Gurney, A(lbert) R(amsdell), Jr. 1930-(Peter Gurney)
GURNEY, A(lbert) R(amsdell), Jr. 1930-(Peter Gurney)
PERSONAL: Born November 1, 1930, in Buffalo, NY; son of Albert Ramsdell (in real estate) and Marion (Spaulding) Gurney; married Mary Goodyear, 1957; children: George, Amy, Evelyn, Benjamin. Ethnicity: "WASP." Education: Williams College, B.A., 1952; Yale University, M.F.A., 1958.
ADDRESSES: Home—40 Wellers Bridge Rd., Roxbury, CT 06783. Office—120 West 70th St., New York, NY 10023. Agent—Gilbert Parker, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: Teacher of English and Latin at day school in Belmont, MA, 1959-60; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, professor of humanities, 1960-96, professor of literature, 1970-96. Military service: Served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, 1952-55.
MEMBER: Author's League of America, Writers Guild, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Everett Baker Teaching Award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1969; Drama Desk Award, 1971; Rockefeller playwright-inresidence award, 1977; National Education Association playwriting award, 1981-82; National Endowment for the Arts award, 1982; McDermott Award for the Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1984; D.D.L., Williams College, 1984; award of merit, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1987; New England Conference Annual Award for Greater Achievement, 1987; Lucile Locke Award for outstanding production, 1988-89; Elliot Norton Award, 1990; D.D.L., Buffalo State University, 1992; Lucille Lortel Award, 1994; American Community Theatre Award, 1996.
Love in Buffalo, produced in New Haven, CT, 1958.
Tom Sawyer (musical), first produced in Kansas City, MO, at Starlight Theatre, July, 1959.
The Bridal Dinner, produced in Cambridge, MA, 1962.
(Under pseudonym Peter Gurney) Around the World in Eighty Days (two-act musical; based on the book by Jules Verne), Dramatic Publishing, 1962.
The Rape of Bunny Stuntz (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Unit, Cherry Lane Theatre, 1962), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1964.
The Comeback (one-act; first produced in Cambridge, MA, at Image Theatre, May, 1965), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1966.
The Open Meeting (one-act; first produced in Boston, MA, at The Atma Coffee House Theatre, January, 1965), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1968.
The David Show (one-act; first produced in Tangle-wood, MA, 1966; produced in New York, NY, at Players Theatre, October, 1968), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1968.
The Problem (one-act; first produced in London, England, at King's Head Theatre, March, 1973; produced in New York, NY, at Soho Repertory Theatre, January, 1978), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1968.
Tonight in Living Color (contains The David Show and The Golden Fleece), first produced in New York, NY, at Actors Playhouse, June 10, 1969.
The Love Course (one-act; first produced in Boston, MA, 1970; produced in London, England, at King's Head Theatre, July, 1974; produced in New York, NY, 1976), Samuel French, 1969.
Scenes from American Life (two-act; first produced in Tanglewood, MA, 1970; produced in New York, NY, at Lincoln Center, March, 1971), Samuel French, 1970.
The Old One-Two (one-act; first produced in Waltham, MA, at Brandeis University, 1973; produced in London, England, at King's Head Theatre, August, 1975), Samuel French, 1971.
Children (two-act; suggested by short story "Goodbye, My Brother," by John Cheever; first produced in London, England, at Mermaid Theatre, April, 1974; produced in New York, NY, at Manhattan Theatre Club, November, 1976), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1975.
Who Killed Richard Cory? (one-act; first produced in New York, NY, at Circle Repertory Theatre, March, 1976; revision produced as Richard Cory in Williamstown, MA, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1986), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1976.
The Middle Ages (first produced In Los Angeles, CA, at Mark Taper Forum Laboratory, 1977; produced in New York, NY, at Theatre at St. Peter's, March, 1983), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1978.
The Wayside Motor Inn (first produced in New York, NY, at Manhattan Theatre Club, 1977), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1979.
The Golden Age (first produced in London, England, at Greenwich Theatre, 1981; produced in New York, NY, at Jack Lawrence Theatre, March, 1984), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1981.
The Dining Room (first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, February, 1982), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1982.
What I Did Last Summer (first produced in New York, NY, at Circle Repertory Company, February, 1983), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1983.
Four Plays (contains Scenes from American Life, Children, The Middle Ages, and The Dining Room), Avon (New York, NY), 1985.
The Perfect Party (two-act; first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, April, 1986; produced in London, England, at Greenwich Theatre, 1987), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1986.
Sweet Sue, first produced in Williamstown, MA, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1986; produced on Broadway at Music Box Theatre, January, 1987.
Another Antigone (produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, January, 1988), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
Love Letters (first produced in New Haven, CT, at Long Wharf Theatre, 1988; produced in New York, NY, at Promenade Theatre, 1989), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
(And author of introduction) The Cocktail Hour and Two Other Plays: Another Antigone and The Perfect Party, Plume Press (New York, NY), 1989.
(And author of introduction) Love Letters and Two Other Plays: The Golden Age and What I Did Last Summer, Plume Press (New York, NY), 1990.
The Snow Ball (adaptation of the novel; produced in Hartford, CT, by Hartford Stage Company, February, 1991), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
The Old Boy (first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, April, 1991), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1992.
The Fourth Wall (first produced in Westport, CT, at Westport Country Playhouse, August, 1992), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1994.
Later Life (first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, 1993), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1994.
(And author of introduction) Later Life and Two Other Plays: The Snow Ball and The Old Boy, Plume Press (New York, NY), 1994.
A Cheever Evening: A New Play Based on the Stories of John Cheever (first produced in New York, NY, at Playwrights Horizons, October, 1994), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1995.
A. R. Gurney: Early Plays, Smith & Kraus (Lyme, NH), Volume 1: 1961-1973, 1995, Volume 2: 1974-1983, 1997.
Sylvia (first produced in New York, NY, at Manhattan Theatre Club, May, 1995), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1996.
Let's Do It (musical), first produced in New Haven, CT, at Long Wharf Theatre, March, 1996.
Labor Day, (first produced in San Diego, CA, at Old Globe Theatre, 1998), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1999.
Far East, first produced in New York, NY, 1999.
Ancestral Voices: A Family Story, first produced in New York, NY, 2000.
Collected Plays, Smith & Kraus (Lyme, NH), Volume 1: 1961-1973, Volume 2: 1974-1983, Volume 3: 1984-1991, Volume 4: 1992-1999, Volume 5: 1991-1995, 2002.
Also author of Nine Early Plays, 1961-1973, Smith & Kraus (Lyme, NH); contributor of play Three People, published in The Best Short Plays 1955-56, edited by Margaret Mayorga, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1956, and Turn of the Century, in The Best Short Plays 1957-58, edited by Margaret Mayorga, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1958; also contributor of plays to anthologies, including The Best Short Plays, 1969, Chilton (Radnor, PA), 1970; The Best Short Plays, 1970, Chilton (Radnor, PA), 1971; and The Best Short Plays of 1991.
The House of Mirth, 1972.
The Hit List, 1988.
Love Letters, Columbia, 1991.
Sylvia, Paramount, 1995.
The Golden Fleece (broadcast on N.E.T. Playhouse), National Educational Television (now Public Broadcasting Service), November 8, 1969.
O Youth and Beauty (adapted from the John Cheever story; broadcast on Great Performances), Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV), 1979.
The Dining Room (based on his play; broadcast on Great Performances), PBS-TV, 1984.
The Hit List (broadcast on Trying Times), PBS-TV, 1989.
The Gospel According to Joe, Harper (New York, NY), 1974.
Entertaining Strangers, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1977.
The Snow Ball, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1984.
Also author of Early American, 1996.
Public Affairs, Samuel French, 1992.
Collected Works, Smith & Kraus (Lyme, NH), 1995.
Strawberry Fields (opera), 1999.
Contributor to periodicals, including American Heritage and New York Times.
ADAPTATIONS: A musical version of Richard Cory by Ed Dixon was produced in Waterford, CT, at the O'Neill Theatre, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: "In comedies such as The Dining Room and The Middle Ages, playwright A. R. Gurney, Jr. has claimed [novelist] John Cheever's territory for the stage," declared the New York Times's Frank Rich. Indeed, Gurney's plays are peopled with the kind of upper-class WASP characters not seen on stage for many years beforehand. And yet the Buffalo, New York-born Gurney would be the first to admit he doesn't enjoy being pigeonholed as a "WASP" writer. "I'm not a stereotype," he told Charlotte Curtis in a New York Times interview. "I don't own a suit."
When not writing plays, Gurney taught literature for many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dramatic influences seem steeped in the classics. "Of course, all playwrights everywhere have long been used to dancing in various chains," he noted in a New York Times article he himself wrote. "Aeschylus was bound by the ritual rule that only two characters on stage at one time were allowed to exchange dialogue. Moliere had to be scrupulously tactful about church and court under the shadow of Louis XIV. Samuel Beckett embraces and makes a virtue of the very spareness which good contemporary drama is asked to impose upon itself." Gurney added, "I used to tell my students that it is the very pressure of these esthetic restrictions that gives drama so much of its particular power. I would point to the thrilling resonances of offstage events in Greek drama, or the special sense of enclosed space that emerges in Ibsen and Chekhov. 'What's left out lends importance to what's put in,' I'd say, and we'd explore the glories of artistic structure, as in the sonnet, or the sonata form, or a good play."
Gurney brings this sense of structure to his own works. Reviewing Children, a 1974 play, Plays and Players writer Sandy Wilson expressed surprise that this piece, unlike many of its contemporaries, eschewed counter-cultural theatrical techniques so popular at the time. "Can it be?" Wilson asked rhetorically. "Is this that dear, forgotten, old-fashioned thing, a Good Play?. . . I am not going to be bored, or baffled. I am not going to be preached at or bludgeoned over the head with statistics or propaganda. And I am not going to be shocked, brutalised, outraged or assaulted." In Children, continued Wilson, Gurney has created "a soundly structured piece, absorbing, amusing, occasionally exciting and finally very moving, about the tensions of a middle-class American family on a July the Fourth week-end." Though New York Post critic Martin Gottfried was less enthusiastic about Children—he found the play "an excellent subject but Gurney has explored it only in an illustrative way and even then, he's wandered"—the reviewer added that Gurney is "a talented writer. [In the past] his Scenes from American Life successfully presented the promise of a dramatic intelligence directed toward the middle class that is too often ignored by our stage. That intelligence and interest are present in [Children]."
In one of Gurney's best-known plays, The Dining Room, all the action takes place in the titular room, which "represents not a particular home or family, but a host of such dining rooms peopled by families in varying degrees of stability or disintegration," according to Gerald Weales in a Commonweal review. As in his other plays, in The Dining Room Gurney takes a satiric look at the mores and manners of WASP society. One young character, for instance, attends dinner with his camera, intending to make a study of "the eating habits of various vanishing cultures—the WASPs of Northeastern United States," and diligently shoots his aunt's finger bowls.
The Dining Room "isn't flawless," noted Rich, "but it's often funny and rueful and, by the end, very moving. [The playwright has] learned some lessons well. If he doesn't share [John Cheever's] gift for subtlety, he does share his compassion and ability to create individual characters within a milieu that might otherwise seem as homogenous as white bread. Though dozens of people whirl in and out of Mr. Gurney's metaphorical dining room, they all come through as clearly and quickly as the voices we hear in a Cheever story like 'The Enormous Radio.'" Though New Republic critic Robert Brustein complained that in The Dining Room the playwright has offered less a dramatic story than a depiction of a dying class, London Times critic Irving Wardle found that "Gurney has a wonderful ear for the evasive nuances of authoritarian speech: particularly for pre-war parents coaxing their children before exploding into defeated commands, or employers putting in long-suffering requests to the kitchen staff ('Sometimes I think it is almost better if we do things ourselves')."
Traditional values are reflected in the very titles of two other Gurney plays, The Middle Ages and The Golden Age. In the former, the setting is the paneled trophy room of an exclusive men's club, where Gurney "actually makes us mourn for people who, at their worst, use expressions like 'perfectly ghastly' and raise their eyebrows over any proper name that sounds Jewish (whole cities like Harrisburg not excepted)," as Rich put it. In a Nation article Richard Gilman grouped The Middle Ages with The Dining Room as two plays that "display most of Gurney's methods and concerns. They wander around in time—The Middle Ages begins in the mid-1940s and ends in the late 1970s—their scenes are connected not by narrative progression but by a ruling idea, and they deal with aspects of WASP life."
The Golden Age, by contrast, examines the past as seen through the eyes of just one character, an aging woman who was friends with the author F. Scott Fitzgerald during the 1920s and who may have in her possession a lost chapter of Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby. Sparked by the challenge of finding it, a young writer, Tom, befriends the woman, moving into her home, tentatively romancing her reclusive granddaughter, and rummaging through her personal items in search of the lost chapter. Rich found that this formula did not work for Gurney: The play "fails," he commented in a New York Times piece, "because [the] characters are too pale and unconvincing to turn [the] plot into either drama or high comedy."
Another foray into WASP country sets the scene for The Perfect Party. In this comedy, the protagonist, a middle-aged professor named Tony, prepares a sumptuous affair for every notable person he knows. "Like past Gurney heroes, Tony is of two minds about his patrician lot and prerogatives," Rich said in another New York Times review. The high-born attitudes of the guests and Tony's wife, Sally, do not help him sort out his feelings. Rich added that "when the party finally gets under way (offstage, in Act II), it proves a Wagnerian social event that is variously likened to everything from Gatsby to Citizen Kane to 'civilization itself.'" To Rich, "The Perfect Party seemed to be a metaphor for the relationship between a playwright, his audience and his critics—with a strong statement about esthetics thrown in." The critic also labeled this play as "surely Mr. Gurney's funniest, meanest and most theatrical play yet."
Following a production of Sweet Sue, a comedy that finds two actors playing every character onstage, Gurney produced Another Antigone and The Cocktail Hour, each deeply critical of prevailing upper-class attitudes. Another Antigone examines modern anti-Semitism as seen through the characters of a middle-aged WASP professor at odds with his young, strident Jewish student. In The Cocktail Hour a genteel couple faces public humiliation when their son writes a stinging play about their society. Rich declared that even after years of skewering the upper classes, Gurney "still has new and witty observations to make about a nearly extinct patrician class that regards psychiatry as an affront to good manners, underpaid hired help as a birthright and the selling of blue-chip stocks as a first step toward Marxism."
Ancestral Voices is the story of a boy's pain when his grandparents divorce. The story is told as a flashback, with the boy, now grown, recalling the experience. In a review for Variety, Charles Isherwood described Ancestral Voices as "a pleasant if minor addition to the Gurney canon," adding, "Gurney's tone is gently comic, moistened with a nostalgic affection for his nicely evoked milieu." Brad Schreiber of Back Stage West found the play to be ultimately disappointing for its flat ending, bumpy transitions, and loose structure. In contrast, Robert Windeler of Back Stage found that this "latest exploration of his [Gurney's] Buffalo WASP roots is in some ways his finest."
Many of Gurney's plays have been published as collections, much to the delight of his admirers, whether readers, audience members, or critics. In a review of Collected Plays, Volume 3 for Booklist, Ray Olson wrote of the plays: "Their wit, sympathy, honest if often restrained emotion, and their literary distinction are Gurney hallmarks." Reviewing Collected Plays, Volume 5, Jack Helbig of Booklist praised Gurney's command of the eccentricities of language. Helbig declared that this "collection verifies that Gurney's lesser work is better than many other playwrights' best."
"I don't write about rebels or dissenters or gangsters; I write about my own people, the Americans you see haunting [the upscale London department store] Harrods in midsummer," Gurney once told London Times reporter Sheridan Morley, "the Americans who call themselves Anglos now because WASP has become such a pejorative term." For his part, Morley found the playwright perhaps not "everybody's idea of the typical modern Broadway dramatist: I happen to believe that he is [the] most elegant and accomplished theatrical writer to have come out of America since the war."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 54, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Critical Survey of Drama, Salem Press (Pasadena, CA), 1994.
Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Culture, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, 3rd edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Back Stage, October 22, 1999, Robert Windeler, review of Ancestral Voices, p. 50.
Back Stage West, February 19, 1998, Jeff Niesel, review of Labor Day, p. 32; October 19, 2000, Brad Schreiber, review of Ancestral Voices, p. 18; February 28, 2002, J. A. Eliason, review of Sylvia, p. 29.
Booklist, July, 1994, p. 1916; January 1, 1998, p. 766; October 25, 1999, p. 51; January 1, 2002, Jack Helbig, review of Collected Plays, Volume 5: 1991-1995, p. 793; October 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Collected Plays, Volume 3: 1984-1991 and Volume 4: 1992-1999, p. 408; January 1, 2002, Jack Helbig, review of Collected Plays, Volume 5: 1991-1995,.
Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1983.
Commonweal, April 23, 1982.
English Journal, December, 1990.
Library Journal, December, 2000, Robert W. Melton, review of Collected Plays, Volume 4, p. 132.
Los Angeles Magazine, June, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1985; October 18, 2000, Michael Phillips, "Theater Review: 'Ancestral Voices' Speaks in Genteel Tones," p. F3; May 9, 2002, Mark Chalon Smith, "Theater Review: 'Sylvia' Is a Sentimental Tale of a Pup," p. F39.
Nation, April 30, 1983.
New Republic, May 12, 1982.
New York, March 8, 1982; February 14, 1983; April 23, 1983; August 23, 1999, Peter G. Davis, review of Central Park, p. 55.
New Yorker, April 3, 1971; April 4, 1983; January 25, 1988.
New York Post, October 26, 1976.
New York Times, October 26, 1976; November 12, 1977; February 15, 1981; February 15, 1982; March 14, 1982; February 7, 1983; April 5, 1983; April 24, 1983; April 13, 1984; March 27, 1986; April 3, 1986; April 13, 1986; July 27, 1986; September 19, 1986; January 9, 1987; January 10, 1988; January 15, 1988; October 21, 1988; June 2, 1998, Ben Brantley, review of Labor Day, p. B1; October 17, 1999, Brendon Lemon, "A Family Divorce Intrigues a Grandson, Who Writes a Play," p. AR3; October 20, 1999, Peter Marks, "It Talked Too Much to Be a Book," p. E5.
New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1974; February 10, 1985; June 2, 1998, p. E1.
Plays and Players, May, 1974.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 2001, Steven Winn, "'Far East' Probes Culture Divides," p. E1.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, July 2, 2000, Charlie Huisking, "'Far East' Scrutinizes WASPy West," p. G1; July 11, 2000, Kay Kipling, "'Far East' Meets West and Sparks Fly," p. E2.
Time, February 25, 1985; April 4, 1986; January 19, 1987.
Times (London, England), June 2, 1983; June 6, 1983; July 1, 1987.
Variety, January 21, 1987; April 15, 1987; January 27, 1988; October 26, 1988; October 25, 1999, Charles Isherwood, review of Ancestral Voices, p. 51.
Village Voice, January 26, 1988.
Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1998, Donal Lyons, review of Labor Day, p. A16.*