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

by Paul Zindel

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The Theme of the Triumph of the Human Spirit

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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds presents the themes of alienation and man's inhumanity to man played out in the microcosm of the family. Life has not been kind to Beatrice Hunsdorfer, and she takes her frustration and hatred of the world out on those around her. Beatrice has been deeply hurt and has developed an instinct to lash out at others before they get the chance to do the same to her. She lives by the rule, Do unto others before they do unto you. She is particularly abusive to her daughters. Throughout the course of the play she calls them names, makes fun of them, and does whatever she can to thwart their dreams and desires. Beatrice constantly reminds her daughters that they are nothing more than a burden to her: "Marry the wrong man and before you know it he's got you tied down with two stones around your neck for the rest of your life.’’ She shows little warmth or affection and uses her children as scapegoats for her anger at the world.

Yet, even though the play presents the bleak situation created by Beatrice's frustration and despair, it also offers a glimmer of hope in the character of Tillie who, despite her mother's cruelty, refuses to be defeated. Tillie embodies the spirit of the survivor. Tillie is an outcast at school. She is awkward and is considered strange and unattractive by her classmates. Yet Tillie is able to appreciate what life has to offer because she has discovered something more important than external appearances, something more lasting. She has discovered that she is important. This knowledge gives her an inner strength. As Beverly A. Haley and Kenneth L. Donelson note in their essay "Pigs and Hamburger, Cadavers and Gamma Rays," "Tillie emerges a potential winner, for her thirst for knowledge and her scientific experiment with the marigolds have given her confidence in her own self-worth.'' In the play, Zindel gives the message that if one can hold on to one's faith and can see past the immediate ugliness to the beautiful potential in the world, there is the possibility not only to survive but also to triumph. Tillie's realization that all things are interconnected inspires her."Most important, I suppose, my experiment has made me feel important—every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun—from places beyond our dreams.’’ She knows that there is life beyond her mother's household and that there is a huge world out there filled with possibilities. Tillie remains true to herself and her vision and is thus able to succeed. There is a sense that her victory at the science fair is just the first in a string of great accomplishments.

Zindel has captured an important theme of the play in its title. Although Clive Barnes of the New York Times once called the title "one of the most discouraging titles yet devised by man,’’ it is nonetheless appropriate. This phrase provides a clue as to what the play is about. The title of the play refers to not only the science project Tillie is working on, but also the larger theme of the influence human beings can have on one another and the different ways people can react under the same circumstances. Beatrice's tirades and her constant negative pronouncements about the world are the ‘‘gamma rays’’ which bombard Tillie and Ruth. Throughout the play, Beatrice sends out almost nothing but negative energy, and it works to slowly damage many of those around her. But not everyone in the environment succumbs. Although Beatrice treats both her...

(This entire section contains 1649 words.)

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daughters with cruelty and abuse, their reactions are quite different. Tillie remains quietly true to her own vision and thus counteracts some of Beatrice's damaging effects. Ruth, on the other hand, tries desperately to fight back, but with little success. She is ultimately on a path of self-destruction, perhaps destined to repeat Beatrice's mistakes. Just as the gamma rays destroy some of the marigolds while bringing about wonderful mutations in others, one daughter succumbs, while the other becomes even stronger in her determination to succeed. As Ruth Strickland notes in theDictionary of Literary Biography, ‘‘The message is clear: Tillie is the mutant who has emerged from a horrifying environment with faith and potential intact—she is the double bloom ... Ruth is a victim of her mother's despair.’’

Numerous critics have praised The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for its realistic portrayal of young adults and the perseverance they can possess. There are many examples throughout history of young adults who have faced adversity with courage and spirit. One of the most extreme examples, but one that has some parallels to the play, is the way in which the young Anne Frank was able to persevere during the two years she and her family were forced to hide from the Nazis in the attic of an Amsterdam house. Although Anne's circumstances were much more dire than those Tillie finds herself in, there is a similarity in the way both young girls are able to reach deep within themselves to find the courage and strength to carry on. Even the words they use have a similar ring. In her diary, Anne Frank wrote, ‘‘in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. . . . [I]f I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.’’ Tillie also finds strength by looking beyond her current situation to the possibilities of what might be: ‘‘I believe this with all my heart, THE DAY WILL COME WHEN MANKIND WILL THANK GOD FOR THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL ENERGY FROM THE ATOM.’’ Both girls are able to hold onto their faith in the human spirit despite the odds. Tillie and Anne are optimists, and that is their ultimate triumph.

Although Tillie is definitely the heroine of the play, she is not perfect. In a way, she may be too optimistic. For instance, in her exploration and discussion of radioactivity, she all but ignores the bad potential atomic energy may hold. Only one time in the play does she briefly mention the destructive potential of the atom, saying "My experiment has shown some of the strange effects radiation can produce ... and how dangerous it can be if not handled correctly.’’ Tillie downplays the negative and chooses to see the world her way. Ironically, this actually gives her some similarities with Beatrice. Each of these characters sees what she wants to see. Beatrice is determined to find the bad side of everything. Tillie is determined to find the good. Irony is an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs, and there is irony in Tillie's one-sided attitude toward atomic energy. This aspect has been mentioned by some critics who found it interesting that Zindel would embed this celebration of atomic energy in the play. An uncredited author in Types of Drama notes, ‘‘Somewhat unfashionably, Zindel takes science and the atom not as symbols of man's alienation and death, but as symbols of man's heavenly origin or his link with the sun.’’ Zindel does not rely on the typical or expected way of presenting issues and families. That is one thing which makes the play so intriguing and powerful.

