A production of A. R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour at Pittsburgh's South Park Theatre – in which I played Bradley, the pompous, septuagenarian patriarch who learns that he is the subject of a new play written by his playwright son – has just closed. It is a play that focuses on family conflicts and generational changes, but it is also a play that develops a fine critique of the contemporary drama and its prospects for the future in a changing world.
"Of course, nobody goes to the theatre anymore," Bradley pontificates, as he reflects aloud upon learning about the new play. All they do in the theatre these days, he goes on, is "stand around and shout obscenities" and then "they take off their clothes." In the old days, years ago, there were "good" plays¸ plays in which someone might have committed a "minor indiscretion," and everyone would have been very "attractive about it." Those were the days of the Lunts and Katherine Hepburn. The "good" plays he is talking about must have been plays like The Philadelphia Story and Blithe Spirit, drawing room comedies like most of Gurney’s own plays, The Cocktail Hour included.
These are drawing room comedies not because they necessarily take place in drawing rooms, but because they deal with the kind of people who actually might have drawing rooms, the social set to which Bradley feels he and his family belong. These are the people who belong to the country clubs, who sail their boats on the lake, who are "never too busy for the cocktail hour." The trouble is that their way of life has gone. All has changed. All is changed. There are no more maids to make ice and pass cheese. Cooks can't be depended on to keep the oven turned on. Married couples lead lives apart. Children are scattered all over the country. No one drinks with relish anymore; even his own sons and daughter have no time for the sacred cocktail hour. No one cares about their way of life, Bradley laments, not the younger generation, not the critics, not the modern theatre audiences.
Yet despite this lack of interest, The Cocktail Hour is at once Gurney’s love letter to the dying drawing room comedy and his deconstruction of the genre. It is one of those meta-plays, which is in fact about itself. Bradley tells John he could have put the family's skiing into his play. John replies that you can't very well put skiing on the stage. Bradley says that he could have at least mentioned it, and John says he did: thus, in fact, doing so.
This kind of thing occurs over and over again. In a long monologue in which John describes his childhood playwriting as parading his penis in front of his parents, he adds that it is just as he is doing right now. Nina, his sister, who plays only a supporting role, is told she is playing a supporting role. She looks through the play and discovers that she exits huffily, whereupon she exits huffily. Bradley suggests that the play needs some sort of surprise or secret at the end of the first act, and John delivers a surprise.
The effect of deconstructing the genre in this way is to renew its relevance, to use it in a way that once again makes it worth writing about. The deconstruction is in itself of interest, and in the end it suggests that there is still something in the subject – and the genre – worth attention. Besides, if it is true that nobody goes to the theatre anymore, and that at one time people did go, it makes sense to look once again at the kind of theatre that seemed to have attracted an audience.
Not only does this suggest that the genre may well not be outdated, it also suggests that the way of life dealt with in such drama may well not be entirely irrelevant. Bradley’s constant complaints about the decline of civilized life, which to him is symbolized by the modern generation's inability to deal with servants and its obsession with vulgar language, may well be premature. If he were writing the play, he says at the end, he would want to "prove to the critics that we were worth writing about." Again, Gurney is doing in the play what he says the play should do, and why not? After all, is it not this kind of life that is the great subject of Gurney’s work? Is it not Bradley, and his forbears who came to America in the 17th century and spent their lives attempting "to establish something called civilization in this wilderness," who walk his stages?
The Cocktail Hour is a tightly constructed tour de force which deserves more attention, the kind of attention that a staging or two by some of the more prestigious regional theatre companies might well attract.