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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 113-128
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The Jean-Claude van Itallie Papers in the Department of Special Collections and Archives at Kent State University
Gene A. Plunka
The University of Memphis
The Department of Special Collections and Archives housed in the library at Kent State University is the repository for the Jean-Claude van Itallie Papers. For years, van Itallie donated his correspondence, journals, diaries, and manuscripts to Alex Gildzen, former curator of the Special Collections. Now retired, Gildzen has relinquished his responsibilities to Jeanne Somers, whose staff has recently cataloged this vast collection of 1,001 items, as well as the additional material contributed since 1990 (described in detail in this article). Plans are underway to merge all of the entries into a single file that will be mounted on the World Wide Web; thus, the numerical notations currently used to catalogue the collection may change in the future.
Van Itallie is one of the most versatile dramatists of the contemporary American stage. He has experimented with such diverse dramatic structures as monologue, satire, absurdist theater, ritualistic drama, epic theater, surrealism, expressionism, revue sketches, vignettes, musical theater, realism, and various hybrids of these forms. With a legacy of approximately thirty-three plays and eight adaptations that have been presented in experimental and repertory theaters worldwide, van Itallie has greatly expanded the range of dramatic structure.
Van Itallie's plays focus on several of the most poignant issues in contemporary America. Throughout his career, van Itallie has assumed the role of a seer gauging the pulse of modern society. Making us aware of the social malaise of humanity during the latter half of the twentieth century, van Itallie's theater functions as a therapeutic cure to heal personal and global afflictions. Van Itallie challenges us to realize that we are not cut-off heads vulnerable to manipulation. The healing power of his theater invites us to become aware of how we separate mind from body, cutting off consciousness and thereby allowing ourselves to be commercially, politically, or psychologically manipulated by individuals or institutions. By acknowledging the "wild cut-off part of ourselves," we take the first step in healing ourselves. [End Page 113]
Van Itallie was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 25 May 1936. When the Nazis entered Brussels in 1940, Jean-Claude and his parents fled to the United States, eventually settling in Great Neck, Long Island. He attended Great Neck High School from 1950 to 1953 and then spent his senior year at Deerfield Academy. In 1958, he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard University, majoring in the history and literature of Russia, France, and England from 1850 to 1950. While at Harvard, van Itallie directed several plays and tried his hand at playwriting for the first time. After graduation, he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City and took advanced playwriting classes at New York University. His first full-length play, Children on the Shore (1961), accrued polite rejection notices from producers. In 1961, he was a part-time associate editor of The Transatlantic Review, and the following year he was a freelance writer for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), where he wrote several adaptations and original screenplays for CBS's Sunday morning program Look Up and Live.
During the 1960s, van Itallie wrote several of his most noteworthy plays. War, his first major play to be produced, premiered at the Barr-Albee-Wilder Playwrights Unit of Off-Broadway's Vandam Theater on 22 December 1963. In September 1963, van Itallie was introduced to director Joseph Chaikin, the founder of the Open Theater. This began a decades-long collaboration between van Itallie and Chaikin--one that was to initiate some of the most innovative experiments of the Off-Broadway theater. Van Itallie began to compose plays for presentation by the Open Theater: Picnic in Spring (1964), The Murdered Woman (1964), Almost Like Being (1964), I'm Really Here (1964), The Hunter and the Bird (1964...