Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Scenes from American Life is a play about wealthy and tradition-bound WASP society in Buffalo, New York, and how this society responds to changes in the country over a period of about fifty years. Ultimately, it is about the decline and fall of elitist American society as the nation changes and becomes more egalitarian, WASP children grow up and take Roman Catholic spouses, and Jews join the country club.

Although the inhabitants of A. R. Gurney’s Buffalo have their obvious flaws, the playwright’s portrait of them is nostalgic and affectionate. In the poignantly comic scene in which the daughter is asked to choose between college and a coming-out party, Gurney’s sympathy clearly lies with the daughter, but he does not make the mother out to be a villain. The daughter struggles to explain why she would like to go to college, but, like many young people, her reasons are not clear even to her. In the end, she is not strongly independent enough to overcome her family’s wishes. The mother is only trying to provide the best for her daughter; she sincerely does not understand why a young woman would want to go to college. She may be foolish, but she is not evil.

In fact, the inhabitants of Gurney’s Buffalo do attempt, in the face of a changing world, to come to grips with serious issues, to help make things better for those less fortunate. However, they are so out of touch, Gurney shows, that their attempts to show concern reveal...

(The entire section is 551 words.)