Coming of age in a small town in New Jersey and going to Catholic school were major influences on Christopher Ferdinand Durang, a playwright who has been called one of the most promising of his generation. The marriage between Durang’s father, an architect, and his mother, a secretary and homemaker, was troubled and eventually led to divorce. Durang wrote his first play when he was in the second grade at a school in Morristown, New Jersey, run by Benedictine priests. The play was only two pages long, but it was followed by others. By the time Durang was in eighth grade, one of his plays was produced at the school.
After matriculating at Harvard University, Durang expected to start writing seriously, but he found himself to be intimidated by his surroundings and spent most of his time skipping classes and going to the cinema. Then in his senior year, inspired by a flier about the personnel strikes at the university, he wrote The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, a vicious satire on the schism between the demands and expectations of the Catholic Church and the realities of middle-class life in the United States. The play is also humorous and helped secure Durang’s acceptance at the Yale School of Drama.
Durang thrived at Yale. He wrote prolifically and acted in many student productions. From his time at Yale came several of the works that were to be produced on and off Broadway in the following years. The short plays ’dentity Crisis, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, The Idiots Karamazov, Titanic, and Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes were written while Durang attended Yale. Most of them are stylistic experiments. The Idiots Karamazov, written with Albert Innaurato, is emblematic of the weaknesses of these early works; a slightly sophomoric hodgepodge of literary quotes, it comes across as a very long literary joke.
The surprising thing about these early plays is their great craftsmanship. The dialogue is an unstoppable gush of bubbly jokes, and the characters are clearly delineated, though sometimes to the point of being one-dimensional caricatures. Durang’s characters in the early works embody ideas, theories, and social stereotypes rather than being real men and women. The plays make use of the Brechtian device of Verfremdung (estrangement); they discourage the audience from seeing the characters and their actions as individual and personal. Instead, the characters become vehicles for the author’s vision of an absurd world where values and actions are disconnected.
A History of the American Film received its debut on Broadway. The critics by and large liked the play, but the show never developed a popular...
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