The House of Blue Leaves

by John Guare

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Spectrum of Women's Morality in The House of Blue Leaves

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Much of the critical attention paid to John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves focuses on the character of Artie Shaughnessy. Artie desperately wants to escape his life in Queens and longs for fame. Unfortunately, he is unrealistic about his life and his chances for success.

Although many critics note that Bunny Flingus, his mistress, pushes Artie to revive his career and that Bananas Shaughnessy, his wife, impedes Artie’s efforts, the spectrum of female characters is rarely analyzed on its own. Each of the female characters, two major (Bunny and Bananas) and two minor (Corrinna Stroller and the Little Nun), works to a specific end.

Bunny and Bananas are opposite ends of the spectrum. Bunny’s life is defined by media-driven fantasy. Bananas is most in touch with reality, though she is suffering with mentally illness. Corrinna and the Little Nun fit in between them. Corrinna is the movie star; the Little Nun is oppressed by the reality of her chosen profession and is only freed from it because of the death of her two nun companions. This essay explores each female character and determines their role in the moral tug-of-war of the play.

One of the biggest ironies in The House of Blue Leaves is the fact that Bananas Shaughnessy seems crazy, yet speaks profound, sometimes moral insights into play’s events. Her words may seem like ravings, but they are discerning and often insightful.

For example, Bananas knows that her husband is having an affair. She silently observes Bunny and Artie together in the beginning of Act I for a few moments. When she announces her presence, she knows that Artie is tired of dealing with her. She yells things like ‘‘You hate my looks—my face— my clothes—you hate me,’’ then a few seconds later she states, ‘‘I know you love me.’’ While this may sound contradictory, it is also true. Artie does both hate her and love her. He wants to be free, yet he worries about her well-being.

Bananas tries to bring her husband back to reality in unusual ways. She acts like a dog a couple of times, but as she points out, ‘‘I like being animals. You know why? I never heard of a famous animal. Oh, a couple of Lassies—an occasional Trigger— but, by and large, animals weren’t meant to be famous.’’ She explains this to her husband because she wants him to stay with her and retain his job as a zookeeper.

Bananas does not like fame, essentially because after one encounter with celebrity in Manhattan, she became the butt of a joke broadcast on national television. She knows the reality of fame; in particular, the humiliation and hurt it can bring.

Bananas also has a sharp ear, which she uses to discourage her husband. When Artie ‘‘auditions’’ for Corrinna, Bananas requests one of his old songs, ‘‘I Love You So I Keep Dreaming.’’ After a few lines, she demands that he play ‘‘White Christmas.’’ She points out, and the stage directions confirm, that they are the same song.

This embarrasses Artie but demonstrates that Bananas has some fight left in her. She wants to hold on to her husband, and while this action ends up angering him, it is one of the only ways she can accomplish her goal. This action drives him to explore ways of finally getting rid of her so he can pursue his career and his mistress.

In the next scene, Bananas tries to burn Bunny by letting hot water seep into Bunny’s downstairs apartment. Although this particular action fails, Bananas ultimately gets her way. When Bunny decides to...

(This entire section contains 1549 words.)

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live with Billy in Australia, Bananas lets her take the copper pot she admires. She knows she has won. Yet Artie cannot take this defeat and eventually kills Bananas at the end of the play.

Bunny is the opposite of Bananas. Bunny is focused on one thing: attaching herself to someone famous and successful. Bunny tells Artie at one point, ‘‘Billy will get your songs in movies. It’s not too late to start. With me behind you!’’

All of Bunny’s values are formed by television and magazines. For example, Bunny views the Pope’s visit as not a religious or cultural event, but as pure entertainment, like the opening of a movie or a play. At one point she excitedly exclaims, ‘‘I haven’t seen so many people, Artie, so excited since the premiere of Cleopatra. It’s that big.’’ The fact that Artie might get his sheet music blessed or that Bunny could read the passing as kind of a blessing on her relationship with Artie is only secondary.

Bunny uses the same faulty logic in her treatment of Bananas, her rival. As soon as Bananas makes an appearance, Bunny begins to taunt her. She tries to convince Bananas to go to Mexico for a quickie divorce, but Artie points out that Bananas can barely leave the house.

