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...
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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 Duchess. While she talks to him and acts seductively towards him, she also describes her unexpected hair loss. Indeed, she brings her hair in a red bag to the room. She frantically tells him that when she awoke that morning, most of it was gone. Sarah/Duchess shows her white boyfriend that she has lost her most obvious African-American feature. This event is disturbing to her.
Later, Queen Victoria’s hair falls out while she is asleep, though she does not reveal this in words. She acts it out in pantomime during a break in Patrice Lumumba’s monologue. After the Queen loses her hair, the Duchess tries to put her replace her hair. She fails. Sarah can’t have it both ways: to not be black and to be black at the same time.
Sarah has a number of inner male selves. Like the Queen and the Duchess, these inner selves are historical figures who are dead by the time the play begins. One male inner-self, Patrice Lumumba, is black. He was an African revolutionary leader who was murdered around the time the play was written. Although the stage directions do not specify his physical hair loss, Lumumba describes and further illuminates hair/hair loss as a symbol in the play.
When Lumumba is introduced as ‘‘Man,’’ the knocking returns for the first time since the Queen and the Duchess made their initial appearance. He describes how all his hair fell out in the morning, in terms similar to those used by the Duchess.
Lumumba does the same thing when he describes his life. He uses the same terms as Sarah did describing her life, but uses language that is much harsher. He also relates a version of how Sarah’s mother’s hair fell out until she was bald. Sarah cannot totally immerse herself in her Lumumba self. He represents her father and what he stands for: blackness and everything she hates.
Yet Lumumba is given the lines that reveal what may be the secret to hair in the play. He says, ‘‘For if I did not despise myself then my hair would not have fallen and if my hair had not fallen then I would not have bludgeoned my father’s face with an ebony mask.’’ While this statement may not be literally true, it shows the pivotal role hair plays in the play.
Sarah seems more sympathetic to another male inner-self—Jesus—than to Lumumba. She says that ‘‘Jesus is Victoria’s son,’’ and she definitely favors white royalty. Jesus is a hunchback, a dwarf, and yellow-skinned, the latter the same term Sarah uses to describe herself.
In his major scene with the Duchess, Jesus shows her how all his hair has fallen out. The Duchess explains to him how she tried to put it back on, then comforts him. They comb each other’s remaining hairs: a gesture of futile solidarity since their hair continues to fall out. During their closeness, the knocking returns again, reminding Sarah of what she must face.
Later Jesus talks of wanting to kill Lumumba, the closest thing to Sarah’s father. Though Jesus only appears briefly, he seems to be how Sarah really sees herself: stunted, deformed, and needy. He is the last of her inner selves to lose his hair. When he succumbs, Sarah’s fate is sealed.
Sarah’s relationship to hair is more complicated than the other characters since Funnyhouse takes place primarily in her mind. During the play, Sarah says that her ‘‘wild kinky hair’’ is the only part of her physical make-up that would identify her as black.
When she makes her first appearance on stage, a patch of hair is missing from her skull and she wears a hangman’s noose. She carries the patch in her hand. This implies that no matter what goes on during the course of the play her fate is inevitable: suicide is her only recourse. When she or any of her inner selves lose their hair, they may be divorced from Sarah’s physical racial identity—but it does not make her any less black.
Sarah repeatedly says that she wants to ‘‘escape the jungle’’—implying that she wants to be more white. Like her mother before her, she has lost her hair because of the jungle. Sarah says that her mother spent her time in Africa combing her hair after she fell out of love with Sarah’s father. Sarah’s mother’s hair began falling out after he raped her.
This rape may not be literal, but Sarah believes it to be the only explanation for her anger. Hair equals beauty for Sarah, and she cannot forgive her father’s legacy.
Sarah longs to fit into white culture, to be pale, even going as far as to claim that her father is dead (he hung himself in a Harlem hotel room, among other scenarios) but his legacy keeps her at a distance. All of her half-truths about him and his fate show how desperately she has tried to avoid her heritage.
Yet Sarah idealizes whites—including royalty like Queen Victoria who believes that blacks are evil—even though she knows that they are flawed. She wants to be royalty, but the type of hair the Queen and the Duchess have in her subconscious proves that she knows the truth. They do not provide the solace she seeks. Her ‘‘real’’ white friends, at least depicted here, also do not provide comfort.
The prime example of a white friend is her boyfriend, Raymond. He is a Jewish poet who only likes her because of her race. Sarah says, ‘‘I would like to lie and say I love Raymond. But I do not. He is very interested in Negroes.’’
In the last lines of play, Raymond thinks he knows the truth about his girlfriend: Sarah was a liar, her father is an African-American doctor who is alive, and that he has a white wife (who may or may not be Sarah’s mother as depicted in the play). According to Raymond, the truth is that Sarah’s father lives the life Sarah says she wants. Perhaps Sarah sees its emptiness and can find no other way to live her life.
At the end of Funnyhouse, each of Sarah’s four selves wears a halo and talks about what Sarah’s father means to them. When she reaches a breaking point, all four of them scream in victory. The knocking is incessant by this point because the real truth is knocking at Sarah’s door. For many reasons, she cannot answer it.
Sarah kills herself. The reasons are explained by the use of hair in Funnyhouse of a Negro. She did everything she could to get rid of the black part of herself—her hair. Until she took her own life, it would not go away.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4582
Adrienne Kennedy’s characters speak obsessively of their own births as well as the births—which are so often the deaths—of their children. Their monologues focus on rape and incest, miscarriage and child murders. Such preoccupations psychologically paralyze the characters, fixing them at—and regressing them to—a primitive stage in development which Melanie Klein, a psychologist of the British object relations school, calls [in Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein by Hanna Segal] the ‘‘paranoid-schizoid position,’’ an infant stage which normally precedes integration. According to Klein, the life instinct and the death instinct, which are both present in the infant from birth, create a polarity of anxieties that the infant deals with through splitting and projective identification; that is, the infant learns to split external objects into representations of good and evil, projecting hopes and fears away from the subject and onto the object. In later phases, the infant learns to unify such splits and to deal with whole objects. Kennedy’s characters, however, rarely reach this point of integration: they never progress beyond the paranoid-schizoid position. These characters remain prisoners of object relations, their worlds disordered by irrational, irrevocable splits.
