The House of Blue Leaves
JOHN GUARE 1971
John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves is his most popular and arguably most important play. It is based on the Pope’s visit to New York City on October 4, 1965.
Since the debut of The House of Blue Leaves Off-Broadway on February 10, 1971, however, critics have been divided over the play’s artistic merits. The story focuses on one man’s desire for success as a big-time songwriter, which clashes with his demanding, middle-class family life. Some reviewers did not know what to make of the play’s mix of black comedy, farce, realistic drama, and social commentary. They maintained that its come-dic elements undermined the serious issues of the play.
The critics that praised The House of Blue Leaves appreciated Guare’s treatment of ideas. They also lauded the manner in which he depicted the dark underside of the American dream, especially his emphasis on the destructive nature of the media on people’s dreams and personal lives. Several critics noted the skillful manner in which Guare portrayed the quest for personal success as defined by a shallow value system.
Despite the controversy, the play ran for 337 performances and garnered several prestigious awards for Guare, including the Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play. Revived on Broadway in 1986, it won more awards for him, including a Tony. Although critics Page 72 | Top of Articlewere still divided over the value of The House of Blue Leaves during the revival, most appreciated the power and insight of Guare’s message.
John Guare was born in New York City, on February 5, 1938. He was the only child of Edward and Helen Claire Guare. Raised in a strict Catholic household, Guare attended mass daily with his mother. His father, Edward, worked in the Wall Street stock exchange as a clerk.
Guare was a voracious reader. He also went to the theater quite often and was fascinated by Broadway musicals. His mother’s brother, Billy Grady, was a casting director at MGM studios. In the mid-19408, Grady was casting a new version of Huckleberry Finn. Guare put on a show for him similar to the one described in The House of Blue Leaves.
Guare began writing plays at age eleven. After graduating from St. John’s Preparatory School in Brooklyn, Guare earned his B.A. from Georgetown in 1960, then his M.F.A. in drama from Yale in 1963. His first play was produced in 1962.
After graduation, Guare served in the Air Force Reserves to avoid the military draft and spent the next several years in Europe. While living abroad, he managed to have a one-act play, To Wally Pantoni, We Leave a Credenza (1964), produced in New York City.
In 1965, Guare got the idea for The House of Blue Leaves while still in Europe. After a successful staged reading in New York City in 1966, he had numerous offers for production but could not produce a solid second act.
While Guare continued to work on the play, he churned out several successful one-acts, including Muzeeka (1967), which won him his first Obie Award. On the basis of these short plays, he was recognized as one of America’s best young playwrights.
Yet Guare had a lot of trouble finishing The House of Blue Leaves. He returned to Europe for a short time, where he finally wrote a solid draft. When the play was produced Off-Broadway in 1971, it proved to be his first big success and his first successful full-length play.
The House of Blue Leaves garnered numerous awards; yet it also produced much critical controversy over his use of black comedy, farce, and social realism. It is regarded by many critics to be his best play.
After House of Blue Leaves, Guare continued to explore the danger of fame while living up to his billing as a great American playwright. In Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1973), for example, the main character, an astronaut, tries to live up to the reputation the media has created for him.
Not all Guare’s plays were successful, nor did every critic like his dramatic style. His 1979 melodrama, Bosoms and Neglect, lasted for only four performances. In the 1980s, after writing the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Atlantic City, Guare wrote a trilogy of Civil War-centered melodramas, which were relatively unsuccessful.
After a successful revival of The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway in 1986, Guare produced another of his most successful plays, Six Degrees of Separation (1990). He also wrote the screenplay for the film version several years later. He continues to write both for the theater and film.
The House of Blue Leaves opens on the stage of the El Dorado Bar & Grill. Artie Shaughnessy sits at the piano and sings some of his songs. He is frustrated when he cannot get the house lights turned down and a spotlight to shine on him. His anger grows when the audience does not listen to his singing. He continues, but at the end of the show, when there is no applause, he quickly exits.
Act I opens late at night in Artie’s shabby apartment in Sunny side, Queens. As Artie sleeps in a sleeping bag on the couch, his seventeen-year-old son Ronnie breaks into the apartment. When the doorbell rings soon after, the fatigue-clad Ronnie runs into his room without being seen.
Artie gets up and answers the door. It is Bunny Flingus, Artie’s plump girlfriend. She is extremely excited about seeing the Pope as he passes through Page 73 | Top of ArticleQueens, but Artie does not share her enthusiasm. Bunny figures out that Artie performed during amateur night at the El Dorado and is both angry and supportive. During the exchange, Bananas Shaughnessy, Artie’s wife, comes out of her bedroom and watches them for a moment, unseen, before returning to her room.
Artie begs Bunny to cook for him, but she wants him to get dressed so they can watch the Pope. Bananas calls Artie from her room; when she makes an appearance, Bunny hides in the kitchen. Obviously mentally unbalanced, Bananas gets hysterical asking Artie if he hates her and if he will leave her. Artie forces pills down her throat and tells Bananas that he is going to see the Pope. Bananas tells him that she cannot go see the Pope because her fingernails are different lengths.
Though Artie tries to stop her, Bananas goes into the kitchen. She begins to act like an animal. When Bananas finally sees Bunny, she addresses her politely, then scares her. Bunny tells the audience that she wishes Bananas was dead.
Despite Artie’s protests, Bunny tells Bananas that Artie is leaving her. She urges Bananas to go to Mexico for a divorce. Artie tells Bananas that he found a hospital for her. Bunny tells Bananas that they are going to California to revive Artie’s career as a songwriter using Artie’s friend Billy, a famous director.
Bunny demands that Artie call Billy. Artie does so, telling Billy about the situation. When the conversation is over, Bunny is extremely pleased. She leaves. Artie decides to take a shower, and tells Bananas that he is tired of taking care of her.
