Analysis of Christopher Durang’s Plays

Christopher Durang (born January 2, 1949) belongs to the postmodernist wave of American playwrights who emerged during the 1970’s, including A. R. Gurney, Jr., Tina Howe, and Sam Shepard. These writers fused the experimental techniques of the structuralist theater experiments of the 1960’s with the “traditional” domestic drama of the early twentieth century American realists, creating a new form of theater that is simultaneously naturalistic and self-consciously theatrical. Evolving as it did from collegiate travesties and comedy sketches, Durang’s drama violates many of the established principles of the well-made play. However sloppily constructed and politically unsophisticated his plays may be, Durang’s genius is to create comedies out of existential anger and to infuse them with energy, thought, and an unbounded sense of liberty.


Durang’s plays are remarkable for their absurdist approach to the important questions of modern philosophy, for their hilarious disregard for social conventions and traditional sexual roles, and for their uncompromisingly bleak assessment of human politics and society. As early as the satirical travesties he produced in college, Durang’s abiding themes have been suffering and paternalism. The cutting edge of his humor is his insistence on the commonplaceness of suffering in the world. His plays are populated by archetypal sadists and victims, and the comedy is usually cruel (as the audience is made to laugh at the exaggerated and grotesque misery of the characters) and nearly always violent; death, suicide, disaster, and murder are never too far away in typical Durang slapstick.

In a note accompanying the publication of The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, the writer explains that the violence of the play must appear simultaneously vicious and funny, demanding that performers make the audience sympathize with the victim and yet feel sufficiently “alienated” (in the sense of Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect”) from the theatrical action to be able to laugh at it. Presiding over the sufferers is a figure of authority, always coldly detached and frequently insane, who “explains” the suffering with banal truisms taken from philosophy, religion, and pop psychology, while in fact he or she acts as the instrument of the oppression and mindless malice.

Fear and insecurity are the principal components of Durang’s comedy of paranoia. While his plays are repeatedly criticized for not being positive and for not suggesting any remedy to the problem of human evil, they are in fact relentlessly moral, fueled by a profound sense of outrage at the crimes against human dignity. Like Eugène Ionesco, Joe Orton, and Lenny Bruce, Durang attempts to shock the audience out of its complacency through the use of vulgarity, blasphemy, violence, and other forms of extremism. If his endings seem less than perfectly conclusive, and if his characters seem to be no more than cartoons, still, underneath all the madcap and sophomoric nonsense is a serious and humane plea for tolerance, diversity, and individual liberty. The object of the writer’s most satirical attacks is the incompetent guardian, a sometimes wellintentioned but always destructive figure of patriarchal authority who appears in many different guises: parent, husband, teacher, analyst, hero, nanny, doctor, author, and even deity. This figure embodies for Durang all the evil elements of human nature and social hierarchy.

The Idiots Karamazov

Durang’s drama of the mid-1970’s, the plays that grew out of his college exercises at Yale, is chiefly parodic and yet contains kernels of the preoccupation with suffering characteristic of his later works. The Idiots Karamazov, which he wrote with Innaurato, is a musical-comedy travesty of the great Russian novelists of suffering, Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy. The principal character, Constance Garnett, is the translator, an older woman who uses a wheelchair and is attended by a suicidal manservant, Ernest. In Durang and Innaurato’s version of Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, the holy innocent and idiot savant Alyosha becomes a pop music star, and the “Great Books,” along with other academic pretensions to cultural importance, are thus trivialized as commodities in a money-and-glitter-oriented enterprise.

A History of the American Film

Durang ridiculed Hollywood and motion pictures in A History of the American Film, a 1976 musical that opened on Broadway in 1978. The five principal characters are caricatures based on familiar Hollywood types. Loretta (as in Loretta Young) is the long-suffering and lovingly innocent heroine. Jimmy (as in James Cagney) is the tough guy, part hoodlum and part romantic hero. Bette (as in Bette Davis) is the vamp, a vindictive but seductive figure who enjoys nothing more than making Loretta suffer. Hank (as in Henry Fonda) is the strong and silent all-American good guy, who eventually turns psychotic. Eve (as in Eve Arden) is the ever-present true friend, who covers up her own sexual frustration with dry witticisms and hard-boiled mottoes.

True to its title, the play satirizes the gamut of Hollywood kitsch, including jabs at Birth of a Nation (1915), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Psycho (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and Earthquake (1974). On a deeper level, the play exposes the American film industry as a manufacturer of glamorous façades for real-life misery and fear.

The Vietnamization of New Jersey

In The Vietnamization of New Jersey, Durang takes on the legitimate theater itself. Using David Rabe’s controversial Vietnam-era satire Sticks and Bones (pr. 1969, pb. 1972) as a starting place, Durang makes the social and political pretensions of “serious theater” seem silly, while castigating the various “isms” of contemporary culture: liberalism, consumerism, racism, militarism, and sexism. The play treats the horrors of war, mental illness, inflation, unemployment, and suicide with chilling comedy.

