R. Gurney: A Casebook
With his first play published in 1955, his first full-length play produced in New York to favorable reviews in 1970, over 30 full-length plays to his credit (not to mention two Manhattan productions in the 1902-1903 theatre season and another two running simultaneously in Manhattan as I write), it may come as a surprise that this is not only the first book devoted to the plays of A. R. Gurney, but a volume that more than triples the number of scholarly articles devoted to the playwright. Why have academic critics been so unaware of this prolific and popular playwright, who is on the verge of beginning his fifth decade of dramatic output?
A few possible explanations immediately come to mind. First, as Gurney has observed, he is a chronicler of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant experience in an age that has come to discover and celebrate marginalized identities. There is probably some truth to this assertion, but it has certainly not kept John Cheever and John Updike from getting careful attention, nor has it caused F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner to lapse into obscurity. Perhaps a better explanation is that Gurney has mostly been the author of comedy, a genre in which American theatre academics have shown scant interest. Compare the critical industries that have sprung up around Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and David Mamet to the scant critical bibliographies devoted to George Kelly, Philip Barry and Neil Simon. Scholarship of American drama has always pinned its hopes for legitimacy on the possibility of American tragedy, and Gurney, despite his occasional forays into a soft and wistful pathos, has never been a contender in that arena. Moreover, he is stylistically conservative in a period in which academic criticism has valorized the experimental, whether as modernist avant-gardism or postmodern performance art. Comic in tone, cautious in his occasional forays into the experimental, and fundamentally realistic in his style of presentation, Gurney is the antithesis of the values espoused by American theatre academics.
So it is high time that a volume on the plays of A.R. Gurney appeared. I doubt, however, that this volume will do much to improve the author’s reputation in academia, encourage closer examination of his work, or nudge of his plays a hair’s breadth closer to canonical standing. This is because so little of the volume advances any case as to why these plays might matter.
The most significant exception to this general lack of critical urgency is Mark William Rocha’s valuable essay, “Indeterminacy as Tragic Fate: Issues of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Gurney.” Rocha presents the dramatist as one who presents fundamentally tragic attempts to establish and maintain order through language beneath a comic veneer. Closely reading exchanges from Gurney’s most popular play, The Dining Room, Rocha reveals how the patriarch and his deputies fight to exclude any indeterminacy from the linguistic and social orders. Turning next to The Cocktail Hour, he argues that Gurney’s patriarchy almost always demands the sacrifice of a competitive text, usually a woman’s. Examining the frequent tensions between tragic depth and comic surface, as well as between dominant and repressed texts, Rocha points to the tensions that characterize Gurney’s work at its most urgent.
In contrast to Rocha’s nuanced appreciation of the tensions in The Dining Room, Bruce McConachie’s essay on the play seems simple and dismissive. Rightly questioning the playwright’s own characterization of the play as a critique of classism and sexism in the era of WASP ascendancy, McConachie uses sociologist E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America to uncover a Tocquevillian critique of the decline of WASP hegemony. Countering Gurney’s claims for the play’s liberalism with a reading that sees it as a nostalgic celebration of conservative values, McConachie provides an opportunity to see the play from a different angle, but his insistence on the Baltzellian narrative of a class declining because it increasingly failed to shoulder the responsibilities that came with power both ignores the play’s comic and satiric moments, and largely ignores its episodic, non-linear construction. If Gurney had meant to chart a decline, why did he obscure it by repeatedly rupturing that chronological dimension? The result of these blindnesses is that McConachie, while rightly diverging from Gurney’s own somewhat reductive view of The Dining Room, replaces it with a reduction of his own. Neither commentary considers the possibility that the play’s success may partly be due to its ambiguity of meaning and ambivalence of tone.
McConachie, however, is a master of nuance compared to JoAllen Bradham, whose breathless appreciation of Sylvia is the most embarrassing contribution to this volume. Ignoring the mixed response of reviews to the play, Bradham enthuses over its delights, while remaining totally blind to its somewhat conflicted tone, and, even more surprisingly, its problematic gender dynamics. It is hard to believe that a contemporary critic could write on this strange conflation of The Seven Year Itch and Lassie without asking, “Why is the dog female?” but that is just what Bradham does. Criticism is replaced by gush: “No wonder audiences love Sylvia. It reaffirms all that we know and feel” [p. 158]. With devotees like Bradham, Gurney’s exclusion from academic respectability is assured; the past thirty years of critical theory have seemed to have had no effect whatsoever.
