Christopher Durang

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Christopher Ferdinand Durang was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on January 2, 1949. A humorous autobiographical sketch is given in the introduction to his plays in Christopher Durang Explains It All for You, beginning with his conception and ending with the reviews of Beyond Therapy. His parents, Francis Ferdinand and Patricia Elizabeth Durang, were devout Catholics who fought constantly until they were divorced, when Durang was still in grade school. Durang’s interest in theater and playwriting became evident early in life. He wrote his first play while in the second grade in a Catholic elementary school. He subsequently attended a Catholic preparatory high school run by Benedictine priests. He continued to write plays, and though a fairly conservative and conventional student, he often inserted hints of sex for their shock effect. In high school, Durang was overcome with religious zeal and the desire to enter a monastery after graduation, but soon afterward he lost his faith and his interest in the Roman Catholic religion.

He attended Harvard University with the hope and expectation of discovering a more intellectual and less conservative dimension of Catholicism but was disappointed. In his second year at Harvard, he entered psychoanalysis with a priest. He became obsessed with motion pictures and neglected his academic studies. Although he had been a prodigious writer in high school, he wrote almost nothing in college until his senior year, when he wrote (as a form of therapy for his feeling of religious guilt) a musical-comedy version of the life of Christ called The Greatest Musical Ever Sung, which included such irreverent show-tune lampoons as “The Dove That Done Me Wrong” and “Everything’s Coming up Moses.” The play stirred up a local religious controversy but was well received by audiences, encouraging the young playwright to write more. His next effort, the ambitiously titled The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, was eventually produced in New York and, following Durang’s graduation from Harvard in 1971, was submitted as part of his application to the Yale School of Drama.

At Yale, Durang met and worked with a number of actors and playwrights who were, along with him, to make their marks in the American theater. Among his classmates were Albert Innaurato (with whom Durang collaborated on several plays), Meryl Streep (who appeared in a Durang play in college), Wendy Wasserstein (with whom Durang wrote When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth), and Sigourney Weaver (who appeared in several Durang plays in New York and with whom he wrote Das Lusitania Songspiel). His chief supporter at Yale and later in New York was Robert Brustein, who was dean of the drama school while Durang was enrolled there and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. Durang received his M.F.A. in 1974 but remained in New Haven for an extra year, performing and writing at Yale, teaching drama at the Southern Connecticut College in New Haven, and working as a typist at the medical school.

Durang moved to New York in 1975. Titanic, which he wrote for a class at Yale, and The Nature and Purpose of the Universe were produced in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1976, his musical play A History of the American Film was produced in Waterford, Connecticut, as part of the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and in 1977 it was produced simultaneously on both coasts at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, California, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. In 1978, the play opened on Broadway at the American National Theatre. The play’s subsequent failure on Broadway...

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precipitated a period of depression that climaxed with the death of Durang’s mother in March, 1979. Watching his mother die of incurable bone cancer and reassessing his Catholic upbringing, Durang started writing the play on which his reputation as a playwright would be secured,Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. The play was first produced in December, 1979, by Curt Dempster’s Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, along with one-act plays by David Mamet, Marsha Norman, and Tennessee Williams. Two years later, Andre Bishop’s Playwrights Horizons produced the play Off-Broadway with two members of the original cast of six, along with Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, which he wrote as a curtain raiser. In 2000, the play was adapted for cable television under the title Sister Mary Explains It All, with Diane Keaton in the title role.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You brought Durang to the public’s attention, not only through the show’s popularity but also through several battles against censorship when various Catholic organizations attempted to close down the play. The Phoenix Theatre commissioned Durang to write Beyond Therapy, which opened in 1981 and then, almost a year and a half later, was rewritten and produced on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Later, Durang revised and expanded two plays he originally wrote at Yale, Baby with the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which also were produced in New York. A 1987 film version of Beyond Therapy directed by Robert Altman was a box-office failure, and Durang expressed his unhappiness with the experience. Nevertheless, he subsequently expressed his disenchantment with the New York theater scene and his intention to pursue work in film, which, he stated, offers more permanence and reaches a larger audience than live drama.