Jack Gelber Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jack Gelber was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 12, 1932, the son of Harold and Molly (née Singer) Gelber. The playwright once said that as a high school student, he passed the time playing the tuba and attending movies and burlesque shows, but he never went to the legitimate theater, that he did not even know the theater existed until he went to college. The Russian novelists Ivan Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, and Nikolai Gogol originally attracted him as well as Rainer Maria Rilke and the German expressionists. He has also expressed an interest in Buddhism and in “religious states of being.”

During the summers of his undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Gelber followed his father’s trade as a sheet-metal worker; he was also a shipfitter’s helper in San Francisco and a mimeograph operator for the United Nations. Gelber was graduated from the university with a B.S. in journalism in 1953, and he wrote poetry before turning to dramaturgy. He became involved in Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre , an experimental theater group, which mounted The Connection under Malina’s direction for a run of 768 performances. The Apple was also written to be performed by the Living Theatre (64 performances). These first two plays have been performed in a number of foreign countries, including Brazil, England, France, Germany, and Italy. Square in the Eye (31 performances) was also intended to be staged...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 945 words.)