Van Itallie was born in Brussels and grew up in Great Neck, New York, which, he says, "left me with a horror of the American suburbs." After graduating from Harvard University, he got involved with the Open Theatre group under the direction of Joe Chaikin, producing as a result some of the most stunning and innovative experimental theater work of the 1960s, especially America Hurrah, a 1965 trilogy consisting of Interview, TV, and Motel, and The Serpent, a 1968 ritualistic and largely mimed theatrical piece that grew out of improvisations on Genesis and juxtaposes biblical events with current ones. Van Itallie's plays of the 1970s, which include A Fable and Bag Lady, have been more traditional in form and simpler in scope, and he has also adapted several of Chekhov's (see Vol. 2) plays. In 1983 he returned to the mode of The Serpent in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but with notably less success.