Christopher Durang Durang, Christopher (Ferdinand) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christopher (Ferdinand) Durang 1949–

American dramatist and lyricist.

Christopher Durang's plays satirize—sometimes with affection, sometimes with derision—the clichés and absurdities of daily life within the contexts of such disparate subjects as great literature in The Idiots Karamazov (1974); psychiatry in Beyond Therapy (1981); "serious" drama in The Vietnamization of New Jersey (1977); and Catholicism in the 1981 Obie award-winning Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979). His only Broadway production, A History of the American Film (1979), uses two hundred movie moments to burlesque sixty years of filmmaking. Durang's treatments are also diverse, ranging in tone from musical spoof or tongue-in-cheek farce to bitter ridicule. In one play his voice is that of the disillusioned Catholic, demanding, "If God is all-powerful, why does He allow evil?" and in another his persona is a dancing vegetable in a Busby Berkeley musical, singing "We're in a Salad."

Critics generally agree that Durang's principal stylistic weaknesses are his unsatisfactory endings and his preference for accentuating the joke rather than the issue, thus lessening the impact of his message. His alterations of classics into travesties have resulted in critical reception which has covered the spectrum from "witty and scholarly" to "lightweight and smartalecky." Durang concedes that among both critics and theater patrons are some who will be offended by his irreverence; yet, he intends not to affront but to continue to interpret "the nature and purpose of the universe."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 105.)

Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Idiots Karamazov"] is, more or less, a musical comedy based on "The Brothers Karamazov," which is enough to make Dostoyevsky turn over in his grave. Actually there is nothing grave about this antic undertaking. A travesty by Christopher Durang and Albert F. Innaurato,… it is as precocious as it sounds—but it also has moments of comic inspiration….

The script is riddled with literary allusions and intellectual jokes. This is a lampoon not only of Dostoyevsky, but also of all Western literature.

The star role is the translator, Constance Garnett…. [She] is a daft old witch (the play is daft, too) in a wheelchair, attended by a butler named Ernest, who eventually blows his brains out. Absent mindedly, Miss Garnett leads us through the Karamazov saga, offering absurd footnotes and marginalia (such as the conjugation of the verb Karamazov).

The brothers' mother is named Mary Tyrone Karamazov. She wanders in from another play, shooting dope and confusing the saintly Alyosha with the sickly Edmund Tyrone….

The brothers are more Marx than Karamazov, four pratfalling mad Russians….

Textually the play occasionally smarts from its own archness, but musically it is right on its satiric target. If the authors are really as clever as they seem to be, they … will add songs and make it even more of a musical.

Dostoyevsky's Karamazov brothers enter like...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The brief appearance last week of "Titanic" and "Das Lusitania Songspiel" was my first exposure to the comedy of young Christopher Durang…. From the evidence presented, Mr. Durang is a spirited, original fellow …, who brings back to the theatre a welcome impudence and irreverence. "Das Lusitania Songspiel," which started the evening, and which was actually cabaret, was described in the program as "The Theatre Songs of Bertolt Breck," but Breck/Brecht really had very little to do with anything onstage, except for some offhand references to him and some fake attributions ("Swiss Family Trapp, from 'Mother Courage'"); in fact, one of the funniest routines was a tableau from "Barry Lyndon." (pp. 103-04)

"Titanic" was a merry and (innocently) obscene farce, with on-and-off good jokes and not a trace of boring camp, yet I ran out of laughter long before the actors ran out of steam. Few sexual perversions were neglected in a plot of blinding complexity, and there were many false alarms about icebergs. (p. 104)

Edith Oliver, "Young Blue," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 14, May 24, 1976, pp. 103-05.

Antonio Chemasi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christopher Durang is a young playwright out of Harvard and Yale who took the wrong turn at some point and wound up in comedy. While his contemporaries were grimly exploring the Vietnam experience or urban bleakness or poking through the ashes of burned-out lives, Durang was busy collaborating on a send-up of Dostoevski called The Idiots Karamazov. He was also turning out deliciously titled comedies like When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, and The Vietnamization of New Jersey.

