A Conversation with A.R. Gurney
January 20, 1999
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the January 20, 1999 Platform with A.R. Gurney:
THOMAS COTT: Hi, everybody. I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to another evening in our Platform series. For those of you who have not been here before, we started the series last summer as a way of introducing our audiences to the artists who work here at the Theater. Transcripts of these Platforms are available in published form at our lobby shop and online at our website, "www.lct.org". And we want to thank the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, which has been supporting the series and our other educational activities with a generous grant.
And now, tonight's program... our interviewer is LCT's Artistic Director, André Bishop, and it's a great pleasure to have him here. André is a natural to interview tonight's speaker, because they have known each other a very long time, having worked together both here and at Playwrights Horizons. And A.R. Gurney, as I'm sure you're all aware, is one of America's most popular and prolific playwrights. We're thrilled to have his new play, Far East, downstairs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Actually, Pete Gurney's first play in New York, which we'll probably hear about later, was also done in what is now the Newhouse—back then, it was called the Forum. That play was Scenes from American Life back in 1971. We're so happy to have a new play of his back in this building and to have him here tonight at the Platform. Please welcome André Bishop and A.R. Gurney. [audience applause]
ANDRÉ BISHOP: I'm André Bishop, and this is A.R. Gurney. But we call him "Pete". Why do people call you that? I've known you for 20 years, and I don't think I've ever known why people call you Pete.
A.R. GURNEY: Well, my real name is Albert Ransdell Gurney, Jr. Because I was a "Junior", my parents decided to give me a nickname. They didn't want to call me "Al", and my father was already called "Bert." So they just thought up "Pete". [laughter] When I started writing, I first used the name "Peter Gurney", and my father said, "Are you embarrassed by your name?" So I went back to "A.R. Gurney", but he was the one who was originally embarrassed at the name, and so he called me "Pete." And that's the story. [audience laughter]
AB: Well, my last name is Bishop and when I was at school my nickname was "Bishy-Bumps"! [laughter] You came off better than that!
Just a little preface: as Tom said, Pete and I have known each other for almost 20 years. When I was at Playwrights Horizons, this play arrived... Pete was a known quantity, I guess, but he did not live in New York. He was teaching in Massachusetts full-time and writing plays on the side. And I had seen his play Children at Manhattan Theatre Club, and perhaps one other, but I didn't really know him. And he sent in this play, or perhaps Gilbert Parker, his agent, sent it in, and I loved it. It was called The Dining Room, and I'm sure that most of you have seen it. [applause] It was a series of vignettes centered around a dining room. I wrote him a little card, saying 'Dear Mr. Gurney: I loved your play 'The Dinner Party...' [audience laughter] '...and would love to do a reading.' Or something stupid like that.
Anyway, we did a reading, and then we did a production, and it moved, and it had a long, long life. And we did The Perfect Party after that, and Another Antigone, and a bunch of things. It seems to me we did the first reading of Love Letters. Didn't we?
ARG: You did the first serious reading. I originally read it with an actress friend, Holland Taylor, at the New York Public Library. But certainly when we thought it had some value as a play, André was the first one to do it, at Playwrights Horizons.
AB: I want to set the stage for that. When we did The Dining Room, it was 1982. And Pete burst out a little bit, because he was writing a play, as you all know, about the WASPs of northeastern America. And in those days, even though there were many popular novelists such as Cheever and Updike, my memory of The Dining Room was that it was something very new. For one thing, in 1982, dining rooms were out of fashion. I don't know if the dining room is revived now, but it seems to me everyone is just longing to have a dining room. 17 years ago that wasn't true. But what I think we take for granted about his work now we didn't so much years ago.
