Battle Scars: A.R. Gurney focuses on the culture of his youth

From Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1991

You would never guess it from looking at his affable, gentlemanly and serene visage, but 60-year-old playwright A.R. Gurney, whose friends call him Pete, wears battle scars from over two decades of writing what people have told him not to.

The scars are from the critics—from New York to San Diego—who tried to discourage him from writing about WASP culture by telling him bluntly, in print, that no one was interested in his subject matter.

"When I read the reviews of The Cocktail Hour (in San Diego) I was really hurt and shocked," Gurney recalled of the 1988 opening. "Then there was one in New York that said no one cares about these people. Why does Gurney think that people care about these people? And I thought that was so inhumane."

Playwright  A.R. Gurney

Those criticisms are compounded by scars from his own parents who hated the idea that he was writing about them and their culture.

But Gurney, as he explains during a break from working on his latest play, The Snow Ball, has continued to write what he has because he had to. The Snow Ball, which opens at the Old Globe Theatre tonight (May 09, 1991), tells the story of a middle-age man and a woman who try to re-create a dance from their youth called the Snow Ball, right down  to reuniting the Snow Queen and her consort, both of whom have married other people and have moved far apart from each other.

"You don't pick a subject, a subject picks you," said Gurney, who first began to concentrate on the WASP world in 1970 with Scenes from American Life.

"There was never any question in my mind that this is a world I wanted to explore...I found myself, not necessarily by choice, trying to make a tapestry about the world that I grew up in, that I was educated in, and that I've been involved in most of my life. It just kind of fascinates me—the way the world has changed and the ability or inability of people to change with it."

And now, at last, critics and audiences seem to be sharing Gurney's fascination. Ever since The Cocktail Hour, which premiered at the Old Globe Theatre, became a yearlong Off Broadway hit from 1988-1989 (despite local pans here, audiences loved it and most of the New York notices were raves), Gurney finds himself very much in demand. His play Love Letters, which is still running in Los Angeles, was his next big hit, and he is currently working on a screenplay of it for Columbia Pictures. Another new play, The Old Boy just opened Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons to a mixed but respectful review from the New York Times.

The Snow Ball, which had its world premiere at the Hartford Stage Company as a co-production with the Old Globe, attracted 102% attendance there.

1991 Production of The Snow Ball (Old Globe Theatre)

Thomas Hall, managing director of the Old Globe Theatre, said Wednesday that after the Globe's production of The Snow Ball closes here June 16, [1991] the theatre has "a firm commitment" from the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and a theatre in Washington, D.C., to produce the play this fall. The production then will likely go to New York for a Broadway or Off Broadway run in the spring  of 1992, Hall said.

Currently involved in the negotiations is Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens, former chairman of the Kennedy Center—which may be the Washington presenter. Stevens helped produce Gurney's The Cocktail Hour with the Old Globe Theatre in New York. The Snow Ball would remain an Old Globe production at each location, with Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the theatre, directing and Hall acting as one of the producers, Hall said. Negotiations will continue Friday.

Even Gurney's mother, who he initially thought would never go see The Cocktail Hour because of its semiautobiographical nature, liked it.

Of course his mother didn't recognize herself in his tale of a son who takes his play about his family back to his family for their permission to produce it, he said with a laugh.

And since she did him the favor of coming to see it Off Broadway, he did her the favor of not allowing the theatre in their hometown of Buffalo to produce it. Even if she was able to tell herself the character of the mother was not her, he didn't want to push matters by making the play so readily available to her friends and neighbors.

"She found out about it," Gurney said of his cancellation," and said, 'Thank you.' "

Gurney's WASP credentials run deep, from his Buffalo upbringing to his boarding school education at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., to college at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he first began writing plays in 1950. From there, it was three years in the Navy, then writing plays at the Yale School of Drama. He became a professor of English and retired from his academic position at MIT in 1981 to devote himself full-time to his writing.

While his literary career hadn't exactly taken off at that point, he had already generated an extensive body of work, garnering much respect from regional theatre directors around the country for his works The Middle Ages and The Dining Room.

O'Brien—who directed the world premieres of The Cocktail Hour and The Snow Ball —is an unabashed Gurney fan who believes that Gurney has never gotten his due...O'Brien, who also directed Love Letters at the Old Globe in December, encouraged Gurney to write something with "a larger palette." The result, which O'Brien said he had a visceral response to on the very first reading, was The Snow Ball.

Indeed, the palette was so large and so expensive with the large ballroom, cast, music, and dancing, that O'Brien knew that he would have to make it a co-production to be able to afford to produce it. But it was exactly what he wanted to do, he said.

"On the very first page, my eyes filled with tears, and I prayed page by page it would sustain this. And he did. How he described these ghostly figures dancing in this haunted ballroom. We're all haunted by our past and these ghosts and those echoes of romance and beauty and order follow us all our lives. He hit me dead center where I live."

Playwright A.R Gurney on stage

Part of what makes Gurney's take on WASP culture more universal than specific is the ambivalence that he feels about the culture in which he grew up. There is something uniquely American in his ambivalence about the pleasure and pain of holding on to traditions versus the need to move on and explore new ideas. In that way, Gurney said he thinks of WASPs as "just another ethnic group."

And nowhere does that ambivalence get a sharper focus than in The Snow Ball, an adaptation of Gurney's 1984 novel of the same name. In the play, the man who is trying to re-create the Snow Ball of his youth, fights with his wife who thinks his obsession with his past is silly and pointless.

And if you ask Gurney whether he sides with the husband or the wife, he will tell you, simply, both. He respects the wife for wanting to move on with their lives and spend their energy on more constructive and socially responsible work. But he also shares the nostalgia of the man. That feeling came up when he and his wife, Molly, went to the Rainbow Room in New York for a theatre celebration several years ago and found themselves suddenly putting to use the dance lessons each had learned in their youth.

"We had the best time, and we both felt we re-created a world that we had forgotten existed," he said almost dreamily.

But then Gurney sides with everyone in his plays.

"I'm always conflicted; I think people who write plays are always conflicted. That's why they write plays. In the end writing is a psychological drive and not a drive for fame or fortune. It's a need to work out these issues in my own soul and drama seemed to be the best form in which to do it. I think I'd be a basket case if not for the theatre."

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