His latest is A History of the American Film, an elaborate spoof of more than a half-century of everything worth spoofing on the screen. The play … sprang Durang to national attention. But while the critics were generally delighted, there was a good deal of uncertainty about exactly what Durang's intentions were. Is the play an affectionate tribute to cinema or a bitter satire of popular culture?…

The uncertainty has something to do with the comedy's own flaws, but it has much more to do, I suspect, with the boldness of Durang's enterprise. He has done nothing less than to reclaim the movies as a topic for the theater. I don't mean the movies as a business or as a fabricator of glamorous lives or even as a source of theatrical plots. I mean the movies as an art and as an experience: For that the theater has hardly stirred at all….

Whatever the reason for the traditional coolness, A History of the American Film may change all that—if for no other reason, ironically, than that it demonstrates that movies work on stage. (p. 66)

The result is a very funny and oddly moving play that is indeed a history—of sorts. It opens with a D. W. Griffith mother rocking a cradle and ends with a Sensurround earthquake rocking a stage audience off their seats. In between are a pell-mell series of parodies, in chronological order, of movie scenes, stars, genres, styles, dialogue, and even lighting…. Appropriately, the scenes are linked by blackouts and are held together by a nutty plot that follows the fortunes of several characters—the great...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Vietnamization of New Jersey] is a satire of such ferocity that it runs roughshod not only through the conventions of [David Rabe's] Sticks and Bones, but through some of our most cherished liberal illusions.

Durang is a lineal descendant of Lenny Bruce, which is to say he is always trespassing on forbidden ground, skirting perilously close to nihilism. Still, Durang's nihilism is earned; like Bruce, he obviously suffers for it. The satire in The Vietnamization of New Jersey has been called collegiate, but it is rarely facile, and it is never self-righteous. Durang's comedy, at its best, has deep roots in a controlled anger, which can only be expressed and purged through a comedy of the absurd.

The Vietnamization of New Jersey is set in a suburban American living room, piled high to the ceiling with the detritus of our consumer culture: two hair dryers, three TV sets, an outsize rotogrill, sculptured ducks in flight over the fireplace. Seated at the breakfast table are Rabe's benighted family, now renamed Ozzie Ann, Harry, and Et, their teenage delinquent son. Et is pouring cornflakes down his trousers and eating his breakfast out of his crotch. Hazel, the black maid, clears the table by ripping off the cloth, dropping coffee, toast, and cereal into the laps of her employers who she proceeds to indict as malignant symbols of white America.

Into this disaster area comes David, home from the war, with his Vietnamese wife, Liat. Both are blind, which David demonstrates by walking into the refrigerator. Et moralizes: "The fact that...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A History of the American Film is a great foolery…. It might also be described as a crazy quilt stitched together by a loose thread of a "story" and a shred of an idea….

The vocabulary of American film, from the early days to more recent ones, is employed with especial reference to various news features or, if you will, historical events of the past sixty years or more. What we see is supposed to be a film (and people watching several different films), but the convention is not strictly adhered to. Everything goes: it is all slapdash improvisation, naively sophisticated, collegiate, smart-ass. One can think of it as vaudevillesque surrealism or self-congratulatory nonsense. If there is...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The idea of A History of the American Film must have seemed enchanting to its young author, Christopher Durang. It takes a few basic characters right through the typical genre movies—and others—from Intolerance to Earthquake. There is Loretta, the sweet girl from the orphanage, whom every kind of evil befalls without making her shed her innocence. She is part Loretta Young, part Sade's Justine, and wholly in love with Jimmy, who goes from Jimmy Cagney to Bogart, from Jimmy Dean to Brando, always slapping Loretta around, ditching her, or making her equally unhappy by not ditching her. There is also Bette, who is Bette Davis and other tough and mean females, whose chief purpose is not so much to...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christopher Durang has the wit, the high, rebellious spirits, and the rage of the born satirist. He is also one of the funniest and most original playwrights at work. His "Beyond Therapy" … could be considered his "Alice in Wonderland,"… in a world run by psychiatrists and thick with their foibles and jargon. The play opens in a restaurant in [New York City]; a young man is seated alone at a table. Enter [the heroine] …, also alone; she has come in response to a personal ad that he has placed in a newspaper. "Are you White Male?" she begins. Her name is Prudence, his Bruce. They meet tentatively. Her arms get stuck as she tries to remove her knitted coat with appropriate sophistication (a funny piece of hokum...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anyone can write an angry play—all it takes is an active spleen. But only a writer of real talent can write an angry play that remains funny and controlled even in its most savage moments. "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" confirms that Christopher Durang is just such a writer. In this one-act comedy he goes after the Catholic Church with a vengeance that might well have shocked the likes of either Paul Krassner or Lenny Bruce, and yet he never lets his bitter emotions run away with his keen theatrical sense….