Bananas recalls the point she started losing touch with reality. This touches Artie, and he asks her to come and see the Pope because a miracle might happen. They watch the Pope on television for a few moments. Artie hugs the television, and Bananas goes back to her room.
Bunny returns, announcing that the Pope has arrived. She goes into the kitchen when Bananas comes out, dressed in mismatched clothes and shoes. Bunny sees them together and becomes angry. They all leave to see the Pope. After they are gone, Ronnie comes out of his room holding a large, gift-wrapped box.
Act II, Scene 1
Ronnie proceeds to build a bomb. As he puts on the clothes of an altar boy, Ronnie describes the first
time that he met Billy. Ronnie was so eager to play the part of Huckleberry Finn that he acted like an idiot in front of Billy, and Billy thought he was retarded. Ronnie believes that everyone is laughing at him. His monologue ends when Artie’s key is heard in the door. Ronnie retreats to his room with the bomb.
As soon as Artie enters, Corrinna Stroller appears at the door. She is Billy’s girlfriend and a former actress. Artie is surprised by her appearance, and when he leaves her for a moment, Corrinna reveals that she is partially deaf and needs hearing aids.
Bunny enters and fawns over Corrinna, telling her about Artie’s career. Artie sings a tune. Three nuns appear at the window; it turns out they accidentally got locked onto the roof trying to see the Pope. Despite Bunny’s protests, Artie lets the nuns in.
Artie introduces Corrinna and Bananas, and Bunny tries to make Bananas look bad in front of everyone. Bananas confirms the negative impression when she tries to cook brillo pads as hamburgers and burns herself.
Artie begins to sing for Corrinna. Bananas asks him to sing an old song, which he does, and then points out that the song is the same as “White Page 74 | Top of ArticleChristmas.” Humiliated, he makes Bananas take pills, which turn out to be the transistors for Corrinna’s hearing aids. He also calls the mental institution and asks that they take Bananas away.
Finally, Ronnie makes an appearance. He tells his father that he is going to blow up the Pope with his bomb. No one, including Artie, listens to him. Corrinna informs Artie that she is moving to Australia with Billy. She almost leaves before she realizes that she has two tickets for the Pope’s mass at Yankee stadium.
The nuns take the tickets. An M.P. makes an appearance, looking to arrest Ronnie for leaving the army without permission. Before Corrinna can leave, Ronnie hands her the gift-wrapped package. A few seconds later, the package explodes and Corrinna and two of the three nuns die.
Act II, Scene 2
Later that day, Artie and Billy watch the Pope’s mass on television in the apartment. Billy has come to identify Corrinna’s body; he is very upset and sobs over Corrinna and her lost career. Artie tries to comfort him while promoting his own career.
Bananas enters, dressed in an old gown. It is revealed that Billy gave Bananas her nickname. The surviving nun rushes in, upset because she cannot turn off the hot water. Bananas tells Artie that she wants to burn Bunny, who lives downstairs, so that Artie won’t like her as much. Bananas appeals to Billy for help. The nun introduces herself to Billy, telling him her friends died in the explosion. This touches Billy, who makes a call to get Ronnie out of jail.
While Billy is on the phone, Bunny returns. He has taken care of Ronnie’s situation, but it is revealed that he does not know who blew up Corrinna and the two nuns.
Billy realizes that he has two tickets for Australia and invites Bunny to come with him; she excitedly agrees. The nun tells them how she does not want to return to the convent. Billy gives her money to move into Bunny’s apartment and help care for Bananas.
As Billy and Bunny leave, Artie makes one last effort to try his songs to his friend. Billy tells him that his life is with Bananas, not in show business. After they leave, Bananas acts like a dog. Artie chokes her to death.
Billy is Artie’s childhood best friend. He has also known Bananas for many years and had given her that nickname. Billy is now a famous Hollywood movie director, and he is involved in a romantic relationship with Corrinna. At Bunny’s urging, Artie gets Billy to help him revive his career as a movie songwriter, but that fails. When Corrinna dies, Billy convinces Bunny to go to Australia, leaving Artie alone with Bananas.
Bunny is Artie’s girlfriend and downstairs neighbor. Thirty-nine years old, she is an amazing cook and supportive of Artie’s musical ambitions. Once Bananas is out of the way, she plans on marrying Artie and moving to California with him. She tries to control Artie’s life and takes every opportunity to express her jealousy of Bananas. Yet at the first chance she gets—Billy’s offer to move to Australia—she dumps Artie for a new, more exciting life.
The Little Nun is one of three nuns who get trapped on the roof of Artie’s apartment building after the Pope drives by. She has not yet taken her final vows as a nun and is not enthusiastic about her chosen profession. After two nuns die in the explosion, the Little Nun decides not to return to the convent. Eventually she is hired by Billy to live in Bunny’s apartment and take care of Bananas.
Artie Shaughnessy is the protagonist of The House of Blue Leaves. Frustrated on a number of levels, Artie’s life is at a turning point. His marriage to Bananas is empty; because of her mental illness, he feels little more than her caretaker. He has a girlfriend, Bunny, who is selfish and controlling.
He works in a New York zoo taking care of animals, but he is really a frustrated songwriter and singer. He wants to make it big but has done nothing to advance his career. Artie is also concerned about his son, Ronnie, who is in the Army. Like Bananas, Ronnie suffers from severe mental illness and has violent, paranoid fantasies. By the end of the play, Artie feels so helpless and trapped that he kills Bananas.
Bananas is Artie’s wife; she has been suffering from mental illness for a long time. In fact, she has not left her apartment for several months. She fears going to a mental hospital and the treatment she would receive. Although ill, she provides lucid and insightful comments at certain moments of the action. Artie kills her at the end of the play.
Ronnie is the teenage son of Bananas and Artie. He is in the army but has gone absent without leave to return home. His parents are unaware of his presence in the apartment for most of the play.
Suffering from severe mental problems, Ronnie builds a bomb to blow up the Pope. He almost has the opportunity to see the Pope at Yankee Stadium but instead uses his bomb to blow up two nuns and Corrinna Stroller. Ronnie is arrested, but Billy gets him released. Instead of jail, Ronnie will serve two weeks in the brig, then be stationed in Italy.
Corrinna is a famous actress and the girlfriend of Billy. Partially deaf from an accident that happened on the set of a movie, she has not worked since then. She is a very kind person.
Nearly every character in The House of Blue Leaves is betrayed by another—or by his or her own desires. Artie suffers from the most severe betrayals. His girlfriend, Bunny Flingus, spends most of the play encouraging, if not pushing, his career. She convinces Artie that Billy Einhorn is the key to his success. At the end of the play, Billy offers Bunny his extra ticket to Australia, and Bunny goes with him. She betrays Artie to ensure that she has a secure future.
Artie is also betrayed by his own dreams for success. These dreams are not based on reality, but on Bunny’s ideas, which have been propagated by the mass media.
Artie betrays his wife, Bananas. She suffers from some sort of mental illness, and Artie is her primary caretaker. He has betrayed her by becoming involved with Bunny. Indeed, Bunny and Artie
intend to marry and move to California, leaving Bananas behind.
Yet Artie’s biggest betrayal of Bananas comes at the end of the play. After Bunny has abandoned Artie and his dreams are shattered, Bananas begins to act like a dog again and he strangles her to death. Entrusted to take care of her, he instead kills her. He gains only a false, probably short-lived sense of freedom by committing this act.
Success and Failure: Fame
The House of Blue Leaves features characters who define their success or failure based on the idea of fame. For example, Artie is unhappy with his life because he believes that he should be a famous songwriter. However, he is not particularly gifted. When his chance for success is gone, and his opportunities are limited, he strikes out and kills the focus of his rage, his wife.
Artie’s definition of success is defined by Bunny, his girlfriend. She garners these values from movie magazines and television. Her obsession with seeing the Pope has little to do with his religious standing, but that he is a celebrity she can see in person.
The three nuns who appear in Act II share these values. They turn seeing the Pope into an event similar to the experiences of the Beatles in their first trip to the United States.
Bunny’s definition of success is also for her own benefit. She wants Artie to be a successful songwriter so that she can have a better life in
California. When Artie’s friend, the famous director Billy Einhorn, finally makes an appearance, Bunny realizes that Artie will not get his break.
Realizing that Artie will always be a failure, Bunny latches on to the already successful—and famous—Billy and leaves with him. Ironically, unlike Artie, Bunny is basically successful. She reaches her goal of being involved with someone who is famous and rich but only by betraying her boyfriend.
Violence and Cruelty
There are several violent and cruel acts in The House of Blue Leaves. This violence emphasizes the superficial values the characters possess, and how these values negatively affect their actions.
For example, Bunny speaks and acts cruelly to Bananas because she is jealous and controlling. She also believes hurting Bananas will force Artie to become a success. For Bunny, cruelty is an acceptable way to achieve her goal.
Other characters commit violent acts. Ronnie, the disturbed son of Bananas and Artie, is hiding out at home. He has left the army and is building a bomb to blow up the Pope. He believes that everyone thinks he is a nothing. To make himself something—in his sick mind—he will assassinate the Pope.
Ronnie tries to tell his father of his intentions, but Artie does not listen. Ronnie’s plans are interrupted when the military police come to arrest him. Instead of the Pope, Ronnie hands the bomb to Corrinna Stroller, a famous actress and Billy’s girlfriend. She dies in the explosion, though, ironically, no one seems to know whose bomb it was. The violent quest for fame is not always successful.
The House of the Blues Leaves is a dramatic farce set on October 4,1965, in New York City. The play opens on the stage of the El Dorado Bar & Grill, a little bar in Queens where Artie plays his songs to an unappreciative audience. The rest of the play takes place in Artie’s shabby apartment in Sunny side, Queens. Like the bar, one of the apartment’s focal points is a piano. The apartment is cramped and messy; also, it seems transitory, as if the family has not unpacked for many years.
The fact that most of the action takes place in Artie’s apartment underscores the claustrophobic nature of his life. Artie is stuck caring for Bananas and working at the zoo.
Parabasis is defined as characters directly addressing the audience. Nearly every major character in The House of Blue Leaves talks to the audience. This makes the audience part of the story; the audience is a participant rather than an observer.
In Act I, Bunny welcomes the audience to her home, though it is really Artie and Banana’s home. Artie explains to the audience that he wishes they had more spoons when it comes time to eat. This would allow everyone to share in the meal.
Characters also share their secrets with the audience. Bunny confesses her desire for Banana’s death, while Corrinna discusses her deafness. Even minor characters, like Ronnie and the Little Nun,
recite extended monologues that provide insight into their characters and actions. The use of parabasis also emphasizes how the characters in the play are similar to their audience and, perhaps, share the same fantasy-based values.
There are many ironic situations in The House of Blue Leaves. For example, Artie wants success, partly to keep Bunny happy; Bunny wants him to be successful because that’s the only way she figures she will be important in life. Yet Artie fails, and Bunny succeeds by becoming involved with Billy Einhorn, a famous Hollywood director.
Similarly, Bananas is supposed to be crazy and pumped full of medication, yet she often has profound insight into events at hand. Corrinna is deaf because of an explosion/accident on the set of a war movie, and she dies in an explosion from the bomb that Ronnie gave to her. Guare uses irony to underscore the play’s themes and add to its black humor.
Throughout The House of Blue Leaves, numerous references to and imitations of animals appear. Animals represent purity—the opposite of the superficial values many of the characters possess.
For example, Bananas often acts like an animal. While this may seem crazy, it also symbolizes her virtuous and honest nature in the face of Bunny and Artie’s shallow values. Even Billy Einhorn perceives this when he tells Artie that he should be happy with what he has.
Artie is employed at the zoo and apparently has a way with animals. It seems that his life is filled with animals, and he desperately wants to escape them. He tries to do this by strangling Bananas, but this act will probably lead to a prison cell—a cage for humans.
The 1970s were a tumultuous time in American history. One major reason for this was the troubled American economy. A worldwide monetary crisis contributed to the devaluation of the American dollar. Economic resources were drained by the war
in Vietnam, as well as the Cold War arms race. An inordinate amount of money was spent by the government to pay for Vietnam, and the national debt ran in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The American economy suffered from stagflation—rapid inflation and faltering businesses. Between 1970 and 1971, the cost of living increased 15%. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon took several steps to improve the economy. He ordered a wage, price, and rent freeze for ninety days. Later that year, he signed a bill that ordered a $90 million tax cut. American currency was also taken off the gold standard.
These efforts were not completely successful, in part because of the demands of the Vietnam War. As a result, Nixon curbed American involvement in Vietnam in 1971. U.S. troops were gradually withdrawn, and by the end of the year, only 140,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam.
Because of the failing economy, many social programs of the 1960s, remnants of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” were dismantled. Some taxpayers felt these programs were draining the economy. Yet with the deterioration of the economy and the elimination of many of these programs, there came an increasing difference between rich and poor. Moreover, there was an increase in unemployment and more people on welfare.
The reaction to these challenges varied: some people became politically apathetic; others demanded full protection under the law. Consumer activist Page 79 | Top of ArticleRalph Nader and his Center for the Study of Responsive Law collected public funds in 1971 to challenge the food industry as well as automakers and the aviation industry. Consumer complaints and concerns were addressed by the federal, local, and state governments. Even the television industry had to adjust to new regulatory demands. Parents demanded better television programming for children.
As far as entertainment, television was the most popular form in the early 1970s, especially situation comedies and detective shows. Yet television brought the Vietnam War into living rooms, so that Americans could see footage of the military action. As a result, more people joined the antiwar movement.
There were few new ideas in mainstream film, theater, and art; instead, the real artistic power in the early 1970s was in underground theater and film. Avant-garde art thrived and led to experimentation with other genres, such as film, theater, and television.
The early 1970s did see the emergence of several successful female singer-songwriters, such as Carol King and Carly Simon. There were many changes for women in American society in general. In 1971 a group of women successfully sued Time magazine for sexual discrimination. Similarly, the Civil Service Commission banned gender-based job designations. The women’s liberation movement and feminism became powerful, though controversial, forces in society.
Since its first production in 1971, The House of Blue Leaves has been a controversial work. This controversy stems from that fact that Guare blends several, seemingly contradictory elements: black comedy and farce with drama.
For example, Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review of Literature maintained “John Guare’s Off-Broadway hit The House of Blue Leaves... outrageously yet responsibly depicts the doomed career of Artie Shaughnessy....” Later in the same review, Hewes contended, “Guare’s comic facility is inextricable from an utter and moving emotional sincerity.”
Hewes is representative of critics who perceive The House of Blue Leaves as a unique balance of these elements. Indeed, he concluded his review by asserting that “its delights are so great and its vision so essentially true that I find myself valuing it more highly than any new play this season.”
Others critics appreciated the balance that Guare attempts to maintain but contended that he fails in one or more elements. Harold Clurman in The Nation asserted, “John Guare’s most striking talent is for savage farce.... Still, the play remains unfulfilled....” Clurman continued: “[S]omething disturbs it. That ‘something’... causes Guare to inject elements of cruel sorrow into the proceedings. There is nothing at all mirthful about the madness of Artie’s wife nor in the play’s final moments when he strangles her.”
Clive Barnes of The New York Times explained: “His play would have been better—and perhaps even funnier—had it been about something lending itself to more formulation than despair. There is a predictability and, at the same time, shapelessness of plot that is, in the ultimate count, unworthy of the macabre zaniness of the writing.”
Edith Oliver identified the problem for many of the critics. She contended, “Actually, this play could be considered a whole series of shock treatments, and often I was as horrified at myself for laughing (which I did a lot) as I was at what I saw and heard on the stage.”
Other contemporary critics found no merit to Guare’s work. Julius Novick of The New York Times maintained, “Some of Mr. Guare’s comic conceits are in themselves somewhat lame, but the essential problem is that the farce and the agony seem to violate each other instead of reinforcing each other.” Novick concluded, “The author’s attitude towards the human misery he has created often seems trivial and exploitative: let’s go to Bedlam and laugh at all the funny lunatics.”
The controversy raged once again when a revival of the The House of Blue Leaves opened on Broadway fifteen years later. William A. Henry III is typical when he contended, “Guare’s satire may seem a bit less fresh and daring than it did 15 years ago, if only because it has spawned so many imitators, but in the joyous and all but flawless revival at the Lincoln Center, his jokes break up audiences as dizzyingly as ever. So do the wrenching emotional scenes of a boldly tragicomic plot.”
Michael Malone of The Nation concurred. He claimed, “Blue Leaves is dark and full of diamonds.... Page 80 | Top of ArticleIt’s a marvelous, maniacal tragicomedy, full of waggish merriment, razor sharp in its mordant wit but never cutting out the hearts of its characters, or turning away from their keen aches.”
Other critics, such as Leo Sauvage of The New Leader and Robert Brustein of The New Republic, were not as amused by the situations or the set-up. Brustein asserted, “The House of Blue Leaves is black comedy sense through rose-colored glasses. It ends with a shock.... But it’s tough to accept a tragic climax after having been encouraged all night to regard murder, madness, physical affliction, adultery, and assassination as occasions for gags.” Brustein compared the plot of the play to a television sitcom, an ironic touch considering the role television plays in The House of Blue Leaves.
Petrusso is a freelance writer and screenwriter. In this essay, she discusses the spectrum of women’s morality in The House of Blue Leaves, and how this relates to the play’s larger purpose.
Much of the critical attention paid to John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves focuses on the character of Artie Shaughnessy. Artie desperately wants to escape his life in Queens and longs for fame. Unfortunately, he is unrealistic about his life and his chances for success.
Although many critics note that Bunny Flingus, his mistress, pushes Artie to revive his career and that Bananas Shaughnessy, his wife, impedes Artie’s efforts, the spectrum of female characters is rarely analyzed on its own. Each of the female characters, two major (Bunny and Bananas) and two minor (Corrinna Stroller and the Little Nun), works to a specific end.
Bunny and Bananas are opposite ends of the spectrum. Bunny’s life is defined by media-driven fantasy. Bananas is most in touch with reality, though she is suffering with mentally illness. Corrinna and the Little Nun fit in between them. Corrinna is the movie star; the Little Nun is oppressed by the reality of her chosen profession and is only freed from it because of the death of her two nun companions. This essay explores each female character and determines their role in the moral tug-of-war of the play.
One of the biggest ironies in The House of Blue Leaves is the fact that Bananas Shaughnessy seems crazy, yet speaks profound, sometimes moral insights into play’s events. Her words may seem like ravings, but they are discerning and often insightful.
For example, Bananas knows that her husband is having an affair. She silently observes Bunny and Artie together in the beginning of Act I for a few moments. When she announces her presence, she knows that Artie is tired of dealing with her. She yells things like “You hate my looks—my face—my clothes—you hate me,” then a few seconds later she states, “I know you love me.” While this may sound contradictory, it is also true. Artie does both hate her and love her. He wants to be free, yet he worries about her well-being.
Bananas tries to bring her husband back to reality in unusual ways. She acts like a dog a couple of times, but as she points out, “I like being animals. You know why? I never heard of a famous animal. Oh, a couple of Lassies—an occasional Trigger—but, by and large, animals weren’t meant to be famous.” She explains this to her husband because she wants him to stay with her and retain his job as a zookeeper.
Bananas does not like fame, essentially because after one encounter with celebrity in Manhattan, she became the butt of a joke broadcast on national television. She knows the reality of fame; in particular, the humiliation and hurt it can bring.
Bananas also has a sharp ear, which she uses to discourage her husband. When Artie “auditions” for Corrinna, Bananas requests one of his old songs, “I Love You So I Keep Dreaming.” After a few lines, she demands that he play “White Christmas.” She points out, and the stage directions confirm, that they are the same song.
This embarrasses Artie but demonstrates that Bananas has some fight left in her. She wants to hold on to her husband, and while this action ends up angering him, it is one of the only ways she can accomplish her goal. This action drives him to explore ways of finally getting rid of her so he can pursue his career and his mistress.
In the next scene, Bananas tries to burn Bunny by letting hot water seep into Bunny’s downstairs apartment. Although this particular action fails, Bananas ultimately gets her way. When Bunny
decides to live with Billy in Australia, Bananas lets her take the copper pot she admires. She knows she has won. Yet Artie cannot take this defeat and eventually kills Bananas at the end of the play.
Bunny is the opposite of Bananas. Bunny is focused on one thing: attaching herself to someone famous and successful. Bunny tells Artie at one point, “Billy will get your songs in movies. It’s not too late to start. With me behind you!”
All of Bunny’s values are formed by television and magazines. For example, Bunny views the Pope’s visit as not a religious or cultural event, but as pure entertainment, like the opening of a movie or a play. At one point she excitedly exclaims, “I haven’t seen so many people, Artie, so excited since the premiere of Cleopatra. It’s that big.” The fact that Artie might get his sheet music blessed or that Bunny could read the passing as kind of a blessing on her relationship with Artie is only secondary.
Bunny uses the same faulty logic in her treatment of Bananas, her rival. As soon as Bananas makes an appearance, Bunny begins to taunt her. She tries to convince Bananas to go to Mexico for a quickie divorce, but Artie points out that Bananas can barely leave the house.
Bunny also accuses Bananas of faking her illness, based on what she has learned from films. She tells Bananas, “I know these sick wives. I’ve seen a dozen like you in the movies.... You live in wheelchairs just to hold your husband and the minute your husband’s out of the room, you’re hopped out of your wheel chair doing the Charleston and making a general spectacle of yourself.”
A short time later, Bunny compares Bananas’s fear of shock treatments to something she read in a movie magazine about an actress’s desperate need for curlers. Bunny makes such belittling comments throughout the play to humiliate Bananas in front of Artie.
Bunny tries to control Artie. She gets angry when she learns that he performed the night before at the El Dorado amateur night. Later, she is dismissive of his job at the zoo, accusing him of being “afraid” of success until she came along.
But Bunny’s attempts to control the situation ultimately fail. She ignores the fact that Artie still has some feelings for his wife, and that Bananas is a bit more intelligent than she thinks. Bunny only sees her goal—being kept by a successful man—and does not perceive the complete situation.
Bunny ends up getting what she wants in an unexpected way. The Hollywood director, Billy Einhorn, steals her away with promise of two years in Australia and a glamorous lifestyle. Her departure leaves Artie humiliated and without emotional support and ultimately leads to him murdering his wife.
While Bunny inhabits one end of the moral spectrum, and Bananas the other, Corrinna Stroller
and the Little Nun exist in the middle. They are more balanced people, but each represent different things.
Corrinna represents what happens when dreams come true; she is a successful actress and Billy’s girlfriend. In the one movie she has appeared in, Warmonger, she lost her hearing because of an accident on the set. A sweet, polite woman, she seems to have handled success and tragedy very well. Unfortunately, Corrinna ends up having her hearing aid transistors disappear and dying in an explosion.
The Little Nun represents reality; a confused, unhappy young woman, she is one of three nuns that get stuck on the roof trying to get a good view of the Pope. She suffers at the hands of her sisters, because they treat her like a child. When she sees peanut butter, a food they are not allowed to have in the convent, she becomes excited. While she wants the peanut butter, the other nuns express their excitement over beer and color television.
Like Bunny, the Little Nun is influenced by the media. She claims to have watched the movie The Sound of Music thirty-one times and attributes much of her religious calling to that cinematic representation of the sisterhood.
After she manages to secure the tickets to the Pope’s mass in Yankee Stadium, she is told to return home by her companions. This action actually saves the Little Nun’s life, as the other two nuns die in the explosion. She realizes that her life as a nun is unsatisfying. Billy hires her to take care of Bananas and live in Bunny’s old apartment.
Guare has maintained that the main theme of The House of Blue Leaves is humiliation. As this essay has shown, each of the female characters in the play are humiliated in one way or another, and, in the case of Bunny and Bananas, humiliate others. The moral spectrum that they represent is broad and divergent, but it determines the extent of their humiliation and ability to humiliate. Guare’s focus on the quest for fame is just a means to an end.
At the play’s core, Guare is really exploring how humans disregard each other and their feelings and how isolated humans are from each other. Artie’s humiliations are related to his individual relationships with these women, from the crazy Bananas to the nun who will take Bunny’s apartment and care for his wife. These humiliations drive him to murder his wife and open up the possibility for a whole new set of humiliations in prison.
Source: A. Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Malone reviews a 1986 production of Guare’s play, finding that the play’s irreverence and subversion are more readily accepted by today’s mainstream theatregoers than when House of Blue Leaves debuted in 1971.
There is standing room only at The House of Blue Leaves these days. John Guare’s black comedy about a Queen’s songwriting zookeeper, his pathetically disturbed wife and preposterously complacent mistress is now enjoying a well-deserved successful revival in a brilliantly staged production at New York City’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, which has itself been recently revived from darkness. Blue Leaves is the discovery of the season, the new hot ticket, although the play is neither new nor previously neglected. Sixteen years ago, Blue Leaves won the New York and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards; since then, college, community and stock theaters have frequently performed it. But this year it has received eight Tony nominations, including one for the best play of 1986. To be eligible, a play need only have never been previously produced “on Broadway,” which means of course that, with any luck, one of these days Aristophanes or Beaumont and Fletcher could grab the gold statue.
This ruling puts Blue Leaves in competition with Michael Frayn’s Benefactors (already recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play), and with Athol Fugard’s Bloodknot (a revival, now closed), but not with Joe Orton’s Loot or O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, both of which are nominated for less prestigious Tony’s as Best Reproductions. That Blue Leaves is no less a Page 83 | Top of Articlerevival than these three, and no more on Broadway than Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (recipient of the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, but excluded from Tony consideration) has caused some flapdoodle among theater critics, whose dismay at the illogic of the Tony committee reveals a touching idealism that borders on the prelapsarian. Why should they expect prizes in the arts to be any more reasonable than prizes on Let’s Make a Deal? Why, with theater attendance and box-office income so low, with only thirty-three openings this season (the lowest in Broadway history), should we do anything but rejoice at every good play, newborn or resurrected, that succeeds in getting itself soundly “clapper-clawed by the vulgar”?
In a way, Blue Leaves is about prizes, about yearning for them. Its characters are all dreamers; they dream of fame and of the famous. They want what the famous have: laurel and loot, stardust and a place in the sun. This unending American dream (American tragedy)—that we all could have been, should have been, contenders for the only spot there is, the number-one spot—brings Artie Shaughnessy to the El Dorado Bar Amateur Night as the play opens, to sing his heart out (“I wrote all these songs. Words and the music”) in hopes of a blue spotlight. In the cliches of his lyrics we hear that dream. “I’m looking for Something.” “I’m here with bells on. Ring! Ring! Ring!”
Then, on the Beaumont stage, behind the Shaughnessys’ humdrum Queens apartment crammed with its tawdry gewgaws and totems of fame, in rhythm with the blare of Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (better known perhaps as the soundtrack from 2001, or as Elvis Presley’s concert theme song), the glittering lights of Manhattan’s skyline appear. The audience laughs; no doubt we’re supposed to. But those bright towers of big-time success are as near and as far from Artie Shaughnessy in Queens as they were from Willy Loman in Brooklyn. As Guare has written about this play and its genesis in his Catholic boyhood in Queens, “How do you run away to your dreams when you’re already there?” He holds his characters’ failed aspirations and their absurd worship of celebrity up to a lampooning, madcap mockery that some have called cruel, but his contempt is reserved for the culture, not the creatures who have fed on its junk food of TV and tabloids. Indeed, the sadness of Blue Leaves centers, by Guare’s account, on the cruelty of our national dream of success: “Everyone in the play is constantly being humiliated by their dreams, their lives, their wants, their best parts.... I’m not interested so
much in how people survive as in how they avoid humiliation... avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.” For the truth is that Artie Shaughnessy is never going to win prizes, any more than Chekhov’s three sisters are ever going to get to Moscow, any more than Williams’s crippled Laura will ever find a gentleman caller or Willy Loman ever follow his brother Ben into the jungle that’s “dark but full of diamonds” and walk out a rich man.
Blue Leaves is dark and full of diamonds, and I hope it wins all the prizes it can. It’s a marvelous, maniacal tragicomedy, full of waggish merriment, razor sharp in its mordant wit but never cutting out the hearts of its characters, or turning away from their keen aches. Here, as in plays like Landscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect (also revived this season), Guare has the nimbleness to run up and down the scaffold of gallows humor, cap and bells on his head, the comic sock on one foot, the tragic buskin on the other, without tripping into either burlesque or bathos. According to him, the impetus for this tightroping came from seeing Laurence Olivier perform in Dance of Death and A Flea in Her Ear on successive nights. “Why,” he decided, “shouldn’t Strindberg and Feydeau get married [or] at least live together, and The House of Blue Leaves be their child?” To help him keep his balance, Guare has been blessed by strong direction from Jerry Zaks, wonderful sets and lighting by Tony Walton and Paul Gallo, and, most of all, by consummate acting from his cast, particularly Swoosie Kurtz as the fantastical wife and Stockard Channing as the garrulous mistress. The performances of both women are extraordinary—exquisitely evolved, perfectly sustained and played together in a duet of comic counterpoint that is dazzling to watch.
