WAR, SEX and DREAMS

Written and performed by Jean-Claude van Itallie. Music by Steve Sweeting. Directed by Joel Gluck. Premiered at the Art Bank, Shelburne Falls, MA, May, 1998. Performed at Highways, Santa Monica, California and La Mama Cabaret, NYC. Unpublished.

FROM REVIEWS OF WAR, SEX and DREAMS
"Most people don’t seek icon status. But there are definitely those who have it thrust upon them.

Consider, for example, the case of playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie. One of the seminal figures of the American avant- garde, he’s seldom mentioned without the phrase, "icon of the 60's," or some variant, attached.

Yet van Itallie has never been stuck in time, either aesthetically or personally. Rather, he’s continued to write important — and very different —new works each decade, and to explore new roles for himself within the world of theater.

As a small illustration of this mutability, several of van Itallie’s recent ventures will be arriving in Los Angeles... The Mark Taper’s New Work Festival presents "Older," a collaboration between van Itallie and the equally iconic Joseph Chaikin... van Itallie will teach The Healing Power of Theatre at the Continuum Studio where he has taught annually for the past several years, and ... opens his solo autobiographical show, War Sex and Dreams at Highways

...Yet for all the success he has had as a writer, van Itallie has long been inclined to push himself in new directions. "I had to break out of the mind-set that I was a writer and [see] that I could perform," he said recently... After I started teaching ‘play writing- on-your-feet,’ discovering that the principles of writing and performing are the same, then I thought I better put my body where my mouth was. I’m more and more allowing my feelings to come through my body, not staying in my head all the time. I’m always relieved when compartments break down between this and that in my head. I’m an anti-specialist. I think that’s what’s good about the end of this millennium, that compartments of thinking are breaking down....It’s always been of interest to me to bring together the theatrical and spiritual," said van Itallie who has been a Tibetan Buddhist for more than thirty years and founded the Shantigar Foundation on his family farm in Rowe, Massachusetts.

"van Itallie offers vivid accounts of the escape of his Belgian- Jewish family from the Nazis, the suicide of his Harvard roommate, his tentative youthful encounters with gay sex and a bizarre meeting with famed director Elia Kazan. He tells us about his Tibetan Buddhism, his encounter with fame and his life as a self- styled Frog-Prince, and he intersperses his stories with French chansons and American pop songs. His wit amd charm are considerable... his performance good-humored ancd sweetly personal..." LA Weekly.

"A lion of avant-garde theater in the 1960's, playwright Jean- Claude van Itallie has been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for more than 30 years. He begins his one-man play, War, Sex and Dreams, at Highways by blessing the space, chanting melodically. We are lullled, prepared for a calming meditation on life and art. Then van Itallie’s chant slides into a belted rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."

 

Call it a mission statement for this freewheeling hodgepodge of reminiscenes, van Itallie may be a spiritual man, but he’s also a savvy storyteller who has accumulated a wealth of anectdotes in his eventful life and acreer, from his childhood flight from the Nazis in his native Belgium to his watershed ‘60's plays America Hurrah and The Serpent. In short, his solo show is equally informed by spirituality and sheer dishiness...F. Kathleen Foley, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1999.

"The most striking messages in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s War, Sex and Dreams are that being gay isn’t easy and that in the experience of the playwright through almost 50 years, love and sex are frequently separated. With good humor and with evident exasperation, he says the energy he pours into adoration often leaves him intimidated by the thought of profaning the paragon he worships. This is not the only inhibition revealed in this often amusing often sad confession of a man in his 60's whose heart is lonely and who teases one into wondering what, despite his remarkable candor, he is leaving out,.

Mr. van Itallie, who took up acting recently, decades after he became celebrated as a playwright, does an impressive jobof letting the audience feel the distance between himself as actor and the character of himself he is creating. He has a fine intimate setting, the Cafe at La Mama, a company that has performed his plays for more than 30 years. For the viewer the impression is like dropping in on an old friend who is a gifted talker, who will break into Broadway songs and dances to make a point — ‘I’ve been brainwashed by Berlin and Gershwin’ — and whose house guest is a superb pianist (Steve Sweeting).

This mild-mannered writer and actor can be shockingly incisive. He gives the downside of his triumphant 1960's in a tale of his college room-mate who became a publishing whiz and who, after Mr. van Itallie introduced him to LSD, plunged into paranoia and killed himself. The telling takes three minutes and feels like a full-scale tragedy. He argues that to survive happy as you get older you have to steadily shed emotional baggage, but he knows as well as anyone in theater how to summon our load of emotions and use them to change our perceptions, and even our memories, as only friends can." D.J.R. Bruckner, New York Times, March 24, 1999.

 

 

EXCERPT ("Roger" from War, Sex and Dreams, the performance piece)

September 1954.

I’m entering my freshman year at Harvard. I’ve driven up with my mother. She’s just leaving her youth; I’m entering mine. Over the archway to Wigglesworth Hall: "Enter to Grow in Wisdom." In the still empty suite, I greedily grab the single. Mrs. Klein makes her entrance. Like my mother she’s Belgian and charming. Unlike my mother, she’s loud and talky.

