Funnyhouse of a Negro

by Adrienne Kennedy

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Funnyhouse of a Negro has garnered a mixed critical reaction since its original production in 1964. While many critics found something to praise about Kennedy’s writing talent, some were not sure what to make of the play. Most reviewers viewed it as an important exploration of race and identity in contemporary society.

Joshua Billings of The New Yorker is a prime example of the qualified praise often accorded Kennedy. He wrote, ‘‘As a rule, I don’t take to Expressionism, partly because its built-in weirdness and distortion tend to make the material it deals with seem more important than it really is. The material here couldn’t be much more important to begin with, so that’s all right, I guess, and the style does seem appropriate. Funnyhouse is a first play and, as such, is quite strong and original.’’

Other contemporary critics were more straightforward in their praise of the play. The Nation’s Harold Clurman wrote, ‘‘The play, the general theme of which may be defined as what it may mean to be a colored person in the United States, embraces far more than plays of similar theme when they are couched in terms of pathetic appeals for ‘tolerance’ and fair play.’’

Like Billings, many critics felt obligated to contrast the surreal play to mainstream theater. Howard Taubman of The New York Times noted: ‘‘But if nothing much happens according to conventional theatrical tenets, a relatively unknown territory is explored and exposed. Miss Kennedy, herself a Negro, digs unsparingly into Sarah’s aching psyche. . . .’’

Critics maintained that the play set the tone for Kennedy’s career; she was seen as the vanguard of a movement by many scholars. Yet there remained some debate as to how to classify the play. Some perceived it as an example of ritual theater, while other scholars contended that it was more symbolic and absurdist.

Many commentators asserted that the play provided psychological insight into the identity struggles for African Americans and women. In 1975, Lorraine A. Brown contended: ‘‘That we are allowed to experience this play from within Sarah’s mind and sensibility and that the form of the play so noticeably aids our understanding of her struggle are only two measures of its fineness. Equally brilliant is the deep probing of the female psyche which reaches an admirable level of universality. . . .’’

As Kennedy’s significance in the theater world was recognized, her plays were performed again. There were several productions of Funnyhouse in the 1990s.

In a 1995 revival in New York City, critics remained divided over the play, in part because of the way times had changed. The racial context had changed and some of Kennedy’s ideas seemed dated. As a result, the play has not endured the test of time.

In one review, John Simon of New York dismissed Kennedy entirely. He wrote ‘‘Not much goes on in Funnyhouse.. . . The author, who here goes by Negro-Sarah, is a young black would-be playwright who—unhappy with her lot—projects herself onto other characters. . . . Each of these is styled ‘one of herselves,’ and each is a crashing bore.’’

Other reviewers had negative assessments of the play. Ben Brantley of The New York Times, critiquing both Funnyhouse and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, maintained: ‘‘It is true that theater doesn’t get much more egocentric than these two plays. . . . But Ms. Kennedy has carefully forged an emotional bridge that one cannot avoid crossing, regardless of race, age, or sex.’’

Brantley claimed: ‘‘Deeply personal, poetic and nonlinear, they [her plays] would appear to be better suited to academia than to the stage.’’

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Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)


Essays and Criticism