Has there ever been a worse name for a playwright in his crib in Buffalo in 1930 than Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr.? That’s the full name on all the official paperwork. Be honest. Would you go see something at your local playhouse by Albert Ramsdell Gurney? Of course you wouldn’t.
Anyway, it’s a moot point. The name is too big and expensive for a theater marquee. The cost of light bulbs determined that the name A. R. Gurney would be forever preceded by the four most exciting words in the English language for someone who writes for the theater: “A new play by.” Unfortunately, they are soon followed by the four most terrifying words: “The first-night review of” that same new play.
But backstage, offstage, everywhere else he was Pete, Pete Gurney.
As theater lore would have it, it was his mother, Marion, who came up with Pete for no other reason than that she liked it and it stuck. He looked like a Pete, he acted like a Pete, he grinned like a Pete.
He grew up privileged and comfortable. Buffalo was not the easy laugh line it had become by the time I wrote the libretto for The Full Monty. It was an important American city—as proud of its industries and millionaires’ rows as it was of its many cultural amenities, including a first-class theater scene. Katharine Cornell was from Buffalo. One of old Pete’s last plays is young Pete’s encounter with their hometown theatrical legend. Buffalo was good to him and he never turned on it. He moved on, like Miss Cornell, but he didn’t betray the good years. I admired him for that. He moved on.
There were good schools leading up to four years at Williams before a turn with the U.S. Navy and then three years at the Yale School of Drama. He married the completely wonderful Molly Goodyear in 1957, started a family—two boys, two girls eventually—and settled down to the business of putting bread on the table for them while striving to become an artist himself, all at the same time, no small juggling feat—of this I’m certain. Artists without children, such as myself, can only imagine the sacrifices, the selflessness required to take care of them, stay married to the same partner throughout whatever comes down for any of them—they were six now—and all the while stay determined to write the Great American Play, which is finally the only goal worth pursuing if you’re in this volatile, venerable art form/sometime clown show—but occasionally (and it’s a big but) life-changing thing we call theater. The Great American Play, the Great American Novel. Isn’t that what we’re here for in the long run?
And Pete was very definitely in it for the long run. To the very end, he stayed the course. When his work was suddenly done we were all so disbelieving. There had always been a Pete Gurney in the New York theater. What were we going to do without him? His brothers and sisters at the Dramatists Guild, I fervently trust, will remember his example well. Don’t stop. Don’t ever, ever stop. Write for yourself, not for what this season’s fashions dictate. Don’t mistake compassion for your characters with moral approval. Play with innovation and keep the torch of Thornton Wilder held high. No one of Pete’s generation played with dramatic form more restlessly. Be avant garde enough to be called old-fashioned. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
If anybody calls you a WASP say “You’re goddamn right I am” and punch ‘em in the nose. Know your father will never like the plays you bring him and don’t be afraid to show us how much that still galls and hurts. Pete was never afraid to tell us who he really was, even in the lightest comedies.
Behind Pete’s sly, somewhat bemused grin were the glinting eyes of a falcon. They never missed a trick. When the cocktail hour got messy and the dining room was suddenly a gentile snake pit, Pete smelled the drama and swooped in for the kill. He understood the sham of polite social intercourse that so often masks the hurts and disappointments throbbing beneath the surface of our daily lives. No wonder great actors relish playing him.
I personally dislike the word “prolific” when it comes to writers but there were days I’d go, “Jesus Christ, Pete Gurney has written half the plays that have been produced in New York City in the past 60 years.” He asked me once if I’d seen something of his and I said, “I honestly don’t remember, Pete. Please, stop, give us a rest.”
I got the Pete grin I loved but I saw something else in it as well. “Watch your step, I’m coming after you.”
Playwrights are friends and rivals. They feed on as well as off one another. But I always liked Pete and I believe he always liked me. We shared more as playwrights than we didn’t: an agent and a Zodiac sign. We bicycled around Cuba with our spouses. We both developed an early thick-skin to critics. Nothing prepares you better for the playwright’s life than a big fat, first-play, flat-out flop and we both had doozies.
As I said, I can’t imagine ending this season without a new Gurney. Luckily there is great treasure in the trove he has bequested us. Already the revivals have begun and I want to say how my respect for his life’s work (always huge) has grown enormously since I began re-reading my favorites in preparation for these remarks. Or as Variety would headline it: “Gurney plays show strong legs.”
When he left us last June he was writing more copiously than ever. He was a grandfather several times over, but he was still in the playwright’s pursuit of the divine moment in the theater when all the gods align. The word and the action are as one. The actor, the mise en scene are allied in an almost spiritual bond. The audience breathes as one. There’s nothing like it.
Pete Gurney took us to those moments. He helped make them. They’re gone now, of course, like he is—that’s the theater for you—but not here, where we carry the best part of ourselves—that’s life.
Pete, Gary, Molly: we will always have Havana. And we will all of us always have the plays.