Authors: Israel Horovitz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Drama:

The Comeback, pr. 1958

The Death of Bernard the Believer, pr. 1960

This Play Is About Me, pr. 1961

The Hanging of Emmanuel, pr. 1962

The Killer Dove, pr. 1963

Hop, Skip, and Jump, pr. 1963

The Simon Street Harvest, pr. 1964

Line, pr. 1967 (one act)

It’s Called the Sugar Plum, pr. 1967 (one act)

The Indian Wants the Bronx, pr., pb. 1968 (one act)

Rats, pr., pb. 1968 (one act)

Acrobats, pr. 1968

Morning, pr. 1968 (as Chiaroscuro), pb. 1969 (one act)

The Honest-to-God Schnozzola, pr. 1968

Leader, pr. 1969

Clair-Obscur, pr. 1970

Dr. Hero, pr. 1971 (as Hero), pr. 1972 (revision of Dr. Hero), pb. 1973

Shooting Gallery, pr. 1971

Alfred the Great, pr. 1972

Our Father’s Failing, pr. 1973

Spared, pr. 1974 (one act)

Hopscotch, pr. 1974

Turnstile, pr. 1974

Uncle Snake: An Independence Day Pageant, pr. 1975

The Primary English Class, pr. 1975

Stage Directions, pr. 1976

The Reason We Eat, pr. 1976

Alfred Dies, pr. 1976

The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion, pr. 1977

The Seventy-fifth, pr., pb. 1977

The Lounge Player, pr. 1977

Man with Bags, pr., pb. 1977 (adaptation of a translation of Eugène Ionesco’s play)

Mackerel, pr. 1978

A Christmas Carol: Scrooge and Marley, pr. 1978 (adaptation of Charles Dickens’s story)

The Widow’s Blind Date, pr. 1978

The Wakefield Plays, pb. 1979 (includes the Alfred trilogy: Alfred the Great, Our Father’s Failing, Alfred Dies; and the Quannapowitt Quartet: Hopscotch, The Seventy-fifth, Stage Directions, Spared)

Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, pr. 1980

Sunday Runners in the Rain, pr. 1980

The Good Parts, pr. 1982

“The Great Labor Day Classic” and “The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion,” pb. 1982

A Rosen by Any Other Name, pr. 1986 (based on the book A Good Place to Come From by Morley Torgov)

Today, I Am a Fountain Pen, pr. 1986, pb. 1987 (based on A Good Place to Come From)

North Shore Fish, pr. 1986, pb. 1989

The Chopin Playoffs, pb. 1987 (based on A Good Place to Come From)

Semper Fi, pr. 1987

Year of the Duck, pr. 1987

Faith, Hope, and Charity, pr., pb. 1989 (with Terrence McNally and Leonard Melfi)

Henry Lumper, pr. 1989

Strong-Man’s Weak Child, pr. 1990

Fighting over Beverley, pr. 1993

Collected Works, pb. 1994-1998 (Volume 1: Sixteen Short Plays; Volume 2: New England Blue, Plays of Working-Class Life; Volume 3: The Primary English Class, and Six New Plays; Volume 4: Two Trilogies)

Unexpected Tenderness, pb. 1994

Captains and Courage, pr. 1996 (adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous)

My Old Lady, pr. 1996

Lebensraum, pr. 1996

One Under, pr., pb. 1997

Stations of the Cross, pr. 1998

Fast Hands, pr. 1999

Speaking Well of the Dead, pr. 2002

Long Fiction:

Cappella, 1973

Nobody Loves Me, 1975

Poetry:

Spider Poems, and Other Writings, 1973

Screenplays:

The Strawberry Statement, 1970 (adaptation of James Simon Kunen’s book)

Alfredo, 1970

Believe in Me, 1970

Machine Gun McCain, 1970

Acrobats, 1972 (adaptation of his play)

Author! Author!, 1982

A Man in Love, 1987

Sunshine, 1994

Teleplays:

