Ronald Burt Ribman’s plays mirror the condition of humankind in the twentieth century by dealing with characters who are trapped by their societies, their circumstances, and even by their own personalities and bodies into a severely restricted range of possibilities, a condition against which they rebel but from which they gain enlightenment. He was born in New York City on May 28, 1932, the son of Samuel M. Ribman, a lawyer, and Rosa (Lerner) Ribman. After attending New York grammar and high schools, Ribman went to Brooklyn College for a year before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh, where in 1954 he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He served for the next two years in the U.S. Army, returning to the University of Pittsburgh in 1956, when he began graduate work in English literature. After receiving his master’s degree in 1958, he continued his studies in English literature at Pittsburgh, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1962. He then taught English for a year at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. In 1963 he left the Midwest and returned to New York, having decided to become a full-time writer.
Ribman’s career as a playwright was launched by the American Place Theater (APT), which wanted to develop new playwrights and to present literate and controversial plays that were not then being produced either on or off Broadway. Ribman’s first play, Harry, Noon and Night, was produced under APT’s Writers’ Development Program and given its guaranteed six-week run in 1965. As with several APT productions, Harry, Noon and Night was later presented Off-Broadway at the Pocket Theater, where it played for six performances. Ribman’s black comedy centered on the descent of Harry, a homosexual artist, into the maelstrom of his own failures. Critics were strongly divided over the merits of the play. Some found its three scenes poorly unified, its situations brutally obscene, and its language gratuitously scatological. Others thought it was the best new play in New York that year, making a significant statement about the corruption that results when human beings try to dominate each other.
For his second play Ribman transformed an 1850 story by Ivan Turgenev, “Dnevnik lishnega cheloveka” (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”), into a double portrait of human loneliness. The play, The Journey of the Fifth Horse, even though it had only a short run, was highly acclaimed by most New York critics. The play received the Obie Award for the best Off-Broadway drama of the 1965-1966 season.
This early success led to a commission to write a teleplay for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Playhouse, a series designed to generate original dramas for television. CBS gave Ribman freedom to choose his subject matter and theme. In The Final War of Olly Winter, the initial production of CBS Playhouse broadcast on January 29, 1967, Ribman chose the Vietnam War as his subject and pacifism as his theme. Though some critics found the play lacking in originality, most praised Ribman’s mastery of this new medium and his compassionate portraits of his central characters. The Final War of Olly Winter was nominated for an Emmy Award of the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Ribman then obtained financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, and since a bright future in the theater seemed assured, he married Alice Rosen, a nurse, on August 27, 1967, a union that resulted in two children, a boy and a girl. The Rockefeller grant gave Ribman the confidence to take greater risks in writing his third play, The Ceremony of...
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