A. R. Gurney, Jr.

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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 Technology (MIT), advancing successively through the ranks to full professor in 1972. At MIT, he received an Old Dominion Fellowship and the Everett Baker Award for undergraduate teaching. In 1971, his play Scenes from American Life received the Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award, in New York City, for most promising playwright. He was the recipient of the Rockefeller Playwright in Residence Award in 1977 and the National Endowment for the Arts Playwriting Award for 1981-1982. In 1984, Gurney was awarded an honorary degree by his alma mater, Williams College. In 1987, he received the prestigious Award of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Gurney’s first plays, all relatively short, were written and produced when he was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama. The Dining Room was Gurney’s first great success. It started Off-Broadway, received good reviews, and ran there for more than a year. In its first three years, it was produced countless times by professional and amateur groups both in the United States and abroad. In responding to this play, critics often referred to Gurney’s uncanny ability to focus on the telling details of upper-class reality as he reveals the erosion of this privileged class. The setting of the play reflects this theme: The dining room itself, unused and irrelevant, is the primary symbol of ethnic decline and nostalgia. It is, however, characteristic of Gurney’s work that the play is not all unmitigated satire. Critic Alvin Klein sees Gurney as a critical chronicler of the vanishing values of an American ethnic and economic class for which he retains enormous affection.

In 1988, Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, revived the 1970 play Scenes from American Life, an angry satire of Buffalo’s white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant upper class. The play chronicles the demise of this class and the decay of a city. Called a theatrical landmark, the work consists of thirty-six vignettes that span decades. Gurney shows his dismay at the inability of the Establishment to respond responsibly to the changing times, to war, and to the Civil Rights movement.

Two new plays opened in the fall of 1988: The Cocktail Hour, on Broadway, and Love Letters, at Long Wharf in New Haven. In the latter play, two actors evoke an entire world through reading their love letters to each other. In spite of the unusual format, the play was a sellout during its entire run. The successful play The Cocktail Hour shows Gurney at the top of his form; it is a very entertaining comedy filled with sophisticated humor. His 1991 plays The Old Boy

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The Old Boy and The Snow Ball deal with conformity and nostalgia, respectively. Later plays include Later Life, concerning a middle-aged man whose fear of risk and vulnerability impedes his ability to grow and change; A Cheever Evening, a series of sketches based on John Cheever’s wry, insightful stories about middle-class life; and Sylvia, concerning the strained relationship between a middle-class husband, his wife, and their new dog.

Set at a Japanese naval base in 1954, Far East concerns an innocent young naval officer from Milwaukee who is pursued by his captain’s wife. Gurney’s next effort was two one-act plays, Darlene and The Guest Lecturer. In the first, a housewife becomes obsessed with a threatening note for “Darlene” mysteriously left on her car. In the second, a professor’s lecture on theater is interrupted by a panel moderator whose intentions are strangely homicidal.

Gurney returned to lighthearted comedy with Labor Day, in which a successful playwright has written a play in which the characters are thinly veiled versions of his family members. Gurney returns to the upper crust of 1930’s and 1940’s society in Ancestral Voices. A young boy serves as narrator and witness for his grandmother’s shocking choice to leave her husband for his best friend, after which the boy tries to arrange a reconciliation between his grandparents.

Two new Gurney comedies were produced in 2001. In Human Events, a British impostor takes over the life, home, and family of a New England university humanities professor. Buffalo Gal deals with the repercussions when a famous actress returns to her hometown to play the lead in a local production of Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908).

Some of the most characteristic features of Gurney’s plays are his unique use of time, unpredictable influences of offstage presences, and the creation of small characters who attempt to go beyond their prescribed limitations of time, place, and social level. A broad look at Gurney’s works, including his novels, shows him to be a probing, insightful, and whimsical analyst of white middle-and upper-class behavior and a witty observer of the habits of the wealthy, the acquisitive, and the neurotic. In general, his plays deal with social manners and social values and how the former often reveal the shallowness of the latter. What John Tillinger, the director of many of Gurney’s plays, says about Scenes from American Life holds true for much of Gurney’s work: It presents a sequestered world, a cross section of American society, where a sense of duty, responsibility, and tradition is slowly being lost.

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