He made his Broadway debut at age 14. He’d studied from age 11 at Maria and Irwin Piscator’s epic theater school. He learned dramatic ritual earlier, at an experimental school in Bavaria, as a six-year-old hidden child in Nazi Germany, sent by aunts in whose care he had been left, to get him away from a Nazi collaborator in the family. 

George fell in love with my play, Us, just as in 1963, he had fallen for a very different but equally extreme theatrical poem, The Brig, by Kenneth Brown, which Judith had also directed. We worked together for the next 35 years, creating, premiering and touring 12 new poetic plays on subjects from genetic engineering to the Holocaust, censorship of climate science, the war in Iraq, the U.S. torture program and post-apocalypse ecofantasy. George had an unusually resonant voice and a malleable, shape-changing body. As we worked on my plays in which he had major parts written for him, he became more and more mesmerizing onstage. He disappeared inside his characters, fully animated by his transformative powers: his honed empathic sense, his shape-shifting body and voice. He gave an enormous amount to the other actors on stage, by paying them deep attention, and the ensemble rose to embrace his uniquely holistic style.

We passed every pandemic evening reading from a great book. I read aloud as he could not see the words, but his listening was so acute we were able to discuss in detail stunning passages from Hardy, Camus, LeGuin, Baldwin, Gordimer, etc. 

In his final stage and film performance with Kathleen Chalfant in Blue Valiant, he was Sam Brown, horse trader, a role completely alien but one whose crusty insight he loved. Because I left him on stage the entire time, so he would not have to climb up and down, he also became a demi-god, overseeing with intense focus the wellbeing of each other character, including the immigrant child and the horse. In these final years, struggling with multiple myeloma and the effects of treatment, he became evermore free and mysterious, as if through his acting he touched the eternal. His transformation into an owl in Other Than We, literally winged without proper rehearsal, is unforgettable. No one guessed the extent of his disabilities, what they felt was the vibrant life force within, an electric zap to their hearts.

What do I know of loss? Only that I was one of the lucky ones in these years of mass death who was able to hold and comfort my love as he lost language, movement and breath.

Though he and I never mentioned the word “funeral,” and hardly ever said the word “death,” when he died I knew he had to be memorialized, without dogma. In keeping with our secular Judaism, there was an immediate, intimate cremation ceremony held outside, under a huge beach tree in Greenwood Cemetery. Those few asked to speak also read poetry. I read for him his favorite speech as Uncle from Extreme Whether. A month later, I traveled with friends to Vermont to the Bread and Puppet memorial grove where in an improvised ceremony, serenaded by their brass band, Peter Schumann, George’s oldest friend, on trumpet, I nailed his hat to a tall pine tree, surrounded by flowers. We scattered his ashes and shared memories. I knew I had to be the first to reach into that box and feel for myself the grit of his bone mixed with ash, but I could never have done such a thing if not held in community.  

On Oct. 1, over two 200 people attended or streamed his public memorial at LaMama. I edited a selection from his diary about his early life as a hidden child that was read aloud, interviews about the Lower East Side scene were screened; in both he was disarmingly charming. He acted in selections from some of his best work we have managed to preserve on film. This memorial gave George back to me in health. He was never ill when he was making art.  

What do I know of grief? Nothing but a depth of sorrow and an utter aloneness I never experienced with George. What do I know of loss? Only that I was one of the lucky ones in these years of mass death who was able to hold and comfort my love as he lost language, movement and breath. This was a promise and a privilege. We are lucky when we can accompany this far our beloved. The three memorials, too, though I never promised those, feel the fulfillment of a public need to remember him with and for the community of artists and visionaries he did so much to nurture and sustain. 

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