The Goal is to Feel Better
John Guare wrote The House of Blue Leaves in 1968 and first produced it in 1971. We are in this theatre today watching a revival, and, unfortunately, this play resonates. Honesty and truth are irrelevant. It is a struggle to retain the values of community, collaboration, and love of truth. Instead, we have the worship of fame, worship of celebrity. It is/was a time of upheaval, a time of lies. What’s true and what’s not true.
In the play we see Bunny, Artie, Ronnie worshipping fame. And today the American obsession with celebrity and fame is alive and well. Celebrities can do anything. Politicians too, I hear. Look at famous people fraudulently getting their kids into prestigious schools. No code of honor.
The play takes place in Queens NY, in the Fall of 1965. What was happening in the 1960’s? There were two catholic assassinations: John F Kennedy killed in 1963; Robert Kennedy killed in 1968. And Martin Luther King, also assassinated in 1968. Three assassinations between ‘63 and ‘68. Add to this, the Vietnam War was going on. It was still going on in 1971 when The House of Blue Leaves was produced. A time of social upheaval!
The House of Blue Leaves! I would call it The House of Narcissism. As such, this play is all too true today.
The people portrayed are self-centered, morally corrupt. I read a review that describes the play as “at once cruel and deeply compassionate.” I’m not sure where the deep compassion is within the play? Perhaps it is the audience that must view these actors with compassion. I see cruelty.
Or perhaps John Guare is playing the devil’s advocate. He has been called provocative. Perhaps his view of human nature then is not such a pessimistic one. Perhaps he is giving us a choice of values: between decency and compassion and that of narcissistic violence. And Bananas is Guare’s foil – She is the Observer who sees the bedlam. She is the one who sees the truth.
Yes, a cruel view of humanity. We can stomach it because John Guare uses a comic platform to give us a disturbing view of human relationships in which aspirations are primarily narcissistically motivated. Artie was an awful songwriter. That’s the truth. Yet Bunny, a self-appointed expert in everything, is telling him how he would be nominated for the Oscar’s Best Song. Of course he believes this to be true. And then there is Ronnie who truly believed as a child he would be sought after for a part in one of Billy’s productions. Unfortunately, in his narcissism, he was traumatized when his audition attempt was laughed at. Here was planted the seed of his desire to seek fame years later through a plan to assassinate the visiting Pope. He gleefully proclaims: “I’ll be in headlines all over the world”.
(An interesting aside: The play was prescient. It was 10 years later, May 1981, there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul the Second’s life.)
Back to the play…..So what’s the truth in relation to the Pope in this play. Pope Paul VI did indeed visit New York City in 1965. There was tremendous excitement. A Pope’s first visit to the US ever.
The play seizes on Bunny’s belief, most important is Bunny’s belief that Pope Paul VI was open to contraception. Remember Bunny all excited about the Pope and how he was to come out for birth control? What did she say? “Churches will be selling Holy Diaphragms. “ A very funny line, but truth was very much the opposite. In his 1968 Encyclical Letter, Pope Paul VI writes “Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Holy moly, not holy diaphragm. Truth is what you want it to be.
This battle about reproductive rights is still going on, as we sit here.
Laughter and tragedy switch quickly back and forth. It requires you the audience to listen closely, below the humor. Important lines predict what’s to come. Ronnie is linked with the Pope in the very beginning: We hear Artie talking in his sleep: “Pope Ronnie, Pope Ronald the First.” Artie and Ronnie we see are linked in their desire for fame.
Fame, stardom. It is a microcosm of society, that little Queen’s flat. Dare I say again it is a world of narcissists. Except for one! The only one I don’t consider narcissistic is the one labeled crazy. Bananas! Bananas is not motivated by fame as the other main characters are. She’s different. She desires to be an animal because she says, animals weren’t meant to be famous. What does she want? She wants to be loved.
The designated sick one is the caring and compassionate one. Remember how she empathizes with Artie’s need for Bunny? We hear her say: “I’m glad you’re making friends Artie, I’m no good for you.” And again, ever helpful, she offers to get Billy on the phone for Artie and Bunny, furthering their relationship and move to California.
I believe her character is more fleshed out than the others. That soliloquy? I puzzled over it. I believe it shows her to be more complicated. She tells us of her delusional attempt to offer her car as a gypsy taxi to famous people: Jacqueline Kennedy, Cardinal Spellman, Bob Hope, President Johnson – her friends as she calls them. She plaintively beseeches, “Why can’t they love me?”
She wants to be loved, yes, but by important people, by someone famous, not just anybody. It is here we can understand her attachment to Artie. She had a part of her that connects with his desire for fame, thus a possibility of being loved by future famous Artie. But she also saw the truth. She knew him to be fraudulent. And made sure to tell him! Not all that sweet and good! Makes her more human to me
Despite this, Bananas’ attachment is the most stable. She remains attached to him. Others’ attachments are tenuous, easily broken without remorse. Artie as we know gets rid of Bananas. Bunny can switch from Artie to Billy in a cooking minute. And there is Billy who easily switches to Bunny, happy to get rid of the liability of Corrinna. So much for despair at loss.
I can’t resist Bunny. Quite a character. Bunny who thinks Mairzy Doats is a classic… Gives new meaning to the phrase Dumb Bunny. She’s malicious, calculating, scruple-less (such a word?). However, you might say Bunny is more honest, since she’s less likely to lie. Is truth as a value in itself, desirable? It allows her to easily and cruelly tell Bananas a truth: that if she needs electroshock, she’ll get it?
The nuns are a counterpoint to Bunny and her sexual proclivity. Bunny! A good name!. Sex is not sacred, but food is. The two senior nuns are greedy, callous, self-serving. They trade prayers for beer. They are aghast at the offer of domestic beer. A black & white TV. Oh my God!
Where is the moral compass!
Sex and peanut butter are taboo for the nuns. Why peanut butter? An anonymous source tells me that creamy peanut butter is a lubricant for masturbation. John Guare the provocator! There is a lot about Catholicism and the church that I don’t know. And I’m sure more connections can be made than I am capable of. I hope you can help!
As for Guare’s use of names. The names of the characters are not very subtle. So, what’s in a name? Shakespeare’s name is mentioned once in the play, (did you miss it?) thus I take the liberty here to turn to Shakespeare’s What’s in a name. “ Nothing,” he would say: After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet (Romeo and Juliet). For John Guare, and The House of Blue Leaves, the name is everything.
Artie’s theme song deals with names. The devil is not in Evelyn. The devil is in Angela… the Angel. Is John Guare telling us to be vigilant? After all, Artie’s theme song states: “evil is not where you think it is.”
And lastly, what to make of Blue leaves in the title! Are leaves ever blue? There are no blue leaves in nature. There are purple and maroon leaves, and these two colors have a component of blue. But leaves are never blue. And then we are told the blue leaves are not leaves, they are a flock of birds. Not real, they are also fraudulent, and being used to fool Bananas into willingly commit herself to a legal bedlam. Believe to be true what is not true.
And at the end, Artie himself is standing alone, smiling. Crazy? He’s a lost soul. He lost his two cheerleaders. But he will have his fame. In the newspaper front page? Probably not. Killing Bananas is not killing the Pope. His son aspired to greater fame. But Artie killed. A fitting end to lies and moral corruption? Do we have compassion for him? I ask you
And I found a fitting ending to my thoughts about the similarity of these two eras almost 50 years apart. Both eras are narcissistic, although perhaps today narcissism is more the acceptable norm. I quote David Brooks in the NY Times who wrote just last week, May 14, 2019: of the deep divide between Individual self-interest and that of a culture that celebrates cooperation, stability and committed relationships.
Today our task is to remain human in a time of inhumanity. We are still fighting that battle.