Paul Zindel writes from personal experience. He knows what it is like to grow up in a difficult situation and to come out on top. Zindel's youth was spent in the shadow of an abusive, slightly mad mother. He found a way to survive, and he wants his audience, particularly young people, to find a way to do the same. In an interview for Top of the News, Zindel told Audrey Eaglen, ‘‘I'm telling the kids that I love the underdog and sympathize with his struggle because that's what I was and am in many ways still. I want my kids to feel worthy, to search for hope against all odds.’’ Zindel's message is clear: Find a way to believe in yourself; you are important.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds gives audiences a lot to consider. It raises many more questions than it answers. Some of these questions were consciously written into the play, while others came as a surprise, even to Zindel. In his new introduction to the most recently published edition of the play he writes, "I found questions lurking in the shadows of Beatrice Hunsdorfer's vegetable store that I hadn't even known I'd asked. What is it, really, to grow up in a home without a loving, competent father or mother? Do we yet understand the pain and loneliness and disability of kids who do? And from where do survivors of such homes conjure the magic to insist that, despite everything, their dreams will stay alive?'' These are important questions, and Zindel hopes that by raising them he opens up the opportunity for audiences to make some discoveries about themselves. In his new introduction Zindel also states, ‘‘It's important, too, that those who read and hear our stories find answers for their own lives.’’

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a play about the triumph of the human spirit that still resonates with audiences today because it ultimately deals with universal concepts. But the thing that has sustained its appeal is its optimistic message of hope. After sharing some painful, yet funny moments in the lives of these characters, the audience is left with an upbeat, positive message summed up in Tillie's final declaration, ‘‘Atom. Atom. What a beautiful word.’’

Source: Beth A. Kattelman, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Kattelman has a Ph.D. and specializes in modern drama.

Female Freedoms, Dantesque Dreams, and Paul Zindel's Anti-Sexist The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

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Already preparing a bridge to such a recent male feminist play as Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias Paul Zindel in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, gave us, two full decades ago, a strong indictment of sexism. In Zindel's revisionary Dantesque play, the frumpy housewife Beatrice Hunsdorfer may look like an illusion-frustrated female transplanted into a Northern urban landscape from the barren Mississippi River towns of Tennessee Williams. Beatrice's tantrum in Act II, turning her house into a chaos, may seem fully explained when she declares ‘‘I hate the world’’; she thus appears at first no more positive a rebel than Kopit's Madame Rosepettle in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. But Beatrice's rebellion does not seek merely to hiss venom toward dominant patriarchs, in the manner adopted by La Rosepettle, and she surely does not demonstrate strength (like Williams's Serafina Delle Rose and Maggie Pollitt) only while working out an alliance with males on whom she remains dependent. If Beatrice is like a Williams character, the model seems Big Mama. Like that Mississippi matriarch by the end of her play, Beatrice fully intends to create a freer, more dignified life for herself and the children she loves—including, in her case, a highly intelligent daughter, Tillie, who, if she fully grasps her evident educational opportunities, might eventually live a life of considerable success.

Whatever the superficial resemblances one might remark between Gamma Rays and Williams's Glass Menagerie, the "hopeful" philosophy apparent in Zindel seems a radical departure from Tennessee Williams. Williams's most famous heroines, in Menagerie and Streetcar, remain, for all their vividness of personality, resolutely trapped in all the illusions imposed on them by patriarchal culture. His heroines surely often enough prove sexually liberated—but still, frequently, remain encaged. Perhaps the ideal Williams heroine is one of calm spiritual liberation—a person like Hannah in Iguana. Yet Hannah, despite her spiritual liberty, remains economically starving; Big Mama is more amply fed, but only because she inherited a wealthy man's estate. Even though Hannah and other Williams heroines might become, like Big Mama, capable business-persons, few even dare think of seeking economic self-determination, Zindel's Beatrice finally does.

Gamma Rays may ultimately appear too much a product of late Sixties social optimism; Zindel does not seem aware of how harshly even educated Tillies must struggle for independence. Yet the main power of this play still remains its long-unrecognized anti-sexist vision. That vision makes it clearly a historically prophetic work; it is not, as multiple critics have narrowly claimed, a mere tired echo of earlier writers.

Gamma Rays ends with the rhapsodic teenage scientist Tillie Hunsdorfer declaring that:

... [T]he effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds has made me curious about the sun and the stars, for the universe itself must be like a world of great atoms—and I want to know more about it. But most important, I suppose, my experiment has made me feel important—every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun—from places beyond our dreams. The atoms of our hands, the atoms of our hearts ... (emphasis mine).

Surely, whether consciously or not, these lines—like Tillie's earlier response to a wondrous atomic cloud-chamber—call to mind both the imagery and the visionary fervor which conclude Dante's

... [L]ike to a wheel whose circle nothing jars, Already on my desire and will prevailed The Love that moves the sun and the others stars.

