Jack Gelber Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to writing plays, Jack Gelber translated Franz Xaver Kroetz’s play Farmyard, with Michael Roloff. The work was produced at the Yale Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 22, 1975, and published by Urizen the following year. In addition, the film version of The Connection, released in 1962, was based on Gelber’s screenplay adaptation. The movie, directed by Shirley Clarke, was screened at the Cannes Festival (1961) and banned as obscene by New York state, though the New York State Supreme Court later found the language in the movie not to be obscene. Gelber’s only nontheatrical literary endeavor was a novel, On Ice (1964). Some of the concepts that he deals with in this prose work reappear in Sleep.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Whether fairly or not, Jack Gelber is primarily known for The Connection. The drama was popular enough to be made into a motion picture, and it achieved critical success as well, bringing the playwright the Obie, the Vernon Rice Award, and the New York Drama Critics Poll Award for most promising playwright of the 1959-1960 season. There were three reasons for the startling success of the dramatist’s first play. First, and most obvious, are the nontraditional characters, setting, subject matter, and plot line. Gelber did in the American theater what John Osborne had done in the British theater with Look Back in Anger three years earlier; he exposed the theatergoing public to a new world, in this case, that of skid-row junkies waiting for their heroin connection to arrive with a fix. Second, the play’s thematic content is important; it goes far beyond the dreary, desolate, frustrated life of the characters portrayed, for the addicts are really metaphors for modern humankind, much as Vladimir and Estragon are in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Finally, Gelber’s emphasis on improvisation has had a major impact on contemporary drama. Just as free verse has a special appeal to bad poets and is easily misused by them, this approach to playwriting can lead to horrendous results, but when used by someone with Gelber’s ability, the improvisational ingredient reinforces one of the theater’s basic strengths, its immediacy, and enhances the participatory nature of drama, involving the audience in a way that recalls, indeed reincarnates, the origins of the genre in public ceremonies.

Much of Gelber’s writing after The Connection was intended to broaden the theater’s possibilities even further; it should never be forgotten that drama, even when based on a text and literary conventions, is essentially rooted in performance. Some of Gelber’s subsequent efforts extended the innovative strategies of The Connection, and others moved in new directions.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A good reprise of Gelber’s association with the Living Theatre, the pivotal place of The Connection in subsequent theater experiments (“the trumpet of the Off-Off Broadway movement”), and his place alongside Israel Horovitz, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Megan Terry, and María Irene Fornés, in “actor-activated” theater.

Cutler, Bruce. Two Plays of the Living Theatre: The Difficult Wisdom of Nothing. Wichita, Kans.: Wichita State University Press, 1977. Cutler examines Gelber’s The Apple along with another Living Theatre work, Arnold Weinstein’s Red Eye of Love (1961). Contains a bibliography.

Gelber, Jack. “Jack Gelber Talks About Surviving in the Theater.” Interview by Albert Bermel. Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 46-58. A long, penetrating interview, touching on Gelber’s views on staged readings, the finances of playwriting, and the idea behind Square in the Eye.

Gilman, Richard. Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre, 1961-1970. New York: Random House, 1971. “Bad Connection” is Gilman’s opinion regarding the “disappointment” of The Apple, which he contrasts with The Connection:“Like The Connection, the play’s cast is an abstract community” but “all that selling of coffee that’s brewed on stage and the nightly auctioning off of the painter’s work” were embarrassing.

Marwick, Arthur. “Experimental Theatre in the 1960’s.” History Today. 44, no. 10 (October, 1994): 34. Marwick discusses experimental theater, touching on the Living Theatre and Gelber.

Shank, Theodore. American Alternative Theater. New York: Grove Press, 1982. Describes The Connection in a chapter on the beginnings of the Living Theatre and the desire of Julian Beck “not merely to entertain but to affect the audience so deeply that it had a cleansing effect.” Beck eventually thought of the play, however, as “deluding the audience.” Bibliography and index.

Tytell, John. The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Tytell tells the story of the Living Theatre, including Gelber’s role.