Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
Like most of Adrienne Kennedy’s plays, A Rat’s Mass is a curious blend of monologue and dream vision, informed by highly evocative symbolism and incantatory dialogue, laced with references to mythical and historical figures. Neither her most ambitious nor her most important, the play nevertheless is a good example of the kind of work that has earned Kennedy the acclaim of theater critics, scholars, and audiences. Like her better-known plays, A Rat’s Mass is concerned with the anguish of not belonging, with the pain of rejection.
Funnyhouse of a Negro (pr. 1962, pb. 1969), Kennedy’s best-known play and an Obie winner, reveals the confusion in the mind of Sarah, a sensitive black girl who finally commits suicide to escape the anguish of being black. In this play, ineffective religion is personified in an impotent black Jesus who appears in Sarah’s hallucinations but cannot help her because he, too, is black. In The Owl Answers (pr. 1963, pb. 1969),“SHE who is CLARA PASSMORE who is the VIRGIN MARY who is the BASTARD who is the OWL,” the main character of multiple selves, searches for her roots and a place where she belongs. Unfortunately, she belongs nowhere. She is the illegitimate child of a black cook and a wealthy white man, and the play attempts to resolve her ambivalence about her heredity and her love/hate relationship with the forbidden white world.
Since the 1980’s, Kennedy’s career has branched out in two directions: She has taught as a visiting faculty member at various universities, and she has written for the juvenile stage. A Lancashire Lad (pr. 1980) is a musical that portrays a fictionalized version of Charlie Chaplin’s boyhood, focusing on the pain and poverty of Chaplin’s early years. A radical departure from the dense symbolism and surrealism of her earlier work, A Lancashire Lad tells Chaplin’s story simply and eloquently. Another play for young people, Black Children’s Day (pr. 1980), chronicles the lives of black people in the early days of Rhode Island. In the 1990’s she wrote several new plays, including The Alexander Plays (pb. 1992), The Ohio State Murders (pr., pb. 1992), June and Jean in Concert (pr. 1995), and Sleep Deprivation Chamber (pb. 1996, with Adam Patrice Kennedy).
In the early twenty-first century critical commentary on Kennedy’s work is growing. Even admirers of Kennedy’s work, while they praise her for the compelling power and theatricality of her plays, admit that they often are baffled by her images and ideas. Hers is the agile and innovative mind that produces work that is loved or hated, but not often analyzed or ignored. What critics and reviewers have agreed on, however, is that Kennedy’s work defies interpretation by traditional methods and instead demands to be approached creatively and with a knowledge of new critical techniques, and that her contribution to the avant-garde American theater is both valuable and substantial.