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John Guare 1938–
American dramatist and scriptwriter.
Guare writes ironically humorous plays dealing with domestic relationships and the effects on humanity of social, political, and religious crises. Placed in unpleasant situations or environments, Guare's characters, particularly Jack Argue in Muzeeka (1968), the policeman in Cop-out (1969), Artie in The House of Blue Leaves (1971), and the son in Bosoms and Neglect (1979), display negative aspects of human nature. Throughout most of his works, Guare suggests an impossibility for deep human understanding and implies that this natural weakness is aggravated by the constrictions of church, state, and class.
Guare has often been compared to the playwrights who make up the Theater of the Absurd. Linking Guare with this movement are his use of exaggeration, shock, ludicrousness, and black humor. For example, Brillo pads replace hamburgers; a hymn to America is sung during a striptease; and there is a grotesquely comical description of the effects of cancer. Many critics contend that Guare's absurdist techniques are effectively ironic or shocking as separate pieces, but are insufficiently related to each other or to the overall point of specific works.
Guare's recent plays, Lydie Breeze (1982) and Gardenia (1982), portray different periods in the relationships among the members of a commune established after the American Civil War. In these plays the spread of syphilis among the members is used as a metaphor for the decline of American spirituality. Guare has been faulted in these plays for relying too heavily on literary references, especially to the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and for confusing his audience by introducing too many dissimilar themes. However, his use of a historical setting is highly lauded for its potential to convey the differences between past and present hopes and realities.
Guare drew his greatest critical attention early in his career, winning an Obie for Muzeeka, an Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best American play of 1970–1971 for The House of Blue Leaves, and two Tonys and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona (1973). Although critical acclaim of Guare's later plays has rarely equaled that of his first successes, his work continues to draw attention for its commentary on American life and interpersonal behavior. Guare received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the film Atlantic City (1981).
(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)
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[John Guare] is a master of calculated irrelevancy. His is a world of misunderstandings and half-truths, a world of the most astonishingly logical illogicality. Deeply influenced by the theater of the absurd, and playwrights such as Ionesco and N. F. Simpson, Mr. Guare is a most promising young playwright. This double bill ["Cop-Out" and "Home Fires"] is a strange Broadway debut—a mixture of confidence and diffidence. It is also one of those evenings that, disconcertingly, while full of laughs is eventually unsatisfying.
Mr. Guare's humor is black, but not savage. "Home Fires," the first of the plays, is a wry little sketch about a farcical funeral. It is Armistice Night in 1918. In Mr. Catchpole's funeral parlor a strange family is gathered: Mr. Smith, a policeman with an impeccable Teutonic accent; his daughter, Nell Schmidt, and his son, Rudy Smythe.
The joke of the piece is of the German family, here in 1918 trying to disguise its origins and Mr. Guare plays around with it most imaginatively. The dialogue has a crisp zaniness to it and a gentle smile-provoking wit.
Strangely enough the humor does not seem to have a great deal of connection with life….
This is a pity because, of all our young playwrights, Mr. Guare is perhaps the most adventurous. "Cop-Out" demonstrates this most graphically. It is two plays intertwined. The first play concerns a cop who has an affair with a kind of professional demonstrator, undergoes vasectomy in the belief that it will help him in his chosen career, and finally, disillusioned, shoots the girl. The play is funny, but not quite funny enough, the motivation is more like a cartoon punch line than a human insight.
The countertheme to this play, which winds around it and through it, is a manic joke about the cinematic vision of the police dick, out to get "Mr. Big," and whatever else he can along the way. The idea here is frankly satirical. A woman's cat has been slain and the dick is determined to find its killer.
He gets involved with the classic femme fatale, even caught up in an Off Broadway play—giving the author a chance to write a none too sharply pointed caricature of "The Beard"—before eventually the femme fatale dies in his arms and he continues in his quest of Mr. Big.
There is no relationship between the two plays other than that of juxtaposition and contrast. It is an interesting stylistic device, but here rather a barren one, while it might have been worthwhile if one theme had provided a counterbalance to the other, so both could by inference comment on each other. But this chance seems to have been missed. Once again the writing was often funny, but always I got the feeling that too much talent was being chased by too little experience, and that Mr. Guare was not yet in his prime….