Play for Trees, 1969; VD Blues, 1972 (pb. as Play for Germs, 1973)

The Making and Breaking of Splinters Braun, 1975

Start to Finish, 1975

Bartleby the Scrivener, 1977 (adaptation of Herman Melville’s story)

Growing Up Jewish in Sault Ste. Marie, 1978 (adaptations of Morley Torgov’s novel A Nice Place to Come From)

James Dean, 2001

Biography

Israel Arthur Horovitz was born March 31, 1939, to Julius Charles and Hazel Solberg Horovitz in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The Horovitz family was Jewish in a hardscrabble town of mostly Protestants and Catholics. His mother was a housewife. Horovitz senior, while listed in some biographies as an attorney, was a truck driver while his son was growing up who put himself through law school at midlife. As a youngster, Israel Horovitz was small of stature, a Jew among Gentiles, neither a particularly popular student nor one who accelerated in his studies. This served to make him try still harder, for he was ready to prove he was as good as anyone else and maybe better.{$I[A]Horovitz, Israel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Horovitz, Israel}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Horovitz, Israel}{$I[tim]1939;Horovitz, Israel}

Horovitz made a place for himself through track and field (he was and is a long-distance runner), his capacities with words, his glib sense of humor, and his generally competitive spirit. By most accounts, he was precocious. At thirteen, he wrote a novel, Steinberg, Sex, and the Saint, a work that was promptly rejected by publishers, who, not recognizing the writer’s age, occasionally praised the narrative for its childlike vision. He took the rejection in stride, revising his goals to more modest proportion. Albeit not tall enough to be seen when behind the podium, he became a star of the town’s oratory society, distinguishing himself in local and regional competitions. Horovitz remembers that he might have gone farther had his father not made him stay home as punishment for his otherwise tepid grades. Writing plays came later. He commented:

When I was seventeen, I wrote my first play, The Comeback, and I signed it Israel [rather than Arthur] Horovitz. It was the first time in my life that I had acknowledged my legal name. I was just sick of Jewish jokes and anti-Semitic shit that I had taken in my sweet little town. I didn’t reclaim the name “Israel” out of any deep religious fervor. It wasn’t out of any kind of deep Jewish experience, either, other than good old Yankee persecution.

The play received only a small production at Emerson College in Boston after being staged at Suffolk University, with Horovitz himself playing the role of the son. Getting it as far as Boston was encouragement enough, however. Wanting to be a playwright, he spent a year at Salem State Teacher’s College, then, frustrated that only between assignments could he work on his plays, he left school, taking odd jobs, many of them in theater, for the next decade, as he worked at learning his craft. The most lucrative of these jobs was writing and directing television commercials, and his breakthrough play Line met with bravura reviews at the same time commercials he had created for Dante, a men’s cologne, were sweeping the airwaves.

In November, 1967, Line premiered in Greenwich Village at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. There it quickly found an admiring audience. Though it lasted for only eight performances, eight performances at such a prestigious venue as La MaMa were worth eight hundred at lesser stages for a playwright seeking attention. The play went on to run for some twenty years, most of these at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre, where it earned its place in American theater history by being the longest running nonmusical of the twentieth century.

The premise of this one-act is simple. Five people standing in line jockey for position, each wanting to be first, each willing to do virtually anything to achieve this honored place, although it is not clear to the audience, and perhaps to the characters involved, precisely what event they are lining up for. Horovitz has described it alternately as a comedy of displacement and a play about competition. Both descriptions should alert those seeing Horovitz’s work for the first time to themes in the plays to come: competition and its costs, for the same competitive spirit that drives one forward is also sure to hold one back. An American fear of being displaced, for to lose one’s place is to lose one’s identity, and the ways in which language is used would become core concerns of his work for the next thirty years.

