Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1255
The Connection is concerned with the staging of a play within the play, the inner play to be performed by heroin addicts and musicians. A few minutes before the play begins, the actors arrange themselves onstage; most of them are dozing. Dressed in suits, Jim Dunn, the producer of the play-within-the-play, and Jaybird, its author, enter. Jim introduces himself and Jaybird and comments on the media’s distorted treatment of narcotics, which, he says, are also the subject of the present play, supposedly written by Jaybird after living with drug addicts for several months. Jim is interrupted by one of the jazz musicians, who wants to know if the heroin dealer Cowboy is back. At this point, the distinction between the play’s reality and the play-within-the-play is blurred: The producer and the author become participants in their own play and interact with the actors they hired. Jim and Jaybird comment on the importance of jazz and its relation to drugs. Jaybird stresses that his play is as improvisatory as the jazz played onstage for about thirty minutes in each of the two acts. The two jazz musicians onstage are joined by two others.
Leach, the occupant of the apartment which Jim rented to film Jaybird’s play, asserts his leadership, complaining that he is the only one who eats, while his guests do nothing but sleep and make his apartment dirty. Leach is interrupted by Jim, who returns with two photographers—a black man in a white suit and a white man in a black suit; as the play unfolds the two photographers will gradually exchange their clothing and personalities. Then Jim introduces heroin addicts Leach, Solly, Ernie, and Sam and the four musicians and is again interrupted by questions about the arrival of Cowboy. Sam describes the state of heroin addiction as a constant running that is no worse than other people’s addiction to money, clothes, nature, medication, or vitamins. Solly adds that Sam’s vice happens to be illegal and explains that Sam is fed up with the uncertainty of waiting and that all he needs is hope. Ernie, tired of hearing about addictions and the human condition, announces that he was hired to play his trumpet that night. Unfortunately, he will be unable to take this job because he had to trade in his instrument at a pawnshop, and all he has left is the mouthpiece he blows time and again.
The dialogue is interrupted by the grotesque Harry, who walks into the apartment and, without saying a word, plugs in his portable phonograph and plays a Charlie Parker jazz record. After two minutes, during which everyone listens intently, Harry picks up the record and leaves again with his phonograph, still not saying a word. The musicians start playing but are soon interrupted by Jaybird, who accuses the actors of murdering his play because they are not presenting the characters he had laid out for them.
Leach and Solly decide to integrate Jaybird and the photographers into the action of the play, and Solly comments on the twentieth century’s antisocial attitude and its fascination with warfare. He then talks about the addicts’ main occupation: waiting for the connection. Then Ernie insults the audience, whom he believes to be ignorant people who do not understand what is going on and who enjoy seeing others suffer. As the waiting for Cowboy continues, Ernie upsets Leach by throwing a match on the floor, but Solly ends their argument by announcing that he has spotted Cowboy approaching, accompanied by a Salvation Army sister. Jim Dunn comes back onstage and announces that Leach invited some women to the apartment, that in the following act the players will receive their pay in the form of heroin, that there will be an intermission, and that the audience should not be intimidated by the addicts.
The second act begins with about five minutes of jazz played onstage as the musicians and players take turns going into the bathroom, where (offstage) Cowboy gives them their heroin injections. In order to evade the police, Cowboy has brought Sister Salvation along, who is now looking around the room, apparently not realizing what is going on in the bathroom. For her sake Sam refers to the heroin he received as the way to salvation, and Cowboy talks of a baptism he is administering in the bathroom. Leach is not getting high, and he accuses Cowboy of having given him less than the others.
As the photographers return to the stage from the audience, Leach offers to pay for a heroin shot for them. While the first photographer, who has by now become conventional, denies the offer, the second photographer, who has become more like the addicts, accepts, as does Jaybird. Sister Salvation suspects that the men have been drinking wine in the bathroom and criticizes them for it. Solly recommends that Sister Salvation leave, as long as they are getting along so well, but she is reluctant to go because she is lonely. Cowboy finally persuades her to leave.
Jim Dunn reenters, asking Leach about the women who are supposed to come to the apartment; he goes on complaining about the unreliability of the players, while Jaybird mumbles that the play is now out of his hands. After Jim’s exit, Leach repeats that he did not get high, and a man in the audience demands that Sam tell a story for the five dollars he received before the beginning of the performance. Sam offers a rambling narrative of his life with Leach and Cowboy several years earlier.
