Carson McCullers Drama Analysis
Though Carson McCullers’s reputation as a playwright will never approach her reputation as a writer of fiction, it is her uniqueness in both genres that accounts for both her successes and her failures. Her first play succeeded because it defied conventions of plot and action; her second play failed in part because it too often mixed the modes of tragedy, comedy, and romance. It is no accident that three of her novels have been made into successful films, nor is it accidental that no less a playwright than Edward Albee adapted her novella The Ballad of the Sad Café for the stage. McCullers’s dramatic sense was in every way original, and both her hit play and her failure demand acceptance on their own terms, quite apart from the whims of current theatrical convention and popular tastes.
The Member of the Wedding
Like the novel from which it was adapted, The Member of the Wedding, McCullers’s first play, is a masterpiece of timing, mood, and character delineation. Insofar as there is a plot, it can be summarized as follows: Somewhere in the South, twelve-year-old Frankie Addams, a rebellious loner and a tomboy, secretly longs to belong to a group. Rejected by the girls at school, having recently lost her best friend, Frankie has no one to talk to except Berenice Sadie Brown, the black woman who cooks for Frankie and her father, and a seven-year-old cousin, John Henry. When she discovers that her brother, Jarvis, is going to be married, Frankie decides to join him and his bride on their honeymoon and make her home with them in nearby Winter Hill, thus becoming once and for all a member—a member of the wedding. Though Berenice tries to make her come to her senses, Frankie persists in her plan and makes a scene during the ceremony, begging the couple to take her with them. When they refuse, an agonized Frankie vows to run away from home. Sticking her father’s pistol into the suitcase that she has already packed for the honeymoon, Frankie does leave, but it is later disclosed that she has spent the night in the alley behind her father’s store. Chastened and somewhat resigned, she returns home, admitting that she had thought of committing suicide but then had changed her mind.
By the end of the play, which takes place several months after the wedding, life has changed for all three main characters. John Henry has died of meningitis; Berenice has given notice to Mr. Addams; and Frankie, having largely outgrown the adolescent identity crisis of the previous summer, has acquired a best friend and a beau, both of whom she had earlier hated. Although Frankie is undoubtedly much happier than she was at the beginning of the play, she has become a pretentious teenager, bereft of the poetry and passion of childhood. Berenice has lost not only John Henry but also her foster brother, Honey, who has hanged himself in jail. As the curtain falls on the third act, Berenice is alone onstage, quietly singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” the song that she had sung earlier to calm the tortured Frankie.
Most of the “action” of the play takes place offstage and is only later recounted through dialogue. The wedding and Frankie’s tantrum occur in the living room of the Addams house, but the scene never moves from the kitchen: The audience is told about the wedding and about Frankie’s disgrace by characters who move back and forth between the two rooms. Both Honey’s and John Henry’s deaths occur between scenes, as does Frankie’s night in the alley. By thus deemphasizing dramatic action, McCullers is able to concentrate on the real issue of the play, the relationship among Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry. By confining the action to one set, the kitchen and backyard of the Addams residence, the author effectively forces the audience to empathize with Frankie’s desperate boredom and sense of confinement (and, perhaps, with Berenice’s position in society as a black domestic). For much of the play, the three main characters are seated at the kitchen table, and this lack of movement lends the work the sense of paralysis, of inertia, that McCullers learned from the plays of Anton Chekhov and applied to the South of her childhood.
Frankie Addams is one of the most memorable adolescents in literature, at the same time an embodiment of the frustrations and contradictions inherent in adolescence and a strongly individual character. She yearns to belong to a group even as she shouts obscenities and threats to the members of the neighborhood girls’ club. She is both masculine and feminine, a tomboy with a boy’s haircut and dirty elbows who chooses a painfully vampish gown for her brother’s wedding. McCullers skillfully exploits alternately comic and tragic aspects of Frankie’s character. The audience must laugh at her histrionic declarations (“I am sick unto death!”) but must also experience a strong identification with her sense of vulnerability and isolation (“I feel just exactly like somebody has peeled all the skin off me”). Caught between childhood and womanhood, she is curious about both sexual and spiritual love. She claims to have been asked for a date by a soldier, only to wonder aloud “what you do on dates,” and she is still capable of climbing into Berenice’s lap to hear a lullaby. Frankie’s body is fast maturing, but her emotions are slow in catching up.
Berenice Sadie Brown serves in the play as Frankie’s main female role model (Frankie’s own mother has died in childbirth), an embodiment of fully realized adult sexuality. As complex a character as Frankie, Berenice is much more than a servant: She is confessor, nurse, and storyteller. At...
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