Jack Gelber

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Jack Gelber began life as the son of a sheet-metal worker, Harold Gelber, and Molly (Singer) Gelber. During his adolescent years, he seemed indifferent toward middle-class entertainment such as theater. He said in a 1960 interview for The New Yorker that in those years he played the tuba, frequented films and burlesque shows, and did not even know the theater existed until he went to college. He worked summers throughout his college years, first in his father’s trade, then as a shipfitter’s helper in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, all of his work reflects to some degree a distinctly proletarian viewpoint.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1953 with a degree in journalism, Gelber did some teaching. Then he found his niche in New York with the Living Theatre, an Off-Broadway group headed by Judith Malina and her husband, Julian Beck. In 1957, Gelber married Carol Westenberg. The couple had two children, Jed and Amy.

In 1959, Gelber’s first play, The Connection, opened at the Living Theatre and, despite negative reviews from mainstream critics, ran for 678 performances. It won both Obie and Vernon Rice Awards in 1960. At twenty-seven, Gelber was considered by Variety “the most promising playwright.” Critic Kenneth Tynan hailed his first play as “the most exciting new American play that Off-Broadway has produced since the war.” However, nothing that he has written since The Connection has found anywhere near the same success with audiences.

Nevertheless, on the basis of his first play alone, Gelber must be counted as an important innovator in the genre of avant-garde theater. He considers himself a poet, and it is his unique combination of poetry and improvisational jazz techniques that makes the play so outstanding. Plays by Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello precede his experimentation with erasing the barriers traditionally separating actors and audience, but Gelber pushed that technique to new limits.

On the surface, The Connection seems naturalistic. It is set in a skid-row apartment where four heroin addicts are waiting for their dealer, or “connection.” In one sense, this situation could be related to Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), where the characters spend two acts “waiting.” Godot, however, never arrives; the heroin dealer does.

As the house lights dim, two additional characters come to the stage from the audience. They introduce themselves as the producer and author of the play. Later, two photographers are included; they say that they are on hand to film the play as a documentary. To give a sense of immediacy, some of the junkies wander out into the audience, panhandling during intermission. To complete Gelber’s cast, there are four jazz musicians who perform from time to time during the play. The idea is that the addicts speak in words; the musicians echo their sentiments with jazz riffs.

In The Connection, the playwright attempts to present an extended metaphor in dramatic terms. Even the names of the characters are meant to make certain statements about them. They range from Solly, the wise one, to Jaybird, the gullible author, to Cowboy, the dealer who will bring the “horse,” street slang for heroin. Further, by having two members of the “respectable world” (the author and one of the photographers) lured into joining the addicts in taking the drugs, Gelber makes clear that everyone is vulnerable; there is no real difference between being hip and being square.

The point is that everyone is hooked and is looking for some kind of connection. When Cowboy arrives with the only female character, Sister Salvation, and the audience discovers that she,...

(This entire section contains 945 words.)

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too, is an addict, one path—religious faith—is blocked. Then when Leach, another character, feeling that he has not had enough heroin, insists on injecting himself (downstage center) and almost dies from the overdose, the audience must acknowledge the intense need to connect at any cost. The play’s view of the world is very negative, saying that all people seek temporary respite from the pain of living. Individuals differ only in the kind of connection that they must make to accomplish this goal.

The Apple, Gelber’s second play, written for and dedicated to the Living Theatre, again deals with the relationship between actors and audience, with some action taking place in audience space. The first and third acts show the reactions of “normal” people to the madness that has engulfed one of the actors. The second act is presented from the madman’s viewpoint. By the time Square in the Eye, described as a “multimedia tragicomedy,” was completed, the Living Theatre had been padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service, and Malina and Beck had left the country. The play ran for thirty-one performances at Theatre de Lys, Off-Broadway.

The Cuban Thing, a pro-Fidel Castro drama, was directed by Gelber at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, but when he attempted to bring it to Broadway, opposition was voiced on Spanish-language television. There were threats to the playwright and to some of the actors, and finally, after only one performance, bombs exploded in the theater. Negative critical reaction to the play was also possibly connected to political differences about the play’s controversial subject matter of Cuba and Castro.

Gelber has not had a really encouraging venue since the Living Theatre went out of existence. Most of his work has been supported by academic institutions and fellowships. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow twice, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellow, and a Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Fellow at Yale University. He has also taught at a number of universities. It can be presumed that he will continue to explore new connections between those behind the proscenium and their audiences.


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