Funnyhouse of a Negro

by Adrienne Kennedy

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Themes and Meanings

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Funnyhouse of a Negro is a one-act play that combines the playwright’s personal experience and larger social concerns through a deliberately nonrealistic, often dreamlike style of dramatic presentation. To a significant extent, the play uses devices that are expressionistic, that is, that depict the main character’s internal rather than external notions of reality. Much of what the audience and readers encounter is intended to depict what is going on inside Sarah’s torn and troubled mind. Thus, the images of Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg as they appear at the beginning of the play are meant to reveal something about how Sarah feels about herself. Because both characters are represented as women with distinguished European titles who wear masks or makeup to hide their black identities, they seem to suggest that Sarah tries to use her knowledge of Western culture to cover up her African American ancestry.

The play also relies on some of the conventions of what has become known as the Theatre of the Absurd. The plot seeks to explore how certain situations feel rather than to tell a story. The importance of language is diminished, while spectacle and nonlinguistic sound take on a larger, highly symbolic meaning. Thus, the play appears to be fragmented and illogical, progressing in short scenes with irrational dialogue and bizarre visual effects. The often repetitive and nonsensical speeches by different characters make the audience look to the sights and sounds of the play for meaning. For example, in the long jungle scene near the end of the play, what the characters are saying seems to matter far less than their tone of voice—frenetic, maniacal laughter—and their dramatic emergence from the jungle, which has taken over the stage.

With these techniques in mind, audience members and readers may see particular symbolic patterns surface that on first sight appear peculiar but after some consideration appear to make sense, much as an image in a dream may initially seem incongruous but eventually becomes understandable. The playwright’s preoccupation with hair, for instance, remains an odd but consistent motif. Sarah’s loss of hair, the bald head carried by the Mother, the fear of various characters of disease characterized by hair loss, and the red bag that contains hair may at first seem meaningless but begin to connect various pieces of Sarah’s mind.

Although the play is obviously not written as a realistic protest drama, it clearly points toward major sociopolitical and cultural issues that originated in the 1960’s. The theme of identity is crucial to an interpretation of the play, and ideas about race and background permeate the script. At the same time, one of the play’s most appealing aspects is its ambiguity, perhaps best exemplified by its title. Is the “funny-house” a carnival funhouse, a lunatic asylum or madhouse, or the comedy theater where audiences see the play?

Themes and Meanings

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The struggle of the individual with internalized social and cultural forces is the focal point of most of Adrienne Kennedy’s plays. In particular, she focuses on the internal conflict of the African American, whose existence is a result of the violent blending of European and African cultures. This conflict is imaged in the Negro-Sarah’s idolatrous love of her fair-skinned mother and rejection of her black father. The mother’s whiteness has driven her insane; the father’s darkness has tied him to revolution and bloodshed. Sarah’s eventual escape is suicide.

The play is set in Sarah’s space. The characters in the play are views of herself, or they are inspired by the objects in her room. The space is filled...

(This entire section contains 453 words.)

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with relics of European civilization: dusty books, pictures of castles and monarchs, the bust of Queen Victoria. Sarah’s occupation is writing, the geometric placement of words on white paper. The space is also a coffin; the white material of the curtain looks as though it has been “gnawed by rats.” Throughout the play the space becomes more confining as the walls drop down. Eventually it becomes the jungle, overgrown and wild. In the context of the play’s imagery of death, the jungle represents the earth’s reclamation of the body.

On another level, the play is set within a “funnyhouse,” an “amusement park house of horrors.” Raymond and the Landlady are representations of the two grinning minstrel faces outside the funnyhouse. They are white society mocking the Negro’s confusion. The bald heads and dropping walls are cheap effects designed to create confusion and fear; the mirrors in Raymond’s room conceal true reflections, as distorted funnyhouse mirrors do.

Kennedy is also a woman writer, and the play makes a statement about the roles of black women and white women in society. The mother was light-skinned and beautiful by European standards. There was no destiny for her in society except madness: To be a light-skinned woman is to invite the rape of black men. Sarah is dating a white man, and this seems to give her some power in the scene with Raymond when she is the Duchess of Hapsburg. It is Raymond, however, who is asking the questions and who has control over the environment. Even the white female characters in the play who represent powerful figures are victims of hair loss; they too are unable to escape the dark man who pursues them.

In the playwright’s view, the world is a disturbing place. The lure of power is held out to women, when in fact they are powerless. For the African American, to be assimilated into white society is to go mad or self-destruct.


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At the core of Funnyhouse of a Negro is Sarah’s internal struggle to understand and accept her identity as an African American woman in the United States. Each of Sarah’s four ‘‘selves’’—her subconscious’s way of dealing with her identity issues— represents a facet of Sarah.

Two of her four selves are white European women of royal blood: the Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria. Sarah also has a large statue of Victoria in her room. This emphasizes her desire to identify more with her mother, who was white or a light-skinned African American depending on differing interpretations of the text. The Queen and the Duchess despise Sarah’s dark-skinned father and what she thinks that represents: impurity, beastliness, and evilness.

Two of Sarah’s inner selves are men: Jesus and Patrice Lumumba. The latter is an African revolutionary who was the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After he left office, he was assassinated. He represents Sarah’s father—the dark side of her heritage and her selfhatred. Through the persona of Lumumba, Sarah claims that she killed her father.

Sarah’s fourth self, Jesus, is a dwarf and a hunchback with yellow skin. Jesus represents Sarah’s father as a martyr. Through Jesus, Sarah expresses her desire to kill Lumumba and escape being black.

By the end of Funnyhouse, Sarah realizes that she cannot get escape her racial identity—though she claims she does not have particularly black features—and kills herself.

Alienation and Loneliness
Sarah’s problems with identity in Funnyhouse of a Negro lead to alienation and loneliness. Because she is of mixed heritage—and she has confused ideas about what each heritage represents— she feels alienated from both black and white cultures. This alienation leads to loneliness.

It is implied that Sarah’s father has made numerous attempts to reach his daughter, but she has rejected him repeatedly. Some of her selves claim that he killed himself. So she rejects that side of herself.

Sarah also rejects the white side of herself. She claims her mother is dead or in an asylum. Her landlady does not understand her. Sarah says she does not love her white Jewish boyfriend, a poet named Raymond. She claims, ‘‘He is very interested in Negroes,’’ which implies he is not interested in Sarah for herself, but her racial identity.

Appearances and Reality/ Truth and Falsehood
Both truth and reality are murky in Funnyhouse of a Negro. The truth about Sarah’s parents—their marriage, courtship, the details of Sarah’s conception, if they are alive—is unclear. Each of her four selves, as well as Sarah herself, relates a slightly different story, especially about Sarah’s father.

Furthermore, what Sarah really thinks of herself is also not clear. It is obvious that Sarah has problems with her mixed heritage. Yet she really does not express anything positive about either heritage beyond the idea that white is better than black: the reality of her feelings is essentially indiscernible. Even Sarah’s landlady and boyfriend do not know the real truth about her—Raymond calls her ‘‘a funny little liar’’ after her death.

Because the play takes place primarily in Sarah’s troubled mind, what is true and what is false is not always clear.