R.I.P. Jean-Claude Van Itallie

There is a great episode of Mad Men, where hero Don Draper gets taken to an Off-Off Broadway play by his second wife Megan, an aspiring actress. It is an experimental thing with guys in suits behaving absurdly. I recognized it instantly as America Hurrah (1965), the greatest play of Jean-Claude van Itallie (1936-2021). I just learned of his passing from my friend Alexis Sottile. We both had the privilege of working in development at Theater for the New City when they were producing his play Fear Itself: Secrets of the White House (2006), which makes an interesting bookend with the earlier work, the previous one satirizing the America that was then becoming embroiled in Vietnam, the latter written when we were fighting a “War on Terror” in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The earlier was by far the more interesting and signficant play; the newer one reminded me something of Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate, a much more straightforward commentary, and less cutting edge. Still, it was worth sending the message that little had changed in American government in 30 years.

For a time there in the middle ’60s , America Hurrah (which opened at LaMama under Ellen Stewart of course) was THE play to see in New York. That was when “Off-Off” was new. That storied time of vitality is what later drew me and many others to New York theatre. I was surprised to see that the Mad Men episode was not written by my old pal Jason Grote (who did write a memorable Mad Men episode, but not this one). Jason’s plays are a lot like van Itallie’s. But Matthew Weiner himself wrote the episode in question. Van Itallie’s name means something to theatre lovers, but the time when the voices of Off-Off were heard by the wider culture was brief. The time soon arrived when mainsteam America had lost its taste not only for experimental culture but for culture PERIOD. But to people like me and Alexis, Van Itallie was an eminence. It was kind of weird being in an atmosphere where he was just another guy at work, a guy you knew to say “hi” to, a lion of the past, whom, one would have thought ought to be premiering his plays at Lincoln Center ot Signature or someplace. Not a knock on TNC, which I revere; Jean-Claude had premiered many of his plays there over the years. But he had also premiered plays at Lincoln Center starring the likes of Meryl Streep.

van Itallie had come out of the Open Theatre and was a frequent collaborator with Joseph Chaikin. While his original, experimental work was surely more significant, he was probably most widely known for his translations of Chekhov plays: The Seagull (1973), The Cherry Orchard (1977), Three Sisters (1979) and Uncle Vanya (1983), as well as odds and ends like Genet’s The Balcony and Ionesco’s The Taming of Jacques.

Van Itallie was Belgian by birth. His family fled the Nazis when he was four years old and moved to Great Neck, where he was raised. For the past several years, he ran the Shantigar Foundation in Western Massachusetts. He was 85.