The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
PAUL ZINDEL 1964
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is Paul Zindel’s best-known play. It is an autobiographical drama loosely based on his experiences growing up in a single-parent household. The play’s main character, Beatrice, is modeled on Zindel’s mother, who became a bitter and disillusioned woman after the departure of her husband. The play was first produced in 1964 at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. It eventually opened off-Broadway in 1970, and in 1971 made a brief jump to Broadway. Overall, the play enjoyed a very successful New York run of 819 performances. Zindel’s portrayal of the painful side of family life struck a chord with audiences who found they could easily relate to the themes of loneliness and shattered dreams. The play was critically acclaimed and earned several awards, including an Obie Award for best play of the season (1970), the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play of the year (1970), and the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1971). It was so popular that in 1972 Twentieth Century-Fox released a film version starring Joanne Woodward.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds has been widely read and performed up to the present day. Its realistic portrayal of the struggles of young adults still resonates with audiences, even though it was written more than thirty-six years ago. An edition with a new introduction by Zindel was published in 1997. In it Zindel talks about the direct parallels between the characters Page 40 | Top of Articleand his own family, and notes how pleased he is that the play still speaks to modern audiences.
Paul Zindel was born in Staten Island, New York, on May 15, 1936. He is the son of Paul, a New York policeman, and Betty Zindel. He also has an older sister, Betty. His father left the family when Paul was two years old, and from then on, Zindel was raised by his mother. Betty Zindel moved the family from town to town and worked at various odd jobs to support them. Zindel’s mother was a troubled woman who was bitter and very distrustful of men. She constantly threatened suicide. Her despair and disappointment in life is found in the character of Beatrice Hunsdorfer in Gamma Rays. For a time, Betty worked as a private duty nurse, and this is directly reflected in the play, as Beatrice rents out her spare room to invalids to make extra money.
At the age of fifteen, Zindel was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to an adult sanatorium for eighteen months. This period of isolation gave him time for a great deal of introspection and contributed to his ability to sit back and observe the world around him. Zindel received a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and education from Wagner College in 1958, and went on to receive a Master’s of Science in 1959. In college, he attended a lecture given by playwright Edward Albee. It inspired him so much, he decided to sign up for a play writing course taught by Albee, who eventually became his mentor. Zindel wrote his first play, Dimensions of Peacocks, in 1959 under Albee’s tutelage. During his early years as a playwright, 1959 to 1969, Zindel also taught chemistry at Tottenville High School in Staten Island. He wrote plays in his spare time and attended as many professional productions as he could.
In 1964 Gamma Rays had its premier at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Nina Vance, head of the Alley Theatre, liked the play so well she invited Zindel to be a playwright-in-residence during the 1967 season. During this time, he wrote his second-most popular play, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, which was produced at the Mark Taper Forum that same year. In 1970 The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opened in New York to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Zindel won the Pulitzer Prize and was finally able to devote himself to writing plays full-time. In 1973, Zindel married Bonnie Hildebrand. The couple eventually had two children, David Jack and Elizabeth Claire.
Zindel has also had a successful career writing fiction for young adults. In 1966 Charlotte Zolotow, an editor at Harper and Row Publishers, saw a televised version of The Effect of Gamma Rays and contacted him to see if he would be interested in writing a novel for teenagers. He agreed and published the The Pigman in 1968. The book was extremely well received. He followed this with many successful young adult novels, which have won numerous awards. Zindel also continues to write plays, though none of his subsequent plays has gained quite the popularity or critical acclaim of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. His most recent play (published by Dramatists Play Service in 2000) is Every Seventeen Minutes the Crowd Goes Crazy, about a family of children who are left to fend for themselves.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opens with a voice-over of Tillie talking about how the same atoms now in her hand were once contained in different parts of the Earth throughout history. The scene then shifts to Beatrice Hunsdorfer talking on the phone with Tillie’s science teacher, Mr. Goodman, explaining why Tillie is absent from school so often. Beatrice doesn’t tell him that it is because she often keeps Tillie at home to do household tasks. She is very complimentary to Mr. Goodman, and thanks him for the pet rabbit he has allowed Tillie to bring home. Once Beatrice hangs up the phone, however, her kind demeanor changes, and she angrily berates Tillie for putting her in the position of having to call the school. Tillie’s sister Ruth enters, ready for school. She tells Beatrice how Tillie became the laughingstock of the entire school during an assembly when she was up on stage cranking a model of an atom. Ruth then tells Beatrice that there is a file of the family’s history kept in the school office. Beatrice voices her concern about this file. The stage goes dark, and Tillie’s voice is heard describing a science experiment in which a small piece of metal placed in a cloud chamber started to smoke. Tillie is enthralled when Mr. Goodman tells her this fountain of atoms could go on for eternity. The lights then come up on the stage. Tillie is preparing boxes of dirt in which Page 41 | Top of Articleto plant marigolds for a science experiment. The marigold seeds have been exposed to cobalt-60, and Tillie is going to study the effect this has. Beatrice enters and talks about her wish to transform the house into a teashop. She asks Tillie about the science experiment, and Tillie explains the concept of half-life to her. Suddenly, Nanny begins to shuffle into the room with her walker. She is very old, and moves extremely slowly over to the table. Beatrice reluctantly serves Nanny hot honey-water, all the while making nasty comments behind her back and yelling sarcastically into her face as if she were a deaf child. Beatrice then relates the story of how Nanny’s career-minded daughter brought her to the Hunsdorfer’s because she didn’t want to bother with taking care of her. The scene ends with Beatrice bemoaning her life, “Half-life! If you want to know what a half-life is, just ask me. You’re looking at the original half-life!”
In the next scene, Beatrice is again talking on the phone to Mr. Goodman. She tells him she is worried about the effect the radioactive marigolds may have on Tillie. Mr. Goodman assures her there is no danger. The stage then goes dark, and a thunderstorm begins. Ruth is heard screaming from her room upstairs. She is having an epileptic seizure. She stumbles onto the stairs just as Beatrice runs out and catches her. Tillie also rushes in, but Beatrice sends her back to her room. Ruth’s seizure finally runs its course, and Beatrice sits on the couch with her to calm her. She tells Ruth her favorite story, about a happier time when Beatrice used to ride on her father’s produce wagon. During this story, Beatrice gives insight into how her world fell apart when her father became so ill he had to be confined to a sanatorium. The scene ends with Beatrice in despair, wondering if life has anything good left in store for her. The stage goes dark again, and the lights come up with Nanny seated at the table. Beatrice is madly cleaning out the upstairs rooms, throwing paper and junk everywhere. The audience discovers that Beatrice has had a revelation and has decided to take immediate action to turn the house into a teashop. She is also drinking whiskey and is slightly inebriated. Beatrice rants about how she is finally taking stock of her life and is going to make some changes. She is going to throw Nanny out, and tells Tillie she must get rid of the rabbit. Ruth bounds in and relates the news that Tillie is a finalist in the science fair. For once, Ruth is proud of her sister. The phone rings, and it is Dr. Berg, the principal, asking that Beatrice be present to sit on stage for the finals of the science fair. She
screams at Dr. Berg on the phone, “I SAID I’D THINK ABOUT IT!” and then hangs up and begins screaming at Tillie. Tillie begins to cry, and Beatrice suddenly realizes how cruel she has been to Tillie. She moves toward Tillie to hug her as the act ends.
