A. R. Gurney

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A. R. Gurney
BornAlbert Ramsdell Gurney Jr.
(1930-11-01)November 1, 1930
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
DiedJune 13, 2017(2017-06-13) (aged 86)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
EducationWilliams College (BA)
Yale University (MFA)
Notable works
Mary Forman Goodyear
(m. 1957)

Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. (November 1, 1930 – June 13, 2017) (sometimes credited as Pete Gurney) was an American playwright, novelist and academic.[1][2][3]

Gurney is known for plays including The Dining Room (1982), Sweet Sue (1986/7), The Cocktail Hour (1988), and for his Pulitzer Prize nominated play Love Letters (1988). His series of plays about upper-class WASP life in contemporary America have been called "penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat."[4]

Early life[edit]

Gurney was born on November 1, 1930 in Buffalo, New York to Albert Ramsdell Gurney Sr. (1896–1977), who was president of Gurney, Becker and Bourne, an insurance and real estate company in Buffalo,[5] and Marion Spaulding (1908-2001).[6][7] His parents had three children, of which Gurney was the middle: (1) Evelyn Gurney Miller (b. 1929),[7][8] (2) Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. (b. 1930), and (3) Stephen S. Gurney (b. 1933).[9]

His maternal grandparents were Elbridge G. Spaulding (1881–1974) and Marion Caryl Ely (1887–1971). Ely was the daughter of William Caryl Ely (1856–1921), politician and lawyer, Member of the New York State Assembly in 1883.[10] Gurney's 2x great-grandfather was Elbridge G. Spaulding (1809–1897), a former Mayor of Buffalo, NY State Treasurer, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives who supported the idea for the first U.S. currency not backed by gold or silver, thus credited with helping to keep the Union economy afloat during the Civil War.[11]

Gurney attended the private school Nichols School in Buffalo and graduating from St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He attended Williams College, graduating in 1952, and the Yale School of Drama, graduating in 1958,[6] after which he began teaching Humanities at MIT.[1][12]


In 1959, following graduation from Yale, Gurney taught English and Latin at a day school, Belmont Hill School, in Belmont, Massachusetts for one year. He then joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a professor of humanities (1960–96) and professor of literature (1970–96).[6]

He began writing plays such as Children and The Middle Ages while at MIT, but it was his great success with The Dining Room that allowed him to write full-time. After The Dining Room, Gurney wrote a number of plays, most of them concerning WASPs of the American northeast. While at Yale, Gurney also wrote Love in Buffalo, the first musical ever produced at the Yale School of Drama.[13] Since then, he is known to be a prolific writer, always writing something.[14]

His first play in New York, which ran for just one performance in October 1968, The David Show, premiered at the Players' Theater on MacDougal Street. The play was cut after its first show by sneers from the entire press except for two enthusiasts, Edith Oliver in The New Yorker and another from the Village Voice.[15]

His 2015 play, Love and Money, is about a mature woman making plans to dispose of her fortune, and the twists that ensue. The world premiere was at New York's Signature Theatre in August 2015.[16] Before that, The Grand Manner, a play about his real life encounter with famed actress Katharine Cornell in her production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, was produced and performed by Lincoln Center for the summer of 2010. It was also produced in Buffalo by the Kavinoky Theatre.[17] He appeared in several of his plays including The Dining Room and most notably Love Letters.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

In June, 1957, Gurney married Molly Goodyear. They lived in Boston until 1983, when they moved their family to New York to be near the theater, television, and publishers while he was on sabbatical from MIT.[18] Together, they had four children:[19]

  • George Goodyear Gurney, who married Constance "Connie" Lyman Warren in 1985.[20][21]
  • Amy Ramsdell Gurney, who married Frederick Snow Nicholas III in 1985.[22]
  • Evelyn "Evie" R. Gurney, who married Christopher Bumcrot[23][24]
  • Benjamin Gurney

Gurney's father, Albert Ramsdell Gurney Sr., died in 1977 and Molly's mother, Sarah Norton, died in 1978. After their deaths, his mother, Marion, married Molly's father, George, and remained married until Marion's death in 2001,[7] followed by George's death in 2002.[15][18]


Gurney died at his home in Manhattan, on June 13, 2017, at the age of 86.[25]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 2006, Gurney was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[26]

In 2007, Gurney received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a master American dramatist.

Gurney was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Obie Awards presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Village Voice.[27]

Literary work[edit]


Gurney's plays often explore the theme of declining upper-class "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) life in contemporary America. The Wall Street Journal has called his works "penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat."[4] Several of his works are loosely based on his patrician upbringing, including The Cocktail Hour and Indian Blood.[15] The New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, in his review of The Dining Room, wrote, "As a chronicler of contemporary America's most unfashionable social stratum—upper-middle-class WASPs, this playwright has no current theatrical peer."[28]

In his 1988 play, "The Cocktail Hour", the lead character tells her playwright son that theater critics "don't like us.... They resent us. They think we're all Republicans, all superficial and all alcoholics. Only the latter [sic] is true."[4] The New York Times described the play as witty observations about a nearly extinct patrician class that regards psychiatry as an affront to good manners, underpaid hired help as a birthright.[29]

