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

by Paul Zindel

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The Play

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In two acts, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds juxtaposes the explosive emotional conflicts of the Hunsdorfer family against the ordered, logical pursuits of science to reveal that, like the experimental marigolds, people also mutate in response to external forces. As the play opens, Tillie Hunsdorfer introduces this theme with a voice-over in which she marvels that the atoms in her hand were once contained in different parts of the earth. The scene then shifts to the Hunsdorfer home, formerly a vegetable shop run by Beatrice’s father. The audience hears the single mother Beatrice Hunsdorfer speaking on the phone to Mr. Goodman, Tillie’s science teacher, about the reasons Tillie has been absent. Although Beatrice speaks in a complimentary fashion, once she hangs up the phone, her duplicity is revealed. She berates Tillie for putting her in the position of having to speak to the school, even though Beatrice is responsible for keeping Tillie home.

Tillie’s sister Ruth enters, states that Tillie has become the laughingstock of the school, and adds that the school keeps a file on the family. As Beatrice worries about the contents of the file, the stage goes dark, and Tillie is heard marveling with Mr. Goodman at the fountain of atoms produced in a science experiment. When the lights go back up, Tillie readies boxes of dirt for marigold seeds that have been exposed to cobalt-60 in order to study its effects. Beatrice enters with plans of her own: She wishes to transform the house into a tea shop, and as she imagines the changes she would make, she asks Tillie about her experiment. Tillie explains the idea of radioactive half-life to Beatrice, and the elderly boarder Nanny enters. Beatrice speaks loudly and with artificial sweetness to Nanny but voices spiteful malevolence behind her back. Beatrice sarcastically mocks Nanny’s professional daughter, who does not want to be bothered with Nanny’s care. Beatrice ends the scene in an exhortation that connects her misery and the fate of the marigolds: She tells Tillie that she considers her life the “original” half-life.

The next scene opens with Beatrice again on the phone to Mr. Goodman, this time worrying about how the radioactive marigolds might affect Tillie. He reassures her, and as the stage goes dark, Ruth screams from her room: She is having a seizure. Beatrice calms Ruth by talking of a happier past, before Beatrice’s father became ill. The stage again goes dark, and when the lights come up, an inebriated Beatrice dashes about, tossing around papers and junk as she prepares to open her tea shop. She announces plans to take control of her life: She intends to get rid of Nanny, and she tells Tillie to get rid of her pet rabbit. In the midst of this revelation, Ruth enters and proudly announces that Tillie is a finalist in the science fair. The principal’s call follows, but his request that Beatrice attend upsets her. Tillie begins to cry as Beatrice berates her, then stops, as the act ends.

Act 2 begins as Tillie prepares for the science fair. Ruth rails about Janice Vickery, Tillie’s primary competitor, and tells Tillie that the teachers at school are anxious to see what “Betty the Loon” (Beatrice) will wear. Tillie gives Ruth the rabbit to silence her. Beatrice enters, and, as Ruth gets her coat, Beatrice reminds her that she must stay home to look after Nanny. In anger, Ruth lashes out at Beatrice, calling her “Betty the Loon.” Beatrice is visibly defeated and shouts at Ruth to go with Tillie as the lights go down and she...

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begins to sob.

As the lights come up at the science fair, Janice Vickery gives her presentation involving the darkly comic process of skinning a dead cat. The scene then moves to a drunken Beatrice, who is leaving a message at the school thanking the staff for making her wish she was dead. She calls Nanny’s daughter to tell her that she must have Nanny out of the house by tomorrow. Beatrice then spots the rabbit, and the lights fade as she carries the cage, towel, and chloroform upstairs. Back at the science fair, it is Tillie’s turn, and her intelligent, optimistic description of the past, present, and future of her marigolds takes the prize. When they return home, the news that Beatrice has killed the rabbit sends Ruth into another seizure. As Nanny shuffles back onstage, Beatrice pathetically whines, “I hate the world,” before Tillie closes the play with a final voice-over, pondering the possibilities of science.

