A.R. Gurney, 86, playwright explored upper-crust anxieties

Mr. Gurney’s plays included “The Cocktail Hour,’’ “The Middle Ages,’’ and “Love Letters.’’
Associated Press/file 1986
Mr. Gurney’s plays included “The Cocktail Hour,’’ “The Middle Ages,’’ and “Love Letters.’’

NEW YORK — A.R. Gurney, a prolific playwright who dissected the fading folkways of the Northeast’s traditional white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society in such plays as “The Middle Ages,” “The Dining Room,” and “The Cocktail Hour,” died on Tuesday at his home in New York. He was 86.

With its focus on the quirks and barely concealed anxieties of the privileged class, Mr. Gurney’s work was often likened to that of the novelist John Cheever and the playwright Philip Barry. His settings were often the stately homes of the well-to-do. His characters included self-satisfied corporate executives, crusty academics, imperious dowagers, and bewildered teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.

In his hands, the conventions of the drawing-room comedy became the framework for social analysis. His astute observations were leavened with tart humor, and he was adept at using misunderstandings, either accidental or willful, as fuel for drama.


In “The Cocktail Hour” (1988), one of his best-known plays, Mr. Gurney’s protagonist is a young playwright who returns to his family’s home in upstate New York to announce that he has written a play about them and to ask for their approval to have it produced. His parents are appalled. The playwright is dismayed.

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“Oh, God, why did I come here?” he says. “Why did I bother? Most playwrights dish out the most brutal diatribes against their parents, who sit proudly in the front row and applaud every insult that comes along. Me? Finally — after 25 years of beating around the bush — I come up with something which is — all right, maybe a little on the nose, maybe a little frank, maybe a little satiric at times — but still clearly infused with warmth, respect, and an abiding affection, and what happens? I’m being censored, banned, bribed not to produce.”

Mr. Gurney knew of what his fictional playwright speaks.

“I certainly couldn’t have written ‘The Cocktail Hour’ until my father had died,” he told the Hartford Courant on the eve of a revival of the play at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 2007. “It would have killed him. He didn’t like at all what I wrote. He felt I was betraying, revealing things I shouldn’t reveal, embarrassing the family, and using language which he thought was vulgar and unattractive.”

Mr. Gurney tried to bridge this generational gulf in many of his plays as “a true and graceful chronicler,” in the words of the director Andre Bishop.


Mr. Gurney had been writing plays for some 20 years before he scored his first major success with “The Dining Room” in 1982. Members of the cast, which included William H. Macy and Pippa Pearthree, played a variety of roles in a series of vignettes about family gatherings that, taken together, portrayed a society in reluctant transition. In his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that despite its flaws, “The Dining Room” was “often funny and rueful and, by the end, very moving.”

Barely a month later, another Gurney play, the comedy “The Middle Ages,” made a moderately successful if belated New York debut, opening off-Broadway five years after it was written. The play is a multifaceted portrait of a man who has spent a lifetime rebelling against his privileged upbringing only to find that its grip, felt even in a frustrating romance, is unshakable.

Albert Ramsdell Gurney was born on Nov. 1, 1930, in Buffalo. His father was a successful business executive who ran a tight ship at home.

Mr. Gurney graduated from Williams College in Williams-town, served for several years as an officer in the Navy, and then enrolled in the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama.

After graduation he taught English at a private school and then joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught American literature and the humanities for many years.


Mr. Gurney, who acquired the nickname Pete because his mother liked the sound of it, married Molly Goodyear in 1957.

She survives him, as do their two sons, George and Benjamin, and two daughters, Amy Gurney Nicholas and Evelyn. Mr. Gurney is also survived by a sister, Evelyn Gurney Miller, a brother, Steven, and eight grandchildren.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Gurney had left MIT and moved his household to New York, where he soon reached what he described in an article in The Times in 1986 as “some sort of a creative high.” It resulted in an outpouring of new plays, sometimes two a year.

“My mountainous labors may well have produced a series of mice,” he wrote, “but no one can deny that I’ve been writing up a storm and having a good time doing it.”

The results were uneven. “The Perfect Party” (1986) was a biting comedy about a middle-aged professor who plays host to a multicultural gathering that he hopes will be the party to end all parties. He even invites a newspaper critic to evaluate the soiree, which inevitably spins out of his control. In his Times review, Rich called it “Mr. Gurney’s funniest, meanest, and most theatrical play yet.”

A professor is also at the center of “Another Antigone” (1988). Here a university classroom becomes an ethnic battleground over anti-Semitism between the teacher, of the old school, and a Jewish student who insists that he accept her updated version of Sophocles as her term paper for the course.

During the next decade, Mr. Gurney seldom strayed far from the milieu that had inspired so much of his early work. He continued to examine that class-dominated world in “The Cocktail Hour,” “Love Letters” (1989), “The Old Boy” (1991), “Later Life” (1993), “Labor Day” (1998) and other plays.

He branched out, however in “Far East” (1999), which is set in Japan at the end of the Korean War and centers on the cultural conflicts stemming from a naval lieutenant’s love affair with a Japanese woman.

Mr. Gurney also wrote three novels: “The Gospel According to Joe,” “Entertaining Strangers,” and “The Snow Ball.”

Almost from the start, he was keenly aware of the driving force behind his work.

“What seems to obsess me,” he once said, “is the contrast between the world and the values I was immersed in when I was young, and the nature of the contemporary world.”

His childhood in Buffalo, which he described as “the city time forgot,” remained his primary source of inspiration. It was all about “continuity that went back three or four generations,” he said in 1989.

Early on, he said, “I sensed the comforts of civilization — but also its discontents, what you give up. The emotions are carefully trained, ultimately honed, tamped down.”