The Play

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The House of Blue Leaves opens with a brief prologue in which Artie Shaughnessy plays piano and sings his songs at the El Dorado Bar and Grill, talking to the theater audience as if they were the bar’s patrons. Act 1 opens in Artie’s shabby apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. As Artie snores on the couch, mumbling “Pope Ronnie,” his son Ronnie appears at the barred window, dressed in army fatigues. Ronnie reaches for keys in his father’s discarded pants, unlocks a security gate, enters the apartment, and raids the refrigerator. The doorbell rings, sending Ronnie into his room to hide.

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The person at the door is Bunny Flingus, Artie’s downstairs neighbor and lover. She is cold and angry, and immediately begins lambasting Artie for failing to be prepared or excited about Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York. Artie agrees to come outside and watch the pope only if Bunny will cook for him, something she has refused to do until after they are married: “I’m not that kind of girl.”

During this exchange, Artie’s wife, Bananas, appears in a nightgown, looking ill. She watches for a while, unseen by Bunny or Artie, then returns to her room and calls out. Artie hides Bunny in the kitchen, and Bananas reemerges. True to her name, Bananas begins getting hysterical, and Artie forces a sedative into her mouth. She calms down but begs Artie to let her feel her emotions for a change. He tells about his dream in which Ronnie became pope and made Artie a saint but totally ignored his mother. This gives Artie an inspiration: he rushes to the piano and plays and sings “The Day That the Pope Came to New York.”

Artie prepares breakfast for Bananas, while she goes on all fours, barking like a dog. Bunny returns from the kitchen, insulting Bananas. Artie breaks the news to Bananas that he has found a sanatorium on Long Island, where he hopes to commit her. He describes the place in a lyrical monologue in which the play’s title is explained: On his visit to the sanatorium Artie saw a beautiful tree with blue leaves. The leaves proved to be a flock of birds.

Bunny, sensing that Artie is wavering, insists that he prove he knows the famous film director Billy Einhorn by calling him in the middle of the night. Artie does so and tells Billy that he will be coming to Hollywood with Bunny. While Bunny exits gleefully to pack for the trip, Bananas tells her own dream, and Artie catches a glimpse of the Bananas he once loved. He kneels with her in front of the pope’s image on television and asks the pontiff to heal Bananas. When Bunny returns, her joy turns to anger, for Artie leaves to see the pope with Bananas instead of with her. They leave, taking Artie’s sheet music to be blessed by the pope; Bunny goes out behind them. Act 1 ends with Ronnie coming out of his room carrying a large gift box.

Act 2, scene 1 opens with Ronnie in the same position, holding the box. He takes a homemade bomb out of the box as he tells the audience his life story. He recalls his father playing host to Billy Einhorn when Billy was in town looking for the “Ideal American Boy” to play Huck Finn in a film. Ronnie made a fool of himself in his attempt to get the part, and Billy left in anger. Artie’s return cuts off Ronnie’s monologue, and Ronnie slips back into his room.

Artie’s entrance is interrupted by the appearance of Corrinna Stroller, a film star whose only motion picture was directed by Billy Einhorn. As Artie goes off to fetch Bananas and Bunny, Corrinna confides in the audience that she is deaf and that her hearing aid is not working. Thus, Artie’s frantic “audition” of his songs, which follows, is futile. As he is at the piano, two nuns appear at the window. They had climbed on top of the roof in the hope of seeing the pope and now, disappointed, ask to watch him on Artie’s television. Bananas screams, having burnt herself in the kitchen. Artie blames the nuns and herds them off to Ronnie’s room, where they discover Ronnie dressed as an altar boy.

Artie tries to ignore the confusion and continue his audition. Bananas insists that he play one of his first songs, “I Love You So I Keep Dreaming.” Once again, Artie is reminded of his earlier, happier days with Bananas. The nostalgia disappears, however, when he plays “White Christmas” and discovers that “his” song has the same melody. Crushed and angry at Bananas, he calls the sanatorium and asks that its staff come for her. Corrinna announces that she is going to marry Billy and live with him in Australia for two years, leaving Artie without a connection in Hollywood. She leaves behind tickets to the pope’s mass at Yankee Stadium, over which Ronnie and the nuns fights, chased by an officer who has come to arrest Ronnie for being absent without leave.

A man arrives from the sanatorium with orders to pick up a Mrs. Arthur M. Shaughnessy, just as Bunny enters and announces herself as Mrs. Arthur M. Shaughnessy. Corrinna leaves carrying Ronnie’s package, which explodes in the hall. As all the other characters grapple in slow motion under dim light, Bananas closes the scene by appearing with a detached vacuum-cleaner hose and “tidying up” after the explosion.

