The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

by Paul Zindel
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times that The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was “one of the most discouraging titles yet devised by man.” Largely autobiographical, the play had its beginnings in Houston, Texas, in 1965 at the Alley Theater. It then opened Off-Broadway on April...

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Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times that The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was “one of the most discouraging titles yet devised by man.” Largely autobiographical, the play had its beginnings in Houston, Texas, in 1965 at the Alley Theater. It then opened Off-Broadway on April 7, 1970, at the Mercer-O’Casey Theatre, with Sada Thompson in the role of Beatrice. Variety called it “a masterful, pace-setting drama and the most compelling work of its kind since Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.” Indeed, the setting of the cramped Hunsdorfer household, a former vegetable store, recalls the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945). Paul Zindel himself acknowledged the influence of Williams’s play on The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: “Tennessee Williams’ work attracted me, inspired me, although at the time I didn’t have a knowledge of structure or an exposure to the works of other dramatists who had influenced him.” While majoring in chemistry in college, Zindel took courses in creative writing, including one course taught by his contemporary playwright, Edward Albee.

In 1971, the play moved to Broadway, where it ran for 819 performances. It won both the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. A film adaptation appeared the following year, directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward. Zindel’s other plays, most notably And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (pr. 1967, pb. 1972) and The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild (pr. 1972, pb. 1973), also feature complex female characters.

Zindel dedicated his heavily autobiographical play to his mother, Betty Frank, on whom he based the domineering, abusive Beatrice. In the introduction to the 1997 reissue of the play, Zindel acknowledged that he based the life-affirming, science-loving Tillie on himself. Zindel also drew heavily from his ten-year stint as a high school chemistry teacher.

The action of the play is built around Beatrice’s frustration with her life and the impact it has on her daughters. At turns abusive and pathetic, Beatrice represents the toxic effect—like that of the radioactive gamma rays—that permeates the household. However, the play does not end on Beatrice’s nihilistic “I hate the world” but on Tillie’s hopeful note about the beauty of the atom. Zindel based on one of his class lectures this underlying concept that all atoms, in all living things, come from the Sun and that, as a result, all people are linked to the universe and never really die.

In the play’s final sequence, Tillie describes the results of her experiment with radiation, “and how dangerous it can be if not handled correctly.” Some of the seeds died, some produced double-blooms, and some grew giant stems. Unlike her sister Ruth, Tillie emerges as a positive mutation in spite of Beatrice’s potentially damaging influence. A naïve perspective about the benefits of atomic energy may date the play somewhat, but the other issues that Zindel raises—single parenting, child abuse, and alcoholism—are, unfortunately, more relevant today than ever.

Zindel wrote several popular novels for young adults, including My Darling, My Hamburger (1969), I Never Loved Your Mind (1970), and The Pigman (1968) but never succeeded in writing another play that was as acclaimed as Marigolds. Zindel died of cancer in 2003 at the age of sixty-six.

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