A.R. Gurney, acclaimed playwright, author, and longtime MIT SHASS professor, dies at 86


An MIT SHASS humanities and literature faculty member for 36 years, Gurney was known as an outstanding teacher and inspiring mentor.

A. R. "Pete" Gurney, Jr., an internationally acclaimed playwright and author who served on the MIT SHASS humanities faculty for 36 years, died June 13, 2017, at his home in New York City. He was 86.

The author of such well-known plays as “The Middle Ages,” “The Dining Room,” and “The Cocktail Hour,” Gurney was named a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play "Love Letters." His Broadway debut, in 1987, was with "Sweet Sue" starring Mary Tyler Moore  He was also the author of three novels. A complete list of Gurney's works, with links to information, is included below. 

Gurney joined the faculty of the Department of Humanities — a predecessor to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) — in 1960. He earned tenure in 1968, was promoted to full professor in 1972, and retired in 1996, moving to New York City to focus more completely on the theater. 

In 1994, MIT honored Gurney with the McDermott Award for his contribution to the arts. Among many other honors and awards, he was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006.

L to R: A scene from "The Snow Ball"; Poster for "Squash"; Gurney (center) with the cast of "Sweet Sue," Mary Tyler Moore in front row, lower right. (Photos courtesy of the A.R. Gurney website)

Deborah Fitzgerald, the Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, and a former Dean of MIT SHASS, recalls Gurney as a "legend at the Institute. We have had many enormously distinguished faculty in SHASS over the years, and he was one of the most remarkable from the humanities and arts."

"Gurney was a wonderful mentor to young faculty in the MIT Humanities and an outstanding teacher," says Philip Khoury, Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History. "His many students continue to remember him with fondness and appreciation. One of America’s leading playwrights, Pete Gurney was forever conscious of what MIT meant for his professional career. And he contributed enormously to making the MIT Humanities so vital.”

"I remember Gurney sitting in on an American literature class when I was an undergraduate at MIT," recalls Duane Boning '84, SM '86, PhD '91, Clarence J. LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "He wasn't the lecturer — Gurney was there out of love for the subject, and to hear what young students were thinking about these books. I thought that was pretty cool. Even when he wasn't teaching, he was inspiring."

In an extensive tribute to the life and works of A.R. Gurney, The New York Times reports on the driving force of his writing:

“'What seems to obsess me,' he once said, 'is the contrast between the world and the values I was immersed in when I was young, and the nature of the contemporary world.' Early on, he said, 'I sensed the comforts of civilization — but also its discontents, what you give up. The emotions are carefully trained, ultimately honed, tamped down.' He devoted his life to bringing those feelings to the surface."

Suggested links

A.R. Gurney website

Tribute, Photos and Videos at The New York Times

A.R. Gurney Works (A-Z)

Ancestral VoicesAnother AntigoneBig BillBlack TieBuffalo GalCentral Park West (opera libretto) • A Cheever EveningChildrenThe Cocktail HourThe ComebackDarleneCrazy MaryThe Dining RoomEntertaining Strangers (novel) • Family FurnitureFar EastThe Fourth WallThe Golden AgeThe Golden FleeceThe Gospel According to Joe (novel) • The Grand MannerThe Guest LecturerHeresyHuman EventsIndian BloodLabor DayLater LifeLet’s Do It (musical) • A Light LunchThe Love CourseLove LettersLove & MoneyThe Middle AgesMrs. FarnsworthO JerusalemOffice HoursThe Old One-TwoThe Open MeetingOvertimeThe Old BoyThe Perfect PartyThe ProblemPost MortemThe Rape of Bunny Stuntz Richard CoryRichard Cory (musical) • Scenes from American LifeScreen PlayThe Snow BallThe Snow Ball (novel) • Strawberry Fields (opera libretto) • Sweet SueSylviaTwo Class ActsThe Wayside Motor InnWhat I Did Last Summer