The infantile ego, in terms of Klein’s description, deflects the death instinct outward to an external object, the persecutory object, which ‘‘is felt to be bad and threatening to the ego, giving rise to a feeling of persecution.’’ At the same time, it projects the libido, or life instinct, outward, thereby creating an ideal object:
The infant’s aim is to try to acquire, to keep inside and to identify with the ideal object, seen as life-giving and protective, and to keep out the bad object and those parts of the self which contain the death instinct. The leading anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position is that the persecutory object or objects will get inside the ego and overwhelm and annihilate both the ideal object and the self.
Klein, according to Hanna Segal, calls this stage the paranoid-schizoid position because the infant’s fears demonstrate a paranoia which is characterized by splitting. Kennedy’s characters, likewise, attempt to order their anxieties by splitting and projecting them onto persecutory and ideal objects.
Funnyhouse of a Negro, Kennedy’s first-published and most famous play, vividly reflects Klein’s theories of object relations. The cast of characters includes ‘‘Negro-Sarah’’ and the four ‘‘selves’’ she creates through projective identification: the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Other characters include Sarah’s Jewish-poet-boyfriend, Raymond, and her landlady, Mrs. Conrad. Sarah’s mother appears as an apparition crossing the stage. An author’s note at the beginning of the text suggests: ‘‘Funnyhouse of a Negro is perhaps clearest and most explicit when the play is placed in the girl Sarah’s room. The center of the stage works well as her room, allowing the rest of the stage as the place for herselves. . . . When she is placed in her room with her belongings, then the director is free to let the rest of the play happen around her.’’ Sarah, thus, has split into four majestic selves who occupy the space around her and seemingly take over her world.
When Sarah first appears in the play, she is ‘‘a faceless, dark character with a hangman’s rope about her neck and red blood on the part that would be her face.’’ In the final scene, ‘‘we see her hanging in [her] room.’’ Rosemary K. Curb suggests [in ‘‘Fragmented Selves in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers] that this play, ‘‘set in the central character’s mind, portray[s] the elusive, almost timeless moment just before death, when horrifying images and past events replete with monotonous conversations kaleidoscopically flash through the memory and imagination of the protagonist.’’ Funnyhouse of a Negro is a surrealistic vision of death and oppression, operating on the level of morbid fantasy to depict the mind of a young woman who cannot distinguish the persecutory object from the ideal.
The ‘‘action’’ of the play consists of a series of monologues spoken by Sarah’s selves. Even when two appear together, they fail to engage in dialogue; instead, one continues a haunted monotone at the point at which another leaves off. Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg meet in the Queen’s chamber, but their identities seem questionable: they seem not to know who they are. They speak the lines of Sarah’s selves, of British royalty appropriated by a schizoid African-American woman who both represses and projects. They speak of themselves as Duchess and Queen but they speak too of their father in the jungle and the harm he has done their (Sarah’s) mother. In subsequent scenes, the selves appear in various combinations, contradicting and corroborating one another’s narratives. Sarah’s inner world is unstable; the characters who exist outside it, however, are reductive and unresponsive. Mrs. Conrad reduces Sarah’s projections to a mundane insanity, offering rational explanations for Sarah’s seemingly irrational behavior. Like Mrs. Conrad, Raymond exists both within and outside of Sarah’s hallucinations. The ‘‘funnyman of the funnyhouse,’’ he tortures Sarah’s selves with coldness. His clinical distance borders on sadism and characterizes his attitude throughout the play. In the last scene he discovers Sarah’s body and tersely comments: ‘‘She was a funny little liar’’— leaving the audience to wonder whether or not she was a liar at all. Raymond fully embodies the persecutory object, but the four internalized selves present more equivocal positions: they cannot be neatly categorized.
Much has been written of Sarah’s ‘‘choices’’ for her projections; most critics agree with Herbert Blau’s assertion [in‘‘The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy’’] that Sarah’s is ‘‘a psyche formed by white culture which she finds not contemptible but beautiful, more maybe than black is beautiful,’’ and that, as a result, she finds the Queen and Duchess enviable and Patrice Lumumba frightening. ‘‘It is [Lumumba],’’ writes Robert Scanlan [in ‘‘Surrealism as Mimesis: A Director’s Guide to Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro’’], ‘‘who separates Sarah from her white ancestry and the white European royalty she so admires. The Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria are figures of white and female power she would like to identify with, were it not for her Negro hair.’’ Lorraine A. Brown follows this same line of reasoning [in ‘‘For the Characters Are Myself: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro’’]: ‘‘If [Sarah] has chosen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg to escape the sense of powerlessness, she has also chosen them, we suspect, to escape the implication of debased sexuality attached to a Black girl.’’ Curb corroborates these theories, writing of all Kennedy’s characters: ‘‘They are mentally and emotionally torn between their real external Black selves and the glorious dream White selves which they imagine and desire.’’ And Werner Sollors further develops the distinctions between the black and white selves and finds the selves ‘‘in sharp, deadly conflict’’ [in ‘‘Owls and Rats in the American Funnyhouse: Adrienne Kennedy’s drama’’]:
[Kennedy] portrays her central character not as uni- fied or whole but as a collage of multifaceted and contradictory selves (who are not only black and white, or male and female, but also father’s daughter and mother’s daughter, ruler and martyr, stoic and revolutionary, dead and alive, carnal and spiritual, young and old, hairy and bald, glamorous and humble, or proper and lascivious). The antithesis between Victoria and Lumumba may thus be seen as that between empire and anticolonialism; Jesus and the Duchess of Hapsburg may relate to each other as love and lust; the Duchess and Victoria may represent the conflict between a scandalous and a proper woman; Lumumba and Jesus may embody militancy and forgiveness.
These critics see Sarah’s selves as antitheses; they see her inner turmoil caused by the inherent conflicts she embodies. Curb calls Sarah ‘‘the battlefield for warring forces forever opposed and terrified of invasion.’’ These theories coincide with Klein’s model of splitting and projective identification in which objects are split between good and bad, ideal and persecutory. Sarah splits not objects but selves, to which she attributes both attractive and repulsive qualities. However, Sarah’s splitting is not as decisive as she might wish and it is ultimately unsuccessful.
