Paul Zindel Zindel, Paul - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Paul Zindel 1936-

Zindel is an award-winning playwright who received a Pulitzer prize, Obie Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. In many of his plays Zindel depicts troubled characters based on people from his own life, most notably his mother. Though he is also a celebrated novelist for young adults, Zindel considers himself foremost a dramatist, commenting that, "A person is bora with a disposition for one type of expression. For me, it was playwriting."


Zindel and his sister were raised by their eccentric mother, whose husband abandoned the family while Zindel was a young boy. Her occupations included real estate broker, collie breeder, and caregiver for the terminally ill—a line of work that Zindel later depicted as the career of some of his characters. Due to his mother's nomadic nature, Zindel spent most of his childhood changing residences on Staten Island. He therefore found it difficult to maintain friendships and sought enjoyment in his imagination. A creative youth, he became involved in school plays as a writer and an actor. At the age of fifteen he contracted tuberculosis and was institutionalized at a sanatorium for more than a year. When he returned to school upon his recovery, Zindel wrote a drama about an ill pianist. Although he retained an interest in theater and composed another play in college, Zindel obtained a degree in chemistry and taught the subject for almost ten years. He continued to pen theatrical pieces, however, and he eventually produced The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The success of that drama prompted the author to retire from teaching and focus on writing plays and, subsequently, screenplays and young adult novels.


Most of Zindel's plays portray tormented women, a characteristic mat has led to comparisons with the works of Tennessee Williams. In three of his major dramatic pieces, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, and Amulets against the Dragon Forces, Zindel delves into the relationship between domineering mothers and their sensitive children. Marigolds features a widowed mother of two daughters who cares for a disabled elderly woman boarder. Each of the characters is psychologically damaged; however, one daughter, Tillie, overcomes her afflictions. The lives of the four women are reflected in Tillie's high school experiment to determine the effect of gamma rays on marigolds: resulting blighted flowers symbolize the mother Beatrice, her elder daughter Ruth, and Nanny the boarder, while the marigolds that develop rare double blooms represent Tillie. Miss Reardon portrays the breakdown of a relationship among three sisters who were mentally abused by their mother. Amulets focuses on the unfortunate life of a teenaged boy who has been shuffled among homes by his mother, whose career is providing at-home care for terminally ill patients.


Critics were impressed with The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Clive Barnes "warmly recommended" the 1970 off-Broadway show, calling it the "best of the season so far," and Edith Oliver described the drama as a "touching and often funny play." Walter Kerr even praised Zindel as "one of our most promising new writers." However, the playwright's following theatrical pieces disappointed the hopeful critics. And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little and Amulets against the Dragon Forces both garnered mixed reviews. The former received praise for its honest portraiture but was faulted for describing instead of developing the action. The latter was lauded for its compassion but was criticized for an ambivalent tone and unbelievable action. Following Amulets, Zindel stated that he would pursue new themes and characters in subsequent works, commenting, "I know that the heavens are temporary and I have to move on. I'll now be going after the next paradise."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds 1964

And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little 1967

The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild 1972

Ladies at the Alamo 1975

Amulets against the Dragon Forces 1989


The Pigman (young adult novel) 1968

My Darling My Hamburger (young adult novel) 1969

I Never Loved Your Mind (young adult novel) 1970

Pardon Me, You 're Stepping on My Eyeball (young adult novel) 1976

Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (young adult novel) 1977

The Pigman's Legacy (young adult novel) 1980

Maria's Lovers [with Gerard Brach, Andrei Konchalovsky, and Marjorie David] (screenplay) 1985

Runaway Train [with Djordje Milicevic and Edward Bunker] (screenplay) 1985

The Pigman and Me (young adult novel) 1992

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

The Theater Is Born within Us (1970)

SOURCE: The New York Times, 26 July 1970, pp. 1,3.

[Here, in the course of arguing that drama is a form of expression inherent in humankind, Zindel recollects events in his own life that demonstrate an innate affinity for the theater.]

I am told I am born a playwright at a time when the Theater is dying. Somehow I think if my "birth" were better understood, it would show that the Theater is breathing quite autonomously and will continue to do so until the last man on earth raises a pistol and blasts his head off (an occasion I am quite devoted to helping avoid).

I have come to this conclusion about theatrical respiration via what may be a unique path! I evolved into a writer of plays by never having gone near a theater until I was in my twenties. The fact that I had written two plays by that time makes me believe that the seeds of theater are born inside of us.

