The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

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...

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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 she went to catechism class and because she claimed to be a descendant of the Pope, Julius Caesar, and the Virgin Mary. Rosemary taught them Latin and told them stories of Italy—and while they were playing one evening, she forced them to perform an incestuous act on the slide while she watched. As they remember the end of their childhood, Brother and Sister Rat begin calling each other by their names, Blake and Kay.

Now Kay hopes that she and Blake can be married in the state hospital to which she will be sent. It becomes increasingly clear that she has suffered a mental breakdown, presumably because of her traumatic experience on the slide. Brother and sister mourn their lost childhood and speak with disbelief about what Rosemary has done to them. Throughout the scene, the Procession occasionally marches from one side of the stage to the other and the chains swing.

Rosemary comes down the aisle in her Holy Communion dress. Blake begs her for atonement and asks her to take them beyond the Nazis so that they can sail to the Capitol. Rosemary coldly suggests that he put a bullet in his head. The Procession announces that they are leaving Kay and Blake, who beg them to stay. The members of the Procession refuse and walk out.

Kay and Blake begin a dialogue that alternates between hope and despair, between envisioning a renewed springtime and lamenting a dying baby. In unison, they chant, “Now it is our rats’ mass.” The stage directions indicate that from this point on their voices resemble the sound of gnawing.

Blake attempts to come to terms with what has happened. He remembers how Rosemary persuaded him and his sister to obey her, and he agonizes over the gnawed sunflower petals that Kay sends him from the hospital. As he begs for atonement, he mingles in his plea the images of winter, yellow petals, bombs, dead babies, and his love for Rosemary. He is torn between his obsession with Rosemary and his duty to his sister, between his knowledge of what happened and his desire to pretend that “one of the boys playing horseshoes” was responsible, between wanting Rosemary’s love and seeing Kay’s blood everywhere.

Once again, Kay and Blake become Brother and Sister Rat, as Kay remonstrates with Blake for ignoring her while she was in the hospital. She remembers their happy childhood when they went to the movies. Now, she points out, the Germans and Caesar’s army are after them, and they must hide. Rosemary agrees, saying that the Nazis are after the rats.

Resigned to their fate, Brother Rat and Sister Rat chant a lament for their dead baby, for the blood that has become a red aisle runner in the street. Suddenly, Rosemary announces that it is time for her wedding with Blake, that the Nazis have arrived, and that soon Brother Rat and Sister Rat will become headless. The Procession appears, carrying shotguns. Brother Rat and Sister Rat chant once more—an acknowledgment of their approaching destruction—and the Procession shoots until the rats fall. Only Rosemary remains.

Dramatic Devices

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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 Nazis coming to kill them, of gray cats and screaming children and blood and ambulances. In their nightmares, there are worms in Rosemary’s hair and in the attic where they hide. Their private world is locked in eternal winter, with no hope of spring. Even innocuous playground equipment is imbued with guilty associations; Brother Rat and Sister Rat lost their innocence on the slide, and now “Rosemary will forever be atop the slide, exalted with worms in her hair.” Sunflowers, generally a symbol of hope and life, become representations of Sister Rat’s breakdown when she sends their gnawed petals instead of letters to her brother.

Perhaps what is most theatrical—and sometimes most frustrating to audiences— about A Rat’s Mass is the surrealist quality of the play. The set, composed as it is of two black chains, a red aisle runner, and candles, evokes images of a Black Mass and forbidden rituals, creating inevitable unease in the audience. The main characters, who are described as “two pale Negro children,” are part rat, part human, and as their despair mounts and their hope dies, they sound more and more like rats, less and less human. Adrienne Kennedy’s choice of rats as representative of a maligned and mistreated minority is especially apt: Rats—unlike mice—evoke no sympathy, elicit only disgust and the desire to exterminate them, and conjure up images of filth and degradation, which are violently juxtaposed to the Holy Family and their entourage and Rosemary in her white dress.

Most startling of the visual images in the play is the finale in which the Holy Procession—composed of the familiar biblical figures who grace every Nativity scene ever displayed—guns down the fleeing Brother Rat and Sister Rat. This nightmarish ending provides strong reinforcement for one of the play’s more pervasive ideas: that the organized church is responsible in large part for racism and hatred and indeed can be directly implicated in some of the deaths of oppressed peoples. The biblical characters so long held to be symbols of salvation and redemption become in this play the agents of destruction for a pair of innocent children, whose only fault is their color and their desire to emulate and be accepted by the dominant race and culture.

