Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright of "America Hurray", dies at 85

Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright, director and performer who was a mainstay of the experimental theater world and who was particularl...


Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright, director and performer who was a mainstay of the experimental theater world and who was particularly known for “America Hurray”, a trio of one-act forms that opened in 1966 in the East Village and ran for over 630 performances, died Sept. 9 in Manhattan. He was 85 years old.

Her brother, Michael, said the cause was pneumonia.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Mr. van Itallie immersed himself in the bustling Off Off Broadway scene, where playwrights and performers defied theatrical conventions. He joined that of Joseph Chaikin Newly formed Open Theater in 1963, and its first produced play, “War”, was staged in the West Village. He was a favorite of Ellen stewart, who founded La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1961.

Mr. van Itallie’s early works, including elements of what has become “America Hurray”, were usually performed in lofts and other small spaces, but for the full-fledged production of “America Hurray”, in November 1966, he moved to the Pocket Theater on Third Avenue. The work caused a sensation.

“I think you’ll overlook a whisper in the wind if you don’t watch ‘America Hurray,'” Walter Kerr began in his rave review in The New York Times. “Something’s going on here.

The first play in the trilogy, “Interview”, explored the dehumanizing process of job search. In the second, “TV,” a commentary on the mass media’s ability to trivialize, three people from a television rating company watch a variety of shows; little by little those they watch invade the stage, and the three “real” people are immersed in it.

The third play was “Motel”, which was first performed in 1965 at La MaMa ETC and which the script describes as “a mask for three dolls”. Writing on a London production of “America Hurray” for The Times in 1967, Charles Marowitz called it a “short but magnificent masterpiece.”

In it, a monstrous doll, the “motel keeper,” presides over a motel room and emits an increasingly mysterious flow of crackles. Two more dolls come into the room and put it in the trash, scribbling vulgar graffiti on the wall and eventually dismantling the motel keeper.

In 1993, when the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, staged a cover of “America Hurray”, Marianne Evett, theater reviewer for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, reflected on its original impact.

“When it opened,” she wrote, “it rose to fame, heralding the arrival of a new kind of American theater – deliberately experimental, wildly funny, politically conscious and critical of standard American life, from its institutions and its values ​​”.

Early in his groundbreaking theatrical career, Robert Wilson designed the original production of “Motel” at La MaMa, including these giant dolls.

“Jean-Claude was a poet with many facets of his personality,” Wilson said via email. “I have always loved his humor and irony with a deep understanding of Eastern philosophy, where heaven and hell are one world and not two.”

Mr. van Itallie continued to create new works for over half a century and also founded Shantigar, a retreat in western Massachusetts, where he trained aspiring theater artists. Just two years ago, La MaMa organized the premiere of their new play, “The fat lady sings” on an evangelical family.

“Jean-Claude van Itallie was an artist who constantly questioned and dug into the deepest areas of our human existence and mind. ” Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa, said via email. “In this moment of change, it is artists like Jean-Claude to whom we must turn. “

Jean-Claude van Itallie was born on May 25, 1936 in Brussels to Hugo and Marthe (Levy) van Itallie. The family left Belgium as the Nazis advanced on the country in 1940, and by the end of the year they had reached the United States. They settled in Great Neck, on Long Island. Hugo van Itallie had been a stockbroker in Brussels and resumed this career on Wall Street.

Jean-Claude’s parents spoke French at home, which influenced his later approach to theater, he said.

“I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a few languages,” he said, “and I think it makes you realize that no language contains reality, that words are always an approximation of reality, that language and even thought are perspectives on reality, not on reality itself.

He was active in the Great Neck High School Drama Club and in student productions at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, where he spent his final year. In 1954, he enrolled at Harvard University, where he continued his theater studies and wrote his first one-act plays before graduating in 1958. His specialization thesis was entitled “Le pessimisme de Jean Anouilh », The French playwright.

Mr. van Itallie has settled in Greenwich Village. He worked for several years adapting and writing scripts for television, most notably for “Look Up and Live”, a Sunday morning anthology show on religious themes that airs on CBS. It was a time when many TV shows had corporate sponsors that needed to be appeased, but hers was not one of them; “Look Up and Live” has given writers some freedom.

“All you had to do was please God and CBS,” he said.

He continued to write plays on his own. “Motel”, the third track in the “America Hurray” trilogy, was actually the first to be written, in 1961 or 62.

“I was about three years from Harvard, living in Greenwich Village and knocking on the door of the Broadway theater,” he told The Plain Dealer decades later. “And I wasn’t going in. I think ‘Motel’ arose out of my anger – partly because of this situation, but probably from a much deeper anger because of the way my mind had been conventional and conditioned. It just came out of me.

The success of “America Hurray” in New York spawned other productions, although they sometimes met with resistance, notably in London, where the graffiti scrawled in “Motel” offended censorship. In Mobile, Alabama, a 1968 University of Southern Alabama production at a city-owned theater was discontinued by Mayor Lambert C. Mims after two performances.

“It’s outright filth,” the mayor said, “and I think it’s a shame that Alabama tax dollars have been used to produce such degrading waste.”

Among Mr. van Itallie’s other works with Open Theater was “The Serpent,” a collaborative work inspired by the Book of Genesis which he fashioned into a screenplay. It was first performed in Rome on a European tour in 1968 and later staged in New York.

In the 1970s, M. van Itallie became known for his translations.

“I did my work as a playwright backwards,” he once said, “creating new theatrical forms in the 1960s and 1970s to study masters like Chekhov.

Still later he played a role, most notably in an autobiographical play titled “War, Sex and Dreams”, which recounted his childhood escape from the Nazis, his life as a homosexual and how he coped with the sudden fame in the 1960s. DJR Bruckner examined an execution of the work at CafĂ© de La MaMa in 1999 for the Times, calling it “the often funny and often sad confession of a man in his sixties with a lonely heart who teases someone by wondering what he’s leaving out , despite its remarkable candor. “

Mr. van Itallie has divided his time between a home in Manhattan and Rowe’s Farm in Massachusetts, which houses his Shantigar Foundation. Besides his brother, he is survived by his stepmother, Christine van Itallie.

Remembering Mr van Itallie, Ms Yoo recalled her predecessor Ms Stewart, died in 2011.

“I think of Ellen Stewart and him looking down on us and insisting that we move and change,” she said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright of "America Hurray", dies at 85
Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright of "America Hurray", dies at 85
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