’dentity Crisis

In the late 1970’s, when Durang wrote ’dentity Crisis, The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, and the phenomenally successful Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, the playwright challenged the idea of authority or expertise itself. Inspired by R. D. Laing’s controversial theories about schizophrenia, ’dentity Crisis is an oddly moving comedy in one act and two scenes. The action centers on a young, depressed woman named Jane and her mother, Edith.

The play opens as Edith returns from the dry cleaner with Jane’s bloodstained dress, which has been ruined after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Despite the initial impression, it soon appears that Jane is the only character in the play who is “sane.” Edith manufactures and discards versions of reality with breathless speed, and Robert, the other occupant of the house, manifests four distinct personalities, alternately Jane’s brother, father, and grandfather, as well as the Count de Rochelay, a foreign suitor of the perversely promiscuous Edith.

Even Jane’s psychoanalyst, Mr. Summers, is bizarrely inconsistent. In scene 1, the role is played by a man, and in scene 2, after a sex-change operation, by a woman (the actor who plays Mr. Summers in the first scene plays his wife in the second). Jane reveals the motive behind her suicide attempt in a poignant and surrealistic monologue concerning a production of Peter Pan she had seen as a girl. Life is not worth continuing, she says, if it only leads to death in the end. The play ends with the daughter’s loss of her identity, but the audience’s sympathy remains with her because it has entered her version of reality and regards the others as mad.

The Nature and Purpose of the Universe

The authoritative Mr. and Mrs. Summers in ’dentity Crisis are remarkably similar to Ronald and Elaine May Alcott, the two “agents of God” who borrow various guises in The Nature and Purpose of the Universe. Like its glib title, the play pokes fun at those who would offer easy explanations of the mysteries of existence and evil. It is a play in thirteen “chapters,” each chronicling a different aspect of the tragicomic downfall of the hapless Eleanor Mann.

Presiding over the events of the drama are Ronald and Elaine, who pretend to render meaningful the random catastrophes that they inflict on the Job-like Eleanor. Every now and then they enter the action of the play, purportedly to offer heavenly guidance and solace but actually to intensify the poor woman’s suffering. Durang’s comedy springs from the characters’ absurdly cool responses to horror. When Eleanor is knocked to the kitchen floor and kicked by her drug-peddling son, her husband chides the boy, saying, “Donald, have a little patience with your mother.” The play ends as, in a parody of Old Testament piety, Ronald and Elaine bind and gag Eleanor and sacrifice her to a distant and passively vicious God.

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Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You

Sister Mary Ignatius, teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and the menacingly maternal protagonist of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, is the writer’s classic realization of the banality and willful ignorance of human evil. The play falls into three sections. In the first, Sister Mary catechizes the audience on basic doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

As Durang noted in several interviews, the humor of this section stems from the unexaggerated reportage of the irrational but devoutly held beliefs of certain Christians: the existence of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory within the physical universe; the supernatural births of Jesus Christ and Mary; the efficacy of Christ’s suffering and death on a cross; the exclusively procreative function of sex; and God’s everlasting vengeance against wrongdoers such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Brooke Shields, and David Bowie. Repeatedly, however, Sister Mary dodges the more interesting issue of God’s responsibility for the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

The second section presents a Nativity play performed by four of Sister Mary’s former students. More than anything else, the play demonstrates the triumph of dogma over narrative in traditional Christianity and portrays an absurdly abbreviated life of Christ.With only three characters, Mary, Joseph, and Misty the camel (two actors impersonate separate humps), and a doll as the infant Jesus, the play spans the time from the Immaculate Conception (of Mary) to the Ascension (of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Misty). The third section of the play involves the Nativity-scene actors’ disclosure to Sister Mary of the courses their lives have taken after leaving Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow.

Philomena (Misty’s front end) has borne a daughter out of wedlock. Aloysius (Misty’s back end) has become a suicidal alcoholic who regularly beats his wife. Gary ( Joseph) has had homosexual relationships. Diane (Mary), whom Sister Mary especially detests, has had two abortions. Diane engineers the climactic confrontation in order to embarrass Sister Mary and then reveals her intention to kill her, much to the surprise of her three cohorts. Victorious in the end, Sister Mary whips out a gun and kills Diane; then, after assuring herself that he has made a recent confession of his sexual sins, she kills Gary as well. The play ends with a recitation of the catechism by Thomas, a boy currently enrolled in the parochial school.

Beyond Therapy

In the 1980’s, Durang turned his attention to other kinds of oppression in society, specifically the normalization of sexuality and family relationships. In Beyond Therapy, he again attacks psychoanalysis from a Laingian perspective, portraying the analysts in the play as more bizarre versions of Mr. Summers and his wife in ’dentity Crisis. Their clients are a heterosexual woman and a bisexual man who meet through an advertisement in the personals column of a newspaper. The complex relationship they form is played mainly for laughs, but the butt of most of the jokes is pop psychology, as well as the notion of anyone’s being an expert about how other people ought to live their lives.

