Once upon a time, "in the '40s and certainly through the '50s," the theater represented a central form of expression in America, says playwright A.R. Gurney.
"Playwrights in those days attempted to speak rather generally about American life and American politics and American culture," reflects the author of such works as "Love Letters, "The Cocktail Hour" and "The Dining Room."
"The thing has fragmented. Playwrights today pick up a kind of small piece of the pie from an ethnic point of view, or from the point of view of a cultural minority," says Mr. Gurney, who will deliver the annual G. Harry Pouder memorial lecture tonight at the Johns Hopkins University.
"There's a kind of jigsaw puzzle involved and each one of us involved in writing plays today has a particular piece of the jigsaw. None of us is particularly trying to draw the entire picture and put them all together," he says, explaining the title of his talk, "Peripheral Vision."
The playwright says he is not sure whether the shift of theater's central position in popular culture is necessarily bad, nor in which way it may be changing.
"I guess I'm going to argue the traps are that it can degenerate to a kind of tribalism, in a sense, where each minority and ethnic group celebrates itself without really much sense of the community as a whole," he says, speaking by telephone from his New York home.
Mr. Gurney, 63, on leave from the humanities faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since the mid-1980s, is known for sparely written and staged plays that dissect and celebrate the middle-class WASP culture of his own background.
"Love Letters," in which a couple sit at a table on stage and read letters to each other, was produced three years ago at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and last year at Towson State University.
Mr. Gurney cites that play to illustrate how writers of serious drama have moved to the periphery.
"What did it cost to see 'Love Letters' at the Mechanic, maybe $35? For $15 more, you get your money's worth visually if you go to something like 'Phantom of the Opera,' 'Damn Yankees' or 'Carousel.'
"It seems to the audience they're getting a better deal . . . where a straight play, unless you have a major star in it, people just don't want to shell out that kind of money to hear people talk."
As a result, he contends, "most of us find ourselves, with the exception of people like Neil Simon, settling for small theaters, not-for-profit venues and limited runs."
But Mr. Gurney does not seem gloomy about the new reality, merely thoughtful. And he recognizes the power of big musicals. "Music by definition has a broader base than anything verbal. Music does reach out. It doesn't have the specificity of language, and therefore can speak to a larger crowd," he says.
Indeed, he suggests the recent blossoming of revivals -- "Hair," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Damn Yankees" and so on -- marks how "we have been sort of celebrating our past . . . because all these shows do speak to a time when we saw ourselves not as a particular ethnic group, but as Americans in general."
Mr. Gurney says his most recent work is "A Cheever Evening," scheduled for a fall opening at Playwrights Horizons in New York. "It's an attempt to pay tribute to a man I think is really a significant American writer, and a man I think has influenced my writing on the stage and elsewhere," he says of author John Cheever, who died in 1982.
What: "Peripheral Vision: Contemporary American Playwriting," a lecture by A.R. Gurney
When: 8 o'clock tonight
Where: Shriver Hall, the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St.
Information: (410) 516-7157