Adrienne Kennedy Kennedy, Adrienne - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Adrienne Kennedy 1931-

Full name Adrienne Lita Kennedy.

Kennedy's controversial, often violent plays symbolically portray African-American characters whose multiple or uncertain identities reflect their struggle for self-knowledge in a white-dominated society. Although some audiences have expressed discomfort with the dark, brutal nature of Kennedy's plays, critics have consistently praised their lyricism and expressionistic structure, frequently comparing them to poetry. Wolfgang Binder observed: "[These] dramas are to some degree exorcizing personal and collective racial traumas and have anger, the urge to communicate and (attempted) liberation as the motivating forces."


Kennedy grew up in a multi-ethnic, middle-class neighbor-hood in Cleveland, Ohio. She had an early interest in drama, but did not begin writing until she enrolled in a course on twentieth-century literature at Ohio State University. Shortly after graduating, Kennedy married, had her first child, and began writing plays while staying up late with the baby. Although her work was praised by writing instructors, she became discouraged by consistent rejections from publishers. At the age of twenty-nine Kennedy traveled to West Africa and Rome with her family, and the contrast between her African and European experiences provided the background for her first published play, Funnyhouse of a Negro. When she returned to the United States, she submitted the drama to a workshop taught by playwright Edward Albee. Soon afterward, the play enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run and won an Obie Award in 1964. Over the past several years, she has taught creative writing at such institutions as Yale University, Princeton University, and the University of California at Berkeley.


Kennedy is best known for Funnyhouse of a Negro, which focuses on a young girl named Sarah whose confusion regarding her identity arises from her mixed heritage: her mother is white and her father is black. Simultaneously obsessed with and alienated from Western culture, she is tormented by visions of figures who her represent the white, Western world, in particular her mother, Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Habsburg, and Jesus Christ. Kennedy's following work, Cities in Bezique, consists of two one-act plays, The Owl Answers and A Beast Story. Like Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers portrays a African-American woman's quest for self-knowledge in a world dominated by white races. Other critically acclaimed works by Kennedy include the lesser-known A Rat's Mass and A Lesson in Dead Language, which present surrealistically distorted religions that precipitate the loss of child-hood innocence through sexual initiation rites. Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, a short play about creation, is one of Kennedy's few dramas dominated by a male perspective. In 1980 she presented a children's play, A Lancashire Lad, a fictionalized version of Charlie Chaplin's childhood in England.


Kennedy's work is often praised by critics for its innovative and provocative use of poetic language and imagery to convey facets of the African-American experience. Commentators contend that several elements contribute to the highly expressionistic quality of her plays, particularly the lack of plot, rhythmic and repetitious dialogue, and use of characters from the mythical and historical past as well as allusions from her dreams and memory. As Robert L. Tener has asserted: "Set in the surrealistic theatre of the mind, her dramas are rich collages of ambiguities, metaphors, poetic insights, literary references, and mythic associations, all of which provide a dramatic form unique to Miss Kennedy."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Funnyhouse of a Negro 1962

The Owl Answers 1963

A Rat's Mass 1966

The Lennon Play: In His Own Write [with John Lennon and Victor Spinetti] 1967

A Lesson in Dead Language 1968

A Beast Story 1969

Boats 1969

Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder 1970

An Evening with Dead Essex 1973

A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White 1976

Black Children's Day 1980

A Lancashire Lad 1980

Orestes and Electra 1980

The Ohio State Murders 1990


People Who Led to My Plays (memoir) 1987

In One Act (collection of plays) 1989

Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (novel and journal) 1990

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Interview with Kennedy (1990)

SOURCE: Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, edited by Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 3-12.

[In the following interview, conducted in February 1990, Kennedy discusses the background, influences, and stylistic and thematic aspects of her plays.]

[Adrienne Kennedy]: Joe [Chaikin] is … very important because when people had totally forgotten about me, in the mid-seventies, Joe was one of the people saying quite extravagant things about me, and working on my plays at his workshops. What he did with Movie Star [1976] was a total moving image; it just never stopped moving. It was a masterpiece the way he did it.

[Lois More Overbeck]: So it was choreography?

No. It was the process of the Open Theater, Joe's troupe…. Joe and Michael Kahn, as far as I'm concerned, played the biggest role in keeping my morale up and for keeping my work in front of people throughout the seventies. Michael interested Juilliard in commissioning me.

What kind of a director was Michael Kahn with your work?

Very painstaking. And even as a very young director, he had phenomenal insight and vision.

Did you talk with him a great deal about the work?

We talked for two years. You know it took Edward Albee two years to produce Funnyhouse. So in those two years, Michael and I had plenty of time to discuss the play. There was really a base there.

We were very interested in the dramatization of Sarah, particularly because, in a sense, she stops speaking after the first third of the play, but she is still there, and she "speaks" through the other voices. What is Sarah doing when she is on stage even though she no longer has a speaking part?

Well that was one of the things that Michael worked on: what Sarah was going to be doing when she was not speaking. He anchored Sarah in her room.

In the transition from the Albee workshop production of Funnyhouse to its production on the commercial stage, were you making changes?

I had a script, an original script of Funnyhouse. And men when I went into the workshop at the Circle [in the Square], I (literally) took out the word "niggers." And I gave it to Michael. Then as it got closer to the production, he said, "Albee says you have another script, and that's the one we should do. You know, the script you handed in to get in the class." So I did the first one. After that the script remained exactly the same.

[Paul K. Bryant-Jackson]: Do you think that … the inter-change that you were having in the workshops affected the writing of The Owl Answers that you were doing at the time?

No, I had already written Owl Answers.

[Overbeck]: You do write about … the turning point at which you learned that you could take the many parts of the self and use them as characters …. In Owl Answers, characters are transformed by just stepping out of their costumes. We wanted to ask you more about the transforming of characters and metamorphosis.

It's back to childhood—people turning into different people, different characters, feeling that you have a lot of characters inside of you, that's just so much a part of me. I've always been like that. I always just could very easily become a character in the movies or in a book.

What about the Duchess of Hapsburg?

You mean how did I choose her?

Is it as parallel to Queen Victoria?

No. Like most people, I have always been fascinated by royalty. Why are people royal? I mean, that just used to drive me out of my mind, you know. It's in People Who Led to My Plays. I saw the movie Juarez; it's about the Duchess of Hapsburg. Then my husband and I took a trip to Mexico and we saw Chapultepec Castle, where the Hapsburgs lived. Too, probably because Bette Davis had played her, she interested me.

It is interesting, though, that the Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria did preside with power that was based on colonization.

There are negative qualities about all of Sarah's personas, except Lumumba.

A working title for this collection of essays on your work is Transforming Margins.

Transforming is a great word.

[Bryant-Jackson]: What about margins?

Boundaries, I think boundaries is a good word, too. [To Paul:] I don't know what kind of black world you grew up in, … the kind I grew up in—I respected. But it really was a very rigid childhood. I wasn't allowed to speak, just arbitrarily; I had to speak when I was spoken to. I wasn't allowed to express what I was thinking. I had to say things that were correct in school and at home. So all these people were burning inside of me.

[Overbeck]: We read in Deadly Triplets that you were writing a play called Cities in Bezique. But the bill done at the Public Theater was another play.

Joe Papp commissioned me to write [a play]. It was called Cities in Bezique. I wrote it when I lived in London. It was horrible. And Joe, a very understanding person said, "Well, I don't really like the play very much. But I'd like to use the title." And he decided to do The Owl Answers and A Beast's Story and call it Cities in Bezique.

So you just abandoned the other play?

I trusted Joe. Joe likes writers. I have abandoned a lot of work: stories, novels, plays. I know that I am in fact working something out. It is not wasted.

The several manuscript versions of A Beast's Story in the Archives of the Public Theater seem radically different from the one that was published.

It's because I changed it so. A Beast's Story was just a total failure, as far as I'm concerned (the writing, not the production). I just think that I never got the play right. When Samuel French said they wanted to publish it, I just took it and chopped it in two. I am never going to let it get republished.

Can you tell us about the production of Rat's Mass at La Mama?

It was a very big success. Seth Allen directed and Mary Alice and Gilbert Price were the leads. Then later Ellen Stewart wanted an opera of it.

[Bryant-Jackson]: What became of the opera?

It ran for six weeks. It had exquisite music that Cecil Taylor wrote. But it didn't work as an opera. It could have been, what do you call that—a cantata. I was never able to make a book out of it that fit the great music that Cecil composed.

[Overbeck]: You did the libretto and he did the music?


You loved the music?

Oh, entirely. The guy is a genius.

What about the ballet you did for Jerome Robbins?

Jerome Robbins had something called Theatre Lab. And I was one of the first writers, I think, that he commissioned. He had liked Funnyhouse.

What did you write?

That's when I first started to try to write about Malcolm X. I never finished it. Also I went to live in England.

Tell us a bit more about Sun.

The Royal Court asked me to write a play. I had been working on some material from drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. And that's how I wrote Sun.

Your style is poetic—almost like a concerto, and the visual elements are so complex. Now, under the spell of performance art, perhaps there is a much more ready acceptance of this kind of theatrical performance.

[Bryant-Jackson]: One of the things I really admire when I look at your work from a theatrical sense [is that] your plays demand a new acting approach. A lot of people are involved with method acting, and with realistic plays the method works very wellallows you time to prepare the necessary emotional transitions. But in your plays, emotional transitions often come back to back, and so you have to go somewhere else in terms of your ability to become that character.

I see.

And I think, it was really groundbreaking in 1964, in the sense that on many levels, the acting style had to catch up to the form.

You are making me remember what Joe Chaikin used to talk about. He worked with Robbie [McCauley] on the monologues in the...

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Susan E. Meigs (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 172-83.

[In the following essay, Meigs addresses the "damaged social identity" of black Americans as presented in Kennedy's plays Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.]

I know no places. That is I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

Binder, Wolfgang. "A MEWS Interview: Adrienne Kennedy." MELUS 12, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 99-108.

Interview in which Kennedy discusses her artistic career and development.

Blau, Herbert. "The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepherd and Adrienne Kennedy." Modern Drama XXVII, No. 4 (December 1989): 520-39.

Discusses the concept of the "American dream" in relation to the plays of Shepherd and Kennedy.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Overbeck, Lois More, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, 254 p.

Collection of...

(The entire section is 559 words.)