Guare’s Joins Naturalistic and Nonrepresentational Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Guare’s juxtaposition of nonrepresentational theater and naturalistic techniques within the same play, The House of Blue Leaves, offered an original theater experience that confused some and satisfied others. Although nothing occurs in the play that could not happen in real life, the characters engage in nonnaturalistic deeds, such as speaking directly to the audience. Guare’s play was among the first to juxtapose these styles, making his work original to audiences in 1971.

Summary of Event

After some modest success with such plays as Muzeeka (1967) and Cop-Out (1968), John Guare attracted the attention of the American theatergoing public with the first production of The House of Blue Leaves, not only because of the blackness of the play’s comedy but also because of the originality of its style, which left audiences confused, disturbed, and intrigued. Theater;drama Guare, John Shapiro, Mel Gould, Harold Meara, Anne Helmond, Katherine

The play is a devastating farce set in the apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, New York, of an Irish Catholic family on October 4, 1965, the day of the pope’s visit to New York to speak before the United Nations on the subject of world peace. In order to get from the airport to Manhattan, the pope must pass through Queens, and the streets outside the apartment are full of local residents and others who are excited over the prospect of getting a glimpse of the pope. Artie Shaughnessy, the middle-aged head of the household, works as a zookeeper, but his real passion is for songwriting. Artie’s wife, Bananas, has gone insane, and Artie wants to commit her to a mental hospital, the “house” of the title, so that he can then be free to travel to Hollywood with his mistress and downstairs neighbor, Bunny Flingus, in order to “make it big” as a songwriter in show business.

Artie’s son, Ronnie, who is AWOL from Fort Dix and now dressed like an altar boy, has plans to “blow up” the pope. Moreover, three nuns who were stationed on top of Artie’s apartment building in order to see the pope wander into Artie’s apartment. In addition, Corrinna Stroller, the wife of Billy Einhorn, a Hollywood producer, has become deaf during the filming of a bomb scene in one of Billy’s movies, and she stops by to visit Artie while on her way to the airport. The action of the play turns bizarre. Ronnie’s bomb kills two of the nuns and Corrinna, but Ronnie escapes to Rome with plans to blow up the Vatican. Bananas is taken away to a “house,” and Billy arrives from Hollywood to tell Artie that he must stay in Queens. At the end, Billy takes Bunny with him to Australia to make another movie.

The implications of much of the play depend not so much on action as on more subtle reactions and behavior. For example, Artie’s wife Bananas, although insane, has moments of extraordinary perception, of lucidity of painful memories, and revelation of human feeling that wrenches the heart—all of which Artie realizes and tries to ignore. Moreover, Corrinna deals with her deafness by wearing a hearing aid that, when the batteries become defunct, places her in the position of either admitting to her disability or smiling bravely and pretending to understand what is going on. She chooses the latter alternative, which results in puzzling non sequiturs and a strange awareness on the audience’s part of seeing the scene from her deaf perspective. Meanwhile, Artie pursues his dreams; at one point, however, he is made to realize by his mistress Bunny that the melody of one of his songs is that of the famous song “White Christmas”—thus bringing the audience to the realization that Artie is talentless, his dreams are fraudulent, and his sacrificing of those around him for his false dreams is ironic, cruel, and strangely pathetic.

It is not just the action alone that endows the play with its historical significance. Guare employs devices that violate the apparent realistic feel of the play. There are times when characters step out of character and speak directly to the audience; at other moments, there are songs, slow-motion pantomimes, slapstick routines, and bizarre, dreamlike sequences. In addition, the statement made by the play is extremely negative, if not cynical, especially as it seems to address questions of hopes and dreams, materialism, relationships, exploitation, and, ultimately, American culture.

The reaction of drama critics to the play was significant for its stridency and inconsistency. One reviewer declared that the production was a “farce with a serious intent, but at heart it’s hollow,” and another wrote, “I really don’t have much to say about The House of Blue Leaves. It affected me that way . . . which is no way at all.” On the other hand, some critics saw the play’s merit. Julius Novick, after analyzing its dark comedy, proclaimed that “it is not an insignificant play,” while Clive Barnes perceived that Guare’s “black inversions have a Joe Orton air to them, but his tone is all-American, emanating from a mind riotously littered with the detritus of a civilization, its comic books, its radio serials, its movies, indeed all of its advertisements.” Barnes also notes that “Mr. Guare is so funny because he goes for broke” and is almost “unendurably savage.”


