Ronald Ribman is a virtuoso of style. The shape of his imagination is protean, its colors those of a chameleon. He has the ability to project himself, from play to play, into different locales, times, levels of reality and fantasy, and to sound, against all odds, persuasive, consistent, compelling.
Each of his plays adopts a different approach to the question of how reality is to be refracted through the playwright’s prism before being presented to the audience. He can write snappy, amusing dialogue, and he can adopt the tone of a parable: simple, lapidary, but suggestive. He can hew very close to realism, but at other times he approaches surrealism, jumping back and forth in time, presenting different levels of fantasy and reality simultaneously, with a poet’s eye and ear journeying deep into the thickets of the imaginary to create new worlds—worlds that resemble our own but differ in time, locale, and in their idiosyncratic approaches to reality.
As a result of this virtuosity, it is difficult to identify Ribman with any one particular style. “Some writers,” he has said,are very fortunate in that they find the vein, the seam in their mind that they can mine right at the beginning and they just keep hacking away at it. I keep finding it and I keep losing it and keep picking it up somewhere else. People have told me, “None of your plays looks like the one that went before. They all look very different from each other.” That’s because I’m mining different areas.
Nevertheless, there are certain themes and patterns that have recurred from play to play throughout his career, preoccupations and threads of consistency that tie together all the disparate forms of his protean shape. One of these is an interest in the process of victimization, in which, frequently, the victim and the victimizer reverse roles; both are revealed as no more than clowns, and the conflict itself as nothing more than an absurd game.
Often the characters and the plots are created with a bizarre, dreamlike logic, a grotesque, nightmarish quality. Sometimes the fevered imagination of one character seems to create the rest of the cast, as distorted reflections of his fears or preoccupations; they speak and act as if they had never felt the inhibitions of civilization, as if they were capable of keeping nothing inside, as if every unspeakable thought had to emerge immediately—as if, in fact, they had no insides, as if their insides were all on the surface. Grotesque images and incidents appear, too, that are distorted images of what is disturbing the protagonist.
Characters often speak past one another, rather than to one another. They misunderstand one another, and so make it easy for the audience to misunderstand them. In fact, as Ribman himself has often insisted, the plays are ambiguous; there are no single meanings, and each will and should be understood in a number of different ways. Their exact natures are as difficult to seize as Proteus. Ribman’s poetry, then, is not simply a matter of rich, supple language; it is also a matter of poetic ambiguity, of ineffability.
One other recurring concern of Ribman is his preoccupation with the persistence of the past in the present—a recognition that all people carry a heavy baggage of seeds, each of which began sprouting at a different time in the past and never stopped shooting out tendrils: a bag of memories that can never simply be dumped. The figure that embodies this preoccupation, in play after play, is a character who seldom appears onstage: the lost one, the dear one who has disappeared, never to be recovered. He has often been swept away in a horrifying instant, a moment that can never be forgotten, that will always live in the present but can never be reversed.
Harry, Noon and Night
Harry, Noon and Night, the first of Ribman’s plays to be produced, is set in Munich in 1955, during the American occupation. Each of the three scenes of this black comedy is essentially a confrontation between two people. In the first, Harry, posing as an impossibly inept journalist, is interviewing a thick-witted soldier in a bar while both of them fondle a local prostitute. The interview is a wild, improvisatory put-on; the soldier submits to all of Harry’s addled questions because Harry promises to give him money for the girl when it is over, but the audience never learns Harry’s reason for going through this charade.
In the second scene, the audience meets Immanuel, Harry’s insectlike roommate (and bedmate), in their chaotic, filthy apartment; he is conducting a similar put-on of Harry’s brother Archer, a gung-ho Air Force gunner during the war, now a can-do Ohio businessman. Harry is an artist who has abandoned the sugary, commercial pictorial realism he learned at home in favor of an ugly, inchoate expressionism that he has never succeeded in selling; Archer has come to fetch him home. Immanuel conducts a masterful put-on of Archer, posing alternately, and successfully, as a student of philosophy, a raging queen, and a vendor of religious relics, and befuddling him with fish scales, dry-cleaning fluid, talcum powder, and an overflowing toilet. In the last scene, Harry returns to the apartment to pack his bags to meet Archer at the train station but causes such an uproar—he ties Immanuel up in the bedding and assaults the neighbors—that he is arrested and misses the train.
The plot is as chaotic as Harry’s life and art, but through it, by indirection, the audience begins to see relationships and histories; it is never made clear exactly what Harry’s problem is, or what his youth with Archer was like, but subtly a picture emerges. The one image that emerges most clearly is that of Moko the failure clown, whom Archer had brought Harry to see at the circus; Archer had found him hilarious, but Harry had seen only his pain.
The Journey of the Fifth Horse
One of the clowns in The Journey of the Fifth Horse is Chulkaturin, an impoverished landowner in czarist Russia, whose story is adapted from Ivan...
(The entire section is 2497 words.)