"Cop-Out" is a flawed evening, and one that will annoy many. But I think it is far from worthless. There are some failures that are more rewarding than successes, but whether we can afford to have them on Broadway is itself a sort of black comedy.
Clive Barnes, "Theater: Guare's Humorous 'Cop-Out'," in The New York Times (copyright © 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1969 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 30, No. 9, April 15-21, 1969, p. 310).
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John Guare is a bright young playwright with a rare sense of the theatre, of words, and of the modern pop sensibility. Like too many talented new playwrights, though, he has been prematurely thrown into the spotlight, and like the raw vaudevillian in that old art routine, he tap dances frightenedly because he is expected to. Mr. Guare had not had the benefit of experience, discipline or knowing guidance, and his "Cop-Out" is an unrealized idea….
In "Cop-Out," which is two one-act plays, Guare has tried to bring to the theatre the post-pop-art sense that has so vitalized current art and music. In thinking, that puts him out front and around the corner from what is currently passing for modern theatre. Unfortunately, he is not quite sure how to do that and often as not confuses that sense with older forms such as camp, satire, nostalgia and mock-sentimentality. Besides, his craftsmanship is careless and so the plays are built on several minor (or sketch) structures instead of as units. The result is bright ideas gone listless.
Martin Gottfried, in a review of "Cop-Out," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1969, Fairchild Publications), April 8, 1969 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 30, No. 9, April 15-21, 1969, p. 311).
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Since his early days, Guare has adhered to the fundamental principle of traditional dramaturgy—the need for a recognizable plot. However unconventional his treatment of the story line, there is an implicit understanding of the basic situation as relevant to some aspect of our lives. Be it the social tragedy of individuals (Muzeeka), or the personalized sufferings of people cast far afield in an alien world (Marco Polo Sings a Solo), Guare's plays situate their themes amidst the shifting realities of contemporary, life.
Born and raised in New York City, Guare is acutely aware of the many problems that face urban man. In their manic ferocity and ceaseless action, his plays hold a mirror up to the landscape of a city. Down-and-out characters, forever arguing or complaining about lost opportunities, inhabit shabby middle-class dwellings and display extreme forms of urban paranoia (The House of Blue Leaves). Clinging desperately to dreams of a better life, they continually chase after their visions, only to be drawn deeper and deeper into frustration and despair (Rich and Famous). More often than not, they express their anguish through senseless violence or festering hate.
For Guare, life in the city is virtually synonymous with the macabre and the violent (The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year). Horrific and bizarre incidents clutter the plays, and even when the dramatic situations are preposterous, they seldom stray from the realistic premise on which they are grounded. Although danger lurks at every corner, and events unfold without, the least provocation, there is a sense that such things belong to normal everyday life. A kind of playwright-journalist, Guare's dramatic inventions flesh out stories that one might easily come across in the pages of the Daily News or New York magazine (Landscape of the Body).
True to the urban spirit, Guare's characters are extremely resilient and ironic in their approach to life (Something I'll Tell You Tuesday). They confront their problems head-on, with much gusto and an eye for the heroic. Even when they fail, as they inevitably do, their efforts elicit a sympathy which lends a poignancy to their banal existences, and tempers the parody which is implied in their characterizations.
