John Guare Essay - Critical Essays

John Guare American Literature Analysis

Guare’s play titles are an important indication of the theatricality of his style, suggesting dynamism that is spectacular in its sensory and artistic images. In The House of Blue Leaves, there are the American icons of song, food, and a bomb. In Six Degrees of Separation, a double-sided Wassily Kandinsky painting; and in Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, an incredible massing of art and myth imagery: an Egyptian sculpture (from the Louvre) of four baboons staring blindly into the sun; a nearly naked, singing Eros, skirting the rim of the stage throughout; the assigning of mythical names to children; and, finally, the play’s locale, archaeological digs in Sicily, to which a recently married couple have brought their nine children from previous marriages.

Images, musical and visual, are Guare’s vehicles for messages involving the yearnings of his characters for material success and then for something spiritual beyond the disillusionments that contemporary values have either denied or provided them. In the first of Guare’s trilogy of major plays, fame haunts Artie Shaughnessy but in the end denies him, and he is left with the ashes of his life. In the second, affluence and the good life are Ouisa Kittredge’s, but she discovers them to be hollow. In the third play, Penny McKenzie takes Ouisa’s questioning a step further in the form of a spiritual quest that includes all eleven members of her newly formed family.

With his strong academic background, Guare has gradually moved his latest characters beyond the borders of the United States and modern times to the time and space of mythical reality. In one play, realism and myth blend in an Icarus character who flies too close to the sun and falls to his death. Yet even in Guare’s early plays, there is the Greek sense of lives haunted by the pursuit of truth and the eventual acceptance of the sometimes disastrous consequences of that search. Deaths occur in all three of his major plays.

In his portrayal of urban and suburban America, Guare paints with a highly theatrical brush. In his plays nuns maneuver to see the pope while a political activist plots to bomb him, even as domestic problems vie with national events for attention. Complacently affluent couples have their lives disrupted by an imposter posing as Sidney Poitier’s son. Disrupted families seeking harmony in Sicily find not only that their pasts haunt them but also that their problems continue into the present.

Guare combines visual techniques with musical ones, an important aspect of his personal life. The dissonances in the Shaughnessys’ lives are matched by the jangling ditties that Artie constantly plays and sings throughout The House of Blue Leaves. The soliloquies (like operatic arias) in Six Degrees of Separation function as Hamlet-like self-questionings. The antiphonal dialogues, the soliloquies, and the chants of Eros successfully fuse the dissonances into a music of life in Four Baboons Adoring the Sun as in no other of Guare’s plays.

Structurally, his plays reflect the techniques of absurdist theater, with disconnected plots unhindered by logic or chronology. Guare abandoned the episodic structure of the two acts in The House of Blue Leaves for a ninety-minute, intermissionless form in Six Degrees of Separation and Four Baboons Adoring the Sun. The results are dramas in which the themes are so sharply focused and images so crowded that their density and brilliance can be blinding if, like Guare’s four baboons, one stares too long and too hard.

Like Chekhov’s uses of the seagull and the cherry orchard and Tennessee Williams’s uses of a glass menagerie and a streetcar, Guare’s blue leaves and baboons provide him with images that reveal truths reaching into the lives of each character. His titular imagery is reinforced within the plays by his use of the arts. Music, important in Guare’s life, is a natural part of his plays. A painting in one play and a sculpture in another may seem contrived to some. Yet in combination, domestic realism, myth, and art provide, respectively, emotional, intellectual, and visual rewards for those who choose to “stare into the sun.”

Guare’s overall theme is the American suburban family in all of its aspirations and losses. The dysfunctional Shaughnessy family—composed of a wayward son, an insane wife and mother, and a husband and father who works at a zoo and entertains Hollywood dreams—is bombarded by the media. The family in Six Degrees of Separation has realized its dream, only to undergo disturbing intrusions by those who have not enjoyed its affluence. In Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, two middle-class families—one headed by a university professor of archaeology and the other by a congressman—are the victims of divorces. In a marriage of two of the divorced parents, there is an attempt to unify the disparate experiences of each group of children, for whom there looms yet the marriages of the other two divorced parents, with further family relationships to be embraced or rejected.

Guare’s comment on society reaches a sophisticated savagery in its portrayal of the supposed insularity of the successful family in Six Degrees of Separation. The same society contains a drug-and-crime culture to which the privileged have become so impervious that only the imposters can penetrate it. A struggling young couple, newly arrived in New York to make their way in the theater world, become innocent victims of the same scams made necessary, it would seem, by the insularity of wealth and fame.

Yet the largest truth in Guare’s suburban universe is, perhaps, found in the questioning and the quest, respectively, of a Ouisa and a Penny in the hope of attaining some solution to the problems. Such solutions may ultimately be found only in the mythical truths, so old and yet so persistently...

(The entire section is 2436 words.)