Craig Lucas was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1951 and attended Boston University, where he studied with poet Anne Sexton and historian Howard Zinn. He credits Sexton with encouraging him to switch from poetry to plays; she also helped him get into Yale Drama School but then urged him to forgo graduate school for a career in New York. Initially focused on acting and performing in the chorus of musicals, Lucas found another mentor in Stephen Sondheim and began his writing career by fashioning a show composed of discarded Sondheim songs. The revue, entitled Marry Me a Little, was produced with director Norman René, the first of many collaborations between the two. After some success writing for the New York stage, Lucas turned to screenwriting with Longtime Companion (1990), a film about a group of gay friends responding to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and one of the first Hollywood vehicles to acknowledge the disease. A play written about the same time, Prelude to a Kiss, then became a film starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin in 1992. Subsequently Lucas has focused both on dramas with a tragic focus, such as The Dying Gaul, and on works with music, such as his opera libretti with scores by Gerald Busby. His work has been nurtured by several not-for-profit theater groups, including South Coast Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, Circle Repertory, Atlantic Theater Company, and A Contemporary Theatre.
Craig Lucas began his career as a New York-based playwright in the 1980’s. The success of his screenplay for the 1990 film Longtime Companion established him as an important contributor to the dramatic literature of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Although Lucas is identified with the gay theater community of his time, the characteristic themes of his work address broad issues of life’s absurdity and the arbitrary nature of fate. Lucas’s embrace of absurdity is reflected in the story of his origins. He began life in Dickensian style as a foundling, abandoned in the back of a car in Atlanta beside a plaintive note from his mother explaining that she could not care for her child. His adoptive parents raised him outside Philadelphia, where his father worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His mother encouraged Lucas’s love for acting and singing. An early interest in writing poems and plays led him to the study of creative writing at Boston University, with an opportunity to study with poet Anne Sexton, who gently suggested that perhaps playwriting was his métier. He credits Sexton with helping him gain admission to the Yale School of Drama and also with encouraging him to skip graduate school and plunge right into the world of professional theater in New York.
Lucas’s first employment in New York was as a chorus performer in musical theater, and his career as a playwright has often been punctuated by collaboration with musicians. Indeed, his first produced work was a revue based on musicals by the acclaimed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The show, Marry Me a Little, also inaugurated Lucas’s collaboration with Norman René, with whom Lucas worked closely until René’s death from AIDS complications in 1996. Between 1983 and 1988 Lucas wrote three plays addressing the absurdity of existence and the random nature of catastrophic events. All three of these plays (Reckless, Blue Window, and Prelude to a Kiss) became films.
Prelude to a Kiss was the most successful of Lucas’s early dramas, and the film version, starring Meg Ryan, generated an audience for the offbeat, whimsical, and ultimately consoling message of the play. Lucas’s subsequent plays went in another direction, toward a less large-hearted, more bitter view of how accidents affect and control lives. Reviews of The Dying Gaul reflect critics’ dissatisfaction with the bleaker view of suffering the play presents. Lucas chose to respond to these criticisms in an afterword written for the published edition of the play, in which he expresses frustration with the expectation that his work must always sustain the same, upbeat tone. Despite the critics’ reactions, Lucas continued to produce plays with violent or apocalyptic themes, such as Stranger and This Thing of Darkness.
Despite the lukewarm or even angry response to his work among theater critics writing for a popular audience, Lucas’s work continued to be produced both in New York and in other cities with thriving nonprofit theaters, such as A Community Theater in Seattle and the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Lucas developed a reputation as a generous collaborator and nurturer of young talent, for example joining forces with a novice playwright, twenty-three years his junior, for This Thing of Darkness. He also devoted time to developing and directing an Off-Broadway show, Saved or Destroyed (2002), by Harry Kondeleon, who died of AIDS in 1994.
Although Lucas’s work between 1990 and 2000 did not receive the same degree of positive critical attention as the earlier plays, he continued to receive professional accolades, including the Excellence in Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2000) and an Obie Award in 2001 for his direction of Saved or Destroyed. He benefited from being an “insider” in the world of regional, grant-supported theater.
A study of Lucas’s work reveals, among other things, a kind of trajectory of how gay-and AIDS-related themes gradually emerged and then receded in his work, paralleling their centrality in theater generally during the approximate period from 1980 to 2000. Early in his career, Lucas did not treat gay themes directly. He attributed this to both an initial reluctance to make public his homosexuality, particularly to his parents, and a belief that a playwright should not model characters on himself. Nevertheless, his early plays explore questions of identity and alienation relevant to the key issues for the gay community in the 1980’s, particularly the theme of unexpected death or transformation.