Splitting and projective identification are methods used to order experience, to break it into manageable pieces. Like the infant who divides and deflects, Sarah too strives for integration: ‘‘She is attempting to reintegrate by simple assertion a shattered sense of self.’’ Scanlan calls Sarah’s story ‘‘a heroic attempt at psychic survival’’ and explains that through her monologues, she attempts to define herself: ‘‘She is composing her life with words.’’ Sarah, however, cannot compose herself; she finds integration impossible. Her splitting process differs from that of the normal infant: ‘‘In situations of anxiety the split is widened and projection and introjection are used in order to keep persecutory and ideal objects as far as possible from one another, while keeping both of them under control.’’ If Sarah’s selves could be divided into bad and good, then she might maintain their separation from one another and control them. In her inherent confusion, however, Sarah cannot separate bad from good, and the manifested selves become no less complex than the original. She projects both persecutory and ideal qualities onto each self, finally causing them to implode and self-destruct.
In Sarah’s first monologue she explains that her room is Queen Victoria’s chamber: ‘‘Partly because it is consumed by a gigantic plaster statue of Queen Victoria who is my idol and partly for other reasons.’’ When she is the Duchess of Hapsburg, she says, she sits opposite Victoria and they talk: ‘‘Victoria always wants me to tell her of whiteness. She wants me to tell her of a royal world where everything and everyone is white and there are no unfortunate black ones.’’ Queen Victoria represents both self and other: sometimes Sarah speaks to her; sometimes she is her. The statue itself is an ideal object, one which Sarah wants ‘‘to acquire, to keep inside and to identify with’’; thus she has purchased the statue, brought it home, and built three steps as its shrine. It is also, however, ‘‘bad and threatening to the ego, giving rise to a feeling of persecution’’— for this statue speaks of eliminating the ‘‘unfortunate black ones’’ of whom Sarah is one. ‘‘Raymond says it is a thing of terror, possessing the quality of nightmares, suggesting large and probable deaths. And of course he is right,’’ says Sarah. One death it suggests is her own, and she knows that. Yet she is attracted to the Queen for her power, her propriety, her heritage. Libido meets death in Queen Victoria— in a statue which unifies Sarah’s greatest fears and desires and embodies them in ‘‘astonishing repulsive whiteness’’—a whiteness signifying both honor and death.
Each of Sarah’s four selves is equally multifarious. Patrice Lumumba, an African nationalist leader, was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (subsequently Zaire); he was assassinated shortly after being forced out of office. Kennedy personally mourned his loss [in People who Led to My Plays], which affected her own sense of identity: ‘‘Just when I had discovered the place of my ancestors, just when I had discovered this African hero, he had been murdered. . . . Even though I had known him so briefly, I felt I had been struck a blow. He became a character in my play . . . a man with a shattered head.’’ To Kennedy, Lumumba represents the African hero; to Sarah, he represents both the African hero and her father. The Lumumba she projects—‘‘a black man. His head appears to be split in two with blood and tissue in [his] eyes. He carries an ebony mask’’—combines her visions of both martyr and oppressor. Like her father, Lumumba is a ‘‘large dark faceless Man,’’ and like her father he has attempted to save the African people. However, in his hand he carries her father’s murder weapon, as he himself admits: ‘‘I [have] bludgeoned my father’s face with the ebony mask.’’ In this self, then, Sarah combines her aggressions and her affections toward her father and her African heritage; she does not divide them into two distinct selves. In terms of Sarah’s sanity, Lumumba becomes a failed projection; he does not provide separate outlets for pleasure and pain.
Like Lumumba, the Jesus Sarah projects is also maimed. He is characterized as a dwarf (which Scanlan proteste as ‘‘reprehensible exploitation of a medical condition’’). Jesus is physically diminutive and deformed (by his hunchback). Furthermore, his ‘‘yellow’’ skin implies impurity, as if he has been ‘‘infected’’ by jaundice or blackness. Throughout his scenes on stage, he seems to scream as much as talk, and when his hair falls out, he is described as ‘‘hideous.’’ This Jesus seems physically impotent; one might assume the same of his spirituality. Yet Jesus is considered a savior, even within the context of the play; Sarah’s grandmother had wanted her son to be Jesus, ‘‘to walk in Genesis and save the race.’’ And Sarah wants to be saved. She sees in Jesus her father’s dreams but she cannot project these visions into an ideal object. Her father’s noble dreams have turned to nightmares, just as Jesus has transformed into a hunchbacked, yellowskinned dwarf.
The Duchess of Hapsburg, the wife of Austrian archduke Maximilian, is the most ambivalent historical self. Maximilian was appointed Emperor of Mexico, having been duped into thinking the Mexican people wanted a monarchy. When Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Mexico, the Hapsburgs were left at the mercy of the revolutionaries, penniless and desperate. The Duchess set sail for Europe to ask Napoleon III for aid, and when he refused her, she went to Rome to ask the Pope. ‘‘In the Vatican, [she] collapsed, drifted away into a nightmare world of schizophrenia’’ [according to Dorothy Gies McGvigan in The Hapsburgs] Back in Mexico, Maximilian was shot as a traitor. These events are dramatized in the 1939 film Juarez, in which Bette Davis plays Carlotta and Brian Aherne, Maximilian. The film, which Kennedy admired so much that she took her family to visit the Hapsburgs’ home in Mexico, emphasizes the Duchess’s power over her husband but also her failures. It was she who had encouraged him to accept the throne of Mexico and it was she who connived in persuading him into keeping it once he discovered the adverse sentiment of the people. Yet she remains a sympathetic figure for two reasons: the first, that she loves her husband immeasurably; the second, that she accepts total responsibility for her actions. When she finds out she cannot bear children, she offers to leave her husband so he can find a wife who can; and when she realizes how Napoleon has turned on them, she sees it as her duty to confront him. The truth, however, is too much for her to bear, and she spends her last days envisioning her husband’s death and shrieking his name. The Duchess of Hapsburg seems an odd choice for a figure of female power. She was beautiful and powerful but she was also childless, miserable, and ultimately insane. Onto this conflicted figure Sarah projects her nightmares and fantasies, appropriately united in a figurehead who has flourished and failed.
In the early scene in the Queen’s chamber, ravens fly about the room as the two women stand by the bed. They wear royal white gowns to match the white satin curtain, of which we are told, ‘‘parts of it are frayed and look as if it has been gnawed by rats.’’ They wear white headpieces that fall over their faces, and from ‘‘beneath both their headpieces springs a headful of wild kinky hair.’’ Sarah’s split perception is evident from this image of deathly white and living black. The faces are grotesque:
They look exactly alike and will wear masks or be made up to appear a whitish yellow. It is an alabaster face, the skin drawn tightly over the high cheekbones, great dark eyes that seem gouged out of the head, a high forehead, a full red mouth and a head of frizzy hair. If the characters do not wear a mask then the face must be highly powdered and possess a hard expressionless quality and a stillness as in the face of death.