Dramatic Devices

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Mostly confined by setting to the dilapidated front room of the Hunsdorfer home, the play reaches into the outside world from a distance. Beatrice never interacts in person with anyone beyond her front door: She speaks to them by telephone, and her conversations reveal her inability to effectively communicate and her deep sense of insecurity. Likewise Tillie’s voice-overs provide insight into her motivations and serve to emphasize how removed she is from her negative-thinking family. Her visionary comments hang suspended in air, beyond the comprehension of Beatrice or Ruth. This lack of communication is further represented by the character of Nanny, who cannot hear or respond to any comments that Beatrice makes to or about her. Tillie’s attempts to explain the ideas behind her experiment to Beatrice are answered by surly self-pitying comments and unwarranted criticism.

In this highly symbolic play, Zindel infuses the ordinary with powerful messages. Simple marigolds become the harbinger of a new world of understanding for Tillie. They also suggest the power of modern science as a positive force in a chaotic, doomed world. Mr. Goodman, the science teacher, is nearly godlike in his knowledge, and Tillie, his disciple, triumphs under his tutelage. Science frees Tillie from her family’s fear and superstition, and like many who embrace science as the answer, Tillie never stops to ponder the cost of these scientific miracles.

Form and Content

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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a pessimistic, slice-of-life picture of the “atomic age” family. This drama, written in two acts with five scenes each, centers on the Hunsdorfer family. Beatrice Hunsdorfer is divorced and attempting to support herself and her daughters by caring for terminally ill patients. She hates her life and blames everyone except herself for her misery. Beatrice takes out her frustrations on her daughters, as well as whichever patient happens to be boarding with her at the time. Lately, she has taken to harassing Mr. Goodman, the young science teacher who has befriended Tillie.

The first act of this short, quickly paced play belongs almost totally to Beatrice, who develops its exposition via three long monologues, two of them telephone conversations. Her monologue in scene 2 alternates between addressing Tillie and Nanny, disparaging and threatening them both while at the same time revealing Beatrice’s shattered hopes and dreams. Yet, even though Beatrice carries the lion’s share of lines and scenes, it is the character of Tillie who is the true focus of the play.

Tillie’s real and uninhibited voice is most frequently presented to the audience in the form of recorded monologues that allow access to her most intimate thoughts. Tillie, through her science teacher, has become enamored with the concept of the atom—an infinitesimal, indestructible bit of matter that has always been and always will be. She worships the atom with a fervor approaching religious fanaticism. That worship occupies all of her waking thoughts, setting her apart from both Beatrice and Ruth, her pathetically histrionic older sister. Tillie is usually seen playing with or caring for Peter, the rabbit given to her by Mr. Goodman when the science class had finished with it.

Beatrice, sensing that Mr. Goodman and other teachers at the high school are taking an interest in her daughters and are attempting to help them, tries to alienate the teachers from the girls and the girls from their teachers. In an intimate scene with Ruth, Beatrice reveals her own fear of being left alone, but perhaps the most brutal scene in the first act is the final one, scene 5, after Ruth reveals that Tillie is a finalist in the science fair for her experiment in growing marigolds from seeds exposed to cobalt 60. When the principal calls the house to invite Beatrice to be present for the final science project evaluations, Beatrice’s fear of exposure to the world causes her to revile and abuse Tillie verbally.

Act 2 begins on a more positive note. Beatrice has begun to regard Tillie’s achievement as her own triumph. She is looking forward to appearing at the high school, not knowing that Ruth has confided to Tillie that all the teachers are waiting to see if Beatrice looks as crazy as she sounds on the telephone. Ruth also has learned that Beatrice’s high school nickname was “Betty the Loon.” She threatens to confront Beatrice with this information unless Tillie gives Peter to her, and Tillie agrees. When Beatrice tells Ruth that she cannot attend the school program, however, but must stay home with Nanny, the current boarder, Ruth vindictively tells Beatrice that everyone is waiting to laugh at “Betty the Loon.” Beatrice sends Ruth to the school in her place.

The second brief scene is the project presentation of Janice Vickery, Tillie’s major rival in the science fair. This scene demonstrates Janice’s flippant attitude toward her project. The third brief scene is a return to Beatrice, now drunk, calling first the high school and then Nanny’s daughter, telling her to make other arrangements for Nanny. The fourth very brief scene is Tillie’s sincere and moving apostrophe to the atom, which stands in contrast to Janice’s irreverent presentation. In scene 5, the sisters return in jubilation: Tillie has captured first prize. Beatrice, very drunk by now, has fatally chloroformed the rabbit and left its body in Ruth’s room. When Ruth finds him, she goes into one of her convulsive fits. Beatrice refuses to call a doctor, and the play ends with one of Tillie’s recorded monologues. This one, however, gives a hopeful note as Tillie says, “But most important, I suppose . . . my experiment has made me feel important. . . .”

