Angry with the status quo in society and in theater, Jean-Claude van Itallie turned outrage into boundary-breaking plays during the 1960s, earning a spot in the textbooks, if not the standard repertory.
“His affiliation with the Open Theater and Joseph Chaikin placed him at the forefront of experimental dramaturgy in the 1960s and 1970s ... [merging] European traditions with a poetic vision of American experience,” says the Cambridge Guide to Theatre’s entry on Van Itallie, who was born in Brussels and came to the United States as a small boy when his family fled the Nazi blitz of 1940.
Most theater fans would need a textbook to place the author of “America Hurrah” and “The Serpent.” The first was hailed as a breakthrough in its depiction of the spirit-savaging commodification of American life. One sequence featured actors in huge doll heads, designed by Robert Wilson, working up a destructive sexual frenzy that culminates in limb-ripping violence. It ran for 640 performances off-Broadway starting in 1966. For “The Serpent” (1968), Van Itallie teamed with director Chaikin and his company of actors to create a ceremonial, dance-like form of theater that used episodes from the book of Genesis to trace the roots of humanity’s alienation from itself.
But Van Itallie is no partisan of the experimental fringes.
He sits erect and cross-legged on the couch in his breezy room at a hotel in Venice, a trim, sociable man of 68 with a firm, fluent voice honed through many years of teaching writing, acting and meditation at universities and in private workshops. He does most of his teaching nowadays at Shantigar (Sanskrit for “Peaceful Home”), the 450-acre spread he bought in the Berkshires of Massachusetts with his take from “America Hurrah.”
“I’ve never strived to be avant-garde. I don’t even like the term ‘avant-garde,’ ” he says.
Van Itallie takes no umbrage at the suggestion that “Light,” his new historical costume drama about a love triangle centered on Voltaire, one of the giants of the 18th century Enlightenment, seems aimed at mainstream audiences. It offers mind-nourishment, historical big shots and sexual complications -- ingredients on which subscribers to regional theaters have been known to sup happily.
Van Itallie’s work rarely has intersected with the mainstream; exceptions include the Mark Taper Forum’s 1987 premiere of “The Traveler,” his drama based on Chaikin’s struggles with speech and language disabilities after a stroke, and Chekhov revivals that use Van Itallie’s highly regarded translations.
Any avant-gardists inclined to criticize Van Itallie for moving to the middle ground with “Light” might soften upon hearing the glow in his voice as he sums up the play’s central theme. “It’s a struggle between light and dark. In Voltaire, the light wins. That’s what’s so astonishing. The light wins, despite all the detours he’s made in his life. The light wins.”
For a mainstream play, it had quirky beginnings. Author Wendy Gimbel (“Havana Dreams”), a friend of the playwright for nearly 30 years, says she had long watched him explore themes important to him -- rooted in his regard for his sometime lover, Chaikin, in his longtime Tibetan Buddhist practice and in his experiences as a gay man.
“I think he’s a wonderful writer, and I shared with him the hope he would do the kind of play that would let a very large audience see that his talent was not only intact but had grown and matured,” Gimbel said from her home in New York City.
OK, the playwright told her in 2001. Give me a subject.
Van Itallie says he knew immediately that Gimbel’s idea about Voltaire and his circle was perfect, and within a day he was scribbling notes and embarking on more than a year of research. He wrote his script in an unorthodox way, moving about, acting and intoning the three characters’ lines while an assistant transcribed everything he said. The technique stems from his theory that writing, like acting, is a physical activity, and that it will be most immediate and truthful -- “from the gut,” as he puts it -- if the body as well as the mind is enlisted.
Through a network of mutual contacts, the script found its way to Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of the Theatre@ Boston Court. She had studied Van Itallie’s 1960s plays in courses at Harvard and Cal Arts but wasn’t up on his more recent work.
“It certainly wasn’t ‘The Serpent,’ ” she said. But she was drawn by characters who were “truly luminous beings, with complexity, waywardness and human foibles in addition to the many ways in which they were great.”
She was impressed that, even in a more conventional milieu, Van Itallie was still aiming for inventive sequences that would lift “Light” beyond routine realism. Ellen Stewart, founder and director of New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, has introduced or revived Van Itallie’s works often since 1965 -- including a recent mounting of the violent “Motel” segment of “America Hurrah.”
She said that while his experimental techniques made his name, storytelling has been in the mix too. “He’s not selling out. He’s always been both. He deserves anything that might come his way.”
Looking back, Van Itallie thinks he shied from success after being hailed for “America Hurrah,” retreating to the Massachusetts woods instead of promoting his career in New York. He says he resists feeling bitter about being in all the textbooks yet infrequently in the repertory.
“Of course there are moments of frustration, but it would only hurt me to hold on to them,” he said. “The spiritual challenge is not to dwell on the negative.”
He knows from experience not to let hope consume him, either. Yes, he’d love “Light” to be a hit. “But the moment that you expect something of the gods, they do something else.”