Blue Leaves takes place on a day in 1965 when the Pope drove through Queens on his way to the United Nations to help stop the war in Vietnam. (On that actual day, Guare—in an irony worthy of his Page 84 | Top of Articledrama—had finally achieved his nun teachers’ dream of touring the Vatican.) While crowds gather on the sidewalks, more excited than they’ve been since the premiere of Cleopatra, Artie (played with great charm by John Mahoney) dreams of his son, a recruit bound for Vietnam, becoming Pope and making his dad Saint in Charge of Hymn-Writing. Bunny, Artie’s deliciously tacky mistress, a strutting compendium of hackneyed sentiments and Dale Carnegie optimism, urges him to wake up, to go get his songs blessed by the Pope, go get his wife put in a mental institution and, most emphatically, to get the two of them to Billy, Artie’s old friend, a movie big shot in California. There they will have a new life where dreams can come true. Then and only then will she cook for him; until they’re legally wed, he will have to content himself with sex, and with looking at photos of her dishes in a scrapbook hidden under the couch.
The scrapbook is hidden there from Bananas, Artie’s mentally disturbed wife, who wanders eerily through the house she has been too frightened to leave since her suicide attempt several months ago. Its windows are now barred by an iron gate, because, like the mother in Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect, like the mother in O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey, like the mothers and wives in so many American plays and in so much of American life, Bananas bears the psychic burden of her family’s failures; she feels the pain, screams the truth and for doing so has to be sedated with pills or sent away to an institution, the house of blue leaves (the leaves were really bluebirds that flew off and left the boughs bare). Through the luminous sensitivity of Swoosie Kurtz’s portrayal, Bananas transcends the pathos of her delusions and stands at the play’s center, quiet as grief, heartbreaking as honesty. She moves quietly in and out of Guare’s hilarious, absurdist parade of deaf starlets, monstrous moguls, terrorist sons and a trio of madcap nuns who roar on stage like the Marx brothers in habits. Bananas stands there with the lucidity of madness and asks us to laugh and cry with her at all their—all our—lost dreams. Artie cannot escape her truth even by destroying her. Nor can we, no more than dreamer Tom in The Glass Menagerie (fled to cities that “swept about me like dead leaves, brightly colored, torn from branches”) could escape the vision of his lost sister. The triumph of Blue Leaves and of its performers is that we cannot forget the sorrows that blue spotlights disguise. It is that knowledge that makes Guare not just the older but the wiser brother of tour de farce writers like Christopher Durang. If, as the successes of Blue Leaves and Orton’s Loot suggest, audiences are now prepared to welcome this darker, zanier humor into the theatrical mainstream, then our theater is fortunate to have ready in the wings not only a master of laughter but a poet of compassion.
Source: Michael Malone. Review of House of Blue Leaves in the Nation, Vol. 242, no. 22, June 7, 1986, pp. 798–800.
Calling the 1986 revival “infinitely better” than the original production of House of Blue Leaves, Oliver finds this new staging of Guare’s play to be “deeper, sadder, more passionate.”
The revival of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” at the Newhouse, in Lincoln Center, is infinitely better than its original production, fifteen years ago—and I had not thought anything could be. The play now seems deeper, sadder, more passionate, and even funnier, if that is conceivable. The actors—and what actors!—make clear much that might have been unnoticed before. “The House of Blue Leaves,” in case anyone needs reminding, is a satiric farce about a middle-aged zookeeper, named Artie Shaughnessy, who has a knack for writing imitations of cheap popular songs, and who is the victim of a number of American dreams, which finally destroy him. The place is his living room in Sunnyside, Queens; the time is October 4,1965, the day Pope Paul VI flew to New York to appear before the United Nations General Assembly to plead for an end to war—perhaps specifically the war in Vietnam (and perhaps, by blessing Artie’s sheet music, to ease his way to Hollywood and an Academy Award). Artie lives with his wife, who has recently gone mad and is nicknamed Bananas; he wants to put her in a sanitarium (the house of the title), run off to California with Bunny Flingus, his downstairs neighbor and mistress, who is eagerly abetting him, and then get a job with his best friend, a prominent movie director. Bananas resists the hospital, because she is terrified of shock treatments. As I remarked in my original review, “this play could be considered a whole series of shock treatments, and often I was as horrified at myself for laughing (which I did a lot) as I was at what I heard and saw on the stage.” The plot is wild and arbitrary and always outrageous. The other characters are a movie star, deafened by an explosion during the making of her latest picture, who is the director’s girlfriend; the Shaughnessys’ son, AWOL after Page 85 | Top of Articletwenty-one days in the Army, who arrives with a homemade bomb, his target being the Pope; three goofy nuns, who have been watching the Pope’s motorcade from the roof of the Shaughnessys’ apartment house; and, finally, the great director himself. The bomb misses the Pope, but it does go off, taking its toll of the assembled company.
Guare’s marvellous comic writing, in which every word plays, and his ferocious high spirits glow more than ever in these drab days, but the performance, under the acute, sensitive direction of Jerry Zaks, is what makes most of the difference between the first production and this one. John Mahoney, who appeared as the older man in last year’s “Orphans,” is Artie Shaughnessy to the life, in all his loony optimism and desperation. But the phenomenal Swoosie Kurtz, as Bananas, in every line and monologue changes what might have been a merely pathetic character into a tragic figure, helpless and loving and demented, and smarter than anyone around her—all this without sacrificing any of the comedy. Stockard Channing is flint-hearted Bunny, and although the caustic tongue of Anne Meara, the original Bunny, is unforgettable, Miss Channing, padded to plumpness, makes the part her own from the moment she enters, stuffing strips of newspaper into her plastic boots against the cold and issuing orders. Christopher Walken, sporting an impeccable Queens accent, is the movie director. Julie Hagerty is the beautiful movie star trying to conceal her deafness from her admirers. Everybody is good. But the true star is John Guare. The play has been well served by the designers: Tony Walton, who conceived that awful apartment; Ann Roth, who created the witty costumes; and Paul Gallo, who devised the lighting.
Source: Edith Oliver. “Old and Improved” in the New Yorker, Vol. 62, March 31, 1986, pp. 66–67.
Simon reviews a 1986 production and finds that Guare’s play retains much of its irreverent and absurdist power. The critic reserves particular praise for the trio of actors essaying the lead roles.
When John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves sprouted here in 1971, the theater of the absurd still enjoyed an American afterlife; Guare, moreover, was able to crossbreed American madcap farce with imported absurdism, as if Ionesco had collaborated with George Abbott. And he could introduce bits of true poignance into a blend that, even if it did not
quite come off, offered, along with withering ironies and wistful clowning, passages of pure whimsy. A fair portion of this survives in the perky revival Jerry Zaks has mounted for the Lincoln Center Theater, although some timeliness, surprise, and bite are, perhaps inevitably, gone.
The basic situation is delightfully painful: A zookeeper, Artie Shaughnessy, pursues his dream of becoming a big Hollywood songwriter. Urging him on is his enthusiastic but silly mistress of two months, Bunny Flingus; holding him back, however passively, is his demented wife, Bananas, whom he can’t bring himself to commit. Luring him on is a vague, extorted promise from his school chum Billy Einhorn, now a successful movie director; further enmeshing him is a whole human zoo that stampedes into his modest Queens apartment, notably his violently lunatic son, Ronnie, AWOL from Fort Dix and planning to blow up Pope Paul on his current visit to New York. Zaks’s directing, however, is much better with the comedy than with the anguish; with the mad hokum, not the madness that hurts: Corrinna Stroller, Einhorn’s mistress, who went deaf from an explosion in the first movie Billy couch-cast her in, was funny and moving as played by Margaret Linn and directed by Mel Shapiro in the original production; here, as performed by the gifted Julie Hagerty, she is only funny.
The comedy routines, though, flourish expectably under Zaks, who gets almost a whole comic act’s worth from the mere prologue, in which Artie performs some of his dismal, but not much worse than average, songs at the El Dorado Bar & Grill in Sunnyside. That Artie is played by a superlative actor, John Mahoney, makes the milking of that scene as hilarious as it is harrowing, and casts the right tragicomic shadow over the rest of the play. Throughout, Mahoney inspiredly allows sadness to peep through his comedy and absurdity to puncture his pathos. He is brilliantly flanked by Page 86 | Top of ArticleSwoosie Kurtz, whose Bananas lets you see what a serious business madness is, how heart-rendingly hard a nonfunctional mind must work to little avail, how shattering are the stray truths from the mouths of the cracked; and by Stockard Channing, whose Bunny is as earnestly philosophical as only certain very stupid people can be, and who delivers herself of her practical asininities for an asinine world with a wonderful mixture of modesty and pride.
Though nowhere near this sublime trio, the others will do, even if Ben Stiller makes the hapless Ronnie more one-stringed than called for. Billy Einhorn is an underwritten part, but Christopher Walken, giving one of his more zonked performances, further deflates it. He does, however, sport one of the most satirical hairdos I’ve ever encountered. Tony Walton’s set of a burrow under the Queensboro Bridge, surrounded by bristling urban blight, is smashing, and Ann Roth’s costumes and Paul Gallo’s lighting are right down there too. Only the final image, the apartment filling up with the blue leaves of insanity, is not brought off as well as the stage direction reads.
Source: John Simon. “Crazed Husbands, Crazy Wives” in New York, Vol. 19, no. 13, March 31, 1986, p. 72.
Barnes, Clive. “Theater: John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves Opens,” in The New York Times, February 11, 1971, p. 54.
Brustein, Robert. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New Republic, May 5, 1986, p. 27.
Clurman, Harold. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The Nation, March 1, 1971, p. 285.
Guare, John. The House of Blue Leaves, The Viking Press, 1972.
Henry, William A., III. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in Time, March 31, 1986, p. 77.
Hewes, Henry. “Under the Rainbow,” in Saturday Review of Literature, March 20, 1971, p. 10.
Malone, Michael. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New York Times, June 7, 1986, p. 798.
Novick, Julius. “Very Funny-Or a Long Sick Joke,” in The New York Times, February 21, 1971, Section 2, p. 9.
Oliver, Edith. A review of The House of Blue Leaves, in The New Yorker, February 20, 1971, p. 90.
Bernstein, Samuel. The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama, Northeastern University Press, 1980, pp. 39-59.
Bernstein overviews the themes of and critical reaction to Guare’s work, including The House of Blue Leaves.
Guare, John. A foreword to The House of Blue Leaves, Viking Press, 1972, pp. v-xi.
Guare discusses his inspirations for the play as well as its major themes.
Lyon, Warren. “No More Crying the ‘Blue Leaves’ Blues,” in The New York Times, July 25, 1971, pp. 1,5.
Chronicles the long process of getting the original production of The House of Blue Leaves off the ground. It is written by one of the play’s producers.
Martin, Nicholas. “Chaos and Other Muses,” in American Theatre, April 1, 1999.
In this interview, Guare discusses his use of language and the inspirations for his plays.
“The Art of Theater IX: John Guare,” Paris Review, Winter 1992, p. 69.
This lengthy interview covers the whole of Guare’s career including a discussion of The House of Blue Leaves.