The Ohio State Murders

by Adrienne Kennedy
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

The Ohio State Murders was commissioned by the Great Lakes Theater Festival of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1989. It was directed by Gerald Freedman for the Great Lakes Theater Festival’s thirtieth anniversary season as a part of the nonprofit company’s 1992 Adrienne Kennedy Festival. The play is presented in multiple brief scenes filtered through the memory of the present Suzanne, who acts as narrator. From the stacks of the university library, the writer relives the debasing experiences of Suzanne as a college student from 1949 to 1951.

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As a black student, Suzanne is the target of insidious, as well as overt, racism critically destructive to her ego identity. She is told that certain streets are regarded as exclusively white and that an English curriculum is considered too difficult for black people to declare as a major course of study; in the face of such racism, Suzanne’s self-concept deteriorates. She becomes uneasy, anxious, and frightened. Even her white dormitory mates seem to her to be capable of racially motivated murder.

Suzanne’s sole source of joy in her freshman year is a required course on the Victorian novel taught by Robert Hampshire, an unemotional white man in his first year of teaching at Ohio State. Fascinated by Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Suzanne begins to draw parallels between her life and the successively restrictive, tragic life of Tess. The present Suzanne concludes that Hardy’s fictional universe is one in which characters face destruction because its society forces conformity, thereby suppressing the human spirit.

Jarring these reminiscences are the present Suzanne’s succinct revelations that someone murdered one of her twin daughters, who were conceived with Robert Hampshire during the school’s Christmas break in 1950. Hampshire dismisses the young Suzanne’s announcement that she is pregnant as impossible. Soon after, the dormitory director reveals that she has been secretly searching through Suzanne’s belongings and has read her diary to the dormitory committee. Consequently, Suzanne is expelled from the dormitory and the university as unsuitable. After the birth of her twins, Suzanne returns to Columbus with her daughters to stay in a boardinghouse run by a family friend.

One of the dominant sources of dramatic tension in The Ohio State Murders is the present Suzanne’s achronological commentary, which allows the audience to know more than the young Suzanne does. For example, she is unaware that Hampshire has been following her, and she endures the suspicions of the Columbus police for more than a year without knowing that it is Hampshire who has kidnapped and drowned one of her children.

While Suzanne works at her part-time night job in the law library, Hampshire presents himself at the boardinghouse as a graduate researcher. Once inside, he kills his second twin daughter and himself with a kitchen knife. The present Suzanne describes with horrifying simplicity the months she spent willing herself to die, while the university and her father covered up the true story of the Ohio State murders. Juxtaposed to these revelations is the present Suzanne’s summation that these experiences are the primary source of violent imagery in her writing.

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