The Queen and the Duchess, in light of this description, hardly seem enviable. They may once have been ‘‘glorious dream White selves,’’ but by now they have been mutilated along with the rest, their deaths more prominent in Sarah’s mind than their lives. The fact that they look exactly alike— neither like Bette Davis nor Queen Victoria, but both mangled white corpses with bright red lips— implies that Sarah has lost sight of who they once were. Rather than absorbing the Queen’s and Duchess’s personalities into herself, she has projected herself onto them. In their voices she hears her worst fears and in their faces she sees her death. ‘‘I want not to be,’’ says Sarah. ‘‘I ask nothing except anonymity.’’ Rather than embellishing herself with the regal powers of these women, she imposes on them her own negation.
Sarah’s desire ‘‘not to be’’ seems at odds with her projections, four figures etched into history by both heritage and achievement. Yet in choosing them, she effectively erases them, stripping their identities and their pasts. Death is part of their attraction, for Sarah wishes she too were dead. ‘‘My white friends, like myself, will be shrewd, intellectual and anxious for death. Anyone’s death,’’ she says, and Patrice Lumumba repeats her words almost exactly. She associates whiteness with death— from the expressionless alabaster faces of the Duchess and Queen to the frayed satin nightgown of her mother. The imagery throughout the play is white and black (with red exceptions: the Queen’s and the Duchess’s lips, the bags of hair, the comb), even the lighting in the Queen’s chamber: ‘‘It is set in the middle of the Stage in a strong white LIGHT, while the rest of the Stage is in unnatural BLACKNESS. The quality of the white light is unreal and ugly.’’ The statue of Queen Victoria is also described as white: ‘‘The figure of Victoria is a sitting figure, one of astonishing repulsive whiteness, suggested by dusty volumes of books and old yellowed walls.’’ White is a sign of death, suggestive of corrosion and decay. But black is also a sign of death: black ravens fly about the Queen’s chamber and the death mask Lumumba carries is ebony. The rooms of Sarah’s mind are filled with death; visually, they offer no possibility of life; even the red signifies hair loss, the onslaught of madness.
When Sarah first introduces herself and describes her four rooms, she explains: ‘‘These are the places myselves exist in. I know no places. That is, I cannot believe in places.’’ Place, for her, suggests a concreteness which implies potential connections— impossible connections:
To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse. Streets are rooms, cities are rooms, eternal rooms. I try to create a space for myselves in cities, New York, the midwest, a southern town, but it becomes a lie.
Sarah feels neither linked nor connected to the world; she feels she does not exist in a concrete place with other people but only in her mind, her ‘‘rooms,’’ her funnyhouse. The physical world is closed to her, much as her rooms are closed to the world. Although she physically exists in Mrs. Conrad’s rooming house, she does not recognize that location. ‘‘Sarah, whose ancestors are all out of place, found herself in a kind of limbo, unable even to ‘stay in her place’ because there was not one for her.’’ [according to Linda Kintz in The Subject’s Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama.] She has begun to erase place as she has begun to erase herself (and herselves), creating a continuum of rooms which, like herselves, are contaminated objects—neither ideal nor persecutory, but both ideal and persecutory, the deadly combination. The very spaces suffocate her.
Julia Kristeva [in ‘‘Women’s Time,’’ in The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi] discusses time and space as respective male and female realms: ‘‘And indeed, when evoking the name and destiny of women, one thinks more of the space generating and forming the human species than of time, becoming or history.’’ She recalls that for Freud ‘‘hysteria was linked to place’’ and suggests,
Subsequent studies on the acquisition of the symbolic function by children show that the permanence and quality of maternal love condition the appearance of the first spatial references which induce the child’s laugh and then induce the entire range of symbolic manifestations which lead eventually to sign and syntax.
Maternal love, then, is a precondition of spatial awareness, laughter, and language. In the context of Kennedy’s play, this theory can be directly applied: Sarah’s mother never loved her, never recognized her as her own, and Sarah is severely lacking in the skills cited by Kristeva. Her language and her laughter are severely impaired: she finds herself unable to communicate in spite of her speeches, and the laughter in her world is replaced by screams. Space, for her, has become an internal arena, no longer reflective of the external.
Her rejection by her mother and her subsequent social sufferings align Sarah with the characters of Samuel Beckett: ‘‘The urge to get ‘unborn,’ to shrink back to nonexistence . . . pervades his oeuvre.’’ [according to Bennett Simon in ‘‘The Fragmented Self, the Reproduction of the Self, and Reproduction in Beckett and in the Theater of the Absurd,’’ in The World of Samuel Beckett, edited by J.H. Smith]. Mouth, the speaking character in Beckett’s Not I, shares a great deal in common with Sarah. The deficiencies Kristeva describes are prominent in Mouth, who does not differentiate between signifiers and their referents: if the mouth is hers, it is her. She projects her whole self onto this ‘‘object’’ much as Sarah projects her whole self—and not merely the ideal or the persecutory—onto herselves, so that, like Sarah, Mouth has no chance for integration. Beckett’s old woman, like Sarah, is a prisoner of object relations; she has split herself in two, reducing herself to an incessantly speaking Mouth and a silent Auditor. Bennett Simon, in his discussion relating Bion’s theories of object relations to Beckett’s plays, concludes [in ‘‘The Imaginary Twins: The Case of Beckett and Bion’’]: ‘‘Bion’s theory-making is instigated by the problems posed by patients who cancel out the distinction between animate and inanimate by making everything inanimate and concrete. These patients practise the opposite of primitive animism—they infuse all living things with the quality of death.’’ In support of this theory, the old woman splits herself into two ‘‘objects’’ which forebode death: the detached mouth and its silent, hooded auditor. Likewise, Sarah bedecks herselves with death masks and blood; however, hers is a two-step process. She must bring her historical figures to life before she can kill them.