It seems to me you have always written about a certain, dare I use the word "class," of people. Or most of your plays are that. How do you feel about that? We know that writers are supposed to write about what they know. And this is something you know very well. Do you ever long to write about... Jews? [laughter] Or…
ARG: I've written occasionally about other people outside the WASP "nexus". I wish I could do it more. Frankly, I wish I were one of those writers that had the kind of sweep that Shakespeare has, or in fiction Dickens and Tolstoy, where they can deal with whole cross-sections of society. I never could have been able to feel comfortable doing that. I do like to write about what I know, and I seem to be obsessed with a particular theme which has played through most of my writing. And the people I select to write about seem to best embody that theme. So I'm always trying to stretch, but maybe I'm trying to stretch more in form, and trying to find new ways of saying something, rather than trying to write about people I'm not so immediately familiar with. Maybe that's one of my problems. Maybe I should continue to look outside of the narrow spectrum I've selected.
AB: Well, Edith Oliver, who was -- I'm sure many of you remember reading her reviews -- she used to be the off-Broadway critic for The New Yorker, and a dramaturg at the O'Neill Center, and a really distinguished, wonderful person and very generous critic. It seems to me she once wrote about Pete's work, she said what's interesting about his writing is that one could say that he is writing about a very conventional – probably the most conventional group of Americans we have. But what she found so appealing about his plays was that he wrote about them in such an unconventional way. I guess what she was talking about was form.
ARG: Yeah, I think so. I was very lucky – when I wrote The Dining Room, I had been sort of thrashing around and experimenting with plays, prior to that. And I had written -- the play that was done here, in fact -- Scenes from American Life, which was a kind of primitive Dining Room. It was a series of scenes and vignettes, but it didn't have the organizing shape that I found with the dining room table, around which it could all take place. Let's put it this way, I don't think I could now ever write a play unless I found the right form in which to say what I wanted to say. That is, a form that seems, at least to me, somewhat original.
It's the very nature of the theater that appeals to me, Theater itself – the theater itself in America, particularly – is a kind of beleaguered form. We're challenged here in America -- more than in, say, England or France, where they have much longer traditions of theater. We're challenged by movies and television. So to many people here, the theater seems obsolete. My feeling has been for some time that the way to make a play work is to embrace that obsolescence, to remind the audience, if I can, of the very limitations of the form I'm working in, and by that way, reviving and liberating and opening up the form.
So The Dining Room, just to give you an example, if you know that play, all takes place on one set, with one dining room table. There are no identifying things on the wall which would make it a particular dining room table. There's just a mirror over a conventional sideboard and two conventional doors, one to the main part of the house and one to the kitchen. But we had to, in The Dining Room, teach the audience that this dining room table was, in a sense, every dining room table. It could be in the suburbs, it could be in the city, it could be here, it could be there, and the scenes that take place around it were not just one family, but a number of different families. But we only had six actors to do it!
I remember with André, when we first started previews, we were worried about how it kicked off. [to AB:] If you remember, the audience wasn't getting it. We had to find ways if we could, and we didn't always do it, of teaching the audience to play the game with us, in order for them to embrace what I think is the exciting thing about the theater, its simplicity. You begin to take a delight in seeing actors play roles. An actor who's been playing a 70-year-old man goes out one door and comes in as an 8-year-old child! And we were working with this new kind of form. I remember I had lunch with André before we did the play. He said, "There's this birthday party where you've got a bunch of little kids sitting around the table, with hats and those blowers, and they're supposed to be 7 or 8." He said, "I'm not sure we can afford to hire all those children, and I'm not sure we'd want to deal with their mothers!" [audience laughter] And I said, "I think we can get actors -- particularly American actors -- to do this." And we did. So I guess what I'm saying is, I love to experiment with form. And sometimes maybe I should learn to experiment more with subject.
AB: I don't think so. [pause] You've been writing plays for many years, and you write a lot of them. Do you think your writing has changed at all? And if so, how? I think it has, but…
ARG: No, I think it has. I think I've learned over the years to get simpler and simpler. I'm trying to boil it down -- I came from the academic world, and I came from a kind of literary tradition. I went to Yale School of Drama, I know how to act a little, and I know the theatrical tradition, but I spent an awful lot of time in my life rolling around in books. And my earlier plays, I think, were excessively literary. The word "literary" is a dirty word in the theater. So I hope I've learned how to cut, to simplify, to just give only the words that you need. The actors, if they're good, will do the rest for you. So I've tried to move towards a kind of simplicity.
