The Member of the Wedding
Play, 1951
American Writer ( 1917 - 1967 )
Other Names Used: McCullers, Lula Carson Smith; Smith, Lula Carson; McCullers, Carson Smith; McCullers, Lula Carson;
Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 5. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. p162-179.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 
Page 162

The Member of the Wedding

CARSON MCCULLERS 1950

Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding is only one of two plays written by the author and by far the most successful. Adapted from her 1946 novel of the same name, Member was first produced at the Empire Theatre on Broadway in 1950. McCullers had only seen several professional theatrical productions—two on Broadway (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie)—prior to her attempt at adapting her work for the stage. McCullers undertook the task when encouraged by Williams, who had read the novel and was greatly impressed with its potential for the stage. The veteran playwright invited McCullers and her husband to his home in Nantucket, where he offered his advice on the novel’s adaptation (later, he was also instrumental in obtaining financial backing and production staff for the play’s bow).

Though personal obstacles prevented a speedy transformation from page to stage, Member’s 1950 debut was an immediate success, running for 501 performances on Broadway. It won several prestigious awards for McCullers, including the New York Dramatics Circle Award for best play, two Donaldson Awards (for best play and best first play by an author) and the Theatre Club, Inc.’s gold medal for best playwright of the year. After its Broadway run, the play was produced for a national tour and a feature film. This is one of the few instances in which an author successfully adapted their own work to the stage, and it led to Page 163  |  Top of ArticleMcCullers’s membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Though McCullers is primarily known as a novelist, critics praised her dramatic interpretation of The Member of the Wedding, in great part due to the stylistic chances the play takes. Critics lauded her imaginative emphasis on character, emotion, and mood over the more traditional dramatic elements of plot and staging. In an unconventional move, almost all of the play’s dramatic action takes place off stage (including the wedding of the title). Some critics found this lack of plot to be a great weakness. Others, however, found the author’s focus on such an unusual protagonist (Frankie) and the play’s overwhelming theme of loneliness to be a breath of fresh air and a unique perspective. Even McCullers was said to be surprised by the acclaim. The Member of the Wedding proved that mainstream dramatic productions could focus on emotional states in favor of narrative thrust. That so many viewers were able to identify with the plights of Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry testified to this fact. While late-twentieth century appraisals of the play have tended to focus on the racial aspects of the play—particularly the second-class citizenship of Berenice and Honey—McCullers’s work is still highly regarded for its sensitive examination of adolescent alienation.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in the small mill town of Columbus, Georgia. She was the daughter of Lamar Smith, a jeweler, and his wife Marguerite Waters Smith. McCullers’s mother reportedly had premonitions during her pregnancy that Lula would be artistically inclined. Her hunch proved correct, and McCullers was given every advantage, sometimes to the exclusion of her younger sister, Margarita, and younger brother, Lamar, Jr. As a child, McCullers often wrote and staged plays with family and friends, just as the central character Frankie does in the author’s 1950 play (and 1946 novel) The Member of the Wedding. McCullers also studied piano intensely. She had a complicated relationship with the family of her piano teacher, Mary Tucker, that bears a striking resemblance to the extra-familial relationships depicted in Member.

In 1934, McCullers’s family sold a piece of family jewelry so that she could study piano and


Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers

writing in New York City. McCullers lost the money upon her arrival and was forced to work a variety of odd jobs to support herself while she studied writing at both Columbia and New York University. She met Reeves McCullers, an aspiring novelist such as herself, in 1936. They married the next year, and moved to North Carolina, where they lived for several years. It was during this period that McCullers produced some of her most notable work, including the novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941).

The McCullers moved back to New York City in 1940, where each was involved in several complicated love affairs; the couple divorced later that year. In 1941, McCullers suffered her first stroke (attacks of varying severity would plague most of her adult life) but continued to work on her next novel, The Ballad of the Sad Cafè. The novel was published in 1943, and McCullers garnered wide critical and popular acclaim for the work. Having enlisted to fight in World War II following their divorce, Reeves was wounded in combat in 1944 and returned stateside later that year. He and McCullers remarried in 1945.

The next year, McCullers published The Member of the Wedding as a novel. It is arguably her most popular work. She began work on the dramatization Page 164  |  Top of Articleof the novel in 1946, at the urging of noted playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), who also assisted with the adaptation and subsequent production of the work. Despite such impetus, the project was delayed for several years due to personal crises. McCullers and her husband moved to Paris in 1946, and Reeves subsequently began an excessive indulgence with alcohol. McCullers then suffered three severe strokes in 1947, leaving her paralyzed on her left side. Despite these setbacks, she managed to complete the play, which opened to wide acclaim on Broadway in 1950. It won numerous awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Theatre Club gold medal.

This success allowed McCullers to buy a home in Paris in 1952. She continued to write, but Reeves’s alcoholism was exerting a tremendous strain on their relationship; he committed suicide in France in 1953. McCullers wrote only one more play, The Square Root of Wonderful, which was inspired by the deaths of Reeves and her mother. The play was a moderate success, lasting only forty-five performances. McCullers’s health continued to decline throughout the 1950s. She published one other novel, Clock without Hands (1961), and a book of children’s poems before succumbing to her final stroke on September 29, 1967.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act I

The setting is the kitchen and yard of a house in a small southern town in August, 1945. It is late afternoon. Berenice, the black cook, serves drinks to her employer, Mr. Addams; his son, Jarvis; Jarvis’s fiancee, Janice; and his daughter, Frankie, a twelve-year-old girl with short-cropped hair. Also present is Frankie’s seven-year-old cousin John Henry. Jarvis has brought Janice home to meet his family. Mr. Addams tells them that Frankie has been talking non-stop about the wedding since Jarvis announced the engagement. Taking a sip of lemonade with liquor in it, Frankie awkwardly tries to get attention by imitating a drunk. Janice notices music coming from a nearby clubhouse and, when she asks Frankie about it, the girl tells her she is not yet a member of that group.

After everyone leaves, Berenice accuses Frankie of being jealous of Jarvis and Janice. Berenice, Frankie, and John Henry play a game of three-handed bridge. Frankie talks about her mixed feelings regarding the wedding. The bridge game takes an odd turn when Frankie and Berenice realize that John Henry has cut out the pictures of the jacks and queens. Frankie gets frustrated with him and sweeps the cards from the table. She laments her life, how she wants to leave the family home. It is revealed that Frankie gave John Henry the doll that Jarvis brought for her. Sounds of neighborhood children are heard. John Henry wants Frankie to join him outside with the other children. She refuses, but she goes out when a group of older girls enter the yard. The girls inform Frankie that she was not elected to their club—Mary Littlejohn was. Frankie becomes angry. Berenice suggests she start her own club with the neighborhood children, but Frankie does not want to lead “those little young left-over people.”

Frankie decides that she wants to be called F. Jasmine Addams. She worries that she is too tall for her age and a freak. She wants to improve herself before the wedding, then she wants to die. When John Henry gets on her nerves, she makes him go home. Frankie starts to get a splinter out of her foot with a knife. She laments that her best friend has moved away. Frankie repeats something Janice said about her earlier, that Frankie wouldn’t grow much more, then embellishes it. Berenice points this out, and the fact that Frankie is very jealous. The cook says that Frankie has a crush on the wedding and teases the girl. Frankie gets so angry that she throws the knife at the wall. She swears that she is going to leave town as soon as the wedding is over.