Typical of the intensity of urban life, Guare's plays advance through a series of short scenes, and the action is direct and concentrated (Cop-Out). Characters are swiftly sketched with a keen ear for dialogue, and their paranoia is always underscored by a sharp wit and stinging humor. They are set into motion through an unending series of chance encounters which, at times, borders on farce (The House of Blue Leaves). Complementing this approach to character and events is Guare's theatrical style, which is also one of pitfalls and surprises. Normal conversations easily give way to song, and characters frequently break away to converse directly with the audience. Rapid changes in mode of presentation are common, with flashbacks, flash forwards, continual cross cutting, and assorted movie techniques (that urban art form) used to create a stage picture of sometimes dazzling virtuosity (Rich and Famous, Marco Polo Sings a Solo). And, finally, there is music and song—those necessary adjuncts to Guare's theatrical vision—which lend to all his plays the feel of show-biz material as crafted by a playwright reared on the fringes of commercial theatre. (pp. 41-2)
Partly because of their brevity, Something I'll Tell You Tuesday and The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year fail to provide enriching dramatic experiences. The characters lack complexity, and the little that is known of them is exploited largely to illustrate Guare's ideas about contemporary violence and the whittling away of human emotions. Not until Muzeeka was his vision comfortably accommodated in dramatic form. (p. 44)
In both content and style, Muzeeka is Guare's homage to the political plays of Bertolt Brecht. As Argue's name suggests, antithetical social and political issues are presented as arguments. The protagonist is a victim of social forces, and his various encounters are duplicated in reverse to show two sides of the issue in question. (p. 45)
Muzeeka is Guare's finest accomplishment to date. In it, he found a form to accomodate his unruly vision. The characters are well integrated into their milieus, the play's language is less "throwaway," and its humor builds upon itself to create a concise and demanding vision of human affairs.
While Muzeeka focuses on the victims of society, Cop-Out concerns itself with the life of the victimizer. Its hero is a policeman whose life is presented from two varying perspectives. In one, he is depicted as an average person who, in the line of duty, meets a young woman and falls in love. Alternating with this is his other life, more violent and brutal, where he is transformed into Brett Arrow, a macho, screen image of a trigger-happy cop. (p. 46)
Cop-Out is not as tightly structured as the thematically similar Muzeeka. The ending is gratuitous, and only serves to give credence to Guare's theme of the impossibility of lives trying to connect. There is very little depth to the characters, who are portrayed mostly as emblematic figures. The action, although vigorous and humorous at times, drifts aimlessly from one absurd situation to another. There is much talk about the abuses of power and corruption, but Cop-Out fails to offer any clues to the underlying structure of American culture.
With The House of Blue Leaves, Guare enters a new phase in his career. In this, his first full-length play, characters are no longer possessed with grandiose notions about changing the face of society. The cynicism of the sixties gives way to the despondency of the seventies. Average middle-class people desperately try to break away from the stifling confines of their environments. (pp. 46-7)
The House of Blue Leaves is a good example of Guare's penchant for a bizarre grouping of events, and his demonic sense of comedy. Vicious in its irony, the play's irreverent jibes at religion, faith in miracles, upward mobility, and human pretensions add up to a virulent parody of a world where appearances are deceiving and life is lived according to the dictates of chance. These themes will surface again in the structurally more cohesive Landscape of the Body….
From the constricted milieu of The House of Blue Leaves, Guare moves on, in Marco Polo Sings a Solo, to a solitary and rarefied island in the Norwegian sea…. Marco Polo is bewildering in its complexity, and like the icebergs which comprise the backdrop to the McBride living room, most of its action remains obscure.
The little that can be gleaned from Guare's parable of a new world in the making strongly contrasts with his usual interpretation of human nature. (p. 48)
Ultimately, Marco Polo can hardly resurrect itself from the dying embers to form a cohesive statement on anything. A flamboyantly self-indulgent piece of writing, it is sadly lacking in wit, although the visual humor is at times quite funny…. The weakest play in the Guare canon, Marco Polo Sings a Solo can safely be read, to no great loss, under flashes of lightning.
Rich and Famous finds Guare back on home turf, this time playing to the hilt his idiosyncratic talent for comic irony. (p. 49)
In moments of this outrageous comedy, Guare is at this satirical best, but what remains buried in the continuous and shifting action of the play's feverish movement is who or what is being satirized. His irrepressible urge to parody everything results in a compendium of one-liners and reversals in positions that are ultimately tedious….
