Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free: A History of Squat Theatre (1969 – 1991)
March 30 – July 13, 1996

Installation view from Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1996

Installation view from Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1996

Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free: A History of Squat Theatre (1969-1991)

“Such a person who thinks he is a man, he is a dog.”
                                                                           Arthur Rimbaud

- Fiodor Fiodorovitsh , do you see that white piano?
- Yes, I do, Stiepan Stiepanovitsh.
- Listen, Fiodor Fiodorovitsh, I do go there and shit into that white piano.
- Never mind Stiepan Stiepanovitsh, they would not understand it.
                                                                           Old Hungarian Joke

(From program notes to Pig, Child, Fire! 1977)

Artists Space worked with Eva Buchmüller and Anna Koós – two of the founding members of Squat Theatre – to produce what they called “a celebratory wake” of the work of the company. They sought to provide a loose chronology, and to contextualize Squat Theatre, through installations that reworked old sets and props. Alongside this they recreated the Squat Café and invited friends of the Theatre and emerging artists to perform, read, and screen films.

Squat Theatre began performing in Hungary in 1969, although it wasn’t until 1976 that they gained their name after a friend remarked on their peripatetic existence. The group was comprised of two families (whose children performed alongside their parents, and for one show even ate their dinner on stage each night) and friends. Squat Theatre quickly met with repressive measures from the Soviet government, and was banned from performing publicly in 1972 because their plays were deemed to be obscene and apt to be misinterpreted politically. Undeterred, they began to put on performances in private apartments in Budapest, and this blending of public and private realms became a defining feature of their work. Early performances involved inviting spectators into their living room to witness mundane activities, such as simply watching a couple interact with each other over the course of an evening.

Their final play in Hungary was based on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Squat Theatre excised all lines except for those spoken by women, and had the three men in the troupe speak the dialogue at a slow, halting pace. Buchmüller later wrote: “omitting the male characters’ lines revealed the play’s essential thought: longing to be elsewhere, or simply put, thought without the potential to become action.” Poignantly, a few days later the group left for Paris and didn’t return to Hungary for many years. Indeed three of them were found guilty of “the crime of refusing to return home” by the Hungarian government.

Soon after moving to Paris the group travelled to and settled in New York, where they leased a building on West 23rd Street in which they lived and worked from 1977-1985. It was here that they reached their self-proclaimed ‘golden age,’ putting on productions such as Andy Warhol’s Last Love (1978) and the Obie Award-winning Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free (1981). West 23rd Street was a hybrid place that acted as home and theatre, and resembled a storefront with its large street-facing windows. The porous nature of the space meant that performances often extended into the street, where actors mingled with pedestrians. In the 1980s, West 23rd Street became a place for musicians to play, beginning as a blues club that hosted Left Hand Frank and Sunnyland Slim, later morphing into a No Wave and funk space where Nico, the Lounge Lizards, and John Cale performed. By 1985 Squat Theatre had disbanded, and members of the group were priced out of the building.

Invitation recto to Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1996

Invitation verso to Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1996

Download Press Release

Squat Theatre, ed. Eva Buchmüller and Stephan Balint (New York: New Observations), 1996

Installation view from Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1996