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Ivory Tower Burning

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Ivory Tower Burning

By Jay Gabler

Created by Jay Gabler

As the Cold War rages, the idealistic young C. Wright Mills invades the Harvard office of vastly influential sociologist Talcott Parsons for a fiery debate about what is to come of our fast-rising superpower.


Political content Historical content World premiere

First-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer

Just so you know, this show has
Adult language

The creators say this show is appropriate for ages 12 and up

Other shows

As the Cold War rages, the idealistic young C. Wright Mills invades the Harvard office of vastly influential sociologist Talcott Parsons for a fiery debate about what is to come of our fast-rising superpower. 


In 1960, sociologist Talcott Parsons was one of the most influential academics in America. A staunch defender of the status quo, he believed that capitalist democracy should and would spread across the globe. C. Wright Mills was a young and charismatic upstart, a Marxist who believed that the "power elite" who controlled America should be overthrown and a more equitable society established.

This new play imagines a meeting between these two real-life historical figures in Parsons's Harvard office. The two have an intense discussion that begins as an debate over academic theories and ultimately becomes an argument about the very fundamentals of human nature. What kind of society are humans capable of? Can inequality ever be eliminated? Do we need to be protected from ourselves? Though the play is set in Cold War, pre-Civil-Rights-Movement America, it resonates with the struggles of today, from the tents of the Occupy movement to the cries of the radical groups who very literally brought down America's ivory towers in 2001.

Show creator Jay Gabler has a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard, where he taught Sociology 10: the very class Parsons himself taught to a generation of students. As the author of Sociology for Dummies and a longtime theater critic, Gabler is uniquely well-suited to tell this story on the stage. Gabler will play Parsons (above, left), and his younger brother Joe Gabler (right) will play the idealistic Mills. This play will leave viewers with a lot to think, and talk, about.

Hear MPR's Fringe preview, which includes comments by Jay Gabler on Ivory Tower Burning

Hear Jay Gabler talk about Ivory Tower Burning in an interview at Twin Cities Theater Connection

Hear an in-depth interview with Jay Gabler on The Society Pages, a blog about social science

Cast + crew

Jay Gabler
Role: Writer, director, actor
Jay Gabler, 36, is arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and a co-founder and co-editor of the creative writing blog The Tangential. He lives in Minneapolis.

Joe Gabler
Role: Actor
Joe Gabler (co-star), 27, works in sales at SPS Commerce. He lives in St. Louis Park.

Write a review

You will be able to write a review for this show during the festival.

User reviews

by Will Weisert
Rating 4 stars
After a slow start this dialogue picked up steam, providing with competing views of society during the height of the cold war. The Gablers took a very deep subject and made accessible.

Academia nuts, unsalted
by Fringivitis Vulgaris
Rating 5 stars
This show isn't a drama so much as a protracted dialogue about fairly obscure stuff. I was a social sciences major and I still like to read it on occasion. This is truly an ivory tower topic, a palaver of the privileged. Like being in a good lecture with no test pending and sipping beer instead of taking notes.

Runty Brownie Vigor
by Brian Watson-Jones
Rating 3 stars
An interesting concept, and a good debate meaningful to our time, but didn't quite work as a theatrical presentation. It's not easy to get this kind of content across, but the way it was performed was more 'dueling lectures' than 'play'. Still, interesting content, and worth seeing so long as you're prepared to audit a sociology course.

Heady Historical Debate
by Mark Mikula
Rating 4 stars
An engaging exchange that represents one of my favorite reasons for seeking out shows at the Fringe. I'm partial to historical nonfiction and fiction, so this show hits a sweet spot for me in presenting big ideas rooted in reality. Whether in the interest of staying under the hour limit or whether the script was so dialogue-driven that the perfomers were focused on making sure they got the words right, they could have given themselves more permission or opportunity to react to each other with silence or a more complicated mix of emotions to make the piece even more effective. Otherwise, it comes off too much like a classroom exercise. Still, this was a Fringe highlight for me.

Nap time
by Mariellen Jacobson
Rating 1 star
The sociologists in the audience seemed to really enjoy this show.  I slept in sociology class.  What was I thinking, putting this on myncalendar? Since it was just a somewhat esoteric sociological argument, there was nothing to engage me.  But I did get a bit of a nap.

Like Watching
by Steve Hendrickson
Rating 2 stars
The Gablers have a clear passion for debate. But argument alone does not make theatre. Why is this a play and not a book? I had no sense of who these men were beyond warring sociologic perspectives. Plays are about people, not ideas. Ideas matter, but only insofar as how they effect the relationships of the characters. In COPENHAGEN Michael Frayn imagines a meeting between two physicists, Bohr & Heisenberg, who clash on the ethics of using quantum mechanics to build bombs. They argue physics, philosophy, politics and it's riveting but the debate is not the point of the play. The relationship is. Same with ITB. The bond between the men & how it changes is what makes theatre. Mills and Talbott weren't altered by the journey and neither was I.

Focused and skillfully presented.
Rating 4 stars
Disclosure: I am their aunt. But! These two performances made me almost forget. I couldn't, quite, as I kept thinking what if Jay played Mills and Joe played Parsons, but other than that, I was completely focused on this 1960's world throughout the performance.The stage is small and these guys fill it up. Your eyes don't wander as it's a simple set with only a blackboard as an alternate focal point. You stay present and hear the arguments. I thought the dialogue moved seamlessly from actor to actor. I could relate to both POV's. Refreshing to learn history and theory in this way ... like a great dinner conversation with animated and intense friends. Skillfully written and very clear. Who knew sociology could be so fun to learn? Not me!