Violence, conspicuously absent or muted in Guare's last two plays, returns in its most grotesque in Landscape of the Body…. Using fade-ins and fade-outs, Guare once again evokes a dream world where participants in the drama appear from and disappear into the darkness. The sharp pangs of memory and guilt crowd the stage in a vague replica of lives lived under the shadow of death, destruction, and New York City. (p. 50)
A far more despairing play than his earlier works, Guare's Dickensian portrait of life in New York is indeed bleary—characters are left with no other alternatives but to search out the ignoble as a way of life. (p. 51)
Guare leads us to believe that there is some underlying gravity to [Landscape of the Body],… but such is hardly the case. As with many of the speeches the playwright puts in his characters' mouths, they come straight out of left field. Having virtually nothing to do with the plot, they argue for a complexity in the character, which is also misleading. At best a well-structured murder plot, the play's momentary diversions belong not to the characters but to Guare himself. Rosalie's final speech, where she echoes Guare's philosophy of human existence for the umpteenth time—"Only the tast of blood to remind us we ever existed"—could hardly be mouthed by the flippant and reckless character she is made out to be.
The odd note, mostly a terse and cryptic statement on Life, inevitably surfaces in all of Guare's plays. Unfortunately, he is not a deep enough thinker to warrant our attention to his philosophic speculation. A director's and actor's playwright (and, onstage, Guare's plays are full of energy and life), he is at his best when orchestrating the fury and anguish of his urban characters. Although many of his plays are overwritten and dialogue pivots on the banal, there is a wit that relieves the tedium of his artificial plots and insistence on the violent and macabre. As in TV sitcoms, Guare's pungent dramatic pen lets loose a barrage of insults, jokes, and puns, all of which make for entertaining theatre but prove fatally shallow on reading and close inspection. Muzeeka remains his artistic pinnacle. Perhaps Guare might do better reverting to the one-act play form, where his intensity in characterization and approach to plot are better suited. (pp. 51-2)
Gautam Dasgupta, "John Guare," in American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, Vol. 1 by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (copyright © 1981 by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta), Drama Book Specialists (Publishers), 1981, pp. 41-52.
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In the opening shots of John Guare and Louis Malle's remarkable film "Atlantic City," we watch ghostly old beach hotels, the repositories of gilded, early 20th-century American dreams, collapse under the wreckers' ball. "Lydie Breeze," the Guare-Malle theatrical collaboration that opened at the American Place last night, is set in another crumbling beach town of another era—hurricane-gutted Nantucket in 1895—but it is about the same dreams, the same ghosts, the same kind of metaphorical wreckage.
"Lydie Breeze" is not, however, an achievement of the same high order of "Atlantic City." Like Mr. Guare's other recent plays—notably "Landscape of the Body" and "Bosoms and Neglect"—his new one is a literate, ambitious experiment in which luminous and savage theatrical bits float within a murky, incorporeal whole.
The word "literate" cuts both ways in describing this play. On one hand, Mr. Guare has written some characteristically transporting speeches that combine the absurdly comic with the poetic and the grotesque—an account of William Randolph Hearst inventing the Spanish-American War, a graphic description of a woman's hanging, a cataloguing of the mysterious contents of the sea. At the same time, "Lydie Breeze" seems to choke on literary references. In addition to its ample Ibsen allusions, this play explicitly or implicitly invokes American writers from the transcendentalists through James and Dreiser to Fitzgerald and O'Neill. It's weight that "Lydie Breeze" never quite earns or supports.
The play is set in a haunted, weather-beaten shell of a beach house, and its titular figure is long dead—a woman who committed suicide after her husband murdered her lover. The characters are Lydie's cursed familial and spiritual inheritors: her husband …, now pardoned for his crime; her two daughters …; an Irish maid …, and a mysterious visitor from England …, who proves to be both the long-lost son of Lydie's lover and, in one of Mr. Guare's cleverest conceits, the star of a hit West End production of "Frankenstein."
Most of Act I is devoted to dredging up the past that once brought these characters into tragic fusion. It's a past that not only involves murder, but also the battle of Gettysburg, a utopian Brook Farm-like commune, and, most important, a much passed-on case of syphilis that has afflicted at least four of the play's seen and unseen characters. In Act II, Mr. Guare's understandably addled people resolve that past in a series of jerky confrontations, farfetched revelations and suicides that finally trail off into a forced and unconvincing series of sentimental reconciliations.