Bunny also accuses Bananas of faking her illness, based on what she has learned from films. She tells Bananas, ‘‘I know these sick wives. I’ve seen a dozen like you in the movies. . . . You live in wheelchairs just to hold your husband and the minute your husband’s out of the room, you’re hopped out of your wheel chair doing the Charleston and making a general spectacle of yourself.’’

A short time later, Bunny compares Bananas’s fear of shock treatments to something she read in a movie magazine about an actress’s desperate need for curlers. Bunny makes such belittling comments throughout the play to humiliate Bananas in front of Artie.

Bunny tries to control Artie. She gets angry when she learns that he performed the night before at the El Dorado amateur night. Later, she is dismissive of his job at the zoo, accusing him of being ‘‘afraid’’ of success until she came along.

But Bunny’s attempts to control the situation ultimately fail. She ignores the fact that Artie still has some feelings for his wife, and that Bananas is a bit more intelligent than she thinks. Bunny only sees her goal—being kept by a successful man—and does not perceive the complete situation.

Bunny ends up getting what she wants in an unexpected way. The Hollywood director, Billy Einhorn, steals her away with promise of two years in Australia and a glamorous lifestyle. Her departure leaves Artie humiliated and without emotional support and ultimately leads to him murdering his wife.

While Bunny inhabits one end of the moral spectrum, and Bananas the other, Corrinna Stroller and the Little Nun exist in the middle. They are more balanced people, but each represent different things.

Corrinna represents what happens when dreams come true; she is a successful actress and Billy’s girlfriend. In the one movie she has appeared in, Warmonger, she lost her hearing because of an accident on the set. A sweet, polite woman, she seems to have handled success and tragedy very well. Unfortunately, Corrinna ends up having her hearing aid transistors disappear and dying in an explosion.

The Little Nun represents reality; a confused, unhappy young woman, she is one of three nuns that get stuck on the roof trying to get a good view of the Pope. She suffers at the hands of her sisters, because they treat her like a child. When she sees peanut butter, a food they are not allowed to have in the convent, she becomes excited. While she wants the peanut butter, the other nuns express their excitement over beer and color television.

Like Bunny, the Little Nun is influenced by the media. She claims to have watched the movie The Sound of Music thirty-one times and attributes much of her religious calling to that cinematic representation of the sisterhood.

After she manages to secure the tickets to the Pope’s mass in Yankee Stadium, she is told to return home by her companions. This action actually saves the Little Nun’s life, as the other two nuns die in the explosion. She realizes that her life as a nun is unsatisfying. Billy hires her to take care of Bananas and live in Bunny’s old apartment.

Guare has maintained that the main theme of The House of Blue Leaves is humiliation. As this essay has shown, each of the female characters in the play are humiliated in one way or another, and, in the case of Bunny and Bananas, humiliate others. The moral spectrum that they represent is broad and divergent, but it determines the extent of their humiliation and ability to humiliate. Guare’s focus on the quest for fame is just a means to an end.

At the play’s core, Guare is really exploring how humans disregard each other and their feelings and how isolated humans are from each other. Artie’s humiliations are related to his individual relationships with these women, from the crazy Bananas to the nun who will take Bunny’s apartment and care for his wife. These humiliations drive him to murder his wife and open up the possibility for a whole new set of humiliations in prison.

Source: A. Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Petrusso is a freelance writer and screenwriter.

Review of House of Blue Leaves

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There is standing room only at The House of Blue Leaves these days. John Guare’s black comedy about a Queen’s songwriting zookeeper, his pathetically disturbed wife and preposterously complacent mistress is now enjoying a well-deserved successful revival in a brilliantly staged production at New York City’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, which has itself been recently revived from darkness. Blue Leaves is the discovery of the season, the new hot ticket, although the play is neither new nor previously neglected. Sixteen years ago, Blue Leaves won the New York and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards; since then, college, community and stock theaters have frequently performed it. But this year it has received eight Tony nominations, including one for the best play of 1986. To be eligible, a play need only have never been previously produced ‘‘on Broadway,’’ which means of course that, with any luck, one of these days Aristophanes or Beaumont and Fletcher could grab the gold statue.