Historical Context

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In the early 1960s, nuclear arms began to play a big part in world relations. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full force. In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of disaster when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy demanded that the missiles be removed and warned that, if the missiles were launched, the United States would retaliate, resulting in an all-out nuclear war. The Soviets withdrew the missiles, but the incident deeply shattered Americans sense of well-being. Many citizens no longer felt safe. Families began to build bomb shelters in their backyards, and schools began holding regular bomb safety drills. In 1963, the United States and the U.S.S.R. agreed to install a "hotline'' from the White House to the Kremlin to try to avoid nuclear disaster. That same year the two countries and Great Britain signed a nuclear testing ban.

During this time, there was also a great deal of scientific activity and experimentation, particularly in the areas of radioactivity and nuclear energy. Scientists recognized the power that atomic energy provided, and they continued to look for ways to harness this energy for positive means. The effects of radioactivity weren't widely known, and experiments such as the one conducted by Tillie in the play provided new information on the uses and dangers of this mysterious force. The growing interest in the use of nuclear energy also sparked the rise of the environmental movement. Many citizens became concerned that tampering with the destructive force of nuclear energy would destroy the Earth's ecological systems. Some were afraid mankind would destroy the planet.

On the American political scene, 1963 was a year of crisis. It is often considered the year in which the United States "lost its innocence,'' when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was a tumultuous time, as many Americans began questioning long-held beliefs. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum, as African Americans voiced their demands for equal rights. In 1963, riots broke out during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. That same year the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led 250,000 people to Washington, D.C., in a march for freedom where he gave his famous ‘‘I have a dream’’ speech. At this time, women's views of themselves also started changing. They had been taught that they were to stay home, raise families, and be dependent upon their husbands, but they began to discover that this type of life left them feeling unfulfilled. Many women longed for experiences apart from home and family, just as Beatrice longs to escape her circumstances in the play. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that discussed the way women were feeling and contributed to the start of the women's movement. More and more women began to look for work and opportunities outside of the home, and the typical American family started to undergo drastic changes.

Literary Style

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SettingThe Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a drama. The exact year is not indicated, however, the style and content of the play indicate that it is set in relatively modern times, probably during the early 1960s. Most of the action takes place in the front room of the Hunsdorfer house, a wooden structure that was once a vegetable shop run by Beatrice's father. The house is rundown and is strewn with clutter, symbolizing the broken bits and pieces of Beatrice's dreams. Beatrice has lived here her entire life. She feels trapped in her current circumstances and, to symbolize this, the playwright keeps her "trapped" in this room. Beatrice does not go out of the house during the entire course of the play.

The play is framed by Tillie's voice-overs. This gives the impression that we are seeing the story through her eyes. Tillie' s voice-overs help set up the themes of the play and give the audience a glimpse into Tillie's true self as she talks about the wonders of the atom and how science has opened her eyes to the possibilities of the world. At home Tillie is constantly stifled and berated. Zindel uses her voice-overs to allow her to speak her true feelings and dreams. This technique helps audiences to understand that Tillie is an optimist and a dreamer who can find good in the world no matter what her current circumstances.

Comic Relief
Zindel uses comic relief at various points in the play to break the tension for the audience. If the tension was sustained too long without a break, it would become too uncomfortable, and audiences would not want to continue following the story. The first scene with Nanny provides comic relief and serves to show that Beatrice has a sense of humor, although it is very sarcastic and biting. Janice Vickery's presentation at the science fair is also an important point of comic relief. It follows the very intense, climactic scene of the play. This is a place where the audience needs a "breather" before moving into the strong emotions of the last scene.

Telephone Calls
In The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds the telephone represents the intrusion of the outside world. Beatrice remains in the house throughout the entire play. The only time she is seen interacting with the outside world is when she is on the telephone. During her telephone conversations, the audience can see how uncomfortable and inadequate Beatrice feels. This technique provides a way for the playwright to expand Beatrice's character without having to put her in multiple settings or bring a lot of other characters into the play.

