“Think much, speak little, write less,” read plaques on display in the homes of Isabella Stewart Gardner and J.P. Morgan. While the prep- schooled scions of the old-money elite controlled America’s political, business, and military establishment for decades, they remained chronically underrepresented in the arts — and happy to remain that way. However, as their influence slipped away in the later decades of the 20th century, it fell to the outcast artists among them to counter — or embrace — the stereotypes that had come to define the “WASP.” The family that A.R. Gurney conjures in The Cocktail Hour exemplifies the paradox of this situation.
In privileged circles, an aversion to creative careers may represent simple professional disdain. Tad Friend, author of Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, notes that in his family, writing was not considered “man’s work” in contrast to traditions of public service or executive leadership. Alternately, the personal and confessional aspects of the arts may have proved an insurmountable obstacle. In a culture based on privacy and stoicism, the disclosure of feelings was considered both a sign of personal weakness and a vulgar plea for attention — in The Cocktail Hour, John’s father Bradley is at least as disdainful of his son’s psychiatrist as he is of his playwriting career.
Given these obstacles, it was only the discontents and outsiders from elite families who took up the pen. John Cheever is a quintessential example — brilliant, tortured, at once disdainful of his privileged past but longing for its comforts. Listing this and other exemplars, Tad Friend writes that “the best books about Wasps are written by those ambivalent about the legacy, or striving to be accepted within its cozy confines, or fed up with the whole thing.”
“The whole thing” is that familiar suite of cultural artifacts — summer houses, polo shirts worn for actual polo games, and nicknames like Biff and Corkie that bear no resemblance to the properly heirloom appellations of their owners. It is a universe that E. Digby Baltzell labeled for eternity in 1964, lifting an obscure colloquial term into the national discourse with his book, The Protestant Establishment, and its description of “an increasingly caste-like White-Anglo Saxon- Protestant (WASP) upper class.”
Despite its title, Baltzell’s work was in fact a warning bell, foretelling how societal currents and the arrogant exclusivity of the aristocracy would bring about its downfall. The world that Gurney depicts, with part-time help replacing lifelong servants, family members dispersing across the nation, and classic values losing their worth attests to the accuracy of Baltzell’s prophecy.
“I’m trapped in this old medium,” laments John in The Cocktail Hour. “It’s artificial, it’s archaic, it’s restrictive beyond belief. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with contemporary American life.” He may be speaking of his drive to write plays, but his cri de coeur also resonates with his subject, a class whose values and pastimes may seem like living fossils in the modern cultural environment. His self-expression, however maligned, becomes a way to preserve an endangered society. John’s family may have its suspicions about the theatre, but they are closer to it than they might think — and, Gurney’s play subtly suggests, their fates may be inextricably linked.