The Serpent

A Ceremony Written by
Jean-Claude Van Itallie

In Collaboration With
The Open Theatre

Under the Direction of
Joseph Chaikin


"What the Open Theatre and I tried to do in creating The Serpent was to find theatrical expression of certain questions. In The Serpent these questions have to do with guilt and disquiet ... The words are intended to be few and clear, as poetry-they attempt to be at the 'top of the iceberg' to the rest of the theatrical experience for the audience, capping off images that have already been sense." -Jean-Claude van Itallie

Before I start, I will attempt to define a ceremony, so that we can both be on the same page. The definition of ceremony that I am using, based on Van Itallie's text, is in reference to theatre. A ceremony is a ritual in which ideas and morals of a society or people are explored and honoured.

The Serpent was a play written in the late sixties and first shown in 1968. The writer intended for the play to bring the audience, not into an acted piece of theatre, but into an experience. Unlike most plays, The Serpent has no linear plot. Instead, it should be viewed as a modern-day ceremony. An in depth look at ideas and themes that our society has created through simply living.

Although the script of the play contains in-depth information on what the actors are to do, the writer hoped that the ensemble putting on the piece would create their own play. The words and actions that are written are only there as a basis to begin the piece, from which the actors will create their own ceremony that relates to them.

Originally, The Open Theatre group had intended to look into the life of Jesus from when he was fifteen to thirty. They started by exploring the Book of Genesis through improvisation. The troupe would take ideas or words and allow these things to form ideas in their head, then they would show what they felt the meaning was. From here, the Open Theatre group found themselves asking questions that they could find no answers to.

So, with a new goal in mind, they began to explore how to ask these questions. The intent was not to find out what happened when Eve bit the apple or how the first murder happened, but to use theatre to ask these questions to their audience. Thus, they began to build a ceremony. From that point on, the audience changed from being simple watchers to the main part of the play. The actors would no longer be giving the audience a moral or life lesson. They would be asking a question to the audience, demanding that they find their own meaning and discovering what that showed them about their lives.

The play opens with all the actors off-stage and they enter from within the audience. The plays end the same way, leaving no time for applause. These two acts are to tell the audience that they are as much a part of the ceremony as the players. It is important for the audience to realize that the actors and the watchers are the same people. All the actors are doing is asking the questions that we all must find answers to. To quote Van Itallie, "The creation of this piece was an exploration of certain ideas and images that seem to dominate our minds and lives."

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