Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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 with relics of...

(The entire section contains 1486 words.)

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