A. R. Gurney, Jr.

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A. R. Gurney, Jr., crafts his plays about the people he knows—WASPs. The setting of most of his plays is New England suburbia. The stage is never crowded with actors or furniture; rather, Gurney’s sets suggest moods and situations. Often the audience become participants, and offstage actions, sounds, and characters are central to the play. Though writing with classical constraint, he is innovative in staging. In several plays, multiple scenes go on simultaneously. Music is also an integral part of many of his plays; Gurney deftly employs songs for atmosphere and tone. His plays are notable for their structure and polish; not a word is wasted.

Three People

Gurney’s first published play, Three People, written while he was in the Yale School of Drama, deals with his major theme: freedom. Two of the three characters—a university professor and his wife—are sympathetically presented in their struggle to accept the fact that their child is mentally deficient. They struggle magnificently with their broken dreams. The tragedy of this tightly knit one-act, one-scene play is that the third character, the baby, gets very little consideration as a person. Gurney manages the pathos of the situation without being morbid or sentimental. The baby is never onstage. He is talked about and tended to, but he is never seen. Much dialogue is exchanged from the offstage nursery as the wife talks to her husband from the nursery. The characters are honestly and sympathetically drawn, each encased in a tragic plight from which there is no release.

The Bridal Dinner

Gurney’s first three-act play, The Bridal Dinner, is typical of his classical restraint of setting and time. All action takes place in one room in which a bridal dinner is held during an evening and a morning in June. The characters are also typical of Gurney: high livers in high society, concerned with money and status, acting out their lives of boredom. Gurney masterfully presents a play-within-a-play wherein the bride and groom look into themselves and their future. WASPish standards are humorously, satirically, and delightfully paraded before the bridal party and the audience. The play is full of telling vignettes and repartee as the young couple feel alone, isolated, apart—all the links broken. They recognize the empty ritual of the bridal dinner for what it is and discard symbolic relics of the past. The problem, ever-present in Gurney plays, is what to do next. Are they strong enough to cast off the old armor and face up to a new and challenging future? Where can they go from here? They feel wobbly, so they decide to dance. This parody of marriage in a “rotten world” has enough reality to make the caricature believable. As the characters themselves admit, it smacks of Thornton Wilder, Luigi Pirandello, and “the worst from Broadway”; still, it is delightful and thought-provoking. As in most of Gurney’s plays, literary references abound, and clichés and old saws are subversively employed. Finally, reflecting Gurney’s patriotic theme in the 1960’s, the marriage assumes global scope with a vision of world peace through the marriage of nations in love. Gurney’s wit saves the play from melodrama by posing the question, “But can she cook?”

The David Show

Gurney continued in this seriocomic vein in The David Show , in which he sets the biblical story of the coronation of King David in a modern television studio. This one-set, one-scene, five-character parody is good fantasy. The characters are catchy, if a bit overdrawn. David is portrayed as a Madison Avenue type who uses people for his benefit; Bathsheba, with her cliché-studded dialogue, is a combination...

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of charm and clowning. She comes across as a true philistine, while Jonathan is a playboy seeking only “the good life.” Gurney’s characterization is vivid and entertaining, and the dialogue sparkles. Clichés are cleverly sprinkled throughout, and there is much witty wordplay. Undergirding the spoof is Gurney’s usual seriousness. Problems of war, the good life, moral fiber, and ethnic groups are aired, until in contrast with the surface hilarity, David is forced to face up to the reality that Goliath is David himself: his own rotten soul looming larger than life. Though not always successful onstage, this satire laced with wit and underlying seriousness is good reading.

Scenes from American Life

Scenes from American Life, as the title indicates, is a montage depicting the upper-middle-class society that Gurney knows so well. Like most of his plays, this one lends itself to easy production. The set is attractive, simple, and functional, with the action flowing around a burnished baby-grand piano. To achieve this feeling of flow, no curtain is used and few blackouts; one scene blends naturally into the next, with the actors setting up the stage and carrying on and off their props and costumes. Music plays an integral part in this drama, establishing the time and tone of each scene. Props, accessories, and costumes also help anchor the date of a particular scene.

The play is set in Buffalo; the time fluctuates from the early 1930’s of the opening scene to the mid-1980’s. One character, Snoozer, serves to unify the diverse vignettes. From the opening scene of his christening to the final scene, when, inebriated, he participates in the burning of a canoe, the play depicts the passing of an old order of Americanism. Four male actors and four female actors are all that are required for producing these vignettes. These eight characters may act various roles in the various scenes, with the stipulation that the same actor and actress play the father and mother in the first and last scenes. In the intermittent scenes, sons play fathers and mothers play daughters so as to keep the play from appearing to be about only one or two families. A sense of virtuosity prevails. Here is a kaleidoscope of scenes from the United States.