Berenice’s beau, T. T. Williams, and her foster brother, Honey Camden Brown, come by to pick up Berenice. T. T. tells the cook that her brother got in a fight with a soldier and the military police beat him. The threesome depart, leaving Frankie alone. Frankie decides that she’s going to go with Jarvis and Janice after the wedding, so that she can belong to something, so that she can be a part of a “we.”

Act II

It is the following day, the same kitchen/yard setting. Berenice is cooking and John Henry is blowing soap bubbles when Frankie enters. The cook is angry at Frankie because she has been gone all day. Frankie tells Berenice that she bought her outfit for the wedding, and then went all over town telling everyone she is leaving with Jarvis and Janice after the wedding. She says that she will kill herself if they do not take her. Berenice changes the subject as she serves Frankie and John Henry supper. She thinks that Frankie needs a boyfriend and Page 165  |  Top of Articlesuggests Barney MacKean, who lives next door. Frankie calls Berenice crazy. The racket of the piano tuner chimes in, making Berenice tense. Frankie finds something Berenice says funny and starts to shadow box. Silence falls as the girls in the club pass through the Addams’s yard. Frankie yells at them.

T. T. and Honey come in the back door, informing Berenice that Sis Laura, an old vegetable seller, has died. Frankie changes into her dress for the wedding to show Berenice. It is an orange satin evening dress inappropriate for a young girl. Frankie asks Berenice for her honest opinion, and the cook tells her she does not like it. The others basically agree. Mr. Addams comes in and yells at his daughter for being late. He asks T. T. and Honey if they would like to work for him next week at his jewelry store. T. T. politely tells him he cannot work on that day, but Honey is less polite in his gruff, negative response. Mr. Addams insults him, then goes back to the store. Honey and T. T. leave soon after.

Frankie reflects on death for a while, and Berenice talks about each of her four husbands. She says she loved only the first one, Ludie; she only married each of the subsequent ones because, in some way, they reminded her of Ludie. Berenice tells Frankie she knows of the young girl’s intentions. Berenice warns the girl to be careful about her preoccupation with the wedding. Still, a few moments later, Frankie begins rhapsodizing about the places she, Jarvis, and Janice will visit and the many adventures they will have together. Berenice pulls Frankie onto her lap and calms her down. Frankie says she does not understand much of the world. The scene ends with Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry singing a hymn.

Act III, scene 1

It is just after the wedding ceremony the next day. In the kitchen, Berenice and T. T. arrange the refreshments for the reception. Berenice and T. T. watch the wedding from inside the door. It is revealed that Honey is in trouble again, having pulled a knife on a white bartender who refused to serve him; the young man is now wanted by the police and has disappeared. Frankie enters and says that she has not yet told Jarvis and Janice about her plans to live with them. She could not get the words out, and she is embarrassed about her dress. Frankie leaves and John Henry enters. He tells T. T. and Berenice that Frankie gave him lots of her stuff while she packed. Frankie returns and Berenice tries to dissuade her from her plan. The bride and groom are ready to leave, and Frankie says goodbye to the group in the kitchen. She leaves, and the sound of an argument immediately ensues offstage. John Henry returns to tell Berenice and T. T. that Frankie is in the newly weds’ car and won’t get out.

Moments later, Mr. Addams pulls Frankie into the kitchen and asks her what is wrong. Jarvis and Janice follow. They try to console her, but Frankie cannot accept that she is not a part of the couple. The young girl is very upset, and Berenice tries to comfort her. John Henry tells Berenice he is sick, but she does not believe him. Frankie continues to cry. Mr. Addams tries to help, but Frankie declares that she is tired of her existence, picks up her suitcase, and runs away. T. T. and Mr. Addams run after her, while the sounds of a storm rumble in the background. John Henry gets scared and again says that he has a headache. The power goes out. Berenice admits that she is scared as well.

Act III, scene 2

It is the following morning, about four o’clock. Mr. Addams and Berenice are in the kitchen together. Frankie is still missing, and John Henry has become quite ill; it is revealed that he has meningitis. Mr. Addams goes to find out about his condition, and, after he leaves, Frankie returns. Berenice shakes her, and Frankie says that she has run all over town. She says that she decided to kill herself and had her father’s pistol out. But at the last second, she decided not to pull the trigger. As Berenice marches her off to bed, Honey arrives. Honey tells Berenice that the police are after him. Berenice gives him money to leave town.

Act III, scene 3

The scene opens in the Addams’s kitchen, several months later. The kitchen is bare, and Berenice is the only one on stage. There is a suitcase at her feet. Frankie enters. Berenice has quit because Frankie and her father are moving into a new house with her aunt and uncle, the Wests. Frankie wants Berenice to come with them, but the cook refuses. Frankie reveals that she has new friends, Mary Littlejohn and Barney. Berenice reveals that Honey hung himself in jail and that she nursed John Henry through his illness until he, too, died. Frankie talks about Barney, but Berenice finds she can no longer relate to the young girl. Frankie states that Jarvis and Janice are in Germany now. She talks about the around-the-world trip she and Mary will make together. Barney and Frankie leave. The lights go down on Berenice, who is left alone on the stage. Page 166  |  Top of ArticleShe hums the hymn that she, Frankie, and John Henry sang together at the end of Act II.

CHARACTERS

Frankie Addams

Frankie is the character around whom The Member of the Wedding revolves; her moody discourses form much of the play’s dialogue. She is a twelve-year-old struggling with the early stages of adolescence and feels very out of place in her world. The only daughter of a widower (her mother died giving birth to her), she longs to be accepted as a vital member of a group. Frankie is a tomboy and has recently chopped her hair off in a crew cut. She is tall and gangly, caught between childhood and adulthood. Though Frankie has Berenice and her neighbor/cousin John Henry as faithful, loving companions, she longs for a deeper sense of kinship with people more like herself. She decides that she wants to live with her brother and his new wife after they marry—including accompanying the couple on their honeymoon. She begins to see the impending wedding as an emblem of the family life for which she yearns. Ultimately, she is not allowed to go with the newlyweds, and she runs away. She returns, and she and her father move in with her aunt and uncle. By the last scene, which takes place several months after the rest of the play, she has begun to accept the family that she has, realizing that she is a member of that group.

Jarvis Addams

Jarvis is Frankie’s twenty-one-year-old brother. He is a soldier in the army stationed at Winter Haven, Georgia, and has served in Europe. It is his impending wedding that has set Frankie’s familial aspirations in motion. He is affectionate towards his sister but does not have any real understanding of her problems or needs. For example, when he comes to announce his engagement, he brings the tomboyish Frankie a doll. Like his father, he is more than a little put off by his sister’s need for attention and kinship.

F. Jasmine Addams

See Frankie Addams

Mr. Royal Addams

Frankie’s father, Mr. Addams is a jeweler who has been a widow since his wife died giving birth their daughter. He is old-fashioned and conservative. Like Jarvis, he does not understand Frankie and her needs. While he loves his daughter, he is unable to connect with her, failing to provide her with a sense of belonging. Uncomfortable confronting his troubled child, he spends much of his time at work.