He followed the success of Line with an important pair of one-acts, The Indian Wants the Bronx and It’s Called the Sugar Plum. By January, 1968, this double bill had been taken from Greenwich village to the prestigious Astor Theatre, marking the first time his work was being fully mounted in Broadway’s Theater Row. The former play deals with two street thugs teasing, taunting, then molesting, and finally savaging an East Indian man who has yet to learn English. The latter deals with what happens when a pair of teenagers vie for who was most important in the life of a friend who has recently died in a freak accident in Harvard Yard. It would seem to be the oddest of couplings: The Indian Wants the Bronx is a stark, terrifying play about random violence, and It’s Called the Sugar Plum is a sweet gloss on the selfishness of young love. However, in both plays competitive spirits transmogrify into something ugly. Another theme, namely, language and how it is used, would also inform Horovitz’s later plays; he developed this theme further in Stage Directions, The Good Parts, and The Primary English Class. The boy and girl in It’s Called the Sugar Plum are not half so grief-stricken as what they say to one another is meant to indicate. The Indian Wants the Bronx demonstrates that, both literally and metaphorically, to be without a common language can be lethal. Left beaten, helpless, perhaps bleeding to death, the final words of the play belong to the victim, Gupka. He means to plead for help. In the little English he can muster, he says to the audience, “Thank you, Thank you.”

Much has been made by Horovitz of how much this work was indebted to that of Samuel Beckett, but the author is too hard on himself. There is plenty about the material that is Horovitz’s own. He was clearly a unique talent, even at the outset. With both a flair for avant-garde stagecraft and such traditional blessings as a keen ear for language, he seemed to be treading that thin line between sweet depiction and brutal truth. Theatrically speaking, he was neither fish nor fowl, and Eugene Ionesco was among the first masters of the genre to acknowledge the value of this. After seeing The Indian Wants the Bronx, he described Horovitz as the United States’ new “tender hoodlum . . . like all the great ones, he writes the cruelest things there are.”

Financially solvent for the first time in his adult life after writing a pair of screenplays, the adaptation of James Kunen’s roman à clef The Strawberry Statement in 1970, and Believe in Me in 1971, Horovitz went to graduate school for several years at the City University of New York to focus on literature. Although he left his studies without completing his doctoral dissertation, preferring to spend his waking time as a playwright, not a scholar, the plays he wrote immediately following his visit to academe were his most literary, his most diligently scholastic, and also his longest. After having some eight one-acts produced in New York in nineteen months, Horovitz turned to writing full-length scripts. A young man with a mission, he wanted to write big plays now, works for the stage that would address his roots in Wakefield, Massachusetts, but do so in ways that owed much to the ancients. That he did this successfully is rarely disputed. Esteemed theater critic and scholar Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase “Theater of the Absurd,” would compare three of them, Alfred the Great, Our Father’s Failing, and Alfred Dies, to Euripides’ Orestēs (408 b.c.e.), known as The Oresteia. So warmly embraced, Horovitz followed this “Alfred trilogy” with four shorter plays, these too set in his hometown, Spared, Hopscotch, The Seventy-fifth, Stage Directions, creating in the classical sense, a cycle of plays.

Between 1971 and 1979, he wrote with the blind ambition of someone seeking literary achievement, producing what have come to be called the Wakefield plays, three of full-length followed by four one-acts. A conversation with Horovitz’s friend and mentor Thornton Wilder gave Horovitz pause to think. Author of the American chestnut Our Town (1938) and creator of its setting, Grover’s Corners, Thornton Wilder was a New England playwright’s playwright. They met after Horovitz had given Wilder the seven plays to read. “He was full of flattery, full of praise,” Horovitz recalled, “but in one small sentence, he changed the course of my writing for years to come. He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘There isn’t very much Wakefield in these plays.’”

Wilder meant to suggest that for all of their dramatic seriousness, the plays were much more literary than they were explorations of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and the importance of the lives and the relationships to be found there. Braced by this, Horovitz consciously set out to return to his blue-collar roots. This change of mind has produced an ongoing cycle now known as the Gloucester plays. The Widow’s Blind Date, North Shore Fish, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, Year of the Duck, Strong-Man’s Weak Child, Sunday Runners in the Rain, Henry Lumper, Unexpected Tenderness, and Fighting over Beverley are all set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Horovitz owns a home. The town is thirty-eight miles from Boston and but a marathoner’s run from Wakefield. Gloucester is literally and figuratively at land’s end. Though attempts have been made at gentrification, it remains a working-class, seafaring town on Boston’s North Shore that is in immediate danger of becoming obsolete. This is the frame of reference of the plays as well: a fear of being displaced as one millennium ends and a new one begins.

