The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Rat’s Mass is set in the rats’ house, which is represented by two black chains forming an aisle, a red carpet runner, and candles. At the far left stand Jesus, Mary, Joseph, two Wise Men, and a Shepherd in procession formation. As the play opens, Brother Rat kneels, facing the audience, while Sister Rat stands at one end of the red aisle.

In his opening speech, Brother Rat mentions a “dying baby, Nazis, screaming girls and cursing boys, empty swings, a dark sun.” He talks about death and announces that in his vision he sees Rosemary exalted at the top of a playground slide. As he speaks, he alternately kneels and stands, and the chains swing lightly. Sister Rat interrupts occasionally to remind Brother Rat that they have sworn—on Rosemary’s Holy Communion book and on their father’s Bible—to keep their secret forever. In this speech are embedded many of the play’s dominant images— Nazis, playground equipment, death, gray cats, winter. At the end of Brother Rat’s speech, the chains cease their swinging, and the procession of Holy Figures moves toward the center.

Sister reminisces bitterly about their childhood, when they lived in a “Holy Chapel” with their parents and everyone called them “the holiest children.” Now she has been sent to live with relatives in Georgia, where she hides under the house and eats sunflower petals all day. Standing before her brother, she says, “I’m going to have a baby. I got our baby on the slide.” She is frightened, asking why the War started. She wants to hang herself. Brother Rat begs her to stop sending him petals and to stop saying that she must go to the state hospital; he wants her to stop talking about her rat’s belly, which is growing rounder.

Brother and Sister Rat join in a chant about the Nazis and the rats that have invaded their home. They lament that “every sister bleeds and every brother has made her bleed.” They equate the Communion wine with blood, but the blood they see flooding the streets is Sister Rat’s.

Once again, they remember their childhood before the War, and Rosemary, the pretty Roman Catholic girl with whom they were infatuated. They envied her because...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Rat’s Mass makes its point through its structure—a parody of the Christian Mass—which metaphorically suggests that the traditional sources of acceptance and refuge, religion and the organized church, are ineffective and carry within themselves the seeds of bigotry, hatred, and destruction. Throughout the play, Brother Rat and Sister Rat abase themselves and mechanically speak lines that sound remarkably confessional; they beg for atonement and acceptance and ask to return to the purity and innocence of childhood. Again and again they kneel in supplication. Presiding coldly over this rats’ mass is the white girl Rosemary in a Holy Communion dress that represents her membership among the elect—a dress whose whiteness ironically reminds Brother and Sister Rat of their blackness and of the innocence they have lost. In the background march the Holy Family, the Wise Men, and the shepherd. As a kind of Greek chorus, they reinforce the action of the play through their movements, marching across the stage and back to underscore their indifference to the despair evident in the rats’ plaintive requests. The members of the procession speak only briefly—when Brother and Sister Rat decide that their only course is suicide—and then only to announce their departure. They return at the end of the play as the firing squad, pronouncing an ironic benediction to the mass by destroying the rats as Rosemary watches impassively.

Images of death and decay pervade the play. Brother Rat and Sister Rat are both plagued by hideous dreams of the...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Rat’s Mass is a one-act play that poetically combines a wealth of linguistic and theatrical images. The brevity of the piece intensifies its already jarring style of presentation, which features characters who are part human and part animal, superficially nonsensical dialogue, and highly charged spectacle and sound effects. The style of this play is surrealistic, expressionistic, and absurdist; the plot of the play should not, therefore, be regarded as a credible or realistic story, nor should readers attempt to make literal sense of the dialogue or visual effects.

Because the play makes most sense on a symbolic level, readers should first try to imagine how the playwright intends the fully staged work to be seen and heard by an audience. The appearance of the stage itself, the use of movement on the stage, and the use of nonlinguistic sound are key to an understanding of A Rat’s Mass.

The visual dimension of a production of this play would perhaps be the most immediate aspect of A Rat’s Mass that a theater audience would be able to relate to meaningfully. The dreamlike set, deliberately stark, quickly seems to acquire significance: Although the scene is described as the rat’s house, the setting consists of a red carpet runner and candles and thus suggests a church with a long, narrow aisle and votive candles. The lighting, which is to imitate the light at the end of a summer’s day, is waning, implying a finality or an ending.

Movement through this stage space also acquires added importance. From the beginning of the play, the characters’ positions on stage are clearly and specifically noted; Brother Rat is placed directly facing the audience, while Sister Rat stands at the far end of the long red aisle defined by the carpet runner. The procession of religious figures, Jesus, Joseph, Mary, two wise men, and a shepherd, are placed to the far left of the “rat’s house” area on stage. As the play progresses, characters move about the stage with carefully choreographed directions. For example, the procession of religious figures marches across the stage, then goes to center stage, then comes all the way down to the edge of the stage, close to the audience, then goes back to the center of the stage, and exits, only to return and exit once more. Similarly, Brother Rat and Sister Rat, throughout the play, are given specific actions to perform (kneeling and rising, marching, and saluting) that accompany their dialogue. Because the play seems to lack traditional action—there is no standard use of plot or story, and whatever it is that “happens” during the course of the play remains obscure—these smaller actions (movements, gestures) stand out as significant.

Just as there appears to be no real plot, what the characters have to say may strike readers as...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Blau, Herbert. “The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy.” Modern Drama 27, no. 4 (December, 1984): 520-539. A crucial piece by a distinguished, insightful critic of the theater. Compares playwrights Shephard and Kennedy, noting why they ought to be considered two of the most important dramatists working on the American stage. Most critics writing on Kennedy since Blau published this article refer back to it.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. An interesting collection of articles. Includes critiques by literary and theater scholars, pieces dealing with the production of Kennedy’s plays, and several extensive interviews with Kennedy. Overbeck’s “The Life of the Work: A Preliminary Sketch” offers important information on the original production and first publication of A Rat’s Mass, as well as on the production and publication of Kennedy’s other plays.

Kennedy, Adrienne. “An Interview with Adrienne Kennedy.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 4 (1989): 143-157. In this intimate and often revealing interview, Kennedy discusses her career. The experiences she shares with the interviewer illuminate how her personal life has had an impact...

(The entire section is 452 words.)