And that -- in this particular play, Far East -- has been very helpful, because we're using a minimal -- ostensibly minimal -- set. There's lots of business going on behind the scenes, but out front it looks extremely simple. And the simple dialogue that we have hammered out to go with the simple scenes, I think, works. So even to do this play particularly, I've learned how to boil it down, and the director, Dan Sullivan, is a master at identifying that extra adjective you don't need.
AB: Do you think that you're also writing -- I don't want to say more autobiographically, but more...autobiographically?! [laughter]
ARG: I've always written pretty close to my own bones. In 1970, I wrote Scenes from American Life, which is a play, again, about Buffalo, New York, where I was born. They did it at the Studio Arena Theatre there, and my father thought it was so aggressively personal, he didn't really want to talk to me for about a year! I certainly was writing about my family. Even though my next play Children is ostensibly based on a story by John Cheever, it's very close to my family in some ways. I don't know if I'm delving into my own subconscious more, but I guess if you're talking about Far East or Ancestral Voices, you might say that those are two areas which I've alluded to but never really explored.
AB: Actually, isn't there a mention in Love Letters of the situation you developed into Far East?
ARG: There is. There's a mention of it in Scenes from American Life. There's a mention of it in Love Letters. And there's a mention of it in The Middle Ages. And the reason I could never write that story is because Puccini already wrote it! [laughter] But also, I never could find the right form! I never could find the right way to tell that story. I was reading around in this book on Japanese theater, the summer before last, just looking. And it reminded me of some of the theater I had gone to when I was living in Japan. I thought, I don't want to just make it a Noh play, but if I could combine and take advantage of some of the elements of Japanese theater, this might be a good way to tell the story.
AB: What do you feel about WASPs today? [laughter] I mean, what do you really feel about them? Our former ruling class...
ARG: Well, I don't know. I think I myself am guilty, I suppose, of talking about "the dying WASP," and the obsolete culture, and all of that. I mean, there's a great deal of that. But if you look around in Washington today, there's still a large number of WASPs in powerful positions in our country. What I guess I want to say is that I sometimes feel it's a limiting way of looking at what I write, to simply say I'm writing about WASPs. Just as I know Wendy [Wasserstein] feels it's a limited way to say that she just writes about Jewish women in New York.
I think most writers try to carve out a territory where they're at home. Updike likes to write about the north shore of Boston. Faulkner likes to write about Yoknapatawpha County. And out of that narrow focus, Faulkner -- to use an exalted example -- finds stories and ways of telling stories that identify him as a Southern writer, but you'd be missing a lot in Faulkner if you just say, "Well, that's Southern. They do that and I don't." Faulkner may write about slavery, and the effects of slavery, but he also writes about love, and death, and passion, and violence. Out of the specific comes the general.
So yes, I was fortunate or unfortunate to have been born and raised in a city that time had, in some ways, passed by. And I was also fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been sent away to boarding school from that city when I was 13 years old. I never really lived in the city again except in the summer. But I could see, maybe more clearly than even most, the gap, the difference, between the world I grew up in, and the world that was happening, and beginning to happen, outside, at least in the 50s and 60s as the city shrank and curled in on itself, and as the world changed around it. And that's what I've tried to write about.
Now yes, I write about WASPs. Because WASPs, maybe more than other cultures, are less resilient. Maybe they've been in the country a little longer, so they're less able to change, and maybe they're more aware of their own history and their own sense of past. For instance, just to give you an example of myself: seven of my 8 great-grandparents were born in Buffalo, New York. I mean, I really feel anchored there, as far as the genealogical poles are concerned.
I like to write about how that sense of tradition has been challenged, and how they respond or don't respond to the changing world. Because I do think one of the key issues in 20th century life is the sudden, continual and drastic changes that are occurring in all our lives. So I have a father arguing with a son around the dining room table, and they can't understand each other, because his values are old-fashioned and the son's are new. It seems WASP. And the terms I use maybe are WASP. That table may be more burnished than other tables, but the same scene would've occurred somewhere else. The father-son issues are the same, and that's what I hope sometimes my plays could illuminate. That out of the very specificity of my scenes, you get a more general sense.
