Authors: Christopher Durang

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works

Drama:

The Greatest Musical Ever Sung, pr. 1971

The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, wr. 1971, pr. 1975 (radio play), pr. 1979 (staged)

Better Dead than Sorry, pr. 1972 (libretto; music by Jack Feldman)

I Don’t Generally Like Poetry but Have You Read “Trees”?, pr. 1972 (with Albert Innaurato)

The Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor: Or, Gyp, pr. 1973 (with Innaurato)

The Marriage of Bette and Boo, pr. 1973, revised pr. 1979

The Idiots Karamazov, pr., pb. 1974, augmented pb. 1981 (with Innaurato; music by Feldman)

Titanic, pr. 1974

Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes, pr. 1975

When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, pr. 1975 (with Wendy Wasserstein)

’dentity Crisis, pr. 1975

Das Lusitania Songspiel, pr. 1976 (with Sigourney Weaver; music by Mel Marvin and Jack Gaughan)

A History of the American Film, pr. 1976

The Vietnamization of New Jersey (An American Tragedy), pr. 1976

Three Short Plays, pb. 1979

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, pr. 1979

The Actor’s Nightmare, pr., pb. 1981

Beyond Therapy, pr. 1981

Christopher Durang Explains It All for You, pb. 1983

Baby with the Bathwater, pr., pb. 1983

Sloth, pr. 1985

Laughing Wild, pr. 1987

Naomi in the Living Room, pr. 1991

Media Amok, pr. 1992

Durang/Durang, pr. 1994, pb. 1996 (6 short plays; Mrs. Sorken, For Whom the Belle Tolls, A Stye of the Eye, Nina in the Morning, Wanda’s Visit, and Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room)

Collected Works, pb. 1995-1997 (2 volumes; volume 1, Twenty-seven Short Plays; volume 2, Complete Full-Length Plays, 1975-1995)

Sex and Longing, pr. 1996

Betty’s Summer Vacation, pr. 1998

Screenplay:

Beyond Therapy, 1987

Biography

Coming of age in a small town in New Jersey and going to Catholic school were major influences on Christopher Ferdinand Durang, a playwright who has been called one of the most promising of his generation. The marriage between Durang’s father, an architect, and his mother, a secretary and homemaker, was troubled and eventually led to divorce. Durang wrote his first play when he was in the second grade at a school in Morristown, New Jersey, run by Benedictine priests. The play was only two pages long, but it was followed by others. By the time Durang was in eighth grade, one of his plays was produced at the school.{$I[AN]9810001247}{$I[A]Durang, Christopher}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Durang, Christopher}{$I[tim]1949;Durang, Christopher}

After matriculating at Harvard University, Durang expected to start writing seriously, but he found himself to be intimidated by his surroundings and spent most of his time skipping classes and going to the cinema. Then in his senior year, inspired by a flier about the personnel strikes at the university, he wrote The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, a vicious satire on the schism between the demands and expectations of the Catholic Church and the realities of middle-class life in the United States. The play is also humorous and helped secure Durang’s acceptance at the Yale School of Drama.

Durang thrived at Yale. He wrote prolifically and acted in many student productions. From his time at Yale came several of the works that were to be produced on and off Broadway in the following years. The short plays ’dentity Crisis, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, The Idiots Karamazov, Titanic, and Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes were written while Durang attended Yale. Most of them are stylistic experiments. The Idiots Karamazov, written with Albert Innaurato, is emblematic of the weaknesses of these early works; a slightly sophomoric hodgepodge of literary quotes, it comes across as a very long literary joke.

The surprising thing about these early plays is their great craftsmanship. The dialogue is an unstoppable gush of bubbly jokes, and the characters are clearly delineated, though sometimes to the point of being one-dimensional caricatures. Durang’s characters in the early works embody ideas, theories, and social stereotypes rather than being real men and women. The plays make use of the Brechtian device of Verfremdung (estrangement); they discourage the audience from seeing the characters and their actions as individual and personal. Instead, the characters become vehicles for the author’s vision of an absurd world where values and actions are disconnected.

A History of the American Film received its debut on Broadway. The critics by and large liked the play, but the show never developed a popular following. Several other Durang plays were produced Off-Broadway, with only moderate success, though two deserved better: the satiric work The Vietnamization of New Jersey, about the adjustment to the post-Vietnam era, and the uncharacteristically mellow Beyond Therapy, which satirizes Freudian psychotherapy and the singles game. The Vietnamization of New Jersey is especially poignant, for it records a Vietnam veteran’s return to his middle-class family in New Jersey after the war. David, the veteran, wants to make his family see that the war was unjust, while everyone around him refuses to see or hear anything unpleasant or even to acknowledge the Vietnam War.