‘‘The counterpoint between stage and text,’’ writes Paul Lawley [in ‘‘Counterpoint, Absence and the Medium in Beckett’s Not I’’] of Beckett’s Not I, ‘‘enacts the play’s fundamental conflict: between the need to deny the imperfect self and to maintain, even in agony, a fictional other, and the wish for oblivion which would come with the acknowledgment of the fragmented self.’’ This sentence could apply equally well to Funnyhouse of a Negro, in which Sarah’s denial of herself (of her past, of her guilt) conflicts with her creation of herselves. Lawley argues that the striking stage image of Beckett’s play contradicts the Mouth’s desire not to be: there she is. She is, however, much reduced. Sarah, on the contrary, has been multiplied. While trying to erase herself, she has instead created four repetitions. Sarah’s hallucinations are of a grand scale while Mouth’s are minuscule. Yet they share a common goal of self-obliteration, and they share a common sadness that they were not aborted before birth. In his essay ‘‘The Fragmented Self, the Reproduction of the Self, and Reproduction in Beckett and in the Theatre of the Absurd,’’ Simon focuses on such processes of splitting and fragmentation as peculiar aspects of modernism: ‘‘[I]n the twentieth century. . . the self is disintegrated, deconstructed, shadowed, fragmented, submerged, unstable, and scarcely able to tell a coherent story.’’ He correlates these self-destructive processes with modern and postmodern concerns about reproduction: ‘‘The modern problematic of the self goes hand in glove with a set of modern concerns and anxieties about conception and contraception.’’ Such anxieties, which clearly dominate the writing of both Kennedy and Beckett, link together playwrights of absurdist drama: ‘‘The theatre of the absurd is a dramatic culture that has been marked from its beginning with a preoccupation with birth and reproduction.’’ ‘‘Funnyhouse of a Negro. . . grows out of the absurdist and expressionist traditions yet forges a style of its own.’’ [according to David Willinger in the Review of Funnyhouse of a Negro. . . .] Kennedy’s writing is ultimately original, incorporating absurdist elements yet creating something very different. Her play lacks the humor and the sense of the ludicrous which characterize the absurd; her characters’ detachment is not ironical but imposed. Their world is not fundamentally without meaning, but such meaning is deliberately withheld. Here, feelings of detachment are not philosophical but physical, resulting from mortal violence. ‘‘An important part of the absurd,’’ according to Simon, ‘‘is the sense of being cut off from the roots and, as a usually unstated corollary, of having no branches, no offshoots, no descendants.’’ Kennedy’s characters, to the contrary, feel very much attached to their roots—roots which shackle and suffocate them. They have too many roots, knotted, tangled roots which pull them in opposing directions, like the life and death instincts which divide them. These women are bound by their roots; and their bond reflects not only love, but hate. For in the world of these plays, blood is a sign of guilt and birth is a result of rape. Sarah wishes to extricate herself from her roots, but she simultaneously enmeshes herself in their web. The past—like every aspect of her life— embodies both persecutory and ideal.
Sarah transforms her world into a house of mirrors where she watches herselves in the glass; she becomes an outsider observing her life. She speaks objectively and emotionlessly about herself and seems detached from her past even as she recreates it, never mentioning the noose on her neck or her imminent death. She speaks in the present tense of what was and gives her past to her four historical projections in hopes of self-eradication. Instead, her voice is multiplied by four, her image refracted by funnyhouse mirrors which trap her amidst their reflections.
Source: Claudia Barnett, ‘‘A Prison of Object Relations: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in Modern Drama, Fall, 1997, Vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 374–84.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178
I know no places. That is I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse —Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro
In 1960, while dramatists were forging a rhetoric of black theater from the emerging black power movement, twenty-nine-year-old Adrienne Kennedy travelled to Africa with her husband and son. The trip would prove to be the catalyst for her career as one of America’s most complex contemporary playwrights. At the time of her trip, Kennedy had been writing stories and plays for nearly ten years and had received virtually no public attention. Her failure to establish herself as a writer was made more discouraging by the recognition her husband Joseph Kennedy received for his work in social psychology at Columbia. She felt increasingly [in People Who Led to My Plays] that she ‘‘was just accompanying another person as he lived out his dreams’’ and that she had acquiesced ‘‘to another person’s desires, dreams and hopes.’’ As she struggled to maintain her identity as a black woman author and attempted to invest herself in the Western literary tradition she embraced, Kennedy grew conscious of a buried African heritage. Africa opened to her a world of black artists and leaders, like Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, to match and challenge the Western literary figures and rulers she admired. The conflict between these two ancestral traditions would become one of the primary themes in Kennedy’s complex, surrealistic psychodramas.
Although her rhetoric maintains a political agenda, albeit one aimed more at expressing black women’s struggles, Kennedy’s method draws from the mythic elements of traditional African ritual drama, particularly the Kuntu form described by Paul Carter Harrison. Ritual drama empowers its participants as they negotiate their roles within its theatrical community. Kennedy discovered, however, that these roles, designated like those in many black protest groups by men, fail to allow female participants self-determination. This dissonance in the fragmented black family/community impedes the collective expression of harmony required of ritual theater. ‘‘Having been fractionalized, [the black American’s] rituals are often played out in a spiritual vacuum, [her] energies dissipated without the generative feedback of a stable society.’’ [according to P.C. Harrison in The Drama of Nommo.] Kennedy’s plays address the cultural and political fragmentation of black Americans that occurs when a dominant (white) social structure interrupts efforts to construct a black community.
Kennedy uses this damaged social identity in her plays as a symptom of the deeper psychological fragmentation black women suffer. Kennedy particularly uses the mask, a traditional symbol of power and mystery, as a device to develop what Michael Goldman [in The Actor’s: Toward a Theory of Drama] calls ‘‘the double movement of dramatic elation—both escape from self and self-discovery.’’ Kennedy undermines this empowerment and elation, however, and transforms the mask into an image of imprisonment and terror. Many of her characters become trapped in the mask’s freakish impersonality and are unable either to discover themselves fully or to escape from the horrifying selves they do discover.
In three of Kennedy’s plays, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), The Owl Answers (1965), and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), the protagonists are black women who fail to unite the fragmented elements of their identities into harmonic, dynamic wholes. Their equally fragmented communities have failed to provide them with the ritual means for locating themselves and have made them feel guilty for recognizing the extra measure of alienation assigned to black women. These characters represent the community of women, largely excluded from the political mechanisms of black protest, who are nonetheless expected to sacrifice gender issues for racial concerns. In these three oneact plays, Kennedy exposes how black Americans, especially women, having been denied a social context and history, are therefore powerless to resolve the chaotic elements of their black female identities.
In Funnyhouse of a Negro, Sarah seeks to find herself among four historical figures who share her voice: Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Although she lives in a brownstone with her Jewish boyfriend, she mentally inhabits the expressionistic settings suggested by these figures. After her mad mother introduces the play’s action, Sarah and her selves confront her fear that her father will find and rape her as he did her mulatto mother. She imagines his various fates, including one in which she bludgeons him with an ebony mask. Herself a mulatto, Sarah’s conflicting racial histories are illustrated but never resolved by the figures that serve as her masks. Far from empowering her, these character masks trap Sarah in a role of self-hatred, fear, and the inability to integrate her personality that leads to her suicide.
Kennedy introduces the mask motif in the play’s first sequence. Sarah’s mad mother passes before the closed curtain wearing an eyeless yellow mask that renders her not only blind but faceless. She gropes across the stage in a dreamlike state we later learn is death, separated from the ‘‘life’’ of the play only by the rat-eaten shroud of a white stage curtain. She carries before her a bald head, an image of weakness that recurs as Sarah’s selves lose their wild, kinky hair throughout the play. Although Kennedy later introduces a bald head that drops and hangs from the ceiling to indicate the martyrdom of Christ and Lumumba, the baldness of Victoria and the Duchess is more ‘‘hideous’’ and frightening because it links them to Sarah’s dead mother. For Sarah, baldness indicates not only death but also a life of repulsion, vulnerability, and madness. As her female selves lose their hair, the threat of her father’s return, of a confrontation with her irreconcilable blackness, grows imminent. Unable to cope with the jungle’s darkness, Sarah attempts to hide herself in a white city.
During the course of the play, two historical characters who represent her white heritage assume Sarah’s psychological narrative. These alter-egos, Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, also wear white, expressionless death masks and are cast in a strong white light that contrasts with the stage’s unnatural darkness. These other selves express Sarah’s thoughts while the connotations of their historical identities comment on them. The sense of power and authority evoked by the two European rulers cannot be appropriated properly by Sarah, who is neither white nor black. Their imperialistic implications comment on the extent of Sarah’s psychological oppression, one history a victim of the other. Nonetheless, she spends her days writing poetry that imitates Edith Sitwell’s and dreaming of living in a white, European culture. She attempts to efface her black heritage not only by ‘‘killing’’ her father but by injecting herself into white society. She claims [in Funnyhouse of a Negro] to need these white figures ‘‘as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am a Negro. For, like all educated Negroes . . . I find it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself.’’ The expressionless masks of the two rulers serve both to identify an aspect of Sarah’s historical identity and to alienate her from it. In the play’s final scene, Sarah is discovered hanging from the ceiling of her ‘‘funnyhouse’’ as the lights come up on the white plaster statue of Queen Victoria. Enshrined in Sarah’s room, she is finally reduced to a voiceless, immobile image of ‘‘astonishing repulsive whiteness.’’ When Sarah dies, the masked figures that have given body to her voice are stripped of their narrative power. They become hollowed references to a history that is finally unavailable to Sarah.
The persona of Patrice Lumumba, whom Sarah both adopts and associates with her father, differs from the first two in that he is black and carries rather than wears his ebony mask. Because Lumumba acts as a bridge between Sarah and her father, he represents both the black man’s noble efforts to save his race and her inescapable and damning blackness. Lumumba, murdered by African radicals who smashed his skull, appears in the play with a split and bleeding head. At one point, as Sarah explains how she killed her father, she confuses him with Lumumba: ‘‘No, Mrs. Conrad, he did not hang himself, that is only the way they understood it, they do, but the truth is that I bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull that he carries about with him. Wherever he goes, he carries out black masks and heads.’’ Sarah’s previous statements about her desires to integrate into white society are repudiated by an unidentified black man who recalls Lumumba because he too carries his mask: ‘‘I am a nigger of two generations. I am Patrice Lumumba. . . . I am the black shadow that haunted my mother’s conception. . . . It is my vile dream to live in rooms with European antiques and my statue of Queen Victoria.’’
Because Sarah is a mulatto, she cannot wear the masks of both the Negro and the white woman simultaneously. As the mask signifies the character’s fragmented identity, the mulatto bastard becomes a metaphor for the black woman’s alienation from her gender and her race. Sarah attempts to reconcile her identity as a mulatto by claiming to have murdered her black father. She is unable to conceal her hatred of him for literally blackening her family. Sarah conflates her story with his story as she recalls how her grandmother encouraged her father to become a black Messiah. Sarah believes he betrayed her wish and his future family by marrying a light-toned woman with ‘‘hair as straight as any white woman’s.’’ His mother ‘‘hoped he would be Christ but he failed. He had married [Sarah’s] mother because he could not resist the light. Yet, his mother from the beginning in the kerosene lamp of their dark rooms in Georgia said, ‘I want you to be Jesus, to walk in Genesis and save the race, return to Africa, find revelation in the black.’’’ To fulfill his mother’s vision, he takes his white wife to Africa to pursue mission work. There she ‘‘falls out of live’’ with him and slowly goes mad, symbolized by her gradual hair loss. He rapes her when she denies him access to the marriage bed because he is black and creates a legacy of violence, madness, and failure for their daughter Sarah. ‘‘‘Forgiveness for my being black, Sarah. I know you are a child of torment. . . . Forgive my blackness!’’’ her father pleads. But Sarah can neither accept nor escape her own blackness: ‘‘before I was born,’’ she laments, ‘‘he haunted my conception, diseased my birth.’’
