Jean-Claude van Itallie
Jean-Claude van Itallie was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1936, raised in Great Neck, Long Island, and graduated from Harvard University in 1958.
His trilogy of one-act plays, America Hurrah, was hailed as the watershed off-Broadway play of the sixties. van Itallie was one of Ellen Stewart’s original “LaMama playwrights.” He was principal playwright of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater, and for that group wrote what has been called “the classic ensemble play,” The Serpent.
In the seventies, van Itallie wrote his frequently produced new English versions of the four major plays of Chekhov. Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Chekhov versions are published by Applause Books, New York City: Chekhov, the Major Plays.
Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, based on the traditional teachings, premiered at LaMama ETC in NYC in 1983. As The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud, van Itallie’s play is published by North Atlantic Books, San Francisco. Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1985 translation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony was commissioned and produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Traveller, van Itallie’s play about recovery with aphasia, based on van Itallie’s experience helping Joseph Chaikin when Chaikin had a stroke, premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1987 with John Glover. Struck Dumb, van Itallie’s monologue written with and for Joseph Chaikin, premiered at the Taper Too in Los Angeles in l988 and performed at The American Place, New York City in 1991. Struck Dumb is published in Best Short Plays, 199l-92. Ancient Boys, van Itallie’s play about a gay artist living with AIDS, premiered at LaMama Annex, February, 1991. Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play of Bulgakhov’s Master and Margarita premiered at the Theatre for the New City, NYC, in May, 1993.
As a performer Jean-Claude van Itallie appeared in 1988 in Boulder, Colorado as a dancer-performer in Flesh Chronicles, a piece on aging, conceived with choreographer Nancy Spanier. He appeared at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, in the first production of Guys Dreamin’ in the fall of 1996. Guys Dreamin’, largely autobiographical, is written by the three actors appearing in it, including van Itallie. Guys Dreamin’ performed in Boston where it received excellent reviews and at LaMama ETC in New York City. In May, 1998 Jean-Claude van Itallie opened at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls with his one person show (with accompanist Steve Sweeting) War, Sex and Dreams. The show was directed by Joel Gluck. In early 1999, van Itallie performed it in Santa Monica, California at Highways Theatre, and in New York City at LaMama ETC. War, Sex and Dreams received positive reviews in both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Van Itallie’s book on play writing, The Playwright’s Workbook, was published in 1997 by Applause Books, NYC.
A painter of large black-on-white calligraphies, van Itallie had an exhibit entitled Characters at the Open Center Gallery in New York City in May, 1993.
Jean-Claude van Itallie has taught play writing and performance at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale School of Drama, Amherst, Columbia, University of Colorado, Boulder, Naropa Institute and other colleges. He now teaches “Healing Power of Theater” on-your-feet workshops around the country at such alternative centers as Esalen and Omega Institutes and the Open Center in NYC.
Jean-Claude van Itallie lives in western Massachusetts on his farm which he has transformed into Shantigar Foundation, where spiritual and artistic practices meet. Shantigar is a venue for workshops in creativity and meditation, and for creating performance pieces. Since 1995 summer workshops have been given in the barn, co sponsored with Rowe Conference Center. Under van Itallie’s careful supervision, the century-old barn has been restored as Shantigar’s main workshop space.