In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, Gurney said, "Just as it's mentioned in The Cocktail Hour,' my great-grandfather hung up his clothes one day and walked into the Niagara River and no one understood why." Gurney added that "he was a distinguished man in Buffalo. My father could never mention it, and it affected the family well into the fourth generation as a dark and unexplainable gesture. It made my father and his father desperate to be accepted, to be conventional, and comfortable. It made them commit themselves to an ostensibly easy bourgeois world. They saw it so precariously, but the reason was never mentioned. I first learned about it after my father died."[5]

Gurney told The Washington Post in 1982:

WASPs do have a culture—traditions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, particular signals and totems we pass on to one another. But the WASP culture, or at least that aspect of the culture I talk about, is enough in the past so that we can now look at it with some objectivity, smile at it, and even appreciate some of its values. There was a closeness of family, a commitment to duty, to stoic responsibility, which I think we have to say weren't entirely bad."[30]



Gurney has also written several novels, including:[6]

  • The Snow Ball (1984)
  • The Gospel According to Joe (1974)
  • Entertaining Strangers (1977)
  • Early American (1996)


  • The House of Mirth (1972)[6]
  • Sylvia (1995)[6]


  1. ^ a b Sponberg, Arvid F. (1991). Broadway Talks: What Professionals Think about Commercial Theater in America. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313266874.
  2. ^ A.R. Gurney Biography Archived 2010-10-14 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Sponberg, Arvid F. (2004). A.R. Gurney: A Casebook. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0415929981.
  4. ^ a b c For the quotes see Terry Teachout, "Anatomy of a WASP," The Wall Street Journal Jan 8, 2016
  5. ^ a b Witchel, Alex (12 November 1989). "LAUGHTER, TEARS AND THE PERFECT MARTINI". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Gurney, A. R. (Albert Ramsdell). "Guide to the A. R. Gurney Papers YCAL MSS 728". library.yale.edu. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  7. ^ a b c "MARION S. GOODYEAR, ACTIVE IN CHARITIES - The Buffalo News". www.BuffaloNews.com. The Buffalo News. July 29, 2001. Retrieved 19 June 2017.
  8. ^ "Evelyn Gurney from Ward 20 Buffalo in 1940 Census District 64-438". www.archives.com. 1940 Census. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  9. ^ "Stephen Gurney from Ward 20 Buffalo in 1940 Census District 64-438". www.archives.com. 1940 US Census. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  10. ^ Cauldwell, William (January 1903). "The Successful American". Press Biographical Company (Volume 7, Part 1): 20–22. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  11. ^ Mr. Spaulding and Greenback Resumption (1875, October 16). In The Commercial and Financial Chronicle (Vol. XXI, p. 358). New York, NY: William B. Dana.
  12. ^ Lasman, Sam. "A Look At Playwright A.R. Gurney". www.huntingtontheatre.org. Huntington Theatre Company. Archived from the original on 25 April 2021. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  13. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford (2002). A reader's guide to modern American drama (1. ed.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press. p. 167. ISBN 0815629397. Retrieved 16 April 2016. Mary Forman Goodyear.
  14. ^ Hoke, Donna (May 2012). "Onstage: A. R. Gurney: A playwright to call our own". Buffalo Spree. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Tallmer, Jerry (August 23, 2006). "Gurney takes a page from his life in 'Indian Blood'". thevillager.com. Vol. 76, no. 14. The Villager. Archived from the original on 21 December 2016. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  16. ^ Zinoman, Jason (12 August 2015). "A.R. Gurney's 'Love & Money': Wealth, a Widow and Complications". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  17. ^ Lincoln Center Theater: The Grand Manner, lct.org; accessed May 25, 2015.
  18. ^ a b Freeman, Patricia (January 23, 1989). "Playwright A.R. Gurney Jr.'s Cocktail Hour Leaves His Genteel Family Shaken, Not Stirred". People. Vol. 31, no. 3. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  19. ^ "A. R. Gurney Jr. Biography". eNotes.com. Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  20. ^ "Caroline Whiteside Warren's Obituary on GreenwichTime". Greenwich Time. October 22, 2014. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  21. ^ "MISS WARREN WED TO G. G. GURNEY". The New York Times. 9 June 1985. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  22. ^ "AMY GURNEY AND FREDERICK S. NICHOLAS 3D MARRY". The New York Times. 15 September 1985. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  23. ^ "THE FLEA CAPITAL CAMPAIGN" (PDF). theflea.org. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-09-14. Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  24. ^ "People | Applied Research & Consulting LLC". arcllc.com. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
  25. ^ Berkvist, Robert (June 14, 2017). "A.R. Gurney, Playwright Who Explored Upper-Crust Anxieties, Dies at 86". The New York Times.
  26. ^ "Academy Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  27. ^ Obie Awards, 2016 Winners Archived 2017-11-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^ Quoted in Matt Schudel, "A. R. Gurney, playwright who portrayed the fading WASP culture, dies at 86" The Washington Post June 15, 2017
  29. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (2008-06-10). "The New York Times, June 10, 2008". Theater.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  30. ^ Matt Schudel, "A. R. Gurney, playwright who portrayed the fading WASP culture, dies at 86"
  31. ^ Hartigan K. Greek Tragedy Transformed: AJ Gurney and Charles Mee Rewrite Greek Drama. in Foster VA. Dramatic Revisions of Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends: Essays on Recent Plays.. McFarland, 2012 ISBN 9780786465125

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