As act 2 begins, Beatrice, Tillie, and Ruth are all getting ready to go to the science fair. Tillie readies her project while Ruth babbles on about Tillie’s main competition, Janice Vickery. Ruth drops a bombshell when she mentions that the teachers are anxious to see what Beatrice will wear to the science fair. Many of them knew her as a strange outcast in high school whom they used to call “Betty the Loon.” Tillie begs Ruth not to tell Beatrice this. She agrees only after Tillie gives the rabbit to her. Beatrice comes in. She is dressed up in an outfit that is described as “strange, but not that strange, by any means.” She acts annoyed at having to go, but it is clear that she is proud. The taxi arrives, and they start out the door. Ruth begins to put her coat on, but Beatrice tells her she must stay home to look after Nanny. Ruth gets very angry and nastily calls her mother “Betty the Loon.” The words hit Beatrice like a shot. Her world crumples. Page 42 | Top of ArticleShe stops, totally defeated, and tells Ruth to go with Tillie. Ruth hesitates at first, but Beatrice screams at her, “GET OUT OF HERE.” Ruth exits and Beatrice begins sobbing as the lights go down.
The lights then come up on the science fair. Janice Vickery gives her presentation standing next to the skeleton of a cat. She describes how she got a dead cat from the ASPCA and boiled the skin off to get the skeleton out and reconstruct it. Janice’s speech provides some much-needed comic relief at this point in the play. The scene then switches to Beatrice on the telephone. She is drunk. She telephones the school to give a message to the principal and teachers,“Tell them Mrs. Hunsdorfer called to thank them for making her wish she was dead.” Beatrice also phones Nanny’s daughter to tell her Nanny must be out by tomorrow. Beatrice then spies the pet rabbit in his cage. She picks up the cage, a towel, and a bottle of chloroform and slowly walks upstairs as the lights fade. The scene switches back to the science fair, where Tillie is giving her presentation. She describes the past, present, and future of her experiment with man-in-the-moon marigolds. During this speech, as in her voice-overs throughout the play, the audience can see Tillie’s true brilliance and optimism. The lights go down and come back up on the Hunsdorfer household. Ruth rushes in announcing that Tillie won the science fair. Beatrice does not greet her with the expected happiness, but numbly informs her that the rabbit is dead in her room. This news sends Ruth into a seizure. Beatrice and Tillie get Ruth through her seizure as Nanny begins to shuffle into the room. At the end of the scene Beatrice weakly announces, “I hate the world.” The play concludes with Tillie’s voice-over describing how the science experiment with man-in-the-moon marigolds has made her feel important. The play ends on an optimistic note as Tillie ponders the possibilities science can open up for mankind.
Beatrice is the central figure around whom the play revolves. She is a single mother who was left by her husband years ago. This event has fostered a deep distrust of men. She still lives in the same house in which she grew up and has become increasingly reclusive over the years. Beatrice still mourns the loss of her father, a man whom she was forced to confine to a sanatorium years ago. The world has caused her a lot of pain, and she takes it out on those around her. She vents her hostility primarily upon her two teenage daughters. Beatrice has always yearned to be popular, but she has always been an outcast. She is desperate to escape her circumstances and constantly dreams of a better life.
Ruth is Beatrice’s older daughter. She is an epileptic whose seizures are brought on by anxiety or stress. Ruth is somewhat promiscuous and is very concerned about her appearance. She constantly worries about Tillie, her younger sister, embarrassing her at school. Ruth is very fickle in her relationship to Tillie. She often makes fun of her, but as soon as Tillie wins the science fair and becomes somewhat of a school celebrity, Ruth is very quick to brag, “That’s my sister.” Ruth has a quick temper and is not afraid to talk back to her mother. Her attempts to lash out and hurt her mother are what drive much of the action of the play.
Tillie is Beatrice’s younger daughter. She is an outcast at school and is teased by the other students. Tillie is very intelligent, and her teacher, Mr. Goodman, encourages her interest in science. The title of the play comes from the experiment Tillie enters in the school science fair. Tillie is a dreamer who yearns for a better world. She is quiet and thoughtful. She is also somewhat awkward and is often chastised by her mother for this.
Nanny is the boarder who lives in the spare room. She is nearly blind, deaf, and can barely walk with the aid of a walker. Nanny’s daughter has given up responsibility for her care.
Janice is Tillie’s main competitor at the science fair. She gives a gruesome but funny presentation in which she describes boiling a cat and collecting the bones to reconstruct the skeleton. Janice’s speech provides comic relief right before the dramatic climax of the play.
Triumph in the Face of Adversity
The characters in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds all face adversity, but each reacts very differently. Beatrice has allowed the difficulties and bad luck she has encountered throughout life to defeat her. She attempts to better her life, but her bitterness presents a barrier. Beatrice is so caught up in the negative, unfair aspects of life that she is unable to see any goodness around her. Tillie, however, is able to prevail, even in the worst circumstances. She can find beauty in the smallest detail. No matter how many times she is chastised or disappointed, she gets back up and tries again. She is a survivor.
Beatrice and Ruth are very concerned with how they appear to others. Ruth is constantly worried about how she looks. She wears tight sweaters and refuses to go to school without first putting on makeup. Ruth wants to fit in and is very fickle in her relationship to Tillie. Most of the time she considers Tillie an embarrassment and doesn’t want to be associated with her. Ruth quickly changes her mind, however, when Tillie wins the science fair, because she wants to boost her own image by bragging about Tillie’s accomplishments. Beatrice is also trapped by a need to fit in. She talks about how popular she was in high school, but eventually the audience discovers that this wasn’t true at all. Beatrice was an outcast in high school who was constantly teased. This caused her a great deal of pain and was a factor in her withdrawal from the world. Tillie is the only one of the family who is secure in her self-image. Although she is teased and made fun of, she continues to be true to herself. She doesn’t try to change and fit in with the crowd, but instead pursues the things that are important to her. This ultimately leads to her success in the science fair, and the playwright suggests that it will help Tillie succeed in life.
Dreams are a very important theme in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Beatrice, Tillie, and Ruth all share their dreams or tell of dreams they have had at some point in the play. In act 1, Ruth has a seizure brought on by a nightmare. Beatrice also relates a recurring nightmare about her father and his vegetable wagon.
Throughout the play, Beatrice is constantly talking about her dreams of opening a tea shop, of becoming a dancer, and of escaping her dreary existence. Tillie’s dreams are sparked by her discoveries in science class. Because Tillie can still find good in the world, the possibility exists for her dreams to come true.
Life versus Death
Images of death and decay are prominent in the play. Beatrice kills most things around her. She chloroforms the rabbit, and she tries to kill her daughters’ spirits by constantly berating and belittling them. Nanny is nothing more than a walking corpse. Even the room looks as if it is decaying, with its piles of newspaper and objects strewn everywhere. Tillie is the only one who connects to a life force. She plants the marigold seeds that eventually grow into many strange and wonderful mutations.
The Inability to Make Meaningful Human Connections
Just as Nanny is shut out from the outside world through hearing loss and the thick cataracts that cover her eyes, Beatrice is shut out from the outside world through her fear. She has covered the large window of the front room with newspaper so pass-ersby cannot see in. She doesn’t want the family to interact with the outside world. Beatrice is just as
trapped within her own self-made prison as Nanny is within her aging and failing body. Also, Beatrice, Ruth, and Tillie are unable to truly connect and share with one another. Most of the communication between Beatrice and Ruth consists of yelling and bickering, while Tillie chooses to remain silent. None of the three is willing to really open up and share their true feelings with their family members.
The half-life of the radioactive isotopes that Tillie explains to Beatrice symbolizes numerous things about the family. Beatrice uses the words “half-life” literally to describe the unfulfilled potential she feels in her own life. Also, just as the radioactivity will go on forever, so will the unfortunate situations and bitterness that Beatrice is caught in. Half-life also symbolizes hope for Tillie, however. She relates to the concept in a positive way, recognizing the magic potential of something that never ends. To Tillie, half-life represents new areas just waiting to be explored, filled with wonder and fantastic possibilities.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a drama. The exact year is not indicated, however, the style and content of the play indicate that it is set in relatively modern times, probably during the early 1960s. Most of the action takes place in the front room of the Hunsdorfer house, a wooden structure that was once a vegetable shop run by Beatrice’s father. The house is rundown and is strewn with clutter, symbolizing the broken bits and pieces of Beatrice’s dreams. Beatrice has lived here her entire life. She feels trapped in her current circumstances and, to symbolize this, the playwright keeps her “trapped” in this room. Beatrice Page 45 | Top of Articledoes not go out of the house during the entire course of the play.
The play is framed by Tillie’s voice-overs. This gives the impression that we are seeing the story through her eyes. Tillie’s voice-overs help set up the themes of the play and give the audience a glimpse into Tillie’s true self as she talks about the wonders of the atom and how science has opened her eyes to the possibilities of the world. At home Tillie is constantly stifled and berated. Zindel uses her voice-overs to allow her to speak her true feelings and dreams. This technique helps audiences to understand that Tillie is an optimist and a dreamer who can find good in the world no matter what her current circumstances.
Zindel uses comic relief at various points in the play to break the tension for the audience. If the tension was sustained too long without a break, it would become too uncomfortable, and audiences would not want to continue following the story. The first scene with Nanny provides comic relief and serves to show that Beatrice has a sense of humor, although it is very sarcastic and biting. Janice Vickery’s presentation at the science fair is also an important point of comic relief. It follows the very intense, climactic scene of the play. This is a place where the audience needs a “breather” before moving into the strong emotions of the last scene.
In The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds the telephone represents the intrusion of the outside world. Beatrice remains in the house throughout the entire play. The only time she is seen interacting with the outside world is when she is on the telephone. During her telephone conversations, the audience can see how uncomfortable and inadequate Beatrice feels. This technique provides a way for the playwright to expand Beatrice’s character without having to put her in multiple settings or bring a lot of other characters into the play.
The play follows a standard linear, climactic structure, which means it has a beginning, a middle, and an end that follow in chronological order and lead to a climax, or moment of greatest intensity, near the end of the play. Act 1 precedes act 2 in time. Each event follows in sequence, except for Tillie’s voice-overs, which are timeless. It is not important for the audience to know when Tillie is speaking these voice-overs, because they are there to give insight into Tillie’s character and to develop the themes of the play, not to move the story along.
In the early 1960s, nuclear arms began to play a big part in world relations. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full force. In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of disaster when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy demanded that the missiles be removed and warned that, if the missiles were launched, the United States would retaliate, resulting in an all-out nuclear war. The Soviets withdrew the missiles, but the incident deeply shattered Americans sense of well-being. Many citizens no longer felt safe. Families began to build bomb shelters in their backyards, and schools began holding regular bomb safety drills. In 1963, the United States and the U.S.S.R. agreed to install a “hotline” from the White House to the Kremlin to try to avoid nuclear disaster. That same year the two countries and Great Britain signed a nuclear testing ban.
During this time, there was also a great deal of scientific activity and experimentation, particularly in the areas of radioactivity and nuclear energy. Scientists recognized the power that atomic energy provided, and they continued to look for ways to harness this energy for positive means. The effects of radioactivity weren’t widely known, and experiments such as the one conducted by Tillie in the play provided new information on the uses and dangers of this mysterious force. The growing interest in the use of nuclear energy also sparked the rise of the environmental movement. Many citizens became concerned that tampering with the destructive force of nuclear energy would destroy the Earth’s ecological systems. Some were afraid mankind would destroy the planet.
On the American political scene, 1963 was a year of crisis. It is often considered the year in which the United States “lost its innocence,” when
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was a tumultuous time, as many Americans began questioning long-held beliefs. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum, as African Americans voiced their demands for equal rights. In 1963, riots broke out during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. That same year the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led 250,000 people to Washington, D.C., in a march for freedom where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. At this time, women’s views of themselves also started changing. They had been taught that they were to stay home, raise families, and be dependent upon their husbands, but they began to discover that this type of life left them feeling unfulfilled. Many women longed for experiences apart from home and family, just as Beatrice longs to escape her circumstances in the play. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that discussed the way women were feeling and contributed to the start of the women’s movement. More and more women began to look for work and opportunities outside of the home, and the typical American family started to undergo drastic changes.
Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was first produced in 1964 by the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. It launched his career as a serious playwright. Nina Vance, head of the Alley Theatre, was so impressed with the play that she took an immediate option on Zindel’s next work. The play was also presented on television in October 1966 by the National Educational Television as part of its New York TV Theatre series. The televised version was not very well received, however. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Ruth Strickland notes, “Reviewers of the television drama found little to praise.” The version shown on television had been cut, however, and this may have caused the unenthusiastic reception.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opened off-Broadway on April 7, 1970, at the Mercer-O’Casey Theatre. This time the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Zindel was hailed as a promising new playwright. Audiences and critics appreciated his ability to create believable teenage characters and found the story of the Page 47 | Top of ArticleHunsdorfer family very poetic and moving. Many critics compared the play to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, noting its sensitive portrayal of human relationships. As Ruth Strickland writes, “many critics found the play old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, praising its realism, yet moved by its poetry.” In American Theatre 1969-1970, Clive Barnes gives the play very high praise, writing,“One of the greatest, probably the greatest, hit of the current off-Broadway season, Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, would clearly have made it equally as well on Broadway.” The play continued off-Broadway until a fire forced it to move into the New Theatre on Broadway. The play remained there until May 14, 1972, when it closed after 819 performances. The play won numerous prestigious awards, including a 1970 Obie Award as best play of the season, a 1970 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best American play of the year, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971.
Some critics felt that The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds was so widely accepted by audiences because it hearkened back to a more traditional format than had been seen recently on many off-Broadway stages. In the late 1960s there was a wild explosion of experimental theatre off-Broadway. Many shows had little or no story line and were not much more than a collection of random acting exercises. While some audiences appreciated the experimentation and innovation, many found it hard to make sense of these performances. Plays with a story line were easier for audiences to understand. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds provided a story, and therefore appealed to a wider audience. A play with a well-crafted story line is sometimes known as a “well-made play.” Zindel’s play can be considered a well-made play, and Clive Barnes notes this feature in American Theatre 1969-1970 as part of its appeal: “The off-Broadway show that was most successful was Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Interestingly, it is almost completely a model of the well-made play, a family drama of the kind we thought had gone out with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.”
One criticism that has been leveled against the play is that it is melodramatic and overly sentimental. While most critics have appreciated the gentle tone of the piece, some feel that Zindel is a bit too sappy in his presentation of the family’s situation. Ruth Strickland notes that Zindel’s “weaknesses are lapses into melodrama” and, in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Jack Forman describes the piece as “a domestic melodrama with an occasional lapse into sentimentality.” Overall, though, the response of audiences and critics alike has been positive. In his recent book Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993, Frank Rich notes that he finds the play “compassionate,” and he appreciates that Zindel avoids “simple moral judgments.” The play is still performed in regional theatres throughout the country, a testament to its quality and the universality of its themes.