As Jaybird livens up again, he announces that he considers heroism to be the basis of Western drama and complains that the addicts do not act like the four heroes he had intended for his play. The first photographer suggests that Cowboy be the play’s hero instead. After starting to talk about the dangers of his occupation and his dissatisfaction with being constantly on the move, Cowboy tells Jaybird that he is fed up with the play and that one cannot learn about people by flirting with them. He suggests that Jaybird be the play’s hero. When Leach complains again that he is not high, Cowboy hands him a package of heroin, warning him not to overdose. Leach injects the heroin onstage and collapses. While Cowboy starts artificial respiration on Leach, the musicians and Ernie leave and Solly tells another story. The men decide that Leach will probably survive but are unsure what it means to live.
Sam wants to know why heroin is illegal, and Solly answers that, according to popular opinion, people need to be protected from themselves. Cowboy argues that everything that is against the law is illegal because illegal activities are more lucrative for more people. Their discussion is interrupted when Jaybird wakes up again; when Jaybird asks why the addicts do not quit taking drugs, Solly replies that they are no worse off than people who live more conventional lives.
Jim reenters from the audience and announces that he is afraid the theater might be raided. Jaybird is disappointed by the bad performance of his play and by not knowing how to end it. Jim suggests that to end the play all the players should die, and Jaybird regrets his idea of writing an experimental play. His insight that in the theater everything fits together is followed by the second entrance of Harry, who silently performs his record ritual as he did in the first act.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506
The Connection reflects on its own nature as a work of the imagination and directs the audience’s attention to the artfulness of drama. In doing so Jack Gelber delimits The Connection from traditional drama: He would like his play’s sense of life to be perceived not as the product of one playwright’s imagination but as the real and true depiction of human life in general. In order to underscore the validity of its vision, The Connection tries to overcome the distinction between the play’s reality and the audience’s reality.
As Gelber writes, there is no rigidity in casting The Connection, although there should be roughly equal numbers of black and white actors onstage. The races of the individual actors are unimportant, because Gelber wants to depict a general human experience. Waiting and hoping are central to the experience not only of drug addicts in particular but also of human beings in general. There is no rigidity in the play’s setting, which explains why the word “perhaps” appears three times in the initial stage directions.
The Connection uses the theatrical device of the play-within-a-play in order to make the drug addicts relate their experience. Like human experience, however, the addicts’ stories and philosophies are beyond the audience’s control. The line between the characters in control of the play and the audience is crossed several times; for example, Jim Dunn mentions the name of the director of the individual performance as well as the name of the theater and announces what the audience can buy in the lobby during intermission. Even the line between the audience and the characters of the play-within-a-play, finally, is crossed when a “spectator” directly addresses Sam and asks for a story. Thus the world represented onstage becomes the world of the audience; the experiences of the characters onstage become the experiences of the audience.
Like the play-within-a-play, the jazz of The Connection is experimental. The accomplished music contrasts with Ernie’s exercises with his mouthpiece and thereby reinforces the sense of the addicts’ ineptitude. The jazz also helps establish the play’s atmosphere, as do the characters’ argot and their gallows humor. All these devices work together to bring the audience as close as possible to the events of the play and to invite the spectators to forget the distance between their own reality and that of the characters. As the first photographer repeatedly says, “That’s the way it really is. That’s the way it is.”
The Connection is also experimental in that it reflects and comments on itself as a play. Jaybird tells the audience about his interest in an “improvised theater” but later regrets that the play has gotten out of hand because of its improvisation. He and Jim are also faced with the task of ending the play, which has become their reality. They—as well as the audience—are overcome by the sense of a play that goes on independently and of which only one small episode has been shown.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98
Sources for Further Study
Abel, Lionel. “Not Everyone Is in the Fix.” Partisan Review 27 (Winter, 1960): 131-136.
Bermel, Albert. “Jack Gelber Talks About Survival in the Theater.” Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 46-58.
Dukore, Bernard F. “Jack Gelber.” Drama Survey 2 (Fall, 1962): 146-157.
Eskin, Stanley G. “Theatricality in the Avant-Garde Drama: A Reconsideration of a Theme in the Light of The Balcony and The Connection.” Modern Drama 7 (September, 1964): 213-222.
Gilman, Richard. Common and Uncommon Minds: Writings on Theater. New York: Random House, 1971.
Jeffrey, David K. “Genet and Gelber: Studies in Addiction.” Modern Drama 11 (September, 1968): 151-156.
King, Kimball. Ten Modern Playwrights. New York: Garland, 1982.
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