Here again, Gurney satirizes upper-middle-class society. The characters are self-centered, modish, pampered, misguided, opinionated, and bored. They speak in clichés and find their world disappearing. Like an unmoored boat, they float along. At times the satire is more biting than in Gurney’s earlier plays, but the message is clear and the entertainment delightful.

The language, typical of these characters, helps reveal their plight. A toast to the Father, the Son, and the best gin ever smuggled across Niagara River is followed by chatter about a pusher and manners at meals. The characters’ names underscore the satire. Snoozer earns his name by sleeping through everything; Grace, Snoozer’s godmother, to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” boozily proposes a one-word toast to Snoozer, “responsibility.” From the Depression days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to an apocalyptic vision of a fascist America in the 1980’s (a decade in the future when the play was produced), Gurney depicts a vapid society that lacks any moral foundation.

In one of the drama’s strongest scenes, a father takes his son, who is in trouble for draft evasion, out for a day’s sailing. Quoting his own code of honor, which is anachronistic to the boy, the father tries to persuade his son to stand trial and go to prison. His son tells him off with one epithet. In another scene typical of Gurney’s dramas, a Yale graduate dictates a letter to a classmate declaring that he will not contribute to the alumni animal fund; midway into the letter, however, he resorts to the usual clichés, sending his wife’s regards and an enclosed check. Gurney’s recurring theme of freedom and coercion is evident in a luncheon scene with a mother and daughter. The mother says that the daughter may do as she pleases, choosing between a coming-out party and a college education, yet in spite of the daughter’s protests in favor of an education, the mother ultimately decides on the party.


Not surprisingly, Gurney has often been compared to novelist and short-story writer John Cheever, the rueful chronicler of suburbia. Gurney’s play Children, based on Cheever’s story “Goodbye, My Brother,” is another satire on the old gentry as they conduct themselves when they come face-to-face with the upheavals of the present. Children provides actors with a number of splendid roles, but, as in several other Gurney plays, the characters who motivate much of the action are never seen onstage. These include Pokey, scion of the genteel family at the center of the action, who stands ominously in the shadows offstage; his braless Jewish wife, who holds a doctoral degree; and their uninhibited child. Also unseen but significant to the action is the rich local builder, who once worked as a yard boy for the WASP family.

Set in a summer house on an island off the Northeast coast during a Fourth of July weekend in 1970, Children includes four characters who appear onstage: an affluent, attractive mother; her daughter, Barbara, a divorceé; her son, Randy; and his wife, Jane. Though a slight disruption threatens and slight violence erupts, the play ends in unrelieved, unenlightened stasis. The characters prefer withdrawing into their status quo, staying put, deeply embedded in the customary ground of their past. Here, as in Scenes from American Life, Gurney presents intelligent entertainment for a wide audience, offering an ironic portrait of a classic WASP family that is losing its identity in a changing America. Subversive forces are undermining what is eventually revealed as the hypocrisy of an entire way of life.

The Wayside Motor Inn

The Wayside Motor Inn, like Scenes from American Life, is composed of scenes that flow into each other. Five separate subplots take place simultaneously in one room of a suburban motor lodge outside Boston during the late afternoon and early evening of a spring day in the late 1970’s. Like other Gurney plays, The Wayside Motor Inn deals with decadent Americans. Each of the five plots dramatizes the plight of WASP society, underscoring the characters’ inability to escape to freedom. Such key words as “door,” “escape,” and “choose” hint at a choice, but the characters cannot bestir themselves to act decisively. They are not so much enthralled as self-entrapped. They and their language ring true to themselves and to life. They mirror, enlighten, and entertain.

A Willy Loman-type father confronts his Biff-like son to no avail, while a couple pondering divorce look out from the balcony at the world, then come back inside for a drink. A traveling salesperson bitterly chafes under the domination of the computerized world, while a young college couple can make love only when hyped up by dope and a hot tub. Another couple snap at each other between fits of sympathy, contempt, and boredom. The television in the background amplifies and extends the drama of ordinary life. These ten ordinary people find themselves at the wayside of their lives, wondering which turn to take. Their difficulties and conflicts are commonplace, but Gurney succeeds in giving them resonance by presenting them side by side, simultaneously, onstage, thereby making the ordinary seem somehow extraordinary. The diverse scenes flow into an organic whole, commenting on the dark undercurrents of modern life.