Beth A. Kattelman
Kattelman has a Ph.D. and specializes in modern drama. In this essay, she discusses the theme of the triumph of the human spirit in Zindel’s play.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds presents the themes of alienation and man’s inhumanity to man played out in the microcosm of the family. Life has not been kind to Beatrice Hunsdorfer, and she takes her frustration and hatred of the world out on those around her. Beatrice has been deeply hurt and has developed an instinct to lash out at others before they get the chance to do the same to her. She lives by the rule, Do unto others before they do unto you. She is particularly abusive to her daughters. Throughout the course of the play she calls them names, makes fun of them, and does whatever she can to thwart their dreams and desires. Beatrice constantly reminds her daughters that they are nothing more than a burden to her: “Marry the wrong man and before you know it he’s got you tied down with two stones around your neck for the rest of your life.” She shows little warmth or affection and uses her children as scapegoats for her anger at the world.
Yet, even though the play presents the bleak situation created by Beatrice’s frustration and despair, it also offers a glimmer of hope in the character of Tillie who, despite her mother’s cruelty, refuses to be defeated. Tillie embodies the spirit of the survivor. Tillie is an outcast at school. She is awkward and is considered strange and unattractive by her classmates. Yet Tillie is able to appreciate what life has to offer because she has discovered something more important than external appearances, something more lasting. She has discovered
that she is important. This knowledge gives her an inner strength. As Beverly A. Haley and Kenneth L. Donelson note in their essay “Pigs and Hamburger, Cadavers and Gamma Rays,” “Tillie emerges a potential winner, for her thirst for knowledge and her scientific experiment with the marigolds have given her confidence in her own self-worth.” In the play, Zindel gives the message that if one can hold on to one’s faith and can see past the immediate ugliness to the beautiful potential in the world, there is the possibility not only to survive but also to triumph. Tillie’s realization that all things are interconnected inspires her.“Most important, I suppose, my experiment has made me feel important—every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun—from places beyond our dreams.” She knows that there is life beyond her mother’s household and that there is a huge world out there filled with possibilities. Tillie remains true to herself and her vision and is thus able to succeed. There is a sense that her victory at the science fair is just the first in a string of great accomplishments.
Zindel has captured an important theme of the play in its title. Although Clive Barnes of the New York Times once called the title “one of the most discouraging titles yet devised by man,” it is nonetheless appropriate. This phrase provides a clue as to what the play is about. The title of the play refers to not only the science project Tillie is working on, but also the larger theme of the influence human beings can have on one another and the different ways people can react under the same circumstances. Beatrice’s tirades and her constant negative pronouncements about the world are the “gamma rays” which bombard Tillie and Ruth. Throughout the play, Beatrice sends out almost nothing but negative energy, and it works to slowly damage many of those around her. But not everyone in the environment succumbs. Although Beatrice treats both her daughters with cruelty and abuse, their reactions are quite different. Tillie remains quietly true to her own vision and thus counteracts some of Beatrice’s damaging effects. Ruth, on the other hand, tries desperately to fight back, but with little success. She is ultimately on a path of self-destruction, perhaps destined to repeat Beatrice’s mistakes. Just as the gamma rays destroy some of the marigolds while bringing about wonderful mutations in
others, one daughter succumbs, while the other becomes even stronger in her determination to succeed. As Ruth Strickland notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,“The message is clear: Tillie is the mutant who has emerged from a horrifying environment with faith and potential intact—she is the double bloom. . . . Ruth is a victim of her mother’s despair.”
Numerous critics have praised The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for its realistic portrayal of young adults and the perseverance they can possess. There are many examples throughout history of young adults who have faced adversity with courage and spirit. One of the most extreme examples, but one that has some parallels to the play, is the way in which the young Anne Frank was able to persevere during the two years she and her family were forced to hide from the Nazis in the attic of an Amsterdam house. Although Anne’s circumstances were much more dire than those Tillie finds herself in, there is a similarity in the way both young girls are able to reach deep within themselves to find the courage and strength to carry on. Even the words they use have a similar ring. In her diary, Anne Frank wrote, “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. . . . [I]f I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.” Tillie also finds strength by looking beyond her current situation to the possibilities of what might be: “I believe this with all my heart, THE DAY WILL COME WHEN MANKIND WILL THANK GOD FOR THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL ENERGY FROM THE ATOM.” Both girls are able to hold onto their faith in the human spirit despite the odds. Tillie and Anne are optimists, and that is their ultimate triumph.
Although Tillie is definitely the heroine of the play, she is not perfect. In a way, she may be too
optimistic. For instance, in her exploration and discussion of radioactivity, she all but ignores the bad potential atomic energy may hold. Only one time in the play does she briefly mention the destructive potential of the atom, saying “My experiment has shown some of the strange effects radiation can produce. . . and how dangerous it can be if not handled correctly.” Tillie downplays the negative and chooses to see the world her way. Ironically, this actually gives her some similarities with Beatrice. Each of these characters sees what she wants to see. Beatrice is determined to find the bad side of everything. Tillie is determined to find the good. Irony is an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs, and there is irony in Tillie’s one-sided attitude toward atomic energy. This aspect has been mentioned by some critics who found it interesting that Zindel would embed this celebration of atomic energy in the play. An uncredited author in Types of Drama notes, “Somewhat unfashionably, Zindel takes science and the atom not as symbols of man’s alienation and death, but as symbols of man’s heavenly origin or his link with the sun.” Zindel does not rely on the typical or expected way of presenting issues and families. That is one thing which makes the play so intriguing and powerful.
Paul Zindel writes from personal experience. He knows what it is like to grow up in a difficult situation and to come out on top. Zindel’s youth was spent in the shadow of an abusive, slightly mad mother. He found a way to survive, and he wants his audience, particularly young people, to find a way to do the same. In an interview for Top of the News, Zindel told Audrey Eaglen, “I’m telling the kids that I love the underdog and sympathize with his struggle because that’s what I was and am in many ways still. I want my kids to feel worthy, to search for hope against all odds.” Zindel’s message is clear: Find a way to believe in yourself; you are important.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds gives audiences a lot to consider. It raises many more questions than it answers. Some of these questions were consciously written into the play, while others came as a surprise, even to Zindel. In his new introduction to the most recently published edition of the play he writes, “I found questions lurking in the shadows of Beatrice Hunsdorfer’s vegetable store that I hadn’t even known I’d asked. What is it, really, to grow up in a home without a loving, competent father or mother? Do we yet understand the pain and loneliness and disability of kids who do? And from where do survivors of such homes conjure the magic to insist that, despite everything, their dreams will stay alive?” These are important questions, and Zindel hopes that by raising them he opens up the opportunity for audiences to make some discoveries about themselves. In his new introduction Zindel also states, “It’s important, too, that those who read and hear our stories find answers for their own lives.”
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a play about the triumph of the human spirit that still resonates with audiences today because it ultimately deals with universal concepts. But the thing that has sustained its appeal is its optimistic message of hope. After sharing some painful, yet funny moments in the lives of these characters, the audience is left with an upbeat, positive message summed up in Tillie’s final declaration, “Atom. Atom. What a beautiful word.”
Source: Beth A. Kattelman, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Jeffrey B. Loomis
In the following essay, Loomis extols the anti-sexist message of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and points out the correlation between Zindel’s play and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Already preparing a bridge to such a recent male feminist play as Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, Paul Zindel, in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, gave us, two full decades ago, a strong indictment of sexism. In Zindel’s revisionary Dantesque play, the frumpy housewife Page 51 | Top of ArticleBeatrice Hunsdorfer may look like an illusion-frustrated female transplanted into a Northern urban landscape from the barren Mississippi River towns of Tennessee Williams. Beatrice’s tantrum in Act Two, turning her house into a chaos, may seem fully explained when she declares “I hate the world”; she thus appears at first no more positive a rebel than Kopit’s Madame Rosepettle in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. But Beatrice’s rebellion does not seek merely to hiss venom toward dominant patriarchs, in the manner adopted by La Rosepettle, and she surely does not demonstrate strength (like Williams’s Serafina Delle Rose and Maggie Pollitt) only while working out an alliance with males on whom she remains dependent. If Beatrice is like a Williams character, the model seems Big Mama. Like that Mississippi matriarch by the end of her play, Beatrice fully intends to create a freer, more dignified life for herself and the children she loves—including, in her case, a highly intelligent daughter, Tillie, who, if she fully grasps her evident educational opportunities, might eventually live a life of considerable success.
Whatever the superficial resemblances one might remark between Gamma Rays and Williams’s Glass Menagerie, the “hopeful” philosophy apparent in Zindel seems a radical departure from Tennessee Williams. Williams’s most famous heroines, in Menagerie and Streetcar, remain, for all their vividness of personality, resolutely trapped in all the illusions imposed on them by patriarchal culture. His heroines surely often enough prove sexually liberated—but still, frequently, remain encaged. Perhaps the ideal Williams heroine is one of calm spiritual liberation—a person like Hannah in Iguana, Yet Hannah, despite her spiritual liberty, remains economically starving; Big Mama is more amply fed, but only because she inherited a wealthy man’s estate. Even though Hannah and other Williams heroines might become, like Big Mama, capable businesspersons, few even dare think of seeking economic self-determination, as Zindel’s Beatrice finally does.
Gamma Rays may ultimately appear too much a product of late Sixties social optimism; Zindel does not seem aware of how harshly even educated Tillies must struggle for independence. Yet the main power of this play still remains its long-unrecognized anti-sexist vision. That vision makes it clearly a historically prophetic work; it is not, as multiple critics have narrowly claimed, a mere tired echo of earlier writers.
Gamma Rays ends with the rhapsodic teenage scientist Tillie Hunsdorfer declaring that
. . .[T]he effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds has made me curious about the sun and the stars, for the universe itself must be like a world of great atoms—and I want to know more about it. But most important, I suppose, my experiment has made me feel important—every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun—from places beyond our dreams. The atoms of our hands, the atoms of our hearts. . . (emphasis mine).
Surely, whether consciously or not, these lines—like Tillie’s earlier response to a wondrous atomic cloud-chamber—call to mind both the imagery and the visionary fervor which conclude Dante’s Paradiso:
. . .[L]ike to a wheel whose circle nothing jars, Already on my desire and will prevailed The Love that moves the sun and the others stars.
Zindel’s play—if by accident, nonetheless with uncanny regularity—demonstrates remarkable affinity with Dante’s Divine Comedy. The clearest hint of such affinity is Zindel’s choice of the two main characters’ names: Beatrice and Matilda. Obviously, Beatrice Hunsdorfer does share the name of Dante’s central female character, although she markedly differs from her namesake, the medieval icon of spiritually quiescent splendor. Tillie Hunsdorfer, the incipient teenage intellectual, bears more direct resemblance to the Dantesque character she recalls. Matilda of Tuscany, the likely historical model for Page 52 | Top of Articlethe character Matelda whom readers meet at the height of Purgatory near Dante’s Beatrice, was “a wise and powerful woman . . . splendid, illustrious . . . surpassing all others in her brilliance. . . educated, [with] a large collection of books. . . .”
At least in Tillie Hunsdorfer, then, Zindel has a character who closely recalls an analogous character in Dante’s great poem. It is, of course, Tillie who voices this play’s most Dantesque sentiments; she shares Dante’s belief that all earthly atoms are connected with originating stars of Love; that they were, as she speculates, “formed from a tongue of fire [the Holy Spirit?] that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun.”
But the Dantesque affinities of Zindel’s text do not cease with Beatrice’s name and Tillie’s name and personality. Zindel’s earliest stage directions in the play set the action in “a room of wood,” “once a vegetable store.” The mention of “wood” and “vegetation,” and, most of all, the note that this place was once “a point of debarkation for a horse-drawn wagon to bring its wares to a small town,” all summon to my mind Dante’s selva oscura, the “dark wood” which serves, in Inferno 1, as Dante’s own “point of debarkation” for a pilgrimage toward the starry multifoliate rose of Paradise. According to Dante, he completed the visionary journey which young Matilda Hunsdorfer hopes, in her lifetime, to share.
But Matilda’s mother Beatrice seems long ago to have lost any chance for a meaningful pilgrimage through life. Even as a child, she thought herself proven unworthy to take over her father’s vegetable business—to sit atop its wagon, as if clothed in the radiant garb of Dante’s own Edenic chariot-rider Beatrice, and be a woman recognized (independently of any male mate) for her talents. She might, given other life circumstances than those she knew, have imitated Dante’s successful pilgrimage. But—because her father truly was not, as she mistakenly still wants to believe, one who “made up for all other men in this whole world”—she encountered in him her primal “bogey man.” He made her think that she, as a woman, was inferior to all men, that she could not care for his vegetable business either before or after his death, that she needed instead to “marry . . . [and] be taken care of.” As a result, by the time of the play’s scenes Beatrice has become a perpetual “widow of confusion,” much as Dante began (but only began) the Commedia as one whose “way was lost.”
Like Dante, too, Beatrice Hunsdorfer has dream-visions. But her visions do not foresee an attainable future bliss; they recall, instead, a “nightmare” of past denial. Her dreams, also like Dante’s, contain ghosts of lost loved ones. Yet Dante’s lost Beatrice still beckons ahead of him; she there pledges to teach him “nobility, . . . virtue, . . . the Redeemed Life,” his soul’s “ordained end.” By contrast, Beatrice Hunsdorfer’s lost earthly father, as a ghost, continues to deny her the self-esteem he first refused her long ago:
And while he was sleeping, I got the horses hitched up and went riding around the block waving to everyone. . . . I had more nerve than a bear when I was a kid. Let me tell you it takes nerve to sit up on that wagon every day yelling “Apples!”. . .
. . . .
Did he find out? He came running down the street after me and started spanking me right on top of the wagon—not hard—but it was embarrassing—and I had one of those penny marshmallow ships in the back pocket of my overalls, and it got all squished. And you better believe I never did it again. . . .
Let me tell you about my nightmare that used to come back and back: Well, I’m on Papa’s wagon, but it’s newer and shinier, and it’s being pulled by beautiful white horses, not dirty workhorses—these are like circus horses with long manes and tinsel—and the wagon is blue, shiny blue. And it’s full—filled with yellow apples and grapes and green squash.
. . . .
Huge bells swinging on a gold braid [are] strung across the back of the wagon, and they’re going DONG, DONG. . . DONG, DONG. And I’m yelling “APPLES! PEARS! CUCUM. . . BERS!”
. . . .
And then I turn down our street and all the noise stops. This long street, with all the doors of the houses shut and everything crowded next to each other, and there’s not a soul around. And then I start getting afraid that the vegetables are going to spoil. . . and that nobody’s going to buy anything, and I feel as though I shouldn’t be on the wagon, and I keep trying to call out.
But there isn’t a sound. Not a single sound. Then I turn my head and look at the house across the street. I see an upstairs window, and a pair of hands pull the curtains slowly apart. I see the face of my father and my heart stands still. . . .
Ruth. . . take the light out of my eyes.
Convinced by her sexist father that she had no gifts for managing her own meaningful career—“afraid that [if guarded only by her] the vegetables would spoil . . . and . . . nobody. . . [would] buy anything”—Beatrice has ever since been trapped in her own everyday earthly Inferno: on a “long street,” ‘everything crowded,” “not a soul around.” Page 53 | Top of ArticleAlthough she is like Zindel’s own mother in her concocting “charmingly frantic scheme[s]. . . to get rich quick,” she is, not surprisingly, highly jealous of her invalid boarder Nanny’s daughter, “Miss Career Woman of the Year.” She also envies her own daughters, refusing to admit that they have gifts which could lead them to careers even semi-professional. She can’t believe that her daughter Ruth can even use a typewriter; at one point, she proclaims that Tillie should forget about her scientific ambitions and instead go to work in a dime store.
And Tillie might have been behind that dime store sales counter the next week had she not suddenly become a finalist in her high school’s Science Fair. Her science teacher Mr. Goodman—himself typically sexist, at least in his shock that “he never saw a girl do anything like that before “—was convinced of her promise. As a slightly inattentive Ruth reports to her mother, Mr. Goodman said that Tillie “was going to be another Madame Pasteur.”
So Tillie is spared the dime store, and Beatrice as her mother seems simultaneously spared her sense of being a complete “zero,” “the original half-life!” Once it reaches her consciousness that Tillie has achieved what Ruth calls “an honor,” Beatrice can declare, as she embraces her brainy child, an expletive which almost briefly approaches a creedal statement of faith: “Oh, my God. . . .” And, as she tells Ruth in the next act, “Somewhere in the back of this turtle-sized brain of mine I feel just a little proud! Jesus Christ!”
Indeed, it does not seem altogether fanciful to suggest that Act Two of Gamma Rays becomes (although not at all in a traditional Dantesque manner) Beatrice Hunsdorfer’s encounter with a personal purgatory. As Act One ends, the school principal Mr. Berg (translation from the German: “Mr. [Purgatorial?] Mountain”) invites Beatrice to the Science Fair competition ceremonies. At the opening of the play’s second act she has dressed for that event in a feathery costume, leading Ruth to quote some gossip from one of her mother’s childhood companions: “[Mama’s] idea of getting dressed up is to put on all the feathers in the world and go as a bird. Always trying to get somewhere, like a great big bird.” Has Beatrice always frustratingly hoped that an eagle would lift her, as it lifted Dante, up to higher purgatorial crests?
Beatrice, after all, recalls her own youth as being something like Tillie’s youth now. She might have advanced toward a better life had she not been intimidated (as Tillie herself is not) by others’ disparagings. As Ruth tells Tillie, Beatrice as a girl “was just like you and everybody thought she was a big weirdo”; “First they had Betty the Loon, and now they’ve got Tillie the Loon.”
Unfortunately, the selfish Ruth who utters these words eventually comes close to ruining her mother’s chances for any sort of purgatorial experience. In brattish rage because she herself is being asked to skip the Science Fair and replace her mother as guardian of Nanny the Boarder, Ruth screeches “Goodnight, Betty the Loon” at a Beatrice who is finally escaping, if still somewhat timidly, her fear of the outside world in order to attend Tillie’s school ceremonies. Ruth’s vicious ploy does gain her what she wants: Beatrice now immediately returns (or so it seems) to the agoraphobic terror of life which has for so long characterized her; she “helplessly” sends Ruth off with the Science Fair paraphernalia that she herself was to carry, and she then “breaks into tears that shudder her body, and the lights go down on her pathetic form.”
Yet Act One had already prepared the way for Beatrice’s doing something (in an earthly purgatory) with the insights which her memories (like Dante’s in non-earthly Inferno) were giving her. She said then that she had “almost forgot[ten] about everything [she] was supposed to be.” Still, Zindel built irony into such of her statements as “Me and cobalt-60! Two of the biggest half-lifes you ever saw!” Zindel’s stage-directions soon afterwards say that Beatrice was forming “mushroom cloud” smoke rings with her cigarettes; thus, her “half-life,” like that of cobalt-60, always perhaps could, in its “mushroom cloud” explosion, hold positive mutation within it.
And, in the last scenes of Gamma Rays, Beatrice does lunge after such positive mutation. She tears newspapers off from the house’s windows, then rearranges tables and places tablecloths and napkins on them. She calls Nanny’s daughter, ordering her to take the old boarder away. Sitting down, guffawing over that conquest, and hitting her daughter’s pet rabbit cage with her foot, she decides to chloroform the creature—which is, in Hugh Hefner’s America, not only a children’s pet, but an unfortunate symbol of female suppression.
No mere self-centered cruelty leads Beatrice to these behaviors. She is striving to make meaningful mutation occur in her (and in her daughters’) life. Thus, when the girls start to express a fear that she may truly have killed their bunny, she doesn’t Page 54 | Top of Articledirectly respond to them. She matter-of-factly pronounces broader concerns: “Nanny goes tomorrow. First thing tomorrow”; “I don’t know what it’s going to be. Maybe a tea shop. Maybe not.”
So long trapped in a hellish rut because not daring to lead a business-woman’s produce-wagon off from “a point of debarkation,” pilgrim Beatrice now seeks to redirect her life. For her,“hat[ing] the world” has not meant a spiritual leap beyond that world, in the manner of Dante’s original Beatrice. She has, instead, made a ramshackle earthbound leap into self-assertion. And yet a certain level of spiritual other-centeredness has allied itself with that self-assertion. Even though she will force her daughters to “work in the [tea-shop] kitchen,” she will not any longer seek to deny them an education for future self-determination. They will have “regular hours” in the business, but those hours will be scheduled “after school.” She will no longer live so much in the shadow of her father that she tries to limit others in the way he limited her.
In introductory comments to the Gamma Rays script, which are really an unofficial dedication of the play to his mother, Zindel makes it clear that he considered that woman a beautiful mutation: someone who had at least striven, in her limited way, to become like the liberated modern mom he described in a short children’s piece written for Ms. in 1976:
. . .She says “Absolutely not,” when I want to drive the car, and “Have a good time,” when I tell her I’m running away to Miami. She doesn’t want me to know when we don’t have enough money. . . . If I see her crying she says, “It’s just something in my eye.” She tells me secrets like she’s lonely. When I tell her I miss my father she hugs me and says he misses me too. I love my mother. I really do.
(“I Love My Mother”)
Zindel has given the reader enough information to show his own mother’s clear resemblances to Beatrice Hunsdorfer. One thus chuckles at his jocose offhand comment: “I suspect [the play] is autobiographical.” Besides, autobiography may extend past the characterization of Beatrice to a character (unseen onstage) who may in some ways markedly suggest Paul Zindel himself: Mr. Goodman, Tillie’s high school chemistry teacher.
Zindel taught high school chemistry for ten years and only left Staten Island, where he had taught, after the Pulitzer Prize award for Gamma Rays. Despite that fact, one of course would not claim that he deliberately insults himself when he has Beatrice at first describe Mr. Goodman as a “delightful and handsome young man” but then refer to him, a few minutes later, as “a Hebrew hermaphrodite.” After all, the “hermaphrodite” reference is not ultimately intended as a physical description—at least not in the play’s thematic undertext. A statement which at first seems only to exemplify Beatrice’s crude-mouthed bitterness more importantly helps introduce the play’s revisionist Hebrew theology, viewing all humankind as androgynous.