So my play Far East isn't simply about a WASP at the end of his tether, or whatever they say. Puccini told his own version of the story. Is that a WASP, Lieutenant Pinkerton? You wouldn't think of it that way! I think the story I'm trying to tell in Far East happens to lots of people when they go into an alien culture. And to what degree can they commit themselves to the culture, and to what degree does the voice of their own culture, in our case Jo Stafford, call him home. That's what I'm trying to write about.
AB: It's also, it seems to me, in Far East and some of your other plays, that whether they're WASPs or whatever, they are a group of people who seem to be somewhat hemmed in by tradition, by convention, by politeness. I mean that's fair, isn't it?
ARG: That's fair. That's very fair. And I try to show both the good and the bad sides of that. I don't -- it's very fair. And you notice I don't live in Buffalo. [laughter]
AB: Bill Clinton was there today.
ARG: That's right!
AB: I always love asking this question of writers: Growing up, what was your first interest in the theater? There's a lovely scene in, I think it's The Dining Room, where a mother is talking to her daughter and she says something about going to see a very long, boring play starring Katharine Cornell, and I think it turns out to be Saint Joan. I always imagined Pete went as a four-year-old to see Katharine Cornell on tour in Saint Joan, and that's what led him into the theater. But it probably wasn't that…
ARG: No, that's absolutely true. Buffalo had a number of cultural centers. One was the philharmonic orchestra, which still is excellent. One was the Erlanger Theater, right in the center of town, and all the great touring shows came through, and in those days the stars toured. Katharine Cornell, of course, was born in Buffalo, so she opened new plays in Buffalo, and then toured them. But the Lunts came through, Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen came through in Othello, and we went to them! My grandparents would take me, maybe more than my parents. My grandmother, particularly. And seeing that red curtain go up, and immersing myself in these plays, I wanted to be a part of that. I saw that as an essential, unifying element in my life and in the life of the city, which at that time it was.
And even though the Erlanger was torn down in the early fifties, the theater, as you know, the American theater bloomed in the fifties in New York. You had Williams and Miller and Inge, and I can remember at Williams College, we turned to the theater page to see what had opened, and what we could drive down to New York to see!
It wasn't just a bunch of esoteric guys who happened to like the theater. We all read those reviews, and we'd all pile in cars and go down and see a play, whether it was Call Me Madam or Death of a Salesman. That was important to us, in the same way that maybe, I don't know, a football game is today. It just was very much a part of our life. We wanted to be writers. Arthur Miller was a major hero! To have written Death of a Salesman was something a number of us wanted to do. So I think it was a combination of the theater in Buffalo and the really first-class productions that came through, plus that explosion of talent in the fifties, that made me feel that this profession was something I wanted to be a part of.
AB: Didn't you write, at Williams, a musical with Stephen Sondheim?
ARG: Sort of. Stephen Sondheim was another influence on my life. At Williams College, every spring the students were allowed to write a musical. Sondheim took the student musical, which up to that time had been very much like the Princeton Triangle show. Prior to him, they were all single-sex, a bunch of guys with hairy legs doing a kick-chorus, with a funny title and a parody plot. So for two years -- Sondheim was two years ahead of me -- he broke open that tradition. He brought women in, he told a story on stage, he had serious scenes. When he left, the mantle -- I don't think he passed it on to me, but the mantle fell on me.
We put on a revue -- even after Sondheim graduated, he had a couple of songs in it, and I organized the revue. So we fell back into the revue form after he left. I was totally incapable of telling a story that would last an evening on stage. But I could write revue material, and at that time, as some of you may remember, the revue was very popular in New York. There were these wonderful revues, like Lend An Ear or New Faces of 1952, so I didn't feel that I totally betrayed Sondheim's attempts. But I certainly did learn how to write scenes and write for the theater at Williams because of Sondheim, and we had a couple of decent shows.
AB: [to the audience] I think it's time to turn it over to you, if anyone has questions. We have about a 15-minute question period before we have to break, when the audience for Parade will start coming in. Yes, in the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: What was your inspiration for Sylvia?
