Real Life Onstage: The Cocktail Hour and More

“This play captures a slice of life that our audience will undoubtedly recognize. We have been talking about a revival of A.R. Gurney’s American comedy of manners for a few years now, and when we learned Maria Aitken was available to direct it, the cocktail was complete!”— Peter DuBois

A.R. Gurny, playwright

Playwrights who try to adhere to the adage, “Write what you know,” have always walked a fine line between verisimilitude and offense. Those like A.R. Gurney, who hail from elite bastions where privacy is a sacred value, face an especially difficult balancing act. The Cocktail Hour is doubly autobiographical — a play about a frustrated publisher named John who returns home brandishing a play he has written about his family to confront their resistance to being dramatized. John is clearly fashioned in the image of Gurney himself, and his upper-class clan bears more than a passing resemblance to the playwright’s own.

“I don’t want to be on some stage. I don’t want to have some actor imitating me,” John’s father Bradley declares, expressing a typically aristocratic disdain for public disclosure. On his own website, Gurney writes that The Cocktail Hour, “is probably the most personal thing I had written up to this time.” Describing the play as “an exploration,” Gurney claims that even he was wary of seeing the finished product — and definitively advised his parents to avoid it.

The cast of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room at the Huntington (1982). Photo: Gerry Goodstein

His fears were warranted by past experience. When his Scenes from American Life was staged in his hometown of Buffalo, Gurney rewrote sections specifically to avoid offending his parents’ society friends with satirical reflections of their prejudice and provincialism. Despite these efforts, his father was so affronted by the performance that he refused to speak with his son afterward. Gurney’s mother, Marian Goodyear, proved only slightly more sympathetic. “He says he has to write what he knows about,” she told People magazine in 1989. “You just never know what’s coming out next.”

In light of this precedent, Gurney promised that The Cocktail Hour would never be produced in Buffalo until after both of his parents had died. “I personally don’t feel that it’s terribly tough on either one of them,” he mused, “but the world I grew up in treasures its personal privacy and doesn’t enjoy being displayed on stage.”

Other playwrights have found themselves forced into similar dilemmas. In the last play of Neil Simon’s “Eugene trilogy,” Broadway Bound, Simon depicted a young writer who confronts the lies behind his parents’ marriage. “Broadway Bound comes closest to being really autobiographical,” Simon recounted in a 1992 interview with The Paris Review. “I didn’t pull any punches with that one. My mother and father were gone when I wrote it, so I did tell about the fights and what it was like for me as a kid hearing them.”

Despite the pitfalls of disgruntled relatives and threatened relationships, playwrights continue to turn to autobiographical material. Regarding The Cocktail Hour, Gurney suggests a reason: “Personal and quasi-autobiographical it may be,” he writes, “but its wide success may illustrate the point that the more specific you get in your writing, the more general the implications can turn out to be.”

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