D(onald) L(ee) Coburn Essay - Critical Essays

Coburn, D(onald) L(ee)


Coburn, D(onald) L(ee) 193?–

Coburn, an American dramatist, won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his first play, The Gin Game.

Brendan Gill

["The Gin Game"] itself hints at the author's youth: by a readily understandable paradox, old playwrights tend to write about the remembered splendors of the past (and tend to get them all wrong), while young playwrights tend to write about the imagined horrors of the future (and tend to get them pretty nearly right). Mr. Coburn is telling us about a couple of miserable inmates of an old people's home, whose plight he observes with an astringent clarity and about whom, at the same time, he manages to be very funny….

Mr. Coburn is also lucky in having the limited action of his play—we are present at four increasingly irascible bouts of gin rummy and at nothing else…. The dramatic function of the buffetings exchanged by the couple are, by the way, curiously old-fashioned; they are the Ibsen-like means of peeling off layer after layer of their earlier lives and holding them up to the still unbearable light of truth. The last notes struck in the play are unalleviatedly despairing, and it is one of the most precious mysteries of the theatre that, having heard these notes struck, we should go up the aisle and out onto Broadway with happy hearts. (p. 93)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 17, 1977.

Harold Clurman

The first "straight" play of the Broadway season is The Gin Game….

It is nicely written and sympathetic in feeling. Two elderly people—the play's only characters—meet in a home for the aged. Their chief mode of contact is through the card game of the title. Through this, the author manages to suggest the loneliness of old age, the competition between the sexes or perhaps only the competitiveness of most human exchanges, the difficulty of people, even when they have very much in common, to arrive at a reasonably full accord.

In the hands of a Chekhov or a Schnitzler, the play's scheme might prove an apt means to achieve true poignancy. The exemplary American tonality of the play, with its two altogether ordinary characters whose personal backgrounds are only thinly sketched, leaves it rather slight. There is, especially in the first act, too much reliance on the sheer comedy of the game, more entertaining to those familiar with it than to others. (p. 445)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 29, 1977.

Catharine Hughes

[The Gin Game] takes place in an old-age home where two people who have recently met engage in a series of gin rummy games….

Coburn asks us to believe—and it is a perfectly honorable request—that these two, the one the embodiment of cantankerousness, the other a fairly typical prude who all her life has driven away those she most wished to keep, are lonely and alone not because of the divorce and estrangement suffered in their marriages but because of their temperaments. That, in a sense, they have always been lonely if not always alone, unable to rectify the flaws or characteristics that have made them so.

Perhaps a more experienced dramatist could have made more of what is, after all, an affecting and not uninteresting—if also not especially original—theme. What Coburn has made of it is a bit too predictable, a bit too clichéd and more than a bit too static to sustain an evening. (p. 334)

Catharine Hughes, in America (© America Press, 1977; all rights reserved), November 12, 1977.

Stanley Kauffmann

The gin games [in The Gin Game] are presumably meant as double symbols: first, as a geriatric substitute for courtship-and-sex, in which [the female protagonist] is unwelcomely, even unwillingly, dominant; second, as an x-ray exposure of [the two main] characters, revealing darknesses in both, beneath the cozy old-folks exteriors.

The only really interesting aspect of this play is that there's another play lurking within it. The author, D. L. Coburn, whose first play this is, may be delighted with this production for all I know, but it occurred to me while watching it that the very same text could be legitimately used to less conventional ends. The Gin Game is now being done in (let's call it) the Paddy Chayefsky-Neil Simon vein: "We are ruthless modern truthtellers who scrape a whole fat millimeter below the Norman Rockwell surface, and we prove our bona fides by not giving you the hand-in-hand sunset-trail ending you expected." But this script could, I think, be played so that the ending is not a surprise, but inevitable, so that the intent is not to put a stinger at the end of a bittersweet piece of candy but to strip away some of the sentimental prerogatives of old age. If these two old people exploited their age, as stupid or vicious or spoiled elderly people often do, knowing even with each other—that they were claiming wisdom and respect the way one claims a pension, just because one has reached the right age; if it were the intent to show that age, not patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels, this might have been a moderately scathing play.

But it wouldn't have been a hit. So we get a "realistic" play instead of a real one. (p. 24)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 12, 1977.