Robert Patrick’s preoccupation as a dramatist with the theme of illusion versus reality may be attributed in part to his experience as a gay man in a society that largely prefers that homosexuality be hidden; in part to a childhood spent riding around Depression and post-Depression Texas as his parents were looking for work, while he turned the dials on a silent Motorola radio and made up programs with his sisters; and in part to other forms of popular culture in which he immersed himself, including paperback books, glossy magazines, and motion pictures. Whatever the source, his plays are filled with illusions—illusions that are frequently deadly but can also be life-giving.
Characters in many of America’s greatest plays have dealt with the theme of illusion versus reality—from Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield with her dreams of gentlemen callers, Laura with her glass menagerie, and Blanche DuBois on her streetcar named Desire, to Arthur Miller’s starry-eyed salesman Willy Loman with his impossible plans for his sons, to Edward Albee’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with their imaginary son. For some of these characters, the puncturing of illusion brings a tragic end, while for others it allows a hopeful renewal. Patrick’s characters respond similarly, but Patrick’s concern is rather a further twist on the theme: He generally carries characters not merely into a recognition of illusion but also beyond, into appreciation of the need for illusion. This is not a tragic understanding—that is, that people are crippled because of their reliance on illusion, like Blanche or Mary Tyrone—but rather a tranquil acceptance of the fact that illusion is not merely a crutch for the mentally unbalanced but is present to a degree in every human being’s existence. This is one of the central truths of Kennedy’s Children: The play reveals the many realities present in a single historical era, and not merely one for each of the five characters, but a complex of different realities for each of them.
Kennedy’s Children presents the interweaving monologues of five diverse individuals in a bar, each recalling his or her experience of the 1960’s from the perspective of the present, February 14, 1974. Each began with hopes and dreams, optimism and vitality, and each has been disillusioned and depleted in some way. Patrick has said that the play is about the loss of heroes, and indeed, it suggests the importance of finding heroism and dreams in oneself rather than in the myths of popular culture.
Carla is probably the most poignant character, building her illusions on the image of Marilyn Monroe. Like two of the other characters, she came to New York in the 1960’s as a teenager (one of “Kennedy’s children”) with dreams of success. Her dreams, she discovers, are shared by millions of others, and her own life becomes a tangle of lofty ideals and harsh realities, all of which she seeks to reconcile through rationalizations. Her illusions come crashing down when she realizes that the symbols of glamour and sex in the 1970’s are the artificially perfected body of Raquel Welch and the complete artifice of drag queens. Somehow the surface has become all-important, an illusion overpowering her loftier dreams of inspiring the masses with her own beauty and glamour. Which is the deeper reality, which the frailer illusion? Does Carla kill herself because her brand of glamour has become obsolete, or is it rather that she is unable to reconcile herself to a world of such contradictory realities?
Sparger is an actor, but he never becomes caught up in the illusions of the stage. His approach is that of the cynical realist, well aware of the pretentiousness and insincerity of the underground theater movement (virtually identical with Off-Off-Broadway, quite familiar to Patrick). Yet perhaps Sparger’s very cynicism, as he describes the preoccupation with sex and lack of serious artistry motivating the movement, is itself delusion. Was it all merely a mockery? Was there no value in the antiestablishment, nonconformist productions in which he has participated? Theater life is one of Patrick’s favorite themes, and he punctures many of the glamorous notions connected with it, showing the venality of the actors and others involved. Yet Patrick clearly believes in its power and its value, as the seriousness of much of his work demonstrates.
In the characters of Rona, the hippie-revolutionary, and Mark, the Vietnam War veteran, Patrick embodies the most serious sides of the 1960’s. Each of them has arrived at 1974 quite lost, their high ideals revealed as inadequate for coping with the realities of life. All the movements in which Rona has participated (a bit unrealistically perhaps, but appropriately for effective symbolic representation)—from civil rights to antiwar, from Berkeley’s Free Speech movement to rebellion in drugs, dress, and rock music—seem to have culminated in apathy and drug or alcohol dependency for her and her offstage husband, himself a former revolutionary. When she tells him that action and leaders are needed now, he asks ironically, with a sense of despairing futility, “Who do you want me to kill? What do you want me to be: Lee Harvey Oswald?”
Mark is one of the saddest casualties of the 1960’s, his mind strung out by drugs and the shocks of war. As he reads from his diary of his Vietnam War experiences, he proceeds through the multiple meanings that confront him—and the multiple contradictions (a Robert Patrick hallmark). Humankind should be unified, he believes—but not, he says, in the way that the Communist Vietcong would do this. His friend Chick tells him how important it is not to take sides, in order to save his own hide and not involve himself in another person’s war. Yet Mark’s mind has become so numbed that when Chick moves to...
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