THE SERPENT

A ceremony created by the Open Theatre ensemble, written by Jean-Claude van Itallie, directed by Joseph Chaikin assisted by Robert Sklar. Opened in Rome at Anne Guerrieri’s Teatro del Arte, 2 May 1968, and toured in Europe. Subsequently performed in New York City and at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA.

FROM REVIEWS OF THE SERPENT
"...The Open Theatre of New York, famous for being the company which last year performed in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play America Hurrah, yesterday opened its first long European tour in Rome...The Open Theatre, the only theatre group which rivals in importance Grotowsky’s Theatre Laboratory...completely revolutionizes the canons of the traditional theatre..." Momento Sera

"Van Itallie’s play, The Serpent, is a subversively touching ritual..." Paese Sera

"What if Cain did not know how to kill Abel? … I ask the questions and suggest that for the moment I believe in them, because I have just seen them worked out as harsh, straining, very tangible visual images on a stage, and they are real.

"...In his program notes...Mr van Itallie describes [the play’s] direction as essentially religious: "The playwright’s task [for this play] is not so much to ‘write a play’ as to ‘construct a ceremony’ in which the actors are in some sense celebrants or priests, and the audience is drawn to participate with the actors in a kind of eucharist."... Walter Kerr, New York Times, February 9, 1969

"It is an exceptional play, imposing, yet informal, continually surprising, and, to me, profoundly disruptive emotionally." Village Voice

The Serpent ... is a poignant, provocative parable which takes its cue from the legends about Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and traces the legends backward, forward, and sideways to track a path through existence. Alternately, the parable is fierce and funny. Myth and reality and mingled with contemporary experience.

The Open Theatre is disciplined, gifted and open-eyed about the demands of theatrical art... … van Itallie’s Serpent is a lovely and significant piece of work."

Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe, January 19, 1969

"…the visual richness, intellectual wonder, and surprise of a mystery play, whose function is to outline the boundaries of human experience." The Evergreen Review.

"…. A theatrical master stroke..." Christian Science Monitor.

"This brilliant and fascinating tour de force in contemporary improvisational theatre explores the Book of Genesis, and relates it to our modern experience with an eloquence and power which have earned it recognition as a milestone of the new American drama. Most of the work is choreographed movement, pantomime, human sounds and music made by bells, horns, whistles, tambourines and other hand-held instruments. … From the beginning, where Eve is tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, then tempts Adam to eat the forbidden fruit as well, man’s eternal battle between self- gratification and obedience to external authority begins. There is a ritual enactment of the discovery of sexual love played by the group against the intoned recital of how the descendants of Adam begat the family of Man …. It is a passionate celebration of love." Dramatists Play Service.

Excerpt:

First Woman of the Chorus: I no longer live in the beginning.

Second Woman of the Chorus: I’ve lost the beginning.

Third Woman of the Chorus: I’m in the middle, knowing

Third and Fourth women of the Chorus: Neither the end

Nor the beginning.

First Woman: I’m in the middle.

Second Woman: Coming from the beginning

Third and Fourth Women: And going toward the end...

Serpent 1: Is it true?

Serpent 2: Is it true?

Serpent 3: That you and he,

Serpent 4 You and he

Serpent 4 and 5 May do anything?

Serpent 2: Anything in the garden you want to do?

Serpent 1: Is that true?

Eve: We may do anything except one thing...

God (speaking with the voice of one actor and manifesting in the body of another): Because you have eaten

Of the tree of which I commanded you,

Saying you shall not eat of it,

Cursed is the earth for your sake.

You shall use your mind

Not to understand but to doubt.

And even if you understand,

Still shall you doubt...

Henceforth shall you thirst after me.

And now shall come a separation.

Accursed.

Between the dreams inside your head.

Accursed.

And those things which you believe to be outside your head

And the two shall war within you...

Second Woman of the Chorus: I’ve lost the beginning.

Third Woman: I’m in the middle.

Fourth Woman: Knowing neither the end nor the beginning.

Second Woman: One lemming.

Third Woman: One lemming.

Fourth Woman: One lemming...

First Woman: I went to a dinner.

The guests were pleasant.

We were poised,

Smiling over our plates,

Asking and answering the usual questions.

I wanted to throw the food,

Ax the table,

Scratch the women’s faces

And grab the men’s balls....

Third Woman: My home was Cleveland.

Then I came to New York

And I didn’t have to account to anybody.

I smoked pot, hashish, opium.

I slept with a man.

I slept with a woman.

I slept with a man and a woman at the same time.

But I’m a gentle person, and I collapsed....

Fourth woman: Little by little

First Woman: All the lemmings

Second Woman: From all over the country

Third Woman: Run together...

Second Woman: Until

Fourth Woman: Exhausted,

First Woman: They reach the cliff

Second Woman: And throw themselves

Third Woman: Into the sea....

Published by Atheneum, NY, 1969. Published in America Hurrah and Other Plays, Grove/Atlanitc, 2001.

Acting Edition published by Dramatists Play Service

Anthologies:

The Best Plays of 1969-1970, NY: Dodd, Mead, 1970

Les Voies de la Creation Theatrale, Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1970

The Great American Life Show: 9 Plays from the Avant-Garde Theater. New York: Bantam, 1974

Winner of Village Voice Obie.