This ruling puts Blue Leaves in competition with Michael Frayn’s Benefactors (already recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play), and with Athol Fugard’s Bloodknot (a revival, now closed), but not with Joe Orton’s Loot or O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, both of which are nominated for less prestigious Tony’s as Best Reproductions. That Blue Leaves is no less a revival than these three, and no more on Broadway than Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (recipient of the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, but excluded from Tony consideration) has caused some flapdoodle among theater critics, whose dismay at the illogic of the Tony committee reveals a touching idealism that borders on the prelapsarian. Why should they expect prizes in the arts to be any more reasonable than prizes on Let’s Make a Deal? Why, with theater attendance and box-office income so low, with only thirty-three openings this season (the lowest in Broadway history), should we do anything but rejoice at every good play, newborn or resurrected, that succeeds in getting itself soundly ‘‘clapper- clawed by the vulgar’’?

In a way, Blue Leaves is about prizes, about yearning for them. Its characters are all dreamers; they dream of fame and of the famous. They want what the famous have: laurel and loot, stardust and a place in the sun. This unending American dream (American tragedy)—that we all could have been, should have been, contenders for the only spot there is, the number-one spot—brings Artie Shaughnessy to the El Dorado Bar Amateur Night as the play opens, to sing his heart out (‘‘I wrote all these songs. Words and the music’’) in hopes of a blue spotlight. In the clichés of his lyrics we hear that dream. ‘‘I’m looking for Something.’’ ‘‘I’m here with bells on. Ring! Ring! Ring!’’

Then, on the Beaumont stage, behind the Shaughnessys’ humdrum Queens apartment crammed with its tawdry gewgaws and totems of fame, in rhythm with the blare of Strauss’s ‘‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’’ (better known perhaps as the soundtrack from 2001, or as Elvis Presley’s concert theme song), the glittering lights of Manhattan’s skyline appear. The audience laughs; no doubt we’re supposed to. But those bright towers of big-time success are as near and as far from Artie Shaughnessy in Queens as they were from Willy Loman in Brooklyn. As Guare has written about this play and its genesis in his Catholic boyhood in Queens, ‘‘How do you run away to your dreams when you’re already there?’’ He holds his characters’ failed aspirations and their absurd worship of celebrity up to a lampooning, madcap mockery that some have called cruel, but his contempt is reserved for the culture, not the creatures who have fed on its junk food of TV and tabloids. Indeed, the sadness of Blue Leaves centers, by Guare’s account, on the cruelty of our national dream of success: ‘‘Everyone in the play is constantly being humiliated by their dreams, their lives, their wants, their best parts. . . . I’m not interested so much in how people survive as in how they avoid humiliation . . . avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.’’ For the truth is that Artie Shaughnessy is never going to win prizes, any more than Chekhov’s three sisters are ever going to get to Moscow, any more than Williams’s crippled Laura will ever find a gentleman caller or Willy Loman ever follow his brother Ben into the jungle that’s ‘‘dark but full of diamonds’’ and walk out a rich man.

Blue Leaves is dark and full of diamonds, and I hope it wins all the prizes it can. 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. Here, as in plays like Landscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect (also revived this season), Guare has the nimbleness to run up and down the scaffold of gallows humor, cap and bells on his head, the comic sock on one foot, the tragic buskin on the other, without tripping into either burlesque or bathos. According to him, the impetus for this tightroping came from seeing Laurence Olivier perform in Dance of Death and A Flea in Her Ear on successive nights. ‘‘Why,’’ he decided, ‘‘shouldn’t Strindberg and Feydeau get married [or] at least live together, and The House of Blue Leaves be their child?’’ To help him keep his balance, Guare has been blessed by strong direction from Jerry Zaks, wonderful sets and lighting by Tony Walton and Paul Gallo, and, most of all, by consummate acting from his cast, particularly Swoosie Kurtz as the fantastical wife and Stockard Channing as the garrulous mistress. The performances of both women are extraordinary—exquisitely evolved, perfectly sustained and played together in a duet of comic counterpoint that is dazzling to watch.

Blue Leaves takes place on a day in 1965 when the Pope drove through Queens on his way to the United Nations to help stop the war in Vietnam. (On that actual day, Guare—in an irony worthy of his drama—had finally achieved his nun teachers’ dream of touring the Vatican.) While crowds gather on the sidewalks, more excited than they’ve been since the premiere of Cleopatra, Artie (played with great charm by John Mahoney) dreams of his son, a recruit bound for Vietnam, becoming Pope and making his dad Saint in Charge of Hymn-Writing. Bunny, Artie’s deliciously tacky mistress, a strutting compendium of hackneyed sentiments and Dale Carnegie optimism, urges him to wake up, to go get his songs blessed by the Pope, go get his wife put in a mental institution and, most emphatically, to get the two of them to Billy, Artie’s old friend, a movie big shot in California. There they will have a new life where dreams can come true. Then and only then will she cook for him; until they’re legally wed, he will have to content himself with sex, and with looking at photos of her dishes in a scrapbook hidden under the couch.