Scene 2 finds Artie watching the pope’s United Nations address while Billy sobs over Corrinna’s death. While pretending to offer consolation, Artie tries to convince Billy to take him and his songs to Hollywood. Bananas appears in a gown, a hand-me-down from Billy’s first wife. When he hears about Ronnie’s trouble, Billy calls a friend in the Pentagon and has Ronnie stationed in Rome. Bunny brings in a meal she cooked for Billy, who forgets his grief and asks her to come to Hollywood with him.

Left alone with Bananas, his dreams shattered, Artie kisses his wife tenderly, as piano music plays and blue leaves fall. Artie’s caress turns to a chokehold as he strangles Bananas. As his wife slumps to the floor dead, Artie goes into his act from the El Dorado Bar and Grill.

Dramatic Devices

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The most pervasive dramatic device in The House of Blue Leaves is the metadramatic technique of parabasis, or direct address of the audience by the characters. There are twelve distinct instances, evenly spaced throughout the play. In the prologue Artie addresses the audience as if they were patrons of the El Dorado Bar and Grill on amateur night. Early in act 1, Bananas interrupts the dialogue when she “notices” the audience and welcomes them to her home. At this, Bunny comes to the edge of the stage to confide to the audience her wish that Bananas die. Act 2, scene 1 opens with Ronnie telling his life story to the audience. Corrinna enters next, and as soon as she is alone she turns to the audience and asks them not to tell the other characters that she is deaf; at her exit, she interrupts her conversation with a nun to ask the audience to pray for her recovery from an ear operation. The scene ends with Bananas apologizing to the audience for the mess the explosion has caused. In the middle of act 2, scene 2, Artie apologizes to the audience for the way Ronnie turned out. When Bunny finally cooks for Artie and Billy, Artie again apologizes to the audience: “I wish I had spoons enough for all of you.” When Artie is occupied with the emergency call from the zoo, Bunny tells the audience how all of her wishes have come true. As the Little Nun leaves, she gives the audience her philosophy of life. The play ends with Artie once again addressing the audience as the El Dorado amateur-night crowd.

These dozen instances blur the distinction between the world of the play and the world of its audience. That is how the technique always works, but in The House of Blue Leaves the effect is amplified by characters who cannot separate fantasy from reality. Bananas’ dream of “a terrible fat woman with newspapers for feet . . . talking about hunters up in the sky” is dismissed by Artie as insane babbling, yet Bunny had been rhapsodizing about the constellation Orion the Hunter while stuffing her boots with newspapers for insulation. The depression-and-sedative-distorted vision of Bananas is often clearer and more perceptive than the fantasy-distorted vision of Bunny and Artie.

Another way in which fantasy and reality are confused is in the form of the play itself. Critics have been unable to categorize The House of Blue Leaves. Though it displays many elements of absurdist comedy—the cartoonish characterization, the direct address of the audience, the miscommunication and cliches—the plot is linear and realistic, and the character of Bananas cannot be played farcically. For Artie, as for the play, she becomes a symbol of the reality he can neither deny nor escape. John Guare, in his foreword, attributes his mixture of genres to seeing Laurence Olivier perform in Dodsdansen (pr. 1901; The Dance of Death, 1912) and La Puce a l’oreille (pr. 1907; A Flea in Her Ear, 1966) on two successive nights: “Why shouldn’t Strindberg and Feydeau get married, at least live together, and The House of Blue Leaves be their child?”

Places Discussed

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*Queens

*Queens. Borough of New York City across the East River from Manhattan in whose Sunnyside neighborhood the Shaughnessys live. John Guare describes Queens in great detail in a foreword to the play. He imagines it as the least elegant and least proud in heritage and prestige of the five boroughs that make up New York City—a place from which to move away to the more comfortable, wealthier, and lovelier suburbs of Westchester County, New York, or Connecticut. The zookeeper and would-be songwriter Artie Shaughnessy has grandiose dreams about making his fame and riches in the music industry; to enhance both the poverty of his daily life and the ludicrous desperation driving Artie, Guare contrasts these two images in his use of Artie’s shabby Queens apartment, which lacks proper heating or any decorative, pleasing features. Artie has achieved almost nothing of note in life, as his surroundings testify.

House of Blue Leaves

House of Blue Leaves. Artie’s name for a sanatorium that he tells Bananas he has found for her. The sanatorium, he tells her, has a lovely tree with blue leaves, leaves that have blown away in the form of a flock of bluebirds to canopy another tree, leaving the first one bare.

*California

*California. Home to the glamorous and lucrative film industry and a place where people can achieve their dreams, according to the characters in this drama. 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.

Historical Context

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The 1970s were a tumultuous time in American history. One major reason for this was the troubled American economy. A worldwide monetary crisis contributed to the devaluation of the American dollar. Economic resources were drained by the war in Vietnam, as well as the Cold War arms race. An inordinate amount of money was spent by the government to pay for Vietnam, and the national debt ran in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The American economy suffered from stagflation—rapid inflation and faltering businesses. Between 1970 and 1971, the cost of living increased 15%. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon took several steps to improve the economy. He ordered a wage, price, and rent freeze for ninety days. Later that year, he signed a bill that ordered a $90 million tax cut. American currency was also taken off the gold standard.

These efforts were not completely successful, in part because of the demands of the Vietnam War. As a result, Nixon curbed American involvement in Vietnam in 1971. U.S. troops were gradually withdrawn, and by the end of the year, only 140,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam.

Because of the failing economy, many social programs of the 1960s, remnants of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘‘Great Society,’’ were dismantled. Some taxpayers felt these programs were draining the economy. Yet with the deterioration of the economy and the elimination of many of these programs, there came an increasing difference between rich and poor. Moreover, there was an increase in unemployment and more people on welfare.

The reaction to these challenges varied: some people became politically apathetic; others demanded full protection under the law. Consumer activist Ralph Nader and his Center for the Study of Responsive Law collected public funds in 1971 to challenge the food industry as well as automakers and the aviation industry. Consumer complaints and concerns were addressed by the federal, local, and state governments. Even the television industry had to adjust to new regulatory demands. Parents demanded better television programming for children.

As far as entertainment, television was the most popular form in the early 1970s, especially situation comedies and detective shows. Yet television brought the Vietnam War into living rooms, so that Americans could see footage of the military action. As a result, more people joined the antiwar movement.

There were few new ideas in mainstream film, theater, and art; instead, the real artistic power in the early 1970s was in underground theater and film. Avant-garde art thrived and led to experimentation with other genres, such as film, theater, and television.

The early 1970s did see the emergence of several successful female singer-songwriters, such as Carol King and Carly Simon. There were many changes for women in American society in general. In 1971 a group of women successfully sued Time magazine for sexual discrimination. Similarly, the Civil Service Commission banned gender-based job designations. The women’s liberation movement and feminism became powerful, though controversial, forces in society.

Literary Style

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Setting
The House of the Blues Leaves is a dramatic farce set on October 4, 1965, in New York City. The play opens on the stage of the El Dorado Bar & Grill, a little bar in Queens where Artie plays his songs to an unappreciative audience. The rest of the play takes place in Artie’s shabby apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Like the bar, one of the apartment’s focal points is a piano. The apartment is cramped and messy; also, it seems transitory, as if the family has not unpacked for many years.

The fact that most of the action takes place in Artie’s apartment underscores the claustrophobic nature of his life. Artie is stuck caring for Bananas and working at the zoo.

Parabasis
Parabasis is defined as characters directly addressing the audience. Nearly every major character in The House of Blue Leaves talks to the audience. This makes the audience part of the story; the audience is a participant rather than an observer.

In Act I, Bunny welcomes the audience to her home, though it is really Artie and Banana’s home. Artie explains to the audience that he wishes they had more spoons when it comes time to eat. This would allow everyone to share in the meal.

Characters also share their secrets with the audience. Bunny confesses her desire for Banana’s death, while Corrinna discusses her deafness. Even minor characters, like Ronnie and the Little Nun, recite extended monologues that provide insight into their characters and actions. The use of parabasis also emphasizes how the characters in the play are similar to their audience and, perhaps, share the same fantasy-based values.

Irony
There are many ironic situations in The House of Blue Leaves. For example, Artie wants success, partly to keep Bunny happy; Bunny wants him to be successful because that’s the only way she figures she will be important in life. Yet Artie fails, and Bunny succeeds by becoming involved with Billy Einhorn, a famous Hollywood director.

Similarly, Bananas is supposed to be crazy and pumped full of medication, yet she often has profound insight into events at hand. Corrinna is deaf because of an explosion/accident on the set of a war movie, and she dies in an explosion from the bomb that Ronnie gave to her. Guare uses irony to underscore the play’s themes and add to its black humor.

Animal Imagery/Symbolism
Throughout The House of Blue Leaves , numerous references to and imitations of animals appear. Animals represent purity—the opposite of the superficial values many of the characters possess.

For example, Bananas often acts like an animal. While this may seem crazy, it also symbolizes her virtuous and honest nature in the face of Bunny and Artie’s shallow values. Even Billy Einhorn perceives this when he tells Artie that he should be happy with what he has.

Artie is employed at the zoo and apparently has a way with animals. It seems that his life is filled with animals, and he desperately wants to escape them. He tries to do this by strangling Bananas, but this act will probably lead to a prison cell—a cage for humans.

Compare and Contrast

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1965: The United States increases its presence in Vietnam; in addition, bombing of North Vietnam intensifies. By the end of the year, there are 180,000 American troops in Vietnam, and antiwar protest begins in the United States.

