A native of Massachusetts, Richard Dresser was raised in the town of Holden. He studied sociology and English literature at Brown and then embarked on a period of travel throughout the United States and Europe. After holding down a variety of odd jobs, including making G.I. Joe thigh parts in a plastics factory, Dresser began studying broadcast journalism at the University of North Carolina. It was at this time, in his late twenties, that he began to write for the theater. Winning a prize for his first play, Novelties, Dresser was encouraged to move to New York.
In 1995 his play, Below the Belt premiered at the Humana Festival, sponsored by the Actors Theater of Louisville. It then moved to New York, where it ran for two years at the John Houseman Theater.
About his work he has this to say:
I think it would be presumptuous for me to think anyone has reevaluated his life because of anything I've written. I believe my first job is to entertain, and I think it's perfectly fine to go to one of my plays and be entertained and not give it another thought, beyond a desire to find parking closer to the theatre next time. My son, who is 11, has long enjoyed seeing my plays, and he gets what he gets from them in terms of how entertaining they are. But I know there are times when people are disturbed and upset and feel the play has hit too close to home and, of course, I welcome that. If I can cause just one person to wake up at three a.m. overcome by a quiet, creeping terror, then my life is complete.
Gun Shy opened in New York in 1998
The first act of the play moves rapidly among a variety of locations including a revolving rooftop restaurant, the safety-deposit vault of a bank, a spa, an accountant's office, Carter's condo, Duncan's house, and a hospital. The rapidity of these changes, and the wide differences among the several locales, means that each place can only be sketched in lightly, a few significant details suggesting an environment.
The second act is set entirely in Duncan's house. We now have the violent and centripetal energies of the first half all gathered together under one roof. Within this domestic pressure cooker the emotional temperature rises to the boiling point, as the confinement of the setting helps generate the explosions of the plot.
The four major characters in the play are divided into two couples, with the woman of Couple A being the ex-wife of the man of Couple B. The two pairs are, in other words, united by divorce. It is from this familiar paradox that playwright Dresser squeezes most of the drama's comic energy.
As the play begins, Couple A is having dinner in a "revolving restaurant." As the dining room turns slowly, Evie tells Carter that she "demand[s]" to be happy again, that she regards their relationship as a "sickness," a "fever," a "delirium," and that she insists on knowing if there is "hope" for a future between them.
Confronted with this intensity and need, Carter seems wary, perhaps a little frightened. When Evie presses him say whether what is between them is a "fling" or something more, he responds evasively that, "It has . . . significant implications for the future."
This back-and-forth continues until Carter glances out the window and sees thieves breaking into his automobile. At once, the scene turns into a competition for his attention between an emotionally voracious Evie and his vandalized car. In a desperate bid to make herself the undivided focus of his awareness, Evie stabs him in the hand with a piece of cutlery. Hysterically she declares, "I am not a violent person and here you've got me putting clam forks through your hand. I honestly don't know how you did this." With this stunning act of victim-blaming, the first scene ends, having established clearly that they are traveling an exceedingly rocky road to love.
Couple B, Caitlin and Duncan, whom we meet in Scene Two, seem to be journeying on the same thoroughfare. As they sit at dinner in Duncan's house Caitlin is wrapped in her winter coat because her host refuses to run the furnace. Moreover, she refuses to eat because she is observing an apparently perpetual diet which requires her to "imagine each bite as a large, glistening eye, staring at me with contempt." Complementing her repudiation of food is Duncan's abstention from drink--a necessity occasioned by his status as an alcoholic--or as he prefers to be called, a drunk. Thus we observe them at table: he eats, she drinks, and the house grows colder and colder.
They soon bring up the topic of Duncan's failed marriage to Evie. It seems that Duncan and Caitlin met and began their affair while he was still married, and that Caitlin now desperately misses the sexy furtiveness of that situation. "[Y]ou have to admit our relationship was so much better when you were married." "Something's missing," she declares, and that "something" is "deceit." "Maybe when you take that away from us, there just isn't much left."
Caitlin agrees heartily with Duncan that the "key to our relationship is me getting back with my wife." To make that happen, and thus to recharge their sexual batteries, she sends flowers to Evie hoping to reconcile her lover with his wife.
These two introductory scenes set the pattern for what follows: a drama of love's absurdist paradoxes. As the play continues, we learn that Carter, betrayed by his first wife who bore a child sired by her policeman paramour, is terrified of love's pain, which is why he doesn't want to inflict it on Evie. Evie, on the other hand, wants satisfaction NOW, and pain be damned. She badgers Carter with her need, until finally he agrees, despite his low sperm count, to try to conceive a child with her.
Meanwhile, Caitlin decides to dump Duncan because a straightforward love affair seems too bland in comparison with adultery. Then, just as abruptly, she strides back into his life, announcing that she is drawn by the thought of speaking eloquently at his memorial service--a satisfaction that might be fairly soon, given the fact that he is much older than she.
