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JACK GELBER REMEMBERED
BY JERRY TALLMER
It took a 26-year-old laughing boy out of Chicago to shatter the glass wall between the stage and the seats, between actors and audience, once and for all. His name was Jack Gelber, and he died this past Friday, here in Manhattan, of cancer, at 71.
The play by him that did this was "The Connection," quickly dubbed by the press a "jazz play," because there were musicians in it (Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Clyde Harris, Jimmy Corbett) who were up there on stage playing great jazz, but it was not a jazz play, and the musicians were also part and parcel of the dialogue, the interaction. I won't say "action," because there is very little action as such in "The Connection," which takes place in a grungy 1950s pad where a handful of cocaine addicts are desperately waiting for the arrival of their drug dealer, a tough, nervous, compassionate Negro named Cowboy.
"The Connection" opened late in the hot summer of 1959 at Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theater, then at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, and it was instantly kicked around by all the reviewers from the daily papers, being dismissed, for instance, by the man from the New York Times, as "a farrago of dirt."
It would have closed within the week, and that glass curtain would have continued to wall off - benumb- the American theater for as long as time might tell, if it were not for a few less prurient reviewers. One such was Harold Clurman in The Nation, another was myself in The Village Voice.
"The music by Freddie Redd and his quartet," I wrote in part, "puts a highly charged contrapuntal beat under and against all the misery and stasis and permanent total crisis of 'The Connection's' roomful of assorted drug addicts. And director Judith Malina and her actors (and acting musicians) have used the jamming interludes brilliantly to further the slow line of the play (which in the end quite properly goes nowhere) with semi-improvisational episodes of degradation and masochistic (or brutalitarian) exposure.
"[T]he junkies of Mr. Gelber's play, and the junk, are all around me as I write, and I'm not speaking only of the narcotics industry. The subject is still Illusion vs. Reality . . . and no better material for playwriting will ever be unearthed."
The first thing I saw when I arrived at the Living Theater a quarter of an hour before show time, that hot night in 1959, was a young man staring at me with evident hatred as he twisted some gadget around and around between his fingers. He turned out to be the actor Garry Goodrow in the role of Ernie. A strung-out psychopathic trumpet player who had hocked his trumpet; the gadget was its mouthpiece. The play went on from there, spilling out into the lobby at intermissions. The show ran for 722 performances, and subsequently all around the world.
Garry is still alive, but many of the others are long dead, including Warren Finnerty, who gave a stunning Obie-winning performance as the querulous, dictatorial Leach in whose premises all these guys are sweating out Cowboy; and Carl Lee, as that Cowboy; and Julian Beck, who did the pluperfect set, i.e., Leach's pad.
And now Jack the laughing boy is gone. Judith remembers the day he showed up, unknown, at her and Julian's West End Avenue apartment, script in hand. "Julian opened it, and in one moment said: 'This is a play we are going to do.' "
Thirty years later there was a brief revival of the original-cast 1961 movie version of the play, directed by Shirley Clarke. While Shirley and I were waiting for an elevator at New Yorker Films, she turned to me and said: "Oh, Jerry, weren't the '50s wonderful!" They were, and Jack Gelber went far to make them so. [Tallmer]
This article was previously published in The Villager.
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