Playwrights present us with a variety of images of the world. During the last third of the 20th century, there were two playwrights who gave us the experience of visiting two different worlds. Both of them were very much rooted in the cities in which they grew up. August Wilson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and A. R. Gurney, Jr. in Buffalo, New York. Gurney is still writing plays in his eighties. August Wilson died in 2005 at the age of 60. These two men gave us the experience of sharing the lives of characters who were quintessentially American in all the diversity that is this country. August Wilson wrote from his African-American experience and A. R. Gurney from his white upper middle class environment.
One of the fascinating aspects of theatre is how, while sitting in various types of theatre spaces, you can be transported into the lives of other characters and learn from them, not only about their lives, but gain insight into your own as you see how different and the same your struggles and theirs are. What is intriguing is that these playwrights offer two such different worlds, but that both touch us and enlarge our understanding. The languages the characters speak are distinctive and reflect their place in a specific time and setting.
Wilson wrote what is called his Century Cycle or sometimes The Pittsburgh Cycle; that is a play set in each decade of the 20th century.in Pittsburgh. Gurney does not confine his characters to Buffalo, although place is important to them as indicated by one character in The Dining Room having difficulty contemplating moving to Syracuse.
Having seen productions of many of the plays of both of these playwrights, it was instructive when reading them to see how rich they are and how much they offer actors and directors to work with in the depth of the people who even when they seemed superficial in Gurney’s plays, you come to see more fully. We come away from both sets of plays thinking about issues of class, race and gender. Who has the power and what is the nature of that power?
In his lifetime, Wilson would only allow African-Americans to direct his plays. After his death, his wife allowed others to direct the plays. Wilson engaged in an ongoing battle with Robert Brustein, head of the Yale Drama Department, about the issue of race and art. Besides their arguments in print, they had a two and a half hour debate in person at the Town Hall Theatre in New York where each, in responding to the other, maintained their positions.
Besides Bob’s and my discussion of these playwrights on our program, I have included an interview Bill Moyers had with August Wilson and a director’s discussion of producing Gurney’s The Dining Room, which along with Love Letters is probably Gurney’s most produced play. To hear our program, you have to click the url if you get this by email. Otherwise just click on the programs below.