Authors: Adrienne Kennedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: African American

Author Works


Funnyhouse of a Negro, pr. 1962

The Owl Answers, pr. 1963

A Rat’s Mass, pr. 1966

The Lennon Play: In His Own Write, pr. 1967 (with John Lennon and Victor Spinetti)

A Lesson in Dead Language, pr., pb. 1968

Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, pr. 1968

A Beast’s Story, pr., pb. 1969

Boats, pr. 1969

Cities in Bezique: Two One Act Plays, pb. 1969

An Evening with Dead Essex, pr. 1973

A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, pr. 1976

A Lancashire Lad, pr. 1980

Orestes and Electra, pr. 1980

Black Children’s Day, pr. 1980

Adrienne Kennedy in One Act, pb. 1988

The Alexander Plays, pb. 1992

The Ohio State Murders, pr., pb. 1992

June and Jean in Concert, pr. 1995

Sleep Deprivation Chamber, pb. 1996 (with Adam Patrice Kennedy)


People Who Led to My Plays, 1986


Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal, 1990 (novella and journal)

The Adrienne Kennedy Reader, 2001


The author of some of the most interesting and provocative plays to emerge from the experimental theater scene after the 1960’s, Adrienne Kennedy is a chronicler of the surreal and the world of dream and myth. Kennedy’s technique has been described as using form “to project an interior reality and thereby creating a rich and demanding theatrical style.” Although her plays are complex and opaquely symbolic, puzzling critics and audiences alike, most commentators agree that performances of Kennedy’s work are intensely theatrical and rewarding.{$I[AN]9810001031}{$I[A]Kennedy, Adrienne}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Kennedy, Adrienne}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kennedy, Adrienne}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Kennedy, Adrienne}{$I[tim]1931;Kennedy, Adrienne}

Adrienne Kennedy

Born Adrienne Lita Hawkins, the playwright was one of two children and the only daughter of Cornell Wallace Hawkins and Etta Haugabook Hawkins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although she was a precocious and imaginative child who learned to read at age three, Kennedy enjoyed an average middle-class childhood in an integrated neighborhood. She was encouraged by her parents, who were college graduates and respected professionals, and she read voraciously and began writing stories while still a child. Because of her comfortable and relatively sheltered upbringing spent in the company of people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, Kennedy was completely unprepared for the reality of racism she encountered while studying at Ohio State University. The segregated restaurants of Cleveland and the hostile white students at the university were an education in themselves; in her plays, she later she drew on the anger that developed during this time. After receiving her degree in 1953, she married Joseph C. Kennedy, who was sent by the U.S. Army to Korea shortly after the wedding.

It was during her husband’s absence that Kennedy first tried writing two short theatrical pieces, one based on an Elmer Rice play, the other influenced by Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). Yet it was only with her husband’s return and his subsequent enrollment in the graduate program at Columbia Teachers’ College that Kennedy began to write in earnest, honing her craft in creative writing programs at Columbia University, the American Theatre Wing, and the Circle-in-the-Square School. Her first and best-known play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, inspired by and begun during her travels in Africa, was first produced through Edward Albee’s workshop at Circle-in-the-Square in 1962. Albee was impressed by the play and arranged for its production in 1964 at the East End Theatre, an Off-Broadway theater. Funnyhouse of a Negro was a critical and popular success, became a cult favorite among theatergoers, and garnered a 1964 Obie Award.

The next six years were a richly creative period, and several more Kennedy plays were produced. Joseph Papp’s combined production of The Owl Answers and A Beast’s Story as Cities in Bezique for the New York Shakespeare Festival garnered critical acclaim for Kennedy and ran for more than sixty performances.

In 1971, Kennedy and five other women playwrights from Off-Broadway theaters joined to create the Women’s Theatre Council, a cooperative dedicated to producing plays by women and to providing professional opportunities for female directors and actresses. Kennedy’s career expanded to include not only playwriting but also children’s theater and teaching at various universities. She also ventured into fiction writing with Deadly Triplets, a mystery novel.

Funnyhouse of a Negro is not only Adrienne Kennedy’s best-known and longest but also her most accessible play. Like most of her work, this play is an elaborately constructed series of hallucinatory scenes couched in intensely poetic and symbolic language. The play examines the psyche of Sarah, a young mulatto woman whose despair and ambivalence about her blackness manifest themselves in nightmares populated by Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, Jesus Christ, and the duchess of Habsburg. Mocked by the august personages in her dreams, oppressed by an unfeeling society in her waking hours, Sarah eventually commits suicide. Although essentially plotless in the conventional sense, Funnyhouse of a Negro is a compelling treatment of the isolation experienced by a young woman who is both part of a culture and alien to it. The images of white doves, black ravens, falling hair, and Sarah’s Jewish boyfriend (and the historical figures who appear) reinforce the ambiguities and confusion that torment Sarah as she struggles to form an identity in her world.