Success came to Durang with a play he wrote in a period when he was depressed because of his mother’s hopeless fight against cancer. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You includes a scene in which a young woman tries to come to grips with her grief and guilt about her mother’s dying of cancer. The play’s protagonist is the feisty Sister Mary Ignatius, who is convinced that the Church is indeed infallible and that she is doing the right thing when she shoots and kills a former student who has confessed to being homosexual. The nun shoots him just after he has confessed, because, as she triumphantly declares, “I’ve sent him to Heaven!” Durang catches the innate absurdity of a “morality” that will not allow a man to love a person of his own gender but will send someone to Heaven–no matter what they have done–as long as they have confessed.

One of Durang’s best plays is also one of his longest: The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which played to generally enthusiastic reviews at the Public Theatre in New York in 1985. Humorous, moving, rich in its tapestry of characters and situations, the play chronicles the marriage between two characters who are not caricatures but real humans. The author still uses the distancing device to some extent, and the central relationship and its effects on those who come in contact with the central protagonists are seen through the veil of slightly farcical comedy; the characters never lose their reality, however, and the audience is able to become involved while also able, indeed forced, to maintain a critical and intellectual distance from them. In this play Durang cleverly uses the Pirandelloesque device of using as the narrator the adult son, who from time to time enters the action as himself. At the same time that the narrator adds historical and narrative distance, he also helps make the central relationship real by showing how his parents’ marriage influenced and shaped him. The Marriage of Bette and Boo demonstrates more clearly than any of Durang’s earlier works that he is a writer who has both a distinct voice and something to say.

In his play Laughing Wild, Durang returned to the long monologue delivered directly to the audience, the style he had used so successfully in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. The first act depicts a woman who is thwarted in the supermarket when trying to purchase a can of tuna fish. The second act depicts the man who unknowingly thwarted her, explaining his side of the story. The final act is a series of “blackout sketches” between the man and woman that delivers a barrage of satiric comments upon life in New York City. Durang has also concentrated on one-act satires. Many of these, like For Whom the Belle Tolls, are hysterically funny.

A more serious and disturbing play, Sex and Longing, tells of Lulu, a nymphomaniac whose roommate is a sexually compulsive homosexual. Lulu is attacked by a serial killer; her savior, a fundamentalist preacher, first converts her, then later rapes her. Betty’s Summer Vacation begins as a comedic farce but soon spins out of control. Betty is spending her vacation at a time-share by the beach with five bizarre strangers, one of whom is a serial killer. The American fascination with sensationalism on television is a theme again.

BibliographyBrustein, Robert. “The Crack in the Chimney: Reflections on Contemporary American Playwriting.” Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 21-29. A discussion of The Vietnamization of New Jersey, set against the more serious examination of the work of David Rabe, in Sticks and Bones.Durang, Christopher. Introduction to Christopher Durang Explains It All for You. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. The introduction to this collection of six plays is a tongue-in-cheek autobiography, written in 1982, that includes anecdotes about playwriting classes under Howard Stein and Jules Feiffer and early psychiatric counseling.Durang, Christopher. “Suspending Disbelief: An Interview with the Playwright by Himself.” American Theater 16, no. 10 (December 1999): 37. A sardonic “interview” in which Durang discusses the writing of Betty’s Summer Vacation, recurrent themes in his work, and future plans. Includes the full text of Betty’s Summer Vacation.Flippo, Chet. “Is Broadway Ready for Christopher Durang?” New York 15 (March 15, 1982): 40-43. “I was very depressed about how depressed I got,” says Durang in this chatty, readable conversation. Discusses his early revues at Harvard University and cabaret pieces for the Yale School of Drama, his collaboration with Sigourney Weaver, and his development as a “fearless satirist.” Demures on describing his vision of the world. Three photographs.Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. A brief overview is followed by a protracted interview, centering on biographical history, the development of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and Durang’s writing habits. Durang sees advantages to filmmaking (if the playwright’s script is not desecrated as with Beyond Therapy), including reaching a larger audience and enjoying more permanence.Weales, Gerald. “American Theater Watch, 1981-1982.” The Georgia Review 36 (Fall, 1982): 517-526. Weales offers insightful comments on Durang’s comic style, but he is not impressed by his structure or depth. Drawn from interviews in The New York Times, this article summarizes critics’ first reactions to this new voice.
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