Jack Gelber Essay - Critical Essays


Like John Osborne, Jack Gelber burst on the theatrical scene with a startling, innovative first play. In the years since, he has not written much, and he has suffered several failures. However, he has also constantly tried to expand theatrical boundaries, and even his failures in this area have been important. When he has been successful, he has altered the nature of contemporary American drama.

The Connection

In The Connection, his first, most famous, and best play, Gelber established himself as an innovative force in the American theater. His experimental approach to his themes wedded form and content far more successfully than would have been possible in a conventionally constructed drama.

The Connection is an exploration of universal human need, metaphorically expressed as a heroin fix. Gelber’s play contains little action in any traditional dramatic sense. There is essentially no movement in the plot of this two-act play because the characters are so desperate in their need that they remain in Teach’s room, the only setting in the play, afraid to leave for fear that Cowboy, their dope supplier, might come while they are gone. This is not to say that nothing happens in the play or that no dramatic tension is created. Tension evolves out of the relationships between the room’s inhabitants, the question of whether Cowboy will ever come, and the question of what will happen when he arrives. This atmosphere is reinforced by the emotions and physical discomfort displayed by the characters. More traditional plays have dealt with similar themes— Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (pr., pb. 1935), Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (wr. 1939, pr., pb. 1946), and even O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (wr. 1941, pb. 1955, pr. 1956)—and invariably plays of this nature are condemned by imperceptive critics who demand constant action onstage. In this play, Gelber’s form and content come together with an unexpected result. Following the approach of the Theater of the Absurd , the plot does not appear to be carefully and logically structured. Events that do not seem related (in an Aristotelian sense) occur one after another. Things simply happen onstage, and the feeling of improvisation that Gelber so carefully cultivates is very frustrating to those members of the audience who expect, or need, to have everything carefully spelled out in a strict format as the play progresses.

For other members of the audience, the mood of improvisation is intellectually stimulating; a sophisticated audience soon realizes that the supposedly random happenings and the tedious waiting reflect the drama’s theme. If the audience feels frustrated by Cowboy’s not coming, they can better imagine how the characters onstage feel (much as film director Michelangelo Antonioni bored the audience of his 1964 film The Red Desert for nearly three hours to demonstrate how boring life is for a certain class of Italians). The way jazz music is used here also serves to emphasize the playwright’s theme: The essential character of jazz is improvisational, and the music in the play varies according to the musicians’ moods rather than corresponding to events transpiring onstage, as would be expected in a musical. At the same time, the music itself provides some movement and a feeling of transition (though, again, in a nontraditional way, frequently increasing the audience’s frustration and anxiety as the changes that appear to be signaled by the musical breaks often remain unrealized).

In accordance with the stage directions, The Connection begins with the players coming onstage and arranging themselves around the set, giving the appearance of fourth-wall realism, which maintains the fiction of characters acting out their lives with no interaction between spectator and actor. As the actors move about, they are unhurried and seem to have no plans; they merely walk onstage and stand or sit randomly. Gelber emphasizes the spontaneity of the situation by indicating in the stage directions that “perhaps” there is a sign on the wall, or “perhaps” a painting or an orange-crate bookcase is in the room.

Two actors stroll down the theater aisle, and act 1 has begun. The first words are spoken by Jim Dunn, who introduces himself and Jaybird to the audience as the producer and author of The Connection, respectively. Those who feel that the play is about heroin should be alerted by these statements that Gelber wants the audience to be aware that they are watching a play, and that they should not take what happens onstage to be literally true. Throughout the play, one character or another directs his dialogue at the audience to make sure that they do not exercise a willing suspension of disbelief and accept the action onstage as real, even momentarily. Gelber does not want his audience to become absorbed in what is happening in the play; instead, he wants them to be constantly drawing analogies between what is transpiring in front of them and other areas in their lives. Moreover, to make sure that the audience understands exactly what the author intends, these asides clearly state the point that he wants to make. For example, Dunn announces that most recent studies of drug addiction, an “anti-social habit,” have not had much to do with the subject of narcotics, per se.

As soon as the dialogue directed at the audience is completed, the Fourth Musician asks if Cowboy has come back yet, thereby immediately establishing the concept of waiting. Within a few moments, Jaybird interrupts the action to lecture the audience, reminding them that they are watching an art form, improvised theater, and noting that if they perceive a relationship between jazz and narcotics they are making their own “connection,” not his.

Suspense is generated when there is a knock at the door of Teach’s room, but it is not Cowboy who enters. Soon after this, two more characters enter, the First and Second Photographers. One is a black man dressed in a white suit, who is swift and agile; the other is a white man in a black suit, who moves slowly, “clodlike.” During the course of the play, these two exchange their personalities and their clothing, piece by piece, as Gelber underscores the artificiality of his play so that his themes will receive more attention than the context in which they are presented.

The various characters are introduced by Dunn (Ernie is a “dope-addict psychopath,” Sam is an “expert in folk lore,” and so on), and the question about Cowboy’s whereabouts is continually rephrased. Gelber continually reminds his audience that dope is not his subject, as when Sam, in a tirade attacking society, asserts that people who work and worry about money and new clothes are addicts (“chlorophyll . . . aspirin . . . vitamin”) who are hooked worse than he is. Solly, the intellectual, agrees, commenting that everybody is looking for a fix, a fix of “hope”—to forget, to remember, to be sad, to be happy, to be. Later, he says that everyone is his own connection....

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