The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Lydie Breeze opens at dawn at the Hickman house, on Nantucket. The “very sparsely furnished” parlor and stairs leading to a landing are visible; there is also a porch and a beach with an upended rowboat buried in the sand. Lydie enters, carrying a candle, and kneels in prayer, followed by Beaty, who leads her through a strange ritual that tells of the suicide of Lydie’s mother, Lydie Breeze. The two invoke the dead woman’s spirit to “keep her alive.” It becomes clear that Beaty has been in charge of the girl’s spotty education. She is attempting to inculcate in the girl a hatred of men and a fear of her own sexuality. Lydie has been injured in the eye, wears a pair of dark glasses, and frequently refers to herself as blind, though it is clear that the injury is minor.

Some references are made in this scene to Aipotu (Utopia backward), a tiny community founded by Lydie Breeze and three Civil War veterans: her husband, Joshua Hickman; Dan Grady; and Amos Mason. Young Lydie and Joshua are all that remain of Aipotu. Lydie Breeze and Dan Grady are dead, and Amos Mason is now a senator running for the presidency with the backing of William Randolph Hearst.

In scene 2, Lydie’s older sister, Gussie, sweeps into the house, full of modern talk and attitudes. She is Amos’s secretary—his “whore,” as Beaty immediately surmises—and has persuaded Amos and Hearst to pay a visit to Joshua. Joshua reacts with typical sarcasm to her attempts to draw him into the spirit of Amos’s visit:“’The Senator from Wall Street’ sails back to Old Nantucket to light up a corn cob pipe with an old scarecrow from the old, old past. ’Why, look at him! Amos Mason is a man of the people. He gets my vote!’” Gussie, hurt but undaunted, regales Lydie with stories of her new life, their father’s killing of Dan Grady, his time in prison, and their mother’s suicide “because she was still in love with the other man.”

When a young bird-bander turns up with...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Lydie Breeze employs an eclectic array of theatrical devices and dramatic modes. Visual symbols are given depth through verbal references. For example, the upended rowboat, symbolizing Aipotu’s running aground, is given resonance by references to Hearst’s yacht, culminating in Gussie’s hilarious verbal slip in front of a campaign audience, “America is a yacht,” and Joshua’s characterizations of Gussie and himself as “a glorious battleship” and the Marie-Celeste, respectively.

John Guare strikingly underscores the way the past haunts the present through ritual reenactments of past events, as in the opening scene with Lydie and Beaty re-creating Lydie Breeze’s suicide, Joshua and Jeremiah’s reliving of the day Dan died, and Jeremiah and Beaty’s mysterious reunion in death.

The central metaphor of syphilis, however, is the most disturbing and most unifying of the play’s devices. In Joshua’s climactic diatribe against Jeremiah, the themes of corruption, of the far-reaching consequences of human carelessness and selfishness, and of the collapse of idealism through our “trust in the itch in the pocket” all converge in a shattering image: “After Lydie Breeze died, they cut her open and found all this rot. . . . Forgiveness from another human being? You’ll never get it. Syphilis. That’s all you’ll ever get from another human being. Syphilis and suicide notes.”

Still, for all the play’s mythic and tragic qualities, it is penetrated throughout with ironic and sometimes almost farcical humor, as in Lucian’s memorized courtship speech and Gussie’s instant transformation into her fifteen-year-old sister with the addition of an eye bandage, or in the sudden shift from pseudo-Catholic liturgy to a baking recipe in the opening ritual scene. This continual use of humor not only keeps the audience off balance, never knowing what to expect, but also prevents the melodramatic plot from veering into sentimentality or triteness. Guare’s sustained and controlled mingling of tragic and comic, mythic and realistic, melodramatic and ironic effects succeeds where more straightforward social criticism in contemporary drama does not.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. “John Guare.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

DiGaetani, John. “John Guare.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. Edited by John DiGaetani. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Gross, Robert F. “Life Is a Silken Net: Mourning the Beloved Monstrous in Lydie Breeze.Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall, 1994, 21-43.

Guare, John.“’Living in That Dark Room’: The Playwright and His Audience.” Interview by John Harrop. New Theatre Quarterly 3 (1987): 155-159.

Harrop, John. “’Ibsen Translated by Lewis Carroll’: The Theatre of John Guare.” New Theatre Quarterly 3 (1987): 150-154.

Harrop, John. “NTQ Checklist No. 3: John Guare.” New Theatre Quarterly 3 (1987): 160-177.

Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta, eds. American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Savran, David. “John Guare.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Wetzsteon, R. “The Coming of Age of John Guare.” New York 15 (February 22, 1982): 35-39.