The plays are rife with local detail, and in stage directions Horovitz is usually insistent that words be said in keeping with local turns of pronunciation, as in “Pahk Yo’r Cah in Hav’id Yahd.” Their most oft-recurring concern is with drugs. For centuries Gloucester was a mecca for commercial fishing; now the fishermen and canneries are no longer competitive, so turning to the ocean-going drug trade becomes an attractive option to going broke entirely. However, these are not plays of local color alone, nor are they about drugs or drug-running per se. They are instead about losing one’s place in the American Dream. They are about having the will to compete without having the wherewithal to succeed. They are about lacking a language with which to articulate to oneself and others what it means to see no future ahead.

There are two Americas to be found in these plays. One is white-collar, college-educated, eager for gentrification, riding a bull of a stock market a few miles away in Boston, while another America, this one working-class Gloucester, is being left by the way. Some of Horovitz’s most autobiographical writing is to be found here. For instance, The Widow’s Blind Date, a play about a woman who returns to confront her assailants after being gang-raped as a girl, is based on such a rape that happened where Horovitz worked as a boy, and Unexpected Tenderness is unabashedly about his distant, difficult, two-fisted father, a man whose unhappiness was so palpable he put a strain on his marriage and his family alike.

After the Wakefield plays, Horovitz turned toward his roots, perhaps his deepest roots, in another way. Three of his plays–Today, I Am a Fountain Pen, A Rosen by Any Other Name, and The Chopin Playoffs–have come to be known as the Saulte Ste. Marie trilogy by everyone but Horovitz, who calls them, simply, the Growing Up Jewish trilogy. They began as teleplay adaptations of stories by Toronto attorney Morley Torgov. These reminiscences about growing up Jewish in a Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a town which to Toronto is much what Wakefield, Massachusetts, is to Boston, struck a chord in Horovitz, who said that neither Wakefield nor Sault Ste. Marie were exactly “hotbeds of Hebraic thought.” The first and third adaptations are loosely based on stories to be found in Torgov’s collection A Good Place to Come From. A Rosen by Any Other Name, however, is completely Horovitz’s. Essentially, it is about a Jew changing his name in order to assimilate into mainstream American culture. He drew it out of his distant past from an incident that occurred during an oratory competition in which he was handed as a topic for an extemporaneous speech “From Kalitsky to Kaye.”

Of that great ill-defined clan the American Absurdists, still led by the likes of Edward Albee and Sam Shephard, Israel Horovitz is, by far, the most conventional in approach and the least experimental. Insofar as he is also a direct descendant of such other New England playwrights as Eugene O’Neill and Thornton Wilder, he has to be counted among the most daring and inventive of the Yankee realists.

Critics have debated whether Horovitz is a Realist or a theatrical Absurdist. That he should resist an easy categorization as a playwright is instructive. Famous for constantly revising his work until he has it letter-perfect, he remains, like his plays, very much a matter-in-progress. Fast Hands, a recent play set in the world of boxing, actually addresses a familiar Horovitz matter, the relationship of fathers to sons, but other recent plays seem to have headed off in new directions. Speaking Well of the Dead, for instance, which was given its premiere in 2002, is about a woman trying to return to normal life after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Stations of the Cross, perhaps the most lyrical play Horovitz has written, deals with a brother taking a train trip in order to spread his sister’s ashes along a route they loved as children.

In short, his American landscape is restless, ever-changing, and, as the United States goes, so goes Israel Horovitz. In a 1994 interview with Professor Leslie Kane, he said, “My job is to think and to look at life and to look at people and to respond to all that. . . . And I, the writer, have to balance the plays I’ve written with the plays I could write.”