Behind her is a shy boy, slightly bent at the waist, as if his mother’s servant. His face is kind, he has intelligent brown eyes:

"Hi, I’m Roger."

Mrs. Klein insists on buying dark green curtains for our living room. Roger is embarrassed: "Maaa, please."

I immediately feel at home with Roger. Sophomore year Dick Diamond — how did he get hold of a peyote bud? It’s green. It looks like an unripe pineapple. It’s hard to chew, sour, bitter. We go outside. I expect visions. Nothing. We come back. Roger vomits on the stairs. Cleaning up his vomit, I think: "I must really love this guy to be cleaning up his vomit..."

In our bedroom Roger is in the upper bunk, I’m in the lower. "I’ve got something to tell you. It’s awkward: I’m homosexual."

He says, "Of course you know I am too." I pretend I did.

His hand slowly reaches down. (He looks at Roger’s hand. He reaches his hand up.) We hold hands. We never have sex together, alas. We are each attracted to inappropriate people. Roger likes our third roommate who’s not gay. I’m attracted to an alcoholic named Arthur. Winter break, a bunch of us fly to Varadero, Cuba. Arthur throws his arm around my shoulder on the plane. I leave it there but I’m embarrassed for the stewardess.

After college we both move to New York City. Roger lives uptown, I live downtown. We see each other at night. We walk. The lights of the city form a backdrop to the intimate world of our talking. Roger sells books at Doubleday’s for six months. Then he’s an assistant editor. Then he’s an editor. Then he’s a big deal editor.

When Roger’s in London giving literary dinners, I write him a letter: "I had a successful play. I need you to come home and ground me."

When I see him next, Roger cries for joy -- for me. He comes to the farmhouse. He sees my lover, my friends, the house. He says: "You have everything."

I offer him acid, a small white square of paper you put under your tongue. He takes it immediately. He walks in the field. He becomes a birch. His trousers rolled, he wades into the lake. He looks bigger than usual. There’s an aura around him. He looks powerful suddenly. He says: "Oh." "Oh." "Oh." "Oh."

He goes back to New York, takes acid too often — about once a week. His more eccentric parts emerge. He always wears elegant suits, but loafers with no socks. He says he’s writing a novel. With a big "O" at the end the reader can crawl through. Then some stupid fool gives him acid and amphetamine together.

That night he comes to my apartment. He’s talks and talks, leaping all over the intellectual map. I follow him. We know each other that well.

"Read the newspaper as if you were a detective," he says,

And, "There’s a fellowship of good people in the world, If you can find them."

At four A.M. we’re still talking, but now paranoia has set in. He’s’s sure it was Bobby and Jackie who had Jack killed. Then he goes to visit his mother on Park Avenue.

He tells her, "Ma, I’m homosexual."

She says, "You think I didn’t know that?"

He breaks up her Louis XV arm chairs: break, break, break. Then he goes to his own apartment on East 72nd Street. In the elevator he takes off all his clothes. To impress a young man staying with him.

Next morning he commits to himself to Gracie Square, a mental hospital. They give him Thorazine, which turns his face red. Mornings he edits at Harper and Row, Afternoons he returns to Gracie Square.

His doctor tells me: "At least we don’t give him shock treatment."

I’m in Europe touring with my play "The Serpent," And meeting my spiritual teacher, Trungpa, Rinpoche. I get a letter from Roger. "Why go on?" he asks.

I write back: "Hold on. I’m coming home. You’ll come to the country. I’ll roll you over in the clover. It’ll be okay."

July 4th weekend there are too many people at my house. Roger stays on a cot in my bedroom. He looks pale. I want to hold him. But I’m also repelled. He chops vegetables obsessively. We walk down the dirt road by the house. Dark clouds seem to swirl around Roger’s head.

"Marilyn Monroe was right," he says, and:"How can anyone go on?"

I work hard to lift the clouds, But then when we turn to walk back to the house, they’re back.

He says, "I need a twenty-four hour nurse."

I wish I had taken him literally. I have no phone in the house. On Thursday at the post office, under the grill, I’m handed a note:

"Roger Klein is dead."

From the phone booth at the Inn I call his mother. She says, "I guess you weren’t such a good nursieon July fourth, were you?"

And, "I don’t know if you can understand this, but I’m relieved. I don’t have to lie about him any more."

Feeling guilty, I ask Roger’s doctor: "Why didn’t you keep him in the hospital?"

He says: "It was his mother...

Wednesday night, feeling nervous, he went to spend the night at her house. She had told him she kept sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet. At three in the morning she heard him in the bathroom. At six she checked to see if he was alright, but he was dead.

He left a note: "Please tell Miss So and So I can’t make lunch."

Hundreds of people come to Frank Campbell’s funeral home in New York. Friends are not invited to the cemetery, but Margot and I drive out anyway. We park by the gate at the bottom of the hill. We look up at the grave. His father looking eviscerated, shovels dirt onto the coffin.

In my mind I’m saying: "Roger, get up. Show them. Get up, Roger... oh, Roger..."