The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? opens with Tommy’s address to the audience in which he introduces himself by thanking all the people who have made him the freeloading, shoplifting, wittily charming scourge of convention that he is. Walt Disney and Tonto, the Wolf Man and Chuck Berry, Ma and Pa Kettle, Fidel Castro and Thomas Jefferson (“who said something about God forbid we should ever be twenty years without a rebellion”)—to these and other unlikely figures he dedicates the act.

Having been presented with this rebel’s pedigree, the audience, in the first of many flashbacks and loosely associated episodes, is whisked away to St. Petersburg, Florida, 1952, to one of Tommy’s early run-ins with authority. When asked on a civics test to list the ten most admired men in the United States, Tommy writes “Holden Caulfield,” J. D. Salinger’s fictional protagonist in Catcher in the Rye (1951), ten times, an act for which he predictably receives an F grade. The combined forces of parents and principal make him recant and produce the acceptable list of establishment icons; however, Tommy emerges feeling Holden’s righteous disgust at these “phonies,” longing to be off in Times Square with his fictional idol, smoking Lucky cigarettes and pining over Jan Moody. By the time he does escape the confines of St. Petersburg for what he insists on calling the Big Apple, he is a confirmed malcontent, pitted against the tyrannical power of officialdom, plotting to blow up the country and start over again. As he explains, “We can blow it up nice or we can blow it up tough. What I’m doing now is nice.” The pattern of Tommy’s defiance has been established, but so far his anarchic assaults on authority have remained a kind of playful sniping.

The scene changes to the streets of New York City, where Tommy and Ben Delight are panhandling, lamenting the increased competition from “fake Buddhist monks” on their corner, rehearsing the moral collapse of the United States, and extolling the value of traveling light (Tommy carries only a toothbrush, change of shorts, autographed photo of James Dean, and a nun’s habit). Ben, an old actor who claims he spent his career in Paul Muni’s shadow, has never seen or heard of James Dean, but he is one of the few people to have witnessed Tommy’s disastrous one-line performance in the “humorless, pedantic, philosophically sophomoric, cliché-ridden and plagiarized” play Kumquat. Ben’s amused recital of this embarrassing failure catapults Tommy into a savage attack on Ben as an old, impotent loser, an insult he just as quickly withdraws and tries to smooth over by promising Ben new clothes from Bloomingdale’s. Tommy flags a cab, lights a joint, and blithely ignores the cab fare when they alight in front of the department store.

The lights come up on a row of pay toilets in the ladies’ room of Bloomingdale’s. Behind one of the doors, Tommy is singing “Shenandoah.” Standing up and looking down into the adjoining booth, he sees Nedda Lemon, who comes charging out brandishing her cello case. Tommy promptly...

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Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? makes no attempt at dramatic realism. The action is wildly episodic in structure, with abrupt scene changes, flashbacks to the past, fantasy sequences in the present, madcap monologues, and frequent direct addresses to the audience. Terrence McNally makes use of Brechtian techniques, demanding that the audience admit to the theatricality of the play, its presentational rather than representational quality. He refuses to allow the audience the comfort of escaping into a re-created reality, insisting instead that they face up to the provocative, often assaultive images the play presents. Nevertheless, McNally is artful enough to provide the dramatic texture and depth of character that Brecht rarely supplies. The loosely connected episodes may suggest the chaotic, disjunctive nature of contemporary life and defy traditional notions of comprehensible motive, action, and character, but McNally is canny enough to provide the dramatic texture and depth of character that Bertolt Brecht often does not supply, so that in spite of the discontinuous plot, audiences feel neither confused nor bludgeoned with ideas. McNally is careful to mix opaque incidents or surreal scenes (the Marilyn Monroe opening of act 2 or the fantasy with Tommy and James Dean in act 1, for example) with extended and dramatically developed scenes (Tommy and Nedda at Bloomingdale’s).

In an introductory production note to the play, McNally suggests that...

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Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Ballet, Arthur. “Terrence McNally.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Clurman, Harold. Review in The Nation, October 25, 1971, 410-411.

Kalem, T. E. “Holden Caulfield’s Return.” Time, October 18, 1971, 80.

Kroll, Jack. “Please Omit Flowers.” Newsweek, October 18, 1971, 108.

Oliver, Edith. Review in The New Yorker. October 18, 1971, 101.

Zinman, Toby, ed. Terrence McNally: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.