Unexpectedly Delightful
by Laura Bidgood
Rating 5 stars
I went into this show already having seen a full day of shows and was not looking forward to having to sit through an hour long show of two sociologists discussing and defending their theories. It sounded like it was going to be too intellectual for a Saturday afternoon and I was just tired.

However, the commitment, execution and focus of both Jay and Joe sold me on this show. They had their characters down so solidly and were so in the moment that I enjoyed this show and even learned some things about sociology that I didn't even realize I wanted to learn.

The script by itself was also excellently written. All around terrific performance. Not to be missed!

This is why I go to Fringe
by Jeb Hagan
Rating 5 stars
Excellent, intimate little show--a dialogue between opposing schools of thought--well acted, thoughtfully directed, and written with plenty of food for thought for our own political/economic/social circumstances today!

by Paula Nancarrow
Rating 5 stars
Ivory Tower Burning is one of a collection of acadramas at the Fringe this year. I took one course in sociology as an undergraduate, and what I primarily remember is that my instructor wore a bow tie – just like C. Wright Mills – had a Charlie Chaplin mustache, and favored banana-colored pants. If he had been as interesting as Jay Gabler playing Talcott Parsons I would have at least remembered the AGIL paradigm. I would have liked to have seen some recognition (perhaps through Mills) of the irony Parsons embodies at the end – insisting he is a scientist looking only at data, then exploding with passion as he claims his system is the Bible and he is God. A well written play I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of ideas.

Go see it!
by John Hierlinger
Rating 5 stars
What a great performance by the Gabler brothers. As I sat down to see Ivory Tower Burning last night, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was impressed.
Both Joe and Jay did a fantastic job with their performances, bringing to life the two sociologists they are portraying.
The script that writer, Jay Gabler, wrote is not only entertaining but also very informative. So be readynot only will you be enjoying what you are watching, but intellectually stimulated as well.
This is a must see!
Oh when you show up, get there early so you can have a seat up front. The ac unit that is running can cause it hard to hear the dialogue that is taking place.

by Eric Salo
Rating 2 stars
"Two sociologists having a conversation" isn't exactly a high-energy idea but the conversation actually turns out to be somewhat interesting. Only somewhat, however. I didn't buy into the whole "My Theory vs Your Theory" framework; I was perfectly comfortable with the notion that both men had valid observations which were not necessarily contradictory. Which kinda took the edge off for me.

And dramatically this was something of a one-note show: Two men butting heads, constantly, for 50 minutes. I wanted a bit more variety in what I was seeing, even in a show about a single conversation. Some humor. Some irony. Some doubt. Some insignificant point raised earlier which comes back later in a big and surprising way. Something.

Thoughtful, fun and academic commentary
by Bill Huntzicker
Rating 5 stars
Fascinating acting. Brothers who play off each other exceptionally well while teaching us some history and sociology while providing social commentary. Well done from writing to presentation.

Not Dated, Not Boring
by Jesse Field
Rating 5 stars
This show is a dialogue between two sociologists who were active in the 1950s. That sounds boring. But it isn't -- the two have a conversation about whether inequality is something academics should fight against. Professor Mills says we need to recognize that there is a power elite with more control than the rest of us. Professor Parsons thinks society is basically equal already, and in any case progress will come through science if we just trust it. Since economic injustice is the central issue of our time, this historical look at an academic debate connects up with the kind of conversations I have all the time. Highly, highly recommended.

Sociology nerd's dream
by Publius McGee
Rating 5 stars
Extremely evenhanded script and treatment of a hot area of sociology's history. Jay Gabler is nothing if not a deliberate writer, and is masterfully successful at the delicate science of allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Joe was a little stiff in delivery (his "feed the birds" right hand became distracting after two minutes), but otherwise this performance was top notch.

Must See
by Rachel Bode
Rating 5 stars
Awesome. Wonderful. Leaves an impact that relates to current events. Go see this entertaining drama, you won't regret it.

Fringe Surprise!
by Marie Clifford
Rating 5 stars
Stumbled across this play at Bryant Lake Bowl, already a favorite location for me to catch shows. Beyond surprised at the thought provoking content of the 1960's contrasting sociological viewpoints, the slow still has much relevance in todays society. Ivory Tower Burning would be great for baby boomers and their children alike to check out. Whether intentional or not, the show also had quite a few great laughs. The two brothers staring in the show made for a passionate.... and attractive, argument. Must see!

Smart, well done
by Leslie Gibson
Rating 4 stars
Smartly written, well-executed performance about a real-life rivalry. It was a little hard to hear Joe due to the hum of the AC unit above our seats. If you're going, try for a seat closer to the front of the house. Well done, gentlemen!

If ya love the The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
by Cato Brutus
Rating 5 stars
I loved this show. It was smart, engaging, and it gave an even-handed view of the state of the field of Sociology in the early Sixties. The arguments for the needs of science and intellectual detachment vs. the need for social justice and humanism were persuasive enough for each side that two of us of opposing political viewpoints both felt that "our" side won.

However, this show clearly wasn't for everyone. Several audience members couldn't hold back their vocal disdain for someone expressing political theory without the aid of a drum circle. Their loss.

Opening night
by Judy Bode
Rating 4 stars
Really enjoyed this thought provoking yet lighthearted opening night performance by these two brothers as sociologists with conflicting views. It was educational as well as entertaining!


Saturday, 8/45:30 p.m.
Monday, 8/610:00 p.m.
Tuesday, 8/77:00 p.m.
Wednesday, 8/88:30 p.m.
Saturday, 8/117:00 p.m.