A similar lack of critical awareness marks other contributions to this volume. Laura Miller’s essay on What I Did Last Summer uncritically extols the protagonist’s final achievement of creativity, but ignores the very limitations and costs of that victory which makes the play more complex and poignant. Similarly, Brenda Gordon can naively accept Gurney’s argument that he was “Pushing the Walls of Dramatic Form” [p. 174], as he put it, when he doubled characters in Sweet Sue, ignoring that this experiment was conducted half-a-century earlier by Alice Gerstenberg in Overtones and Eugene O’Neill in Days without End, and more recently by Marsha Norman in Getting Out. In the postmodern world of decentered subjectivity, in which Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group play simultaneously on the New York stage alongside Gurney’s, one may be able to make several claims for Sweet Sue, but daring formal innovation is certainly not one of them. Brenda Murphy is aware of this conservatism when she discusses Gurney’s gestures of self-reflexivity in his dramas, concluding that he is not a postmodernist, but her insights are skewed by her seeming lack of awareness that this playwright’s particular mode of self-reflexivity is similar to those of such successful, cautious modernists of the commercial theatre as Thornton Wilder and Jean Anouilh (both acknowledged as influences by Gurney), as well as the Ferenc Molnar of The Guardsman and The Play’s the Thing and the Philip Barry of In a Garden, might provide illuminating comparisons. Like these playwrights, Gurney has pushed the walls of dramatic form tentatively, careful neither to stray from realistic conceptions of character nor affront the basic assumptions of the middle-brow theatergoer.
Just as Gurney’s work has remained largely untouched by postmodernism, the essays in A. R. Gurney: A Casebook are largely, with the exception of Mark Rocha, untouched by poststructuralism. One can only wonder where Arvid F. Sponberg the editor and most frequent contributor to the volume, has been for the past generation, when he claims that developments in critical theory “have yet to expose major fault lines in the structure of [Northrop] Frye’s analysis of comedy” [p. 160]. With no apparent awareness of the subtle reconsiderations of Frye’s theories by such notable figures as Paul Ricoeur and Fredric Jameson, he launches into a general and schematic use of Frye to compare Gurney with William Inge as comic playwrights. This short conference paper, filled out with lengthy quotations, does little to broaden our understanding of Frye, Inge or Gurney. A footnote, telling us that the paper was originally delivered on a panel at the annual William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas, in a year in which Gurney was also honored, provides the explanation for the paper’s brevity and resultant superficiality, but leaves me wondering why the paper was not expanded for publication. Another paper from the William Inge Festival, equally brief and superficial, and even less theoretically informed, on father-son relationships in the works of William Inge, A.R. Gurney and Arthur Miller, is also in need of amplification. Similarly, Ervene Gulley’s cursory examination of WASP anger in Gurney’s plays contains some promising insights, but lacks any theoretical grounding.
the critics have failed Gurney. Bringing little thoughtfulness or
sophistication to their interpretations, they give the impression
not only that there is little to be said about Gurney, but that
the people who are drawn to pay attention to them have been oblivious
to theatrical and critical developments over the past few decades.
The result is disappointing, but probably unimportant. Gurney has
survived on stages across the United States for decades without
being the academician’s darling, and it is doubtful that this
overpriced hodgepodge of critical responses, interviews and short,
previously uncollected essays by the playwright, will undercut his
popular reputation in the least. The interviews with director John
Tillinger and actors Holland Taylor, John Cunnigham and Debra Mooney,
though varying in specificity and insight, all communicate an affectionate
respect for Gurney’s skill and vision, and make up the most
satisfying portion of the book. Sponberg’s interview with
Mooney, filled with insights on the particular challenges and rewards
she found in acting in a number of Gurney’s plays, is certainly,
along with Edward M. Cohen’s excellent analysis and documentation
of the first production of The Dining Room in his Working
on the New Play, and Gurney’s own published prefaces
to his plays, among the small collection of material that will be
useful to future actors, directors and designers of Gurney’s
plays. Gurney’s future, after all, like that of all playwrights,
depends more on audiences and theatrical practitioners than scholars,
and so it seems secure for the foreseeable future. It is, however,
a shame that this opportunity to think about the plays was largely