Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Funnyhouse of a Negro is a one-act play that combines the playwright’s personal experience and larger social concerns through a deliberately nonrealistic, often dreamlike style of dramatic presentation. To a significant extent, the play uses devices that are expressionistic, that is, that depict the main character’s internal rather than external notions of reality. Much of what the audience and readers encounter is intended to depict what is going on inside Sarah’s torn and troubled mind. Thus, the images of Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg as they appear at the beginning of the play are meant to reveal something about how Sarah feels about herself. Because both characters are represented as women with distinguished European titles who wear masks or makeup to hide their black identities, they seem to suggest that Sarah tries to use her knowledge of Western culture to cover up her African American ancestry.
The play also relies on some of the conventions of what has become known as the Theatre of the Absurd. The plot seeks to explore how certain situations feel rather than to tell a story. The importance of language is diminished, while spectacle and nonlinguistic sound take on a larger, highly symbolic meaning. Thus, the play appears to be fragmented and illogical, progressing in short scenes with irrational dialogue and bizarre visual effects. The often repetitive and nonsensical speeches by different characters make the audience...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The struggle of the individual with internalized social and cultural forces is the focal point of most of Adrienne Kennedy’s plays. In particular, she focuses on the internal conflict of the African American, whose existence is a result of the violent blending of European and African cultures. This conflict is imaged in the Negro-Sarah’s idolatrous love of her fair-skinned mother and rejection of her black father. The mother’s whiteness has driven her insane; the father’s darkness has tied him to revolution and bloodshed. Sarah’s eventual escape is suicide.
The play is set in Sarah’s space. The characters in the play are views of herself, or they are inspired by the objects in her room. The space is filled with relics of European civilization: dusty books, pictures of castles and monarchs, the bust of Queen Victoria. Sarah’s occupation is writing, the geometric placement of words on white paper. The space is also a coffin; the white material of the curtain looks as though it has been “gnawed by rats.” Throughout the play the space becomes more confining as the walls drop down. Eventually it becomes the jungle, overgrown and wild. In the context of the play’s imagery of death, the jungle represents the earth’s reclamation of the body.
On another level, the play is set within a “funnyhouse,” an “amusement park house of horrors.” Raymond and the Landlady are representations of the two grinning minstrel faces outside...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
At the core of Funnyhouse of a Negro is Sarah’s internal struggle to understand and accept her identity as an African American woman in the United States. Each of Sarah’s four ‘‘selves’’—her subconscious’s way of dealing with her identity issues— represents a facet of Sarah.
Two of her four selves are white European women of royal blood: the Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria. Sarah also has a large statue of Victoria in her room. This emphasizes her desire to identify more with her mother, who was white or a light-skinned African American depending on differing interpretations of the text. The Queen and the Duchess despise Sarah’s dark-skinned father and what she thinks that represents: impurity, beastliness, and evilness.
Two of Sarah’s inner selves are men: Jesus and Patrice Lumumba. The latter is an African revolutionary who was the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After he left office, he was assassinated. He represents Sarah’s father—the dark side of her heritage and her selfhatred. Through the persona of Lumumba, Sarah claims that she killed her father.
Sarah’s fourth self, Jesus, is a dwarf and a hunchback with yellow skin. Jesus represents Sarah’s father as a martyr. Through Jesus, Sarah expresses her desire to kill Lumumba and escape being black.
By the end of Funnyhouse, Sarah realizes that she cannot get escape her...
(The entire section is 551 words.)