Kennedy's dramas are densely packed, difficult exercises for the vast majority of theatre patrons, as well as for avant-garde modernists, who are frequently "those guardians of consistency lurking in her audience," says theorist Marc Robinson, "wondering what 'ism' she fits into" (119). Kennedy, whose most challenging and controversial works were written and produced in the early-to-mid sixties, displayed the qualities of non-linear time and stylistic ecclecticism that would later characterize postmodernism. Her first two one-act plays, "Funnyhouse of a Negro" and "The Owl Answers," borrowed freely from the traditions of symbolism, absurdism, and most especially surrealism and expressionism at a time when many dramatists were only beginning to mix genres and styles that once seemed incompatible or contradictory.
The basic plotline of "Funnyhouse of a Negro" revolves around a young, tortured college student named Sarah, also known simply as "Negro" in the text of the play. Sarah's mother, a light-skinned black with long, Caucasian-like hair, married Sarah's father, a dark-skinned aspiring revolutionary, and accompanied him to Africa. There, Sarah's mother fell out of love with her husband and became unresponsive to him; one night, in a drunken rage, he raped her. Sarah, the child borne of the rape, watched as her mother lost her mind and her father, racked with guilt, began to hallucinate. These past events set the stage for the main actions of the play, which are Sarah's final rebuff of her father, his subsequent suicide in a Harlem hotel room, and Sarah's own suicide as she fails to reconcile herself to her roots and the nightmare of her past. Similarly, "The Owl Answers" is the story of Clara Passmore, the offspring of "the Richest White Man in the Town" and his black servant. Reverend Passmore and his wife adopt Clara, and they forbid her to attend her father's funeral when he dies. As an adult, she imagines visiting England, her father's place of origin, as she seduces black men on the subway and takes them to hotel rooms. She has a breakdown at the end of the play, when her struggles with her identity culminate in the attempted stabbing of her latest companion and her transformation into an owl.
The stories of these one-act plays are presented through an amalgamation of symbolism, absurdism, expressionism, and surrealism. Critic Elinor Fuchs argues that Kennedy's early plays (which include "Funnyhouse," "Owl," and "A Rat's Mass") are most strongly influenced by symbolism, an artistic movement that focused on "the mystery of the isolated soul" (80). Fuchs notes that early symbolist plays demonstrated a preoccupation with death, so much so that death seemed fashionably desirable (77). A similar theme is reflected most tellingly in Sarah's fantasy: "My white friends like myself will be shrewd, intellectual and anxious for death" (Fuchs 77). In addition, the dialogue of Kennedy's early plays is stronly repetitious and poetic; the repetition never becomes boring, however, as the ideas behind the words only seem smore frantic and complex (Robinson 122). Symbolists used this sort of repetition to create a mood of mystery and musicality, and to present a reality beyond human comprehension (Brockett and Findlay 67). Kennedy also used recurring symbols and images, like very kinky and super-straight hair, and birds, usually owls, ravens, and white doves.
Other critics have argued that Kennedy's work is most heavily influenced by the absurdists. This theory states that Kennedy's characters illustrate the anarchy of living in a world without God's presence; one example of the "desire for presence" would be "Owl"'s Clara, who says, "I want what everyone wants...Love or something, I guess" (Bryant-Jackson 52). Also, these critics believe, Kennedy's characters enact an individual struggle with an inalterable destiny (Bryant-Jackson 54). While both "Funnyhouse" and "Owl" have several absurdist tendencies--including, to a certain degree, the ones previously mentioned, as well as the use of flexible time--a purely absurdist analysis of Kennedy's works is largely inadequate (Bryant-Jackson 54, 55).
Surrealist elements surface throughout "Funnyhouse" and "Owl" at least as often as symbolism and absurdism. Surrealists focused upon the human unconscious as the guide in the search for meaning and truth (Brockett and Findlay 165). By finding unity between seemingly unrelated objects (otherwise known as "metaphorical thought"), new understanding emerges (Brockett and Findlay 166). Kennedy herself describes dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca's impact upon her work in her autobiography, The People Who Let to My Plays:
After I read and saw Blood Wedding, I changed my ideas about what a play was...Never again would I try to set my plays in a "living room," never again would I be afraid to have my characters talk in a nonrealistic way, and I would abandon the realistic set for a greater dream setting. It was a turning point. (108)
Both "Funnyhouse" and "Owl" are intensely dreamlike and frequently nightmarish in presentation, and both abound with surrealistic imagery. In "Funnyhouse," a sleepwalking woman moves across the stage carrying a bald head and black raven fly around; in "Owl," random beards and wigs are used like everyday objects, a white dove flies into a cage, and the characters continually change identities. The dialogue is completely inwardly focused; the plays read as if the audience is sitting inside the minds of Sarah and Clara.