1971: The United States begins withdrawing troops from Vietnam. There is widespread antiwar protest. By the end of the year, there are only 140,000 American troops left in Vietnam.

Today: For the United States, the experience in Vietnam is considered a traumatic event in recent history and serves as a measuring stick for involvement in world conflicts.

1965: There are five million color television sets in the United States, but only three networks.

1971: Television is the dominant cultural force in the United States. There are four networks, including public television, and programming is targeted to specific audiences, like children.

Today: With the explosion of cable and satellite television, the major television networks face stiff competition from cable networks. Programming is targeted to specific audiences—such as the Golf Channel and the Food Network—and there are several channels dedicated to celebrity worship.

1965: Unemployment in the United States is 4.2% and inflation is under control.

1971: The unemployment and inflation rates rise. The cost of living index increases 15% over the previous year.

Today: With a booming economy, unemployment and inflation are extremely low.

1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson pushes much of his Great Society (anti-poverty) legislation through Congress.

1971: President Richard M. Nixon dismantles many aspects of the Great Society as the American economy falters.

Today: Although the American economy is strong, there is resistance to increased social spending. There is a movement to move people off welfare and end dependence on social spending.

Media Adaptations

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The House of Blue Leaves was filmed for television in 1987 and appeared on PBS. Directed by Kirk Browning and Jerry Zaks, this version features John Mahoney as Artie, Swoozie Kurtz as Bananas, Christine Baranski as Bunny, and Ben Stiller as Ronnie.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Barnes, Clive. ‘‘Theater: John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves Opens,’’ in The New York Times, February 11, 1971, p. 54.

Brustein, Robert. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New Republic, May 5, 1986, p. 27.

Clurman, Harold. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The Nation, March 1, 1971, p. 285.

Guare, John. The House of Blue Leaves, The Viking Press, 1972.

Henry, William A., III. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in Time, March 31, 1986, p. 77.

Hewes, Henry. ‘‘Under the Rainbow,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, March 20, 1971, p. 10.

Malone, Michael. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New York Times, June 7, 1986, p. 798.

Novick, Julius. ‘‘Very Funny-Or a Long Sick Joke,’’ in The New York Times, February 21, 1971, Section 2, p. 9.

Oliver, Edith. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New Yorker, February 20, 1971, p. 90.

Further Reading
Bernstein, Samuel. The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama, Northeastern University Press, 1980, pp. 39-59. Bernstein overviews the themes of and critical reaction to Guare’s work, including The House of Blue Leaves.

Guare, John. A foreword to The House of Blue Leaves, Viking Press, 1972, pp. v-xi. Guare discusses his inspirations for the play as well as its major themes.

Lyon, Warren. ‘‘No More Crying the ‘Blue Leaves’ Blues,’’ in The New York Times, July 25, 1971, pp. 1, 5. Chronicles the long process of getting the original production of The House of Blue Leaves off the ground. It is written by one of the play’s producers.

Martin, Nicholas. ‘‘Chaos and Other Muses,’’ in American Theatre, April 1, 1999. In this interview, Guare discusses his use of language and the inspirations for his plays.

‘‘The Art of Theater IX: John Guare,’’ Paris Review, Winter 1992, p. 69. This lengthy interview covers the whole of Guare’s career including a discussion of The House of Blue Leaves.

Bibliography

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Bernstein, Samuel J. The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1980. Contains a twenty-page chapter on The House of Blue Leaves, which reviews the 1971 production criticism and provides insightful analysis of the play. In Bernstein’s view, Guare effectively uses comic techniques obliquely to attack questionable values of American culture.

Guare, John. Foreword to The House of Blue Leaves. New York: New American Library, 1987. Guare briefly discusses play-related autobiographical events, including witnessing juxtaposed productions of a Strindberg drama and a Feydeau farce and conceiving the tragic comic structure of The House of Blue Leaves. In a preceding preface he compares the play’s decade-separated openings.

Harrop, John. “Ibsen Translated by Lewis Carroll: The Theatre of John Guare.” New Theatre Quarterly 3, no. 10 (May, 1987): 150-154. An overview of Guare’s plays perceives The House of Blue Leaves as an exploration of the national obsession with facile success. Immediately following Harrop’s interview with Guare (155-159) is an extensive checklist including chronology, succinct synopses, and bibliography (160-177).

Kolin, Philip, ed. American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Includes Don B. Wilmeth’s helpfully detailed chapter on Guare, which includes a production history and criticism of The House of Blue Leaves. An extensive bibliography of secondary sources includes published reviews of the play.

Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Vol. 1. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981. Guare and his major work are thoughtfully discussed in an eleven-page chapter. The House of Blue Leaves is viewed as a play as much about human failure as about the ironies of fate.

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