Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Scenes from American Life is one play among several in which A. R. Gurney takes a satirical look at upper-middle-class WASP society. It was his first full-length play, and the first to be taken seriously by critics. Many of his earlier, shorter works, most notably The David Show (pr. 1966, pb. 1968) and The Golden Fleece (pb. 1967, pr. 1968), also use humor and satire to expose the banalities of modern life in the United States.

Scenes from American Life shows the tensions within families in several scenes; this is a theme to which Gurney has returned throughout his career. Children (pr., pb. 1974), an adaptation of a short story by John Cheever (with whose work that of Gurney has often been compared), follows one WASP family through a long weekend, presenting an image of upper-middle-class society that is less satirical but no less critical than that presented in Scenes from American Life.

Gurney’s fascination with unusual staging devices has stayed with him, as has the theme of the decline and fall of elitist society. The Dining Room (pr., pb. 1982) presents a series of vignettes occurring over three generations in one family dining room, again with a small cast playing multiple roles. Sweet Sue (pr. 1986, pb. 1987) has each character played by two actors, echoing the breaking down of individual personality with which Gurney experimented in Scenes from American Life. The Perfect Party (pr. 1985) uses qualities of the farce to tell the story of a professor trying to be the perfect host, within one of Gurney’s recurring settings: academia. His plays of the 1990’s include The Old Boy (pr. 1991, pb. 1992), Later Life (pr. 1993, pb. 1994), Sylvia (pr. 1995, pb. 1996), Far East (pr. 1998, pb. 1999), and Ancestral Voices (pr. 1999, pb. 2000).

With more than three dozen plays, musicals, script adaptations, and novels, Gurney has established a reputation as the chronicler of a society passing into extinction. In 1986, he asserted to an interviewer that he did not “have too much more to say about the subject.” Whatever other directions his work takes, he remains an important critic of American WASP society—important because he has written of its fallen idols with affection and wit.