Sarah seeks to neutralize her blackness by living with her white boyfriend, Raymond Mann, whom she wishes she could love but doesn’t, in an apartment run by a white landlady, Mrs. Conrad. These two white characters in Sarah’s ‘‘funnyhouse’’ are modelled after the looming clownlike figures that guard an amusement park in Kennedy’s hometown, Cleveland. The set for the scene in which Raymond and the Duchess of Hapsburg engage in a bizarre exchange includes a backdrop of mirrors, revealed only as Raymond alternately opens and closes the blinds that conceal them. The flashing mirrors recall the disorienting nightmare quality of what is ironically called a funnyhouse. Raymond and Mrs. Conrad laugh, in accordance with their roles as funnyhouse guards, at Sarah’s bewilderment and failure to distinguish herself from her historical reflections. They mock her attempts to gain self-knowledge and control over the conflicting elements of her persona. When she is unable to do so, Sarah hangs herself. After discovering her body, Mrs. Conrad and Raymond suggest that Sarah’s father is not dead but lives in a white suburb with a white prostitute. He and his ‘‘whore’’ join the other white characters in the funnyhouse who, in refusing to understand or sympathize with Sarah’s internal struggle, derive ironic amusement from her desperate suicide. ‘‘‘She was a funny little liar,’’’ Raymond comments as he observes her hanging figure. Mrs. Conrad can only offer the unsympathetic remark, ‘‘‘The poor bitch has hung herself!’’’ Sarah, ultimately powerless to reconcile and integrate her conflicting selves and incongruent historical narratives, chooses to abandon the white funnyhouse. That Sarah recognizes no escape other than suicide testifies to the insidiousness of her tragedy. Unable to move beyond feebly articulating her oppression, Sarah can neither appropriate the power of her masks, as Harrison might suggest, nor follow the mandate of Amiri Baraka’s militant theater to create white-free spaces for blacks. To excise her whiteness would leave Sarah vulnerable to a terrifying blackness she cannot control. . . .
Source: Susan E. Meigs, ‘‘No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays,’’ in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 172–183.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2403
For the days are past when there are places and characters with connections with themes as in the stories you pick up on the shelves of public libraries. . . . There is no theme. No statements. . . . For the statement is the characters and the characters are myself.
These words spoken by Sarah, the young Negro student, in Adrienne Kennedy’s play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, apply both to Sarah’s own troubled personal world and to the felicitous form of the play itself. An ornate dramatic image, reflecting kinship with and absorption of the work of Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, this original and penetrating play makes use of surrealistic and expressionistic modes to explore the mind and emotions of an educated Black girl. The play projects a world, in fact, where Blackness, femaleness, and education are equally important isolating factors. This exploration is accomplished structurally by the creation of a rich montage of images and impressions which appear, fade, and recur. The action takes the form of separate scenes made up of monologues, dialogues, or pantomimes, and identical grotesque figures dressed up in cheap white satin also move across the stage, sometimes shouting, sometimes screaming, carrying their bald skulls before them. The scenes occur at various levels and specific areas of the stage, which are illuminated and blacked out as the play proceeds. All of the characters except for Sarah and her father appear in white face, and the stage directions indicate the use of masks or yellow-white makeup to suggest a ‘‘hard expressionless quality’’ (Kennedy)—a stillness akin to death. The nightmare effect thus created by the expert use of these various dramatic resources provide the ideal means to depict the increasing terror, anguish, and fragmentation of Sarah’s hallucinatory world.
When the play opens, Sarah’s personality is split into four characters who represent various sides of herself: Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. Sarah, like Genet’s characters, has chosen powerful roles which reflect political as well as spiritual dimensions. In her room, however, her creative energies find an outlet in the solitary and fruitless task of filling white pages with poetry in imitation of Edith Sitwell. Sarah’s strenuous efforts to achieve wholeness and identity, and her concurrent contest with paranoia, self-hatred, and the will to self-destruction, ultimately result in a disintegration of her personality. But before that occurs, we observe the considerable force of her will, reminiscent of Samuel. Beckett’s Winnie who also struggles so valiantly to stay in control and fend off madness. 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; Miss Kennedy demonstrates that Sarah’s struggle is the struggle of all women in a world which not only mocks and rejects Blackness but femaleness as well. For the play is not about Sarah’s Blackness alone, but about the combination of Blackness, femaleness, and education, which together create insurmountable barriers to wholeness and psychic balance. For each of these aspects of her consciousness only serves to increase her sense of herself as an outsider and outcast.
Central in her struggle for psychic health is the conflict which stems from her attachment to parental figures. In the first scene in the play, Sarah, as Queen Victoria, tells us that she is ‘‘tied to a black Negro’’ who is her father. He haunted her conception and diseased her birth, she says, and in her fantasies he returns from the jungle to find her. The father is associated in the play with bestiality, the death of her mother, and ‘‘a nigger pose of agony,’’ but his Blackness is also identified in her mind with Africa and the need for ‘‘the Black man to make a pure statement’’ (Kennedy) and to rise from colonialism. One of the sides of herself is Patrice Lumumba, an indication that she has reflected on and imagined a central role for herself in the African struggle for independence. That the role is a masculine one obviously complicates the problem. For she must determine just what role an educated American Black woman has in the changing African world. Identification with this powerful male also reflects her desire to escape the powerlessness and passivity associated with being a woman. Again the problem of identification is complicated by the fact that her mother’s whiteness was counteracted by her sex and her father’s sex by his Blackness. This dilemma helps to explain the existence of both Queen Victoria and Patrice Lumumba in her fantasy life, a dialectic involving the widely divergent worlds of Victorian England on the one hand and the jungles of Africa on the other.
In vivid contrast to the ambivalent feelings associated with her Black father, Sarah’s preoccupation with memories of her mother leads her toward the world of whiteness and concern with her own physical resemblance to that fair-skinned, grayeyed woman with hair as straight as any white woman’s. Her mother, too, haunts her. She returns in Sarah’s nightmares, her bald skull shining, claiming that her baldness is a result of her rape by Sarah’s father. ‘‘My Mother was the light. She was the lightest one. She looked like a white woman,’’ Sarah-Victoria says (Kennedy). But for the girl with pale yellow skin, it is clear that identification with her mother and whiteness and rejection of her father (her one defect, she tells us, is her ‘‘unmistakably Negro kinky hair’’ [Kennedy]) is a move toward death. Such identification ties her to her memories of the past, helps her to evade the question of her own identity, and inhibits any growth or development. Instead it encourages her to isolate herself, to hide in her room where she dreams of living in rooms with European antiques, photographs of Roman ruins, and oriental carpets. The language Sarah uses to describe this dream reflects her tension and her straining for extreme control. The images she uses describes a state of siege: white friends to act as embankments to protect her from reflecting on her Blackness; a stark fortress against recognition of herself. However, even these white friends she distrusts, for they, like she, are preoccupied with death, anyone’s death.