Like Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Rat’s Mass–a frequently anthologized play–portrays the pain of being black in a white world. Brother Rat and Sister Rat are confused by their love for each other and by their adoration of the white Rosemary, who represents the pope, the Virgin Mary, and all that is unattainable. Rosemary, who wears “a Holy Communion dress and has worms in her hair,” refuses to save Brother Rat and Sister Rat from the Nazis and Caesar’s army while a group of religious figures–the Holy Family, two of the Wise Men, and a shepherd–silently watch before metamorphosing into a firing squad that executes the rats. Like many of Kennedy’s other plays, A Rat’s Mass has a surrealistic quality produced partly by the play’s sketchy plot, partly by the juxtaposition of Catholic symbols and images of childhood and madness.

Kennedy’s work has impressed audiences and critics, and most commentators agree that the playwright has earned an important place in the history of the American theater, particularly for her participation in the experimentation and artistry of the Off-Broadway movement that forced new life into the theater. Nontraditional and intertextual, Kennedy’s plays are poetic examinations of the inner lives of twentieth century black women who are trapped both by their race and by their gender.

BibliographyBenston, Kimberly W. “Cities in Bezique: Adrienne Kennedy’s Expressionistic Vision.” CLA Journal 20 (1976). In this essay on The Owl Answers and A Beast’s Story, Benston delineates Kennedy’s skillful use of expressionism. Sees part of Kennedy’s richly symbolic form as having been borrowed from both the folktale and August Strindberg’s dream plays.Blau, Herbert. “The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy.” Modern Drama 27 (1984): 520-539. Blau examines three plays by Shepard and three by Kennedy. Combines personal reflections on his work with Kennedy with sociological, psychological, and thematic approaches to her plays. Sees her as having been “out of place in the emergence of Black Power” and views powerlessness and death as obsessions in her oeuvre.Bryant-Jackson, Paul, and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. An anthology of essays on Kennedy’s work, this volume consists of four parts, including interviews and critical analyses of her work by various scholars. The first of its sort on Kennedy’s plays, it makes a substantial contribution to Kennedy scholarship.Curb, Rosemary. “Fragmented Selves in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers.” Theater Journal 32 (1980): 180-195. Curb argues that Kennedy eschews linear narrative progression to portray “the fragmented mental states of her characters,” with the central conflict occurring inside the main character’s mind. Suggests that Kennedy is a “poet-playwright,” examines Kennedy’s central images alongside her theme of death, and compares her work to that of Ntozake Shange.Kennedy, Adrienne. “A Growth of Images.” Tulane Drama Review 21 (1977): 41-47. Kennedy discusses her reasons for selecting autobiographical materials for her plays and states that most of them grow out of her dreams. Provides sources for Clara Passmore in The Owl Answers.Kolin, Philip C. Understanding Adrienne Kennedy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. An exploration of the life and work of Kennedy, offering analysis on her reoccurring themes of race, gender and American culture.McDonough, Carla J. “God and the Owls: The Sacred and the Profane in Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers.” Modern Drama 40 (1997): 385-402. McDonough explores the recurring motifs, dialogue, and theatrical images in both The Owl Answers and Kennedy’s other plays, with particular attention to the blending of religious idolatry, colonialism, mixed-race heritage, family history, and female sexuality that The Owl Answers examines.Meigs, Susan. “No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays.” In Modern Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Meigs begins her discussion of Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White by noting the significance of Kennedy’s trip to Africa in 1960, which had a substantial impact on her worldview. Believes that the conflict between Western and African tradition and culture undergirds the major theme of Kennedy’s “complex, surrealistic psychodramas.”Sollors, Werner. “Owls and Rats in the American Funnyhouse: Adrienne Kennedy’s Drama.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 63 (1991): 507-532. States that Kennedy’s oeuvre is best seen as “a full-fledged modern American attempt at rewriting family tragedy.” Examines seven plays against the background of her autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays.Zinman, Toby Silverman. “‘In the Presence of Mine Enemies’: Adrienne Kennedy’s An Evening with Dead Essex.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 6 (1991): 3-13. Notes that unlike most of Kennedy’s plays, this one “is based on a newspaper account, and is mostly male, apparently realistic, and raggedly structured.” Concludes that Kennedy has enormous enemies in mind, including the American government and American society.
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