The imagery that runs through this frantic family history—disease, insanity, mutilation, death, decay, poisoned sex—is not new in Mr. Guare's work, even though the period idiom is. As in "Atlantic City," he appears to use both that imagery and old-fashioned melodrama to dramatize America's spiritual decline—in this case the rude awakening of the post-Civil War years, during which an idealistic, isolated nation transformed itself into a modern industrial superpower. And, again as in "Atlantic City," the characters in "Lydie Breeze" fall into two camps: the greedy movers and shakers of the new order, and the stubborn romantics who cling to the old ideals even as the sand shifts under their feet. The younger believers, Mr. Guare seems to feel, may redeem us yet.
But this time the theme doesn't emerge from the characters and drama. The often obscure linkage between substance and action is baldly announced by the author instead. When we're not being portentously told about Hearst's offstage, history-shaking machinations (his yacht is moored nearby), we're hearing that "the curtain is about to go up on a new century," about the invention of electricity and malevolent high-speed industrial sewing machines, about how America follows "the itch of the pocket" instead of its democratic promise.
The dialogue that doesn't reach for historical resonance too often indulges in mock-Ibsen or O'Neill rhetoric that shrouds the characters: "There are so many ghosts here" or "We've all ceaselessly ruined each other's lives" or "How can you even begin to find the path to forgiveness?" Peel away these lines and what's often left is an overly plotty yet static potboiler—"Peyton Place" meets "Ragtime"—in which much of the action happens offstage in the past or the future. The author seems more intent on exhuming the complex and ultimately ludicrous genealogical path of that marauding case of syphilis than in giving his play or its people a dramatic present tense. (p. 344)
Frank Rich, "Stage: Guare's 'Lydie Breeze'," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 25, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 43, No. 3, February 1-7, 1982, pp. 344-45).
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"I was a man who ached for a utopia," says Joshua Hickman in John Guare's new play, "Lydie Breeze." Everyone in Guare's lyrical, elegiac, melodramatic, funny, sorrowing and celebratory play has ached for a utopia of one sort or another: the primal utopia of parental connection, the sentimental utopia of romantic love, the civic utopia of sharing and brotherhood. "Lydie Breeze" is about these aches, which are never to be assuaged, and about these utopias, which are never to be attained. The biggest ache of all belongs not to any of the characters but to America itself, which is in a way the protagonist in this play that reflects the boom-and-bust cycle of American dreams.
The gothic strain has always been a key element in John Guare's sensibility, and here that strain is reinforced by his creation of a web of corrupted relationships personifying the interlocking, interbreeding corruptions that have poisoned the American dreams, leaving these people to wander in and out of each other's nightmares. In a crescendo of confrontations, Guare's characters come to terms with the haunted past—terms that vary from self-destruction to self-acceptance to the renewal of hope in an ambiguous future. "It's almost 1900," exults Gussie. "It's about to be my century."
Guare, like E. L. Doctorow in "Ragtime" and other writers, has seized on the turn of the century as the pivotal moral moment in American history. He's taken the Ibsen-like themes of tainted blood and skeleton-stuffed closets and turned them into a Yankee Doodle Deadly saga of broken promises. Because he's John Guare, he has also had a lot of fun doing this. The glory of Guare is his unabashed (or perhaps abashed) romanticism, his bifocal vision of the tragic and the absurd, his natural instinct for the theatrical. It may be that the true contemporary form of tragedy is one that triggers a laugh as its proper response—a new kind of laugh, a slapstick sob at the Strangelovian nature of our fate.
Guare is the master of such shenanigans. In a big scene between Joshua and Jeremiah, their recriminations explode into a pastiche of Victorian stage melodrama that adds a crazy poignance to their mutual pain. A key detail in Joshua's account of the murder of his friend is a bottle of Moxie, the legendary pre-Coke soft drink that created a uniquely American word for courage and defiance. The Moxie touch creates an unsettling dissonance, like a Sophoclean soliloquy flipping into Abbott and Costello….