Berenice Sadie Brown

Berenice is a middle-aged African-American cook in the Addams’s household. She has been married four times but admits to only loving her first husband. The rest, drunks and crooks, all had something that reminded her of the first one. Her only living relative is Honey Camden Brown, her foster brother. Berenice is a mother figure to Frankie. She nurtures the young girl and tries to help her, yet the depth of her actions is hindered by her race and position. Though Frankie frequently disregards Berenice’s advice, she does look to the maid for some measure of love and support. Berenice is also very fond of John Henry, often calling him “Candy.” While she offers the children a great deal of love, they do not return her affection with the same intensity.

Berenice is the most controversial character of McCullers’s play. Late-twentieth century critics have justifiably complained that the playwright’s portrayal of the maid (as well as those of her brother and boyfriend) is, while allowing for a vastly different racial climate when the work was created, is ultimately racist. Despite this, Berenice is also commonly regarded as the heart and soul of the play. While the narrative action is driven by Frankie’s troubles, it is Berenice’s sensibility and nurturing ways that ground the drama in human emotion. It has been labeled as curious (and possibly racially-motivated) then that, of all the surviving characters, it is Berenice’s happiness that appears the most unsure. By the end of play, Honey has been killed, John Henry has died, and the disillusioned maid decides not to move with Frankie’s family to their new house. Having failed to find satisfactory relationships with the Addams, she chooses to find her future elsewhere.

Honey Camden Brown

Honey is Berenice’s foster brother. He is about twenty years-old. He dresses in loud clothes and challenges the racially unequal status quo for African Americans. He refuses to address Mr. Addams as “sir” and, later in the play, assaults a white Page 167  |  Top of Articlebartender who refuses to serve him—an act which results in his arrest. In many ways, he is the polar opposite of T. T. Williams, who bows to and operates within the era’s unbalanced racial environment. Honey ultimately hangs himself in jail.

Candy

See John Henry West

Janice

Janice is Jarvis Addams’s young fiancee. She is young, only eighteen or nineteen years-old. She tells Frankie she is excited by the prospect of having a little sister. She is pretty but not very realistic or sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs.

John Henry West

John Henry is Frankie’s seven-year-old cousin and neighbor. He is a solemn, delicate young boy, who wears wire-rimmed glasses. In the time before the play begins, he was often Frankie’s playmate. Now that she is struggling through early adolescence, however, she treats him with disdain. Still, he loves Frankie and her family and spends much of his time in Berenice’s kitchen, sweetly commenting on events as they happen. He develops meningitis by the end of the play and dies a short time after the wedding. His death contributes to Berenice’s decision to quit her job. John Henry’s innocence and unjust death drive home a point that life is not always fair nor as one would hope.

T. T. Williams

T. T. is Berenice’s current boyfriend. He is a middle-aged African American, about fifty years of age. He wears the clothes of a church deacon. He is a good, proper man who is given to occasional moments of pomposity. He defers to Mr. Addams and other white men as the times dictate, but he is also shown to have a strong sense of self. His decency towards his fellow man is illustrated when he searches for Honey and Frankie when both are missing.

THEMES

Alienation and Loneliness

Both Frankie and Berenice suffer from alienation and loneliness. Frankie, a twelve-year-old on the verge of adolescence, does not feel like she belongs to any peer group. She considers children, like her seven-year-old cousin John Henry, too

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • The Member of the Wedding was adapted into a film in 1952 by Columbia. It features many of the actors from the original Broadway production, including Julie Harris as Frankie, Ethel Waters as Berenice, and Brandon de Wilde as John Henry.
  • A made-for-television version was filmed in 1982. Directed by Delbert Mann, it features Dana Hill as Frankie and Pearl Bailey as Berenice.
  • Another made-for-television adaptation was filmed for the USA Network in 1997. It stars Anna Paquin as Frankie and Alfre Woodward as Berenice.

young, and she feels no more at ease within her own age group. Frankie’s best friend, Evelyn Couch, has moved away, and she feels like an outsider among other twelve-year-olds. The members of the girls’ club are a year or two older, and they reject Frankie. Yet much of Frankie’s alienation is by her own design. When Berenice suggests she befriend a neighbor boy named Barney, Frankie scoffs at the suggestion. The young girl’s isolation is compounded by her family situation: her mother died in childbirth; her widowed father spends most of his time at work; and her older brother, Jarvis, does not understand or really know Frankie (he brings the young tomboy a doll). The answer to her isolation, Frankie reasons, is to live with Jarvis and Janice after their wedding. The couple comes to represent a group to which she can finally belong. Though this solution proves unrealistic, by the end of the play, Frankie has learned to live within her own world. She has made friends with Barney and Mary Littlejohn, a new girl in the neighborhood.

Berenice also lives an alienated life on several levels. She has no family, save her foster brother, Honey, and he is dead by the play’s conclusion. Berenice only loved her first husband, but after his death, she married three other men whose campanionship

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Compare the drama The Member of the Wedding to McCullers’s 1946 novel. What elements did McCullers retain in the transition from page to stage? Why do you think she discarded the elements that she did?
  • Compare Frankie to a character in one of Judy Blume’s young adult novels such as Blubber, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, or Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. How has the literary portrayal of the transition from childhood to adolescence changed since the 1940s? Discuss the differences.
  • Research racism in the American South of the 1940s. How is it embodied in the play? Does it manifest itself differently in adults and children?
  • Compare The Member of the Wedding to McCullers’s 1943 novel The Ballad of the Sad Café, exploring the psychological implications of being an outsider.

was ultimately disappointing. Her current boyfriend, T. T. Williams is a good, decent man, but she does not love him. Berenice is also African American, a fact that leads Frankie to believe that the cook is part of a tight-knit racial group. While it is true that Berenice mentions her involvement with her church and other African-American groups, the black community is also portrayed as distinctly separate from the white society in Member. Berenice is employed as a cook in the Addams’s household, and spends most of her days with white children, which is also an alienating situation. At the end of the play, she has quit her job because the Addams are moving in with the Wests. Her brother is dead and the family to which she nominally belonged is moving on without her. As the final curtain goes down, she is literally left alone.

Coming of Age

Much of The Member of the Wedding deals with Frankie’s awkward transition from childhood to adolescence. The dialogue, especially, shows Frankie’s difficulty in navigating this stage of life. She acts like a child one moment (shamelessly mugging for attention) and the next putting on adult airs (insisting that her name is now F. Jasmine Addams, buying an inappropriate evening gown for the wedding). Frankie feels too tall and gangly to be considered a child, yet she still finds comfort sitting on Berenice’s lap. The young girl is beginning to realize that there is more to the world than the town in which she lives. She wants to see and experience this world, but she does not know how to go about discovering it. She feels helpless in her situation, unable to make the right choices. In the last scene of Member, however, Frankie is more sure of herself. She has experienced disappointment and disillusionment, witnessed the death of someone close to her (John Henry), and realized that there still may be happiness in the world. She is learning that part of being an adult means compromise, accepting that sometimes things don’t work out as planned.