ARG: Well, I got a dog! I hadn't had a dog in about five years, since we moved from Boston to New York. Finally I got a dog, and my wife objected strenuously! [laughter] She felt I was too old for one, it was too inhibiting a thing, and we had a couple of major scenes. And I was suddenly feeling...why am I feeling so passionate about this dog?! So I tried to make a play about those feelings. It's more than just a play about a dog, it's a play about a marriage, too, in some ways, I think you'll agree. So that's how it happened, and also the idea, again, the form intrigued me. The idea of writing a play where the major part is a dog, to be played, dare I say it, by a woman.
As Gilbert Parker, my agent, would testify, we sent it around, and several theaters said "You can't ask us to put this thing on. It's viciously sexist, it asks a woman to play a dog." But Lynne Meadow at Manhattan Theatre Club read it. She's a woman! She didn't think it was so bad. So we had a reading, as normally we do in the theater, just to try it out. And we were lucky enough to get Sarah Jessica Parker the first time out, and it seemed to work. So that's how that happened.
AB: [to AM #2] Yes, sir.
AM #2: [a long comment and question are inaudible on the tape]
ARG: The question was, I spoke about having a particular theme in my plays, and could I elaborate on that. I think the theme is the clash between -- the change, the major change that has occurred in the 20th century. Changes. Far East was set in the fifties, and everything that happens onstage in Far East probably would not happen today. I don't think that boy today would have any problem about going home with a Japanese bride. Same with the subplot -- the gay guy either would not be in the Navy, or if he was, he wouldn't be blackmailable in the same way. So I wanted to just show how different the world was then from how it is now. That's how that theme works.
I also want to talk about another kind of clash: the cultural clash between Japan -- the form we used to present Japan -- vs. the world we know that he's trying to get away from. The world of Milwaukee. So again, the play deals with a clash of cultures, the clash of the way of one way of looking at the world with the way you were brought up, and the way the world around you seems to look.
AM #3: John Simon [of New York magazine] is very hard on you. Do you have any thoughts or comments about him? [audience laughter]
ARG: I haven't seen his review of Far East. Is it terrible? I don't think he's ever liked a play of mine. I don't know why. He likes some people's plays, but I don't know. For some reason, he and I don't seem to click. That's all I can say.
AB: [to AM #4] Yes, sir.
AM #4: [inaudible on tape]
ARG: This gentleman saw a play in Cambridge called The Fourth Wall. Yes, that was one of mine.
AM #4: [continues, inaudible]
ARG: Experiment in form? Yes. I've got several plays circling around LaGuardia that are experimental... [laughter] That's one of them.
AM #5: You've done your plays at Playwrights Horizons and Manhattan Theatre Club and now here at Lincoln Center Theater. I just wondered, for you, is there a difference in the venues, or...
ARG: Well, I've been very lucky. I've had my plays done primarily in the not-for-profit circuit. Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theater Club and here. There are differences. There are differences obviously in space, and how the thing's approached, the plays are different, but there are many things the same. Normally you have a reading of the play first, to see how it lands. The casting is worked out very carefully with the casting director and yourself and the director.
So the procedures of getting on the play are the same. I feel I've been very lucky in all three venues. Because half the fun of the theater, more than three-quarters of the fun of the theater, is the process of putting it on. And in all of these cases, the process has been very exciting.
AB: Other questions? Yes.
AM #6: [inaudible on tape]
ARG: Could I describe my writing process? The discipline? Well, I'm fairly disciplined. I do get up in the morning and try to get some writing done every day. I've gotten into such a habit doing that I feel guilty and disagreeable if I don't do some kind of writing during the course of the day. I normally write in the morning, and then I exercise or whatever, and go back and do a little more writing in the afternoon. The writing I do in the afternoon is totally useless [audience laughter], but I always have to do it!
The theater is, again, it's a very dangerous profession, as you know. There are a lot of John Simons out there, eager to shoot you down, so I always like to have something else waiting in the wings that I can call on if I've been nailed on a particular work. I always like to have some kind of backup disk on the computer.
AM #7: Have you written other than for the theater, like for television?
