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

Paul Zindel

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a drama. The exact year is not indicated,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

Today: 60 percent of women are in...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

What do you think Beatrice, Ruth, and Tillie will be doing ten years after the play ends? What societal influences might contribute to the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive, ''Off-Broadway and Off-Off 1969-70,’’ American Theatre 1969-1970, Charles...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 92 words.)