Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

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Ribman, in the manner of a number of dramatists who came to prominence in the 1960’s, has set his plays in widely differing historical and national contexts, while remaining faithful to the same set of themes. To mention a comparable writer, the British playwright Peter Shaffer has centered one play, The Royal Hunt of the Sun (pr., pb. 1964), on a conflict between Montezuma and the invading conquistadores, and another, Amadeus (pr. 1979, pb. 1980), on a battle between Mozart and a musical rival. However, each play thematically has concentrated on the contest between untutored authenticity and world-weary cynicism. By the same token, Ribman has set plays in nineteenth century Russia, postwar Berlin, and a California prison, while using each context to examine the irrepressibility of evil in man’s nature and the inevitable destruction of innocence and sensitivity.

In an exquisite earlier work, The Journey of the Fifth Horse (pr. 1966, pb. 1967), Ribman chronicles the poignant tale, adapted from Ivan Turgenev, of a Russian nobleman who cannot seem to find love or acceptance in a provincial town. This touching story, however, is the diary of a dead man, which has fallen into the hands of his illiterate, avaricious servants. It has been given to the uncaring editor, Zoditch, who is forced to consider it for publication against his will because of office machinations. Thus the telling of the sensitive tale is intermixed with Zoditch’s shabby intrigues and interlarded with his ribald and cynical comments.

After The Ceremony of Innocence, Ribman turned to more contemporary plots. His harrowing The Poison Tree (pr. 1973, pb. 1977) details the interactions among white guards and black prisoners in a California jail. The play opens with the murder of a guard and moves to the murder and suicide of two prisoners. In the hair-raising last scene, three inmates face the fact that although they know they will lose everything if they kill a traitorous inmate, and although they know that the sadistic guards are expecting them to carry out their revenge, they feel inexorably driven to accomplish the murder. Their action is only averted when a different murder occurs.

The author’s successful Broadway play, Cold Storage (pr. 1977, pb. 1978), would seem to have brought the author into closer proximity with his own experience, since Ribman is a native New Yorker, and this play is set in a New York City hospital in the present. However, it represents a major shift in the type of material treated by the playwright: it is his first comedy. It is his lightest work in tone, focusing on the meeting and conversings of a crusty, blabbering, comical cancer patient with a more taciturn younger man who has come for ominous “tests.” The tone is light, but the themes remain grim. The contrast between the two men is rich in irony, for the dying man is the lively one—retailing anecdotes, jokes, and dreams—while the other man (because of his fixation on Holocaust experiences) is alive but has no interest in living.

Of all the playwright’s works, perhaps because the lively old man teeters near death—teeters, literally, since he keeps threatening to send his wheelchair off the edge of the roof garden where the play takes place—this is the sunniest. The more closely Ribman faces death the more he can affirm the constant but beleaguered existence of human life.