Ronald Ribman Ribman, Ronald - Essay

Ribman, Ronald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ribman, Ronald 1932–

Ribman is an American playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The Journey of the Fifth Horse is quite a fascinating journey indeed, and it brings close to destination a very promising talent in a theatre marked by few interesting arrivals. Sometimes tedious, sometimes clumsy, sometimes distracted, the play has nevertheless been written by a man with substantial literary gifts and a fine instinct for the stage, and I'm astonished that this has not been more noted and acclaimed. Ronald Ribman … is actually something of an original among our dramatists—one who seems to work neither out of his own personal life nor out of the American experience. Harry, Noon and Night—Ribman's first dramatic effort …—is set in modern Berlin and might have been written by a decadent German dramatist of the Weimar period, while The Journey of the Fifth Horse is a convincing re-creation of late nineteenth-century Petersburg. Both plays are highly idiosyncratic. And though his first play—a confused concoction about an American expatriate being tracked down by his brother, and an hysterical humpbacked German queer plagued by faulty plumbing in a squalid Berlin flat—was far from satisfying, it showed the same unusual handling of scene and the same refreshing freedom from platitude.

The Journey of the Fifth Horse combines this originality with firmer control and a better sense of purpose. Ostensibly an adaptation of Turgenyev's short story The Diary of a Superfluous Man, the play is an unmistakably new work which nevertheless preserves the core of the story intact. What results is something both modern and traditional, both grotesque and lyrical, a combination the author achieves through a highly ingenious structure. For Ribman has absorbed the Turgenyev plot into a plot of his own contrivance so that Chulkaturin, Turgenyev's superfluous man, is contrasted with Zoditch, an invented character, and Chulkaturin's story becomes a play-within-a-play subject to Zoditch's mordant commentary. (pp. 43-4)

Robert Brustein, "Journey and Arrival of a Playwright" (1966), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Alfred A. Knopf, 1969, pp. 43-6.

Harry, Noon and Night is a difficult play, at once funny and gross on the surface, unnecessarily complicated in some of its references, tenuous and sometimes contradictory in its connections, but it is an ambitious and fascinating attempt to use black comedy to transform a potentially conventional character and situation into a statement about human beings that transcends the specific.

Although The Journey of the Fifth Horse (1966) grows out of The Diary of a Superfluous Man, it is far more than an adaptation of the Turgenev story. Apparently working from the ironic note at the end of the story, the matter-of-fact statement that the manuscript was rejected by the publisher's reader, Ribman invents the reader (Zoditch) and tells his story along with that of Chulkaturin, showing two superfluous men, two fifth horses, one of whom does not want to recognize the other. The fifth horse, in Turgenev, is an extra horse harnessed to a four-in-hand, one that is not only useless but is attached to the others in such a way that he cannot help hurting himself; in Ribman,… the same combination of pain and pointlessness is indicated…. Some of the incidental comedy in the Chulkaturin scenes seems clumsy and unnecessary…, but on the whole The Journey of the Fifth Horse is effectively theatrical in its manipulation of the dual roles and dramatic in its creation of a constant tension between the live Zoditch and the dead Chulkaturin. (pp. 231-33)

The Ceremony of Innocence (1967) is a less interesting play [than] the earlier two…. The characters … are no more than animated attitudes, put into action to prove a point in each scene, occasionally the same point too often. The play uses its historical setting to make an intelligent, if forlorn, comment on our own time, but it does not flesh out its intelligence with dramatic and theatrical vitality as the two earlier plays did. (pp. 233-34)

Gerald Weales, in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969.

"The Poison Tree" [is] an old-fashioned, well-made, realistic, and continuously exciting melodrama about life in prison. Its author, Ronald Ribman, devised a plot in which questions of morality were raised and resolved in an atmosphere of extreme urgency and under the shadow of the playwright's implied conviction that injustice is as old and unalterable as man. The inmates of the prison, which is gratuitously identified as being in a Western state, are mostly black and their keepers are mostly white…. Ribman is white, and in an aesthetic sense he took enormous risks in daring to enter so freely into the minds of blacks and to write in a mocking and passionate scatological prison argot that cannot be his at first hand. As far as I could tell, he brought off his tour de force with complete success. (pp. 44, 46)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 19, 1976.

["The Poison Tree"] had its faults, but it was a powerful work on an important theme by a significant American playwright in a crucial period of his development, and it was acted with great force by some of the best performers this country can put onstage. After a brilliant start in the mid-'60s, Ribman seemed to lose his bearings. In "The Poison Tree" he writes for the first time in years out of strong personal feeling and social insight. The play is therefore important for him and for the theater of which he is a part….

"The Poison Tree" takes place in an unnamed Western state prison. The horror of prison life is a theme that black and minority playwrights have strongly addressed in recent years…. Under current cultural tensions it isn't easy for a white artist, an "outsider," to seize upon this subject. And Ribman focuses on the black inmates—the whites are only maddened voices screaming from their segregated cells offstage. Prison is a universe as complex as hell. Ribman's attempt to map its murderous terrain may not be definitive, but it is the product of a remarkable effort of empathy and compassion. His major contribution is to show, with frightening poignancy, the death of spirit that grips guards as well as inmates in this metallic world that is society's outrageous attempt to imitate a wrathful god.

Jack Kroll, "Locking the Door," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 19, 1976, p. 81.