Zindel's play—if by accident, nonetheless with uncanny regularity—demonstrates remarkable affinity with Dante's Divine Comedy. The clearest hint of such affinity is Zindel's choice of the two main characters' names: Beatrice and Matilda. Obviously, Beatrice Hunsdorfer does share the name of Dante's central female character, although she markedly differs from her namesake, the medieval icon of spiritually quiescent splendor. Tillie Hunsdorfer, the incipient teenage intellectual, bears more direct resemblance to the Dantesque character she recalls. Matilda of Tuscany, the likely historical model for the character Matilda whom readers meet at the height of Purgatory near Dante's Beatrice, was ‘‘a wise and powerful woman ... splendid, illustrious ... surpassing all others in her brilliance ... educated, [with] a large collection of books....’’

At least in Tillie Hunsdorfer, then, Zindel has a character who closely recalls an analogous character in Dante's great poem. It is, of course, Tillie who voices this play's most Dantesque sentiments; she shares Dante's belief that all earthly atoms are connected with originating stars of Love; that they were, as she speculates, "formed from a tongue of fire [the Holy Spirit?] that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun.’’

But the Dantesque affinities of Zindel's text do not cease with Beatrice's name and Tillie's name and personality. Zindel's earliest stage directions in the play set the action in ‘‘a room of wood," "once a vegetable store.’’ The mention of "wood" and "vegetation," and, most of all, the note that this place was once "a point of debarkation for a horse-drawn wagon to bring its wares to a small town,'' all summon to my mind Dante's selva oscura, the "dark wood'' which serves, in Inferno 1, as Dante's own ‘‘point of debarkation’’ for a pilgrimage toward the starry multifoliate rose of Paradise. According to Dante he completed the visionary journey which young Matilda Hunsdorfer hopes, in her lifetime, to share.

But Matilda's mother Beatrice seems long ago to have lost any chance for a meaningful pilgrimage through life. Even as a child, she thought herself proven unworthy to take over her father's vegetable business—to sit atop its wagon, as if clothed in the radiant garb of Dante's own Edenic chariot-rider Beatrice, and be a woman recognized (independently of any male mate) for her talents. She might, given other life circumstances than those she knew, have imitated Dante's successful pilgrimage. But— because her father truly was not, as she mistakenly still wants to believe, one who ‘‘made up for all other men in this whole world''—she encountered in him her primal "bogey man.'' He made her think that she, as a woman, was inferior to all men, that she could not care for his vegetable business either before or after his death, that she needed instead to ‘‘marry ... [and] be taken care of.’’ As a result, by the time of the play's scenes Beatrice has become a perpetual ‘‘widow of confusion,’’ much as Dante began (but only began) the Commedia as one whose ‘‘way was lost.’’

Like Dante, too, Beatrice Hunsdorfer has dream-visions. But her visions do not foresee an attainable future bliss; they recall, instead, a "nightmare" of past denial. Her dreams, also like Dante's, contain ghosts of lost loved ones. Yet Dante's lost Beatrice still beckons ahead of him; she there pledges to teach him "nobility, ... virtue, ... the Redeemed Life,’’ his soul's ‘‘ordained end.’’ By contrast, Beatrice Hunsdorfer's lost earthly father, as a ghost, continues to deny her the self-esteem he first refused her long ago:

And while he was sleeping, I got the horses hitched up and went riding around the block waving to everyone ... I had more nerve than a bear when I was a kid. Let me tell you it takes nerve to sit up on that wagon every day yelling "Apples!" ...

Did he find out? He came running down the street after me and started spanking me right on top of the wagon—not hard—but it was embarrassing—and I had one of those penny marshmallow ships in the back pocket of my overalls, and it got all squished. And you better believe I never did it again...

Let me tell you about my nightmare that used to come back and back: Well, I'm on Papa's wagon, but it's newer and shinier, and it's being pulled by beautiful white horses, not dirty workhorses—these are like circus horses with long manes and tinsel—and the wagon is blue, shiny blue. And it's full—filled with yellow apples and grapes and green squash.

Huge bells swinging on a gold braid [are] strung across the back of the wagon, and they're going DONG, DONG ... DONG, DONG. And I'm yelling ‘‘APPLES! PEARS! CUCUM ... BERS!’’

And then I turn down our street and all the noise stops. This long street, with all the doors of the houses shut and everything crowded next to each other, and there's not a soul around. And then I start getting afraid that the vegetables are going to spoil ... and that nobody' s going to buy anything, and I feel as though I shouldn't be on the wagon, and I keep trying to call out.

But there isn't a sound. Not a single sound. Then I turn my head and look at the house across the street. I see an upstairs window, and a pair of hands pull the curtains slowly apart. I see the face of my father and my heart stands still....

Ruth ... take the light out of my eyes.

Convinced by her sexist father that she had no gifts for managing her own meaningful career— ‘‘afraid that [if guarded only by her] the vegetables would spoil ... and ... nobody ... [would] buy anything''—Beatrice has ever since been trapped in her own everyday earthly Inferno: on a ‘‘long street," "everything crowded," "not a soul around.'' Although she is like Zindel's own mother in her concocting ‘‘charmingly frantic scheme[s] ... to get rich quick,’’ she is, not surprisingly, highly jealous of her invalid boarder Nanny's daughter, "Miss Career Woman of the Year." She also envies her own daughters, refusing to admit that they have gifts which could lead them to careers even semi-professional. She can't believe that her daughter Ruth can even use a typewriter; at one point, she proclaims that Tillie should forget about her scientific ambitions and instead go to work in a dime store.