The scrapbook is hidden there from Bananas, Artie’s mentally disturbed wife, who wanders eerily through the house she has been too frightened to leave since her suicide attempt several months ago. Its windows are now barred by an iron gate, because, like the mother in Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect, like the mother in O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey, like the mothers and wives in so many American plays and in so much of American life, Bananas bears the psychic burden of her family’s failures; she feels the pain, screams the truth and for doing so has to be sedated with pills or sent away to an institution, the house of Blue Leaves (the leaves were really bluebirds that flew off and left the boughs bare). Through the luminous sensitivity of Swoosie Kurtz’s portrayal, Bananas transcends the pathos of her delusions and stands at the play’s center, quiet as grief, heartbreaking as honesty. She moves quietly in and out of Guare’s hilarious, absurdist parade of deaf starlets, monstrous moguls, terrorist sons and a trio of madcap nuns who roar on stage like the Marx brothers in habits. Bananas stands there with the lucidity of madness and asks us to laugh and cry with her at all their—all our—lost dreams. Artie cannot escape her truth even by destroying her. Nor can we, no more than dreamer Tom in The Glass Menagerie (fled to cities that ‘‘swept about me like dead leaves, brightly colored, torn from branches’’) could escape the vision of his lost sister. The triumph of Blue Leaves and of its performers is that we cannot forget the sorrows that blue spotlights disguise. It is that knowledge that makes Guare not just the older but the wiser brother of tour de farce writers like Christopher Durang. If, as the successes of Blue Leaves and Orton’s Loot suggest, audiences are now prepared to welcome this darker, zanier humor into the theatrical mainstream, then our theater is fortunate to have ready in the wings not only a master of laughter but a poet of compassion.

Source: Michael Malone. Review of House of Blue Leaves in the Nation, Vol. 242, no. 22, June 7, 1986, pp. 798–800.

Old and Improved

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The revival of John Guare’s ‘‘The House of Blue Leaves,’’ at the Newhouse, in Lincoln Center, is infinitely better than its original production, fifteen years ago—and I had not thought anything could be. The play now seems deeper, sadder, more passionate, and even funnier, if that is conceivable. The actors—and what actors!—make clear much that might have been unnoticed before. ‘‘The House of Blue Leaves,’’ in case anyone needs reminding, is a satiric farce about a middle-aged zookeeper, named Artie Shaughnessy, who has a knack for writing imitations of cheap popular songs, and who is the victim of a number of American dreams, which finally destroy him. The place is his living room in Sunnyside, Queens; the time is October 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI flew to New York to appear before the United Nations General Assembly to plead for an end to war—perhaps specifically the war in Vietnam (and perhaps, by blessing Artie’s sheet music, to ease his way to Hollywood and an Academy Award). Artie lives with his wife, who has recently gone mad and is nicknamed Bananas; he wants to put her in a sanitarium (the house of the title), run off to California with Bunny Flingus, his downstairs neighbor and mistress, who is eagerly abetting him, and then get a job with his best friend, a prominent movie director. Bananas resists the hospital, because she is terrified of shock treatments. As I remarked in my original review, ‘‘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 heard and saw on the stage.’’ The plot is wild and arbitrary and always outrageous. The other characters are a movie star, deafened by an explosion during the making of her latest picture, who is the director’s girlfriend; the Shaughnessys’ son, AWOL after twenty-one days in the Army, who arrives with a homemade bomb, his target being the Pope; three goofy nuns, who have been watching the Pope’s motorcade from the roof of the Shaughnessys’ apartment house; and, finally, the great director himself. The bomb misses the Pope, but it does go off, taking its toll of the assembled company.