Guare doesn't have perfect control of this mixed style. He can plop into the sententious, as when Josh says: "America could have been great, but we never trusted our dreams. We only trust the itch in the pocket." And Gussie, who prefigures the political groupies, the "boiler-room girls" of contemporary Washington, says: "The only power is the power that comes from being around power." Such sousaphone splats could so easily have been turned into true Guarisms that they irritate.
Nevertheless, "Lydie Breeze" is Guare's most ambitious and finely tuned work, filled with the special sweetness and courage of a sensibility that feels deeply and that exultantly takes on the job of expressing the wounding contradictions of our time.
Jack Kroll, "Yankee Doodle Deadly," in Newsweek (copyright 1982, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCIX, No. 10, March 8, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 43, No. 3, February 1-7, 1982, p. 347).
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[John Guare's plays] simply could not have been written in any other era—except, possibly, one in the future. Indeed, they could be described as inventions whose very construction reflects the bizarre, absurd, and violent material they are designed to distill. They are by nature original rather than derivative—it's a kind of originality out of necessity, which in itself communicates something about our present condition. Guare plays are unlike any other plays; they disregard one's normal expectations of plays while offering things that it would never have occurred to one to ask of a play. There are long passages in Guare plays that seem to be made of the very substance of surprise—so that if something unsurprising happened one would be jolted. "Avant-garde" or "experimental" is not the right word for Guare's works. ("Lydie Breeze" is set in the nineteenth century and is full of allusions to nineteenth-century history and literature, yet this does not draw Guare's imagination back into more familiar, surveyed territory, for its meaning depends entirely upon the acoustical effects of late-twentieth-century reality, without which it would be unintelligible.) Their unexpectedness is not that of someone who is attempting to break conventions but, rather, is like the surprising but completely logical behavior of a foreigner or a child in a situation to which others are so inured that they cannot see what the logical response is. (p. 34)
"Lydie Breeze" has an elaborate plot and contains a great deal of whizzing, cometlike dialogue, but it also has within it a great stillness, an immense silence, which amounts to a statement of reverence. (The stillness makes the play, full of action though it is, something like a painting. After it is over, it lives on in one's imagination as if it were a single object—or, rather, a still space with objects in it, a tableau.) To the extent that one can analyze it at all, one feels that one way this statement is made is through wholehearted, unrestricted attention to details on the part of everyone involved: not the attention of a fussbudget but the sort of attention that only reverence—for one's work and hence for oneself, for one's subject, and for those to whom the work will be offered—can produce. It is the unreservedness of this reverence which creates the stillness, the silence, the contemplative serenity that contains the most frenetic action and that becomes the statement through which the message of reverence is received…. "Lydie Breeze" is about a group of people who love each other but hurt each other in ways that cannot be healed. Love itself, however, heals in the course of the play. In the last healing, a young girl on the edge of sexual awakening asks her father to explain the meaning of life to her. He begins—and ends the play—by reading with her a poem by Whitman. "On the beach at night alone," the poem begins, and it goes on to describe how a "vast similitude interlocks all," spanning all human lives and deaths, past, present, and future, "and shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them." To nineteenth-century people it would seem self-evident that the safety of this embrace was eternal and immutable, while we, of course, know that this is not so, as we can destroy ourselves even while we are within the embrace. (This is an example of the way in which twentieth-century reality is the sounding board that gives the play its meaning.) Whitman's reverence, however, not only remains a sentiment that we recognize as a true one but in our new condition is more powerful than ever, and it joins with the very similar reverence already expressed in the play—the reverence of twentieth-century people, a reverence without which there now is no safety. (pp. 34-5)
A review of "Lydie Breeze," in The New Yorker (© 1982 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVIII, No. 4, March 15, 1982, pp. 34-5.
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I was somewhat confused by John Guare's play Gardenia….