Race and Racism

An underlying theme of The Member of the Wedding is race. Berenice is a black servant in a white household. She is primarily concerned with domestic duties, taking care of Frankie and constant visitor John Henry. Other African Americans visit Berenice at the Addams house and represent two prevalent black stances in Postwar America. T. T. Williams is a pleasant man who calls Mr. Addams “sir” and is unfailingly polite, even when he is treated unfairly. Honey, however, is not so accommodating. He is representative of the rising dissatisfaction among blacks that will evolve into the Civil Rights Movement of the coming decades. Honey has had trouble with the law because he refuses to tolerate racial slights. Mr. Addams does not like him because the young man refuses to address him as “sir.” Honey pulls a knife on a white bartender who will not serve him, which leads to his arrest and eventual suicide.

While the racial theme is not overt, McCullers makes an effort to show contemporary racial attitudes. This effort on the playwright’s part has earned Member some scorn from critics in the latter half of the twentieth century. Because McCullers accurately portrays the manner in which whites treated blacks, the second-class citizenry to which they were consigned, many deem the play as racist. Still other critics note the depiction as a strength, Page 169  |  Top of Articlepraising the play as an historical record of the injustices of the past. These scribes further note that had McCullers truly wished to degrade African Americans, she would not have taken such pains to make Berenice a strong, intelligent character who functions as the soul and conscience of the play.

Death

Those already deceased and the characters who die during The Member of the Wedding affect the plot deeply. Frankie’s mother died in childbirth, leaving the girl motherless, a situation that plays a large part in her feelings of alienation. Similarly, Berenice has no family save Honey, and the only man she loved, her first husband, is long dead. McCullers emphasizes the rapidity of change and Berenice’s loneliness by having both Honey and John Henry die by the end of the play. These deaths also act in contrast to Frankie’s emergence as an adolescent. She successfully makes the transition, even though she also considered suicide. While both Berenice and Frankie are survivors, Frankie has a future ahead of her. The deaths that play upon the young girl’s life act as an ultimately positive experience that makes her smarter and stronger. Berenice is middle-aged and part of disenfranchised minority; she does not have as many options as the young white girl. The deaths affecting her represent closed doors; they are further proof of her estrangement.

STYLE

Setting

The Member of the Wedding is set in a small town in Georgia during fours days in August, 1945; the conclusion takes place one day in November of that same year. The action of the play takes place exclusively in the back yard and kitchen of the Addams’s household. There is an arbor attached to the back yard. Most of the action takes place in the kitchen itself, where Berenice cooks and tends to Frankie and John Henry. McCullers’s use of one setting emphasizes the static nature of life, particularly as Frankie sees it. It also underlines the isolation of both Frankie and Berenice. Frankie sees members of the girls’ club, who represent the outside world from which Frankie feels estranged, walking through her yard from inside the kitchen. As she is depicted in the play, Berenice never leaves the kitchen; as with Frankie, the room represents her isolation from the mainstream—although in the cook’s case, her segregation stems from a racist climate rather than the young girl’s growing pains.

Costumes, Lighting, and Music

Although the set remains static, McCullers employs other elements to engage the dramatic action. A significant tool in this endeavor is the appearance the playwright designates for her protagonist. It is revealed that Frankie cut her hair off before the play began. This haircut is but one example of Frankie’s status as a tomboy. She also favors short pants and a sombrero early on; both items emphasize her height and discomfort with her age. After Frankie decides she wants to be known as F. Jasmine, a more adult name in her opinion, she buys an orange satin evening gown for the wedding. The dress is clearly intended for an adult woman and looks ridiculous on Frankie’s still maturing frame, but its inappropriateness underscores her struggle. To show the difference between T. T. and Honey, McCullers calls for T. T. to wear conservative, acceptable (at least to the white community) clothes (like “a church deacon”) while Honey favors “loud-colored, snappy clothes” that illustrate his conscious efforts to be different and separate from whites.

McCullers also employs lighting to similar end. The stage directions of Member call for dim lighting to open the play and gradually reveal the characters. The stage goes to black during the storm at the end of Act III, scene one, when Frankie runs away after learning that she cannot live with Jarvis. Dim lighting cues are again called for in Act III, scene two when Frankie and Honey are in trouble. The murky lighting foreshadows Honey’s impending death and Frankie’s ultimate struggle with her surroundings. While the darkness signals Honey’s end, it also represents an obstacle that Frankie will surmount.

Music also emphasizes thematic concerns and underscores much of the dramatic action in the play. In Act I, music comes from the girls’ clubhouse. Frankie notices the music but its sound is distant, out of reach, symbolizing the distance between the young girl and her peers. Tense situations are underscored several times by trumpet music (in Acts I and II) and a piano being tuned in Act II (the dissonant sounds emanating from the piano add tension to the dialogue between Berenice and Frankie). Act II ends with Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry signing a hymn that is truncated by the end of the scene. At the end of the play, in Act III, Berenice’s loneliness is emphasized by her singing, solo, a few lines from that hymn as the final curtain goes down.

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Despite the racial barrier that exists between them, Frankie (Julie Harris) is still able to take comfort from Berenice (Ethel Waters) as John Henry (Brandon de Wilde) looks on

Despite the racial barrier that exists between them, Frankie (Julie Harris) is still able to take comfort from Berenice (Ethel Waters) as John Henry (Brandon de Wilde) looks on

Structure

The Member of the Wedding is episodic in structure and there is little in the way of traditional plot. Most of the major dramatic events of the play—including the titular wedding, Frankie’s attempt to leave with the newlyweds, and the deaths—occur offstage. The play itself consists primarily of conversations between Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry. This dialogue relates key events and reveals the characters’ feelings. Frankie dominates such proceedings, with her dark moods of isolation hovering over the whole of the play. This static approach allows the themes of the play to emerge in an untraditional, evocative manner.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The last years of World War II were difficult ones which transformed the American cultural landscape.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1940s: In August, 1945, the United States drops two atomic bombs, nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II in the Pacific theater.

    Today: The United States leads efforts to reduce the number of active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the world.

  • 1940s: Public schools, especially in the South, are often segregated between black and white students.

    Today: After years of bussing students to integrate schools, some parents and school districts are challenging this policy in court.

  • 1940s: The word “teenager” becomes commonly used, and the looks, behavior, and rituals of these young people form a significant part of American culture.

    Today: The concept of the teenager is firmly entrenched in society. Capturing the support of the “youth market” is a valued goal for advertisers and marketers; teenagers spend billions of dollars each year to maintain their appearance, entertain themselves, and impress their peers.

  • 1940s: During World War II, many consumer items are scarce. These include plastic and metal for children’s toys, basic baking goods such as flour and sugar, and the rubber used to produce a wide variety of products such as automobile tires.

    Today: The only limitation on the consumer market is demand. There are hundreds of new toys introduced each year, an abundance of affordable foodstuffs, and numerous manufacturers of rubber goods.

The uncertain future created by war had altered people’s decision-making processes. People often married quickly, perhaps looking for stability in a chaotic world. Jarvis Addams’s wedding is the event that drives the action of The Member of the Wedding. Jarvis is a young army soldier who marries a girl from the town where he is stationed, much to the surprise of his family. In addition to the security that the event represents for the couple, Frankie, too, looks to the wedding as a symbol of belonging and safety within an unsure world. While her angst is not directly war-related, in Frankie’s eyes, Jarvis’s status as soldier offers a way to see the world and escape her life.

While many American citizens became more worldly due to their wartime experiences, those on the homefront suffered shortages and frequent rationing of such basic consumer items as gasoline, chewing gum, and cotton fabrics. Despite such hardship the industrial thrust of the war effort created a plethora of employment opportunities for many disenfranchised groups, including women who were called upon to assume the workforce roles previously held by the men now fighting the war. The need for war materials to be produced quickly and cheaply forced American industries to rethink their processes. The refinement resulted in a golden economic age for many Americans. The Postwar years saw a boom in both technological advances and sheer production numbers, with items such as automobiles and new homes becoming abundant and affordable. The expanding infrastructure created numerous new jobs for the men returning from the war.

Although times were good for these men, the women who had made significant contributions to America’s industrial evolution were, by the war’s end, stripped of their wartime jobs and told that it was time for them to return to their kitchens and support their men. While some women were happy to return to their domestic roles, many others relished the independence and satisfaction that came Page 172  |  Top of Articlefrom being a productive member of a workforce. The Postwar years showed significant growth in the number of women striking out on their own, joining the male-dominated workforce on many levels, and fighting for equality in the workplace. As a young woman coming of age in this era, an individualist such as Frankie would have benefited greatly from the efforts of these women.

Another group that was called upon to contribute both fighting men and members of the wartime workforce were African Americans. Their contributions to both arenas were invaluable to America’s victories in each endeavor. Yet, as with the female workforce, when the war ended, these people were once again returned to the second-class status that had plagued them for years. But the war years gave them a taste of autonomy, and the Postwar years saw significant growth of the struggle that would become the Civil Rights Movement. In the coming decades, organized protests would take the form of both peaceful demonstrations such as sit-ins and the full-blown violence of the race riots that rocked Detroit, Michigan, and the Watts section of Los Angeles as blacks protested their unsatisfactory social status. The New York State Commission Against Discrimination, the first governmental organization of its kind, was organized to fight racial and other forms of discrimination.

Though many African Americans questioned the status quo, little real progress was made in the movement’s early years. Schools and other public institutions were largely segregated, especially in the South. The phrase “separate but equal” entered the lexicon, but the situation was anything but equal. The funding for black schools was grossly below the budgets allotted to white institutions and the public facilities provided for blacks were substandard. Many universities refused to admit black people. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became a significant force in the fight to equalize the racial issue. By the 1950s, the group had attained key victories in the Civil Rights Movement, notably the Brown vs. Board of Education court case that overturned the legality of segregated schools. The military was also segregated until 1948.

Southern whites fought the civil rights victories at every turn, often with murderous violence against African Americans. Many blacks of this era were afraid to rock the boat, fearing the very real threat of violence from white-dominated society. Yet a great many others, like Honey, were fed up with the prejudice and economic hardship thrust upon them. They chose to challenge the system, despite, as Honey did, often paying with their lives.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Critics have generally regarded The Member of the Wedding favorably since its Broadway debut on January 5, 1950. Contemporary critics mostly praised McCullers’s realistic characterizations and keen depiction of loneliness. Many found her dialogue to be extremely believable, noting that she used the southern vernacular to good effect. If nothing else, the play was seen as moving and absorbing, emotionally deep and well-timed.

John Mason Brown, from the Saturday Review of Literature, found Frankie to be an overwhelming and fascinating character. He argued that that the play was successful from the start in large part because of the high quality of the original Broadway cast. Along similar lines, a critic in Newsweek wrote, “In lesser hands, the wonder and the torment of the girl’s obsession and her hysterical bitterness in rejection inevitably would seem tenuous stuff for a full-bodied drama. That here is has emotional substance and depth stems almost as much from the acting as the writing.”

Other critics faulted McCullers with a lack of focus. An anonymous critic writing in the New Yorker found the racial theme, as embodied by T. T. Williams and Honey Camden Brown, “contrived” and claimed that it only detracted from the play. This sentiment would find support, along with complaints of outright racism from critics in later years.

In the play’s initial assessment, however, the biggest point of controversy concerned the drama’s lack of a traditional plot in favor of character development and extensive dialogue. While many acknowledged that Member is stylistically innovative, they did not know what to make of this unconventional play. Brown, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, discussed the difference between plot and story, pointing out that McCullers was obviously influenced by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard), whose plays are noteworthy more for their characters and concepts than actual narrative. While Brown found much to praise about the production, writing that “it is felt, observed, and phrased with exceptional Page 173  |  Top of Articlesensitivity,” he ultimately deemed the play as static. The critic for the New Yorker concurred, calling The Member of the Wedding “a curiously uneven work—sometimes funny, sometimes moving, but also, unfortunately, sometimes just a trifle incoherent and shapeless.”

Some critics have argued that The Member of the Wedding might not be a play at all because of its untraditional structure and lack of action. Margaret Marshall of the Nation wrote, “it is not so much a play as it is whatever in the theater corresponds to the tone poem in music.” But she noted, “The audience cheered at the end. I think for the right reasons.” The theater critic in Time magazine was not as kind, writing that Member “suffers after a while from being so much less a play than a mere picture of people. It would make an ideal long one-acter.”

Like Marshall, many critics who found fault with the play’s structure nevertheless believed that it was ultimately art in some form. Brown called Member “the work of an artist,” while the theater critic in the New Yorker called the play “poetry.” Since the original production, critics have come to realize the power its non-traditional structure. In 1975, Francis B. Dedmond, writing in the South Atlantic Bulletin, said: “The structure is rather a psychological one, the pattern of which Mrs. McCullers hints at in her stage directions preceding Act One.” Dedmond complimented McCullers’s “ability to dramatize the abstract values of the play.”

Other noteworthy critics such as Clive Barnes have continued to compare The Member of the Wedding to the works of Chekhov. The play is now considered historically significant for what it tried, and many argue, succeeded in accomplishing.

CRITICISM

A. Petrusso

In this essay, Petrusso discusses the racial aspects of The Member of the Wedding and how they enrich the themes of the play.

In a review of the original Broadway production of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, a critic writing in the New Yorker argued, “The racial subplot. . . seems to me only to confuse and diminish the play.” On the contrary, the African American characters and the dilemmas they face underscore Frankie’s actions and concerns as well as the play’s greater themes. The issue also adds realism to the play, offering a snapshot of the racial climate of the South in 1945. By examining the contributions Berenice and Honey (and, to a lesser extent, T. T.) make to The Member of the Wedding, it becomes clear that they are vital to the play, particularly in reference to its themes of loneliness, isolation, and rebellion.

Arguably, the most important person in Frankie Addams’s world is the family’s black cook, Berenice. Berenice acts as Frankie’s confessor, nursemaid, storyteller, and surrogate mother. She is Frankie’s primary female and adult role model. Berenice shares several key characteristics with Frankie. Frankie has few friends, and her blood family has little or no time for her. Her mother is dead, her father works all the time, and her brother is a soldier stationed in another town. Berenice is also lonely in her personal relationships. She has no family, save her foster brother, and though she was married four times, she only loved her first husband, Ludie Maxell Freeman.

