Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Like so much of Zindel’s work, this play is based on personal experience. Zindel’s youth was spent in the shadow of an abusive, slightly mad mother, and he stated in interviews that he wanted people to sympathize with his underdog characters and to believe in the power of hope against all odds. After the play opened Off-Broadway, it received a Pulitzer Prize as the best drama in 1971. Actor Paul Newman directed a film adaptation of the play the following year. Zindel was hailed as a promising new playwright, and audiences and critics praised his believable teenage characters. Zindel subsequently published numerous works of fiction for a young-adult audience. He preferred writing books over plays because they provided steadier income and published three new titles in 2002, the year before he died of cancer.
Given the subject matter and the historical atmosphere of the time, perhaps this mixed response may be understood. In the early 1960’s, fear of an all-out nuclear war gripped the United States. People built bomb shelters, and schools held nuclear safety drills. Scientific activity sped forward, and, as researchers recognized the power offered by atomic energy, they, like Tillie, often embraced a naïve belief in its power for good alone. Fearful people questioned the safety of nuclear power and its long-term impact on the environment. Thus, the driving symbol of the play, the experiment with marigolds, raises pivotal questions about the responsibility of science to protect living things, even as it advances in its ability to destroy them. Many of these questions remain part of popular debate, and this play’s important role in providing the impetus for their discussion continues.