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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)