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 by the Living Theatre, though by 1965, the group was no longer based in the United States. Meanwhile, Gelber visited Cuba in 1963 and again in 1967, and The Cuban Thing (1 performance) grew out of his experience in that country under Fidel Castro’s rule. Sleep (32 performances) followed in 1972, and Jack Gelber’s New Play: Rehearsal was mounted in 1976.
In addition to writing for the theater, Gelber was also active as a director. Besides his The Cuban Thing, Jack Gelber’s New Play: Rehearsal, and his adaptation of Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, the dramatist directed Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen (in 1966), Arthur Kopit’s Indians (for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, in London, in 1968), Merle Molofsky’s Kool Aid (in 1971), Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman (in 1972), Robert Coover’s The Kid (in 1972), Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (in 1976), Miguel Rinero’s Eulogy for a Small-Time Thief (in 1977), and Sam Shepard’s Seduced (in 1979). In 1973, he received an Obie Award for his direction of The Kid the previous year. Gelber’s experience as a director established him as a theater person in the fullest sense. More important, working as a director provided him with a wider perspective on the potentials and limitations of drama that he could apply in his writing.
In 1963, Gelber began alternating between fellowships and teaching to support his writing. In 1963, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing for the theater, and he was a writer-in-residence at the City College of New York from 1965 to 1966. He received a second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966, and from 1967 to 1972, he was employed as an adjunct professor of drama at Columbia University. In 1972, he was awarded a Rockefeller grant as playwright-in-residence at the American Place Theatre, and that same year he became a professor of drama at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. In 1974, Gelber was the recipient of a Columbia Broadcasting System-Yale University Fellowship, and the following year he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Gelber lectured and organized workshops on the new play development circuit, notably at the 1983 Aspen New Play Festival in Colorado.
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...
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