Zindel’s anti-sexist thoughts of 1970 might be challenged now by such radical feminists as Mary Daly. She considers “androgyny” to be “a vacuous term,” “expressing pseudo-wholeness” as an example of one of those “false universalisms (e.g., humanism, people’s liberation). . . which Spinsters must leap over,. . . must span” in order to affirm their own “intuition of integrity” [Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978)]. And, it is true, Zindel’s androgyny still has a patriarchal sound; his anti-sexist thesis emphasizes the pun “Adam”/ “atom,” and he thus does recall for us the name of the first legendary Hebrew patriarch. Still, even Daly would grant “deceptive” but hard-to-avoid concepts of androgyny some relative value in progress to a non-sexist world. And others would remain more encouraged than she by Zindel’s androgynous creed.
That creed is voiced throughout a play which has appeared to invite regular misreading. For instance, despite her obvious affection for the character’s gutsy energy, Edith Oliver claims that Beatrice “is as much a victim of her own nature as she is of circumstance” [New Yorker, 18 April 1970]. Yet, given Zindel’s pointed indictment of her father’s sexism, why should we be assigning Beatrice herself with a heavy load of blame? Adler does perceive, without explaining why, that Beatrice’s father caused her psychological problems. And yet he, too, does not seem at all to sense that this is a feminist play; he does not discuss it in his mildly feminist chapter “Nora’s American Cousins,” and he indeed rates Beatrice’s plan to open a tea-shop as “slightly outrageous.”
I do not believe for a moment, as Adler implies and as Brustein shouts, that Gamma Rays simply clones the illusion-ridden mother-daughter encaging atmosphere of The Glass Menagerie [Thomas P. Adler, Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama (1987); Robert Brustein, The Culture Watch: Essays on Theatre and Society, 1969-1974 (1975)]. Jack Kroll approaches Page 55 | Top of Articlecloser to the truth about the play when he says that “The calculus of love, jealous vengefulness, remorse, flaring hatred, and desperate recon-ciliation[,] among these three people fighting for spiritual life, is the point and merit of Zindel’s affecting play” [ Newsweek, 27 April 1970]. And Harold Clurman, that ever-trustworthy sage, adds that “In Gamma Rays. . . a real person [he means Tillie, but I think Beatrice also fits the description] flowers from the compost of abject defeat and hysteria” [Nation, 15 March 1971].
In the play’s very opening monologue, Tillie expresses indomitable faith in human androgynous potential as she tells of how Mr. Goodman, in chemistry class, helped her sense that in adamic atoms of origin all human beings are equal:
He told me to look at my hand, for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun.
. . . When there was life, perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal. And then it was a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come.
. . . . And he called this bit of me an atom. And when he wrote the word, I fell in love with it.
What a beautiful word.
For all its potential Dantesque echoes, Zindel’s beautiful play finally shines with the ameliorative twentieth-century hope of an original, deeply sensitive, and highly enlightened modern good man. Paul Zindel, that man, is distant from the norm, even in our own age, as he rebuffs the patriarchal sexism which was not absent even from Dante’s enlightened Renaissance Christianity. Neither Beatrice Hunsdorfer nor Paul Zindel wants to idealize only “GOODY-GOODY GIRLS” like Dante’s Beatrice Portinari dei Bardi. Both believe, or at least want to believe by their play’s conclusion, that, by “hat[ing] the world” which limits women to roles as men’s slaves (or even sacred muses), they may recreate that world—in Zindel’s words, “bring innovation to civilization, to institutions,. . . make contributions. . . [toward a] world which is a better place to live” [interview with Paul Janeczko, English Journal 66, No. 7 (October 1977)]. Zindel’s revised Genesis myth (perhaps his own creatively revisionist response to the very different Garden of Eden scenes which culminate Dante’s Purgatorio) suggests how hard a non-sexist world is to create, and even to define. But such a world—in which we would recreate the meaning of “Adam” by finding our common personhood as “atom”—still seems to him a necessary earthly paradise, one always meant to be.
Source: Jeffrey B. Loomis, “Female Freedoms, Dantesque Dreams, and Paul Zindel’s Anti-Sexist The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, 1991, pp. 123-33.
Thomas P. Adler
In the following excerpt, Adler notes flaws in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and comments on the themes of the play.
For critics to call The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Paul Zindel’s Off-Broadway work and the 1971 prize winner, “honest” or “engaging” creates the impression that here is a work which pretends to be nothing other than what it is: a stark if overly familiar family-problem play about life’s ability to sustain itself against great odds—doing for a particular family something of what [Thornton] Wilder does for the universal family of man in [The Skin of Our Teeth]. Zindel, though, appears to have pretensions to something more, attempting to impart additional weight to his basically simple characterization and content through overblown stage trickery. Originally produced at Houston’s Alley Theatre, Effects too obviously recalls Williams’s Glass Menagerie in its character configurations and stylistic techniques: both concern a mother, who lives mostly on dreams, and two children, one healthy, the other not; both households lack a father, through either death or desertion; in both, a gentleman from the outside world helps, or thinks he helps, one of the children. The stylistic similarities are even more pronounced: in both, the stage setting, while essentially realistic—an apartment in St. Louis, a vegetable store in New York—is used in a nonillusionistic fashion, particularly as regards lighting and music. In Menagerie, the nonrealistic elements, including the images and legends flashed on a screen, are integral to the play as “memory” occurring in Tom’s mind. In Marigolds, however, such devices as recorded voice-overs (sometimes used pretentiously as when a character’s voice reverberates electronically) and blackouts and spotlighting of characters (equivalent to cinematic fade-outs and close-ups) seem superimposed upon a fragile content that cannot support them, as if the form could supply a weightiness the content does not itself merit. Zindel seems interested
in the techniques in and for themselves, simply as a means of avoiding straight realism.
Furthermore, perhaps because Zindel usually writes novels for adolescents, the abundant symbolism in Marigolds frequently lacks subtlety. The mother, Beatrice, for example, to assuage her guilt over having sent her own father off to a sanatorium, cares for the senile Nanny who, with her “smile from a soul half-departed” and her “shuffling motion that reminds one of a ticking clock,” serves as a walking personification of death and of how affluent Americans (her daughter is “Miss Career Woman”) mistreat their aged parents. More compellingly, the once orderly vegetable store now symbolically reflects the clutter and refuse of Beatrice’s psychic and emotional life. With her motto “just yesterday,” Beatrice lives on reminiscences of things past—a word prominently displayed on a placard at the high school science exhibit—on would-have-beens and should-have-beens. All her life she has romantically dreamed and schemed, yet she has seldom carried through on her plans, some of them, like turning the run-down store into a neighborhood tea shop, slightly outrageous. Like Willy Loman [in Page 57 | Top of ArticleArthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman], Beatrice tends to blame something outside herself for her failure, though she accurately assesses the way that a competitive, success-oriented society attempts to force everyone into a predetermined mold, decrying the lack of tolerance and the levelling down to sameness and mediocrity that, paradoxically, is a part of the American system: “If you’re just a little bit different in this world, they try to kill you off.” Difference may threaten the status quo and not be easily handled or accommodated, yet Zindel argues not only that some differences are beneficial but that variation rather than sameness is essential for there to be progress.
Although Zindel’s exposition leaves some past events annoyingly obscure, it seems to have been criticism by the father she idolized that began Beatrice’s descent into a present condition she characterizes as “half-life” and “zero.” One day she hitched up the horses and rode through the streets selling fruit, to be met by her father’s stern rebuke; ever since, she has dreamed of riding a shiny wagon pulled by white horses, only to see the forbidding figure of her father look on disapprovingly. She married badly, merely to please her father, but then no man could live up to her dream. After she took her father off to the hospital, she had the horses “taken care of”—a cycle of failure, guilt, and still more failure.
