The theater at 76th and Broadway in New York is small, intimate, and beautifully appointed. The audience - largely affluent WASPs - chats, looking toward a set depicting the living room of an upstate New York home. On it will unfold ``The Cocktail Hour,'' the latest - and many critics say the best - play by A.R. Gurney, dramatist laureate of the Northeast's moneyed WASP subculture. Soon the lights dim. Two actors move onto the stage, one a pompous patriarch, the other his son, a playwright who has written a dramatic family portrait called ``The Cocktail Hour'' and wants his parents' permission to have it performed. Mother suggests a turn to novels. Father offers money. The laughs roll in and, as usual, it is a pleasure to watch members of a subculture laugh at themselves. The next morning, in the brilliantly sunlit living room of his West 70s apartment, A.R. (Pete) Gurney chats with a visitor about his career and his craft.
As a starter, what's the impulse for writing plays?
I think there's an exhibitionist desire to make yourself known in public. You kinda want to wave your arms and say, ``Here I am.'' Some aspect of playwriting is about that - as opposed to other kinds of writing. There's something about it that's very public, very loud, very specific.
Last night playwriting was referred to as ``an amusing little hobby.'' As you started writing plays, was that the way your parents and friends tended to look at your playwriting?
I think so. And I think it was true of myself. When I began to write plays seriously in the mid-'60s, I was teaching at MIT. A friend - he was a novelist, also teaching at MIT - said: ``You gotta start calling yourself a writer, you gotta start thinking of yourself as a writer. You're never gonna get anywhere if you don't take yourself seriously.''
I found it very hard - on applications, for example - to call myself a writer. I called myself a teacher. That I could do.
You weren't a playwright who was teaching. You were a teacher who happened to be writing plays as a hobby.
That's the only way I could present myself publicly. Secretly I had tremendous drive and ambition and yearning to be a playwright. I kept at it. But it was very hard for me to accept the public mantle of being a playwright.
Did university teaching help you as a writer?
What helped me in writing plays was that the students at MIT are not there to learn literature. They're there to learn engineering or science. Guys would come to class groggy from all-niters, loaded up on coffee and No Doz and looking at their watches, thinking about the next lab, and I had to make something like Dante or Faulkner interesting to them.
So you had to be good in class. You had to be an actor. I learned how to play ``eight a week'' there. [``Eight a week'' is the number of performances played weekly by a standard Broadway cast.] I learned how to stand up in front of a rather large class with certain material in front of me and make it work.
One of the things I've really admired about your work is the fact that you are doing experiments in form.
If you're going to write for the theater, you might as well embrace the medium. I don't think you should write saying, Oh, this is gonna make a great movie. I think you should write saying, ``I'm going to make this as good a play as I can.'' And to capitalize on the immediacy of the form.
I think what's happening in the theater today is that playwrights are becoming slightly tribal. They're speaking to particular ethnic groups. They're speaking to particular constituencies. That's a good thing and a bad thing. You have - as you may have seen in my play or in David Henry Hwang's earlier plays or in Wendy Wasserstein's - a really strong sense of audience as that group responds to its signals.
What you lose is that wonderful groping for generalization that you get in Arthur Miller or O'Neill or in some of Tennessee Williams.
I would think that in '80s America the Arthur Miller kind of play doesn't work anymore. Is that because audiences have become ethnic? Or are they looking for a different kind of experience?
I don't think we have that sense of consensus in this country. About who we are. You got it in the movies in the '30s, the Frank Capra films. Those wonderful visions of America. You can't do that today. Even ``Our Town,'' with all Thornton Wilder's attempts to generalize, is kind of dismissed as not a valid picture of how we are.
What Wilder's trying to do, as I understand it, is not simply to give a sociological picture, but to find imagery and then generalize on it to say something big, not simply about this country, but about humanity.
Writers can't really do that anymore. ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' is an interesting book because Tom Wolfe is trying to do the big picture. But most writers these days do the small picture.
