John Guare Guare, John (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Gautam Dasgupta

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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