The House of Blue Leaves

by John Guare

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Critical Context

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The theme of fame and its obsession is continued in several of John Guare’s plays after The House of Blue Leaves. In Marco Polo Sings a Solo (pr. 1973), the character of Frank Schaeffer is a famous astronaut trying to live up to his heroic media image while isolated from his whole world. In Rich and Famous (pr. 1974), Bing Ringling is another incarnation of Artie Shaughnessy, stopping at nothing (including killing his parents) to become a famous playwright. His obsession with fame is manifested in his monogrammed cufflinks: Not B and R for Bing Ringling, but R and F for “Rich and Famous.” Rich and Famous is more closely autobiographical than The House of Blue Leaves—in fact, the way Ringling seeks fame is through autobiographical plays like Guare’s—but in both the autobiography is distorted by surrealism and caricature.

Though The House of Blue Leaves won several Off-Broadway awards (the Obie, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award), was published in a critical edition, and was produced as a modern American classic for PBS in 1987, critics are divided on how successful it is artistically. For some critics (Edith Oliver in The New Yorker, Henry Hewes in Saturday Review, and Walter Kerr in The New York Times), the confusion of absurdist comedy and realistic pathos is a source of the play’s distinctive strength. For others (Clive Barnes and Julius Novick in The New York Times and Harold Clurman in The Nation), the combination blunts the comedy by making the audience laugh at what is essentially tragic. In a summary of these reviews, however, Samuel J. Bernstein has suggested, citing Guare’s nine revisions of act 2, that the play’s formlessness is only apparent and “conceals an inner coherence of consistent mood, dynamics, and vision, if not incident.” Even the reviewers who object to the mixture of forms, however, agree that The House of Blue Leaves is one of the most powerful plays of its day.

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Critical Evaluation