And Tillie might have been behind that dime store sales counter the next week had she not suddenly become a finalist in her high school's Science Fair. Her science teacher Mr. Goodman—himself typically sexist, at least in his shock that ‘‘he never saw a girl do anything like that before"—was convinced of her promise. As a slightly inattentive Ruth reports to her mother, Mr. Goodman said that Tillie ‘‘was going to be another Madame Pasteur.’’

So Tillie is spared the dime store, and Beatrice as her mother seems simultaneously spared her sense of being a complete "zero," "the original half-life!’’ Once it reaches her consciousness that Tillie has achieved what Ruth calls ‘‘an honor,’’ Beatrice can declare, as she embraces her brainy child, an expletive which almost briefly approaches a creedal statement of faith: ‘‘Oh, my God ...’’ And, as she tells Ruth in the next act, ‘‘Somewhere in the back of this turtle-sized brain of mine I feel just a little proud! Jesus Christ!’’

Indeed, it does not seem altogether fanciful to suggest that Act II of Gamma Rays becomes (although not at all in a traditional Dantesque manner) Beatrice Hunsdorfer's encounter with a personal purgatory. As Act I ends, the school principal Mr. Berg (translation from the German: ‘‘Mr. [Purgatorial?] Mountain’’) invites Beatrice to the Science Fair competition ceremonies. At the opening of the play's second act she has dressed for that event in a feathery costume, leading Ruth to quote some gossip from one of her mother's childhood companions: ‘‘[Mama's] idea of getting dressed up is to put on all the feathers in the world and go as a bird. Always trying to get somewhere, like a great big bird.’’ Has Beatrice always frustratingly hoped that an eagle would lift her, as it lifted Dante, up to higher purgatorial crests?

Beatrice, after all, recalls her own youth as being something like Tillie's youth now. She might have advanced toward a better life had she not been intimidated (as Tillie herself is not) by others' disparagings. As Ruth tells Tillie, Beatrice as a girl "was just like you and everybody thought she was a big weirdo"; "First they had Betty the Loon, and now they've got Tillie the Loon.''

Unfortunately, the selfish Ruth who utters these words eventually comes close to ruining her mother's chances for any sort of purgatorial experience. In brattish rage because she herself is being asked to skip the Science Fair and replace her mother as guardian of Nanny the Boarder, Ruth screeches ‘‘Goodnight, Betty the Loon’’ at a Beatrice who is finally escaping, if still somewhat timidly, her fear of the outside world in order to attend Tillie's school ceremonies. Ruth's vicious ploy does gain her what she wants: Beatrice now immediately returns (or so it seems) to the agoraphobic terror of life which has for so long characterized her; she "helplessly" sends Ruth off with the Science Fair paraphernalia that she herself was to carry, and she then "breaks into tears that shudder her body, and the lights go down on her pathetic form.''

Yet Act I had already prepared the way for Beatrice's doing something (in an earthly purgatory) with the insights which her memories (like Dante's in non-earthly Inferno) were giving her. She said then that she had "almost forgot[ten] about everything [she] was supposed to be.’’ Still, Zindel built irony into such of her statements as "Me and cobalt-60! Two of the biggest half-lifes you ever saw!’’ Zindel's stage-directions soon afterwards say that Beatrice was forming "mushroom cloud'' smoke rings with her cigarettes; thus, her ‘‘half-life,’’ like that of cobalt-60, always perhaps could, in its "mushroom cloud'' explosion, hold positive mutation within it.

And, in the last scenes of Gamma Rays, Beatrice does lunge after such positive mutation. She tears newspapers off from the house's windows, then rearranges tables and places tablecloths and napkins on them. She calls Nanny's daughter, ordering her to take the old boarder away. Sitting down, guffawing over that conquest, and hitting her daughter's pet rabbit cage with her foot, she decides to chloroform the creature—which is, in Hugh Hefner's America, not only a children's pet, but an unfortunate symbol of female suppression.

No mere self-centered cruelty leads Beatrice to these behaviors. She is striving to make meaningful mutation occur in her (and in her daughters') life. Thus, when the girls start to express a fear that she may truly have killed their bunny, she doesn't directly respond to them. She matter-of-factly pronounces broader concerns: "Nanny goes tomorrow. First thing tomorrow"; "I don't know what it's going to be. Maybe a tea shop. Maybe not.’’

So long trapped in a hellish rut because not daring to lead a business-woman's produce-wagon off from ‘‘a point of debarkation,’’ pilgrim Beatrice now seeks to redirect her life. For her, "hat[ing] the world'' has not meant a spiritual leap beyond that world, in the manner of Dante's original Beatrice. She has, instead, made a ramshackle earthbound leap into self-assertion. And yet a certain level of spiritual other-centeredness has allied itself with that self-assertion. Even though she will force her daughters to ‘‘work in the [tea-shop] kitchen,’’ she will not any longer seek to deny them an education for future self-determiNation. They will have "regular hours’’ in the business, but those hours will be scheduled "after school.’’ She will no longer live so much in the shadow of her father that she tries to limit others in the way he limited her.

In introductory comments to the Gamma Rays script, which are really an unofficial dedication of the play to his mother, Zindel makes it clear that he considered that woman a beautiful mutation: someone who had at least striven, in her limited way, to become like the liberated modern mom he described in a short children's piece written for Ms. in 1976:

... She says "Absolutely not,’’ when I want to drive the car, and ‘‘Have a good time,’’ when I tell her I'm running away to Miami. She doesn't want me to know when we don't have enough money ... If I see her crying she says, ‘‘It's just something in my eye.’’ She tells me secrets like she's lonely. When I tell her I miss my father she hugs me and says he misses me too. I love my mother. I really do.
(‘‘I Love My Mother’’)

Zindel has given the reader enough information to show his own mother's clear resemblances to Beatrice Hunsdorfer. One thus chuckles at his jocose offhand comment: ‘‘I suspect [the play] is autobiographical.’’ Besides, autobiography may extend past the characterization of Beatrice to a character (unseen onstage) who may in some ways markedly suggest Paul Zindel himself: Mr. Goodman, Tillie's high school chemistry teacher.

Zindel taught high school chemistry for ten years and only left Staten Island, where he had taught, after the Pulitzer Prize award for Gamma Rays. Despite that fact, one of course would not claim that he deliberately insults himself when he has Beatrice at first describe Mr. Goodman as a "delightful and handsome young man’’ but then refer to him, a few minutes later, as ‘‘a Hebrew hermaphrodite.’’ After all, the "hermaphrodite" reference is not ultimately intended as a physical description—at least not in the play's thematic undertext. A statement which at first seems only to exemplify Beatrice's crude-mouthed bitterness more importantly helps introduce the play's revisionist Hebrew theology, viewing all humankind as androgynous.

Zindel's anti-sexist thoughts of 1970 might be challenged now by such radical feminists as Mary Daly. She considers "androgyny'' to be "a vacuous term," "expressing pseudo-wholeness’’ as an example of one of those ‘‘false universalisms (e.g., humanism, people's liberation) ... which Spinsters must leap over, ... must span'' in order to affirm their own ‘‘intuition of integrity’’ [Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978)]. And, it is true, Zindel's androgyny still has a patriarchal sound; his anti-sexist thesis emphasizes the pun "Adam"/ "atom," and he thus does recall for us the name of the first legendary Hebrew patriarch. Still, even Daly would grant "deceptive'' but hard-to-avoid concepts of androgyny some relative value in progress to a non-sexist world. And others would remain more encouraged than she by Zindel's androgynous creed.

That creed is voiced throughout a play which has appeared to invite regular misreading. For instance, despite her obvious affection for the character' s gutsy energy, Edith Oliver claims that Beatrice ‘‘is as much a victim of her own nature as she is of circumstance’’ [New Yorker, 18 April 1970]. Yet, given Zindel's pointed indictment of her father's sexism, why should we be assigning Beatrice herself with a heavy load of blame? Adler does perceive, without explaining why, that Beatrice's father caused her psychological problems. And yet he, too, does not seem at all to sense that this is a feminist play; he does not discuss it in his mildly feminist chapter ‘‘Nora's American Cousins,’’ and he indeed rates Beatrice's plan to open a tea-shop as ‘‘slightly outrageous.’’

I do not believe for a moment, as Adler implies and as Brustein shouts, that Gamma Rays simply clones the illusion-ridden mother-daughter encaging atmosphere of The Glass Menagerie [Thomas P. Adler, Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama (1987); Robert Brustein, The Culture Watch: Essays on Theatre and Society, 1969-1974 (1975)]. Jack Kroll approaches closer to the truth about the play when he says that ‘‘The calculus of love, jealous vengefulness, remorse, flaring hatred, and desperate reconciliation[,] among these three people fighting for spiritual life, is the point and merit of Zindel's affecting play’’ [ Newsweek, 27 April 1970]. And Harold Clurman, that ever-trustworthy sage, adds that ‘‘In Gamma Rays ... a real person [he means Tillie, but I think Beatrice also fits the description] flowers from the compost of abject defeat and hysteria’’ [Nation, 15 March 1971].

In the play's very opening monologue, Tillie expresses indomitable faith in human androgynous potential as she tells of how Mr. Goodman, in chemistry class, helped her sense that in adamic atoms of origin all human beings are equal:

He told me to look at my hand, for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun.

... When there was life, perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal. And then it was a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come.

... And he called this bit of me an atom. And when he wrote the word, I fell in love with it.

Atom. Atom. What a beautiful word.

For all its potential Dantesque echoes, Zindel's beautiful play finally shines with the ameliorative twentieth-century hope of an original, deeply sensitive, and highly enlightened modern good man. Paul Zindel, that man, is distant from the norm, even in our own age, as he rebuffs the patriarchal sexism which was not absent even from Dante's enlightened Renaissance Christianity. Neither Beatrice Hunsdorfer nor Paul Zindel wants to idealize only ‘‘GOODY-GOODY GIRLS’’ like Dante's Beatrice Portinari dei Bardi. Both believe, or at least want to believe by their play's conclusion, that, by ‘‘hat[ing] the world'' which limits women to roles as men's slaves (or even sacred muses), they may recreate that world—in Zindel's words, ‘‘bring innovation to civilization, to institutions, ... make contributions ... [toward a] world which is a better place to live'' [interview with Paul Janeczko, English Journal 66, No. 7 (October 1977)]. Zindel's revised Genesis myth (perhaps his own creatively revisionist response to the very different Garden of Eden scenes which culminate Dante's Purgatorio) suggests how hard a non-sexist world is to create, and even to define. But such a world—in which we would recreate the meaning of "Adam'' by finding our common personhood as "atom''—still seems to him a necessary earthly paradise, one always meant to be.

