Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817
Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro uses many symbols to underscore the torment that Sarah feels about herself and her racial identity. Nearly everyone and everything in the play has symbolic meaning—from the opening depiction of Sarah’s mother wearing a white nightgown to Raymond’s smug explanation of what he believes to be the ‘‘truth’’ about his girlfriend—because the play is nonlinear and fragmented.
Two of the most interesting and disturbing symbols in Funnyhouse are the obsession with hair and baldness throughout the text, and the use of knocking in some scenes.
Hair plays a complex role in Funnyhouse. It defines characters and marks their evolution. In addition, it is the prominent physical difference between black people and white people.
Hair also links scenes and illustrates Sarah’s inevitable fate. Kennedy’s use of hair underscores the idea that Sarah tried to disavow—then kill—the African American part of her background.
The knocking complements the symbolism of the hair. Her father’s knocking will not cease because she cannot escape her father’s heritage. This essay explores how these symbols are used within Funnyhouse.
When the play opens, the first character seen on stage is a representation of Sarah’s mother. She is also called Woman, and is described like this: ‘‘Her hair is wild, straight and black and falls to her waist.’’ There is critical contention over the race of Sarah’s mother because of certain ambiguous phrases used by Kennedy. Some believe that she is a lightskinned African American, while others are of the opinion that she is white.
For the purposes of this essay, it only matters that she is perceived by Sarah to be the epitome of light, white, and purity—elements defiled by her African-American father. Also, this is a version of her mother in Sarah’s mind: she may or may not be what Sarah’s mother is really like.
Sarah’s mother is the only female character inside Sarah’s mind who fully retains her hair. Yet when Sarah’s mother first appears on stage, she is carrying a bald head, establishing her link between hair and hair loss. What Sarah’s mother represents is idealized by her daughter, as can be seen by her hair, which Sarah’s mother retains throughout the play.
Yet Sarah also claims that all of her mother’s hair fell out when she was unhappily living in Africa where her father was a missionary. Sarah claims that her father raped her mother, which caused the hair loss and resulted in Sarah’s birth. Sarah goes so far as to claim that her mother was put in an asylum because of her father.
In Sarah’s confused and confusing mind, her mother represents all that is good—but she is still seen by Sarah as a victim of blackness. This leaves Sarah in a dilemma over her own sense of identity.
Sarah attempts to solve this dilemma through four inner selves that she creates. When two of them—Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg— are introduced, they each have a full head of kinky hair. In reality, these two women were white, and by the time Funnyhouse was written, very dead.
The Queen and the Duchess speak for part of Sarah’s subconscious. They are white, but their hair is meant to be black, showing how Sarah perceives her identity conflict. Sarah cannot escape her racial heritage, no matter how white she tries to be.
Their introductory scene is punctuated by a constant knocking. The Duchess points out that they are still tied to Sarah’s father even though he is dead. The play is essentially Sarah’s realization of this fact, but not her acceptance of it. The door will eventually have to be answered.
Sarah seems closest to the Duchess, the most prominent inner self. When Sarah visits her white boyfriend Raymond (in her mind), it is in the persona of the...
(The entire section contains 10980 words.)
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