My first set: Staten Island—a weird place to be born of a Woman Scorned who annually changed residences as though to make certain I would not miss a single square foot of its soil. Staten Island—in my childhood an exotic sampling of other lands: South Beach was Sicily; Stapleton was Killarney; Silver Lake was Alexandria; Tottenville was The Congo. I have not the least doubt I would have emerged staggeringly polylingual if that Woman Scorned had been a mixer. And each town offered a lush new back-drop: St. George—a buzzing city, hordes rushing on and off the five-cent ferry; Oakwood—a wooded backyard, pheasant families parading beneath hanging fat apples; Travis—a mad tiny airport, weekend pilots in Piper Cubs who circled above their lovers' homes and tossed bottles of Chanel No. 5 affixed to midget parachutes. And a mulberry tree. It was a time when Kilbasi, pepperoni and knockwurst were the relentless culinary dividers of this little island in New York Bay.

By the time I was 10 I had gone nowhere but had seen the world.

My first actors: I remember a love of marionettes—nautical, laughing, demoniacal. Some I fashioned myself. One—a grotesque sailor—was given to me for my second birthday. I recall cardboard boxes housing cycloramas, crepe-paper palm trees back-lighted by flash-light batteries with bulbs attached by twisted paper clips. The aquariums—two gallons, five gallons, 20 gallons. I sat for hours looking in at guppies hunting their young through forests of elodea. An insectarium, incredible centipedes, plump red ants—a sinister black spider unearthed in the backyard of the Travis home where I lived for my fifth Easter. I remember a terrarium, green silent stalks as magical to me as any bug, fish or puppet. Then there was the crippled boy who cried "Shazaam" to become Captain Marvel—and Wonder Woman with her transparent lasso and magic girdle. And there was the terrifying world at the Empire Theater where Batman and friend were nearly murdered each Saturday morning.

What a great love I had of microcosms, of peering at other worlds framed and separate from me.

My first performances: One day I tired of eavesdropping on the world and decided to enter it.

At last, a part!

I was 11 years old and selected to be one of the comic characters to make up the entourage for a "Tom Thumb Wedding" to be held at the Dickinson Methodist Church. For those who have never heard of a "Tom Thumb Wedding," it is an esoteric celebration in which children who do not know what they are doing march down an aisle in a mock ceremony while their parents stand in pews and grin a lot. I believe only Sigmund Freud would know what the hell they are grinning at. Anyway, some woman with a heightened sense of character assassination designated me to portray B. O. Plenty and carry a Sparkle doll. This was my first clue that as a child I physically resembled a rather tall chicken with a thyroid condition. I was so hurt and angry at the casting I silently prayed during the wedding for the cute little boy and girl playing Tom and his bride to mature into dwarfs. I waited two years to be offered another part. Finally, it came. I was Santa Claus in the seventh-grade Christmas extravaganza at P.S. 26. Needless to say, I did not receive plaudits for my performance as a bewhiskered chicken with a thyroid condition.

In the eighth grade I considered that perhaps I was trying in the wrong way to enter into the real world, so I launched my career as a vocalist. I sang "Till the End of Time" and "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" a capella for my eighth-grade shop class. I am afraid both the location and the selections were ill-chosen, and if the teacher had not been in the room, chisels and hacksaws would have gone flying through the air. And I suppose my final gesture toward being an active participant in mis world was when I volunteered at the Ritz Theater to be swung around at 180 rpms by a roller-skating acrobat who supplemented the flick.

My first script: By high school I decided mat even if I could not succeed in the real world, perhaps my appointed role in life was to help other people succeed. I do not quite know how, but some of my classmates got the impression I had a strange sense of humor: macabre, I believe, was the summoned term. A group of the student officers asked me to help create a hilarious assembly sketch which would help sell G.O. cards. I gave them a version of The Monkey's Paw, which has a final moment when a corpse, having been buried for six months, returns home. This is not especially the meat from which comedies are carved. My only other script contribution was an idea for a Senior Day sketch in which, as Dean Martin sang "When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie," some mozzarella masochist got it in the face.

Then I got T.B. and was whisked off to a sanatorium at Lake Kushaqua, New York, where once again the world became something I could look at only through a frame.

Big deal, Paul Zindel—15 years old, tubercular, drab, loveless and desperate.

My first original: A year and a half of feeding hummingbirds from vials of sugar water goes by and I return, cured and shy, to my high school and mere write a play for a contest sponsored by the American Cancer Society. The plot: a pianist recovers from a dread disease and goes on to win tumultuous applause at Carnegie Hall for pounding out "The Warsaw Concerto." For mis literary achievement I was awarded a Parker pen.

Leap with me now through a sprinkling of events during the next decade. (Please do not weary or lose sight of what I am after—to prove to you the Theater is as alive and as eternal as man.)