Like Frankie, Berenice lives a limited, seemingly unchanging life, confined primarily to the Addams’s kitchen. White adults pay her little mind because she is black and a domestic. They regard Frankie the same way, dismissing her as a child. Their essential isolation from their immediate surroundings, as well as their loneliness, draw the two together. Yet this is clearly a temporary alliance. Though Berenice is the mature adult in the relationship, the era in which she lives and her race limit her opportunities. Frankie has the potential to change, grow, and move forward. Frankie will outgrow her relationship with Berenice. McCullers uses this fact to increase dramatic tension in Member.

Frankie, a self-absorbed twelve-year-old on the verge of adolescence, can rarely see the world beyond herself. She is ignorant of Berenice’s problems. In a telling passage at the end of Act I, Frankie tells her young cousin, John Henry: “The trouble with me is that for a long time I have just been an ‘I’ person. All other people can say ‘we.’ When Berenice says ‘we’ she means her lodge and church and colored people. . . . All people belong to a ‘we’ except me.” A few lines later, Frankie reveals that she plans to join her brother Jarvis and his new wife

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • The 1946 novel by Carson McCullers of the same name, on which Member is based. The novel delves deeper into the psychology of the characters and issues, providing a more complete picture of Frankie’s pain and struggle.
  • Eudora Welty’s short story “A Memory,” originally published in the Southern Review of Autumn, 1937. Like McCuller’s tale, the story focuses on a young girl’s coming of age in the South.
  • The Square Root of Wonderful is the only other stage play McCullers wrote. First performed in 1957, the drama centers around Mollie Lovejoy and her tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband, Phillip, and his family. The play was largely inspired by McCullers’s relationship with her husband Reeves. The melancholy tone of the play is largely thought to have been influenced by Reeves’s death.
  • Racism Matters, published by William D. Wright, in 1998, discusses the history of race and race relations in the United States. The book provides good historical background on the environment in which Berenice, T. T., and Honey lived.
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is McCullers’s 1940 novel. One of its main characters, Mick, is an adolescent girl like Frankie Addams who suffers from isolation and loneliness.

after the wedding, for “they are the we of me.” While Berenice may “belong” to a church and a lodge, we never see nor hear of them during the course of the play, except on one point. Yet the “colored people” to whom the cook belongs are only manifested in three individuals—Berenice’s boyfriend, T. T. Williams; her foster brother, Honey Camden Brown; and an old vegetable vendor—who each appear for only a few moments on stage. No full-fledged community is depicted for Berenice, except in the kitchen of the Addams’s house.

Berenice spends almost all of her time with Frankie and John Henry in the kitchen. She is a black woman working, essentially living, in a white world. Though her skin color identifies her membership in a racial group, that group is so rarely present that Berenice’s isolation rivals—even exceeds—Frankie’s. Frankie does not once consider that the kitchen community might be a “we” for her as well as Berenice; she fails to see the comfort that can be given and received between them. Her loneliness is absolute (and somewhat unrealistic) because of her age (it is common for adolescents to feel that they don’t belong to any particular group). Despite the different roots of Frankie’s pain, Berenice’s own existence allows her to understand them. The theme of loneliness manifests itself maturely in Berenice.

Francis B. Dedmond, writing in the South Atlantic Bulletin, claimed that Berenice is “persistent in trying to get Frankie to look at life through adult eyes—to face the demands of reality—but Frankie’s world of fantasy, always near the surface, will not long stay submerged.” In many ways, Berenice is an adult version of Frankie, trying to guide the girl’s growth and avoid the pitfalls of her own life. Excited by the prospect of her brother’s forthcoming union, Frankie looks to Berenice for information about weddings. She tells Frankie about her four marriages, hoping to make the girl realize that a new wedding is about two people, not three. Yet Frankie persists in her ideal of a “family” with Jarvis and Janice.

By the end of Member, Frankie has accepted the fact that she cannot live with her brother and his new wife; she begins to adjust to being an adolescent. She and her father are moving in with her aunt and uncle into a new house. She has also made some new friends. Frankie now belongs to several groups, yet none of them include Berenice. For Berenice, life has gotten worse rather than better. Since the Page 175  |  Top of Article“we” of the kitchen is irrevocably broken with John Henry’s death, Berenice is more alone than before. Honey is also dead. She has decided not to move with the family. The play ends with her alone in the empty kitchen. This contrast again emphasizes the different manifestations of loneliness and belonging relative to age. McCullers also uses this to make a statement about African Americans and their unchanging status in this time period. It is noteworthy that the white characters come through their troubles with a sense of optimism while the black characters’ futures remain bleak.

To further emphasize this point, McCullers contrasts Frankie with Berenice’s foster brother, Honey. Frankie refuses to accept her status as a young woman. She has shorn off her hair, favors shorts and other boyish outfits, and acts in a frustrated, rebellious manner. Though Honey is a black man about twenty years-old, he shares many of Frankie’s traits. McCullers describes him as “very high-strung and volatile.” She dresses him in “loud-colored, snappy clothes.” Like Frankie, he constantly challenges the status quo, unwilling to accept the role society has dictated for him. Unlike Frankie, however, he suffers physical harm for his nonconformity. When he is first introduced, he has a lump on his head because he was hit by an MP (military policeman) for pushing a white soldier who pushed him.

Both Honey and Frankie run away when rejected, and both are miserable in their existences. The day before the wedding, in Act II, Berenice gives Honey enough money for two beers. It is later revealed that, at the bar, Honey drew a knife on a white bartender who refused to serve him (this action takes place off-stage). During the wedding, Berenice and T. T. talk about Honey’s flight from the police. When Frankie is rejected by Jarvis, she too runs away. Inside her suitcase is her father’s pistol. She spends the night in the alley behind her father’s jewelry story. When she returns home, she tells Berenice that she had the gun in her hand and that she contemplated shooting herself.

Honey comes to Berenice at nearly the same time, and she gives him money to run away. Honey tells her: “I know now all my days have been leading up to this minute. No more ‘boy this-boy that’—no bowing, no scraping. For the first time, I’m free and it makes me happy.” Honey does not get far, however. In the last scene of the play, Frankie and Berenice discuss his untimely death. He was caught by the police and put in jail, where he later hung himself.

The differences between the rebellions of Frankie and Honey are telling. Frankie’s is, by its very nature, short-lived. She is a child trying to find her place within a family (though not necessarily one of blood). While Honey also desires his own place, his struggle involves the whole of American society. Frankie just has to grow up and find a place where she can belong. While she realizes that it may be a difficult struggle, she also discovers that it is not a grave, life or death issue. Frankie can become part of some aspect of white society but Honey cannot. For him, death is preferable to bending his will to the dictates of others. Honey, like Berenice, puts Frankie’s problems in perspective. The play does not belittle the young girl’s dilemma but shows how similar problems can take different forms with different people.

