Ronald Burt Ribman was born in New York City on May 28, 1932, the son of Samuel M. Ribman, a lawyer, and Rosa Lerner Ribman. As a teenager he took an aptitude test that indicated that he should be a writer, but it made no sense to him; at that time he despised all forms of literature. His earliest career choice was science. “I was the worst chemistry major in the history of Brooklyn College,” he has said. “Things bubbled strangely and blew up in my retorts.” He abandoned science, and for his sophomore year, he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where in 1954 he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Soon after graduation he was drafted. To while away the long hours off duty while he was stationed in Germany, he began to write: long letters at first, and then poetry. “I wrote a lot of terrible poems which they broadcast over the Armed Forces Network, which led to all kinds of suspicions about me—whether I was the right kind of gung-ho military material the Army was looking for.”
On his discharge, he started working at one of his father’s business concerns, a coal brokerage in Pennsylvania. He continued to write—short stories as well as poetry—and decided to apply to the graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh to study the very subject he had once despised above all others, English literature. He supported his application with copies of his recent writing and was accepted. (His writing was returned with a critical comment: “Mr. Ribman has a penchant for the bizarre, which a few writing courses that stress concrete imagery will take out of him.”) After earning his M.Litt. in 1958, he was accepted for doctoral work at the Universities of Edinburgh and Minnesota. “Faced with a choice, I of course picked the wrong one.” After “one freezing quarter” in Minnesota, he returned to “Pitt,” where he earned his Ph.D., with a dissertation on John Keats, in 1962. He then entered the academic world as an assistant professor of English at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. This career lasted only one year. He resigned to devote himself full-time to writing, which he has done ever since.
In New York, Ribman collaborated with his father on an article about the poor treatment indigent defendants were getting in the federal court system; the piece appeared in Harper’s. He was thus a published writer, but he had not yet discovered his form. That discovery came while he was watching an amateur production of Edward Albee’s The Sandbox (pr., pb. 1960) in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It hit him rather suddenly: “I’m a playwright. That’s what I am. I recognize myself now.”
Ribman wrote a one-act play called “Day of the Games” and sent it to the American Place Theatre in New York. The artistic director, Wynn Handman, came across it while slogging through a stack of manuscripts one Saturday morning in 1963, and it leaped out at him. “It was the language: fantastic, actable language, rich, evocative, poetic.” He immediately telephoned Ribman and asked him to write a companion piece that would fill up an evening of theater.
The “companion piece” turned out to be a full-length play, Harry, Noon and Night, which was staged as the second major production in the American Place Theatre’s first season, with two then-unknown actors in the leads, Joel Grey and Dustin Hoffman. Another Off-Broadway production followed immediately, with Robert Blake in the cast. In 1966, the American Place Theatre produced Ribman’s second full-length play, The Journey of the Fifth Horse, with Hoffman as Zoditch and Michael Tolan as Chulkaturin.
The following year, Ribman married Alice Rosen, a nurse; the couple had two children, James and Elana.
A number of critics—among them Robert Brustein, Martin Gottfried, and Gerald Weales—immediately identified Ribman as one of the few playwrights who represented the future of American playwriting and a rejection of the relatively mindless fare that was becoming the staple of Broadway. Mainstream critics have never embraced him, though, and only two of his plays have been produced on Broadway: The Poison Tree in 1976 and Cold Storage in 1977. Many of his subsequent plays have been produced by Handman at the American Place Theatre and by Brustein at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ribman has refused to create his plays according to any notion of what an audience might want to see. “The thing for me that has always been the most difficult,” he has said,is to be faithful to my own creative instincts, to what I want to do. There are powerful market forces out there that push you into more conservative directions because more conservative directions are what pay. To be true to yourself means that if you are going to find your authentic, individual voice you may at first be pushed aside because it doesn’t sound like anyone else, and if it doesn’t sound like anyone else they don’t know what to do with it. It’s been said that we are all born originals, but most of us die as copies. That’s what an artist must avoid.