Jack Gelber Gelber, Jack (Vol. 6) - Essay

Gelber, Jack (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gelber, Jack 1932–

Gelber, an American, is a talented playwright whose controversial experimental dramas of drug abuse and disaffection helped to found the "Living Theater." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The Apple is a tremendous disappointment and a near disaster. More than that, it's a communal disaster, because we had hoped for so much from it, those of us at least who thought The Connection one of the two or three authentically new American dramas of the past few years. The theatre is a cruel place, and there is usually not much point in wasting tears on failure, but this time the playwright's loss is barely distinguishable from ours.

The root of the catastrophe lies in a wildly misdirected aim, for The Apple is nothing like the play Gelber presumably wanted it to be. The most obvious truth about the so-called Theater of the Absurd, on whose stages The Apple clearly wants to exist, is that its grimaces are only apparently senseless, that they in fact make a new kind of sense which is just what this new drama is all about. But the impression The Apple conveys from the start is not one of nonsense releasing new meaning but of largely sterile nonsense mounting finally to chaos, and chaos, moreover, of a peculiarly aggressive and willful kind.

Perhaps an image of chaos is what Gelber intended. But, as Pirandello wrote in explanation of his own radical achievements, "to present a chaos is not at all to present chaotically," and in fact The Apple is almost nothing but chaotic procedure; there is nothing organic, no image, of chaos or anything else—that's just what's so wrong. There is only a succession of moments that fight each other off and cancel each other out. The disorder, the parody and the destructive energy have nothing to contain them and give them outline or mass, so that they simply fly off. The effect, if you can imagine it, is of a centrifugal force operating without a center.

The Connection got by through the depth, coherence and originality of its central image, which was, as in Beckett's Godot, that of a "waiting." The addicts hanging around for their fix, engaged in activity and conversation of an extreme solipsism and ineffectuality, constituted a serious and poetic statement of an existential situation. The jazz helped greatly, as amplification of the image and nonverbal commentary on the play's themes. Behind everything lay bitterness and mockery, controlled however by a counterbalancing thrust toward acceptance of infirmity, solitude and metaphysical anguish. We are all addicts of one kind or another, the play said when it wasn't being a sociological broadside, and we all have a Cowboy for whom we wait.

What does The Apple say of us, what vision does it give of our condition? Behind the spectacle of dramaturgy gone berserk you sense the intention: to inform us that we do not want enough, or that what we do want is contemptible, that we are all hung up on one or another illusion and that life is a series of deadly mirages and our formal attempts to interpret it a set of clichés. (pp. 173-74)

Gelber makes it clear he wants to make his hearers angry. But does he want them to get angry because they're bored, or because their values have been challenged?…

"It could be you up there." I'm afraid not. You either work your alchemical changes on illusion and reality entirely on the stage, like Pirandello, or you implicate the audience with the actors at a far deeper level of the former's consciousness than Gelber ever reaches, at the level of dream and erotic fantasy, as in Genet. It simply won't work on anything but a ritualistic or obsessional plane; the conscious mind of any audience, even the squarest, is perfectly able to distinguish between reality and the aesthetic artifact, and the will of any audience can be bent to a transformation of life, an enhancement, an escape or a glossing, but not to the acceptance of something purporting to be life. (p. 175)

What makes Gelber, so evidently talented, persist in being a gadfly manqué? For one thing, I think he envies the position of France's playwrights, who do have influence, and imagines that he can singlehandedly create the conditions for such influence here. But more important, he seems to me to be in despair about his own situation, or vocation—he doesn't really know whether he's cut out for a policeman, a political-science instructor, a hophead, a labor organizer, a stand-up comedian or an impresario of neurotic dancing. And finally, the way he deals with his disturbance is, I think, to try to beat us down. In this, he represents the latest manifestation of Yeats' cautionary figure: the man who instead of making poetry out of his quarrel with himself, makes rhetoric out of his quarrel with others. (p. 176)

Richard Gilman, "Bad Connection" (1961), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 173-76.

The fact of the matter is you don't know what you are doing or why you go anywhere. Probably that is why you have come to see [Gelber's] The Connection. And on the stage there are people, recognizably real, who are as disoriented as you are, but know that they want something, or at least need something. They are waiting for "horse," that is to say, heroin; it will be brought to them by a Negro appropriately named Cowboy. Shall "horse" take them somewhere, and you along with them? Can you jump on after them and gallop out of your dull time into some undrugged eternity? This is not to happen. They get their dose of heroin but I think you will get no charge out of their "flash." After the waiting there is little release, the same dissatisfaction. These people certainly take no special attitudes; they're immersed in ordinary life, just as you are. No one is particularly bad, nobody notably good. Anyway, moral postures are hardly taken, and clearly do not count. If there is any hero, it is Cowboy, who gets the stuff, takes the risks involved in getting it, administers it to the others, and behaves generally like the doctor which his white uniform makes us feel he is. Does he take the stuff himself? Probably. But certainly there must be a greater thrill for him in getting hold of it. Also, he is master of the situation; he alone determines the quantity of each dose, how much each junkie can take, what amount might be fatal. Is there anyone who can ride "horse"? If anyone, that one is Cowboy. Yet we never see him take the stuff, and in this fact I see the only concession to conventional morality made by the talented young playwright, Jack Gelber. (p. 123)

What adds to the play's power is that the characters are so like other people, though in such a different situation from most people. The junkies of The Connection are no "invalids of happiness." They are not people who have paid a great price for a great joy; if they were, they would be on a higher level than their audience; they would have a right to be on the stage. They don't have that right, in fact, except that Jack Gelber was cunning enough to put them there. There ensconced, they dominate, mainly by being so similar to the people watching them, which means also to you. (p. 124)

There is nothing delightful in The Connection, little poetry, and a degree of pain; but from the fact that we are shaken up, disturbed, and self-questioning when we leave the theatre, we know that we have seen a good show. (p. 127)

Jack Gelber told reporters that the theme of The Apple is death. And it is: death taken abstractly, in its opposition to life as such, no matter how purposeless. But life without purpose is indistinguishable from death, and there can be no real conflict between death and death. Life is "really" life only when it goes against its own tendency to be indeterminate and anomalous, only when it sets itself a goal, only when it wants to do something more than to just go on living. And even the message of The Apple—Be an imbecile—could have been meaningful if intended—it was not—as a protest against life's boring and protoplasmic trend toward indeterminateness. It has been said that an intelligent person in the modern world can no longer set himself a goal. In that case, I suggest, intelligent people should set themselves the goal of being a little less intelligent. But the self-chastisement of reason is something very different from the crass and blatant assertion of sheer mindlessness. (p. 134)

Lionel Abel, in his Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1963 by Lionel Abel), Hill & Wang, 1963.

Though time has so far shown Gelber to be a 'one play playwright', that one play The Connection was a landmark in American theatre, more than any other single play at the time determining the direction of American alternative theatre in the 'sixties, doing effectively for American theatre what Osborne's Look Back in Anger did for British—putting a new kind of play with a new kind of subject in the public eye. Its parts may have been derivative, but as a whole it was, then, overwhelmingly innovative. (p. 41)

Catherine Itzin, in Plays and Players (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), October, 1974.