This Day In Literary History
On January 2nd, 1949, the famous American playwright Christopher Durang was born in Montclair, New Jersey. His father was an architect, his mother a secretary. He received his primary education in Catholic schools, which would affect him both personally and as a writer.
After earning an English degree at Harvard, Durang earned a Master's degree in play writing at the Yale School of Drama. While studying at Yale, he had several of his plays produced there and worked at the Yale Cabaret.
Durang collaborated on plays with fellow students Albert Innaurato and Wendy Wasserstein. His first professional production, The Idiots Karamazov, was co-written by Innaurato and starred a young drama student named Meryl Streep as the 80-year-old main character.
As a playwright, Durang specialized in comedy - satire, parody, black comedy, and absurdist comedy. He first made his name as a playwright with his comic play A History of the American Film. A few years later, he became a national sensation when his most controversial play opened.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You (1979), a scathing black comedy, was based on author's experiences as a Catholic school student and his coming to terms with his homosexuality despite the homophobic doctrine of the Church.
The main character of the one-act play, which opened in December of 1979, is Sister Mary Ignatius, a Catholic school teacher who is reunited with some of her old students.
Now grown, they perform a mock Christmas pageant for their old teacher and reveal how her insane devotion to Catholic doctrine has scarred them psychologically for life. Unmoved, the nasty nun berates them and condemns them to hell for their sins.
In the play's shocking climax, Sister Mary pulls out a gun and shoots two of her former students dead. One of them, a gay man, refuses to admit that homosexuality is a sin. Sister Mary kills him to save his soul.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You earned rave reviews from critics after it opened in 1979. Jack Kroll, drama critic for Newsweek magazine, wrote:
Durang is one of the most ferociously funny young American dramatists, and Sister Mary is his most ferociously funny work. The object of his lacerating laughter is the Roman Catholic Church as educator. The figure of Sister Mary accumulates a terrifying comic power as her moral certainty reaches a climax of insanely logical violence...
The classic treatment of this theme is Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where despite his resisting of Jesuit hellfire pedagogy young Stephen Dedalus is accused by a friend of being “supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” What gives Durang’s play its ultimate kick is the sense that Sister Mary’s belief is stronger in its visionary mania than the ravaged rationalisms that oppose it.
Conservative Catholics weren't laughing - they blasted the play and its author as anti-Catholic. Performances in Boston and St. Louis were picketed, and other protest rallies were held. After the St. Louis protest, two Missouri state senators tried to pass a law barring theaters there from producing offensive plays.
The legendary TV talk show host Phil Donahue devoted a whole show to the censorship controversy, which helped make the play a box office success. In 2001, the play was adapted as a made-for-cable movie, Sister Mary Explains It All, which starred Diane Keaton as Sister Mary.
Christopher Durang's next play, a farce called Beyond Therapy (1981), found two troubled New Yorkers receiving therapy from psychiatrists. All that Bruce and Prudence want is a happy, stable relationship. Their therapists both suggest they place a personal ad.
Bruce is an overemotional bisexual prone to crying over the least thing. Prudence is homophobic. Their first date proves to be a disaster, but after their second date, they find that they actually like each other. Bruce's male lover, Bob, determines to nip this budding romance in the bud and keep Bruce for himself.
Beyond Therapy was adapted as a feature film in 1987 by the legendary director Robert Altman, but Durang hated the movie because Altman practically rewrote his entire play. He called the film project "a very unhappy experience and outcome."
Durang has written numerous other acclaimed plays including The Marriage of Bette and Boo, The Actor's Nightmare, The Vietnamization of New Jersey, Betty's Summer Vacation, Naomi in the Living Room, and the musical Adrift In Macao.
In 2002, he wrote a play for the Christmas season called Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. In this hilarious parody of Charles Dickens' classic novella A Christmas Carol, Gladys Cratchit, Bob's wife, is the nasty, abusive, hard drinking, suicidal mother of 21 children.
On another drunken bender, Mrs. Cratchit intrudes on the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation, which includes an inept Ghost of Christmas Past who accidentally takes Scrooge into the lives of Oliver Twist and Leona Helmsley.
The play takes comic jabs at Frank Capra's classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life, O. Henry's classic Christmas story The Gift of the Magi, the Enron scandal, and the TV series Touched By an Angel.
Durang's plays have won him numerous Obie (off Broadway) Awards. In 2013, he won his first Tony Award for his play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The darkly funny homage to Anton Chekhov also won him the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and other awards.
In addition to his plays, Christopher Durang has written for the screen and for television and acted on the stage and in movies. He lives with his longtime partner, John Augustine, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Quote Of The Day
"I write intuitively, and with most of my plays, I don't know what is always going to happen. This means I can sometimes go off on a wrong tangent, and with luck then rewrite it in a better direction. But it means I sometimes surprise myself as I’m going along." - Christopher Durang
Today's video features the 2001 made-for-cable movie adaptation of Christopher Durang's classic play, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. Enjoy!