Jack Gelber, whose play "The Connection," with its raw, graphic depiction of the dead-end life of drug addicts, sent a shock wave through contemporary American theater, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 71 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia, a cancer of the blood, said his wife, Carol.
"The Connection" which opened Off Broadway at the Living Theater in 1959, was so realistic that it seemed more like life than like theater. In its time it polarized theatergoers as well as critics but was soon accepted as innovative in style, substance and language.
"I was so affected and energized by `The Connection,' " Edward Albee said yesterday. "It was exciting, dangerous, instructive and terrifying, all things theater should be." Speaking as a friend, he added, "Jack was never bitter, always honest, tough and uncompromising."
Mr. Gelber was also a theater director and teacher
and wrote a dozen plays, but "The Connection," which he wrote when he
was 26, remained the cornerstone of his career. When it opened, it received
negative reviews in New York's daily newspapers, including The
Critics for other publications were quick to grasp the work's significance. Writing in The Nation, Harold Clurman said the play was arresting in its authenticity and said: "It is as if one had looked for a moment into a corner of our city to breathe the rank air of its unacknowledged dejection. The play reeks of human beings."
"The Connection" won Obie Awards for best new play, best new production (directed by Judith Malina) and for Warren Finnerty, who played one of the leading roles. It became the signature piece of the Living Theater, the Off Broadway company founded by Ms. Malina and her husband, Julian Beck.
Eventually the play was presented around the world. Along with Mr. Albee's first play, "The Zoo Story," which opened Off Broadway the following year, "The Connection" helped to redefine the boundaries of theater.
It is a play within a play, introduced by actors playing the director and the author, who, the audience is told, has been living among drug addicts. As the play itself begins, the addicts are waiting for their connection, a dealer named Cowboy. While they wait, they play jazz. The spontaneity of the dialogue and the interplay with the audience challenged theatrical convention, causing some theatergoers to believe they were eavesdropping on actual addicts.
The realism was accentuated by the fact that the actors solicited money from the audience during intermission. In the second act, a man planted in the audience stood up and interrupted the performance. The actor in the original production, uncredited in the program, was Martin Sheen.
Despite the improvisational air, the play was carefully scripted, and Mr. Gelber was a serious, accomplished playwright. In his demeanor he could be disarmingly soft spoken, the opposite of the confrontational quality of this initial work.
Though none of his other plays had the success of "The Connection," he maintained a vigorous career, especially through his many years of teaching and encouraging young playwrights, actors and directors.
Yesterday Arthur Kopit praised "The Connection" as "seminal work that had a visceral effect on the audience" and also stressed that Mr. Gelber was "passionate about his teaching."
Mr. Gelber was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois. Coming to New York in the mid-1950's, he got a job operating a mimeograph machine at the United Nations. He had many friends who were jazz musicians, and having become involved with a small theater company, he decided to write a play that would combine his interest in jazz and theater.
He and his wife were married in 1957, and the next year, in Haiti, he wrote "The Connection," drawing on his knowledge, he said, of "the seamier side, the underbelly of life."
On his return to New York, he submitted the play to the Living Theater, which was beginning to make its own reputation as one of the most adventurous of experimental companies. When the play closed in 1961, it had run for 722 performances. In 1962 it was made into a film by Shirley Clarke (with a screenplay by the author), breaking cinematic ground with the earthiness of the dialogue.
Mr. Gelber's other plays include "The Apple," "Square in the Eye," "The Cuban Thing" (which he directed on Broadway), "Sleep," "Barbary Shore" (his adaptation of a Norman Mailer novel) and "Rehearsal." He directed many plays, including "The Kitchen" by Arnold Wesker," "The Kid" by Robert Coover," "Seduced" by Sam Shepard and Franz X. Kroetz's "Farmyard." In 1964 he published a novel, "On Ice."
He taught at Columbia University and Brooklyn College and in recent years in the Actors Studio program at the New School University. The night before he died, he was at Circle in the Square on Bleecker Street, working with his students on a theater project.
Last June at the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska, he and other playwrights (August Wilson, John Guare and Mr. Albee) acted in scenes from their own plays. In a play titled "Dylan's Line," Mr. Gelber gave a poignant portrait as the father of a troubled son.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Jed, of Manhattan; a daughter, Amy, of Brooklyn; and two brothers, Jules, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and David, of Austin, Tex.
Speaking about "The Connection," a year after its opening, Mr. Gelber said, "The whole experience had a kind of magic quality to it." After Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck accepted it, he said, he was involved in every aspect of the production, the casting, the rehearsals, the box office. "In my innocence," he said, "I wanted to know everything."