In her more intimate relationships, Sarah’s search for love and acceptance in the white world offers her no solace or comfort. She admits she doesn’t love the Jewish poet, Raymond, and he doesn’t love her. He is only ‘‘very interested’’ in Negroes. In the scene with Raymond, when Sarah is the Duchess of Hapsburg, always freer in her behavior than Victoria, Miss Kennedy adeptly portrays Sarah’s masochism. She responds wildly to Raymond’s embrace, even though he is unmoved by her fears and torments, as she hears her father returning from the jungle to find her. During the scene she sits before him partially disrobed and clings to his leg, while he laughs, stares at her, and opens and closes the blinds. Disarmed and unprotected, an archetypal fallen woman, she pleads for love from the ‘‘ghostly thin’’ poet with black sores on his face. At other times Raymond becomes in her mind a huge grotesque amusement park funnyman who, together with her white landlady, mocks her and fills the funnyhouse world with contemptuous laughter.
If Sarah lacks significant relationships, she also lacks places to live. For to believe in places is to know hope and to know beauty, and beauty, she reasons, links one to the world and life. She disowns such connections; she prefers isolation. Consequently, Sarah knows only the places her selves exist in: a chamber in a Victorian castle, a Hapsburg chamber, the jungle, and the room where she killed her father. Her own small room is ‘‘consumed’’ by a seated figure of Queen Victoria, ‘‘a thing of astonishing whiteness, possessing the quality of nightmare’’ (Kennedy). Three steps lead to the statue, which presides opposite her door, and the room is filled with dark old volumes, a narrow bed and, on the wall, old photographs of castles and monarchs of England. The irony of Sarah’s identification and empathy with the literary and historical traditions of England is brought out even more fully and explicitly in Miss Kennedy’s play The Owl Answers . There Clara Passmore, a soft-spoken Negro school teacher from Savannah, who identifies with her white father, is cruelly rejected by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and William the Conquerer when she tries to gain entrance to St. Paul’s chapel to retrieve the body of her white father. As guards, these three significant figures in Western culture (William the Conquerer had been her father’s favorite) call her bastard, and ask her why, if she is Negro, she has any claim to her white father, the richest white man in Jacksonville, Georgia. This episode dramatizes most effectively the dissonance created by the devoted espousal of the cultural heritage of her white father and her own humiliating experiences of rejection and scorn from those she most venerates. We remember the forlorn figure of Clara Passmore standing alone outside of the locked Tower gates which have just been slammed shut in her face. The image describes just as effectively Sarah’s isolation and alienation from the white cultural world.
Sarah’s own choice of the awesome figure of Queen Victoria as one of her selves strikes us, as Samuel Beckett’s Winnie would say, as being ‘‘in the old style.’’ If she has chosen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg to escape the sense of powerlessness, she has also chosen them, we suspect, to escape the implications of debased sexuality attached to a Black girl. One of Clara Passmore’s selves, for instance, is the Virgin Mary, and yet in the summer in Harlem, she picks up strange men on the subway and takes them to her room to love—a dramatic internalization, one suspects, of stereotyping which divides women into saints and whores, and just as automatically attributes the role of whore to Black women. In her discussions and associations with Victoria, Sarah momentarily escapes this stigma by rejecting all Blackness. As the Duchess of Hapsburg, she actively seeks debasement by wooing Raymond.
Sarah’s own spiritual link with God is, interestingly, Jesus Christ, and not the Virgin Mary. It is the second instance in the play of her identification with a male role, but this time Jesus is a yellow-skinned hunchback dwarf dressed in white rags and sandals. Sarah’s ambivalence about him is reflected in her treatment of him as the Duchess of Hapsburg. In her chandeliered ballroom with its black and white marble floor, the Duchess uses the same indifference and coldness as Raymond used to reject her earlier in the play. Later, as the snow falls outside, they sit on a bench in the chamber combing each other’s hair, growing hideous together. In their last scene together, Sarah, as Jesus, admits to attempting flag to escape being Black by claiming God as her father, and she vows to go to Africa to kill Patrice Lumumba because she recognizes that her father was a Black man. This intention to murder Lumumba is expressed, she says, without fear, for whatever she does she does in the name of God, Albert Saxe- Coburg, and Queen Victoria—a signal that her fantasy life has won out, that she is unable to accept her Blackness, and that her suicide is near.
Symbolically then the appropriate place for Sarah’s final disintegration is the jungle. The stage directions indicate that ‘‘the jungle has overgrown all the other chambers and all the other places with a violence and a dark brightness, a grim yellowness’’ (Kennedy). The scene, the longest in the play, moves slowly, as in the last stages of a dream. All of Sarah’s selves appear, Jesus arriving first, a nimbus above his head. The other selves wear nimbuses, too, and they wander about speaking at the same time, repeating each other’s words, chanting motifs connected with Sarah’s suffering, until the tension reaches fever pitch. After an intense silence a reenactment of her father’s murder occurs: the light grows bright and Sarah’s mother comes smiling toward her as Sarah bludgeons her father with an ebony head. At this point the selves suddenly run about, madly laughing and shouting, creating by their words and actions a terrifying image of her complete collapse.
Miss Kennedy brings us back, in the final scene of the play, to Sarah’s room, where her figure of Queen Victoria presides in all of its repulsive whiteness. There sounds again the eternal knocking which has echoed and re-echoed in the play, and suddenly her father’s Black figures ‘‘with bludgeoned hands rush upon her’’ as the lights go dark (Kennedy). When they come up again, the laughing landlady is visible, as well as Sarah’s hanging figure. Joined by Raymond, the landlady remarks, ‘‘the poor bitch has hung herself’’ (Kennedy). Their brutal exchange establishes at that moment an astonishing counterpoint to our own feelings of shock and outrage. The image of Sarah, that young yet ancient Negro figure, hanging amidst her dusty volumes and old yellow walls, is one that remains long in the mind. For her inability to resist the pressures of society and to resolve the conflicts which raged within her is a vivid reminder of the fragile nature of all psychic balance. Her death also emphasizes the perils of wish-fulfillment, evasion, and escape as methods of alleviating the anguish of the present moment. Even if such impulses stem quite understandably from the enormity of the problems and the intensity of the suffering, they are addictive and crippling, and Miss Kennedy reminds us of the age-old necessity of possessing one’s own soul. Her view that the modern world is oblivious, if not downright hostile, to spiritual struggles links her work to that of many others writing for the contemporary theater. That her plays have gone unheralded and unappreciated is unfortunate, for Miss Kennedy is undoubtedly one of the foremost playwrights in America today.
Source: Lorraine A. Brown, ‘‘‘For the Characters Are Myself’: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in Negro American Literature Forum, 1975, Vol. 9, pp. 86–88.