Source: Jeffrey B. Loomis, ‘‘Female Freedoms, Dantesque Dreams, and Paul Zindel's Anti-Sexist The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,'' in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, 1991, pp. 123-33.

The Idea of Progress

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For critics to call The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Paul Zindel's Off-Broadway work and the 1971 prize winner, ‘‘honest" or "engaging'' creates the impression that here is a work which pretends to be nothing other than what it is: a stark if overly familiar family-problem play about life's ability to sustain itself against great odds—doing for a particular family something of what [Thornton] Wilder does for the universal family of man in The Skin of Our Teeth. Zindel, though, appears to have pretensions to something more, attempting to impart additional weight to his basically simple characterization and content through overblown stage trickery. Originally produced at Houston's Alley Theatre, Effects too obviously recalls Williams's Glass Menagerie in its character configurations and stylistic techniques: both concern a mother, who lives mostly on dreams, and two children, one healthy, the other not; both households lack a father, through either death or desertion; in both, a gentleman from the outside world helps, or thinks he helps, one of the children. The stylistic similarities are even more pronounced: in both, the stage setting, while essentially realistic— an apartment in St. Louis, a vegetable store in New York—is used in a non-illusionistic fashion, particularly as regards lighting and music. In Menagerie, the non-realistic elements, including the images and legends flashed on a screen, are integral to the play as "memory'' occurring in Tom's mind. In Marigolds, however, such devices as recorded voice-overs (sometimes used pretentiously as when a character's voice reverberates electronically) and blackouts and spotlighting of characters (equivalent to cinematic fade-outs and close-ups) seem superimposed upon a fragile content that cannot support them, as if the form could supply a weightiness the content does not itself merit. Zindel seems interested in the techniques in and for themselves, simply as a means of avoiding straight realism.

Furthermore, perhaps because Zindel usually writes novels for adolescents, the abundant symbolism in Marigolds frequently lacks subtlety. The mother, Beatrice, for example, to assuage her guilt over having sent her own father off to a sanatorium, cares for the senile Nanny who, with her ‘‘smile from a soul half-departed’’ and her ‘‘shuffling motion that reminds one of a ticking clock,’’ serves as a walking personification of death and of how affluent Americans (her daughter is ‘‘Miss Career Woman’’) mistreat their aged parents. More compellingly, the once orderly vegetable store now symbolically reflects the clutter and refuse of Beatrice's psychic and emotional life. With her motto ‘‘just yesterday,’’ Beatrice lives on reminiscences of things past—a word prominently displayed on a placard at the high school science exhibit—on would-have-beens and should-have-beens. All her life she has romantically dreamed and schemed, yet she has seldom carried through on her plans, some of them, like turning the run-down store into a neighborhood tea shop, slightly outrageous. Like Willy Loman [in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman], Beatrice tends to blame something outside herself for her failure, though she accurately assesses the way that a competitive, success-oriented society attempts to force everyone into a pre-determined mold, decrying the lack of tolerance and the levelling down to sameness and mediocrity that, paradoxically, is a part of the American system: "If you're just a little bit different in this world, they try to kill you off.’’ Difference may threaten the status quo and not be easily handled or accommodated, yet Zindel argues not only that some differences are beneficial but that variation rather than sameness is essential for there to be progress.

Although Zindel's exposition leaves some past events annoyingly obscure, it seems to have been criticism by the father she idolized that began Beatrice's descent into a present condition she characterizes as "half-life" and "zero." One day she hitched up the horses and rode through the streets selling fruit, to be met by her father's stern rebuke; ever since, she has dreamed of riding a shiny wagon pulled by white horses, only to see the forbidding figure of her father look on disapprovingly. She married badly, merely to please her father, but then no man could live up to her dream. After she took her father off to the hospital, she had the horses ‘‘taken care of’’—a cycle of failure, guilt, and still more failure.

The cycle of parent destroying child continues in Beatrice's erratic relationship with her daughters, shifting suddenly between compassion and bitterness—in much the way that the pet rabbit is alternately loved and then hurt. Beatrice's older daughter, the mentally disturbed Ruth who was traumatized by contact with death and violence, tells tales, craves the attention of men by flaunting her sexuality, and appears just as destructive and vindictive as her mother; when she cannot have what she desires, she ruins it for everyone else. The younger Tillie, in her awkwardness and unprettiness and firm grasp on reality, stands as Ruth's opposite and a living denial that one need be determined by heredity and environment. Tillie discovers a much-needed father figure in her high school teacher (unfortunately named Mr. Goodman), who introduces her to the word atom, which she comes to love. The notion that everything in the universe, herself included, is somehow connected with every other thing from the moment of creation enthralls her; it provides a fixed point of reference and a feeling of importance. For her science project, she exposes marigold seeds to radiation, which need not produce sterility and may even yield a positive effect: while those that receive little radiation are normal and those exposed to excessive radiation (like Beatrice and Ruth) are killed or dwarfed, those subject to only moderate radiation produce mutations, some of which (like Tillie, who has experienced very detrimental influences but has emerged relatively unscathed) are good and wonderful things. Against all odds, Tillie not only survives but actually thrives.

