Paul Zindel Drama Analysis
Paul Zindel’s plays closely follow his own life experience; certain features of his early years recur in his drama. His mother was bitter, transient, reclusive, and presumably uncertain of her place in life. Zindel’s major plays commonly depict women struggling for identity and fulfillment, often damaged, if not destroyed, by betrayals or deaths of loved ones. These women in turn fail to provide the adequate care so desperately needed by the young people for whom they are left responsible. Another theme of Zindel’s plays is the notion that modern society has replaced traditional religion with a secular faith of scientism accompanied by unbridled self-indulgence.
Zindel’s marvelous storytelling ability captivated millions, and several of his works have been translated. His plays, certainly not as well accepted by critics or the public, still appeal. Zindel described the drama form as one in which the players must shout the message of the work. In this vein, his characters and events exhibit unsettling qualities: the old people border on grotesque, shambling versions of death; events are capped by illogical and unpredictable outcomes; and character motivations result in bizarre behaviors. However, Zindel’s repugnant misfits lay claim to the compassion, empathy, and integrity of the audience. As Zindel explained in commenting on his later prose works, humor and horror have much in common, and these qualities are readily apparent in a majority of his dramatic works.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opens to observers the lives of Beatrice Hunsdorfer and her two teenage daughters, Ruth and Tillie. Beatrice, overtly modeled after Zindel’s mother, is a cynical, verbally abusive paranoid schizophrenic. Her untidy home was once her father’s vegetable store. Her husband left her long ago and later died of a heart attack. For income, Beatrice boards an aged woman who needs a walker to creep slowly from bed to table to bathroom and back to bed.
Ruth, the elder daughter, is the more physically attractive yet is emotionally unstable and subject to convulsions in times of stress. Tillie, the younger, is bright and eager to learn. Beatrice, more concerned about her girls’ looks and marriageability than about their intellectual growth, badgers both daughters but is most severe with Tillie.
Act 1 opens with Tillie, in darkness, marveling that the atoms in her hand may trace back to a cosmic tongue of fire predating the birth of the sun and the solar system. As lights rise on the home scene, Beatrice fields a telephone call from Mr. Goodman, Tillie’s science teacher. He is concerned about Tillie’s absences. Beatrice responds with several defenses. She thanks Mr. Goodman for giving Tillie a pet rabbit and compliments him on his looks. Claiming that Tillie does not always want to go to school, Beatrice says that she does not want to put too much pressure on Tillie, lest she turn convulsive, as Ruth has done. The phone call ended, Beatrice derides Tillie and Mr. Goodman, then orders Tillie to stay home. The girl is anxious to see a cloud-chamber experiment in science class. Beatrice threatens to kill the rabbit if Tillie goes. In contrast, Beatrice encourages Ruth to go to school, lets her rummage through mother’s purse for lipstick, and gives her a cigarette on request. Ruth scratches Beatrice’s back and gives negative reports on Tillie’s activities at school. She also reveals that she has seen the school file on the family. It records the parents’ divorce, the absent father’s death, and Ruth’s nervous breakdown.
The scene fades to darkness, and again Tillie speaks. She describes the fountain of atoms visible in the cloud chamber, a phenomenon that could go on for eternity. Rising lights reveal Tillie preparing to plant irradiated seeds. Beatrice, scanning realty advertisements, mixes conjecture on the potential of various properties with questions...
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