The events are:

  1. I am studying chemistry at Wagner College. Now it is test tubes and retorts I am peeking into. I have become an atomic voyeur.
  2. An English professor mounts a verse drama about the rise of Staten Island from the Jurassic Period through the Industrial Revolution. It is performed in the college auditorium and it seems to run for seven and a half hours, occupying a cast of thousands and a singing group the size of the Tabernacle Choir, which spasmodically screams "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
  3. It is my last year in college and I write my second play, Dimensions of Peacocks, the title being my subtle way of expressing a fascination with the psychiatric term dementia praecox—which has nothing to do with the theme. It is the story of a misunderstood youth whose mother is a visiting nurse with a penchant for stealing monogrammed linen napkins from her patients by stuffing them down her bra.
  4. Lillian Hellman theatrically baptizes me with my first real play; Toys in the Attic, in 1959. I behold for the first time Maureen Stapleton, unbelievably incandescent, a priestess of human laughter and pain. I remember thinking I had at last found what would be my religion, my cathedral.
  5. And at this point I cannot stop my typewriter from spilling out the experience which exploded my consciousness in a way that protects me from being a dumb playwright. It was early one summer evening about 10 years ago. I was walking through Greenwich Village with a friend I had reason to believe possessed psychic powers. He has since gone mad. But on that evening he made me pause at an alley between two apartment houses. He told me he felt something strange was going to happen in that spot, although he did not know what or when. I did not pay much attention to his remark and we went on our way to see The American Dream at the Cherry Lane Theater. It was two hours later mat we were back out on the street when suddenly my friend began to run. He cried out:

"Something's going on in the alley!"

The alley was several blocks away but I ran with him anyway, thinking it was just a lot of nonsense. When we reached the alley, we saw 20 or more people hanging out their windows yelling, throwing money—coins and dollar bills—down to an old woman hovering over a row of garbage pails. She was stuffing the garbage into her mouth and ignoring the money as it fell around her. That incident haunted me. Shortly after I met Edward Albee and told him about it and how much it disturbed me. I could not understand why the woman had not picked up the money to buy food.

"She was doing penance," he told me quietly, simply.

Cut to the present: Paul Zindel succeeding. Still drab, loveless and desperate; quite a bit more conscious. But on with it. What about the great invincibility I claim for the Theater?

It's like this:

No human being particularly loves the microcosm to which he is born. His life is a wandering from one sphere to another, each...

(The entire section is 4083 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Jack Jacob Forman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Women in Distress: The Plays of Paul Zindel," in Presenting Paul Zindel, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 41-9.

[In the following excerpt, Forman comments on the auto-biographical elements and depiction of women in Zindel's plays, often comparing the characterizations in his dramas to those in his young adult novels.]

Just after Zindel was released from the tuberculosis sanatorium where he had spent eighteen months recuperating from the disease, the seventeen-year-old high school senior submitted a play to a contest sponsored by the American Cancer Society. He won a silver ballpoint pen as a prize, and...

(The entire section is 3322 words.)

The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Manin-The-Moon Marigolds

(Drama Criticism)


Clive Barnes (review date 8 April 1970)

SOURCE: "'Gamma Rays on Marigolds'," in The New York Times, 8 April 1970, p. 32.

[An English-born American drama and dance critic whose commentary has appeared regularly in New York Times and New York Post, Barnes has been called "the first, second and third most powerful critic in New York " In the following review, he encourages theater-goers to attend the 1970 off-Broadway production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Addressing the analogy between the marigolds and the depicted family, Barnes observes: "We are all the product of our...

(The entire section is 7567 words.)

And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little

(Drama Criticism)


Brendan Gill (review date 6 March 1971)

SOURCE: "Shopworn," in The New Yorker, Vol. XL VII, No. 3, 6 March 1971, pp. 67-8.

[Here, Gill assesses And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little as "so shopworn in form, so flyblown in content, that one would suppose it had been written several decades ago by a bookish hermit thoroughly out of touch with the theatrical innovations of even his day."]

Having been radically overpraised last year for a not very robust pastiche of early Tennessee Williams called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Paul Zindel now risks being...

(The entire section is 2283 words.)

Amulets Against The Dragon Forces

(Drama Criticism)


Frank Rich (review date 6 April 1989)

SOURCE: "Overcoming a Loveless Childhood," in The New York Times, 6 April 1989, p. C17.

[Since 1977, Rich has been the chief cinema and television critic for Time magazine. He is also a contributor to Ms., the New York Times, and Esquire. In the following review of the 1989 Circle Repertory Company's production of Amulets against the Dragon Force, Rich comments on the anguish in the characters' lives and finds Zindel's plot and use of mythology overworked]

While most of François Truffaut's Small Change has receded in...

(The entire section is 5301 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Forman, Jack Jacob. Presenting Paul Zindel. Boston: Twayne, 1988, 121 p.

Discusses various aspects of Zindel's writings and provides a selective primary and secondary bibliography.


Barnes, Clive. '"Marigolds' in Bloom Again." New York Post (15 March 1978).

Lauds The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds as a "beautifully crafted piece … like hollow Wedgewood or solid Ming." However, Barnes describes shortcomings in the Broadway show, citing problems with the directing and setting.


(The entire section is 522 words.)