American artists have never had an easy time of it, but the case of playwright Ronald Ribman borders on the ridiculous.
He remembers that when he applied to the University of Pittsburgh masters program in literature and submitted writing samples, "a teacher noted that 'Mr. Ribman has a bizarre way of looking at life that a few courses in Realism will break.' Even then (in 1954), they didn't understand me."
His very un realistic play writing has since been misunderstood and acclaimed. Twenty-three years ago, critic Robert Brustein called him "a man with substantial literary gifts and a fine instinct for the stage, and I'm astonished that this has not been more noted and acclaimed."
Twenty years later, in 1986, Brustein was still astonished, declaring that he "has been developing quietly, methodically and meticulously into one of the most haunting dramatic poets our stage has ever seen."
Ribman has won Obies, an enviably long list of major grants and the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner award. His 1982 play, "Buck," has only now come to Los Angeles (in an eye-popping arena staging at the Heliotrope Theatre) and is receiving strong acclaim.
And yet . . . go to a major library, and you're not likely to find any of Ribman's plays. None of his work is listed in "Books in Print." He has never had a bona fide hit or a major Los Angeles production. "Buck" bombed in New York and, in a 25-year career, only one play--"Cold Storage"--hit Broadway. Even his forays into film and television, such as the 1986 PBS drama "Seize the Day" with Robin Williams, were more cases of movies people heard about than actually saw.
"I have no regrets about the choices I've made as an artist," Ribman said from his home in South Salem, N.Y. "I have no publisher right now. I make a bus driver's annual salary. A steel wall has descended between me and New York audiences, which includes the critics. But I'm delighted to have the success that I've had."
Ribman, too, is aware that his plays, replete with a sense of poetry, tragedy and underlying violence, don't always fit an audience's sense of entertainment and often violate the critic's desire to categorize.
Take, for example, his subject matter. "Harry, Noon and Night" is an absurdist nightmare in postwar Munich. "Journey of the Fifth Horse" is an adaptation of Turgenev. "The Ceremony of Innocence" portrays the forlorn man of reason, England's 11th-Century King Ethelred. "The Poison Tree" becomes a more savage prison play than the better known "Short Eyes."
"Buck" observes the maddening struggle of a producer of sleazy TV re-enactments of actual murders as he seeks to find some purpose to his life. No continent, no period of history appears to be beyond Ribman's range. "My tastes," he says, "are very catholic."
His powers of panoramic observation are the kind expected of novelists, not dramatists, and he acknowledges that these powers allowed him to anticipate the future in "Buck."
"Sadly, video re-creation and eavesdropping are now such a hot potato on television, seven years after I wrote 'Buck.' I don't have a crystal ball in front of me. The exploitative possibilities of cable were starting to be seen in the early '80s. 'Buck,' though, isn't about the cable industry. TV provides me the right world to play out my themes." Ribman wastes no time spelling out what they are.
"My main characters want a world that cannot be, a beauty that is just out of their reach. My consistent theme is a person's right to fail, as a human being. The tragedy of Buck is that the essence of his work finds him reduced to such an enfeebled means of resistance. Yet he does resist.
"We're born into a universe of random events we can't control, so we're as transitory as dust. Life is filled with the mocking spirit of the grotesque and the absurd, but to look at this honestly is the only way I know of handling it.
"Like most writers, I'm spending my life reworking the same notions," so he isn't surprised to see his familiar themes appearing in his new play, "Fall off the Earth," premiering in early 1990 at New York's Circle in the Square.
"I only ask my audience, if they follow me into this absurdity, if they see an authentic self-portrait on stage, that they put their signature to it."
Ironically, Ribman finds that TV-saturated theatergoers have problems seeing their self-portrait. "Culture is so visual now," he says, "that we don't listen as we once did. In post-performance discussions, audiences haven't heard what was said. It's depressing to think about it since I put my guts into writing this language that maybe only a few will listen to.
"What else can I do? I can't not write this!" Then, just as he sees nature's regenerative power as the beauty in a bleak existence, he adds that "I don't feel that I've lost everyone. I think, in time, most people will see what I'm doing."
This writer's faith in himself wasn't always there, since he grew up "having no desire to be a writer. I hated English and literature, so I got a business degree from Brooklyn College. I would have gone into business had I not been drafted by the Army. Then, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I changed.
"I started writing like mad. It took me over. First, long letters. Then poetry. I loved the feeling of reading a poem once, getting hooked by its mystery, then reading it again, and like seeing a diamond from different angles, seeing new ideas."
Though he wrote an unproduced play titled "Day of the Games," it wasn't until Ribman saw a production of Edward Albee's "The Sandbox" that he thought he could really write plays. He claims that he dashed off the first draft of "Harry, Noon and Night" in five days, and soon, New York producers were interested. It opened the first season at the American Place Theatre in 1965, starring two unknown actors--Dustin Hoffman and Joel Grey.
"I've always had casting control over my plays, and I sensed something very special in Dustin. I made sure he was in my next play at American Place, 'Journey of the Fifth Horse.' Then, suddenly, he was off to Hollywood."
Ribman claims that he's never wanted Hollywood's kind of fame. "The man who gives them what they want is the man who will be rich and famous. I don't, so I'm not. My danger as a writer is that I see where the golden calf is.
"I just don't want to go there."