Children’s Media


One day in 1974, A.R. Gurney was discussing Goodbye My Brother, a famous short story written by John Cheever, with a literature class he was teaching at MIT. During the lecture, the playwright found himself unable to elicit the same kind of excitement in his students that he had experienced over and over again, while reading the legendary writer. It takes true dedication, determination, and a healthy ego to guide young people as they try to grasp the intricacies of sophisticated story telling; and Gurney wanting to help his young charges gain new insight, decided to dramatize the piece. The end result is tonight’s play, Children.

Gurney has long admired Cheever and his literary efforts. “After World War Two, Cheever and Salinger were being published in The New Yorker, along with Updike, but Cheever writes about suburban life, affluence and the disappointment of the people living there. That appealed to me, as well as the rhythms of his writing.” That the playwright should find in Cheever a voice that resonated so strongly with him should come as no surprise to anyone who has explored the creative works of both men. John Cheever’s literary corpus tramples across much of the same psychological terrain that Gurney himself was, and still is, compelled to dramatize. The empathy and melancholy that flows through each of Cheever’s characters echoes in Gurney’s as well. As the facade of control is stripped away, themes relating to identity emerge and magnify a struggle with dark, complex feelings that are difficult to name or understand.

John Cheever and A.R. Gurney both wrote from experience, but that knowledge arose from a very different set of circumstances. For A.R. Gurney, life amongst the American elite could almost be deemed as anthropological. He was a bystander, who watched and reported with poetic accuracy on a culture with which he was intimately familiar. “I knew the details. How these summer communities operated, the rituals and domestic details of everyday life.”

Gurney was born in 1930 into a family where love and security was at the center of a well-to-do existence. The most calamitous event of his childhood revolved around his maternal grandmother’s divorce and subsequent banishment from Buffalo society. For the most part, however, his memories of growing up in a once thriving city are warm ones, filled with the joy of family gatherings and a close-knit community of friends.

Cheever’s world, on the other hand, was the by-product of bitter recrimination. He was one of two sons, the baby of the family, who felt marginalized by his parents. His mother was cold and distant, and his father was often absent, but he used his isolation to fuel imagination. His parents’ subsequent divorce, along with his father’s financial ruin, would become powerful first-hand experiences that would inform his work, and allow him to take his place alongside Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and the great literary icons of the 20th century.

“I really liked (Cheever), very much,’ remembers Gurney. “Goodbye My Brother started off with me trying to sell that story to my lit class, and the other side of my brain saying, ‘Hey this would make a great play…’ But the story is based on a situation, and I needed to give it action. As I worked on the play, I appropriated more and more material outside of the story until I finally could say it was ‘suggested by’ rather than ‘adapted from’ Cheever. ”

One of the most compelling changes Gurney made was to shift the time period from the 1950s to 1970 — a year which saw America struggling to make sense of what was happening in their country and overseas. The playwright was teaching at MIT where he says, “my students were throbbing with what was going on in the country. They were angry. The world was changing really rapidly, and that was the world I was living in.”

Americans today may look back on the seventies with a feeling of benign nostalgia, but what was happening then uncannily mirrors life in the 21st Century. Today, we feverishly debate terrorism, recession, corruption, the war in Afghanistan, illegal immigration, gay marriage, and the very basis of the rights afforded to us by the American constitution. America in the 1970s was similarly being rocked by issues that created tremendous tension amongst the nation’s citizens: the Vietnam War, the killings at Kent State University, the rise of the Black Power movement, and the demand of equal rights for women were all forces which polarized the nation, and created alarming friction between the generations. Flag burning, draft card burning, bra burning, black militant leaders who mocked the white status quo, and women flaunting the power of their sexuality, all pointed to a new kind of expression, a new kind of exploration that no one over thirty could begin to comprehend. The children coming of age in 1970 were questioning, for the very first time, what “freedom” really meant.

Much of what happens in Children bridges America’s past and present. Gurney is exploring the loss of a way of life, and the desperate need to make sense of a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Mother cannot understand what her son Pokey is so torn about, or how the boy who once mowed her lawn could now be one of the richest people on the small resort island that her family has summered on for decades. Jane is tired of being called “Mummy,” and questions her purpose in life, and Barbara, newly divorced and ready to roll, wants to quench her thirst for something new and escape the WASP enclave that has always been her shelter.

“People are like plants,” the mother in Children says while desperately trying to pull her prodigal son back into the fold. “If they are cut, they last for a while, but then they whither and die… And that is Pokey’s problem. And that is s too late for all of us.”

“Exploring the response to cultural change is certainly a large part of what Children is all about,” director Scott Alan Evans says of Gurney’s play, and Gurney agrees: “Change is always hard to digest, and the present environment illuminates the play in a new way.”