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.
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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Gurney, A(lbert) R(amsdell), Jr.
A(lbert) R(amsdell) Gurney, Jr. 1930–
(Has also written under pseudonym of Pete Gurney) American dramatist, novelist, and scriptwriter.
Gurney's dramas depict the lives of America's upper-middle class and are often compared with the stories of John Cheever. Born into an affluent family in Buffalo, New York, Gurney writes satirically of his background, simultaneously defending and exposing the WASP culture. He wrote his first one-act play, Love in Buffalo (1958), while attending the Yale School of Drama and continued to compose one-act dramas throughout the 1960s. Gurney's first full-length play, Scenes from American Life (1970), consists of a series of episodes tracing Buffalo's social elite from the 1930s to the near future. Gurney achieved his first solid commercial success with The Dining Room (1981). Inspired by Thorton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, Gurney's play examines upper-middle class life through a number of vignettes set within a dining room. Explaining the source of his subject matter, Gurney reveals, "I'm looking back over my shoulder with some fondness and bemusement—and sometimes amazement—at the strange ways I lived."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
I don't know whether A. R. Gurney, Jr.'s "Scenes From American Life" can really be called a theatre piece…. But whatever it is called it is mostly a lovely entertainment, gently satirical and nostalgic…. [It] is a cozy, perceptive view of America, past and present, that in its own way untangles the leaves, flowers, underbrush and weeds of our culture to show the roots of this country.
In more than a dozen quick scenes, Mr. Gurney draws line sketches of Buffalo life over the past forty years:… antisemitism at the country club; shopping trips to New York; choosing between a coming out party and a college education; an encounter group; tennis sociology; well-meaning ladies fighting the elm blight; church sermons.
Some of these scenes are shorter than others, some more like cartoons than others. The characters often run through many of them though there is no real continuity. The time settings are interwoven so that a Second World War scene may be followed by a Depression sequence and then a reference to McCarthyism.
There are also looks into the future and these are the weakest. In an effort to be relevant as well as nostalgic, Gurney describes a future of military dictatorship and it is inconsistent with the tone and writing level of everything else, not to mention being trite and irrelevent to his "play's" personality. Satire, after all, is based on fact while future projection is fiction, and Gurney is much weaker as a creative writer than he is as a humorously critical one.
His dire predictions detract from the production but they don't spoil it….
Martin Gottfried, in a review of "Scenes from American Life," in Women's Wear Daily, March 26, 1971, Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXII, No. 13, June 13, 1971, p. 271.
["Scenes from American Life"] is both satire and valedictory. It is a cluster of scenes—some of them as brief as sketches—about the lives of the well-connected and the well-to-do in Buffalo between the early thirties and what is probably the middle eighties, by which time the country has been taken over by the military and we have become a Fascist state. It must be said at once that the author's underlying pessimism and apocalyptic outlook in no way dim his wit and his sense of fun; along with the comedy there is sadness, and even tragedy, shown or implied, in "Scenes from American Life," but the play is never bleak, and heaven knows it is never dull. (pp. 95-6)
[Mr. Gurney] is himself from Buffalo, and he seems almost to have chosen his scenes at random while rooting through his memories rather than to have made them up, and then to have arranged them according to some private scheme of his own. The form of the play is elusive, to say the least. As we shuttle back and forth in time, there are comic scenes and pathetic ones and harsh ones. (p. 96)
Edith Oliver, in a review of "Scenes from American Life," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVII, No. 7, April 3, 1971, pp. 95-6.
Until I went to see Children … I had no idea how conditioned I had become to modern play-writing. During the first couple of scenes four characters appeared: a Mother, her daughter, her son and the son's wife. Their relationships were made quite clear and they conversed about a straightforward situation … in a realistic setting…. Then the Mother suddenly made a remark about erosion: in time, she said, the garden and then the house would slide into the sea.
'Aha!' I thought to myself. 'I've got it! These are not real people at all, nor is that a real house. This is a Symbolic Play, and the people and the house represent the Condition of Presentday America.' But the play continued, the characters went on behaving like real people, and the subject of erosion was not brought up again. Shortly the conversation turned towards Sex…. 'Aha!' I thought again…. But no. The play continued, the situation developed, and, although there was a little cuddling between the brother and his wife (his wife?), hardly a button was unfastened.
'Well,' I thought, 'there's only one course open now…. [Someone] is suddenly going to stop in mid-speech and say, "I'm sorry. I simply can't go on with this. It's a load of crap," whereupon the stage manager will come on and remonstrate. And then the whole thing is going to turn into a discussion about Watergate, or Northern Ireland, or Racialism, or Property Speculation...
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You might take ["The Gospel According to Joe"] for yet another vulgarization of the Christ story. Well, you would be wrong. Yes, A. R. Gurney Jr. superimposes the story of Jesus on post-modern times. Joseph (a quondam salesman of storm windows) and Mary (a worker in a day care center) are sequestered in the barn of "a dude commune" where the infant Jesus is born. And thenceforth the little book consists of one calculated anachronism after another, sometimes with metaphorical confusion…. But Gurney is no more concerned with the Bible per se than George Orwell in "Animal Farm" was concerned with zoology. Gurney's search is for earthly, not spiritual illumination. To this end, he narrates the Gospel, through Joseph, as a commentary on the human family. The effect is warm, wry and as inconclusive as man's future.
Martin Levin, in a review of "The Gospel According to Joe," in The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1974, p. 18.
A. R. Gurney's ["Children"] means to be about the childhood relationships that are never outgrown—those between siblings, those between child and parents. It is an excellent subject but Gurney has explored it only in an illustrative way and even then, he's wandered. This play spends most of its time dealing with another subject—one without the dramatic possibilities of childhood, one more bland: that subject is emotional repression among WASPs….
[The play's] house is meant to be a symbol of upper middle class WASP roots. It is being bequeathed by a widow to her grown children on the occasion of her imminent remarriage. That occasion is coincidental with the 4th of July weekend, though it is no coincidence. For their declarations of independence, or lack of it, are at stake this weekend.
The mother's independence is related to her remarriage; her son's is related to outgrowing jockhood; her divorced daughter's independence will be declared if she can finally live with the man she has long loved, but of whom the family always disapproved.
It is the play's scheme to have all these dreams dashed by the conditioning of family relationships but in the process of introducing social color, Gurney instead blames their unhappiness on a general WASP way of life he feels is emotionally repressive.
I think this is because he is more relaxed writing on subjects than for people. The scenes...
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A young wife turns to her husband and says, "Here I am in your mother's outfit, you're in your father's bathrobe, and we're living in your family's house." In A. R. Gurney Jr.'s ["Children"] …, the family—rich, rule-bound and very WASPish—is a sustaining but also a stunting force.
Though the children now have children, no one has matured, just as values have frozen on this conservative landscape, a grand house on a New England island, where everyone has always spent summers together….
"Children" begins brightly: grown-up children wryly bicker, and their mother futilely tries to maintain her equilibrium. There is a universality in the interwoven anxieties and grievances....
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This thoroughly enjoyable novel [Entertaining Strangers] is a devastatingly funny and highly sophisticated dissection of the academic life. It will be an enlightening revelation to those who naïvely think that pure sweetness and light prevail behind the ivy towers of a University. Despite their scholarly insights and cultural references, professors are shown to be subject to all the human frailties of bad character, excessive ambition, and destructive jealousy. The hilarious description of a typical faculty meeting is itself worth the entire price of the book.
A review of "Entertaining Strangers," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Autumn, 1977), p....
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That stimulating writer A. R. Gurney Jr. has come up with The Dining Room, in which an elegant, old-fashioned (though not genuinely antique) dining room serves as the real and symbolic setting for countless, not directly related lives—or, rather, telltale fragments of them—forming a passing parade of Wasp America—preppie, post-preppie, and anti-preppie—from its heyday to its present, precariously eked-out survival. The dining room is the scene of much more than merely eating—of assorted fun, sadness, contentment, and rebellion—as a modus vivendi goes from viable to friable.
One problem here may be excessive trickiness. In Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, from...
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The central character of Gurney's [The Dining Room] is the setting. It is a well-appointed dining room, old style, one that conjures formal family meals and all that that implies in both negative and positive senses. The room represents not a particular home or family, but a host of such dining rooms peopled by families in varying degrees of stability or disintegration…. In the opening sequence, the father, a stickler for routine, offers his idea of personal and political propriety as substantive truth, but does so against the discordant voice of his very respectful son whose teacher has just told him that there is something called a Depression going on out there. What the play shows is the way "out there"...
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[The Dining Room] dramatizes the domestic crises that usually afflict families during lunch and dinner. The problem is that neither the crises nor the families are particularly interesting; the play seems more an exercise in WASP sociology than an act of theatrical imagination.
