The House of Blue Leaves Summary
by John Guare

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,346 words.)