Authors: A. R. Gurney, Jr.

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works

Drama:

Three People, pb. 1956

Turn of the Century, pb. 1958

Love in Buffalo, pr. 1958

The Bridal Dinner, pb. 1961

The Comeback, pr. 1964

The Open Meeting, pr. 1965

The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, pr. 1966

The David Show, pr. 1966

The Golden Fleece, pb. 1967

The Problem, pb. 1968

The Love Course, pb. 1969

Scenes from American Life, pr., pb. 1970

The Old One-Two, pb. 1971

Children, pr., pb. 1974 (adaptation of John Cheever’s short story “Goodbye, My Brother”)

Who Killed Richard Cory?, pr., pb. 1976

The Middle Ages, pr. 1977

The Wayside Motor Inn, pr. 1977

The Golden Age, pr. 1981

The Dining Room, pr., pb. 1982

What I Did Last Summer, pr. 1982

The Perfect Party, pr. 1985

Another Antigone, pr. 1986

Sweet Sue, pr. 1986

The Cocktail Hour, pr. 1988

Love Letters, pr. 1988

The Old Boy, pr. 1991

The Snow Ball, pr. 1991 (adaptation of his novel)

The Fourth Wall, pr. 1992

Later Life, pr. 1993

A Cheever Evening, pr., pb. 1994 (adaptation of Cheever’s stories)

Collected Works, pb. 1995-2000 (4 volumes)

Sylvia, pr. 1995

Overtime, pr. 1995

Far East, pr. 1998

Darlene, pr. 1998

The Guest Lecturer, pr. 1998

Labor Day, pr. 1998

Ancestral Voices, pr. 1999

Strawberry Fields, pr. 1999 (libretto)

Buffalo Gal, pr. 2001

Human Events, pr. 2001

Long Fiction:

The Gospel According to Joe, 1974

Entertaining Strangers, 1977

The Snow Ball, 1984

Screenplay:

The House of Mirth, 1972 (adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel)

Teleplays:

O Youth and Beauty, 1979 (based on a short story by John Cheever)

Love Letters, 1999

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810001211}{$I[A]Gurney, A. R., Jr.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gurney, A. R., Jr.}{$I[tim]1930;Gurney, A. R., Jr.}

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 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.

BibliographyBarnes, Clive. “Wasps, No Sting.” New York Post, May 6, 1991. The Playwrights Horizons, a tryout house for much good work in New York, presented The Old Boy, to the disdain of Barnes: “The whole cast goes flat out …but the play, for all its evident demonstration of skills, just goes flat.” Good synopsis, however, of the play’s themes and plot.DiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. In this valuable resource, Gurney offers his observations about his life, plays, and writing process.Gurney, A. R. “Here’s to Playwright A. R. Gurney.” Interview by Daryl H. Miller. L.A. Daily News, April 13, 1990. The Canon Theatre’s production of Love Letters coincided with previews of The Cocktail Hour at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood. This biographical interview brings both plays, and Gurney’s successful The Dining Room, into perspective. The Cocktail Hour “examines the differences between the new and the old WASP,” Gurney remarks.Rizzo, Frank. “A Gentle Man, a Civil Man, and Theater’s Favorite Playwright WASP.” Courant (Hartford, Conn.), February 10, 1991. Based on informal interviews during rehearsal breaks for the Hartford Stage Company’s production of The Snow Ball, this piece discusses Gurney’s involvement with the Dramatist Guild’s dispute with the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), examines his WASP image, and reports his screenplay work for Love Letters.Williams, Albert. “Gurney Cuts Loose–Sort Of.” American Theatre 10, no. 10 (October, 1993): 12. This interview covers Gurney’s play Later Life and his observations on the importance of touching young people through theater.Winn, Steven. “Letters Notes Change in Star System.” San Francisco Examiner, December 17, 1989. Praising the “deft and graceful script” of Love Letters, Winn describes the performance (here with John Rubinstein and Stockard Channing) as “a beautifully tooled vehicle for pure acting,” unlike the big “ensemble” shows of Broadway, such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
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