In 1977-78 I acted in Joe Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk (in a new translation by Mira Rafalowicz) at The Public Theater in New York. It was a life-changing, career-changing experience for me and was an important step toward co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre not long after The Dybbuk closed in January, 1978. Shortly before the play opened, Joe’s chronic cardiac problems caused him to be hospitalized. A case of rheumatic fever in childhood had damaged his mitral valve, which had been replaced with a prosthetic one. But that surgery was followed by recurring cardiac illness.
During the remaining days of rehearsal and for the length of the run, Joe sent a number of letters to the cast. I kept five of them. I don’t know if there were others that went astray over the years, but these five capture Joe’s “voice” as one of the last century’s most deeply reflective theatre-makers. Many of the questions he takes up were ones he first posed in his book, The Presence of The Actor. I’ve scanned the five letters and embedded them below. They are clearly meant to be shared.
In the mid-1980s, while undergoing a surgery to replace the mitral valve a second time, Joe suffered a devastating stroke which left him with aphasia and other deficits. He overcame the aphasia to a remarkable degree and returned to the theatre, acting, directing and creating new works, including a collaboration with TJT and Mira Rafalowicz in 1987. (See an article from American Theatre by Misha Berson)
Joseph Chaikin died in 2003, at age 67, of heart failure. His last words “I don’t know,” were spoken, according to his sister, Shami (who is an incredible actor in her own right and was also in The Dybbuk), “…questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.” (as quoted in Joe’s NY Times obituary)