To be fair, the playwright is less interested in dramatic confrontations than in depicting, through a technique of kaleidoscopic time warps, the manners and morals of a dying aristocratic class. The play is full of convincing nostalgia for the passing of a decent old world, and tolerant resignation (less convincing) over what is coming to replace it. "Some Irish fellow or Jewish gentleman will be sitting in that...
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Some plays are too small for the theater, for television, for anything except the author's memory, his heart, and a bureau drawer. Such a one is A. R. Gurney Jr.'s What I Did Last Summer …, an amiable, not unintelligent, intermittently amusing, but finally utterly tepid miniature that only those bursting at the seams with goodwill can clasp to their bosoms or bursting seams.
It is a memory play about the author's fourteenth summer at an aestival colony on the Canadian side of Lake Erie near Buffalo, the site of other Gurneyana. Charlie's father is in the Pacific (the time is 1945); his mother, Grace, is harried and lonely and has had a tiny affair…. Charlie, seeking gainful employment,...
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Even though A. R. Gurney, Jr.'s "What I Did Last Summer" is non-vintage Gurney and doesn't take off on its own, there is considerable pleasure in it. The play … is set in a beach resort on Lake Erie during the final summer of the Second World War, and it tells the story (among several stories) of a fourteen-year-old boy named Charlie—the "I" of the title—who escapes the resort, his family, and his summer Latin homework to become the hired boy and eventually the disciple of an elderly art teacher named Anna Trumbull, herself a former summer colonial. (p. 104)
In form, "What I Did" is composed of small, self-contained incidents, as were such vintage Gurney plays as "The Dining Room" and "Scenes...
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Shaw, as he himself put it, wrote "plays pleasant and unpleasant"; Anouilh, in his own words, produced "black plays" and "rosy plays." A. R. Gurney Jr. … should also devise some such hortatory distinction; his black or unpleasant plays are much more interesting than his pleasant or rosy ones (which, by the way, is not true of Shaw or Anouilh). The Middle Ages, which ought to be designated "ever-so-slightly-shocking pink," is subtitled instead "A New Comedy," which is a misnomer….
The play covers a near quarter century in the lives of four persons. The pivot is Barney, the charming ne'er-do-well elder son of Charles Rusher, the urbane president and patriarch of said club, who is being...
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[The action in "The Middle Ages"], like the action of most of Mr. Gurney's plays, is a matter of small scenes, usually funny yet with a bittersweet undercurrent, and it tells the story of the enduring, seemingly hopeless love between a man named Barney and a woman named Eleanor….
The play, of course, reflects many circumstances outside the club, and becomes a kind of indirect social history of these last forty eruptive years. The mood is comic throughout, even when the most sober matters are touched on, and the ending is highly satisfactory….
When I saw it last spring, I knew I liked it as much as Mr. Gurney's "The Dining Room," but I didn't realize until the second time around...
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A. R. Gurney Jr. has a wonderful name for the kind of work he does, an unmistakably American name from its initials to its "Jr." What Gurney does is write the most thoroughly American middlebrow plays of any of our dramatists; if "middlebrow" is too strong a word, I'll call him the poet laureate of middle-consciousness.
I use that term to indicate both that his plays fall in the center of the technical and thematic spectrums of American drama and that they never rise much above a modest level of wit and perceptiveness, or ever fall much below it. Moreover, in a theater increasingly dominated by writers from minority religious and ethnic backgrounds, Gurney speaks for, or to, or with the voice of what...
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Do we really need an updated, edulcorated, and cutesy stage version of The Aspern Papers? A. R. Gurney Jr. evidently thought so, for that is what he gave us with The Golden Age. Tom, a young part-time teacher and would-be writer, infiltrates the Upper East Side brownstone that Mrs. Isabel Hastings Hoyt shares with her mousy granddaughter, Virginia…. As Tom … starts to write a book about the Golden Age—the age of his beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald—he becomes convinced that Mrs. Hoyt was Fitzgerald's mistress and the model for Daisy, and that the (as he sees it) important missing sexual chapter of The Great Gatsby must be, in manuscript form, somewhere in this house….
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In the program accompanying "The Golden Age,"… we learn that the play was "suggested" by Henry James's novella "The Aspern Papers," but "suggest" is perhaps too passive a term for what is to be observed onstage. The greater part of the amusement we gain from the play comes from the author's own evident amusement in working out parallels to—and divagations from—the enchanting original work. Author and audience are like so many agreeable, well-bred guests at a party in some big house in the country; outside, it is rainy and cold, and we have gathered by the library fire to compose a game that will while away a couple of hours between luncheon and teatime. What fun to construct a new toy out of James's old one!...
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