Jean-Claude van Itallie, ‘America Hurrah’ Playwright, Dies at 85

Jean-Claude van Itallie, a playwright, director and performer who was a mainstay of the experimental theater world and who was particularly identified for “America Hurrah,” a form-bending trio of one-acts that opened in 1966 within the East Village and ran for greater than 630 performances, died on Sept. 9 in Manhattan. He was 85.

His brother, Michael, mentioned the trigger was pneumonia.

Beginning within the late 1950s, Mr. van Itallie immersed himself within the vibrant Off Off Broadway scene, the place playwrights and performers have been difficult theatrical conventions. He joined Joseph Chaikin’s newly fashioned Open Theater in 1963, and his first produced play, “War,” was staged within the West Village. He was a favourite of Ellen Stewart, who had based La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1961.

Mr. van Itallie’s early works, together with elements of what grew to become “America Hurrah,” have been typically carried out in lofts and different small areas, however for the full-fledged manufacturing of “America Hurrah,” in November 1966, he moved as much as the Pocket Theater on Third Avenue. The work brought on a sensation.

“I think you’ll be neglecting a whisper in the wind if you don’t look in on ‘America Hurrah,’” Walter Kerr started his rave overview in The New York Times. “There’s something afoot here.”

The first play within the trilogy, “Interview,” seemed at the dehumanizing strategy of job searching. In the second, “TV,” a commentary on mass media’s skill to trivialize, three folks in a tv scores firm watch quite a lot of exhibits; step by step those they’re watching take over the stage, and the three “real” persons are absorbed into them.

The third piece was “Motel,” which was first carried out in 1965 at La MaMa E.T.C. and which the script describes as “a masque for three dolls.” (Robert Wilson, nonetheless early in his groundbreaking profession, designed the unique set.) Writing a few London manufacturing of “America Hurrah” for The Times in 1967, Charles Marowitz referred to as it “a short but stunning masterpiece.”

In it, a monstrous doll, the “Motel-keeper,” presides over a motel room and emits a stream of more and more arcane patter. Two different dolls arrive at the room and proceed to trash it, scrawling vulgar graffiti on the wall and finally dismantling the Motel-keeper.

In 1993, when the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, mounted a revival of “America Hurrah,” Marianne Evett, theater critic for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, mirrored on its unique affect.

“When it opened,” she wrote, “it rocketed to fame, announcing that a new kind of American theater had arrived — deliberately experimental, savagely funny, politically aware and critical of standard American life, its institutions and values.”

Mr. van Itallie continued making new work for greater than half a century, and in addition based Shantigar, a retreat in western Massachusetts, the place he nurtured aspiring theater artists. Just two years in the past, La MaMa staged the premiere of his new play, “The Fat Lady Sings,” about an evangelical household.

“Jean-Claude van Itallie was an artist who was constantly questioning and digging into the deeper realms of our human existence and spirit,” Mia Yoo, creative director of La MaMa, mentioned by e mail. “In this moment of change it is artists like Jean-Claude whom we must look to.”

Mr. van Itallie in 1999 in his one-man present, “War, Sex and Dreams,” at La Mama E.T.C. It associated his childhood escape from the Nazis, his life as a homosexual man and the way he coped with sudden fame within the 1960s. Credit… Peter MacDonald/La Mama

Jean-Claude van Itallie was born on May 25, 1936, in Brussels to Hugo and Marthe (Levy) van Itallie. The household left Belgium because the Nazis superior on the nation in 1940, and by the tip of the yr they’d reached the United States. They settled in Great Neck, on Long Island. Hugo van Itallie had been a stockbroker in Brussels and resumed that profession on Wall Street.

Jean-Claude’s dad and mom spoke French at residence, one thing that influenced his later strategy to theater, he mentioned.

“I had the good fortune to grow up in a couple of languages,” he mentioned, “and I think that makes you realize that no single language contains reality, that words are always an approximation of reality, that language and even thought are perspectives on reality, not reality itself.”

He was lively within the drama membership at Great Neck High School and in scholar productions at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, the place he spent his senior yr. In 1954, he enrolled at Harvard University, the place he continued to review theater and wrote his first one-act performs earlier than graduating in 1958. His honors thesis was titled “The Pessimism of Jean Anouilh,” the French dramatist.

Mr. van Itallie settled in Greenwich Village. He labored for a number of years adapting and writing scripts for tv, significantly for “Look Up and Live,” a Sunday morning anthology program on spiritual themes broadcast on CBS. It was a interval when many TV exhibits had company sponsors that needed to be appeased, however his wasn’t certainly one of them; “Look Up and Live” gave the writers a measure of freedom.

“All you had to do was please God and CBS,” he mentioned.

He was persevering with to write down performs on his personal. “Motel,” the third piece of the “America Hurrah” trilogy, was truly the primary to be written, in 1961 or ’62.

“I was about three years out of Harvard, living in Greenwich Village and knocking on the door of Broadway theater,” he advised The Plain Dealer a long time later. “And I wasn’t getting in. I think that ‘Motel’ grew out of my anger — partly at that situation, but probably a much deeper anger at the way my mind had been conventionalized and conditioned. It just rose up out of me.”

The success of “America Hurrah” in New York spawned different productions, although they generally bumped into resistance, together with in London, the place the graffiti scrawled in “Motel” offended censors. In Mobile, Ala., a manufacturing by the University of South Alabama at a city-owned theater in 1968 was shut down by the mayor, Lambert C. Mims, after two performances.

“It is filth, pure and simple,” the mayor mentioned, “and I think it is a crying shame that Alabama taxpayers’ money has been used to produce such degrading trash.”

Among Mr. van Itallie’s different works with Open Theater was “The Serpent,” a collaborative piece impressed by the guide of Genesis that he formed right into a script. It was first carried out in Rome throughout a European tour in 1968 and later staged in New York.

In the 1970s Mr. van Itallie grew to become identified for translations.

“I did my work as a playwright backwards,” he as soon as mentioned, “creating new theatrical forms in the ’60s, and in the ’70s going back to study masters like Chekhov.”

Later nonetheless he did some performing, together with performing a one-man autobiographical play referred to as “War, Sex and Dreams,” which associated his childhood escape from the Nazis, his life as a homosexual man and the way he coped with sudden fame within the 1960s. D.J.R. Bruckner reviewed a efficiency of the work at the Cafe at La MaMa in 1999 for The Times, calling it the “often amusing and often sad confession of a man in his 60s whose heart is lonely and who teases one into wondering what, despite his remarkable candor, he is leaving out.”

Mr. van Itallie cut up his time between a house in Manhattan and the farm in Rowe, Mass., which is residence to his Shantigar Foundation. In addition to his brother, he’s survived by his stepmother, Christine van Itallie.

In remembering Mr. van Itallie, Ms. Yoo referred to as to thoughts her predecessor, Ms. Stewart, who died in 2011.

“I think of Ellen Stewart and him looking down at us and insisting that we move and make change,” she mentioned.