Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

JoAnne Akalaitis often combines in her work broad historical elements with highly personal experience, tragic events with absurdities, lofty concepts with homely sayings. In Green Card, she incorporates much of what she used in earlier work with Mabou Mines, the collaborative theater group with whom she formed her reputation as an avant-garde multimedia playwright. Her concern with social issues appears in Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power (pr. 1980, pb. 1982), a play about nuclear power and weapons. Earlier works show less direct concern with contemporary issues. Dressed Like an Egg (pr. 1977, pb. 1984) is more obscure in its themes and topic, with information based loosely on the life of Colette and scenes dealing in some fashion with male and female relationships. Southern Exposure (pr. 1979), while more clearly dealing with an identifiable historical event, the first exploration of the Antarctic, is still similar to Green Card in its unconventional techniques and juxtaposition of dramatic elements.

Despite her desire to have her works experienced directly and spontaneously, much of Akalaitis’s writing profits from close inspection. She researches her material quite thoroughly, and a number of references and quotations from other sources may be missed in a cursory viewing. This is as true of her earlier works as it is of Green Card, but Green Card may appear to be more accessible simply because of the subject matter of immigration, a topic with which most audiences are familiar. Her success may lie in her ability to combine timely subjects with unfamiliar approaches and information. Dead End Kids is her most popular work, and in this she confronts playgoers with a well-worn issue couched in a vast array of contexts, many of which are much clearer in the printed text than they are in performance.

Green Card, like the rest of Akalaitis’s work as playwright and director, provoked mixed responses of outrage, irritation, and admiration. Much of her work makes for uncomfortable entertainment for playgoers, but perhaps her most vehement critic was playwright Samuel Beckett, who protested her direction of the American Repertory Theater production of Fin de partie (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame, 1958). She altered his stage directions, which call for an empty room with two small windows, changing the set to a subway station with a wrecked train in the background; other changes were made as well. Such tampering is an extension of the methods she uses in her own works, and her argument is that in order to keep plays vital, directors and actors must continue to alter sets, lines, and interpretations of plays, regardless of their source.

Some critics have seen much of the value of Akalaitis’s work in her ability to challenge audiences and to stimulate discussion and controversy. Green Card certainly does this, but it does something more important as well. It combines disparate elements of culture, history, and media in a unified work whose structure is a carefully constructed dialectic. Just as the two large parts of the work show the contrast between the idealized view of the Horatio Alger-style immigrant and the oppressed, tortured political refugee, the individual scenes or tableaux provide counterpoints to one another. No single group or period receives special attention, and this evenhanded approach helps create a universal, timeless work. In addition, the selection of details demonstrates that playwright’s wit and erudition, elements which may require second and third viewings or readings of her work. While Green Card may strike playgoers as confusing or disorienting, this organized chaos achieves the aims of JoAnne Akalaitis—to make her audience reconsider their values and their stand, as individuals and as citizens of the nation and the world.

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