JEAN-CLAUDE van ITALLIE was a Belgian-born American playwright, performer, and theatre workshop teacher, born on this date (d: 2021); He is best known for his 1966 anti-Vietnam War play America Hurrah; The Serpent, an ensemble play he wrote with Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre; his theatrical adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead; and his translations of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
After graduating from Harvard, van Itallie moved to Greenwich Village, studied acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse and film editing at New York University, and wrote for the CBS television program Look Up and Live. In 1963, van Itallie’s short play, War, was produced at the Barr Albee Wilder Playwrights Unit on Vandam Street, featuring Gerome Ragni and Jane Lowry and directed by Michael Kahn. War was later produced alongside John Guare’s Muzeeka at the Dallas Theater Center. Van Itallie joined director-actor Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater as Playwright-of-the Ensemble. Van Itallie’s early plays were also produced at Ellen Stewart’s Café La MaMa, and at Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino, “birthplace of gay theater.”
His 1966 anti-war trilogy, America Hurrah (Interview, TV, and Motel), ran for almost two years at the Pocket Theater Off-Broadway and at the Royal Court Theater in London. Two of the one-acts were first presented at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1964 and 1965. Interview was directed by Peter Feldman, and Motel was directed by Michael Kahn. Motel was revived at La MaMa in 1981, again directed by Kahn, for the theater’s 20th anniversary.
In 1972, he wrote the script for a gay pornographic film America Creams under a pseudonym, one of the first well-known writers to write a hardcore pornographic film.
Van Itallie wrote over thirty plays. He wrote the ensemble play The Serpent with Chaikin’s Open Theater. The Serpent premiered at Rome’s Teatro dell’Arte in 1968. Van Itallie’s Tibetan Book of the Dead, or How Not to Do It Again, based on the Bardo Thodol and with music by Steven Gorn, premiered at La MaMa in 1983.
His 2016 book, Tea with Demons – Games of Transformation, includes memoir and forty-nine self-development games for the reader to play. He taught writing and performance workshops, and has taught at Princeton University, New York University, Harvard University, Yale University, Amherst College, Columbia University, Middlebury College, the University of Colorado, Smith College, the New School for Social Research, Naropa University, the Esalen Institute, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, the New York Open Center, Rowe Conference Center, and Easton Mountain, among other universities and retreat centers.
He lived on a farm in western Massachusetts, where he taught and directed the Shantigar Foundation for theatre and meditation, and in Greenwich Village. His papers are held in Kent State University Special Collections. The papers cover van Itallie’s full career, and he regularly deposited additional items to the collection.
He died of pneumonia on September 9, 2021 in Manhattan.