While many contemporary critics have complained that McCullers’s play is racist, depicting its black characters as inferior to its white. Others, while conceding certain distasteful racist elements, find the play to be an accurate picture of America at that time. They further view the playwright’s take on blacks as a sympathetic one. The fact that the play hinges on the interaction between Frankie and Berenice says a great deal about what McCullers thought of black people. The Member of the Wedding is greatly enriched, not diminished, by its racial content. McCullers expertly uses the status of southern blacks to complement and underscore Frankie’s conflict. The stories of Berenice and Honey balance the play, giving it deeper significance. Member of the Wedding illustrates that the same emotions can result in vastly different destinies for different people. Yet McCullers demonstrates that loneliness and rebellion are universal human concerns, not ones unique to a specific race or social strata.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Moira Hodgson

Hodgson reviews a 1989 production of McCullers drama. While finding much to praise in the play’s cast and crew, the critic is dismayed at the “sorry picture it presents of race relations.”

Twelve-year-old Frankie Addams, the heroine of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, is also on a quest for discovery of self. She longs to

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“I FIND IT HARD TO IMAGINE THAT ANYONE, EVEN IN 1950, COULD SIT THROUGH THIS PLAY, THE PINNACLE OF SOUTHERN. GOTHIC, WITHOUT FLINCHING AT THE SORRY PICTURE IT PRESENTS OF RACE RELATIONS”

escape the confines of the “ugly old kitchen” which is her world, and discover the larger world outside. But that world, as we see from the adults around her, is in many ways even more confining.

Harold Clurman, who directed the original production in 1950—starring Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde—saw the action of the play as springing from Frankie’s dream of becoming “a member of the whole world” and saw the other characters of the play as variants of her struggle for connection. Harold Scott, who directs the present revival at the Roundabout Theatre, has been quoted as saying that Clurman directed the play from a white point of view, regarding Berenice as a “mammy.” But, says Scott, “I’m directing it as a black man who has been through the 1960s.”

I did not see the original version or the subsequent film, so I can’t compare them with Scott’s production. But I find it hard to imagine that anyone, even in 1950, could sit through this play, the pinnacle of Southern Gothic, without flinching at the sorry picture it presents of race relations. Looking at it now, in the light of all that has gone on since then, Frankie’s struggle seems minor compared with the hopelessness of the struggle facing the black characters. In the South of 1945 a white child could, as in the play, feel closest to her “mammy.” But by the end of the play, Frankie is ready to become part of the white world. Berenice, the housekeeper, meanwhile, is left with nothing. John Henry, Frankie’s young cousin and a frequent visitor to the kitchen, has died of meningitis. Berenice’s only son, arrested for an attack on a white man who refused to serve him, has hanged himself in his cell.

Scott has drawn excellent performances from Esther Rolle, who is a dignified and restrained Berenice; Calvin Lennon Armitage as John Henry; and Amelia Campbell, who is exceedingly convincing if at times a little too fidgety as she pushes her adolescent being, as Clurman put it, “like a sharp plant struggling upward through the resistant soil.”

The Member of the Wedding has its flaws, but the saddest part of seeing this play nearly forty years later is the realization that in the interim so little has been accomplished.

Source: Moira Hodgson, review of Member of the Wedding in the Nation, Vol. 248, no. 23, June 12, 1989, p. 825.

John Simon

In this review, Simon appraises a 1989 revival production of Member of the Wedding. He discusses the extant problems the play has with its controversial racial issues, as well as the difficulty in casting the lead role of Frankie. He concludes that this production meets with mixed success.

“I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, one of America’s greatest and still undervalued writers, about her fellow Georgian, one of America’s most overrated mediocrities. McCullers, along with Truman Capote, was most responsible for putting the “thick” in Southern Gothick. Though I find all her works precious and achingly elucubrated, her 1950 stage adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding is by far her most acceptable work, being also the most nearly autobiographical and, as dictated by dramatic necessity, the most structured. As many people know, at least from the movie, it is the story of Frankie Addams, a twelve-year-old, motherless, small-town southern tomboy whose shopkeeper father neglects her and whose education takes place in the kitchen.

The Addams kitchen is the stronghold of Berenice Sadie Brown, one of those archetypal powerful black female retainers. Four times married and thrice burned, Berenice exudes calm, somewhat caustic, worldly and motherly wisdom. Sharing the kitchen with her and Frankie is John Henry, Frankie’s tiny, blond, bespectacled cousin, one of those precocious innocents destined for early death—McCullers cannot resist putting him in angel’s costume the last time we see him. Frankie, a lonely and wildly imaginative girl, develops a crush on a couple: her soldier brother, Jarvis (the time is 1945), and Janice, whom he is about to marry. Rich in Page 177  |  Top of Articlefantasy lives, Frankie dreams that the young couple—“the we of me,” she calls them—will take her along on their honeymoon and keep her with them forever. The inevitable and fierce disappointment, the wisdom of Berenice (and her own concurrent bereavement), and John Henry’s death constitute Frankie’s rites of passage.

The play is a trio for three superb players, the other characters chiming in with a mere obbligato. In the original production, under Harold Clurman’s direction, Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, and Brandon De Wilde gave extraordinary performances both individually and in concert, whose memory subsequent mountings have not been able to efface—something a wholly successful revival would have to do. The Harris—Waters—De Wilde team was so good that you forgot the feyness and tenuousness of the material and thought you were witnessing some vital statement about adolescence, such as Huckleberry Finn or Le Grand Meaulnes.

In the Roundabout revival, none of the trio is bad, but none of the performances falls into place with either the click of inevitability or the music of genius. Esther Rolle is a fine actress and a commanding presence, and she conveys the skepticism and irony of Berenice handsomely, but the passion with which she loved Ludie, her first husband, and her sensuous nature, which establishes a bond with Frankie’s impetuous yearnings, are shortchanged by an excessively measured delivery, a too muted interpretation. As a result, Berenice’s final transformation into a chastened, defeated person does not register strongly and tragically.

Frankie is always a problem, requiring an actress of histrionic and existential maturity who can yet embody a sexually ambivalent twelve-year-old in looks and personality. This was Miss Harris’s forte; Amelia Campbell, the incumbent, though in many ways right for the part, works too hard at it: A leg or an arm is always twitching or flailing; there is too much throwing of oneself around as if in the throes of St. Vitus’ dance. Here the director, Harold Scott, must share in the blame. Calvin Lennon Armitage, as John Henry, is a sweet, natural actor, but acoustics at the Roundabout are poor, and Scott has him facing upstage too much; the six-year-old’s diction, though appealing, is not that good.

The supporting cast is uniformly undistinguished or worse, with the exception of Jeri Leer, whose Janice couldn’t be more authentic. Thomas Cariello’s

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THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING IS BY FAR MCCULLER’S MOST ACCEPTABLE WORK, BEING ALSO THE MOST NEARLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL AND, AS DICTATED BY DRAMATIC NECESSITY, THE MOST STRUCTURED”

set, though adequate in its culinary aspects, comes to grief outdoors, e.g., with Spanish moss that looks neither mossy nor Spanish. Scott’s direction, however competent in its broad outlines, lacks the fine dynamic shadings this sort of chamber music requires. A Wedding, then, you can drop in on but would not especially want membership in.