The cycle of parent destroying child continues in Beatrice’s erratic relationship with her daughters, shifting suddenly between compassion and bitterness—in much the way that the pet rabbit is alternately loved and then hurt. Beatrice’s older daughter, the mentally disturbed Ruth who was traumatized by contact with death and violence, tells tales, craves the attention of men by flaunting her sexuality, and appears just as destructive and vindictive as her mother; when she cannot have what she desires, she ruins it for everyone else. The younger Tillie, in her awkwardness and unprettiness and firm grasp on reality, stands as Ruth’s opposite and a living denial that one need be determined by heredity and environment. Tillie discovers a much-needed father figure in her high school teacher (unfortunately named Mr. Goodman), who introduces her to the word atom, which she comes to love. The notion that everything in the universe, herself included, is somehow connected with every other thing from the moment of creation enthralls her; it provides a fixed point of reference and a feeling of importance. For her science project, she exposes marigold seeds to radiation, which need not produce sterility and may
even yield a positive effect: while those that receive little radiation are normal and those exposed to excessive radiation (like Beatrice and Ruth) are killed or dwarfed, those subject to only moderate radiation produce mutations, some of which (like Tillie, who has experienced very detrimental influences but has emerged relatively unscathed) are good and wonderful things. Against all odds, Tillie not only survives but actually thrives.
Finally, though, Zindel’s optimism does not grow organically from the play. Some might argue that Tillie’s (and the playwright’s) optimism, because it is won with so much difficulty and is so at variance with the adverse and negative atmosphere from which she arises, is therefore all the more impressive and no more facile or unwarranted than Wilder’s. The widely divergent perspectives of the two writers, however, militate against this: where Wilder discerns a pattern of ultimate success after repeated failures over the entire sweep of human history, Zindel ties his faith and hope to a specific—and atypical rather than representative—household that he then proposes as symbolic and universally applicable. Though Zindel seems to find little difficulty in asserting this optimism, an audience might have a considerably harder time assenting to it.
Source: Thomas P. Adler, “The Idea of Progress,” in Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama, Purdue University Press, 1987, pp. 127-41.
Kerr is an American essayist, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic. Below, he recounts the memorable aspects of The Effect of Page 58 | Top of ArticleGamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and probes the desperate lives of the characters.
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Source: Walter Kerr, “Everything’s Coming up Marigolds,” in New York Times, April 19, 1970, pp. 1, 3.
Oliver began her career as an actress and television writer and producer. Here, she regards Beatrice as the central figure in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
The title The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is a false clue to a touching and often funny play that, whatever its faults, is not nonsensical or verbose or pretentious or way-out flashy. Actually, it is a rather old-fashioned domestic drama (old-fashioned is no insult from me) in that it is about people—and interesting ones at that—whose behavior, while outlandish at times, is made as comprehensible as anybody’s behavior ever can be made. The play, which was written by Paul Zindel and opened last week at the Mercer-O’Casey, is more than anything else the study of a woman. Her name is Beatrice Hunsdorfer, and she has been all but destroyed by a life that so far has consisted of one disappointment after another. With all her expectations crushed but with plenty of energy left, much of it spent on wreaking a kind of petty vengeance on everybody around her, she is as much a victim of her own nature as she is of
circumstance. There is, however, nothing bleak or whiny about Mrs. H. She is the fierce, embittered, wise-cracking mother of two young daughters. One of them, Ruth, is a highly strung, rather bratty girl subject to convulsions, and the other, Matilda, is an awkward, dim-looking but not dim, science prodigy. It is Matilda’s gamma-ray experiment with marigolds at the local high school that gives the play its bumpy title, eventually wins her a prize, and, indirectly, almost finishes off her mother and sister and the rickety life they have built.
The plot is the least of it. The character of Mrs. H. is all, or nearly all. We learn that the only man she ever loved was her father, that her husband never amounted to anything and left her penniless in the horrible mess of a house where the action takes place, that she considers her daughters millstones around her neck (or she says she does; she is capable of sudden, remorseful tenderness and pride), and that there is no one on earth that she hates as much as she hates herself. She makes fifty dollars a week (“I’d be better off as a cabdriver”) by providing minimum care for a decrepit old woman boarder. She is very intelligent. She is also, wandering around in a shabby bathrobe with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, a holy terror, and she is so convincingly played by Sada Thompson that it is all but impossible to separate the role from the actress. The first and by far the better of the two acts is a series of vignettes and conversations: Mrs. H., all offhand iron courtesy and cutting explanations, talking on the telephone to a science teacher who is looking for Matilda; the girl herself, clutching her pet rabbit, listening to the conversation in frozen apprehension; Mrs. H. berating her daughter for not doing the housework (“This house is going to ferment”); Mrs. H., behind a glittery smile, raining down insults on her poor old boarder, who is as deaf as she is feeble; Mrs. H., impulsive and loving, soothing her edgy Ruth, who has had a nightmare. The second act, in which events and crises take over, and in which incidents are given more significance than they appear to warrant, seems artificial, and even melodramatic, after the first one, but the play stands up pretty well, all the same. The performances, under Melvin Bernhardt’s direction, are all that any dramatist could wish for. Pamela Payton-Wright is the shy, inspired Matilda, Amy Levitt is Ruth, and Judith Lowry is the tottery paying guest. Sara Brook designed the good costumes, and the good set is by Fred Voelpel.
Source: Edith Oliver, “Why the Lady Is a Tramp,” in New Yorker, Vol. XLVI, No. 9, April 18, 1970, pp. 82, 87-88.
Barnes, Clive, “Off-Broadway and Off-Off 1969-70,” American Theatre 1969-1970, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. pp. 63-74.
Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto, eds., Types of Drama: Plays and Essays, Little Brown and Company, 1972, pp. 640-641.
Eaglen, Audrey, Interview with Paul Zindel, in Top of the News, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter 1978, pp. 178-85.
Forman, Jack, “Paul Zindel,” in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale Research, 1998.
Frank, Anne, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Bantam Books, 1993, p. 263.
Haley, Beverly A., and Kenneth L. Donelson, “Pigs and Hamburger, Cadavers and Gamma Rays: Paul Zindel’s Adolescents,” in Elementary English, Vol. 51, No. 7, October 1974, pp. 940-945.
Hippie, Theodore, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction, edited by Glenn E. Estes, Gale, 1986, pp. 405-410.
Rich, Frank, “Amulets Against the Dragon Forces,” in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993, Random House, 1998, pp. 665-656.
Strickland, Ruth L., “Paul Zindel” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp. 368-373.
Zindel, Paul, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Bantam Books, 1973.
——, Introduction to The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Bantam Books, 1997.
Asimov, Isaac, Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos, Dutton, 1991.
Asimov discusses the properties of the atom in easily understandable terms. This book was deemed “a masterpiece” by Omni Magazine.
Meadows, Jack, The Great Scientists, Oxford University Press, 1989.
This book is profusely illustrated and is about the lives of twelve great scientists and their discoveries. Of particular interest is the chapter on Albert Einstein.
Raymond, Gerard, “The Effects of Staten Island on a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright,” Theater Week, Vol. 2, No. 37, April 24, 1989, pp. 16-21.
Raymond discusses the influence of Zindel’s experiences as a child on his writing.
Wetzsteon, Ross, ed., The Obie Winners: The Best of Off-Broadway, Doubleday, 1980.
This book contains the complete texts often plays that have won an Obie Award. It also includes a complete listing of the Obie Award winners through 1979.