Universe, pr. 1949
Theatre Girl, pr. 1959
The Toadstool Boy, pr. 1960
Did You Write My Name in the Snow?, pr. 1962
The Golden Cherub, pr. 1962(?)
To Wally Pantoni, We Leave a Credenza, pr. 1964
The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year, pr. 1966
Something I’ll Tell You Tuesday, pr. 1966
Muzeeka, pr. 1967 (one act)
Cop-Out, pr. 1968
Home Fires, pr. 1968
A Play by Brecht, pr. 1969 (libretto; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule)
A Day for Surprises, pr., pb. 1970
The House of Blue Leaves, pr., pb. 1971
Two Gentlemen of Verona, pr. 1971 (with Mel Shapiro; music by Galt MacDermot; adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play)
Marco Polo Sings a Solo, pr. 1973
Optimism: Or, The Misadventures of Candide, pr. 1973 (with Harold Stone; adaptation of Voltaire’s novel)
Rich and Famous, pr. 1974
Landscape of the Body, pr. 1977
Bosoms and Neglect, pr. 1979
In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes, pr. 1979
A New Me, pr. 1981
Gardenia, pr., pb. 1982
Lydie Breeze, pr., pb. 1982
Women and Water, pr. 1984
The Talking Dog, pr. 1986 (one act; based on a story by Anton Chekhov)
Moon over Miami, pr. 1988
Six Degrees of Separation, pr., pb. 1990
Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, pr. 1992
The War Against the Kitchen Sink, pb. 1996
The General of Hot Desire, pr., pb. 1999
The General of Hot Desire, and Other Plays, pb. 1999
Lake Hollywood, pr. 1999
A Book of Judith, pr. 2000
Lydie Breeze, pr. 2000, pb. 2001 (revision of Lydie Breeze and Gardenia)
Chaucer in Rome, pr. 2001
Sweet Smell of Success, pr. 2001 (libretto; lyrics by Craig Carnelia, music by Marvin Hamlisch; adaptation of Clifford Odets’s screenplay)
A Few Stout Individuals, pr. 2002
Taking Off, 1971 (with Miloš Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière)
Atlantic City, 1981
Six Degrees of Separation, 1993
Kissing Sweet, 1969
Chuck Close: Life and Work, 1988-1995, 1995
John Guare (gwar) excels at writing plays that combine Strindbergian domestic dramas, savage farce, autobiography, and a sense of the ridiculous. He was born in Queens, a borough of New York City, to parents he would later describe as “very bright, very unhappy people,” who frequently left him alone. He turned to writing plays at the age of eleven as a way to lessen his sense of isolation. He maintained this interest by going to the theater weekly and listening to recordings of musicals, his favorite form. He was educated in Catholic schools, receiving a B.A. from Georgetown University in 1961. He then went to Yale University, from which he graduated in 1963 with an M.F.A. Yet he was dissatisfied with the emphasis placed on writing traditional plays with a logical structure. While Guare was in the Air Force reserve, he rejected Catholicism. He spent the next years as a reader for a London publishing house; in the spring of 1965, he hitchhiked through Europe. During all this time, Guare was working on one-act plays, the mode with which he felt most comfortable.
Guare’s one-act plays foreshadow both the thematic concerns and the stylistic approach of his later work. The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year is an absurd but touching play about two lonely people who choose to be murdered by the man’s wife rather than be separated. Guare wrote Muzeeka when he was involved in the Vietnam War protest movement. The protagonist, Jack Argue, stabs himself in order to avoid coming home to a job in a cesspool company after serving in the war. The play is an attack not so much on the war as on the superficiality of the American media, which celebrate brutality and violence. The play received an Obie Award, given to Off-Broadway productions.
In Guare’s next play, Cop-Out, which earned him an Obie for “Most Promising Playwright,” he alternates between presenting a love story between two protesters and illustrating episodes from the life of a policeman. With this juxtaposition of two styles and stories, Guare suggests that police brutality is a result of the media-created image. All of Guare’s one-act plays have a “macabre cartoonlike quality,” which also marks his full-length works.
The House of Blue Leaves, which won for Guare the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best American play, is one of Guare’s best-known plays. It had a successful New York revival in 1986. The principal characters have great depth and humanity, and the plot is more coherent than in many of his other works. Guare attacks Catholicism and “show biz” for promoting “dreams and phony promises.” The action takes place on the day the pope visits New York. Artie Shaughnessy, a middle-aged zookeeper, wants to commit Bananas, his insane wife, so that he can go to Hollywood with his mistress and become a songwriter. Each of the characters is so entrapped in his or her own desires for success that the needs of others go unrecognized. As in the one-act plays, the frustration of the characters erupts into violence. Artie’s son Ronnie tries to assassinate the pope, and Artie strangles Bananas and retreats completely into his own fantasy world. The play is based, in part, on Guare’s relationship with his own parents and with humiliating incidents from his childhood. He has said that “avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.”
Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock musical written with Mel Shapiro, was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical and Tony Awards for best musical and best libretto. William Shakespeare’s play is transposed to New York and San Juan, and the theme of love’s ability to change people is treated in an optimistic way. Guare goes on to treat this same theme more pessimistically in Marco Polo Sings a Solo, a science-fiction comedy set in 1999, and Rich and Famous, where he focuses on the drive to succeed at any cost. Landscape of the Body explores Guare’s recurring themes of alienation, change, and violence. He uses the framework of a murder mystery, through which a mother examines her reasons for killing her only son. Bosoms and Neglect dramatizes the consequences of parental neglect on a son, who can, like so many of Guare’s characters, only communicate through violence. While Bosoms and Neglect is the most naturalistic of Guare’s full-length plays, it is marked by the same black and savage humor that pervades all of his work.
Six Degrees of Separation, winner of an Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, depicts the deceptive lure of the American success ethic in showing a young black con man living out a fantasy to be part of upper-class society by posing as actor Sidney Poitier’s son. Guare’s most successful play since The House of Blue Leaves, this protean mainstream drama with dimensional characters and conventional structure was preceded by other uncharacteristically realistic works. Lydie Breeze, Gardenia, and Women and Water, a bleak trilogy demonstrating cultural and moral decay, traces four Nantucket commune members’ lives backward from 1895 to the Civil War. Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, produced in 1992, concerns the failing passion of newly-wed archaeologists on a dig.
In writing a preface for The War Against the Kitchen Sink, a 1996 collection of his early plays, Guare had to reflect on his earliest work. One result, Guare said in a 1999 interview, was a reworking of a 1966 play that would become Lake Hollywood in 1999. Throughout the 1990’s, he reworked his Lydie Breeze plays, culminating in a 1998 staging of the whole cycle. The General of Hot Desire is a deconstruction of the book of Genesis by a group of English literature students. The decade ended with the publication of another collection of Guare’s shorter plays.
One of its characters in the 2001 comedy Chaucer in Rome, Ron Shaughnessy, is the son of the protagonist of The House of Blue Leaves. The boy who wanted to blow up the pope in the earlier play is now a middle-aged pilgrim visiting Rome. The twin themes of Guare’s Rich and Famous are revisited in the 2002 play A Few Stout Individuals, in which a once-wealthy man whose son dissipated his fortune can regain it with a multimillion-dollar book deal for his memoirs.
John Guare’s plays are characterized by specific and recurrent themes. He dramatizes the failure of parent-child relationships, the lack of communication within the family, the drive for success, and the escape into fantasy when reality becomes too much to bear. The plays challenge the banality of American culture and the media. Guare’s use of farce, irony, and seriocomic techniques achieved through the juxtaposition of the ridiculous with the painful is apparent in many plays. Although much of Guare’s canon is not sufficiently mainstream to be easily capable of winning popular or critical acceptance, most critics applaud his wit and his theatrical inventiveness. Beneath Guare’s ironic comment on American mores lies a strong belief in humanity. His dark vision, and the means he uses to project that vision, set him apart from his contemporaries. He remains one of America’s most interesting and imaginative playwrights.