The House of Blue Leaves

by John Guare

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Critical Overview

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Since its first production in 1971, The House of Blue Leaves has been a controversial work. This controversy stems from that fact that Guare blends several, seemingly contradictory elements: black comedy and farce with drama.

For example, Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review of Literature maintained ‘‘John Guare’s Off-Broadway hit The House of Blue Leaves . . . outrageously yet responsibly depicts the doomed career of Artie Shaughnessy. . . .’’ Later in the same review, Hewes contended, ‘‘Guare’s comic facility is inextricable from an utter and moving emotional sincerity.’’

Hewes is representative of critics who perceive The House of Blue Leaves as a unique balance of these elements. Indeed, he concluded his review by asserting that ‘‘its delights are so great and its vision so essentially true that I find myself valuing it more highly than any new play this season.’’

Others critics appreciated the balance that Guare attempts to maintain but contended that he fails in one or more elements. Harold Clurman in The Nation asserted, ‘‘John Guare’s most striking talent is for savage farce. . . . Still, the play remains unful- filled. . . .’’ Clurman c ontinued: ‘‘[S]omething disturbs it. That ‘something’ . . . causes Guare to inject elements of cruel sorrow into the proceedings. There is nothing at all mirthful about the madness of Artie’s wife nor in the play’s final moments when he strangles her.’’

Clive Barnes of The New York Times explained: ‘‘His play would have been better—and perhaps even funnier—had it been about something lending itself to more formulation than despair. There is a predictability and, at the same time, shapelessness of plot that is, in the ultimate count, unworthy of the macabre zaniness of the writing.’’

Edith Oliver identified the problem for many of the critics. She contended, ‘‘Actually, this play could be considered a whole series of shock treatments, and often I was as horrified at myself for laughing (which I did a lot) as I was at what I saw and heard on the stage.’’

Other contemporary critics found no merit to Guare’s work. Julius Novick of The New York Times maintained, ‘‘Some of Mr. Guare’s comic conceits are in themselves somewhat lame, but the essential problem is that the farce and the agony seem to violate each other instead of reinforcing each other.’’ Novick concluded, ‘‘The author’s attitude towards the human misery he has created often seems trivial and exploitative: let’s go to Bedlam and laugh at all the funny lunatics.’’

The controversy raged once again when a revival of the The House of Blue Leaves opened on Broadway fifteen years later. William A. Henry III is typical when he contended, ‘‘Guare’s satire may seem a bit less fresh and daring than it did 15 years ago, if only because it has spawned so many imitators, but in the joyous and all but flawless revival at the Lincoln Center, his jokes break up audiences as dizzyingly as ever. So do the wrenching emotional scenes of a boldly tragicomic plot.’’

Michael Malone of The Nation concurred. He claimed, ‘‘Blue Leaves is dark and full of diamonds. . . . It’s a marvelous, maniacal tragicomedy, full of waggish merriment, razor sharp in its mordant wit but never cutting out the hearts of its characters, or turning away from their keen aches.’’

Other critics, such as Leo Sauvage of The New Leader and Robert Brustein of The New Republic, were not as amused by the situations or the set-up. Brustein asserted, ‘‘The House of Blue Leaves is black comedy sense through rose-colored glasses. It ends with a shoc k. . . . But it’s tough to accept a tragic climax after having been encouraged all night to regard murder, madness, physical affliction, adultery, and assassination as occasions for gags.’’ Brustein compared the plot of the play to a television sitcom, an ironic touch considering the role television plays in The House of Blue Leaves.

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Critical Evaluation


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