Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr., nicknamed “Pete,” was born in Buffalo, New York, on November 1, 1930, the son of Albert Ransdell Gurney, Sr., a dealer in real estate and insurance, and Marion Spaulding Gurney. The young Gurney grew up in the exclusive suburbia he depicts in his plays. From St. Paul’s school, he went to Williams College, where he was graduated in 1952 with a B.A. degree in English literature. After graduation, he served three years (1952-1955) in the navy as an officer and then attended the Yale School of Drama, where he earned the M.F.A. degree in 1958. In 1984, he was awarded an honorary D.D.L. degree. In 1960, he began a long, distinguished career as teacher of literature and humanities at MIT.
In June, 1957, Gurney married Mary Forman Goodyear; they have four children: George, Amy, Evelyn, and Benjamin. They lived in Boston until 1983, when Gurney moved his family to New York to be near the theater, television, and publishers while he was on sabbatical from MIT. All this time he was concerned with the contrast between the values instilled in him as a youth and those of the world he was experiencing.
From early childhood, he had a passion for drama. He wrote his first play in kindergarten. His passion was fostered by his aunt, who liked to attend matinees but could find no one to go with her. It became Gurney’s lot to go, and he enjoyed every minute of the saturation. He also liked to listen to dramas on the radio and through them learned the importance of sound to drama, especially the spoken word. He developed an accurate ear for the kinds of things certain kinds of people say. While at Williams College, he began his writing career by creating college revues. In the Navy, as special services officer, he wrote and produced revues on a grander scale. Finally, in drama school at Yale, his playwriting career began in earnest, and he published his first drama, the one-act play Three People, in 1956.
While teaching he had little time to write, but he always had writing on his mind. As he lectured and read, ideas for drama would come to him; during summer vacations, he would write. Following this routine, he managed to publish more than fifteen plays between the late 1960’s and the early 1980’s.
Gurney’s first major success came in 1982 with The Dining Room. He continued to turn out commercially successful dramas throughout the 1980’s, though critics found many of these plays to be somewhat slender. In a brief prolific period near the decade’s end, Gurney wrote The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters, The Old Boy, and The Snow Ball (from his novel of 1984), all of which enjoyed success in New York as well as in the regional theater circuit. During a sabbatical from MIT, Gurney began adapting Love Letters for the screen.
In 1996 Gurney retired from his position as professor of American literature and humanities at MIT. Afterwards, he and his family divided their time between a home in Connecticut and an apartment in New York City.
Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr., has been called one of the wittiest American writers for the stage; he is also one of the most prolific and widely produced American playwrights. Gurney was born into a family of high social standing. He attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. At Williams, he was class poet and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Kappa Alpha fraternity, and the Gargoyle Society. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in 1952. After his graduation, he served in the United States Navy from 1952 to 1955.
Following his naval service, Gurney attended Yale University School of Drama. In 1957, he married Mary Forman “Molly” Goodyear. That same year, he received a J. Walter Thompson Fellowship. Following graduation in 1958 with an M.F.A. degree, he taught English and Latin at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Massachusetts. In 1960, he became an instructor in the humanities department at the Massachusetts Institute of...
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