Finally, though, Zindel's optimism does not grow organically from the play. Some might argue that Tillie's (and the playwright's) optimism, because it is won with so much difficulty and is so at variance with the adverse and negative atmosphere from which she arises, is therefore all the more impressive and no more facile or unwarranted than Wilder's. The widely divergent perspectives of the two writers, however, militate against this: where Wilder discerns a pattern of ultimate success after repeated failures over the entire sweep of human history, Zindel ties his faith and hope to a specific—and atypical rather than representative—household that he then proposes as symbolic and universally applicable. Though Zindel seems to find little difficulty in asserting this optimism, an audience might have a considerably harder time assenting to it.

Source: Thomas P. Adler, ‘‘The Idea of Progress,’’ in Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama, Purdue University Press, 1987, pp. 127-41.

Everything's Coming up Marigolds

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Whenever I think of Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, I am going to think of three things, not one of them the title (the title, by the way, makes perfect sense and you will remember it readily once you have seen the play). The first is the sound, the sheer weighted sound, of a load of old newspapers being dumped from a balcony landing. Sada Thompson [who is playing Beatrice], slatternly mother of two and savior of none, is at her house-cleaning again, which means that she is picking up the accumulated refuse of her life and hurling it to another, though no better, spot. The bundle comes down like a dead heart; the force of the drop is shattering. And familiar. You seem to have heard it before.

The second memory that keeps coming back is the tactile, naked terror with which Miss Thompson, at midnight during a thunderstorm, brushes a prying flashlight away from her face. Her older daughter has long ago had a breakdown, for very good reasons, and is now desperately fearful of lightning; Miss Thompson has crawled out of bed to console her, a motherly duty she is perfectly willing to perform. But in the dark the daughter has discovered a flashlight, and she is using it to find the face that will reassure her. Suddenly, to Miss Thompson, the probing, isolating, totally revealing finger of light becomes a spider seeking out the seams of failure in her face; without warning she is flailing at it, attacking it as though the truth itself were something to be killed.

The moment continues, but in another vein altogether, arriving at one of the most evocative conjunctions of performing, staging and writing that we have had in the theater, on Broadway or off, in some years past. Miss Thompson must suppress her own terrors to help ease those of her daughter. To do it she passes from her sharp alarm and irritation to making girlish funny faces, conjuring up the child she once was and the way—perhaps—she once made her father laugh.

From that she passes to telling stories of her father, of his vegetable wagon that she sometimes rode through the streets, of the rhythmic cries he made to advertise his wares, of the singsong warmth that so long ago promised her a golden life. As she talks, the daughter becomes calm, pleased, half-drugged with delight, so much so that at last the two of them are musically whispering ‘‘apples—pears—cucumbers!’’ into the night while the flashlight swings as lazily as the clapper of an old bell. The image is morose and singularly charming; it is also essential to the cruel body of the play.

The third thing I'll remember is the play's ending, a coming-together of harshness and hope that exactly summarizes, without preachment of any sort, the meanings Mr. Zindel wishes his compressed and honest little play to carry. The brief lyricism of the wagon-bell-at-midnight passage is necessary if we are to endure, and understand, the venom that overtakes Miss Thompson in her relationship with a younger daughter.

This daughter, played plainly and plaintively and very well indeed by Pamela Payton-Wright, is as bright as she is rumpled. We first meet her alone, idly stroking a pet rabbit, staring at her hand, mouthing thoughts to herself about what the universe has had to go through—the tongues of fire, the explosions of suns—to produce her own five fingers. A knobby-kneed schoolchild with thin blond hair and a dress that bunches up in the back, she has a gift for scientific speculation; she is, at the moment, engaged in growing and studying marigolds that have been exposed to radiation, and she may just possibly win a competition her teacher has urged her to enter at school. Precisely because she is intelligent, because others are interested in her, because some sort of future may open itself to her, her mother cannot abide her. ‘‘I hate the world,’’ Miss Thompson seethes as she stares at all the dreams that have emptied out before her. No one else is going to find it fascinating. Miss Payton-Wright is not even going to go to school all that often.

When a teacher phones to ask why the child is not at school, Miss Thompson descends a cluttered staircase in a shapeless robe—toweling with the nap all gone—that contains both her despair and her cigarettes. She snatches up the ringing instrument with such brisk indifference that you know she can only parody conversation, never truly enter it. Her eyes are wide, darting, expectant: they expect insult. Her body moves restlessly beneath the robe: it is a fencer's body, wary of attack and ready for evasion or assault. The woman is ordinary, recognizable; and half-mad.

On the phone, she is four or five persons at once. She is a plain bully: she will keep her daughter home when she pleases. She is a plausible, painful flirt. The teacher will either respond to her coy gestures or get himself classified a fag. She is all motherly concern: she cares so much for her children's studies that she ‘‘provides them with 75-watt light bulbs right there at their desks.’’ Her eyes search the room for the nonexistent desks as she prattles on: the room is almost nothing but empty cartons and sagging bureaus; she sees the desks.

