Not black, Jewish or homosexual


AR Gurney is American theatre's laureate of the suburban

middle-classes. Rhoda Koenig encounters an unlikely rebel

"Even when you hit me, I love you," says the character played by Zoe Wanamaker to the man she lives with. "I think you're God." Instead of horror or disgust, this sentiment, from the title character of Sylvia, is likely to produce an affectionate smile. Sylvia is not just doglike, she is a dog, and her loyalty is combined with a fierce competitiveness and expertise at creating guilt (is it one's imagination that she sounds Jewish?). Her arrival in the home of a middle-aged couple immediately converts it into a menage a trois, but, though she is quite troublesome, Sylvia is immensely likeable. As the press officer at the Manhattan Theatre Club (where the play recently finished its New York run) put it, "There is absolutely nothing bitchy about the dog."

The human characters in Sylvia are rather genteel New Yorkers, former inhabitants of the suburbs, where their author used to live. AR Gurney has celebrated and satirised the people of the suburbs in a type of play which might be called "boulevard fringe theatre" and is so popular that, in the past 20 years, he has had 18 New York productions. Since the early Sixties, his bourgeois comedies have been performed off-Broadway and across America, making Gurney, now 65, known as theatre's laureate of the Wasp, the redundant acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. In Britain, of course, audiences and critics have trouble understanding what is so special about Gurney's characters, but in America the term Wasp is one that, while not necessarily derogatory, has strong suggestions of coldness, conformity and complacency. One American dictionary even defines it as meaning a "middle-class, conservative bigot".

When Gurney was growing up, in the New York State town of Buffalo, the word didn't exist, and wasn't necessary. "The idea of being part of an ethnic group never occurred to me," says Gurney. "The idea of being a member of the 'dominant culture' never occurred to me. We were simply what America was." His family was not wealthy, but it was large, well- off and, unusually for America, its roots were long and deep. Some ancestors fought in the Revolution; his family had lived in Buffalo for five generations; and his father inherited his father's insurance and property business. There were dances at the club and summers at the shore; though education and culture were respected, they were possessions rather than passions. When Gurney wanted to go to theatre-oriented Williams College (one of the teachers was Stephen Sondheim) instead of Yale, he had to explain himself not only to his parents but to a council of disapproving uncles.

The son or daughter wanting to go to an inappropriate university is a recurring figure in Gurney's plays. In his first major success, Scenes From American Life (1971), a girl offered the choice between college and a coming-out party picks the former because "I want to further my education. I want to have something to do." Her mother says, "Oh, Barbara, you sound like some immigrant," and instructs her in the proper way to drink martinis. The lesson is not that one must be frivolous, but that one must harness oneself early to the group's demands for continuity and self-abnegation. The father in another play, The Cocktail Hour, tells his son that all men do work they don't like, so why should he expect to be different. "The tradition I came from," says Gurney, "is a puritanical one. The pleasures of life are suspect, labour is travail."

These ideas, like many assumptions, were overturned in the Sixties, when the term Wasp, coined by the sociologist E Digby Baltzell, entered the language. "He saw this group as a kind of responsible governing elite and felt the country got into trouble when that group abdicated its power." But Gurney's rebelliousness, ironically, was too tepid for the time. Unlike the other playwrights of the period, Gurney was neither black nor Jewish nor, like Edward Albee, who produced one of his plays, a homosexual, and the raw and flashy emotions of their work overshadowed his. He supported his family (he has been married for more than 40 years) by teaching Thucydides, Pascal and Descartes to the often reluctant students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a job that tested his theatrical ingenuity. "You'd really have to make the work come alive for them, which got me thinking about it carefully. I'd ask other teachers, 'How did you get the Oresteia to work? What was your angle?' "

In Gurney's best play, The Dining Room (1982), six actors play 58 parts, showing several generations following and defying rituals of a culture that, like the room itself, is becoming obsolete. "As Marshall McLuhan says, we only appreciate the artefact when it's been framed by time." Gurney's father, however, wouldn't have appreciated the discord, adultery and alcoholism of that play - after Scenes, he would not speak to his son for some time, and his death, in 1978, freed Gurney to feel and write about more intimate matters.

While Gurney's plays enshrine much that is admirable about Wasp culture, such as its public-spiritedness and generosity, he is not mournful about its decline. Indeed, he thinks that decline confirms the purpose of the country the Wasps founded. "We were designed as a country not to have institutions, not to have primogeniture. There's a natural fluidity about American life. Groups come and go."

! 'Sylvia': Apollo, W1 (0171 416 6070), opens Mon.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine