Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1998
He’s been compared to Anton Chekhov because, he says,” we both seem to be obsessed with dying cultures and obsolete values trying to survive.” Chekhov focused on the fading Russian aristocracy; A.R. Gurney sets his playwriting sights on that disappearing cadre of economically privileged but emotionally disadvantaged Northeast Americans best known by their entomological acronym, WASP.
His comedies, 23 to date, are often dry, wry and witty, but like the man himself, they are gentle, gentlemanly and humane. A.R. Gurney (his friends call him Pete), writes, he says, from his bones. “I’ve tried to create a canvas of a world, the world I grew up in, lived in, am still living in.”
The 67 year-old playwright was born in Buffalo, went to boarding school in New Hampshire, attended Williams College in Massachusetts and then the Yale School of Drama, taught at M.I.T., and now makes his home in Connecticut, the setting of his latest play, “Labor Day”, which has its world premiere at the Old Globe (February 12-March 15).
Although the new work concerns a playwright in his sixties with a wife and four grown children, Gurney doesn’t consider it completely autobiographical. After all, he chuckles, “I didn’t call him Pete.” But John, the writer we first met in “The Cocktail Hour” (which premiered at the Globe in 1988), is now at the end of his career, summing up, and finding out a lot about his offspring and about writing.
“I “have” been thinking about my own children recently,” Gurney confesses. “And in the play, John discovers that, as much as we love our children, our inability to really know them constantly surprises us. The language is different; the whole culture has changed.
“The play is also about playwriting and choices. It’s the first time in [John’s] life that he has a chance for a major commercial success. But there’s a conflict between him and the young director who wants to take the piece in a much more commercial direction. That’s very hard for the writer.
“The story does parallel mine — though I never wrote the ultimate play that caused all the [commercial] attention. I’ve been very lucky in my career; I’ve been produced in a lot of regional theaters, but I haven’t had much luck on Broadway. Or Hollywood. So I’ve pretty much given up on that. Part of me would love to have that Broadway hit. But part of it is the whole issue of this play: What do you gain and what do you lose?”
Gurney has had plenty of success Off Broadway and in the regional theaters. This is his tenth production at the Old Globe (where he’s an Associate Artist), the third directed by Jack O’Brien. His most successful play, “Love Letters”, a two-person epistolary piece, has toured all over the world, and “Sylvia”, a mid-life love triangle about a man, his wife and his dog, is still busily making the regional rounds. Gurney has won a number of prestigious awards, but he’s also endured years of criticism for focusing almost exclusively on that one particular group he knows so well. “In a way,” he says thoughtfully, “WASPs are just another ethnic group. The more specific you get, the more general.”
What’s universal is his ambivalence toward the culture of his birth. “It just kind of fascinates me — the way the world has changed and the ability or inability of people to change with it… You could say my themes are sometimes elitist, but my forms never are… I feel critics have put me in a box and left me there. They haven’t noticed how much I’m trying to get out of that– or at least pushing against the sides of that.
“All the problems I’ve dealt with over the years are not just WASP problems, they’re American problems. In “Labor Day”, I don’t think the word WASP ever comes up. I don’t think it has to be a WASP play. It’s about middle-class folks with a certain amount of affluence. But it’s also about the nature of the American family in the late 1990s, the role of parents, the nature of theater and commercialism, and how hard it is to maintain a simple, unique personal voice in a culture that seems so generalized… I think [the ending] is qualified but somewhat hopeful about the state of the country at the millennium. It’s certainly not sentimental and idealized.”
The title has multiple meanings to Gurney. Labor has to do with the workingman and also with “the end of summer — personally for the playwright and in America. The end of an idyllic, warm season. An awareness that we’re all getting older. Putting away the porch furniture and looking back on the summer and ahead to work and school coming up. It’s also about the birth of a play, the struggles and travails of the birth process of a new play. That’s Labor Day, too.”
“Labor Day” has a lot to deliver: a life “and” a play within a play.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.