The Play

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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 bizarre or even as utterly meaningless. However, the playwright seems to emphasize sound apart from spoken language. Early in the play, the sound of rats may be heard as the processional characters march across the stage, and later, when the procession exits, a gnawing sound is heard. Toward the end of the play, gnawing sounds are accompanied by battlefield sounds, and just before the curtain falls, the procession returns with guns and the sound of shots rings out. At the same time, the playwright indicates moments throughout the play when there is no sound at all, when the absence of sound—silence—is reserved for effect.

If readers can keep these aspects of the script in mind, A Rat’s Mass becomes easier to follow and perhaps to understand. The opening of the play, with its long interchange between Brother Rat and Sister Rat, sets up a tone of ambiguity that the dialogue maintains. Just as Brother Rat and Sister Rat look as if they are part rat and part human (he has a human body but a rat’s head, she a human head but a rat’s stomach), their speeches referring to their lives are similarly mixed: Like rats, they have lived in a holy chapel, eaten sunflower petals, and are afraid of cats, but in a very human way, they speak of Sister Rat being sent to the state psychiatric hospital, remember Rosemary taking them on a picnic, and fear being caught by the Nazis. Quite intentionally, the playwright mixes ideas and linguistic images so that they do not make sense in a logical or predictable way. As Brother Rat and Sister Rat speak of their lives, of their childhood in a neighborhood that was ethnically and religiously mixed, of their baby or babies, of Sister Rat’s mental illness and her time in the state hospital, of Brother Rat’s infatuation with Rosemary, the contradictions and confusions in what they say are of less importance than the suffering and feelings of oppression that they convey. Their emotional cries proceed in an orderly, almost ritualistic pattern, like the mass that they say that they are performing.

Amid the rats’ expression of their sad lives, the procession of religious figures intrudes only at particular moments. When they march across the stage, they are sometimes oblivious to the rats’ sadness; at other times, they seem all too aware that they have entered the rats’ lives. Their final entrance, just before the curtain, turns them from the benevolent Christian icons they represent (the holy family and characters from traditional Christmas nativity pageants) into a line of gun-carrying soldiers.

Although the processional figures speak (in unison) to Brother Rat and Sister Rat a few times during the play, the only character who genuinely converses with Brother Rat and Sister Rat is Rosemary. Dressed in a communion dress and sporting worms in her hair, Rosemary is an Italian Catholic girl who has befriended the two rats. She has read to them from her catechism book and claims to be the descendant of Julius Caesar, the Virgin Mary, and the pope; the rats remember Rosemary with enormous affection and revere her quite religiously, and it is even suggested that Brother Rat had sex with Rosemary during the previous spring. However, Rosemary seems distant, recommending repeatedly that the only thing left for the rats to do is to kill themselves.

Given the distance of the religious figures and the ambivalence of Rosemary, Brother Rat and Sister Rat become increasingly frantic as their rat’s mass progresses. They speak of their impending capture by the Nazis, who they fear are pursuing them, and refer to events in their own past, such as Sister Rat’s hospitalization and Brother Rat’s reluctance to visit her. They seem to adore Rosemary, repeating what she has told them and holding her in great esteem, as if they have internalized all the teachings that she has imparted to them. The conclusion of the play, with the religious figures turning into a firing squad and shooting the rats while Rosemary looks on, is a chilling final tableau.

Bibliography

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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 on her dramatic works.

Kennedy, Adrienne. “A MELUS Interview with Adrienne Kennedy.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 12 (Fall, 1985): 99-108. The playwright talks about issues of race and culture, on a personal and professional level, and discusses how politics and gender have an impact on writing for the modern theater. Kennedy offers a frank discussion of how her private and public lives have fused in the creation of her art.

Kolin, Philip C. Understanding Adrienne Kennedy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Comprehensive analysis of Kennedy’s literary output, including a chapter on A Rat’s Mass.

Shinn, Thelma. “Living the Answer: The Emergence of African American Feminist Drama.” Studies in the Humanities 17 (December, 1990): 149-159. A view of how Kennedy’s works fit into the broader field of plays by African American women dramatists. The writer suggests how such dramaturgy has evolved from the works of Lorraine Hansberry onward and notes that African American feminist writers tend toward nonrealistic conventions. Shinn also compares the rattraps of A Rat’s Mass to the ghetto setting of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

Sollors, Werner. “Owls and Rats in the American Funnyhouse.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 63 (September, 1991): 507-532. A fascinating study of several of Kennedy’s plays, including A Rat’s Mass. The author discusses imagery found in Kennedy’s work and attempts to synthesize the playwright’s view of America. Helpful in interpreting some of Kennedy’s obscure and nightmarish motifs.

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