Harry, Noon and Night, pr. 1965
The Journey of the Fifth Horse, pr. 1966 (based in part on Ivan Turgenev’s short story “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”)
The Ceremony of Innocence, pr. 1967
Passing Through from Exotic Places, pr. 1969 (includes 3 one-acts, The Son Who Hunted Tigers in Jakarta, Sunstroke, and The Burial of Esposito)
Fingernails Blue as Flowers, pr. 1971
A Break in the Skin, pr. 1972
The Poison Tree, pr. 1973
Cold Storage, pr. 1977
Five Plays, pb. 1978 (includes Harry, Noon and Night; The Journey of the Fifth Horse; The Ceremony of Innocence; The Poison Tree; and Cold Storage)
Buck, pr., pb. 1983
The Cannibal Masque, pr. 1987
A Serpent’s Egg, pr. 1987
Sweet Table at the Richelieu, pr., pb. 1987
The Rug Merchants of Chaos, pr. 1991
The Rug Merchants of Chaos, and Other Plays, pb. 1992
The Dream of the Red Spider, pr. 1993
The Angel Levine, 1970 (with William Gunn; adaptation of a story by Bernard Malamud)
The Final War of Olly Winter, 1967
The Most Beautiful Fish, 1969
Seize the Day, 1987 (adaptation of Saul Bellow’s novel)
The Sunset Gang, 1991
Ronald Burt Ribman’s plays mirror the condition of humankind in the twentieth century by dealing with characters who are trapped by their societies, their circumstances, and even by their own personalities and bodies into a severely restricted range of possibilities, a condition against which they rebel but from which they gain enlightenment. He was born in New York City on May 28, 1932, the son of Samuel M. Ribman, a lawyer, and Rosa (Lerner) Ribman. After attending New York grammar and high schools, Ribman went to Brooklyn College for a year before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh, where in 1954 he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He served for the next two years in the U.S. Army, returning to the University of Pittsburgh in 1956, when he began graduate work in English literature. After receiving his master’s degree in 1958, he continued his studies in English literature at Pittsburgh, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1962. He then taught English for a year at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. In 1963 he left the Midwest and returned to New York, having decided to become a full-time writer.
Ribman’s career as a playwright was launched by the American Place Theater (APT), which wanted to develop new playwrights and to present literate and controversial plays that were not then being produced either on or off Broadway. Ribman’s first play, Harry, Noon and Night, was produced under APT’s Writers’ Development Program and given its guaranteed six-week run in 1965. As with several APT productions, Harry, Noon and Night was later presented Off-Broadway at the Pocket Theater, where it played for six performances. Ribman’s black comedy centered on the descent of Harry, a homosexual artist, into the maelstrom of his own failures. Critics were strongly divided over the merits of the play. Some found its three scenes poorly unified, its situations brutally obscene, and its language gratuitously scatological. Others thought it was the best new play in New York that year, making a significant statement about the corruption that results when human beings try to dominate each other.
For his second play Ribman transformed an 1850 story by Ivan Turgenev, “Dnevnik lishnega cheloveka” (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”), into a double portrait of human loneliness. The play, The Journey of the Fifth Horse, even though it had only a short run, was highly acclaimed by most New York critics. The play received the Obie Award for the best Off-Broadway drama of the 1965-1966 season.
This early success led to a commission to write a teleplay for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Playhouse, a series designed to generate original dramas for television. CBS gave Ribman freedom to choose his subject matter and theme. In The Final War of Olly Winter, the initial production of CBS Playhouse broadcast on January 29, 1967, Ribman chose the Vietnam War as his subject and pacifism as his theme. Though some critics found the play lacking in originality, most praised Ribman’s mastery of this new medium and his compassionate portraits of his central characters. The Final War of Olly Winter was nominated for an Emmy Award of the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Ribman then obtained financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, and since a bright future in the theater seemed assured, he married Alice Rosen, a nurse, on August 27, 1967, a union that resulted in two children, a boy and a girl. The Rockefeller grant gave Ribman the confidence to take greater risks in writing his third play, The Ceremony of Innocence, a historical drama set in medieval England and produced at the American Place Theater. Of all his plays, The Ceremony of Innocence most nearly approaches classical tragedy.
Passing Through from Exotic Places, Ribman’s next offering, was presented by the Capricorn Company rather than APT. Composed of three short plays, it was neither a critical nor a popular success. During this time Ribman also wrote his first screenplay, The Angel Levine, with William Gunn. The film had an excellent cast and a strong source (a Bernard Malamud story), but its account of an impoverished Jewish tailor’s encounter with a black angel left most audiences and critics skeptical and unmoved. In 1970 Ribman received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1971 APT honored him by choosing his play Fingernails Blue as Flowers to be half of the double bill inaugurating APT’s new theater in the basement of a skyscraper at 111 West 46th Street. Critics found Ribman’s play much less interesting than Steve Tesich’s Lake of the Woods, the other half of the double bill.
After A Break in the Skin, a technological drama whose several versions never pleased its author or its audiences, Ribman’s next play, The Poison Tree, achieved considerable success, winning for Ribman the Straw Hat Award for best new play in 1973. Its triumph in provincial theaters led to its becoming Ribman’s debut play on Broadway, where it opened early in 1976 at the Ambassador Theater. The image of the poison tree of the title represents the California prison that is the play’s setting and that poisons both the prisoners and the guards who inhabit it. Using the obscene argot of the inmates, Ribman documents the brutalization of the prisoners, who are mostly black, by the guards, who are mostly white, but this theme does not exhaust the injustices that flow from this deeply corrupting situation. Despite a very favorable critical reception, the play closed after a short run.
Following his Broadway succès d’estime, Ribman returned again to APT with Cold Storage, the play most critics see as his best. It won for Ribman the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award of the Dramatists Guild. Cold Storage is essentially a therapeutic dialogue between two terminally ill cancer patients: Joseph Parmigian, an Armenian fruit dealer and an unstoppably loquacious explicator of the art of dying, and Richard Landau, an affluent Jewish art dealer and as reserved and taciturn as his companion is outspoken and garrulous. Landau does not at first enjoy Parmigian’s playing a suicidal Hamlet at one moment and a jolly Falstaff the next. He also does not want to be told that he is dying, and he does not want Parmigian to know that his parents helped him escape the Nazi Holocaust at the expense of their own lives. Ribman uses these contrasting characters to explore such themes as death as escape, death as expiation of guilt, and death as the enhancer of life. Although Cold Storage had defects, Ribman’s celebration of life at the door of death was full of intelligent and witty writing as well as penetrating insights into some very human characters and the human condition.
After Cold Storage, Ribman disappeared from the New York theater scene for five years. Then, in 1983, APT produced his play Buck, a dark comedy. Like many of his other plays, it had a short run. During the 1980’s Ribman returned to television writing; he adapted Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day into a teleplay of the same name and continued writing plays for regional theater companies. In 1987, Sweet Table at the Richelieu had its world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Rug Merchants of Chaos, a comedy about a couple who are engaged in questionable business endeavors, was produced in 1991. Although constantly on the edge of catastrophe, they manage to avoid a downfall through sheer chance.
Although Ribman’s oeuvre has been widely praised by critics and rewarded with several prestigious grants and awards, he has not achieved the public recognition and commercial success to which many feel his substantial literary gifts entitle him. For the most part, his plays have appeared Off-Broadway or in regional theaters and have had limited runs. There are several reasons for this: his originality and adventurousness in theme and setting, his highly literate writing, and his philosophical point of view. Critics have pointed out that there is no such thing as an easily categorizable Ribman play. He does not seem to work out of his personal life the way so many American playwrights do. He has written about homosexuals, a Russian landowner and clerk, a medieval king, black prisoners, and dying cancer patients. His plays have been set in modern Munich, in nineteenth century St. Petersburg, on a contemporary tropical island, in a prison, and on a hospital roof. His writing is sensitive to the complex qualities of language, and he is able to adapt his English to suit the style and mood of his plays, be they absurdist, historical, comedic, or tragic. He has said that his plays are about words, and he accounts for their neglect by the general public because many theatergoers are primarily visual–they go to see a production rather than to focus attention on what the playwright has to say. Ribman writes out of a deep humanity, based on powerful convictions and deep social insights.