BibliographyBerkrot, Peter. “Israel Horovitz.” American Theatre, October, 1992, 39-40, 98-99. A first major attempt by this esteemed journal to locate Horovitz’s place in American theater.Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists: 1960-1990. 1982. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. In this update of the 1982 edition, Cohn places Horovitz with Jack Gelber, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Megan Terry, and Maria Irene Fornes as “actor-activated” playwrights because Horovitz was active in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and because, working closely with actors, he often wrote plays that became vehicles for the actors’ rise to stardom.DiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood, 1991. Horovitz speaks affectionately of his theater, the Gloucester Stage Company. With prompting, he runs through his repertory, citing his favorite plays and summarizing the themes. Year of the Duck, which “got almost no notice in New York,” dramatizes some of his own theaiter experiences in the guise of a rehearsal of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (pr., pb. 1884).Evory, Ann, ed. Contemporary Authors: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide to Current Authors and Their Works. Detroit: Gale, 1978. Solid, but dated; of particular use to anyone most interested in Horovitz’s earliest work.Haedicke, Susan C. “Doing the Dirty Work: Gendered Versions of Working Class Women in Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls and Israel Horovitz’s North Shore Fish.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 8, no. 2 (1994): 77-88. Haedicke compares the Horovitz play with that of Sarah Daniels and mentions that although Horovitz’s drama is clearly sympathetic to women, the playwright portrays the women and provides their dialogue from a male perspective.Hartigan, Patti. “Horovitz’s Life as a Town Bard.” American Theatre, December, 1989, 58-59. One of the first articles to discuss the playwright’s relationship to the Gloucester plays, namely, as the self-appointed voice and conscience of the town.Kane, Leslie, ed. Israel Horovitz: A Collection of Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Fourteen essays and an interview with Horovitz; the essays are of particular value because Kane chose them with an eye toward circumscribing and bringing into focus the playwright’s career. Especially interesting is “Portraits of (Wo)Men,” which takes Horovitz to task for how women are depicted in the Gloucester plays.Horovitz, Israel. “Tragedy.” In Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theater, edited by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974. This excerpt from The Dramatists Guild Quarterly describes stage tragedy as “grand fiction” that “can take its audience to the outer limits of human possibility.” Although Horovitz’s work is not discussed here, this piece, especially in the middle section on tragedy in the modern theater, is revealing of Horovitz’s use of “the opposition of conflicting goods.”Kane, Leslie, ed. Israel Horovitz: A Collection of Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994. Kane’s book is unquestionably the best source available on Horovitz criticism. The book contains a wide variety of topics, including violence and homosexuality, the influence of Samuel Beckett, and ethnicity. Kane provides an informative interview that she conducted with Horovitz, as well as an excellent essay that she wrote on the author’s The Widow’s Blind Date.Miller, Daryl H. “Horovitz Pledges Stronger Allegiance.” Daily News (Los Angeles), June 4, 1990. Fine-tuning his script of Strong-Man’s Weak Child at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Horovitz discusses the play’s setting in Gloucester and the rest of the nine-play series used “to represent the contemporary American experience.” Normally premiered in Gloucester, these plays represent an ongoing statement of Horovitz’s view of life.Raidy, William A. “Tireless Energy.” Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), December 1, 1991. Comparing the “tireless marathon runner” (Horovitz’s hobby for many years was running) with the playwright’s prolific career, Raidy places him in the Gloucester environment, which Horovitz says is “a metaphor for life on this earth.” Good personal glimpses of the playwright, plus comments on his friendship with Samuel Beckett.Rosenberg, Scott. “Coming of Age–with a Twist.” San Francisco Examiner, January 14, 1992. A Rosen by Any Other Name, being produced at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is the springboard for this review, which examines Horovitz’s moral: “If your heritage is under attack, the last thing you should do is deny it.” Notes the “wry humor rather than soapbox rhetoric” of the piece.
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