Painting Churches by Tina Howe

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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

After the premiere of Painting Churches, Tina Howe remarked that every child must make the journey “to find his legs in his own household” and asked how one could obtain parental acceptance “not as a child, but as an artist.” Gaining such acceptance is the desire of Mags Church, the daughter of a famous poet father and a flamboyant and critical mother. Thus a major theme of Painting Churches is a child’s need to establish independence from his or her parents and the concomitant desire for parental approval. Mags’s desire to paint the Churches reflects her craving for their admiration and her need to empower herself. As she says, “The great thing about being a portrait painter . . . is it’s the other guy that’s exposed.” Although Mags has established herself in the world, when home she is back in the role of a child, subject to motherly criticism of her hair, her “arty friends in New York,” the “wretched art school” where she teaches, and her clothes. In a reversion to the time she was banished from the dinner table at age nine, Mags finds herself constantly hungry. When her mother remarks on how much she eats, Mags replies: “I only do this when I come home.” What she eats onstage is never a proper adult meal: It is Saltines, Sara Lee banana cake, tapioca—in short, nursery food. Her physical hunger is symbolic of her even greater hunger to have her parents’ recognition.

Still, Mags’s parents are formidable people, and in the Church household one must vie for attention. When Mags reports her success as an artist, Fanny insists on showing off her own creation, a decorated lamp shade. One motif of the play is the tendency of the characters to be so involved in their own concerns that they slight or are oblivious to the concerns of others. So, for example, Fanny says about posing for her daughter: “I don’t know what we’re doing fooling around with Mags like this when there’s still so much to do.” Mags is so self-absorbed she fails at first to take in the serious difficulties besetting her parents.

Her parents’ difficulties evoke another of the play’s themes, ephemerality. At one point the Churches discuss friends who have Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s, and Addison’s disease, and those who have died. Fanny does not look forward to the change from her life in Boston, where she can see the few friends she has left, to a life of rustication as Gardner’s nursemaid. Gardner’s situation is even more desperate, his fears of oblivion movingly suggested by...

(The entire section is 669 words.)