Israel Arthur Horovitz was born March 31, 1939, to Julius Charles and Hazel Solberg Horovitz in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The Horovitz family was Jewish in a hardscrabble town of mostly Protestants and Catholics. His mother was a housewife. Horovitz senior, while listed in some biographies as an attorney, was a truck driver while his son was growing up who put himself through law school at midlife. As a youngster, Israel Horovitz was small of stature, a Jew among Gentiles, neither a particularly popular student nor one who accelerated in his studies. This served to make him try still harder, for he was ready to prove he was as good as anyone else and maybe better.
Horovitz made a place for himself through track and field (he was and is a long-distance runner), his capacities with words, his glib sense of humor, and his generally competitive spirit. By most accounts, he was precocious. At thirteen, he wrote a novel, Steinberg, Sex, and the Saint, a work that was promptly rejected by publishers, who, not recognizing the writer’s age, occasionally praised the narrative for its childlike vision. He took the rejection in stride, revising his goals to more modest proportion. Albeit not tall enough to be seen when behind the podium, he became a star of the town’s oratory society, distinguishing himself in local and regional competitions. Horovitz remembers that he might have gone farther had his father not made him stay home as punishment for his otherwise tepid grades. Writing plays came later. He commented:When I was seventeen, I wrote my first play, The Comeback, and I signed it Israel [rather than Arthur] Horovitz. It was the first time in my life that I had acknowledged my legal name. I was just sick of Jewish jokes and anti-Semitic shit that I had taken in my sweet little town. I didn’t reclaim the name “Israel” out of any deep religious fervor. It wasn’t out of any kind of deep Jewish experience, either, other than good old Yankee persecution.
The play received only a small production at Emerson College in Boston after being staged at Suffolk University, with Horovitz himself playing the role of the son. Getting it as far as Boston was encouragement enough, however. Wanting to be a playwright, he spent a year at Salem State Teacher’s College, then, frustrated that only between assignments could he work on his plays, he left school, taking odd jobs, many of them in theater, for the next decade, as he worked at learning his craft. The most lucrative of these jobs was writing and directing television commercials, and his breakthrough play Line met with bravura reviews at the same time commercials he had created for Dante, a men’s cologne, were sweeping the airwaves.
In November, 1967, Line premiered in Greenwich Village at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. There it quickly found an admiring audience. Though it lasted for only eight performances, eight performances at such a prestigious venue as La MaMa were worth eight hundred at lesser stages for a playwright seeking attention. The play went on to run for some twenty years, most of these at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre, where it earned its place in American theater history by being the longest running nonmusical of the twentieth century.
The premise of this one-act is simple. Five people standing in line jockey for position, each wanting to be first, each willing to do virtually anything to achieve this honored place, although it is not clear to the audience, and perhaps to the characters involved, precisely what event they are lining up for. Horovitz has described it alternately as a comedy of displacement and a play about competition. Both descriptions should alert those seeing Horovitz’s work for the first time to themes in the plays to come: competition and its costs, for the same competitive spirit that drives one forward is also sure to hold one back. An American fear of being displaced, for to lose one’s place is to lose one’s identity, and the ways in which language is used would become core concerns of his work for the next thirty years.
He followed the success of Line with an important pair of one-acts, The Indian Wants the Bronx and It’s Called the Sugar Plum. By January, 1968, this double bill had been taken from Greenwich village to the prestigious Astor Theatre, marking the first time his work was being fully mounted in Broadway’s Theater Row. The former play deals with two street thugs teasing, taunting, then molesting, and finally savaging an East Indian man who has yet to learn English. The latter deals with what happens when a pair of teenagers vie for who was most important in the life of a friend who has recently died in a freak accident in Harvard Yard. It would seem to be the oddest of couplings: The Indian Wants the Bronx is a stark, terrifying play about random violence, and It’s Called the Sugar Plum is a sweet gloss on the selfishness of young love. However, in both plays competitive spirits transmogrify into something ugly. Another theme, namely, language and how it is used, would also inform Horovitz’s later plays; he developed this theme further in Stage Directions, The Good Parts, and The Primary English Class. The boy and girl in It’s Called the Sugar Plum are not half so grief-stricken as what they say to one another is meant to indicate. The Indian Wants the Bronx demonstrates that, both literally and metaphorically, to be without a common language can be lethal. Left beaten, helpless, perhaps bleeding to death, the final words of the play belong to the victim, Gupka. He means to plead for help. In the little English he can muster, he says to the audience, “Thank you, Thank you.”
Much has been made by Horovitz of how much this work was indebted to that of Samuel...