The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Scenes from American Life is a collection of nearly forty short scenes connected by scraps of period music, each scene showing a glimpse of life in upper-middle-class Buffalo over the course of about fifty years. A few of the characters appear in more than one scene, but most do not. Most of the characters are not even named; each is instantly recognizable, however, by his or her type.

The play begins in the early 1930’s, with the entrance of a maid carrying a tray of martinis. She is followed by a group of guests, including a Godfather and Godmother, and finally by Father, the Bishop, and Mother, who carries a doll dressed in an elaborate christening gown. As Father and the Bishop talk about the new son who has just been christened, Mother worries that the child has no suitable nickname.

This first scene sets the tone for those that will follow. Conversation during the party turns to the Depression (which affects other people, but not these), the high-quality bootleg gin smuggled in for the event, the baby’s sterling silver presents, proper manners, and the Bible. These are well-to-do white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), with nothing more pressing on their minds than getting through this party. As the scene ends with the baby’s tipsy Godmother spilling her drink on the child, Mother finds the perfect nickname for him: Snoozer, “because he sleeps through everything.”

The next scene, which lasts only about a minute, occurs in or just before the 1970’s, with a Speaker explaining to an audience the history behind the name Buffalo. He and Snoozer, the Speaker says, have discovered that the name is not from the animal, but from the French beau fleuve, meaning “beautiful river.” As great ships once floated into Buffalo’s port, he explains, the city now should float a new bond issue to build a stadium of which the city can be proud.

With the third scene, the play returns to the 1930’s, this time presenting a Mother (but not Snoozer’s mother)...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Scenes from American Life is a picture of an entire social class, not of specific individuals or families, and A. R. Gurney emphasizes this universality through the device of having each of his actors play several parts. In the course of the play’s nearly forty scenes, more than one hundred different characters speak, and several others ad-lib in the background. Gurney’s script calls for a much smaller cast—four men and four women, each appearing in several scenes. To weaken individual identities further, Gurney insists that the roles be distributed so that, for example, an actor playing a father in one scene plays the father in another. The only repeating characters are Snoozer’s father and mother, who are played by the same actors in the play’s first and last scenes.

Gurney uses set and costume to advance his message that his view of WASP society is not limited to specific people or times. His prescribed set is a stark and simple one, with no drawing-room walls or background landscapes that might become familiar and seem to refer to specific places. Instead, a nearly bare stage with different levels or focal points, and simple chairs or other props carried in and out by the actors, enable the setting to shift quickly from a living room to a church to a car to a ski lift, smoothly and without interruption for set changes. The play covers many people and many moments, and each individual scene must flow smoothly into the next so that...

(The entire section is 511 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barnes, Clive. “Scenes from American Life at the Forum.” New York Times, March 26, 1971, p. 33.

Gottfried, Martin. Review in New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews 32 (June 13, 1971): 271.

Gurney, A. R., Jr. “The Dinner Party.” American Heritage 39 (September/October, 1988): 69-71.

Hughes, Catharine. “New York.” Plays and Players 18 (June, 1971): 30-32.

Oliver, Edith. Review in The New Yorker, April 3, 1971, 95-97.

Strachen, Alan. “A. R. Gurney.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.