Christopher Durang, Satirist of Everything Holy

Published in: July-August 2024 issue.


PLAYWRIGHT CHRISTOPHER DURANG, who passed away on April 2, 2024, at the age of 75, was one of the American theater’s most celebrated satirists. His plays could be hysterically funny and deeply disturbing, in a style he described as “absurdist comedy married to real feelings.” Among the targets of his Obie Award-winning works were religious dogma, psychoanalysis, and dysfunctional families, all critiqued from a distinctly queer perspective.

            Born in New Jersey in 1949, Durang was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from Harvard, and then studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, where his collaborators included classmates Wendy Wasserstein and Albert Innaurato, as well as the acting students Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. Influenced by the dark absurdism of Joe Orton and Edward Albee, Durang’s early plays included queer characters ranging from a conflicted and closeted priest in The Idiots Karamazov (1974) to a pair of aristocratic twin brothers who seduce delivery boys in Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes (1975).

            Durang’s first substantial hit was Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979), an outrageous satire on Catholic teachings in which a ludicrously severe nun is confronted by her former students. The Off-Broadway production, which ran for over 1,000 performances from 1981 to ’84, drew protests from Catholic organizations, creating additional publicity for the play. Phil Donahue dedicated a full episode of his talk show to the controversy, and Durang appeared as himself on Saturday Night Live to defend the play against Dana Carvey’s disapproving Church Lady. In Gay Community News, critic Michael Bronski lauded Sister Mary Ignatius as a necessary critique in an era when religious zealots gained political power and insisted that “private morality must be publicly enforced.”

            One of Sister’s former students, Gary, is a gay man in a loving relationship, but he’s still haunted by the guilt and shame instilled by his religious upbringing. When Sister accuses him of “doing that thing that makes Jesus puke,” the best he can muster is: “I don’t think I’m so bad.” In contrast, Durang’s most widely produced play, the screwball romantic comedy Beyond Therapy (1981), features a gay character more in line with the ethos of the Liberation era. Bob is upset when his bisexual lover starts to date women, so he goes into therapy. When the therapist learns that Bob is gay, she asks what he does in bed and then repeatedly, gleefully, screams out “cocksucker!” In response, Bob pulls out a gun, declares “It’s people like you who’ve oppressed gay people for centuries,” and shoots her several times. It turns out to be a prop pistol, but the therapist is thrilled that Bob has connected to his feelings and considers the session a success.

     An intriguing motif in Durang’s plays is the gay character who stumbles out of the closet by accident, not consciously intending to disclose his sexuality. Durang himself was at first reluctant to discuss his homosexuality publicly, concerned that he would be diminished by the label “gay playwright.” However, by the late 1980s, a few events changed his feelings about coming out. He gained acclaim for The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985), his most directly autobiographical play, in which Durang played a version of himself as the play’s narrator, and this success led to more work as an actor. When he took a small role in the Michael J. Fox film The Secret of My Success (1986), he met the actor and writer John Augustine, who became his lifelong partner and, in 2014, his husband.

            In addition to feeling more secure in his career and his personal life, Durang was motivated to come out by the rise of anti-gay hostility in American society and politics. In 1988, he told The Advocate that he felt the need to be more public about his gay identity given the intense homophobia surrounding the AIDS crisis, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, and the Vatican’s statements on homosexuality, which he slammed as “genuinely evil.” He directly addressed these issues in his play Laughing Wild (1987), again performing in his own work. His character mocks the religious Right’s concept of a God who created AIDS as retribution, imagining a capricious deity who opines to Gabriel: “I hate homosexuals … except for Noel Coward—he was droll. And I hate Haitians. Anything beginning with the letter H.”

            Demoralized by a theater culture in which a bad review in The New York Times could close a show, Durang spent a few years focusing on his career as a performer. With Augustine as one of his backup singers, he created the successful cabaret act Chris Durang & Dawne, and he appeared onstage opposite Julie Andrews in the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together (1993). In 1994, he and Marsha Norman became co-directors of the playwriting program at the Juilliard School, where he would influence a new generation of queer playwrights that included David Adjmi, Tanya Barfield, Samuel D. Hunter, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

            In 1999, his pitch-black comedy Betty’s Summer Vacation was hailed by critics as a comeback—and featured his most unsettling queer character: Keith, a “sensitive” young man who carries a shovel and a hatbox that may contain body parts. Keith is modeled in part on Robert Montgomery’s charming murderer in Night Must Fall, but he’s also inspired by Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan—with perhaps a dash of Norman Bates. Durang’s play takes the stereotype of the “homicidal homosexual” and turns it back on the audience, critiquing their hunger for tabloid sensationalism in a bloody circus of ever-increasing violence.

            Durang’s plays of the 21st century continued to earn critical praise, from the Pulitzer-nominated existential farce Miss Witherspoon (2005) to his Tony-winning Chekhovian comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012). This final work became one of the most produced plays of the decade, including a staging in 2014 with Durang playing the role of Vanya—an aging gay playwright dismayed by the state of contemporary culture—at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, where he and Augustine made their home.

            In 2016, Durang was diagnosed with aphasia, which impaired his use of language and ultimately led to his death. Over a career that spanned four decades, Durang wrestled with the absurdity and tragedy of human suffering, and he used camp humor as both a defense and a weapon against a cruel world. With anarchic comedies that were sparked by rage, tinged with sorrow, and illuminated with compassion, Durang, borrowing a phrase from the poet Thomas Gray, invited audiences to find pleasure and perhaps solace in “laughing wild amid severest woe.”

Jordan Schildcrout, professor of theater at SUNY-Purchase, is the author of Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in American Theater (Univ. of Michigan, 2014).



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