Baby with the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo

Both Baby with the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo have their origins in plays Durang wrote while in college and pertain to American family life. Baby with the Bathwater is a grim but humorous indictment of the science of child-rearing. Born as a boy but reared as a girl, Daisy, the baby of the title, is the victim of two inept parents and a manipulative nanny. In the last act he appears in his analyst’s office wearing a dress, clearly suffering from a sexual identity crisis.

The Marriage of Bette and Boo takes the form of a college student’s memories of his parents, both of whom are emotionally unbalanced and (for their son Matt, the narrator) unbalancing. The play is a parody of the family dramas of American dramatists Thornton Wilder and Eugene O’Neill. The mother, Bette, idolizes babies but is able to produce only one living descendant because her blood type is incompatible with her husband’s. The several stillborn infants she produces she names after animal characters inWinnie the Pooh storybooks. The father, Boo, is an alcoholic whose life is a cycle of a reformation and backsliding. Though a comedy, the play touches on serious philosophical questions concerning God, suffering, death, the absurdity of life, and the meaning of love. It is also the most autobiographical of Durang’s plays.

Later plays

In the late 1980’s, tired of New York and the theater, Durang began touring as a cabaret act, Chris Durang and Dawne. He soon returned to the theater, however, with Media Amok, a satire on the sensationalism of television talk shows. Durang/Durang contained six sketches lampooning playwrights Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet, with titles such as For Whom the Belle Tolls. A more serious and disturbing play followed. Sex and Longing tells of Lulu, a nymphomaniac whose roommate is a sexually compulsive homosexual. Lulu is attacked by a serial killer; her savior, a fundamentalist preacher, first converts her, then later rapes her.

Betty’s Summer Vacation begins as a comedic farce but soon spins out of control to an explosive ending. Betty is spending her vacation at a time-share by the beach with five bizarre strangers, one of whom is a serial killer. The American fascination with sensationalism on television is a theme again, with such targets as Fox network specials and coverage of the trials of Lorena Bobbit and O. J. Simpson.

Principal drama
The Greatest Musical Ever Sung, pr. 1971; The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, wr. 1971, pr. 1975 (radio play), pr. 1979 (staged), pb. 1979; Better Dead than Sorry, pr. 1972 (libretto, music by Jack Feldman); I Don’t Generally Like Poetry but Have You Read “Trees”?, pr. 1972 (with Albert Innaurato); The Life Story of Mitzi Gaynor: Or, Gyp, pr. 1973 (with Innaurato); The Marriage of Bette and Boo, pr. 1973, pb. 1976, revised pr. 1979, pb. 1985; The Idiots Karamazov, pr., pb. 1974, augmented pb. 1981 (with Innaurato, music by Feldman); Titanic, pr. 1974, pb. 1983; Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes, pr. 1975, pb. 1979; When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, pr. 1975 (with Wendy Wasserstein); ’dentity Crisis, pr. 1975, pb. 1979; Das Lusitania Songspiel, pr. 1976 (with Sigourney Weaver, music by Mel Marvin and Jack Gaughan); A History of the American Film, pr. 1976, pb. 1978; The Vietnamization of New Jersey (An American Tragedy), pr. 1976, pb. 1978; Three Short Plays, pb. 1979; Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, pr. 1979, pb. 1980; The Actor’s Nightmare, pr., pb. 1981; Beyond Therapy, pr. 1981, pb. 1983; Christopher Durang Explains It All for You, pb. 1983; Baby with the Bathwater, pr., pb. 1983; Sloth, pr. 1985; Laughing Wild, pr. 1987, pb. 1988; Naomi in the Living Rkoom, pr. 1991, pb. 1998; Media Amok, pr. 1992; Durang/Durang, pr. 1994, pb. 1996 (6 short plays; Mrs. Sorken, For Whom the Belle Tolls, A Stye of the Eye, Nina in the Morning, Wanda’s Visit, and Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room); Collected Works, pb. 1995-1997 (2 volumes; volume 1, Twenty-seven Short Plays; volume 2, Complete Fulllength Plays, 1975-1995); Sex and Longing, pr. 1996; Betty’s Summer Vacation, pr. 1998, pb. 2000.

Other major work
Screenplay: Beyond Therapy, 1987.

Brustein, Robert. “The Crack in the Chimney: Reflections on Contemporary American Playwriting.” Theater 9 (Spring, 1978): 21-29.
Durang, Christopher. Introduction to Christopher Durang Explains It All for You. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990
._______. “Suspending Disbelief: An Interview with the Playwright by Himself.” American Theater 16, no. 10 (December 1999): 37.
Flippo, Chet. “Is Broadway Ready for Christopher Durang?” New York 15 (March 15, 1982): 40-43.
Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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