Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

A Rat’s Mass is a play about the negative aspects of the black experience, about prejudice and hatred and rejection, about being an outsider with no hope of ever belonging, and about the failure of traditional institutions to offer any solutions to the problem. Brother Rat and Sister Rat represent the black population, Rosemary the white society that subjugates and oppresses, and the Procession of holy figures the uncaring, impersonal church, which offers neither succor nor forgiveness.

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For Brother and Sister Rat, the pain of living black in a white world is realized in their adoration of Rosemary, the white child who is all that they can never be—“a descendant of the Pope and Julius Caesar and the Virgin Mary.” Rosemary is the source of their feelings of rejection (“Colored people are not Catholics, are they?”), the instigator of their sin (“Rosemary said if I loved her I would do what she said”), and the reminder of their guilt (“I will never atone you”). Clad in her white Communion dress, Rosemary is both the unattainable ideal and the avenging angel.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

The playwright uses techniques that may be described as surrealistic and also as expressionistic and absurdist. The surreal world created by A Rat’s Mass appears to emanate, much like a dream, from the subconscious. Thus, the visual images and dialogue do not seem to make sense in a rational way, and the play as a whole manages to embody contradictions that, by the time the play has concluded, have ceased to appear contradictory.

At the same time, the playwright employs expressionistic devices—that is, she depicts the main characters’ internal, rather than external, notions of reality. The rigidity of the religious procession, for example, may physically embody how Brother Rat and Sister Rat feel about the Church, and Rosemary’s appearance (the communion dress and wormy hair) indicates how the two rats perceive her: childlike, religiously pure, and yet rotting, as if dead.

The play also relies on some of the conventions of what has become known as the Theater of the Absurd. Thus, the plot seeks to explore how certain situations feel rather than to tell a story (hence the absence of a traditional plot), and the importance of language is diminished, while spectacle and nonlinguistic sound take on a larger, highly symbolic meaning. The play appears to be fragmented and illogical, progressing with irrational, seemingly circular dialogue and bizarre visual effects. The often repetitive and nonsensical speeches by Brother Rat and Sister Rat make the audience look to the sights and sounds of the play for meaning.

The symbolism of the play remains, perhaps quite deliberately, elusive. Rosemary’s insistence that people of color are not Catholic does, however, offer an important clue to what the play may signify: the rats, depicted as half human and half animal, may represent African Americans, who have been made to feel less than human by Western culture in general and by the Church or organized Western religion in particular. The connection between Western culture and Western religion is drawn emphatically by Rosemary, who claims to be descended from the Virgin Mary, Julius Caesar, and the pope, and who has taught the rats Latin (the language of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Roman empire) and Italian history. The emergence of the religious figures with guns at the close of A Rat’s Mass fulfills the rats’ worst fears of being captured by the Nazis: The benevolent religious figures in effect become the representatives of oppression, just as European culture evolved into a collection of imperialistic states that overran and colonized much of the world.

A Rat’s Mass, with its references to rats and the Nazis, evokes a terrifying image of extermination. The play seems to imply that Western civilization is bent on destroying what it cannot claim as its own. At the same time, Brother Rat and Sister Rat, having internalized the anti-rat teachings imparted by Rosemary, have tried their hardest to conform to what they perceive as the demands of the culture.

The title, with its Catholic ceremonial connotations, not only sets the ritualistic and religious tone for the play as a whole, but also contains a pun (the colloquial figure of speech is “a rat’s ass”) that betrays the play’s basic irreverence for the society (and its institutions) that are critiqued and even satirized. The incongruity of the characters (the part-rat, part-human costuming of Brother Rat and Sister Rat and the worms in Rosemary’s hair, for example) and some of the dialogue (Rosemary’s insistence that she is descended from the Virgin Mary and the pope), true to the tradition of the Theater of the Absurd, seem humorous.

Yet, ultimately, the play poses more questions than it answers. In this highly ritualized setting, where is God? If organized Western religion is bankrupt of meaning for Brother Rat and Sister Rat, does this mean that all religious experience remains irrelevant? Are the rats doomed to die in this nightmarish world, or is there an escape? Can the rats’ beliefs in what Rosemary has taught them (which inevitably leads to their deaths) be turned into a belief in themselves?

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