5 Signatures of an A.R. Gurney Play

Lists   5 Signatures of an A.R. Gurney Play
As the playwright's Final Follies continues at Off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, Playbill identifies five recurring themes from Gurney's prodigious output.
A.R. Gurney
A.R. Gurney Joseph Marzullo/WENN

If you don’t know the name A.R. Gurney, it’s time to study up. The Pulitzer Prize finalist for Love Letters—who passed away in 2017—was one of the great voices of the American theatre. Having written 53 works for the stage, three novels, as well as screenplays, Albert Ramsdell Gurney is best known for his plays like The Dining Room, Sweet Sue, and The Cocktail Hour. His Love in Buffalo marked the first musical ever produced by the Yale School of Drama, where he previously attended.

Through Octiber 21, Primary Stages presents Final Follies, an evening of three Gurney one-acts: The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, The Love Course, and Final Follies. David Saint directs the titular play in honor of his longtime friend—closing the loop on their partnership. “I was fortunate to know this generous, eloquent and witty man for over 30 years and was able to work with him on ten of his plays,” says Saint. ”Although they covered a vast array of themes and styles of writing he became known, somewhat to his own dismay as the ‘Chronicler of the WASP culture.’” But Gurney’s dozens of works also contain less-talked-about themes and signatures.

Here, Saint walks us through five clues you’re watching a Gurney play.

1. Fascination With the Form of Theatre itself
"The very form of theatre and all its artificiality and ritual obsessed Pete. In his comedy The Cocktail Hour, the central character John is a playwright revealing the autobiographical play he has written , also called The Cocktail Hour, to his parents, Bradley and Ann. They reminisce about the Lunts and their trademark skill of completing each other's sentences on stage, delighting audiences. Bradley and Ann do the exact same thing, which in turn delights "their" audience. Even as so many plays today are focused on “meta theatre,” Pete had been fascinated with testing the constructs of the form by calling attention to them for years."

2. Suppressed Desires
"The forbidden fruit, or suppressed desire plays a large part in many of his works. From The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, through The Far East, Children, Love Letters, The Old Boy, et al, his central characters wrestled with their secret desires and the dilemma to surrender to the norms of morality or give in to those urges. (As Bunny says, that "dark shoddy and unpleasant character waiting in the wings.") Often his characters payed the price for giving way to their desires. And sometimes payed a deeper price for not."

3. Love of the Classics
"From his earliest days as a Professor of Literature as well as Latin, Pete had an enduring love and appreciation for the classics. His plays are strewn with literary references and allusions. Certain works were specifically homages to or adaptations of classics like Another Antigone, and The Golden Fleece, while others like The Guest Lecturer, where a human sacrifice is acted out in Dionysian fashion in a modern lecture hall, recreate classical rituals. Still others adapted works of great writers of literature like A Cheever Evening and Later Life (an updating of a Henry James novella). His play The Love Course features two eccentric professors of literature who live vicariously through the romances of Shakespeare, Bronte, Dante and even Plato."

4. Family Dynamics
"The ties that bind a family together feature strongly in Pete's plays. Whether it is the need for a father's approval in a play like The Cocktail Hour, the importance of cherished lessons being handed down from a grandfather to his grandson on a fishing trip in Ancestral Voices, or the very power of that classic stronghold setting of the Dining Room itself, family is an enduring value in all his work."

5. Love/Hate of the WASP Culture
"And finally, that hallmark of his writing that has historically categorized Pete forever: The WASP culture. His fascination with both the traditions and principles of that culture served him in his work both as a measure of enormous pride and deep shame. And often simultaneously. Although he cherished his cultural heritage in Buffalo, he never lost sight of its ability to suffocate. His great grandfather was a distinguished leading citizen of that class and yet he 'hung up his clothes one day and walked into the Niagara River. And no one understood why.'

“Although that WASP culture may be, as Pete often claimed, obsolete in the 21st century, I hope that Pete Gurney's plays continue to delight for years to come,” Saint concludes. “And that the Gurney signature is permanently inscribed in our theatrical history.”

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