ARG: I've written a couple of things for television. I haven't had much luck doing it. I have written a couple of screenplays, and I haven't had much luck doing that. I've written three novels, all published. They've done okay, but I just don't get the kick out of it. I don't know. I love to read books and go to the movies. Love to go to the movies. And I admire the freedom of the filmic or fictional forms. You can go here, you can go there, you can just do so much more. But I never get much pleasure out of writing them. I love the restrictions that you have to impose upon yourself in the theater. I love the pressure, and the very danger of it, which the movies don't seem to have. So I always return to writing plays.
My play Ancestral Voices, which we had a reading of the other night, I don't know if any of you were there, but that started as a novel. And we sent it out to all the publishers, they looked at it, and said this is kind of interesting, but… When the rejection slips came back, they didn't hurt me -- I wasn't invested in it. I said, "I'm going to turn this into a play of some sort. I'm going to see if I can combine the fictional and the dramatic form." And as soon as I started doing that, I felt much more invested in it, If it doesn't work, I know that's going to hurt me much more than the fact that the novel was rejected. Because there's more of me in that form, for some reason.
AM #8: After you've done a reading of your play, and you have a director, do you then turn the script over or do you do a lot of rewriting?
ARG: Writers are different, but normally I do a lot of rewriting as we get into rehearsal. I think that's part of the process, for me. Some writers don't. You have to have a director you can trust, and actors you can count on. And there are moments where they want you to rewrite it where you have to say "No, I don't want it that way. That's something you've got to find a way of doing." But when I say I like the process, that's the process I like: seeing how a number of different artists working together in the same room can take a manuscript and illuminate it, and I want to be part of that process, and help illuminate it too.
AB: Pete made a lot of changes in Far East, because he was -- well, we had a very persuasive director.
AB: In the first version of the play -- when it was done this summer, in Williamstown -- the Reader was a man, not a woman. It was Dan Sullivan's idea, I think, to... he said the play is about this Navy officer and a Japanese woman, but we never see the Japanese woman onstage at all. And even though it wasn't in the convention of that sort of theater to have it as a woman, the idea was to have this woman playing all the parts, which is very Pete Gurney. Playing men and women, old people and young people. But also to have that one scene, where for one brief moment, she is the Japanese girlfriend, and has one line as such. So that was sort of a major change.
ARG: Major. I fought Dan tooth-and-nail on this one. I said, "We've got to at least pay honor to the Japanese tradition of having a male narrator. You can't have a Japanese woman sitting in a kimono clacking those blocks. That goes against the whole tradition." He said, "It'll work. Don't worry about it." And I said, "Well, that's all you're gonna get from me!" [laughter] "I'm never going to write a scene -- I don't want to get into that awful pidgin English, the James Michener kind of scene. You're never gonna get a scene between the two of them out of me." [pause] But he did. [laughter]
AB: I think it's time to close. I just want to say one little thing. When you observe writers... what Pete says is true. The theater is a sort of dangerous place for all of us in different ways. And writers, I think most notably, have peculiar ways of coping with their nerves during previews. Some writers have tantrums, some just don't show up, and some sit there doggedly night after night.
Pete has always had this odd thing, where he watches his play usually the first time from a good seat. Then as things go on, he moves to the back row. And then he sits on a chair and listens to the play outside, in the lobby. This is just about the time when we're about to open. And then by the time we open -- if he can be found in the building at all... it took me several days to find out where he was seeing the play from. Once, he was upstairs in the booth with the stage manager, and once he watched the television monitor in the basement where the stage manager's office is. But I find his way of withdrawing extremely elegant and graceful.
ARG: Well I thank you, and I think -- just to say one more word on that. I do think that when you write a play, there is a process of giving it up. You give it to the producer first. And then the director takes it, and the actors take it -- now the director has given it up. It becomes the actors' play. It's theirs. You're an outsider. It's kind of a sad experience in some ways. It's like seeing your children going off to college or something. It's the same feeling. You say goodbye to it, but it's on its own now.
AB: And now, we have to say goodbye to you. Thank you, Pete! Good night, everyone. [audience applause]