As these ill-starred relationships hurtle toward some unimaginable consummation, a major crisis begins to loom ever more dauntingly: what to do about Duncan and Evie's teenaged son? He is in some sort of unspecified trouble at his prep school, and he is clearly in need of adult guidance--though whether his parents qualify emotionally as adults or are capable of offering guidance is deeply questionable. Evie and Carter, who live on the West Coast, decide that they must have custody of Jack, who now lives on the East Coast near his father. But they cannot move east, because Carter's job is selling coffee out west, and he can't afford to lose it.
With the help of Carter's accountant, Neil, Evie hits on a plan to solve the custody problem. She will take possession of Jack, who will agree to move, because she will also convince Duncan and Caitlin to relocate to the west. Thus all four, plus Jack, will live near enough to one another to form a makeshift family.
When Evie and Carter visit Duncan and Caitlin back in New England, it is with the intention of selling them their plan for relocation. However, the encounter has wildly unforeseen consequences.
For one thing, an ice storm prevents Jack from coming home from prep school to join the adults in celebrating his birthday. For another, Caitlin lets it slip to Evie that she and Duncan were carrying on while Duncan was still married. Needless to say, this dims the vision of cooperation between the couples. When it also emerges that Duncan's romantic plea to Caitlin to move west with him was not the spontaneous voice of love singing, but was rather a tactic counseled by Evie to further the shared custody plan, all hell breaks loose.
Caitlin packs--or rather once again re-packs--her suitcase and declares the end of her relationship with Duncan. While walking towards her car, she spots what she takes to be a thief trying to steal it and shoots at him. The "thief" turns out to be Carter, desperately trying to keep up his business contacts by using the telephone in the car--the regular phone lines being downed by the ice storm.
Wounded by Caitlin's bullet, Carter can not administer the injection needed by Evie to keep her pregnancy going. The responsibility for giving the shot falls to Duncan, who quails at the thought of pricking his ex-wife. Nonetheless, he steps up and does his duty. As his ex-wife bares her backside in anticipation of the needle, Duncan bears his soul, describing the moral anguish that preceded their divorce. As he jabs her buttocks, they seem to be scaling new heights of mutual understanding.
It all ends as Carter realizes that he cannot survive Evie's emotional voraciousness, while Caitlin realizes that she cannot meet Duncan's demand for commitment, and Caitlin and Carter discover their attraction for one another. To make the reversal complete, Evie and Duncan renounce their divorce and start all over again.
Comedy, as Aristotle tells us, depends on "the Ludicrous," which he describes as "a subdivision of the ugly." Think of a ludicrous character, and you often think of someone funny-looking. Consider the vast schnozzes of W.C. Fields and Jimmy Durante; the big mouth of Joe E. Brown and the big gut of Jackie Gleason; Moe and Larry's funny hair, and Curly's funny voice; Kramer's scarecrow physique, and George's bald pate. Comedy is rooted in the sense that human life is marked by such imperfections, by an endless array of foolish flaws. They won't kill us, like the fatal defects of tragic heroes. But they certainly make us look silly.
Of course not all comic characters are physically ludicrous. Was there ever a handsomer man than Cary Grant? But watch him in The Front Page, and you'll see a character driven by a fixation that is the psychological counterpart to Durante's nose or Gleason's girth. Grant's character, a newspaper editor, wants to score the scoop of a lifetime, and he wants it with an all-consuming passion that turns him into a human steam engine. Grant overheats and we explode with laughter.
Of course, not all kinds of comedy feature such outsize manias. What we are talking about here is farce: the study of human beings under the sway of ludicrous obsessions, of needs, habits, compulsions, and appetites that are so outsized and out of control that they have become psychic deformities.
Which brings us to the four major characters in Gun Shy.
Evie's ludicrous deformity is an all-consuming need for love and devotion, an emotional voraciousness so strong that she stabs her lover in the hand with a clam fork when his attention wanders from her. As she says to Carter in an attempt to bludgeon him into making a commitment, "I want to have a life with you. And I'm sorry if I drive you insane and make you regret your own existence, but hey, we all have our little quirks, don't we?"
Life with Evie is, in fact, a species of warfare--at least as Carter describes it. He asks Duncan whether he ever found a way to "handle. . . . [t]he way she is, the relentless attacks that put you in a foxhole and the incredible love that lures you out into the open so you're totally naked for the next attack." "A battle plan" is what's needed for dealing with Evie, and nobody seems to have devised one. Love as combat is Evie's psychic schnozz, and it's Durante-like in its immensity.
Carter bears the wound of betrayal from a previous marriage. Pulled over by a state trooper for speeding, his ex-wife then hopped into a motel bed with the lawman, bearing a child nine months later. With his low sperm count, Carter was too happy over the pregnancy to notice that the child wasn't his. When he discovered the truth, he was doubly devastated: by his wife's cheating and by his own failure to beget. Now he is a bundle of self-doubt and emotional hesitation. As Evie says concerning the latter, "He's lost faith in the world because of the evil way he was treated by his wife." We see the former expressed as a pathetic competitiveness through which he tries to prove that, in spite of his low sperm count, he is more of a man than the next guy. No test or challenge arises that doesn't provide an opportunity for Carter to demonstrate his superiority. "I can relax," he tells his masseur. "I can relax as well as the next guy." Which, as Evie notes, means, "He even makes relaxing a competition."
