Authors: Jon Robin Baitz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and screenwriter

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Drama:

Mizlansky/Silinsky, pr. 1985, revised pr. 1997 (as Mizlansky/Zilinsky: Or, “Schmucks”)

The Film Society, pb. 1987 (as a play in process), pr. 1988

Dutch Landscape, pr. 1989

The Substance of Fire, pr., pb. 1991

Three Hotels, pr. 1991 (teleplay), pr., pb. 1993 (staged)

The End of the Day, pr., pb. 1992

The Substance of Fire, and Other Plays, pb. 1993

A Fair Country, pb. 1996

Hedda Gabler, pr., pb. 2000 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play)

Ten Unknowns, pr. 2001

Screenplays:

The Substance of Fire, 1996 (adaptation of his play)

People I Know, 2003

Biography

Jon Robin Baitz is hailed for plays that examine outsiders gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a conscience, who must face political and ethical dilemmas which necessitate taking a moral stand. He was born in Beverly Hills, California, the son of a Carnation brand milk company executive. Because of his father’s work, Baitz spent his formative years overseas, in Brazil, Israel, England, Holland, and six critical years (1971-1977) in Durban, South Africa, when resistance to that country’s policy of apartheid was manifest in the streets. After returning to California (where he felt like an expatriate), Baitz opted not to pursue college but rather his first love: theater. He worked as a gofer for two minor independent Hollywood producers, which became the subject of his first work, the one-act Mizlansky/Silinsky.{$I[A]Baitz, Jon Robin}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Baitz, Jon Robin}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Baitz, Jon Robin}{$I[tim]1961;Baitz, Jon Robin}

Receiving plaudits for his fast-paced dialogue (reminiscent of that penned by David Mamet), Baitz turned to South Africa as the subject of his first full-length drama, The Film Society. A white film teacher who has used the shelter of his South African preparatory school to avoid confronting political realities must choose between furthering his own career or taking a stand against the local racist government. When the play moved to New York, Baitz, at twenty-seven, earned comparisons to Arthur Miller and David Hare and won the prestigious Oppenheimer Award. After his follow-up work, Dutch Landscape, an ambitious family drama set uneasily within an anti-apartheid plot, drew hostile reviews in Los Angeles, Baitz relocated to New York and, at age thirty, began what was essentially his comeback.

The Substance of Fire, his first New York success, examined the dilemma of Isaac Geldhart, the aging head of a once-thriving publishing house devoted to Holocaust studies. His sons contest control of the business when Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, risks bankruptcy by publishing a massive history of Nazi medical experiments. When Isaac loses financial control of the company (his sons want to pursue more lucrative trashy novels), the proud, intractable father begins, Lear-like, the harrowing process of confronting his tormented past.

Baitz’s next major work, Three Hotels, explores the cost of compromising on moral matters. Kenneth Hoyle, an idealist who came of age in the 1960’s Peace Corps, is now a 1980’s-era predatory corporate executive for a multinational baby food conglomerate. He confronts his moral surrender, having masterminded a program to convince mothers in developing countries to abandon breast-feeding for formula inevitably tainted by brackish water. Baitz also records the loneliness of Hoyle’s wife and the price she has paid for her privileged lifestyle: the murder of their only son because he wore an expensive watch to a Brazilian beach. In the closing act, the wife has fled the marriage, and Hoyle has been ousted by the same ruthless corporate games that created him. Each act is a monologue, the character alone on stage, revealing himself or herself via anguished confession.

In A Fair Country, short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, Baitz returned to the South Africa of the 1970’s. Harry Burgess, a career diplomat posted in Durban, risks his own son, a radical journalist involved in the resistance to apartheid, by turning over names of his son’s political friends in order to secure a safer posting for his family in The Hague. This decision ultimately costs Harry everything. Again, Baitz examines political issues through the vehicle of the family, creating dramatic intensities that engender in the audience both emotional and intellectual responses.

In 1996, Baitz himself began a period of agonized introspection after undergoing life-threatening open-heart surgery. He found himself unable to write when he was approached to revise his first play for a radio production. In the process, he got in touch with his own younger self. This artistic revival led to an entirely reconceived production, Mizlansky/Zilinsky, a satiric look (recalling the work of Neil Simon) at two small-time, burned-out Hollywood hucksters. Lacking Baitz’s signature sociopolitical element, the drama is nevertheless a morality play. While examining the problem of Jewish assimilation into American culture, it involves a scheme to produce children’s Bible story tapes as a tax shelter that requires dealing with an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust actually happened.

Not surprisingly, Baitz’s first original work following his medical trauma, Ten Unknowns, focuses on a reclusive figural painter neglected by the abstract expressionist chic of the 1960’s and being coaxed out of seclusion for a 1990’s revival. The play critiques the shallowness of the contemporary art community and its willingness to barter aesthetic standards for mercenary returns.