Certain aspects of expressionism also appear in Kennedy's dramas. Expressionism was marked by an emphasis on subjectivity, a focus on themes and ideas, bizarre events, distortion, strong lighting, and the use of costume and makeup to illustrate the psychological state of a character (Brockett and Findlay 149-150, 157). "Funnyhouse" and "Owl" explore the themes of identity and placement from highly subjective points of view. Lighting, costume, and makeup are essential in Kennedy's plays to set the mood and to reveal the mindset of the characters. At the beginning of "Funnyhouse," for example, Kennedy notes that the middle of the stage must be lit by a white light so strong, it is "unreal and ugly," while "the rest of the stage is in strong unnatural blackness" (192). Costuming and makeup are necessary to show the contrasts between the four characters of "Funnyhouse" who comprise the different parts of Sarah; for example, Jesus is a hunchback dressed in rags, Patrice Lumumba's head is split with blood coming from his eyes, and Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg look exactly alike, with alabaster faces and frizzy hair. Sarah has a noose around her neck and blood where her face should be; also, the hair of the characters falls out with increasing frequency as Sarah moves toward suicide. In "Owl," the characters must continually change their costumes onstage to shift characters, as when the Dead Father takes off his long white hair and white face and puts on a church robe to become Reverend Passmore. Clara is eventually transformed into an owl, presumably through costume, although Kennedy does not provide explicit directions.
The combination of these modernist styles, which shared a desire for anti-realism but diverged in many of their theories and ways of presentation, has all the earmarkings of an early postmodernism. Feminist scholar Jeanie Forte observes that "[Kennedy's] work moves via images and associations, registering as an experience of consciousness effected [sic] by representations in literature, pop culture and film as well as by the movement of history" (159). Kennedy's style is also reflected in her autobiography, which resembles a scrapbook with pictures and brief descriptions of subjects ranging from her family members, fairies, and animal crackers to Bette Davis, James Baldwin, Frankenstein, and Haile Selassie--all of these seemingly unrelated pieces of culture are presented as greatly influential in forming her sense of self as both an individual and as a writer. Few limits seem to exist in Kennedy's ability to connect the unconnected, and this wide vision enabled her not only to take a first step into the realm of postmodernism, but also to fearlessly manipulate avant-garde techniques to explore issues of race, gender, and identity in previously unimagined ways.
While Kennedy tackled African-American concerns in her plays, she did so in a decidedly unconventional way that resulted in her isolation from the dominant black arts movement of the 1960s. Both Sarah and Clara are obsessed with race in "Funnyhouse" and "Owl"; in fact, it is the refusal to come to grips with blackness that contributes to Sarah's suicide and Clara's breakdown. However, Michael Kahn, who directed "Funnyhouse" and "Owl," noted that Kennedy was "severly ostracized. Her plays were considered neurotic and...not supportive of the black movement" (Stein 192). Actress Billie Allen, who originated the role of "Funnyhouse"'s Sarah, implied that Kennedy's works upset many blacks because she "[exposed] our universal demons to the scrutiny of the light" (Overbeck and Bryant-Jackson 223). Many blacks complained that Kennedy's characters were derogatory, misunderstanding that many of her characters simply reflected the depths of institutionalized/internalized racism (Overbeck and Bryant-Jackson 219). Kennedy's dramas toyed with racist ideas so subtly that black audiences accustomed to the realism and naturalism of African-American theatre in the 1960s seemed to have a difficult time embracing Kennedy's more obscure technique.
Kennedy's one-act plays were too early for the feminist theatre of the 1970s, but they certainly have feminist implication, even if they are not in line with established feminist theory. Not only do Kennedy's plays focus on females and female experience, but as theorist bell hooks notes, Kennedy's search for female identity "can be read as linked to a growing political concern in the fifties and sixties...with women's efforts to come to voice" (182). Kennedy's plays struggle with traditional ideas of femininity; this struggle is evidenced in Sarah's obsession with the long, silky hair of white women, as well as in Clara's desire to be the Virgin Mary. While Kennedy's early work is not "overly feminist" (in relation to current feminist discourse), her dramas are extremely important to black women because they provided a way for black female writers to speak of their realities, which were being overlooked by the most prominent African-American theatre and later feminist theatre (hooks 182-183).
Critic Marc Robinson states that Adrienne Kennedy, along with playwrights Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes, define the writer's purpose as "an act of looking for...not a showing off of what has been seen" (180). Kennedy's position has also been aptly described as follows:
A feminist in a period of masculinist black nationalism, was also a postmodern experimentalist in a period of realist political drama and a woman writing very specifically about the physicality of blackness and the bleeding, pregnant female body when theoretical discourse could not account for those differences; it still cannot. (Kintz 179)
Kennedy's works laid a foundation for later playwrights like Ntozake Shage and Suzan-Lori Parks, who have broken free of the boundaries of realism to explore new levels of identity and the human experience. Adrienne Kennedy's groundbreaking style reshaped the theatre to communicate her experience; she is an excellent example of the importance of creating one's own space (Robinson 149).
This essay could not have been written without the brilliance of the scholars cited in the piece:
Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert R. Findlay. Century of Innovation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Forte, Jeanie. "Kennedy's Body Politic: The Mulatta, Menses, and the Medusa." In Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck. 157-169.
Fuchs, Elinor. "Adrienne Kennedy and the First Avant-Garde." In Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck. 76-84.
hooks, bell. "Critical Reflections: Adrienne Kennedy, the Writer, the Work." In Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck. 179-185.
Kennedy, Adrienne. The People Who Led to My Plays. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Kintz, Linda. The Subject's Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.
Robinson, Marc. The Other American Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Stein, Howard. "An Interview with Michael Kahn." In Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck. 189-198.
For an enjoyable interview with Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks, go to: