Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

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During the 1960’s, Jean-Claude van Itallie shared many concerns with the Open Theatre, the experimental theater collective with which he was associated from 1963 to 1972. Van Itallie participated in the group’s workshops, writing scenes for the actors to experiment with and contributing short plays for the Open Theatre’s public performances. Although America Hurrah was not an Open Theatre production, Interview in particular was clearly influenced by van Itallie’s participation in Open Theatre workshops, as was the dual action of TV. The “transformational” style of acting, in which actors switch rapidly from character to character, was central to the Open Theatre’s approach. Van Itallie’s War (pr. 1963) takes this kind of improvisational exercise as its premise: An Elder Actor and a Younger Actor, meeting to work on improvisations together, act out their antagonism toward each other in a series of rapidly changing scenes.

The Open Theatre also experimented extensively with methods of acting that involve contrasting ways of presenting an action to reveal its social dimensions. The scene in Interview in which the Applicants leapfrog over the Interviewers is an example; the action of a job interview is conducted realistically in the dialogue, while the physical stylization represents another perspective on the same action. The contrast between the two points out the dehumanizing nature of the social situation being represented.

The two major plays van Itallie wrote after America Hurrah were both created collectively with the Open Theatre or its former members. Both are based on the ensemble style and transformational technique evident in Interview and reflect van Itallie’s social concerns. The Serpent: A Ceremony (pr. 1968) combines images of birth and death with images derived specifically from the biblical Book of Genesis and images of the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinations to make a statement about human violence that is at once topical and universal. The play requires no set and no props; the actors represent every character and setting. A Fable (pr. 1975) charts the travels through a mythic kingdom of a journeyer, who has been ordered by a king to leave her village, where the populace laments a lost golden age, to find and kill the Beast that is responsible for their unhappiness. She encounters suffering and injustice at every turn and tries to help but discovers that she cannot. In the end, the Beast proves to be the king himself.

Van Itallie’s most prolific period as a playwright was from 1963 to 1975. In the later 1970’s, he wrote adaptations of classic works, including plays by Anton Chekhov and Euripides. Although original plays by van Itallie continued to appear occasionally thereafter—notably, the well-received Bag Lady (pr. 1979), his work was less prominent on the American theatrical circuit in the 1980’s as he spent time teaching play writing and theater in universities across the United States and adapting several literary works into dramas.