Guare, John 1938–
An American playwright and recipient of several important awards, including New York Drama Critics awards for 1971 and 1972, Guare is generally thought to be the most promising playwright to appear in America since Edward Albee. His plays are distinguished by their variety, wit, and strong sense of theater. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
[John Guare] is a naturally comic writer whose indications of high spirits and an original turn of mind are all but muffled by Brechtian tricks and by the plastic pranks, the empty conventions, and the all-round hooey of "America Hurrah." (p. 91)
There are funny ideas and funny scenes scattered through ["Muzeeka"]…. But Mr. Guare keeps insisting on the significance of things that he does nothing to make significant … and his generalizations about America have a weak, second-hand ring to them. (pp. 91-2)
Edith Oliver, "Mr. Lowell and Mr. Haigh," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc,), Vol. XLIV, No. 12, May 11, 1968, pp. 85-6, 91-2.∗
John Guare's most striking talent is for savage farce. There are scenes in Act II of his first full-length play, The House of Blue Leaves …, in which his fancy boils over into a tempest of hilarity. They are the best things in the play; they provoke wild laughter and merit enthusiastic applause. Still, the play remains unfulfilled; the reasons are worth careful attention.
Guare is not simply a prankster. What motivates him is scorn for the fraudulence of our way of life. In The House of Blue Leaves he has been aroused by the obsession with big shots, "personalities," stars, the "in" tribe. That is a way of saying that we no longer see people as human beings; we worship "names." The imbecile, the villainous, the irredeemably mediocre possess glamour (even when we profess to despise them) if they have been sufficiently publicized. No wonder advertisement is the country's prime industry.
The central figure of The House of Blue Leaves, Artie Shaughnessy, a man who tends the animals in a zoo, has wanted all his life to be a pop songwriter. His tunes are atrocious. He is not only ungifted—which is no great matter—he is a fool. He is abject in the fetishism of his fellow citizens. The only people who count for him are those who have "made good."…
Artie really knows nothing about himself or anyone else…. His stupidity is apparently the cause of his wife's insanity, though she too is infected with the craving for the smile of the blessed public heroes…. Artie stands for the half-wits who constitute the bulk of the audience for Hollywood's typical product.
There is a certain grimness in all this but Guare turns it into a roar of clownish mockery. The House of Blue Leaves is crazy fun. But something disturbs it. That "something" may be (this is only conjecture) a personal pain—an autobiographical memory?—which causes Guare to inject elements of cruel sorrow into the proceedings. There is nothing at all mirthful about the madness of Artie's wife nor in the play's final moment when he strangles her.
The play suffers, thus, from a discrepancy of style, but that need not have been fatal. What damages the total effect is that nobody—not the director, the producers, nor apparently the author himself—appears to have been aware of what was required to make the play a workable whole for the stage…. I have just now suggested that Artie's obtuseness may have caused his wife's insanity, but that connection is not made in the writing. As the play stands, she is an unexplained hospital case: a raw wound...
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that cripples the play's comic nature. (p. 285)
While The House of Blue Leaves possesses real and valid content, it cannot, given Guare's gifts, be articulated as realism. (p. 286)
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The House of Blue Leaves'," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CCXII, No. 9, March 1, 1971, pp. 285-86.
In the current crop of overpraised young American playwrights John Guare is one of the few with readily discernible talent. It was discernible even in his disappointing House of Blue Leaves…. His early short plays like Muzeeka had imaginative release and exuberant humor, but nothing of his that I have seen, including his screenplay for the Milos Forman film Taking Off, came close to satisfying.
So it continues with his [Rich and Famous]…. It consists of the fantasies of a young playwright on the night of the first preview of his first produced play, after writing 843 previous scripts. (pp. 28-9)
A great deal of Guare's dialogue is sharp and resourceful. He wrote several songs, music and lyrics, that are pleasant and clever. Some of the set-pieces … are show-stoppers, patently manufactured but nonetheless effective. But I'm left again with the feeling that what Guare needs is a sympathetic collaborator. After he has shot all his fireworks, and he has some, almost every one of his scenes is residually trite and static. The scene with the former sweetheart is full of familiar, grubbily overtugged heartstrings. The scene with the uncomprehending parents is that scene again, this time Irish instead of Jewish. Even the scene with the doppelgänger film star at the end concludes with a flashy gag, with only a strained relevance to the play. The script has no dramatic conclusion or thematic issue. Guare is the writing equivalent of a talented actor who needs a good director and flounders without one. (p. 29)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Off-Broadway Offerings" (copyright © 1976 by Stanley Kauffman; reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. 174, No. 11, March 13, 1976, pp. 28-9.∗
What an odd mixture of inspired comedy, sudden horror, and plain guff is John Guare's "Landscape of the Body"! Whenever his imagination takes over, whenever his astonishing dramatic talent for creating characters and lines and scenes is let loose, he is invaluable; it is only his abstract thoughts, as spoken by the characters in a number of set pieces, that tend to become trying. The play … begins aboard a ferry from Cape Cod to Nantucket. Betty, the heroine, burdened with overflowing shopping bags, walks to the rail, where she is joined by a man in a Groucho Marx false face. When he removes the mask after a few unsuccessful attempts at pickup conversation, she recognizes him as the Greenwich Village detective who has been questioning her for months about the murder of her fourteen-year-old son, Bert, and attempting to trap her into a confession. Her story is then played out in bits and pieces—episodes and songs (delightful ones, also by Mr. Guare) and fantasies and a sprinkling of those tiresome monologues. The brimming action moves back and forth in time—from the ferry to Betty's apartment on Christopher Street, to the police station, and finally back to the ferry….
