Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493
What happens in the lives of the family of a middle-aged zookeeper, Artie Shaughnessy, in Queens, New York, on October 4, 1965—the day of the Roman Catholic pope’s journey through Queens—is the result of an explosive combination of a lifetime of dreams and realities. Blending historical and personal events, Guare describes the play in his introduction as “a blur of many years that pulled together under the umbrella of the Pope’s visit.”
Based on Guare’s father (who referred to his Wall Street job as a “zoo”), Artie comes home from his job to an untidy house. At home, he devotes his time to playing and singing corny jingles that he has written, with dreams of Hollywood success constantly on his mind. His household consists of his insane wife, Bananas; his mistress, Bunny Flingus, who lives in the apartment below; and his eighteen-year-old son, Ronnie, currently a serviceman stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Artie, with the knowledge of Bunny, is in the process of making arrangements to put Bananas into an asylum. Ronnie arrives, unnoticed, with a box of explosives intended for the pope but which, in the course of the play’s manic action, go off accidentally, killing three visitors, two nuns, and a visiting Hollywood actress. Ronnie, Bunny, and three visiting nuns maneuver to get as near the pope as they can, each for personal reasons. Among the frenetic events and images of the play, one of the most hilarious is that of the nuns, whose dreams of seeing the pope in person are thwarted; one ends up photographing another who is hugging the television picture of the pope.
The play’s title derives from Artie’s description of a tree near the asylum to which he plans to remove his insane wife. To get out of the rain, he walks under the tree, the leaves of which turn into birds “waiting to go to Florida or California.” After the birds’ flight to another tree, the bare tree bursts into blossom again. Like those unrealistic blue leaves, the fantasies of Guare’s characters keep returning, their insistence suggesting a permanence denied them in the practical world.
Guare’s style, that of the dream in which anything can happen, brings together in one rich, highly detailed tapestry the diverse color and strands of his own life—Catholicism, politics, and art. He points to Ronnie’s childhood scene with Uncle Billy—the one member of his family whose Hollywood dreams have been realized—as “an exact word-for-word reportage” of a boyhood event. The image of Billy hovers over the play from start to finish, its destructive influence symbolized by Ronnie’s bomb. Dedicating the play to his parents, Guare seems to exorcise their hold on him: “I liked them, loved them, stayed too long, and didn’t go away.” His comment is a perverse variation of a song written by his father for Guare’s mother before Guare’s birth.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
Zookeeper and would-be songwriter Artie Shaughnessy plays and sings to unreceptive, jeering patrons of El Dorado Bar on amateur night. Afterward, in his cluttered apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, he sleeps on the living-room couch, dreaming aloud that his son Ronnie comes to New York as pope. Meanwhile, Ronnie, dressed in Army fatigues, surreptitiously climbs through the unlocked window into his old bedroom. Artie’s dream is interrupted by the arrival of his neighbor and lover, Bunny Flingus, who excitedly admonishes him to get dressed so they can attend the pope’s motorcade outside and secure the pope’s blessing on their union and on Artie’s music, which will ensure their marriage and a Hollywood songwriting career. Artie agrees to get dressed on the condition that Bunny cook for him, but she refuses, denying him her cuisine (although not her bed) until their wedding.
As they talk, Artie’s sickly wife, Bananas, enters in nightclothes; she, remaining unnoticed, then returns to her room and cries out. She returns to the room, hysterical, and becomes calmer after Artie forces sedatives down her, while Bunny hides in the kitchen. Artie then feeds Bananas, who behaves like a puppy. Bunny emerges from the kitchen and confronts Artie about divorce. Artie tells Bananas that he has found for her a sanatorium. He describes a lovely tree there, with blue leaves, leaves that blew away in the form of a flock of bluebirds to canopy another tree, leaving the first one bare.
Sensing Artie’s indecision, Bunny insists that he call his old friend Billy Einhorn, the famous Hollywood moviemaker. Challenged, Artie telephones Billy to tell him that he will be going to Hollywood with Bunny, a woman he first met in a steam bath. As a cheerful Bunny leaves to pack for Hollywood, a depressed Bananas is persuaded by Artie to go with him to see the pope for healing. They leave, taking Artie’s sheet music to be blessed as well.
Ronnie, left alone, sneaks out of his room, cradling a large box that contains a homemade bomb. He delivers a monologue about the ways his father and others disparage him, citing an instance when Einhorn had been in town looking for the ideal American boy for a Huckleberry Finn movie and Ronnie humiliated himself auditioning for Billy, who deemed him retarded. Then Ronnie again secluded himself in his room.
Artie returns with Bananas and Bunny and is greeted by the arrival of Corinna Stroller, a beautiful starlet whose only film was directed by Einhorn, her fiancé. Corinna, who tries not to reveal that she is deaf, wears a transistorized hearing aid that malfunctions, so she disconnects it. When Artie insists that she listen to his songs, his audition is futile. Furthermore, it is interrupted by three shivering nuns who were locked out on the roof while hoping to see the pope and now appear at the window, asking to watch His Holiness on Artie’s television. A startled Corinna drops her transistors and cannot find them. Artie herds the nuns into Ronnie’s room, where Ronnie is discovered dressed as an altar boy. Artie concludes that his son has been chosen to be an attendant to the pope.
Artie resumes auditioning. At Bananas’s sly request, Artie plays his first composed song and then “White Christmas,” which brings to his attention that both songs have the same tune. Angry with Bananas for this exposure, Artie calls the sanatorium and asks an attendant to come for her. Corinna announces that she and Billy plan marriage and a two-year stay in Australia, which will leave Artie without a Hollywood connection. Dismayed, Artie remains deaf to Ronnie’s announced intention to blow up the pope. A struggle between Ronnie and the nuns ensues when Corrina, in departing, offers two tickets to the mass at Yankee Stadium. Also pursuing Ronnie is an officer who arrives to arrest him for being absent without leave from his unit, which is destined for Vietnam. Just as a sanatorium attendant arrives to pick up a Mrs. Arthur Shaughnessy, Bunny enters and answers to the name, thus being mistakenly straitjacketed and dragged away. Striving to elude the MP, Ronnie tosses the packaged bomb to an unsuspecting Corinna as she leaves. It explodes in the hallway, killing her and two of the nuns.
Einhorn arrives from Hollywood to mourn his beloved as Artie, amid feigned consolation, tries to persuade Einhorn to take him to Hollywood. Bananas appears and demands that Einhorn rescue Ronnie, whereupon Einhorn calls the Pentagon and gets Ronnie assigned to Rome, to be near the pope. Bunny brings in a meal for Einhorn that causes him to ask her to accompany him to Australia. He advises Artie to stay in Queens, where he can remain Einhorn’s ideal audience and can care for Bananas. His dreams shattered, Artie is left alone with his wife. As he kisses her tenderly, he gently strangles her in despairing love. As her body becomes lifeless, blue leaves begin to fall, and Artie goes into his act for the Eldorado, singing “I’m Here with Bells On.”