Jean-Claude van Itallie

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Jean-Claude van Itallie
Born 25 May 1936
Brussels, Belgium
Citizenship American
Occupation Playwright, educator
Organization The Open Theatre
Notable work

Jean-Claude van Itallie, the Belgian-born American playwright, performer, and theatre workshop teacher may be best-known for his 1966 anti Viet Nam war play America Hurrah, The Serpent, the ensemble play he wrote with Joseph Chaikin’s The Open Theatre his play of Tibetan Book of the Dead, and his translations of Chekhov’s major plays.[1][2][3][4]

Early life and education[edit]

Jean-Claude van Itallie was born in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 1936,[1][2] son of Hugo Ferdinand van Itallie (an investment banker) and Marthe Mathilde Caroline Levy van Itallie. In 1940, when the Nazis invaded Brussels with his family he fled first to France, where the family received visas to Portugal from the Portuguese Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendez. The family sailed from Lisbon aboard the Japanese liner Hakozaki Maru and arrived in New York City in the fall of 1940. Van Itallie grew up in Great Neck, New York, studied at Great Neck High School and Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA, and graduated from Harvard University in 1958. He has one sibling, his brother Michael van Itallie.[1][5]


After Harvard van Itallie moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, studied acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse, studied film editing at New York University, and wrote for the CBS TV Public Affairs show, Look Up and Live. In 1963 van Itallie’s short play, War, was produced at the Barr Albee Wilder Playwrights Unit on Vandam Street, with Gerry Ragni and Jane Lowry, directed by Michael Kahn. He 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 the Caffe Cino, “birthplace of gay theater.”

Van Itallie has written over thirty plays. His 1966 anti-war trilogy of one-acts 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. Van Itallie wrote the ensemble play The Serpent with Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater. The Serpent premiered at Rome’s Teatro dell’Arte in 1968. Van Itallie’s play, Tibetan Book of the Dead, or How Not to Do It Again, based on traditional texts premiered at La MaMa in NYC in 1983.

Other van Itallie plays include King of the United States a musical play written with composer Richard Peaslee, premiered Theater for the New City, NYC, 1972; Bag Lady, premiered Theater for the New City, 1979; The Traveler, (a play about a composer struck with aphasia) premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, 1987 then produced at Almeida Theater, London with David Threlfall, 1988; Struck Dumb written for and with Joseph Chaikin, premiered at Taper Too, Los Angeles, 1989 (anthologized in Best American Short Plays, 1991–92); Light, about Voltaire, Emilie du Chatelet, and Frederick the Great, premiered 2003 at Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, CA, received several L.A. critics awards; Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House, premiered 2006 at Theater for the New City, NYC.

Van Itallie’s translations of Chekhov’s Seagull, first produced by MacArthur Theater, Princeton, 1973, premiered Manhattan Theater Club, NYC and ART, Cambridge, MA; Cherry Orchard premiered at Lincoln Center, NYC, with Irene Worth and Meryl Streep, directed by Andrei Serban, 1977; Three Sisters, premiered both at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and at the Manhattan Theatre Club, NYC, with Sam Waterston and Diane Wiest, 1979; Uncle Vanya, premiered at La MaMa, NYC with F. Murray Abraham and Joseph Chaikin, directed by Andrei Serban, 1983.

In 1997 van Itallie performed with co-creators Kermit Dunkelberg and Court Dorsey in Guys Dreamin’, directed by Kim Mancuso and Joel Gluck. In 1999 and 2000 van Itallie performed his one-man show, War, Sex, and Dreams at Highways in Santa Monica, CA and La MaMa, NYC. In 2012, he performed his one-man show, Confessions and Conversation at La MaMa in NYC, directed by Rosemary Quinn.

His 2016 book Tea with Demons, games of transformation published by Haley’s, offers bits of memoirs and forty-nine self-development games for the reader to play.

Van Itallie teaches writing and performance workshops around the US in colleges and retreat centers. He has taught at Princeton University, New York University, Harvard University, Yale University, Amherst College, Columbia University, Middlebury College, the University of Colorado, Smith College, New School for Social Research, Naropa University, the Esalen Institute, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, the NY Open Center, Rowe Conference Center in Rowe MA, and Easton Mountain Center NY, etc.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Jean-Claude van Itallie lives on his old farm in Western Massachusetts where he teaches and directs Shantigar Foundation for theatre, meditation, and healing, and in Greenwich Village, NYC.[2]

Selected plays[edit]

  • War
  • Almost Like Being
  • I'm Really Here
  • Hunter and the Bird
  • America Hurrah
  • The Serpent
  • King of the United States
  • Ancient Boys
  • Mystery Play, premiered at Cherry Lane Theater, NYC, 1973
  • The Traveler
  • Struck Dumb (co-written with Joseph Chaikin)
  • Bag Lady
  • Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not to Do It Again
  • Light, Voltaire, the Mathematician, and the King of Prussia
  • Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House
  • A Fable
  • Master and Margarita (from the Bulgakov novel)
  • The Mother’s Return, premiered at La MaMa, NYC, 2010


  • Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard
  • Jean Genet’s The Balcony
  • Eugene Ionesco’s The Taming of Jacques
  • Euripedes’ Medea


  • Chekhov, the Major Plays, Applause Books, 1995
  • The Playwright’s Workbook, Applause Books, 1997
  • Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud, North Atlantic, 1998.
  • America Hurrah and Other Plays, Grove Press, 2001.
  • Tea with Demons, games of transformation, Haley’s Publishing, 2016


  • Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1962-1963
  • Jersey Journal Award for America Hurrah, 1967
  • Outer Circle Critics Award for America Hurrah, 1967
  • Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award for America Hurrah, 1967
  • Obie Award for The Serpent, 1969
  • Guggenheim Fellowship, 1973-1974; 1980-1981
  • Creative Artists Public Service Award, 1975
  • Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy, Kent State University, 1977
  • Ford Foundation grant, 1979
  • Playwrights Award, NEA, 1986
  • United Stroke Foundation’s achievement award for The Traveler, 1987
  • Last Frontier Theater Lifetime Achievement Award, Distinguished Service in the Theater, 1999
  • New England Theater Conference—Outstanding Achievement in the American Theater, 2002


The Jean-Claude van Itallie papers at Special Collections, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio cover van Itallie’s full career, and additions to the collection are regularly made by the author.


  1. ^ a b c d Official website
  2. ^ a b c Biography
  3. ^ van Itallie, Jean-Claude (2013). "Jean-Claude van Itallie: Autobiography". Contemporary Authors Online. Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale. 
  4. ^ Gary Botting, The Theatre of Protest in America, Edmonton: Harden House, 1972.
  5. ^ Bennett, Beate Hein (1981). MacNicholas, John, ed. "Jean-Claude van Itallie in 'Twentieth-Century American Dramatists'". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Literature Resource Center. 7.