Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

The House of Blue Leaves is a portrait of a peculiarly American obsession with fame. The obsession is most obvious in Artie’s desire to be a popular songwriter, but Bunny’s enthusiasm for the pope derives mostly from the media hoopla, Ronnie tells of a fame-seeking episode from his childhood and anticipates being on the eleven o’clock news after blowing up the pope, and one of the nuns entered the order to be like Maria in The Sound of Music (1965). Even Bananas has dreams of famous people, but she wants to be an animal in order to escape fame.

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Bananas’ observation that animals are not driven by fame underscores the pervasive animal imagery in the play. Artie is a zookeeper; the pictures of film stars on his wall are interspersed with pictures of wild animals. Bananas speaks of the tranquilizers as caging the wild animals inside her; she pretends to be a dog when Artie feeds her, and Artie laments that his home has become a zoo. In the final scene, when everything else is going wrong for Artie, he is called to the zoo, where all the animals are giving birth.

The major images that express the play’s preoccupation with fame are dreams, films, and television. Artie is dreaming as act 1 opens; each character tells us his or her most significant dream, and their accounts of real events take on a surrealistic, dreamlike quality. The characters cannot distinguish dreams, films, or television from real life. Corrinna’s death parallels her fate in a film, Artie and Bananas kneel before the televised image of the pope, a nun has her picture taken with a televised Jackie Kennedy. Bunny believes that only famous people are real, and her monologue is recalled by Bananas as part of a dream.

Religious references in the play are not gratuitous. In his foreword to the first published edition, John Guare describes the nuns who taught him in Catholic school as localizing their dreams of fame on Rome and the pope. The nuns in the play embody this yearning for Rome, treating the pope as any other pop star; indeed, Bunny’s “I Love Paul” button is a “leftover from when the Beatles were here.” Ronnie had been an altar boy, and in the course of the play the audience sees him exchange an army uniform for an altar boy’s vestments with no change of character. In Guare’s world, religion is simply another means of seeking fame—or perhaps fame is a modern substitute for religion. Several critics have found antireligious satire in the the pope’s star status, but Guare’s foreword connects the pope not with stars such as Corrinna and Billy but with dreamers such as Artie.

Guare himself has identified “humiliation” as the primary theme of The House of Blue Leaves. It is related to the fame theme, however, in that the characters’ humiliation comes from unsuccessful attempts to grasp fame. Artie begs Billy to take his songs; the nuns make a spectacle of themselves in order to see the pope; Bananas acts like a dog to get Artie’s attention and affection; Ronnie tells of how he showed off to Billy in the hope of being cast as Huck Finn.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

Betrayal
Nearly every character in The House of Blue Leaves is betrayed by another—or by his or her own desires. Artie suffers from the most severe betrayals. His girlfriend, Bunny Flingus, spends most of the play encouraging, if not pushing, his career. She convinces Artie that Billy Einhorn is the key to his success. At the end of the play, Billy offers Bunny his extra ticket to Australia, and Bunny goes with him. She betrays Artie to ensure that she has a secure future.

Artie is also betrayed by his own dreams for success. These dreams are not based on reality, but on Bunny’s ideas, which have been propagated by the mass media.

Artie betrays his wife, Bananas. She suffers from some sort of mental illness, and Artie is her primary caretaker. He has betrayed her by becoming involved with Bunny. Indeed, Bunny and Artie intend to marry and move to California, leaving Bananas behind.

Yet Artie’s biggest betrayal of Bananas comes at the end of the play. After Bunny has abandoned Artie and his dreams are shattered, Bananas begins to act like a dog again and he strangles her to death. Entrusted to take care of her, he instead kills her. He gains only a false, probably short-lived sense of freedom by committing this act.

Success and Failure: Fame
The House of Blue Leaves features characters who define their success or failure based on the idea of fame. For example, Artie is unhappy with his life because he believes that he should be a famous songwriter. However, he is not particularly gifted. When his chance for success is gone, and his opportunities are limited, he strikes out and kills the focus of his rage, his wife.

Artie’s definition of success is defined by Bunny, his girlfriend. She garners these values from movie magazines and television. Her obsession with seeing the Pope has little to do with his religious standing, but that he is a celebrity she can see in person.

The three nuns who appear in Act II share these values. They turn seeing the Pope into an event similar to the experiences of the Beatles in their first trip to the United States.

Bunny’s definition of success is also for her own benefit. She wants Artie to be a successful songwriter so that she can have a better life in California. When Artie’s friend, the famous director Billy Einhorn, finally makes an appearance, Bunny realizes that Artie will not get his break.

Realizing that Artie will always be a failure, Bunny latches on to the already successful—and famous—Billy and leaves with him. Ironically, unlike Artie, Bunny is basically successful. She reaches her goal of being involved with someone who is famous and rich but only by betraying her boyfriend.

Violence and Cruelty
There are several violent and cruel acts in The House of Blue Leaves. This violence emphasizes the superficial values the characters possess, and how these values negatively affect their actions.

For example, Bunny speaks and acts cruelly to Bananas because she is jealous and controlling. She also believes hurting Bananas will force Artie to become a success. For Bunny, cruelty is an acceptable way to achieve her goal.

Other characters commit violent acts. Ronnie, the disturbed son of Bananas and Artie, is hiding out at home. He has left the army and is building a bomb to blow up the Pope. He believes that everyone thinks he is a nothing. To make himself something— in his sick mind—he will assassinate the Pope.

Ronnie tries to tell his father of his intentions, but Artie does not listen. Ronnie’s plans are interrupted when the military police come to arrest him. Instead of the Pope, Ronnie hands the bomb to Corrinna Stroller, a famous actress and Billy’s girlfriend. She dies in the explosion, though, ironically, no one seems to know whose bomb it was. The violent quest for fame is not always successful.

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