Authors: Jean-Claude van Itallie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works


War, pr. 1963

Almost Like Being, pr. 1964

The Hunter and the Bird, pr. 1964

I’m Really Here, pr. 1964

America Hurrah, pr. 1966 (trilogy; includes The Interview, TV, and Motel)

Where Is De Queen?, pr. 1966

War, and Four Other Plays, pb. 1967

The Serpent: A Ceremony, pr. 1968

The King of the United States, pr. 1972, revised pb. 1973 (as Mystery Play)

A Fable, pr. 1975

Bag Lady, pr. 1979

Naropa, pb. 1980

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or, How Not to Do It Again, pr. 1983

Early Warnings, pr. 1983 (includes Bag Lady, Sunset Freeway, and Final Orders)

Pride, pr. 1985 (in Faustus in Hell)

Paradise Ghetto, pr. 1987

The Traveller, pr. 1987

Ancient Boys, pr. 1989

Struck Dumb, pr. 1989

The Odyssey, pr. 1991 (musical)

America Hurrah, and Other Plays, pb. 2001

Drama Translations:

The Seagull, pr. 1973 (of Anton Chekhov)

Cherry Orchard, pr. 1977 (of Chekhov)

Medea, pr. 1979 (of Euripides)

Three Sisters, pr. 1979 (of Chekhov)

Uncle Vanya, pb. 1980 (of Chekhov)

The Balcony, pr. 1985 (of Jean Genet)

The Master and Margarita, pr. 1993 (of Mikhail Bulgakov)

Chekhov: The Major Plays, pb. 1995


Three Lives for Mississippi, 1971


Hobbies: Or, Things Are All Right with the Forbushers, 1967

Take a Deep Breath, 1969

Picasso: A Painter’s Diary, 1980


The Playwright’s Workbook, 1997


Jean-Claude van Itallie (van IHT-ahl-lee) was born in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 1936, son of investment banker Hugo Ferdinand and Marthe Mathilde Caroline (Levy) van Itallie. The family emigrated to the United States in 1940. He grew up comfortably in Great Neck, New York, but came to view the suburbs as a horrible place to live. Because his grandfather piqued his interest in history, he went on to major in the history and literature of Russia, France, and England at Harvard, graduating in 1958. He set up an apartment in New York City and a country home in Charlemont, Massachusetts. Van Itallie has routinely taken residencies at theaters and universities, working on production of his plays and teaching playwriting. These include the Yale School of Drama, New York University, the Naropa Institute and the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Kent State University, Ohio, where he has donated his papers. A private man, van Itallie maintains inner harmony through practicing yoga and Buddhism.{$I[AN]9810001562}{$I[A]Van Itallie, Jean-Claude[VanItallie, Jean-Claude]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Van Itallie, Jean-Claude[VanItallie, Jean-Claude]}{$I[tim]1936;Van Itallie, Jean-Claude[VanItallie, Jean-Claude]}

In 1959 van Itallie began graduate school at New York University and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He took his first job in 1960 as editor of the Transatlantic Review. Next, he wrote teleplays for the religious television program Look Up and Live, simultaneously writing experimental one-act plays for the budding Off-Off-Broadway theater. He became playwright-in-residence at the newly formed Open Theatre and established a lasting professional relationship with director Joseph Chaikin. They worked together with the actors to develop new performance techniques, striving for ways to establish emotional contacts with the audience by combining the experimental with the classical, metaphorically depicted in their first production, War. Van Itallie presented three one-act plays, The Interview, TV, and Motel, in the 1966 social-political satire America Hurrah. The production attracted both critical and popular attention and established the experimental Off-Off-Broadway theater as a viable artistic force. Chaikin began to work with his troupe on improvisations about the Creation and Fall, while van Itallie gave their work structure and words, resulting in The Serpent: A Ceremony, which established both their international reputations.

Until this time, van Itallie had focused more on gesture and movement than on dialogue to create his plays. However, in the 1970’s he changed his focus to language, translating four of Anton Chekhov’s plays. He worked with Chaikin on the 1973 production of his adaptation of The Seagull as well as on his original play, A Fable, an adult picaresque journey, in 1975. Having embraced Buddhism, van Itallie wrote two plays about the healing effect of acknowledging the split between the body and the mind, Naropa and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or, How Not to Do It Again, a production which combined the improvisation and movement from the Open Theatre and the language of the classics.

Van Itallie returned to the one-act play form in 1979 with the acclaimed Bag Lady, a metaphor for reducing one’s life to essentials. In the 1980’s he wrote Paradise Ghetto, which told of the Nazi detention camp at Theresienstadt. In his tale of this Nazi showcase for the International Red Cross, van Itallie superimposed the personalities of Open Theatre actors onto the prisoners, developing contrasting cabaret sketches with poignant characters that left the audience feeling the triumph of the human experience.

In May, 1984, Joseph Chaikin suffered a stroke and van Itallie spent much of his time nursing him back to health. In January, 1985, van Itallie and Chaikin began working to create a play that takes its characters from reality to a dream state and back to reality. He also wrote Struck Dumb, a performance piece for Chaikin to use while he was recovering.

Van Itallie’s Ancient Boys is his addition to the body of literature responding to the AIDS epidemic. He has also continued to translate and to adapt the classics with his musical version of The Odyssey. Van Itallie attempts to create clear theatrical metaphors that communicate to the entire being: the head, the heart, the gut, and the groin, synthesizing a truth that causes the audience to say, “Ah, yes!”

Bibliography“Ages of the Avant-Garde.” Performing Arts Journal 16 (January, 1994). A detailed account of van Itallie’s writing.Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Creating the Magic of Theater. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1997. Considers van Itallie’s aesthetic.Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Joseph Chaikin’s theatrical relationship with van Itallie is explored.Lahr, John. Up Against the Fourth Wall. New York: Grove Press, 1970. Important early assessment of van Itallie’s work.Plunka, Gene. Jean-Claude van Itallie and the Off-Broadway Theater. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. Assesses van Itallie’s role in the history of Off-Broadway theater. Includes an extensive bibliography.Serif 8 (Winter, 1972). Jean-Claude van Itallie special issue. Important early assessment of van Itallie’s work.
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