Guare’s marvellous comic writing, in which every word plays, and his ferocious high spirits glow more than ever in these drab days, but the performance, under the acute, sensitive direction of Jerry Zaks, is what makes most of the difference between the first production and this one. John Mahoney, who appeared as the older man in last year’s ‘‘Orphans,’’ is Artie Shaughnessy to the life, in all his loony optimism and desperation. But the phenomenal Swoosie Kurtz, as Bananas, in every line and monologue changes what might have been a merely pathetic character into a tragic figure, helpless and loving and demented, and smarter than anyone around her—all this without sacrificing any of the comedy. Stockard Channing is flint-hearted Bunny, and although the caustic tongue of Anne Meara, the original Bunny, is unforgettable, Miss Channing, padded to plumpness, makes the part her own from the moment she enters, stuffing strips of newspaper into her plastic boots against the cold and issuing orders. Christopher Walken, sporting an impeccable Queens accent, is the movie director. Julie Hagerty is the beautiful movie star trying to conceal her deafness from her admirers. Everybody is good. But the true star is John Guare. The play has been well served by the designers: Tony Walton, who conceived that awful apartment; Ann Roth, who created the witty costumes; and Paul Gallo, who devised the lighting.

Source: Edith Oliver. ‘‘Old and Improved’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. 62, March 31, 1986, pp. 66–67.

Crazed Husbands, Crazy Wives

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When John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves sprouted here in 1971, the theater of the absurd still enjoyed an American afterlife; Guare, moreover, was able to crossbreed American madcap farce with imported absurdism, as if Ionesco had collaborated with George Abbott. And he could introduce bits of true poignance into a blend that, even if it did not quite come off, offered, along with withering ironies and wistful clowning, passages of pure whimsy. A fair portion of this survives in the perky revival Jerry Zaks has mounted for the Lincoln Center Theater, although some timeliness, surprise, and bite are, perhaps inevitably, gone.

The basic situation is delightfully painful: A zookeeper, Artie Shaughnessy, pursues his dream of becoming a big Hollywood songwriter. Urging him on is his enthusiastic but silly mistress of two months, Bunny Flingus; holding him back, however passively, is his demented wife, Bananas, whom he can’t bring himself to commit. Luring him on is a vague, extorted promise from his school chum Billy Einhorn, now a successful movie director; further enmeshing him is a whole human zoo that stampedes into his modest Queens apartment, notably his violently lunatic son, Ronnie, AWOL from Fort Dix and planning to blow up Pope Paul on his current visit to New York. Zaks’s directing, however, is much better with the comedy than with the anguish; with the mad hokum, not the madness that hurts: Corrinna Stroller, Einhorn’s mistress, who went deaf from an explosion in the first movie Billy couch-cast her in, was funny and moving as played by Margaret Linn and directed by Mel Shapiro in the original production; here, as performed by the gifted Julie Hagerty, she is only funny.

The comedy routines, though, flourish expectably under Zaks, who gets almost a whole comic act’s worth from the mere prologue, in which Artie performs some of his dismal, but not much worse than average, songs at the El Dorado Bar & Grill in Sunnyside. That Artie is played by a superlative actor, John Mahoney, makes the milking of that scene as hilarious as it is harrowing, and casts the right tragicomic shadow over the rest of the play. Throughout, Mahoney inspiredly allows sadness to peep through his comedy and absurdity to puncture his pathos. He is brilliantly flanked by Swoosie Kurtz, whose Bananas lets you see what a serious business madness is, how heart-rendingly hard a nonfunctional mind must work to little avail, how shattering are the stray truths from the mouths of the cracked; and by Stockard Channing, whose Bunny is as earnestly philosophical as only certain very stupid people can be, and who delivers herself of her practical asininities for an asinine world with a wonderful mixture of modesty and pride.

Though nowhere near this sublime trio, the others will do, even if Ben Stiller makes the hapless Ronnie more one-stringed than called for. Billy Einhorn is an underwritten part, but Christopher Walken, giving one of his more zonked performances, further deflates it. He does, however, sport one of the most satirical hairdos I’ve ever encountered. Tony Walton’s set of a burrow under the Queensboro Bridge, surrounded by bristling urban blight, is smashing, and Ann Roth’s costumes and Paul Gallo’s lighting are right down there too. Only the final image, the apartment filling up with the blue leaves of insanity, is not brought off as well as the stage direction reads.

Source: John Simon. ‘‘Crazed Husbands, Crazy Wives’’ in New York, Vol. 19, no. 13, March 31, 1986, p. 72.


Critical Overview