The application of [the] title line to the proceedings onstage is tenuous at best; a song, "I Used to Believe,"… provides a better clue, for the theme of unpredictability—of the chanciness of everything, especially death—runs through the script. Whether or not that is what the play is about I cannot tell you, but no matter: the imagination—and this is surely true of Mr. Guare's—was not put on earth to illustrate the intellect. The form of the play may be catch as catch can, but it is filled with surprises and theatrical resourcefulness. (p. 144)
Edith Oliver, "Betty and Bert in New York," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 36, October 24, 1977, pp. 144-46.∗
Much as we may enjoy [Guare's] plays from one line to the next, we almost always end by wondering what on earth they are intended to be about. Specifically, what is his latest work, "Bosoms and Neglect," about?… [Both] the ravaged bosom and the two species of neglect remain more like stated topics than developed themes…. Although the author is very good indeed at writing funny one-liners, and from time to time gives us one-liners that are, by calculation, not at all funny, the lines have a tendency to remain attached to him, and not to his characters. They are the exclamations of a mischievously self-delighting artist, and behind them we seem to hear, to our unease, a whispered "What a bright boy am I!"…
In the last few minutes of the play, something true and touching emerges: Why had Henny provided Scooper with such a miserable, unloving childhood? And just then the curtain falls. Horseman, pass by! (p. 83)
Brendan Gill, "Family Troubles," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 13, May 14, 1979, pp. 83-4.∗
In the first scene of Bosoms and Neglect, Henny, the blind, 82-year-old mother of a 40-year-old man who calls himself Scooper, hides behind a curtain and shows her son her cancerous breast which she has been treating with Kotex and St. Jude for the past two years. John Guare would do well to take that scene and burn it, interpolating what little exposition it contains into one of the speeches that follow. For this prologue hovers like the Vulture of Significance over the rest of the play, a false, pretentious, utterly unsatisfying scene that masks a beautiful, painful, and frequently hilarious show. Guare can be like that—brilliant fits after false starts and casual comedy collapsing into too-believable melodrama.
Bosoms and Neglect is an ill-made play. Its first act is a screwball comedy about two analysands, Deirdre and Scooper…. The second act takes place in Henny's hospital room and is about what Guare's plays are always about—the paralytic hate that grows out of family love. (pp. 95-6)
Guare is a fine writer of farces; he has the moralist's outrage at the imperfection of the world and the good satirist's delight in the foibles of his own kind. The comedy in Bosoms is full of pain. Scooper is a quintessential Guare hero: a man who is successful in business but an utter emotional failure…. Scooper and Deirdre revel in neglect; for them, calling a book or author "neglected" implies idolization. But if they love neglected works, they also love to neglect everyone around them, including each other.
As a result, all they can do with each other is attack…. When the two run off together, you expect them to enter "The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year," Guare's playlet about a perfect couple on a perfect day who get perfectly machine-gunned. Only Guare no longer sees the world as his hostile enemy. The enemy consists of the people who love you….
Henny is at once the most appalling and sympathetic character in the play. For she has truly been driven mad by love: in the last scene she lies alone in her hospital room and solves Scooper's great psychological mystery. In a chillingly beautiful curtain speech, Henny explains how she lost her lover to his Quaker mother and how she took a revenge that destroyed her and her son.
In all his plays, Guare has dealt despairingly with the uses to which parents put their children, even when, as here, the "children" are 40 years old. It's clear in this play that Guare believes the only way for Scooper to survive is to break his bond with the past, but at the same time Guare trusts the psychoanalytic explanation: Henny really did influence Scooper for life; nothing he can do at 40 will free him. Both parental and romantic love are perceived as forms of bondage, as the attachments people make with each other become inevitable sources of pain. The need for bosoms breeds neglect….
In the few days since this review was written, Bosoms and Neglect has folded, so this intelligent and deeply-felt play can no longer be seen. Some years from now, it will doubtless be revived—probably in the midwest—and everyone will wonder how New York could be so dumb as to miss its points. (p. 96)
Terry Curtis Fox, "Premature Burial," in The Village Voice (copyright © 1979; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 19, May 14, 1979, pp. 95-7.∗
[Bosoms and Neglect] consists of three levels that stubbornly refuse to blend, and are not worth much individually either….
[We] have the mother, psychiatry, and book levels that prove grotesque and outlandish but only very sparsely funny, and also unrelated and immiscible. Someone else might have put them believably together; in Guare's unsure grasp they fall apart like a card castle being built by a sufferer from Parkinson's disease. The play, moreover, fluctuates between the absurdist and the naturalistic, the scandalous and the would-be endearing, the obvious and the arcane. (p. 77)
John Simon, "Folie à deux," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 21, May 21, 1979, pp. 76-8.∗
[Bosoms and Neglect] was an important work for an author who is at a difficult time in his career. Though predictably a commercial failure (too abstract and disorganized), Bosoms and Neglect should not have been treated as a play without a right to exist. It was a serious attempt by a serious writer. Guare's previous plays—Landscape of the Body and Rich and Famous—were not satisfactory, but he had demonstrated a literary flair and comic originality in such early works as Muzeeka and The House of Blue Leaves. This new play showed that exhilarating talent still strong.
Martin Gottfried, "An Unmerry Month of May," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 6, No. 14, July 7, 1979, p. 40.∗