Adrienne Kennedy Essay - Critical Essays

Adrienne Kennedy American Literature Analysis

Kennedy admittedly bases her writing on autobiographical characters and events; however, the autobiographical elements are more profoundly symbolic than simply historic. She is a poet of the theater who purposefully explores the fragmented symbols within her subconscious as her most viable means of survival.

Kennedy’s riveting, nonlinear, one-act dramatic style reflects an inner world of discordant realities at war with one another. As such, her plots are rarely chronological, and her characters are frequently more than multifaceted. Rather, they are simultaneously characters who are yet other characters who are yet other characters. For example, Funnyhouse of a Negro’s cast of characters has as its protagonist “the Negro-Sarah,” whose selves are the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba is not only Lumumba, historically a murdered Congolese prime minister considered by many a savior, but also Sarah’s dead rapist father, who returns to haunt her until she hangs herself.

Kennedy’s surrealistic dramatic style challenges audiences and readers, demanding that they be receptive enough and flexible enough to empathize, to recognize the common elements in their own unconscious perceptions of events. The action takes place in a series of nightmarish sequences and transfigurations that blend into one another through the use of masks, ritual, and repetition. Devastating portrayals of rage and grief demythologize cultural expectations. Wave after wave of piercing imagery bombards the senses, until the separations between characters and spectators are destroyed.

Kennedy is female and black. With the exception of the male role in Sun, her dramatic spokespeople are also female and black. Kennedy’s world is a world of nonexistence, of alienation and absence. One of her dominant themes is the need for each individual to have a congruent context in which to exist. In A Lesson in Dead Language, seven female students in white dresses soiled by menstrual blood ask why they bleed, only to receive an answer from White Dog, their female teacher, that they bleed because they are being punished. With guilt-inducing references to the deaths of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and the Shepherd, White Dog implies that the murders of Julius Caesar and Malcolm X are also involved in the girls’ menstruation.

As a black woman, Kennedy writes of the estrangement of blacks in a white world: blacks such as the Negro-Sarah, who would rather die than be black, in Funnyhouse of a Negro; blacks such as the young Suzanne, who wraps her hair so tightly in rollers to straighten it that her scalp bleeds nightly in The Ohio State Murders (1992); and blacks such as Clara, who becomes a bystander in her own life in A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.

Kennedy relentlessly examines the ego destruction inherent in being black and “believing white.” Unattainable, romanticized white ideals can lead only to repressed frustration, self-fragmentation, self-loathing, and ego death. With her recurrent imagery of Nazis, murder, multiple personae, infanticide, gnawing rats, and blood, Kennedy provocatively dramatizes the terrors of spiritual suffocation and agitates for the freedom of the individual spirit.

The playwright reveals intimate, unconscious distortions of internalized socially acceptable norms to demonstrate their deadly potential. In Funnyhouse of a Negro, blood covers the Negro-Sarah’s face, and she carries a clump of her hair that has fallen out. The Duchess of Hapsburg, one of Sarah’s selves, hides behind a white mask as she struggles to return her hair from a paper bag to her head. Patrice Lumumba has an ebony mask, because his face has been shattered into unrecognizable fragments. The Mother, bald and insane, refuses to acknowledge that the Negro-Sarah exists.

Religious ideals of the white world are another source of internalized alienation. Clara in The Owl Answers becomes not the caged white bird (who is God’s dove) of her adopted father, the Reverend Passmore, but an owl, a mysterious and magical bird of the darkness. In Funnyhouse of a Negro, Jesus is not the tall, slender, charismatic white ideal but a misshapen dwarf who has vowed to murder Lumumba because he has discovered that a black man, not God, is his father. Parodying the incantatory ritual of a Catholic Mass, A Rat’s Mass concludes with the execution of Brother Rat and Sister Rat by a death squad consisting of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, and a Shepherd; holy Rosemary, in her white Communion dress, watches. Clearly, in Kennedy’s internal universe, the ideals of white Christianity are toxic to a centered black identity.

In The Alexander Plays, the central character in each of four connected plays is the writer Suzanne Alexander, an older version of Kennedy’s earlier protagonists. In She Talks to Beethoven, Suzanne is visited in Ghana by the Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who keeps her company as she awaits word of her missing husband, David. Suzanne describes herself as having been put together by a new self after exploding into fragments. The Film Club, a monologue by Suzanne, and The Dramatic Circle, a radio play dramatizing The Film Club, concern Suzanne’s life in London after David has once again disappeared. In The Ohio State Murders, Suzanne, approximately thirty years later, discloses for the first time the events surrounding the deaths of her twin daughters. Also significant is the play’s description of the older Suzanne as “Suzanne (Present).” In Kennedy’s dramatic world of alienation and absence, this character is fully centered. Suzanne Alexander is a survivor.

Even though Kennedy’s dramatic technique is more linear and her characters are less overtly nightmarish in The Alexander Plays, the menace is palpable. In these plays, the destructive forces are external, and the dichotomy is a chronological swing between past and present. The dissonance between the controlled narration and the horrifying events accentuates the threatening environment in which Suzanne lives. References to Kennedy’s earlier playscripts serve as subtle reminders of the internal dysfunction her characters have...

(The entire section is 2605 words.)