Van Itallie is a founding member of the grass roots group, Citizens Awareness Network, which combats production and proliferation of nuclear pollution
Education and Teaching History
“Jean-Claude is the only playwriting teacher I ever had.”–Tony Kushner
Jean-Claude van Itallie’s academic and teaching history (not including single lectures and workshops on various aspects of theatre and writing given internationally):
Harvard A.B., 1958
Neighborhood Playhouse, acting, summer 1958
Kent State University, honorary doctorate, 1977
1964 (?) Herbert Berghof Studio, NYC, Play writing
1966-68, 1972 New School for Social Research, NYC, Play writing
1969, 1978, 1984-85 Yale University School of Drama, New Haven, CT Play writing
1974-78, 1983, 1991 Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO Play writing
1987-89, 1991 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO Play writing
1987(?) Denver Center for Performing Arts, Denver, CO, Performing Chekhov
1976-86 Princeton University Princeton, NJ, Play writing
1976 Amherst College Amherst, MA, Play writing
1984, 85, 88, 92 New York University, NYC, Play writing, Performance, Great Plays, directing productions
1986 Columbia University, NYC, Play writing
1990 Middlebury College Middlebury, VT, Play writing, Performance
1991, 1992 Playwrights Horizons, NYC, Performance, Play writing
1991, 1992, New York University, NYC, Performance, Play writing
1991, 1992 Naropa Institute Boulder, CO, Performance, Play writing
1993, 4, 5 Rowe Conference Center Rowe, MA, Healing Power of Theatre
1993, 4, 5, 6 Open Center, NYC, Healing Power of Theatre
1993 Learning Alliance, NYC, Centering for Action
1993, 4, 5, 6 Interface Cambridge, MA, Healing Power of Theatre
1993 Center for Disability Meenominie, WI, Healing and Disability
1994 Living & Performing Arts School, NYC, Playwriting-on-your -Feet
1995 Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO
1995, 6, 7, 8, 9, 2000 Continuum Studio, Santa Monica, CA, Healing Power of Theatre
1995, 7 Pilgrim Theater, Boston, MA, Gay Men’s Healing Theatre
1996, 8 Berkeley, CA, Healing Power of Theatre
1996, 8, Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY, Healing Power of Theatre
1996, 8, 2000 Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA, Healing Power of Theatre
1997, 8, 9, 2000 Shantigar Foundation, Rowe, MA, Healing Power of Theatre
Plays directed while an undergraduate at Harvard: Michel de Ghelderode’s Escurial, probably first American production, with Roger Klein and Mark Mirsky; Jean-Paul Sartre’s Dirty Hands; Jean van Druten’s I am a Camera, cast included Moira Wylie and Richard Jordan. Thieves Carnival by Jean Anouilh, Kirkland House and Harvard Dramatic Club. Cast included Gail Jones, Daniel Selznick, and Jill Weldon.
King of the United States by Jean-Claude van Itallie, music by Richard Peaslee, Theater for the New City, NYC. (See Plays)
The Tempest, a musical version of Shakespeare’s play, music by Tony Scheitinger, New York University, NYC.
The Balcony, Jean Genet’s play translated by van Itallie, New York University, NYC. (See Plays)
1962 – Rockefeller Grant
1967 – Vernon Rice Award
1967 – Outer Critics Circle Award
1968 – Village Voice Obie Award
1973 – Guggenheim Fellowship
1980 – Guggenheim Fellowship
1973 – Creative Artists Public Service Grant
1977 – Ph.D (honorary) from Kent State University
National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
1987 – Achievement Award, United Stroke Foundation
1999 – Last Frontier Lifetime Achievement Award for Play Writing, Valdez, Alaska
From the Author:
“A Biography in Theater,” by William Coco
The early plays of Jean-Claude van Itallie, in terms of their brevity, wit and social commentary, may be taken to resemble the early one-acts of Ionesco or, better, Chekhov_and later in his career van Itallie will compose luminous American versions of the major Chekhov plays. The decisive difference between van Itallie’s drama and that of classic moderns lies in the realm of form. He is preoccupied with multiple levels of experience, with the mask behind the mask, and with states of awareness outside the province of the everyday. His crystalline peceptions give rise to complex modes of characterization, a concern with indeterminate time, and a montage approach to dramatic activity and language.
Van Itallie’s essential stage vocabulary is there at the start, in his off-off Broadway debut with War (1963). He describes the play as a “formal war game, a duel” between two male actors of different generations who metamorphose into father and son. They are visited by a shimmering vision of a nameless great actress of the Edwardian era who addresses them as her children and transforms their gritty New York loft which is crammed with theatrical paraphernalia, into a sunny, cheerful park. At the end the men form an emblem of a two-headed eagle of war, each male identity locked into that of the other.
The rich theatrical implications of this meditation on appearances, on essential conflict and on the role-nature of personality, quickly matured when in the same year van Itallie became Playwright of the Ensemble at the newly-organized Open Theatre under the direction of Joseph Chaikin. In its shattering of received theatrical forms, in its canonization of the workshop process, and in its philosophical daring, the Open Theatre provided van Itallie with a subtle instrument for trusting the limits of theatrical representation. For the Open Theatre he contributed numerous sketches, improvisations, and short plays, including The Hunter and the Bird (1964), and among his most successful are the pop-art Hollywood comedies informally known as “the Doris Day plays:” Almost Like Being and I’m Really Here. Both 1964-65, with a wacky Doris D. In love with Just Rock and the deadly Rossano.
Van Itallie’s chief works of this period emerge very publicly during his last years with the Open Theatre. A triptych of one-acts under the title America Hurrah (1966) begins with Interview, a fugue for eight actors, (1965), a rhythmic weaving of ritualized daily behavior and speech that starts and concludes in the anonymous offices of an employment agency where all the applicants are named Smith. TV (1966) dramatizes the menace and trivializing power of the mass media, with a trio watching television in the viewing room of a TV-ratings company: the TV images break free of the set and engulf the viewers. Motel: a masque for three dolls (1962) unfolds within a tacky midwestern motel room where a huge Motel-Keeper Doll spews forth an unctuous monologue about the room and its furnishings which represent the mail-order-catalogue surface of a violent America. Man Doll and Woman Doll enter the room and proceed to tear the place apart, have sex, and destroy the Motel-Keeper.
The theme of violence done to persons through the exigencies of the social contact is taken up again in The Serpent (1968). Here, in an even more sophisticated interplay of layered actions, contemporary violence is linked back to its ancient sources and seen as a central aspect of the human condition. As it simultaneously presents and confronts the values of its story, this “ceremony” for actors explores the themes and events of Genesis, and the Tree of Life is a tangle of men and women who embody the serpent. God’s fixing of limits upon Adam and Eve is viewed as humanity’s projection of its own need for limits, and the self-consciousness that results from the Fall leads to Cain and Abel and the unending human battle, in which each is “caught between the beginning and the end” and unable to remake the past.
After leaving the Open Theatre, van Itallie wrote and staged The King of the United States (1972), a stark political fable about the need for an office of rule supported by agents of the status quo, to give order to life. Mystery Play (1973) recycles the characters and themes of The King of the United States and inverts its tone and style, in an elegantly paced farce-parody of the whodunit, presided over by a Mystery Writer who likes to play detective.
In 1975, van Itallie collaborated again with Chaikin on A Fable, a folk tale for adults. In picaresque episodes a Journeyor leaves her impoverished village in search of help, and in her wanderings over a wide and storied landscape she comes to celebrate the need to transcend the beast within.
With Early Warnings (1983) van Itallie returned to smaller forms and a second triptych, on the theme of accomodation. The warnings are directed at the audience, for the characters have already made their choices. Bag Lady (1979) presents a day in the street life of the witty Clara who is organizing her bags and keeping only essential shards of her identity. The perky actress Judy Jensen in Sunset Freeway (1983) breezes along in her car at dusk on the L.A. freeway, immersed in her identity as commercial actress. She speaks to her toy giraffe, imagines a nuclear holocaust, spots Warren Beatty, and looking out upon the glories of consumer culture, she’s in heaven. In Final Orders (1983) space program agents Angus and Mike listen to instructions from a computer and hold on to one another, poised for the holocaust that now is at hand.
Among van Itallie’s most ambitious projects is a theatrical version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, entitled The Tibetan Book of the Dead or, or How not to Do It Again (1983), a ritual for the dead in which the characters are emanations of the Dead One, speaking, chanting, and dancing within a huge skull and upon a floor manadala. In its style, complexity and in its debt to an ancient text it resembles The Serpent, but its landscape lies beyond history and legend, in an essentialized world of the spirit.
The whole of van Itallie’s dramatic universe is dedicated to a process of vital experimentation through the counterpoint of language, mask, and gesture. His is a philosophy of theatrical play underscored with social critique. Central to his vision are the inadequacies of being and a knowledge of exile. And above all, a knowledge too of the brutalities that are visited upon the self as it seeks to make its way, in a world almost wilfully estranged from organic life.
New York City
to be continued…
“Jean-Claude van Itallie and the Off-Broadway Theater,” by Gene Plunka
This book is a critical study of the plays of Jean-Claude van Itallie, published 1998, University of Delaware Press.
“I’ve been going to the theater for more than forty years. So I’ve been able to follow the career of Jean-Claude van Itallie from his earliest successes. His work intrigues and challenges me.
“Gene Plunka honors the profession of theater scholar by writing the first book on this important playwright, in which he argues that ‘van Itallie has done more to expand the range of dramatic structure than any other playwright since O’Neill.’ Plunka’s book needs to be read by everyone serious about theater today.”–Alex Gildzen, poet and former curator of special collections, Kent State University.