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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

A Few Stout Individuals

John Guare

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To purchase A Few Stout Individuals

Title: A Few Stout Individuals
Author: John Guare
Genre: Drama
Written: 2002
Length: 126 pages
Availability: A Few Stout Individuals - US
A Few Stout Individuals - UK
A Few Stout Individuals - Canada
  • With a Preface by John Guare
  • First performed at the Signature Theater in New York, 12 May 2002, in a production directed by Michael Greif

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Our Assessment:

B- : some clever and amusing parts, and affecting, but doesn't properly come to grips with all the material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New York C 27/5/2002 John Simon
The NY Times . 13/5/2002 Ben Brantley
Variety B- 20/5/2002 Charles Isherwood
The Village Voice A+ 21/5/2002 Michael Feingold
Wall St. Journal . 15/5/2002 Barbara D. Phillips

  From the Reviews:
  • "Out of such help and hindrances, a lesser but more disciplined dramatist could have fashioned a perfectly actable play. Not good enough for Guare, however (.....) There are some pawky and pointed lines of dialogue, and some arresting visual effects (.....) There is an uneasy sense of Guare's having bitten off more than he or we can chew" - John Simon, New York

  • "The situation has a mordant comic appeal, and Guare presents it in brazen, near-farcical terms. In his idiosyncratic vision, the spectacle of a great man brought low is not so much pitiful as absurd. (...) But what the play really requires is not so much a director as an editor -- perhaps several. Having established an intriguing comic situation in the opening minutes, and populated the stage with effectively drawn characters, Guare spends the next two hours failing to develop his promising material to much satisfying effect." - Charles Isherwood, Variety

  • "John Guare's A Few Stout Individuals is precisely the kind of good new play that you might call an everyday miracle. It doesn't break any new ground, but every minute of it is fresh and newly alive; it doesn't extend the boundaries of the theater, but it makes the theater an exciting and vivid place to be, a place of delight. (...) Guare's serving tray is piled high with ideas, treated not abstractly but as sources of passion and cues for action. Not for the first time, his engaging, clashing, fanciful heaps of talk evoke another admirer of Clemens, Bernard Shaw." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of A Few Stout Individuals is taken from Emerson, as quoted by Guare:

What is history ? No more than the biographies of a few stout individuals.
       (Reviewer John Simon points out that: "Emerson actually calls them a few 'stout and earnest persons' ".)
       The subject of the play is one of the first (and most successful) celebrity memoirs, former American president Ulysses S. Grant's two-volume autobiography, commissioned and published by an enterprising Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).
       The play is in two acts, set three weeks apart in 1885, as Grant tries to pen his memoirs while besieged by creditors and kept from his work by all manner of distractions, disturbances, and irritants -- from the cancer killing him to his delirious visions of the Emperor of Japan to a less than helpful family and a distinctly unhelpful amanuensis. Clemens is also on the scene, dismayed at how things are going (and worried about his investment -- and all those wonderful potential profits, about to go up in smoke).
       Guare begins things fairly cleverly, the Emperor of Japan and wife appearing before Grant. He had met them on a visit to Japan. As Guare notes in his Preface: "Grant shone in Japan. This could possibly have been the happiest Grant and his wife ever were." Things are less rosy in New York in 1885: Grant hasn't gotten very far with the book -- and seems in no condition to work, as for example, his wife spritzes him up with brandy (he can't drink because of the cancer in his mouth) and keeps him going with a variety of other drugs ("The morphine, the cannabis, the hydrochlorate of cocaine -- thank God we're living today", Mrs. G says). Meanwhile the appointed scribe, Adam Badeau, is himself a wannabe biographer and has his own ideas about what the book should look like -- much to Clemens' dismay, since it is exactly Grant's voice that he's after (and on which he knows the success of the project depends). And there's no money in the house (except in Clemens' rapidly emptying wallet).
       Guare sets a scene in which the writing of anything coherent -- much less the two volumes Clemens needs -- looks impossible. The frenzy and desperation are well-conveyed -- though a few of the touches (especially sculptor Karl Gerhardt, ever ready at the door and asking "Is it time ?" far too often) are quite annoying.
       The material is factual, but Guare moves too close to farce with the continuing flow of people with demands, requests, and ideas -- including ne'er-do-well son Buck, who was responsible for Grant's financial ruin. Clemens provides a rational, stable figure in this mess -- wondering all the while what he got himself into:
It all seemed so easy. Hire the general to write his memoirs. Sell a copy to every veteran. What could go wrong ?
       But even Clemens doesn't provide enough of a balance in the end.
       The play also looks at other issues, as Guare has grander things in mind too, leading to such incongruous pronouncements as Clemens telling Grant:
What separates us from the beasts is memory, but the paradox is that memory separates us, each from the other. Until we share that memory, we are truly alone. That is the purpose of art, of history, of love. If you share your unique memory with the world, you will give America its memory. The war will be truly over. We will finally become a nation with one memory -- and with that memory, we will never fight a war again.
       It's a grand speech, but in this play it also sticks out like a sore thumb.
       Some of the literary-historical issues are of interest -- particularly how Cold Harbor is treated (Grant famously only wrote two lines about those events), which Guare handles quite well. But this too forces the play to move uneasily from the comic (or at least attempted comic) to the serious.
       There's a decent summing up in the end (including an amusing scene as Grant asks the Emperor of Japan whether he is remembered), but it's more of literary-historical interest than theatrically effective. (Grant's memoirs proved to be an incredible success: Clemens notes that: "At one time, one out of every three families in America owned a copy".)

       A Few Stout Individuals is of some interest, and there is entertainment value here, but it doesn't entirely convince -- too uncertain of what it wants to be, and how to present the material. But it's a neat story, and there are a number of characters of interest: the drugged and largely confused Grant is underwhelming, but others -- Clemens, Badeau, and then Harrison -- are quite successful.

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Reviews: Ulysses S. Grant: John Guare: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author John Guare was born in 1938. He has written numerous acclaimed plays, as well as several screenplays.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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