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Remembering Experimental Theater Icon Jean-Claude van Itallie

Jean-Claude van Itallie (May 25, 1936 – September 9, 2021) was a mainstay of the American avant-garde theater movement. Belgian-born, Mr. van Itallie immigrated to the United States with his family in 1953 and settled in Great Neck, New York. But he found his artistic home in the fertile artistic ground of the East Village and Greenwich Village.

Jean-Claude van Itallie with LaMama’s Ellen Stewart

After graduating from Harvard in 1958, he moved to New York City and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse (where, incidentally, Martha Graham was an early student as well) and took advanced playwriting classes at New York University. He eventually became a freelance writer for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), where he wrote several adaptations and original screenplays for CBS’s Sunday morning program Look Up and Live.

During the 1960s, van Itallie wrote several of his most noteworthy plays. War, his first major play to be produced, premiered at the Barr-Albee-Wilder Playwrights Unit of the Vandam Theater (at 15 Van Dam Street, now the SoHo Playhouse) in December of 1963. During that same stretch of time, van Itallie was introduced to director and long-time Village resident, Joseph Chaikin, who had broken away from the Living Theater in order to found the Open Theater. This began a decades-long collaboration between van Itallie and Chaikin–one that was to initiate some of the most innovative experiments of the Off-Broadway theater. Van Itallie began to collaborate with Chaiken and the Open Theater Company, writing plays for presentation by the Open Theater.

The giant puppets of van Itallie’s Motel, the third in a trio of groundbreaking playlets called America Hurrah

Mr. van Itallie was arguably one of the most versatile dramatists of the American theater. Through his collaboration with the Open Theater, he experimented with form and dramatic structure in the practice and creation of monologue, satire, absurdist theater, ritualistic drama, epic theater, surrealism, expressionism, revue sketches, vignettes, musical theater, realism, and various hybrids of all these forms. With a legacy of approximately thirty-three plays and eight adaptations that have been presented in experimental and repertory theaters worldwide, van Itallie greatly expanded the range of dramatic structure in the artform.

Van Itallie’s plays focus on several of the most poignant issues in American theater of the 20th century. Throughout his career, van Itallie took on the role of an observer taking the pulse of modern society. Making us aware of the social malaise in post-War America, van Itallie’s theater functioned (and still does) as a therapeutic balm to heal both personal and global traumas. Van Itallie’s plays challenge us to take stock of our culpability in the state of affairs, and invites us to become mindful of how we separate mind from body, cutting off consciousness and thereby allowing ourselves to be manipulated commercially, politically, or psychologically manipulated by individuals or institutions. In doing so, we become active participants in our our awakening and healing.

Jean-Claude Van Itallie’s play America Hurrah marked an important moment for Off-Broadway in the 1960s. Developed in lofts and other small spaces throughout both the East Village and Greenwich Village, the play was eventually staged in various versions at La MaMa in the East Village and at the Pocket Theater on 3rd Avenue. That trio of one-act plays helped usher in a breed of theater that was experimental, political, and right up in-your-face. “When it opened,” wrote theater critic Marianne Evett, “it rocketed to fame, announcing that a new kind of American theater had arrived — deliberately experimental, savagely funny, politically aware, and critical of standard American life, its institutions and values.”

Mr. van Itallie’s prolific career included translations of Anton Chekov’s major works, including The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Despite the abundant variety of Chekhov translations available, American directors and actors most often seek out van Itallie’s versions for their clarity and actability. 

Panel discussion from The Village Trip, 2018 with Charles Isherwood, John Gilman, John Guare, Robert Heide, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Magie Dominic.
Photograph by Jeff Hodges

Mr. van Itallie was a longtime member of the Village Preservation Board of Advisors, as well as one of our strongest supporters over many years. While we will miss his vibrant spirit and his unparalleled artistry, his plays remain his living legacy.

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