Source: John Simon, “Wedding Nells” in New York, Vol. 22, no. 15, April 10, 1989, p. 100.

Isaac Rosenfeld

In this review of McCullers’s original novel, which she later adapted for the stage, Rosenfeld finds Member of the Wedding a somewhat engrossing story, though one that is ultimately hindered by McCullers’s self-centered point of view.

Southern writers have produced the nearest thing in America to a genuine, contemporary folk art. Other regions have their spokesmen, but only the South has stood still long enough for the best writers to catch up with it. The ingredients of a folk art are there, still undisturbed by the progressive industrialization of the country. The South has legend, history and tradition, a relatively primitive folk culture among the Negroes and poor whites, a bourgeois culture in the cities and the trappings of a decrepit but still pretentious agrarian aristocracy; all of which elements put the Southern writer in a position somewhat similar to that of the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. It is no accident that the South has produced the leading regional writers.

Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers are surely among the finest of their generation of Southern writers. But it is curious to see how each in her own

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“IN RELATION TO THE SOUTH AND TO THE FOLK MATERIAL THAT IS SO LIBERALLY USED, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING IS OBLIQUE AND SELF-CENTERED. IT PRESENTS NOT SO MUCH SOUTHERN LIFE, AS A PARABLE ON THE LIFE OF THE WRITER IN THE SOUTH, THE ALIENATION AND WITHDRAWAL THE SENSITIVE SOUTHERNER MUST FEEL”

way makes what one might call an attempt to escape from the South. I don’t mean arbitrarily to assign to Miss Welty and Miss McCullers the intention of achieving folk art, only to call the absence of a true folk quality in their writing an “escape.” Each has her own distinctive aims as a writer, which it would be foolish to surrender to folk demands. I do, however, mean to point out that Miss Welty and Miss McCullers cannot utilize all the resources of their native regions; the reasons for this may have some bearing on American regionalism and folk literature in general. . . .

Carson McCullers’ novella, The Member of the Wedding, stands in more or less the same oblique relation to the South. It is the story of Frankie, or F. Jasmine Addams, in her thirteenth year, cut off from her girlhood friends and from the life around her. Frankie is a member of nothing and belongs to nothing ; she is insanely bored. When her brother returns on furlough from Alaska to marry a local girl, Frankie gets the idea that he will invite her to accompany them on the honeymoon. This notion fills the great gap in her life, and the novella shows how she enlarges on her fancies, building them up out of nothing, until the inevitable disappointment. The interest here is more readily maintained than in Eudora Welty’s novel; the dramatic line is stronger and more clearly drawn, the anticipation mounts in spite of some padding with which Miss McCullers has filled out her slender story, and there is an overall irony and detachment that reinforces the emotional quality of the writing. But in relation to the South and to the folk material that is so liberally used, The Member of the Wedding is also oblique and self-centered. It presents not so much Southern life, as a parable on the life of the writer in the South, the alienation and withdrawal the sensitive Southerner must feel.

It is this aspect which these two books, otherwise dissimilar, have in common, and I think it is of some significance. In both novels, as in much of Southern writing, there is an unavowed double standard which divides the material used from the personal uses to which the author puts it. The subject matter, the color, the speech, the characters are all taken at first hand, from a deep social involvement; but the meanings that the author wishes to express are not so closely related to the Southern environment and share little more than its surface values. At the level of personal expression, the author withdraws, turns inward to the sensibility, as Eudora Welty does, or to the theme of alienation, as with Carson McCullers. Though both have taken a wedding as their theme of symbolic unification, it does not unite them with a folk or traditional society, as such a symbol might be expected to do, but serves rather to indicate their degree of withdrawal—which, in terms of the values involved, is solipsistic in relation to the South. It is an inevitable withdrawal, for the serious American writer cannot but be alienated from American society, close though he may be to it, and much though he may wish to belong. And it is this, I think, which is responsible for the fact that though we have regionalism in abundance, it will never attain its goal of folk art. This contradiction is all the more clearly seen in the South, where the folk material is richest and the folk appeal strongest. But the social contradictions of the South are also the greatest you will find in this country; and they are such that the whole society may be called the antithesis of art. I do not see how a serious Southern artist can really and truly feel at home in his home.

Source: Isaac Rosenfeld, “Double Standard” in the New Republic, Vol. 114, no. 17, April 29, 1946, pp. 633–34.

SOURCES

Brown, John Mason. “Plot Me No Plots” in the Saturday Review of Literature, January 28, 1950, pp. 27-29.

“Brook and River” in the New Yorker, January 14, 1950, p. 46-47.

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Dedmond, Francis B. “Doing Her Own Thing: Carson McCullers’s Dramatization of The Member of the Wedding in the South Atlantic Bulletin, May 1975, p. 47-52.

Marshall, Margaret. Review of The Member of the Wedding, in the Nation, January 14, 1950, p. 44.

McCullers, Carson. The Member of the Wedding, New Directions, 1951.

“New Play in Manhattan” in Time, January 16, 1950, p. 45.

Review of The Member of the Wedding in Newsweek, January 16, 1950, p. 74.

FURTHER READING

Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers, Doubleday, 1975.

A complete biography of McCullers’s personal and professional life. Features significant discussion of The Member of the Wedding.

Clark, Betsey Lyon and Melvin Friedman, Editors. Critical Essays on Carson McCullers, G. K. Hall, 1996.

Critical reflections on McCullers’s writing, including good overviews and assessments of The Member of the Wedding.

James, Judith Giblin. Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1950-90, Camden House, 1995.

This volume discusses the critical response to McCullers and her influence on American letters. Includes an assessment of Member.

McCullers, Carson. The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, Esquire, 1965.

In this professional autobiography, McCullers discusses her technique, influences, and motivations for writing. Includes an essay on The Member of the Wedding.

McDowell, Margaret B. Carson McCullers, Twayne, 1980.

A biography of McCullers, focusing on her career as a writer.

Wikborg, Eleanor. Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding: Aspects of Structure and Style, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1975.

An in-depth analysis and critical study of The Member of the Wedding, focusing on the play’s unconventional structure and character emphasis.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"The Member of the Wedding." Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 5, Gale, 1999, pp. 162-179. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2693000019%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D5f864ed7. Accessed 18 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693000019

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  • Adulthood
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 168-169
      • 5: 174
  • African Americans
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 169
      • 5: 172
  • Alienation and Loneliness
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 167
  • Alienation
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 163
      • 5: 167-169
  • Coming of Age
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 168
  • Death
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 169
  • Death
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 165
      • 5: 167-169
  • Dialogue
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 169-170
  • Emotions
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 163
      • 5: 172
  • Law and Order
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 164-165
      • 5: 171-173
  • Loneliness
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 167
      • 5: 169-170
      • 5: 173-175
  • Marriage
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 164-165
      • 5: 168-171
  • Music
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 164-166
      • 5: 173
  • Plot
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 163
      • 5: 169-170
  • Race and Racism
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 168
  • Race
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 168-169
      • 5: 173-175
  • Racism and Prejudice
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 169
      • 5: 171-172
  • Setting
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 164
      • 5: 169
  • Structure
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 170
      • 5: 173
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • Member of the Wedding
      • 5: 170-172