Not black, Jewish or homosexual

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The Independent Culture
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.