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A.R. Gurney drew universal lessons from privileged upbringing

Buffalonians, it hardly has to be said, have an unhealthy preoccupation with past glories.

We love looking back to times of relative prosperity, when shoppers crowded the aisles of AM&As and smoke from Bethlehem Steel blackened the granite facade of City Hall.

Sure, maybe the smoke was carcinogenic. But the nostalgia is real.

The siren call of Buffalo's past, with all its pitfalls and flaws and false promises, was the motivating force behind the work of A.R. Gurney, the Buffalo-born playwright whose native city stopped changing in his mind the moment he left town for boarding school in in the mid-1940s.

Gurney, whose 50-year career as a playwright stands as Buffalo's most notable contribution to American literature in at least a half century, died on Tuesday at 86.

A.R. Gurney, chronicler of Buffalo's fading grandeur, dies at 86

To his national audience, Gurney's work spoke in a universal way about the collective concerns of the old-guard aristocracy and about universal human struggles. To Buffalo theatergoers, Gurney's work was an entrée into the exclusive haunts and concerns of the aristocratic class into which he was born.

Most Buffalonians have never been to the Saturn Club, the Delaware Avenue hub of Buffalo blue-bloods where Gurney and his family spent many evenings in his youth. But plenty of us have gained access to it via the box office at the former Studio Arena Theatre, at the Kavinoky Theatre or Road Less Traveled Theatre, where his plays were frequently performed.

But what we found when we gained entry to these spaces was most often not a gauzy, sepia-toned portrait of some impossibly idyllic past. Instead, we discovered characters wracked with insecurity and guilt, young men and women overcome with longing and family members bound by tradition in ways that were more often oppressive than reassuring.

Consider the main character in his 1988 play "The Cocktail Hour," a playwright based on Gurney himself who struggles with his family's reaction to his chosen career and subject matter. This mirrors Gurney's own experience with his early play "Scenes from American Life," which rankled some members of his family when it debuted at Studio Arena Theatre in 1970.

The play, he said, was his attempt to "wake up people in Buffalo who have financial if not political power" and "to remind them of the responsibility that goes with this power." In later works, he learned to back off the activism.

This helped at home and at the box office, but not with his critics from elsewhere on the class spectrum. Often with reason, those critics viewed Gurney's lesser work as too formulaic or soft-pedaled to resonate with a working-class audience.

Even so, it has to be said that Gurney's work – fueled by nostalgia as it is – could be read as a warning against falling victim to the traditions and memories of past lives.

Buffalo director Scott Behrend, who led a production of Gurney's "Ancestral Voices," said that the play was "critical of the ways in which nostalgia may deceive and distort" and contained "a powerful vein of melancholy and loss."

Telling a story; Road Less Traveled brings Gurney tale to the stage

Gurney's plays – including the audience favorite "Love Letters" – deliver that addictive, melancholic tone to theatergoers as well as tantalizing glimpses into exclusive spaces and privileged lives. But in his best work, he delivered stories just as complex, messy and human as you might find in your corner tavern.

On that subject, no Buffalo dramatist is better-versed than Tom Dudzick, the author of the wildly popular "Over the Tavern." He is the last living member Buffalo's defining triad of class-conscious playwrights whose work has achieved international renown. The other members were Gurney, the voice of the aristocracy, and Manny Fried, the voice of Buffalo's beleaguered underclass.

Like most native Buffalonians, Tom Dudzick has never set foot in the Saturn Club. In fact, in a phone interview on Thursday, he referred to it as the Mercury Club.

In any case, he knew it was another planet.

"I didn't know that that society existed in Buffalo," Dudzick said. "Of course I knew there were people who were better off than me. But to think there was this thing called the Mercury Club, or the Saturn Club, and people talking about cocktails and playing golf? I was unaware of that, so it was really an awakening."

For Dudzick, who amazingly never met Gurney, the characters who plied the stage in the playwright's most memorable works – "The Dining Room," "The Cocktail Hour" – were simply good characters who happened to have trust funds.

"They all were just being human in a different stratosphere," Dudzick said. "The humanity was still there."

Indeed, Gurney himself was well aware that his work was based on a rarefied niche of privileged people. Even if, at one point in his career, he subscribed to a surprisingly narrow view of the subjects "ethnic" playwrights were able to explore.

"WASPs is the world I tend to write about and speak to, though I hope other people will find it interesting," Gurney told then-Buffalo News theater critic Terry Doran in 1990. "August Wilson speaks to and about the blacks, and his plays are general enough to appeal beyond that. David Mamet is interested in the Chicago business community; he speaks primarily to hustlers and about hustlers. Chris Durang is, to a large extent, the playwright of the Irish Catholic. And so it goes."

Certainly other figures in American literature loom larger when it comes to chronicling the peculiar desperation and anxiety of the erstwhile aristocracy, of which only vestiges now remain. It is not likely that Gurney's work will ever replace that of F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Cheever in illuminating the excesses and eccentricities of wealth and the great divides that characterize American life.

But it is unlikely any playwright will again exploit the history and spirit of this city to such resounding success, or such wide acclaim.

Gurney's life was indeed privileged. His idea of Buffalo was indeed paused in time, like a snow globe stuck in 1945. But he worked hard to imbue his personal experiences with universal meaning. Judging by his best works, and the fact that he was appreciated in equal measure by those who dine at the Saturn Club and those who've never heard of it, it has to be said that he succeeded.


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