In the play last night, something is said about the playwright's being an outsider. Do you stand outside your own family background looking at it?
Yes, I certainly see myself that way, and I think I always have. I'm not sure Neil Simon does. Or that David Mamet does. But I do.
But in a way, you're dealing more personally with the materials of your own life than, say, Neil Simon is.
Well, no. In Simon's last three plays he very much did. But I think he sees himself as more in tune with his culture, more an example of someone who made it within the rules of his culture.
But that's one of the things that interests me about your career. You look at this career of 25 years and it seems to embody all the things you would have been taught as a kid. That is: Work hard, stick with the traditions of your culture, and you'll make it.
That is true. That is absolutely true. I was taught that. Work hard and stick at it. If you try and don't succeed, try again. And do what you want to do. And stick within the rules. Don't be too experimental. Or iconoclastic. That's true.
On the other hand, while doing that, I think that I've also tried to at least have some perspective on the world I'm writing about and that I've tried to see some of its flaws.
Did that training, that ethic, sustain you in these 25 years?
That was one of the things that sustained me. Many things sustained me.
But you bought into the ethic.
I think that's true. I bought into the ethic. The other side of the ethic has to do with success, though. For a long time there were very few signals coming back that I was successful. That ethic is a very pragmatic ethic. If it's not working, you try something else.
So I think something else sustained me beside the belief in hard work.
John says in the play that he has trouble with plots. Do you have trouble with plots?
Yes, I do. I do. I used to study murder mysteries as a way of boning up. But I do think there's something that has to be going on. You have to have enough story to hold them. There has to be something always going on in terms of Past Event, Future Event, Possibility of Event. Otherwise, I think you're boring.
Are the experiments in form - ``Scenes From American Life,'' ``The Dining Room'' - a way of not having to have a plot to have a play?
That's one way of looking at it. We could look at it a little more positively.
[Laughter on both sides.]
Interestingly, I have so admired the experiments with form that I didn't really think about the other side of it until we see all of these reviews that say: ``Gurney has finally done it!''
I think I was lucky on this play in having the good cast, having a good theater, returning to more accessible material: the family, a rather simple, straight-forward form, no short scenes, no quick switches.
The quick switches are hard for audiences to get?
They can be. And the critics always say: ``Oh, you're just writing vignettes.''
Which tears your flesh.
That's right. That sounds sorta trivial.
Over a 25-year career, do you see certain themes emerging in your work?
I always feel nervous about that. I'm always delighted when other people find them. I know I deal with the same world again and again. But I really don't think that I deal with the same issues.
In fact, the impulse for a new play always comes out of the last, in that that last play hasn't done what I wanted it to do. Each play seems to be a kind of argument against the last.
Take ``Scenes From American Life.'' At the end they're singing and burning the canoe at the end of summer. And I thought: ``Gee, there's much more to be said about families in the summer. So the next play, ``Children,'' was about that and the power of the mother which was just beginning to intrude at the end of ``Scenes From American Life.''
And in ``Children'' I have this offstage, destructive character, terribly ambivalent about whether he likes his family or not. He's constantly coming and going and constantly messing things up.
Now there's a character I couldn't write in ``Children,'' but I'm gonna write a play about that character. Well, the next play is ``The Middle Ages,'' where I write about a character that does exactly that.
And so each play becomes a kind of argument - or antidote - to the one that preceded it.
About the WASP life style. I think the Mother in ``The Cocktail Hour'' says: ``It's all over. The life we led is all gone.'' Do you think this is true?
Yes, I think our way of life as depicted in ``The Cocktail Hour'' is pretty well gone, and probably should go.
But do the basic values perpetuate themselves in different forms?
That's what I would hope. That's what I'd like to write about next. I haven't written enough about the next generation. I've been looking over my shoulder too much. How those values work themselves out more creatively and expansively.