The Dining Room

Gurney scored his greatest hit with The Dining Room. In this play, the dining room becomes a metaphor for the continuity of bourgeois values, challenged by the younger generation in the latter part of the twentieth century. The space of the dining room itself—and the changing use of the space as scenes from different time periods are going on simultaneously—dramatizes the ways in which these values have been distorted. Through a humorously poignant series of vignettes, Gurney dramatizes the changing role of the classical, formal dining room through the course of three generations of WASPs. The changes are bittersweet—in some ways inevitable, but lamentable—a combination of continuity and change. Like Gurney, the little boy in the play views his great aunt’s Waterford crystal finger bowls with fascination, seeing in them the habits of a vanishing culture, a neurotic obsession with cleanliness that is associated with the guilt of the last stages of capitalism. In its combination of moral critique, satiric wit, and humane sympathy. The Dining Room epitomizes Gurney’s contribution to contemporary American drama.

The Perfect Party

Gurney’s work in the wake of The Dining Room’s success continued to explore the suburban WASP lifestyle and its decay. The Perfect Party centers on the efforts of a fiftyish college professor to host a social event that will rise to the level of great art; Gurney’s Oscar Wilde-style repartee won wide praise (the critic John Simon, however, demurred that the playwright had written nothing more substantial than “a two-act play entirely in New Yorker-caption cartoons”).

Sweet Sue and Another Antigone

In Sweet Sue, Gurney experimented with the simultaneous onstage use of two actors for each of the two central roles, but the doubling of the characters struck most reviewers as little more than an unnecessary special effect. Another Antigone is notable chiefly for its portrait of yet another middle-aged scholar, Henry Harper, an uncompromising classics professor fighting a rearguard action against the decay of Western civilization. An idealistic anachronism, Harper is a moving figure emblematic of many of Gurney’s characters, doomed to endure the extinction of a culture they cherish.

Later Life

Gurney’s 1993 comedy Later Life is again set in New England and centers on Austin, a divorced and WASPish Boston banker in his late middle age who one night unexpectedly meets an old woman friend. The woman, Ruth, whom Austin had met about thirty years before as a serviceman on the Italian island of Capri, happens to be present at a cocktail party that he attends. Ruth is still attractive and single, and the two almost spend the night together. Austin, however, acting on a presentiment that something bad is going to happen to him in the near future, kisses Ruth good-bye.

With the future now drawing nearer, the plot centers on the intriguing premonition that Austin felt and on whether the couple will this time grab the chance for happiness that is at their fingertips. Later Life, which is partly inspired by Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle (1903), once more demonstrates the playwright’s talent for satirizing New England WASPs and his ability to bring his audience not only to laugh at his characters but also to sympathize with them.


One of Gurney’s most delightfully original works is Sylvia, in which a middle-aged financial analyst (Greg) brings home a stray dog that eventually comes between his wife and him. Sylvia is one of Gurney’s most challenging and enjoyable female roles, a dog that is alternately melancholy, amorous, vulgar, aggressive, and devoted. To add another dimension to Sylvia’s irrepressible body language is that Gurney has given her the ability to speak but only to one person when no one else is in the room. To the despair of Greg’s much-put-upon wife, everyone and everything else in Greg’s life diminishes in importance except Sylvia. This insightful canine comedy about mid-life crisis and mid-marital disillusionment is a source of joy for actors and audiences alike.

Far East

In Far East, Gurney takes a more momentous turn. Set at a Japanese naval base in 1954, Far East concerns an innocent young naval officer from Milwaukee (“Sparky”) who, in search of worldly experience, commences an affair with a Japanese waitress. Sparky’s captain sees in the young officer a reminder of his own youth, while the captain’s wife, lonely in her marriage, is gradually attracted to Sparky. The subplot of another young officer who is being blackmailed by his male lover serves as a foil to the emotionally charged triangle of Sparky, the captain and the captain’s wife.

Darlene and The Guest Lecturer

From the serious to the dark comic and melodramatic, Gurney’s next effort was an evening of two one-act plays, Darlene and The Guest Lecturer. First, a housewife (Angela) becomes obsessed with a threatening note for “Darlene” mysteriously left on her car, and in the second play, a professor’s lecture on theater is interrupted by a voluble panel moderator whose intentions are strangely homicidal.

Labor Day

The versatile Gurney returned to lighthearted comedy with Labor Day, about which Gurney says, “life and art don’t mix.” Here a successful, delightfully irritable playwright (Joe) has written a play in which the characters are thinly veiled versions of his family members. When a pushy young director brings Joe offers from regional theater and possibly Broadway if major script changes could be made, Joe’s family members intrusively fight among themselves and derail the discussions with fears about how they will be portrayed.

Ancestral Voices

Gurney returns to his more traditional setting, 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. Although Gurney is deeply sympathetic to the play’s grandmother, Ancestral Voices is suffused with a gossamer veil of nostalgia for a bygone era.

Human Events and Buffalo Gal

Two new Gurney comedies were produced in 2001. Human Events involves a witty insight into campus politics when 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).


Gurney, A(lbert) R(amsdell), Jr.