The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Analysis

Jane Wagner

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe begins on the corner of “Walk, Don’t Walk” somewhere in New York City, although the playwright describes no realistic set in which to place the play’s action. Trudy, the bag lady whose monologues lead the spectators through the play’s events, speaks directly to the audience about her pending encounter with aliens from outer space. Trudy once worked as a designer and creative consultant for Howard Johnson’s and Nabisco, but when she found herself suggesting that the cracker company pitch the concept of munching to the Third World, she went off the deep end.

As a result, she began having what she calls “time-space continuum shifts.” Her umbrella hat works as a satellite dish and picks up signals that transmit snatches of people’s lives. Her unusual gift allows Trudy to channel the mosaic of lives that make up Jane Wagner’s play. When Trudy hears a “sizzling sound like white noise,” the other characters are zapped into being, and the performer transforms in front of the audience.

Part 1 of the play is episodic and briefly introduces various characters who are eventually woven into the more linear story in part 2. Trudy’s umbrella hat first tunes in to the performer, Lily, who welcomes the audience. Lily admits that she worries quite a bit, about philosophical issues such as whether there is a “cosmic scheme of things” and mundane issues such as reflective flea collars, soap operas, and Andy Warhol.

Trudy beams out of Lily to continue her discussion of the search for signs of intelligent life, which she is conducting with her “space chums.” Her antennae next pick up Chrissy, a young woman exercising in an aerobics class, who complains about her inability to find and hold a job. “All my life I’ve always wanted to be somebody,” she says. “But I see now I should have been more specific.” Chrissy attends a number of personal growth seminars to open herself to change and to avoid her suicidal tendencies, but she is branded a “classic ‘false hope’ case.”

Also an athlete, Paul is distressed by his recent divorce. In the story Trudy transmits, he admits that he had an affair when his wife was pregnant, with a woman named Marge. Marge owned a plant store, and when Paul slept with her in the room above it, Marge asked him to donate his sperm to her lesbian friends who wanted to have a child. Paul agreed; now he confides that he has been haunted ever since by the thought of his “secret kid.”

Watching television one day, Paul sees a child prodigy playing the violin in a concert and notices a resemblance to himself. He tries to find Marge, to ask her questions, but when he returns to the plant store, he finds that Marge is dead. Paul is left ruminating over whether the young violinist is his son.

Next Trudy listens to Kate, an urbane woman waiting in a beauty salon for a bad haircut to be corrected. Kate’s hairdresser, Bucci, has cut her hair short on one side and long on the other. She complains that she is dying of boredom and is not even excited by an affair she is having. She plans a visit to Los Angeles for plastic surgery on her fingertip, which she sliced in a “dreadful Cuisinart accident.” She dreads going to the theater that evening to see “this actress/comedy thing”; the reference is to Wagner’s play and Lily Tomlin’s performance at the Plymouth.

Several times, Trudy visualizes a skinny punk kid...

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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was produced as a one-woman show on Broadway. The focus on the single performer, who transforms quickly and completely into each of the characters Trudy transmits, heightens the play’s theme of human interconnectedness. The text requires a tour-de-force performance, since the actor must impersonate characters of various race, gender, class, and even national regions.

Particularly in part 1, the play’s story line is nonlinear. Characters are introduced in different surroundings, such as the beauty salon where Kate waits for Bucci, the aerobics studio where Chrissy works out, and the Un-Club where Agnus Angst performs. Since the play is presented on a bare stage, with only one black step unit as a seat for the actor and no props, sound effects are crucial in establishing time, place, and mood. Transitions between sections and characters are marked by the white noise that emanates from Trudy’s imaginary umbrella hat, an electric, dissonant sound not unlike that made by a television tuned in to a station that is off the air.

Agnus Angst is characterized by sounds of heavy chains dragging at her feet and of zippers being yanked and closed on her multi-zippered jump suit. (The actor performing each role never changes her costume, which is a plain black blouse and black slacks.) During Lyn’s journal reminiscences, many musical cues are added in production to evoke the 1970’s...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Gill, Brendan. Review in The New Yorker, October 7, 1985, 109.

Henry, William A. Review in Time, October 7, 1985, 68.

Merrill, Lisa. Review in Women and Performance 10, no. 1 (1986): 97-99.

Rafferty, Tim. Review in The New Yorker 67 (October 7, 1991): 102.

Raven, Arlene. “Crossing Over.” In Crossing Over: Feminism and Art of Social Concern. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1988.

Vilanch, Bruce. “Earth to Lily.” Interview 18 (May, 1988): 52-59.