Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s comedy, explores the twists and turns of pet ownership and interpersonal relationships. When Greg, a middle-aged city man, brings home a stray dog he found at the park wearing nothing more than a tag that reads, “Sylvia,” it quickly begins to cause a rift in Greg’s relationship with his wife, Kate. Greg soon realizes that he has bigger problems than housebreaking. The play’s main theme encompasses struggles with relationships and communication, yet Gurney presents and provokes these struggles via indirect approaches.
The character of Sylvia is a dog embodied as a human, and played by an actor. Sylvia verbally communicates with the people around her, and projects an eager, high-strung personality. As stated in the New York Times review of the 2015 Broadway production of Sylvia, “Mr. Gurney’s comedy rests on this critter acting almost as human as the humans, conversing easily with both the man who dotes on her and the woman who eyes her with frank distaste” (Isherwood). However, Sylvia’s character can be interpreted in one of two ways: either as a prominent character inhabiting her own personality and opinions, or as a causation driving a rift between Greg and Kate. Sylvia’s scripted dialogue includes a large portion of profanity, which can come across either as a character with a strong-willed personality or as an audience shocker and another reason for Kate’s distaste of the dog. This was also referenced in the 2015 New York Times review, the reviewer noting, “Among its few distinctions, ‘Sylvia’ has to be the only one of the gentlemanly Mr. Gurney’s many plays that regularly descends to such vulgarity, which is one reason I am not particularly partial to it” (Isherwood). Although Sylvia does engulf her own personality and character traits, her lack of housebreaking, flea infestation, and chewing habit serve to act as more of a plot-driving causation for Greg and Kate, the two main characters.
Early on, the play demonstrates that Kate is completely against keeping Sylvia as a pet, telling her husband, “N period. O period. Not in New York. Not at this stage of our lives. No” (1.1). Yet, the disagreements which seemed to center on Sylvia throughout the play were likely marital problems which had been present prior to the dog entering their life, and were simply exacerbated by the presence of Sylvia. For example, it appears from the start of the show that Greg was ready to leave his job while Kate was diving head-first into her career, creating different directions in life. Yet, both Greg and Kate longed for a deeper emotional connection to something; Kate used her career while Greg found Sylvia. In reality, they needed a connection with each other. Kate’s jealousy of Sylvia indicates that her marriage had been rocky for possibly quite some time before Sylvia had been factored into their relationship. Kate tells her psychologist, Leslie, as she tries to explain her husband’s love for Sylvia, “No, this is different, Leslie. Even when we were first married, he never looked at me the way he looks at Sylvia” (2.1). Possibly, Gurney chose to include Sylvia’s spay in act II, scene I as symbolism for the lack of intimacy between Greg and Kate as their disagreements over Sylvia drive the couple further apart.
The first time the audience see’s any hint of an acceptance or liking towards Sylvia occurs in act II, after Greg has made the decision to rehome Sylvia to save his marriage. Kate returns from work early to say goodbye to Sylvia before Greg drives her to her new home, and Kate begins to show feelings of concern that Sylvia will be leaving without her favorite toy in tow. It is this moment, which Kate searches for Sylvia’s lost little red ball, that seems to be a turning point in Greg and Kate’s relationship. This also occurs at the same time Greg reluctantly agreed to give up his beloved dog, which demonstrated to his wife that his marriage was, indeed, a priority to him. Sylvia’s return of Kate’s possessions prior to departing was symbolic in that it displayed that the couple had the ability to live together peacefully with Sylvia, and resolve their differences. Kate and Greg’s opposite feelings towards Sylvia did not change; what did change, was the ability to understand and accommodate each other’s needs and feelings. However, it is because of Sylvia that Greg and Kate learn to respect each other’s feelings and resolve their differences, as Greg’s conversations with Sylvia slowly diminished over time with Kate lovingly hinting to Greg at the end of the play, “Maybe it was because you and I talked more” (2.1).
Although the disagreements that had occurred between Greg and Kate revolved around Sylvia as their central dispute, their conflicts were likely caused by deeper communication issues within their relationship that had been brewing for quite some time. The question then lingers, if Sylvia hadn’t made her way into Greg and Kate’s home, would their marriage have still been salvaged?
Gurney, A.R. Sylvia. Dramatist Play Service, 1996.
Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘Sylvia,’ in Which a Man Loves a Dog Too Much.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/28/theater/review-sylvia-in-which-a-man-loves-a-dog-too-much.html. 27 Oct. 2015.