["Sister Mary Ignatius"] is both the most consistently clever and deeply felt work yet by the author of "A History of the American Film" and "Beyond Therapy."… [It] has the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You brings us close] to the truth, not through histrionic posturing, but through savage blistering satire. Durang is the American equivalent of an angry young man, his anger directed less toward social and political targets than toward the nightmares of his own personal history. These include the media, the middle-class family, and most of all, the Catholic Church, whose parochial school system Durang sees as an institutional conspiracy to suppress spontaneity and disseminate lies.

The play takes the form of an illustrated lecture by an aggressively rigid nun…. She is instructing a group of children—that is to say, the audience—about the...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Robert E. Lauder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the opening moments of "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You"] Sister Ignatius can seem to be a piece of humorous nostalgia recalling experiences in a Catholic grammar school and poking fun at some of the sisters who taught in those schools. A type of good natured humor highlighting eccentricities of some grammar school nuns when engaged in by Catholic adults, including priests and nuns, can co-exist with an attitude of both affection and gratitude and in a certain context even be a sign of faith.

Not so Durang's play. Until he frees himself from what he perceives as Catholicism his anger may strangle his creativity. In spite of all the attempts at humor in "Sister Ignatius," Durang's...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the curtain raiser to [Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You], The Actor's Nightmare—a standard Durang parody pastiche which, against my better judgment, I often found funny—the baffled protagonist talks about having been an altar boy and about all the people he knows who went to Catholic school; he adds, almost as an afterthought, "I don't know any Catholic adults." Sister Mary Ignatius explains why. I can imagine a devastating comedy about the worst aspects of Catholic education, c. 1950, but Durang is more cartoonist than comedian. His Sister Mary Ignatius … is pure caricature, and often very funny in the early sections of the play when she answers, edits, or ignores questions that...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It distresses me to have to report that Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy, which was (in part) so funny off Broadway last season, comes off so leaden this year on Broadway. The explanation is not easily come by. Some of Durang's jokes were not funny then, but they were pleasantly overshadowed, or overlighted, by the ones that worked radiantly. Now, however, this play about a pair of unlikely lovers brought together by ads in the personal columns and kept apart by both their own and their therapists' hang-ups thuds with clinker after clinker: Even the lines that were riotously funny elicit only a wry smile or frozen silence.

Perhaps there is a kind of joke that does not bear repetition…....

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has been the ambitious dream of many an author throughout history to begin a piece of writing with a sentence—"Call me Ishmael," "For a long time I used to go to bed early"—so irresistible that his readers couldn't fail to proceed to the next sentence and then to the next and the next, pitching headlong as far into the piece as the author's literary ingenuity was able to entice them. This dream came true last week for Christopher Durang, at the opening of his delightful little farce "Beyond Therapy" …: the audience laughed at the very first line of the play, then at the second, and then at the third; I can bear witness to the fact that I wasn't alone in continuing to laugh with something like the regularity...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Gerald Weales

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Durang works at the level of acid cartoon, although he might not describe his method in those terms. "My sense of comedy comes from seeing a lot of things, things that are not just bad but very bad that, if presented boldfacedly on a stage, turn out to be funny."… [In Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, the] vividness of Sister Mary Ignatius as a likably malevolent lunatic depends as much on performance as it does on Durang's writing. In the opening part of the play, Sister Mary Ignatius answers questions, presumably submitted by the audience, in an often very funny session which makes the point that her assurance is a kind of ignorance by imprimatur. When her accusers turn up to illustrate the...

(The entire section is 629 words.)