Jean-Claude van Itallie Critical Essays

Van Itallie, Jean-Claude

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Van Itallie, Jean-Claude 1936–

Born in Brussels, Van Itallie is a French-speaking playwright now living in America. The best known of his experimental plays is America Hurrah. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

I think I would respond to Mr. van Itallie's work under any circumstances—he speaks, if these plays [in America Hurrah] are typical of him, more directly to my own particular obsessions than any other contemporary American playwright—but the important thing to note is that he does not function in isolation. The workshop and cabaret groups with which he has been associated have been collaborating with a surprising number of promising experimental dramatists, and one of these groups—the Open Theatre—has partly determined the development of his style…. With America Hurrah, the concept of theatrical unity finally becomes meaningful in this country, and the American theatre takes three giant steps toward maturity….

[Van Itallie] has, in short, discovered the truest poetic function of the theatre, which is not, like Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams, to absorb the audience into the author's own personal problems, and not, like Arthur Miller, to pose old-fashioned social issues in rational, discursive form, but rather to invent metaphors which can poignantly suggest a nation's nightmares and afflictions. These metaphors solve nothing, change nothing, transform nothing, but they do manage to relax frustration and assuage loneliness by showing that it is still possible for men to share a common humanity—even if this only means sharing a common revulsion against what is mean and detestable. It is for this reason that I am exhilarated by these plays and by what they augur for the future of the American theatre.

Robert Brustein, "Three Views of America" (1966), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 50-4.

The first of the Off-Off-Broadway playwrights to attract considerable attention was Jean-Claude van Itallie with the widely acclaimed 1966 Open Theatre production of America Hurrah…. The hurrah of the collective title of van Itallie's three one-acts turns out to be ironic, thus more or less demanding the use of the nonrealistic style customarily reserved for satire. The playwright's vision of America, however, remains uncompromisingly real. The three parts of the work comprise a blasphemous triptych on the altar of the illusory American dream. Commanding the center is TV, named in honor of the dominant force in our culture, which transmits superficiality and hollowness in a never-ending cycle. The central panel is flanked on the left, as it were, by Interview, a picture of the mechanization of modern life as well as of the mental climate that has allowed mindless entertainment to reach such menacing proportions. The right-hand panel, Motel, depicts meaningless sex and violence, the double legacy of countless television shows. What endows van Itallie's handling of these familiar themes with a measure of originality is his imaginative use of subjective distortion…. Van Itallie's mode is much closer to Joycean—or Strindbergian—stream-of-consciousness than to traditional realism. Hence the deliberate distortions of America Hurrah….

Though there are linguistic distortions as well, it is the visual elements of America Hurrah that hold the attention of the theatregoer and linger in his memory….

Van Itallie's own recent oeuvre (especially The Serpent) reveals his serious commitment not so much to playwriting as to playwrighting. Like [Antonin] Artaud and the expressionists whose dramas continue to irritate literary critics, he deserves to be called what the word "playwright" really means: a maker of plays.

Mardi Valgemae, "Expressionism and the New American Drama," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1971, pp. 227-34.