Both Gardenia and Lydie Breeze, seen earlier this season, are part of a series of plays written, according to a note in the program, "for Adele Chatfield Taylor." Only one character—the idealistic writer Joshua Hickman—survives the time-span from the end of Gardenia to the start of Lydie Breeze, although we hear much of the political aspirations of another, Amos Mason, and one play is very much the sequel to the other.
However, while a grand design is clearly intended, it is more apparent in the intention than in the outcome. For, and here is the confusion, these two plays do not really mesh.
Also, when Gardenia is placed side by side with the dreamplay, Lydie Breeze, the differences in style are surprising—for while Gardenia has a touch of Chekhov to it, in Lydie Breeze Guare's 19th-Century mentors would appear to be Ibsen and Strindberg. (p. 271)
Gardenia is constructed as two acts—they seem like different plays, and, I believe, they started out as such. They are well-written in themselves, and the first beach scene is particularly absorbing, with strong characters and the promise of a fascinating theme. The second is more abrupt and less well-motivated.
Clearly Guare's aim is to show the decline and fall of American idealism—the death, as it were, of Walt Whitman.
By the second act, 10 years later, the fall has fallen. Joshua has murdered Dan and is in prison, where he has written a remarkable autobiographical history of the great experiment. Amos, now a rising lawyer with political aspirations, wants to sell Joshua his freedom in return for his silence. The vision has vanished—even Lydie is disillusioned, and slightly mad.
Obviously, this sets the scene for the more than slight madness found in the next play, that essay in crepuscular memory, Lydie Breeze. This later play, with its violent references to suicide, murder, and syphilis, takes a different view of America than is suggested by Gardenia.
Nevertheless, it may be that when the complete design of Guare's cycle can be seen, the individual segments will fall into a more coherent and even regular pattern. Meanwhile Gardenia is a beautifully acted excursion into a Never Never Land of Whitmanesque Americana, which has its own pungent, even nostalgic, flavor. (p. 272)
Clive Barnes, "Essence of 'Gardenia': A Good Cast Shows How John Guare's 'Lydie Breeze' People Got That Way," in New York Post (reprinted from the New York Post; © 1982, New York Post Corporation), April 29, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 43, No. 8, May 25-31, 1982, pp. 271-72).
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John Guare is still at sea in "Gardenia."… It's hard to accept that the author of this emotionally blocked, almost willfully undramatic work is the man who wrote "The House of Blue Leaves," "Landscape of the Body" and the screenplay for "Atlantic City." Sad to say, it is all too easy to believe that "Gardenia" comes from the playwright who earlier this season unveiled "Lydie Breeze."
Mr. Guare's new play is about the same 19th-century characters as its immediate predecessor, and the two dramas are related in perhaps more ways than the author might wish. "Gardenia" is even weaker than "Lydie Breeze" but, distressingly enough, it manages to diminish the earlier play, such as it was, retroactively.
In "Lydie," we visited a Nantucket beach house full of characters whose lives had been wrecked years earlier—after a post-Civil War Utopian commune had failed and its galvanizing queen bee, Lydie, had committed suicide. While Mr. Guare didn't make us understand his characters' past or care about their present, he did at times tantalize us about them. Surely, we thought, they would spring to full dramatic life if we could only see what had happened in those traumatic years before the curtain went up.
We finally do travel back to that mysterious, inviting past in "Gardenia"—and, as it turns out, Mr. Guare calls his own bluff. Now that we at last meet Lydie, as well as the young incarnations of the three Civil War veterans who love her madly, it is only to find them back on the beach, whining about their transcendental commune's demise just as their counterparts in "Lydie Breeze" do. The complaining still takes the turgid form of omniscient prose and literary quotations that leave little room for characterization. The creaky Gothic melodrama that fitfully connects the monologues is unconvincing—and, to those who saw "Lydie Breeze," unsurprising.
Here, as before, the talk is about America's failure to live up to its democratic ideals and about the plundering of the land by Gilded Age entrepreneurs. This time the playwright has added another theme, about the birth of a realistic, distinctly American literature: His hero … aspires to write a novel that will sweep away "the dust of European libraries." Eventually he does—a no-holds-barred account of the commune that sounds like Nathaniel Hawthorne's Brook Farm novel, "The Blithedale Romance," as rewritten by Theodore Dreiser.
