A. R. Gurney, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

A. R. Gurney, Jr., crafts his plays about the people he knows—WASPs. The setting of most of his plays is New England suburbia. The stage is never crowded with actors or furniture; rather, Gurney’s sets suggest moods and situations. Often the audience become participants, and offstage actions, sounds, and characters are central to the play. Though writing with classical constraint, he is innovative in staging. In several plays, multiple scenes go on simultaneously. Music is also an integral part of many of his plays; Gurney deftly employs songs for atmosphere and tone. His plays are notable for their structure and polish; not a word is wasted.

Three People

Gurney’s first published play, Three People, written while he was in the Yale School of Drama, deals with his major theme: freedom. Two of the three characters—a university professor and his wife—are sympathetically presented in their struggle to accept the fact that their child is mentally deficient. They struggle magnificently with their broken dreams. The tragedy of this tightly knit one-act, one-scene play is that the third character, the baby, gets very little consideration as a person. Gurney manages the pathos of the situation without being morbid or sentimental. The baby is never onstage. He is talked about and tended to, but he is never seen. Much dialogue is exchanged from the offstage nursery as the wife talks to her husband from the nursery. The characters are honestly and sympathetically drawn, each encased in a tragic plight from which there is no release.

The Bridal Dinner

Gurney’s first three-act play, The Bridal Dinner, is typical of his classical restraint of setting and time. All action takes place in one room in which a bridal dinner is held during an evening and a morning in June. The characters are also typical of Gurney: high livers in high society, concerned with money and status, acting out their lives of boredom. Gurney masterfully presents a play-within-a-play wherein the bride and groom look into themselves and their future. WASPish standards are humorously, satirically, and delightfully paraded before the bridal party and the audience. The play is full of telling vignettes and repartee as the young couple feel alone, isolated, apart—all the links broken. They recognize the empty ritual of the bridal dinner for what it is and discard symbolic relics of the past. The problem, ever-present in Gurney plays, is what to do next. Are they strong enough to cast off the old armor and face up to a new and challenging future? Where can they go from here? They feel wobbly, so they decide to dance. This parody of marriage in a “rotten world” has enough reality to make the caricature believable. As the characters themselves admit, it smacks of Thornton Wilder, Luigi Pirandello, and “the worst from Broadway”; still, it is delightful and thought-provoking. As in most of Gurney’s plays, literary references abound, and clichés and old saws are subversively employed. Finally, reflecting Gurney’s patriotic theme in the 1960’s, the marriage assumes global scope with a vision of world peace through the marriage of nations in love. Gurney’s wit saves the play from melodrama by posing the question, “But can she cook?”

The David Show

Gurney continued in this seriocomic vein in The David Show, in which he sets the biblical story of the coronation of King David in a modern television studio. This one-set, one-scene, five-character parody is good fantasy. The characters are catchy, if a bit overdrawn. David is portrayed as a Madison Avenue type who uses people for his benefit; Bathsheba, with her cliché-studded dialogue, is a combination of charm and clowning. She comes across as a true philistine, while Jonathan is a playboy seeking only “the good life.” Gurney’s characterization is vivid and entertaining, and the dialogue sparkles. Clichés are cleverly sprinkled throughout, and there is much witty wordplay. Undergirding the spoof is Gurney’s usual seriousness. Problems of war, the good life, moral fiber, and ethnic groups are aired, until in contrast with the surface hilarity, David is forced to face up to the reality that Goliath is David himself: his own rotten soul looming larger than life. Though not always successful onstage, this satire laced with wit and underlying seriousness is good reading.

Scenes from American Life

Scenes from American Life, as the title indicates, is a montage depicting the upper-middle-class society that Gurney knows so well. Like most of his plays, this one lends itself to easy production. The set is attractive, simple, and functional, with the action flowing around a burnished baby-grand piano. To achieve this feeling of flow, no curtain is used and few blackouts; one scene blends naturally into the next, with the actors setting up the stage and carrying on and off their props and costumes. Music plays an integral part in this drama, establishing the time and tone of each scene. Props, accessories, and costumes also help anchor the date of a particular scene.

The play is set in Buffalo; the time fluctuates from the early 1930’s of the opening scene to the mid-1980’s. One character, Snoozer, serves to unify the diverse vignettes. From the opening scene of his christening to the final scene, when, inebriated, he participates in the burning of a canoe, the play depicts the passing of an old order of Americanism. Four male actors and four female actors are all that are required for producing these vignettes. These eight characters may act various roles in the various scenes, with the stipulation that the same actor and actress play the father and mother in the first and last scenes. In the intermittent scenes, sons play fathers and mothers play daughters so as to keep the play from appearing to be about only one or two families. A sense of virtuosity prevails. Here is a kaleidoscope of scenes from the United States.

Here again, Gurney satirizes upper-middle-class society. The characters are self-centered, modish, pampered, misguided, opinionated, and bored. They speak in clichés and find their world disappearing. Like an unmoored boat, they float along. At times the satire is more biting than in Gurney’s earlier plays, but the message is clear and the entertainment delightful.

The language, typical of these characters, helps reveal their plight. A toast to the Father, the Son, and the best gin ever smuggled across Niagara River is followed by chatter about a pusher and manners at meals. The characters’ names underscore the satire. Snoozer earns his name by sleeping through everything; Grace, Snoozer’s godmother, to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” boozily proposes a one-word toast to Snoozer, “responsibility.” From the Depression days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to an apocalyptic vision of a fascist America in the 1980’s (a decade in the future when the play was produced), Gurney depicts a vapid society that lacks any moral foundation.

In one of the drama’s strongest scenes, a father takes his son, who is in trouble for draft evasion, out for a day’s...

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