Caitlin is in some ways the female counterpart of Carter. She too is skittish about personal commitments, unpredictably entering and leaving Duncan's life, depending on whether loneliness or fear of attachment is her dominant feeling of the moment. An emotional bulimic, she first gorges on a relationship, then spews it out, disgusted at herself for having broken her fast. "Isn't it better," she asks, "to find some way to live so you don't need anything else?” Anything else being another person.
This longing for emotional starvation expresses itself in her obsessive pursuit of thinness--the feminine counterpart to Carter's competitiveness. Caitlin follows what Duncan describes as a "death camp diet." Says she, "The perfect weight for me is when I get dizzy standing up and the walls kind of flutter around me."
A mass of contradictions, she is a professional gun-control advocate who carries a pistol and shoots it at Carter. "I never shot anyone before," she declares, "and believe me, it felt stupendous." The same spirit of contradiction informs her love life. Wanting and not wanting Duncan turns out to be far too stressful a state, prompting her to tell him, "I don't know who I hate more . . . you or me."
Duncan's obsession is more romantic and less farcical than those of the other characters. Like some doomed lover in a nineteenth century opera, he is besotted with a femme fatale. Absurdly enough, she turns out to be his wife. "I loved you so much, Evie, I'd have done anything. I needed you and you were slipping away and there were times I couldn't even breathe. Do you know what that's like, to be gasping for breath so you're flopping on the floor like a dying fish because you need another person so you can live?"
But despite his desperate devotion, Evie began "drifting away" from him, driving him to the reckless consolations of drink and dalliance (with Caitlin) in order to survive. Indeed so far gone was he in hopeless enthrallment to Evie that, he hints, he even considered suicide, thus bringing a touch of Goethe's Young Werther into the middle of this farce.
Given Evie's insatiable need for love, and Duncan's bottomless devotion, why did they separate? Misunderstanding, mis-communication, misperception: all the usual static that plagues human relationships. But, as the play develops, and each discovers the other's real needs, the logic that drives their characters dictates their reunion.
It's a longstanding commonplace in theater history that the beginning of modern drama dates from the moment at the end of Ibsen's A Doll House (1879) when Nora walks out on her unhappy marriage, slamming the door behind her on home and family. Rather than bowing to convention and putting her duties as wife and mother above personal fulfillment, she chooses instead to break the bonds of tradition and strike out on her own. The reason for this drastic repudiation is her discovery, only moments earlier, that her husband of eight years is really no more than a stranger, and that their marriage has been based on mutual deception.
In a sense, Gun Shy is an elaborate joke whose punchline reverses the ending of Ibsen's landmark play and subverts the modern pieties about "relationships" that have flourished in its aftermath.
What is the "punchline" of Gun Shy? It is Evie's lament to Duncan during one particularly intense moment of plot-thickening that, "This whole divorce is based on a lie." This line hilariously inverts the by-now conventional discovery of a thousand post-Ibsen plays about marriage. It's not wedded life that is a structure of deceit; rather the lie is the notion that divorce is somehow always the more truthful path, the honest choice that will solve our problems.
Far from being imprisoned in stifling marriages, the characters in Gun Shy live in the world of divorce-on-demand and freewheeling sexual adventure. Their culture has hammered into their heads the notion that we are all entitled to limitless self-fulfillment, to happiness on the spot. In these characters Nora's quest for freedom is realized unconditionally. And as a result, they are miserable. They have played with love as if it were a toy pistol, and have discovered it is actually a lethal weapon.
To be "gun shy" is to be afraid of the sound of gunfire. This frequently happens to hunting dogs, who then become useless. Metaphorically, "gun shy" means markedly or excessively timid, cautious, guarded. Having been wounded in the trench warfare that is love, every character bears this trait.
As we watch these wounded and obsessed souls, spiritual heirs of Ibsen's Nora, rushing around on stage seeking the happiness that freedom is supposed to bring, we realize that in this play the world has come full circle since 1879. Evie and Duncan seem to be reopening a door that Nora slammed shut back at the dawn of modern drama.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Do these characters seem "realistic?" How so? How not so?
2. Jack, the son of Evie and Duncan, is never seen on stage. Why not?
3. Why is Carter so competitive?
4. Why does Caitlin starve herself?
5. If Caitlin is a gun-control advocate, why does she carry a pistol?
6. Why does Carter suffer so many injuries in the course of the play?
7. Why did Duncan and Evie divorce?
8. Do you think their second attempt at marriage will work out? Why? Why not?
9. Do you think Caitlin and Carter are beginning a "relationship" at the end of the play? Why? Why not?
10. If so, do you think it will be successful? Why? Why not?