She sees, when she wishes, the carefree creature she might have become; she was, after all, elected "Best Dancer of the Class of 19-bootle-de-doo.’’ (No one alive could manage this fey cop-out as well as Miss Thompson.) She sees the husband who first got a divorce and then a coronary. (‘‘He deserved it,’’ she parenthesizes, swiftly, meanly.) She sees her older daughter, tight sweater unbuttoned enticingly, turning into a fierce repetition of herself. She sees where they all are now, all except the gifted one. Their only source of income is a "$50-a-week corpse,’’ an abandoned crone for whom they care, without caring. She sees "zero" wrapping its arms around her, and she repeats the word in a run-on babble that sounds like steam bubbling up from a lava bed. She is greedy, cynical, jealous, clever, irresponsible, vicious and lost.

In the play's last sequence, we are permitted to hear the schoolgirl's shy, halting, but determined brief lecture on the effects of radiation. Displaying her flowers in the high school contest—some of them blighted, some richer through mutation, all the product of those first exploding suns—she voices, tremulously, but insistently, her own stubborn confidence that "man will someday thank God for the strange and beautiful energy of the atom.’’

That is half of the final stage image. The other half is of Miss Thompson, near-mindless now, endlessly folding napkins for a tearoom she will never open, face-to-face with the half-paralyzed crone, aware of the presence of that other, older, sick and sensual daughter.

The play is thus framed. The mother is the wrong and right mother for these children, as the children are wrong and right sisters to each other. They all hurt one another simply by existing; the damage can never be repaired. But they constitute the situation as given, the human mutations thrown off; there is no dodging the gamma rays, there is only disaster for some and double-blooms for some others.

The ending doesn't press the point. It just expands to it, and bitterly—but gently—leaves the matter there. The play itself is one of the lucky blooms; it survives, and is beautiful. With it, Mr. Zindel becomes one of our most promising new writers. In it, Sada Thompson calls clear attention—perhaps more emphatically than ever before—to the fact that she is one of the American theater's finest actresses.

Source: Walter Kerr, ‘‘Everything's Coming up Marigolds,’’ in New York Times, April 19, 1970, pp. 1, 3.
Kerr is an American essayist, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic.

Why the Lady Is a Tramp

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The title The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a false clue to a touching and often funny play that, whatever its faults, is not nonsensical or verbose or pretentious or way-out flashy. Actually, it is a rather old-fashioned domestic drama (old-fashioned is no insult from me) in that it is about people—and interesting ones at that—whose behavior, while outlandish at times, is made as comprehensible as anybody's behavior ever can be made. The play, which was written by Paul Zindel and opened last week at the Mercer-O' Casey, is more than anything else the study of a woman. Her name is Beatrice Hunsdorfer, and she has been all but destroyed by a life that so far has consisted of one disappointment after another. With all her expectations crushed but with plenty of energy left, much of it spent on wreaking a kind of petty vengeance on everybody around her, she is as much a victim of her own nature as she is of circumstance. There is, however, nothing bleak or whiny about Mrs. H. She is the fierce, embittered, wise-cracking mother of two young daughters. One of them, Ruth, is a highly strung, rather bratty girl subject to convulsions, and the other, Matilda, is an awkward, dim-looking but not dim, science prodigy. It is Matilda's gamma-ray experiment with marigolds at the local high school that gives the play its bumpy title, eventually wins her a prize, and, indirectly, almost finishes off her mother and sister and the rickety life they have built.

The plot is the least of it. The character of Mrs. H. is all, or nearly all. We learn that the only man she ever loved was her father, that her husband never amounted to anything and left her penniless in the horrible mess of a house where the action takes place, that she considers her daughters millstones around her neck (or she says she does; she is capable of sudden, remorseful tenderness and pride), and that there is no one on earth that she hates as much as she hates herself. She makes fifty dollars a week (‘‘I'd be better off as a cab-driver’’) by providing minimum care for a decrepit old woman boarder. She is very intelligent. She is also, wandering around in a shabby bathrobe with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, a holy terror, and she is so convincingly played by Sada Thompson that it is all but impossible to separate the role from the actress. The first and by far the better of the two acts is a series of vignettes and conversations: Mrs. H., all offhand iron courtesy and cutting explanations, talking on the telephone to a science teacher who is looking for Matilda; the girl herself, clutching her pet rabbit, listening to the conversation in frozen apprehension; Mrs. H. berating her daughter for not doing the housework (‘‘This house is going to ferment’’); Mrs. H., behind a glittery smile, raining down insults on her poor old boarder, who is as deaf as she is feeble; Mrs. H., impulsive and loving, soothing her edgy Ruth, who has had a nightmare. The second act, in which events and crises take over, and in which incidents are given more significance than they appear to warrant, seems artificial, and even melodramatic, after the first one, but the play stands up pretty well, all the same. The performances, under Melvin Bernhardt' s direction, are all that any dramatist could wish for. Pamela Payton-Wright is the shy, inspired Matilda, Amy Levitt is Ruth, and Judith Lowry is the tottery paying guest. Sara Brook designed the good costumes, and the good set is by Fred Voelpel.

Source: Edith Oliver, "Why the Lady Is a Tramp,’’ in New Yorker, Vol. XLVI, No. 9, April 18, 1970, pp. 82, 87-88.
Oliver began her career as an actress and television writer and producer.


Critical Overview