Plot Structure
The play follows a standard linear, climactic structure, which means it has a beginning, a middle, and an end that follow in chronological order and lead to a climax, or moment of greatest intensity, near the end of the play. Act I precedes Act II in time. Each event follows in sequence, except for Tillie's voice-overs, which are timeless. It is not important for the audience to know when Tillie is speaking these voice-overs, because they are there to give insight into Tillie's character and to develop the themes of the play, not to move the story along.

Compare and Contrast

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1960: About 36 percent of women have jobs outside the home.

Today: 60 percent of women are in the work force.

1962: The Cuban missile crisis puts the United States on the verge of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Schools conduct bomb safety drills.

Today: The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union no longer exists. A great deal more is known about the effects of nuclear war.

1962: The Telstar communications satellite relays the first trans-Atlantic television pictures.

Today: Many people own personal satellite dishes that allow them access to hundreds of channels.

1964: The United States space probe Ranger 7 takes the first clear, close-range photographs of the moon.

Today: The moon has been walked on, and Mars has been photographed. Space travel is increasingly common.

1964: Less than 13 percent of families are headed by a single parent. There is a strong stigma associated with living in a single-parent household.

Today: More than 27 percent of families are headed by a single parent. It is no longer unusual and does not carry the same stigma it once did.

Media Adaptations

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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was presented in an abridged version as a television play in 1966. It was produced by National Educational Television and was presented as part of its New York TV Theatre series.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was adapted as a film in 1972 for Twentieth-Century Fox. This version was produced and directed by Paul Newman. The screenplay is by Alvin Sargent. It stars Joanne Woodward as Beatrice.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barnes, Clive, ''Off-Broadway and Off-Off 1969-70,’’ American Theatre 1969-1970, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970. pp. 63-74.

Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto, eds., Types of Drama: Plays and Essays, Little Brown and Company, 1972, pp. 640-641.

Eaglen, Audrey, Interview with Paul Zindel in Top of the News, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter 1978, pp. 178-85.

Forman, Jack, ‘‘Paul Zindel,’’ in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale Research, 1998.

Frank, Anne, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Bantam Books, 1993, p. 263.

Haley, Beverly A., and Kenneth L. Donelson, ‘‘Pigs and Hamburger, Cadavers and Gamma Rays: Paul Zindel' s Adolescents,’’ in Elementary English, Vol. 51, No. 7, October 1974, pp. 940-945.

Hipple, Theodore, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction, edited by Glenn E. Estes, Gale, 1986, pp. 405-410.

Rich, Frank, ''Amulets Against the Dragon Forces," in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993, Random House, 1998, pp. 665-656.

Strickland, Ruth L., "Paul Zindel'' in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp. 368-373.

Zindel, Paul, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Bantam Books, 1973.

----, Introduction to The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Bantam Books, 1997.

Asimov, Isaac, Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos, Dutton, 1991.
Asimov discusses the properties of the atom in easily understandable terms. This book was deemed ‘‘a masterpiece’’ by Omni Magazine.

Meadows, Jack, The Great Scientists, Oxford University Press, 1989.
This book is profusely illustrated and is about the lives of twelve great scientists and their discoveries. Of particular interest is the chapter on Albert Einstein.

Raymond, Gerard, '‘The Effects of Staten Island on a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright,’’ Theater Week, Vol. 2, No. 37, April 24, 1989, pp. 16-21.
Raymond discusses the influence of Zindel's experiences as a child on his writing.

Wetzsteon, Ross, ed., The Obie Winners: The Best of Off-Broadway, Doubleday, 1980.
This book contains the complete texts often plays that have won an Obie Award. It also includes a complete listing of the Obie Award winners through 1979.


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Sources for Further Study

Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto, eds. Types of Drama: Plays and Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 1972.

Dace, Tish. “Paul Zindel.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by K. A. Berney. 5th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1993.

Haley, Beverly A., and Kenneth L. Donelson. “Pigs and Hamburgers, Cadavers and Gamma Rays: Paul Zindel’s Adolescents.” Elementary English 51 (October, 1974): 940-945.

Oliver, Edith. “Why the Lady Is a Tramp.” The New Yorker, April 18, 1970, 82, 87-88.

Zindel, Paul. “Interview with Paul Zindel.” Interview by Audrey Eaglen. Top of the News, Winter, 1978, 178-185.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide