Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Herselves: A Chamber Piece" (on Adrienne Kennedy's "Funnyhouse of a Negro")

hersevles: a chamber piece
by Douglas Messerli
Adrienne Kennedy Funnyhouse of a Negro / 1964

One is tempted to describe Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, as a kind of chamber piece in black and white. The play takes place in the bedroom of a young woman, Sarah, lit in harsh white played behind a bright white, torn, cheaply-made curtain. Surrounding this spot of “ghastly” white is an “unnatural” black, in which the various imaginary encounters with other “herselves”—the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba—the interior companions of Negro-Sarah, as she is referred to in the cast listing, take place. Accordingly, the very stage set sets up the central tension of this play, an interchange of black and white. And interestingly, despite Sarah’s self-detestation of her own “blackness,” it is in the “unnatural” darkness where all her creative activity occurs. The “white room” of her world is only vaguely defined by the author: “Her room should have a bed, a writing table and a mirror. Near her bed is the statue of Queen Victoria; other objects might be her photographs and her books.” It is a world, in short, of commodities.

          Yet Kennedy’s startling play is not simply about the basic dichotomies at the heart of this work—the American culture’s long history of breaking down everything into black-and-white (both racially and intellectually)—but is more about all that lies in between, both in terms of racial makeup and in terms of reality—or perhaps what I should speak of as “surreality.”

      Sarah might be to the society at large a “negro,” but to herself she is of mixed heritage, her mother appearing so white that her hair as not even “frizzy,” evidently the product of a mixed marriage. Sarah’s father, whom she detests and is terrified of, is described of as very black, a man haunting Sarah each night from the jungle he once inhabited. Through bits and pieces of dialogue and various retellings from the imaginary characters of Sarah’s mind, we begin to perceive that, upon marrying Sarah’s mother, the father moved his family to Africa where he might, as his own mother wished, “save the race.”

You must return to Africa, find revelation in the midst
of golden savannas, nim and white frankopenny trees,
white stallions roaming under a blue sky, you must walk
with a white dove and heal the race, heal the misery, take
us off the cross…..

Her vision of this paradisiacal Africa, in short, is as absurd as Sarah’s own desire to live at the edges of things, in anonymity:

I am an English major, as my mother was when she went
to school in Atlanta…. I am graduated from a city college
and have occasional work in libraries, but mostly spend my
days preoccupied with the placement and geometric
position of words on paper. I write poetry filling white page
after white page with imitations of Edith Sitwell. It is my
dream to live in rooms with European antiques and my
Queen Victoria, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of
books, a piano, oriental carpets and to eat my meals on a
white glass table. I will visit my friends’ apartments which
will contain books, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and
oriental carpets. My friends will be white.

Sarah, in sum, wants everything that a bourgeois consumer might desire. Yet each night she is haunted by the return of her dead father—a man whom we are told by the other two “other” figures of this play hung himself in his Harlem hotel upon the death of Patrice Lumumba, but whom Sarah insists she herself as killed by bludgeoning him with an ebony mask—reminding her of her societal position as a “nigger,” and all that dreadful aspersion signifies in a racist world.

     Sarah’s desired world contains no love, and she herself is unable to forgive. She admits to not particularly liking her friends, and makes it clear, despite her occasional sex with him, that she does not love her neighbor, Raymond. She is a product of both passion and hate, born from a mother who ceased having sex with her husband and a father her raped her. Her own writing is pointless, an imitation of a poet, Edith Sitwell, who, dressed in velvet and turbans, poured out often abstract rhythmical works, which, despite their modernity, often earned her the label of poseur.

      A major problem, one shared by all “herselves,” is a clearly Freudian one; each of them is losing their hair, like Sarah’s mother, now locked away in an asylum: fear, humiliation, failure, and embarrassment is at the center of Sarah’s life.

       Yet it is these very fears and the almost mad manifestation of Sarah’s fractured selves that is at the center of any real love and creativity she exhibits. Unlike the white frozen world of objects and vague relationships at the center of her “dream,” the horrible terrors of her own past and the dark world with which she is associated—her always “knocking” obsessions—are at the core of this play, a work which critic Deborah Thompson has observed is “‘founded’ in groundlessness, alienation, errancy, transience, and multiplicity,  written, Kennedy has explained, during a sea voyage: "Away from all my old books, but now besieged and surrounded by a myriad of real, astounding new imagery (ocean, staterooms, the decks, standing at the rail), my unconscious and conscious seemed to join in a new way."

     Tragically, in the world in which Sarah lives—a world filled with a gossipy and uncaring landlady, a cold cynical lover, and those white friends, “shrewd, intellectual and anxious for death”—there is no way to mend the rents and tears of Sarah’s fractured world. The society, in its racist distinctions, does not allow such bourgeois aspirations from a woman of color. And, accordingly, Kennedy’s play must end in Sarah’s destruction, another victim in a culture that does permit one to accept the multitudinous realities of life.

      In full gothic irony, Raymond suggests at play’s end that, in truth, Sarah’s father did not hang himself in a Harlem hotel, but is a “doctor married to a white whore”: “He lives in the city in rooms with European antiques, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of books and oriental carpets. Her father is a nigger who eats his meals on a white glass table.”

Los Angeles, January 9, 2013


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