Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves won the five drama awards of the 1970-1971 season, including the Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best American Play. In 1986, it was well received in a New York revival that garnered four Tony awards and an effective PBS production. Preceded by twelve produced one-act plays, Guare’s first full-length play was followed by others, including the award-winning collaborative musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993). However, The House of Blue Leaves is considered by many to be his most important work, clearly revealing his characteristic ability to blend tragedy and farce.

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Guare uses the comic chaos of the Shaughnessy household to call attention to the American obsession with facile success and with a value system in which the pope and movie stars are indistinguishable media gods, television is a shrine, and assassins are glorified in headlines. Middle-aged Artie, with his small talent but big dreams of writing hit songs, represents the little people who succumb to the materialistic, celebrity-worshiping American ethos and yet are trapped by the inescapable economic and domestic problems of their lives. Encouraged to revere surface fame rather than to develop inner resources, people are lured by the outwardly apparent beauty, fame, money, power of a celebrity’s success, and these qualities become the basis of their value structure. Such people are bitterly disappointed when the better life they pursue proves unattainable. A native of New York City’s Queens, Guare is aware of the problems of urban folk who dream of escaping their unalluring middle-class environment.

Guare employs farcical and absurdist action against a realistic background and a linear plot to set up a counterpoint with the desperation and unrealistic dreams of the characters’ lives. Supported by Bunny, Artie believes that the pope’s blessing and his moviemaker friend Billy Einhorn will allow him to escape a long marriage with a troubled wife to find salvation through success in Hollywood as a songwriter. His dreams explode when Einhorn steals Bunny away and leaves Artie behind in Queens with his wife, whom Artie then strangles as his only way to escape reality. By the play’s conclusion, friendship, marriage, and extramarital affairs have all proved hollow, and religious beliefs have proved to be driven by false secular values.

In his foreword to the play, Guare attributes his mixture of genres to seeing tragic drama by August Strindberg and a farce by Georges Feydeau on two successive nights and determining that if these disparate authors had been conjoined, their offspring could be The House of Blue Leaves. Guare combines tragedy and comedy and farce, satire, and absurdist comedy with social criticism. Cartoon characterizations are juxtaposed with such realistic elements as the nonfarcical character of Bananas, a shabby Queens apartment, and historical events. On twelve occasions, the characters directly address the audience, an important device in reinforcing the play’s mixture of styles: Artie addresses the audience as bar patrons at both the start and end of the play; Bananas notices the audience and welcomes them into her home; and Bunny addresses many observations directly to the theater, as does the bomb-making Ronnie in his long monologue. In addition to bridging the gulf between audience and stage and creating a sense of comic detachment, the device heightens the blurring between fantasy and reality that is embodied by Artie and Bunny.

Guare’s use of farcical devices, irony, and black humor, achieved through juxtaposition of the fantastic with the realistic and of the ridiculous with the painful, is apparent in several of the author’s other plays, which also show the author attacking the false value systems of American culture. Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1973) highlights a famous astronaut attempting to live up to his heroic media image while isolated from his normal world. In Rich and Famous (1974), a protagonist stops at nothing, including the staging of his own suicide, to become a famous playwright. In Six Degrees of Separation, a young African American hustler lives out his own fantasy to be an accepted member of high society by posing as a college-educated son of Sidney Poitier.

Critics have been divided on the artistic success of The House of Blue Leaves. For some, the juxtaposition of absurdist comedy with realistic pathos represents the plays’s distinctive strength, and they find an inner coherence of vision and incident within the play’s apparent formlessness. For other critics, such a mixture hinders the comedy by encouraging laughter at the essentially tragic. However, even reviewers objecting to the mixture of forms agree that The House of Blue Leaves is a powerful play of its day.

Guare sees a dichotomy in American society and relies on nonconventional devices to express his insights. Beneath the play’s irony and mordantly humorous attacks, however, there lies a belief in humanity and an intuitive feeling for the mystery of life’s purposes. These qualities, concluded the English critic John Harrop, render Guare more quintessentially American than those contemporaries who glibly speak of American virtues. Guare’s vision and the means he uses to project that vision set him apart and render his play and his work distinctive.

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