All of Mr. Guare's concerns, however familiar, are worthwhile. The trouble is that he hasn't dramatized them. Instead, his characters repeatedly recite his themes—as if no one in the audience had ever read William Dean Howells or Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau in the originals. When Mr. Guare tires of that, he cranks up his story, without integrating it into the announced substance of the play. Even so, most of the narrative occurs before the curtain rises, or during the nine-year gap that occurs at intermission, or in the interval that separates "Gardenia" and "Lydie Breeze."
What makes both plays seem so pretentious is Mr. Guare's insistence on regurgitating his literary sources without remaking them into art of his own. The sections of "Gardenia" that seem pure Guare are scant and don't add up. We never understand how … [the] sensitive hero of Act I could end up a jailed murderer in Act II—or how his best friend … could grow from a likable simp to a callow politician over the same timespan. The pivotal Lydie … is just an assertive Mother Earth in Act I, a blurry nutcase in Act II.
There is, happily, another, livelier major character—if only for half of Act I. He is the third Civil War veteran (and third side of a love triangle)…. His principal speech—an ironic account of a death struggle between two corrupt tycoons on a cross-country train—reminds us of how inventive and flavorful a dramatist Mr. Guare can be. Some of the other writing is surprisingly self-indulgent and sloppy, especially so in the portentous overuse of the trite titular metaphor (a gardenia plant is forever blooming or dying)….
Meanwhile the biggest question remains: Why is Mr. Guare, who is no fool, writing these plays? Presumably it's because he has his own burning views about our country's history and destiny, about the passions between men and women. And perhaps the feelings are so raw that he needs the esthetic distance he gains by retreating ceaselessly into the past.
But if that's fine in principle, the distance in this case proves far too vast. When a writer as talented as Mr. Guare creates plays as elaborately evasive and disembodied as "Gardenia" and "Lydie Breeze," one can only wonder if he's afraid to confront whatever it is he really wants to say.
Frank Rich, "Stage: Guare's 'Gardenia' Antedates His 'Lydie'," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 43, No. 8, May 25-31, 1982, p. 270).
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382
John Guare has just run his second horse in the Lydie Breeze Sweepstakes, while a third is being saddled up for the next race. At this rate, he will soon have the largest stable in the American theater. Let's wish him luck with his final entry. The first two nags haven't shown the stamina to finish the course, and they are being led to the starting post in confusing chronological order….
That history is happening in Gardenia, rather than being recalled, should result in a more active play. It doesn't. Guare is more controlled here, because less distracted by the progress of spirochete bacilli through his characters' veins, but Gardenia remains basically undramatized, a disunified sketch in search of another draft. The central event—the murder of Dan Grady by his jealous friend, Joshua Hickman—happens between the acts, and all that occupies stage time is symbolism, mood, exposition, recrimination. (p. 24)
Guare no doubt sees some grant historical plan behind [the play's] Gothic events, but the intent is more impressive than the execution; like Joshua, he has reduced an ambitious project to a series of petty anecdotes. It is maddening to find this gifted playwright continually betraying his own talents through a failure of craft. Guare usually provides enough material for a dozen plays. I think his dramaturgy would benefit by his settling on one (how much more powerful Bosoms and Neglect would have been had he not diluted a black comedy about death with an irrelevant second act about a cute meet in a psychiatrist's office). We should be grateful that at least one American playwright is willing to create an historical context for his work, but perhaps he should think more about supplementing his readings in revisionist history with some study of Aristotle's Poetics. (pp. 24-5)
I await the third play in the trilogy, less out of expectation that it will produce something significant than out of hope that John Guare will finally have gotten this damned Lydie Breeze business out of his system. Perhaps then he can settle down to write a coherent and consistent play—preferably one that observes the unities. (p. 25)
Robert Brustein, "Back at the Starting Post" (© 1982 The New Republic, Inc.; (reprinted with permission of the author), in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 20, May 19, 1982, pp. 24-5.∗
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