Also in 1996, Baitz commenced a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, working on the film adaptation of The Substance of Fire and then appearing in two ensemble films. He originally wrote Three Hotels for PBS, and he completed a second screenplay, People I Know, concerning a New York theatrical publicist whose client is embroiled in murder. Although acknowledging the diminishing audience for theater and intrigued by the reach of both film and television, Baitz prefers the creative isolation of playwriting and the visceral impact of performance.

BibliographyBaitz, Jon Robin. “Conscientious Objector: An Interview with Jon Robin Baitz.” Interview by Randall Short. Vogue, January, 1996, 68. Examines Baitz’s concept of political theater as a forum for public debate without interference from the playwright’s private agenda.Baitz, Jon Robin. “A Conversation with Jon Robin Baitz.” American Theatre 10 (March, 1993): 66. Interview that focuses on Baitz’s experiences in South Africa and his response to the Holocaust as an American Jew one generation removed from World War II.Baitz, Jon Robin. “The Substance of Robin Baitz.” Interview by Porter Anderson. Theater Week (April 27-May 3, 1992): 20-24. This interview with Baitz is an important source of biographical information, and it shows Baitz’s attitudes (resulting from his personal experiences) toward society.Baitz, Jon Robin. “A Wedding of Worlds: Playwriting and Scriptwriting.” American Theatre 14 (March, 1997): 48. Revealing essay on the role of the diminishing impact of the theater and the special challenges of scriptwriting.Chaillet, Ned. “Jon Robin Baitz.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by Thomas Riggs. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. Concentrates on Baitz’s early successes, with a focus on his internationalism.Feingold, Michael. “Foreign Entanglements.” The Village Voice 10 (March 5, l996): 69. Includes a review of A Fair Country. Makes the point that Baitz’s plays reveal a pattern in which a strong father figure invariably is the linchpin who either is a manipulative demon who stops at nothing to keep his family together or a hollow man who has lost all sense of what he loves and whose headlong tactics and nonstop drive destroy his family and himself. Feingold claims that the pattern is probably self-reflexive of the author who, clearly had a problem with his father.Goodale, Gloria. “Interview/Jon Robin Baitz.”Christian Science Monitor 92 (April 21, 2000): 20. Interview with Baitz during the premiere of the full-length version in of Mizlansky/Zilinsky in Los Angeles. Baitz remembers the play as an autobiographical valentine to his own days as a gofer to two seedy producers during the 1970’s. He observes that playwriting in 1996 is not a vivid part of the culture and that the most difficult part of being a playwright is that you are doing work that nobody knows about. He foresees that the next generation of audiences will be smaller but more hard core, a fact of theater life that both inspires and encourages him.Grimes, William. “The Playwright as Modern Day Moralist.” The New York Times, May 7, 1992, pp. C1, 6. In this overview of three Baitz plays, Grimes links them with biographical information, including the author’s homosexuality, not yet dealt with in a major way in his plays.Lahr, John. “Prisoners of Envy.” New Yorker 77 (March 19, 2001): 148. Includes a review of Ten Unknowns. Lahr details the story and praises much of Baitz’s storytelling, as well as the production’s setting, stage direction by Daniel Sullivan, and performances by Donald Sutherland and others. However, he expresses reservations about the characters’ motivational lapses and melodramatic incidents in the second act.Rasminsky, Sonya. “A Conversation with Jon Robin Baitz.” American Theatre 10 (March, 1993): 66. Rasminsky, a Theatre Communications Group staff member, interviews Baitz, who discusses his motivation for writing plays, the effect of his global upbringing on his writing, his reaction to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and other topics.Rich, Frank. “Baitz’s Mockery of an Age of Money.” Review of The End of the Day by Jon Robin Baitz. The New York Times, April 8, 1992, pp. C17, 21. Calling attention to Baitz’s possible youthful excess, Rich reviews The End of the Day, paying special attention to the author’s flamboyant style and the unprecedented integrity with which Roger Rees plays a man with a complete lack of integrity.Rich, Frank. “Resisting the Vortex by Living a Life of Books and Anger.” Review of The Substance of Fire by Jon Robin Baitz. The New York Times, March 18, 1991, p. C11. Rich analyzes the major themes of The Substance of Fire and sees Isaac as a harbinger of a major playwriting career.Rich, Frank. “School as a Symbol of a Society in Decline.” Review of The Film Society by Jon Robin Baitz. The New York Times, July 22, 1988, p. C3. Rich’s review of The Film Society deals with the ambiguities of Baitz’s style and themes, focusing on his wit and some weaknesses as well.Rothstein, Mervyn. “A Play Born from the Friendship Between an Author and an Actor.” The New York Times, March 28, 1991, p. C11. Rothstein interviews both Baitz and Ron Rifkin, with emphasis on the career of Rifkin, for whom Baitz wrote the role of Isaac in The Substance of Fire.
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