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John Guare Oral History: a Writer of the Theater, and of Greenwich Village

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

John Guare was born in Manhattan on February 5, 1938 and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, as well as upstate New York and East Atlantic Beach, where his father built the family a house in 1930. In his oral history with Village Preservation, Guare describes spending much of his childhood alone, as was his preference, reading, listening to soap operas, and going to the movies. Of his very first play, Guare said

I wrote my first play when I was eleven and it was done in the garage across the street here where we are in East Atlantic Beach. Long Island’s leading newspaper came in to do the story on our show and an eleven-year-old playwright, and that was that.

Guare cultivated his knowledge of theater while he was at Georgetown University, attending shows at the Shubert Theater in Washington, DC. He went on to attend Yale Drama School at a time when the work of Edward Albee caused a major shift in the landscape of American playwrighting. His lifelong involvement with Yale is a testament to the home he found there, both while he was a student and after, when he lived in New Haven before committing to the Village. 

The Off-Off-Broadway scene in the Village called Guare back, however, and Guare spoke beautifully in his oral history about Caffe Cino’s heroic founder Joe Cino, as well as the Albee-run Playwrights Unit, where Guare wrote and tested out new material weekly in front of a community of like-minded people. Guare also reflected on a major shift in theater, with the advent of not-for-profit theater increasing access to experimental plays. It was within these communities of writers and theater-makers that Guare found his early successes.

John Guare (right) with Edward Albee

Of this time, Guare recounted: 

So I had a home. There was suddenly a place for me in New York. I felt that I could fit into the Caffe Cino. The Village at that time was absolutely wonderful. I heard on a Thursday that Theatre Genesis was putting on—doing new works cold. They were doing new plays on the following Monday. And I wrote a play on Thursday and ran over there with it and the play opened on Monday. That’s what it was like. And for the first time, I met a whole lot of like-minded people. Lanford Wilson, and I became aware of Terrence McNally, Village resident, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, Megan Terry. There was a real community of people working. It was a thrilling time.

Guare’s Theatrical Work

Guare first debuted off-off-Broadway in 1964 with To Wally Pantoni, We Leave a Credenza. His first award was in 1968 when his one-act Muzeeka won him an Obie Award. In 1971, Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, a farce about a zookeeper who murders his wife after he fails as a songwriter, established Guare’s career. Of House of Blue Leaves, director and writer Louis Malle wrote that “Guare practices a humor that is synonymous with lucidity, exploding genre and clichés, taking us to the core… it is Guare’s peculiar aptitude for exposing these grandiose lies of ours that makes his work so magical.” Guare once said he tried to expand the theater’s boundaries “because I think the chaotic state of the world demands it.” 

Following that success, Guare wrote Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock-musical modernization of William Shakespeare’s comedy, which won the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best musical of 1971–72. Guare dealt with such issues as success—in Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1977) and Rich and Famous (1977)—and parent-child relationships—in Landscape of the Body (1978) and Bosoms and Neglect (1980). The plays Lydie Breeze (1982), Gardenia (1982), and Women and Water (1990) make up a family saga set in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in the second half of the 19th century.

Of playwriting, Guare reflected: 

I’m still learning from audience reaction. Yes, you’re always learning. Playwriting is especially humiliating because you have to make all your mistakes in public… Imagine getting all the right people, the right cast, the right set designers, the right costumes, the right room, the right producer, the right director. There are so many variables that can go. So you’re constantly learning new things. And the nightmare is whatever you learned on the last show has no application to the next show. So there’s never a moment where you say, “Okay, now I’ve learned how to do it. Now I know how to do it.” No, you never do. 

Guare’s Village

Guare discusses in his oral history how in the 1980s prices increased dramatically in the Village and surrounding areas, which contributed to driving much experimental theater out of the neighborhood. But, he said, he stayed because the Village has been the perfect fit for his career as a playwright: living in close proximity to other artists, the “life-size” scale of the neighborhood, and its unpredictable and regenerating energy. 

He continues to love the neighborhoods and his community in it, even as he’s had harder times finding somewhere to eat a simple dinner — a complaint shared by others who have been residents of the Village for the last sixty years. Guare has lived in the same home on 12th Street and Fifth Avenue with his wife since 1974 — he moved in with her there, giving up the apartment on Bank Street that he moved into when John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved out. His anecdotes about taking over their apartment are delightful and worth finding in his oral history (around 25:00), as are his stories about living next door to Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and bothering them for years with his amateur piano playing! 

Guare at his home in 1991. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

Later in his oral history, Guare recounts an early memory of the Village: 

What had first drawn me to the Village was when I was—I’ll just go back one little flashback, but it’s a key flashback. In 1953, I think it was, my fifteenth birthday, my parents took me to see Wonderful Town, a [Betty] Comden, [Adolph] Green and Leonard Bernstein show. It took place in Greenwich Village and the opening number was, “Here we live, here we love, this is the place for self-expression. Life is great, life is sweet. Interesting people living on Christopher Street.” And before that number was over, I knew that’s where I was going to spend the rest of my life, in that world. And it never disappointed me.

And, to use Guare’s words of closing: The Village forever! The Village forever! Take care, bye-bye.

This is one of over 60 oral histories we’ve conducted which you can find in our collection, with prominent preservationists, activists, planners, artists, community, and business leaders. Some others you can find include Jane Jacobs, Rick Kelly, Mimi Sheraton, Ralph Lee, Fred Bass, Peter Ruta, Richard Meier, Merce Cunningham, Matt Umanov, David Amram, Verna Small, Marlis Mober, Jonas Mekas, Margot Gayle, Wolf Kahn, Lorcan Otway, Frances Goldin, Chino Garcia, Penny Arcade, and James Polshek, among many others. Explore them all HERE

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