The House of Blue Leaves takes its historical significance from Guare’s original application of style, technique, tone, subject matter, and themes. The modern drama was born out of the nineteenth century’s revolt against the popular and commercially successful melodrama. In reaction to melodrama’s presentation of a false picture of real life, the thrust of the nineteenth century theater was toward greater and greater realism. With the advent of Henrik Ibsen’s Ibsen, Henrik Theater;naturalism naturalistic period, such an approach became the established style for plays attempting to deal in a serious way with the conflicts of people, society, and life. “Naturalism” may be defined as a style that creates a stage-picture that looks exactly like life itself: The room depicted on the stage looks like a room in a real house, the only difference being that one wall has been removed in order for the audience to observe the action. Moreover, nothing in the action of the play can happen that would remind the audience that it is not, in fact, watching real life. The development of naturalistic techniques onstage gained support from such advocates as Konstantin Stanislavsky, John Galsworthy, and George Bernard Shaw, and naturalism became the conventional style of drama for the twentieth century.

Soon after the advent of naturalism, the limitations of the style became apparent, and experimenters began to search for and explore other styles. August Strindberg Strindberg, August was one of the earliest dramatists to break with naturalism, and in the early twentieth century he wrote a sequence of plays in which he attempted to create the world of the dreamer on the stage. Other experimenters followed. Alfred Jarry in France (who actually preceded Strindberg), the expressionists in Germany, Luigi Pirandello in Italy, the Futurists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists all contributed to the exploration of nonrealistic forms and sought to push the twentieth century stage to its limits.

Two of the most influential figures on modern drama were Bertolt Brecht Brecht, Bertolt and Samuel Beckett. Beckett, Samuel Brecht developed the idea of epic theater, in which he sought to alienate the audience so that it would not fall under any theatrical illusion and would remain in control of its intellectual and critical faculties. Writing primarily from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, Brecht attempted to jar his audiences to their senses by using frequent scene changes, minimalistic sets, music, songs, dance, and nonnaturalistic devices. Samuel Beckett created a type of drama in the 1950’s that came to be known as absurdism. Beckett too used abstract and minimal settings, nonrealistic situations and dialogue, and plotless structures, all infused with a seeming sense of despair. By the 1960’s, however, the heavily propagandistic plays of Brecht had lost much of their appeal, and absurdism, with its depressing message, had somewhat run its course.

While Guare invented neither naturalism nor nonrepresentational theater, his use of both techniques within the same play in The House of Blue Leaves in 1971 offered a rather refreshing and original stage style that confused some and satisfied others. On the surface, the play has something of the appearance of being realistic, although it seems at times to be a reality that is exaggerated and grotesquely distorted. There is nothing in the action of the play that could not happen in real life. At the same time, characters do nonnaturalistic deeds, such as speaking directly to the audience, which make the audience aware that it is in a theater and watching a play. It is the juxtaposition of styles that makes Guare’s work seem so original. Juxtaposition, in point of fact, is one of the key elements that lends novelty to Guare’s work. The audience is often kept off balance by the play’s mixture of comedy and tragedy, humor and pathos, and hope and despair.

The tone of Guare’s play is characterized by contrast. On the one hand, there resides within the play an element of hope and bright optimism. For example, the characters are charged with excitement over the pope’s visit and the prospect of getting a glimpse of him and receiving his blessing. Moreover, Artie is full of hope and confidence as he makes plans to escape with his mistress to the West Coast in order to start a new life, get into show business, and become wealthy. All seems well, and the future unlimited. On the other hand, the pope’s visit turns out to be a massive disappointment. The nuns who have traveled far to see him in person cannot see him because the crowds are too thick, and they end up watching him on Artie’s black-and-white television when they could have, as one nun says, stayed home, watched him in color, and drunk imported beer.

One particularly powerful tableau occurs when Artie is seen hugging his television set in order to receive the pope’s blessing. What is worse, all the nuns but one are killed by Ronnie’s bomb intended for the pope. In addition, Artie’s enthusiasm for escaping with his mistress is tempered by the appearance of his deranged wife and, at the end, by the betrayal of his friend Billy, who steals Artie’s mistress away from him. It is the juxtaposition of desire and perversion that lends the play its unusual tone.

The historical event out of which Guare’s play emerges is the Vietnam War, and while the play does not deal directly with the war itself, aside from several references to it, the play does concern itself indirectly with issues related to the era. Violence, exploitation, manipulation, materialism, false dreams, and a sense of despair and alienation speak to the heart of the period in which it was written. Theater;drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friend, Tad. “The Guare Facts.” Vogue, March, 1992, 326-329. Account of a visit with Guare in his own apartment reveals various aspects of his writing, plays, personal habits, and attributes, mixing in observations from Guare’s wife, friends, and director Peter Hall. Attempts to give insight into the person behind the plays, especially the connection between the bizarre in Guare’s own life and its presence in his plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guare, John. “John Guare: Playwright.” Esquire, September, 1988, 122-125. Brief statement by Guare regarding his basic views on art and playwriting. He notes that the artist’s soul desires to “give people a new pair of eyes with which to look at the world.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Three Exposures: Plays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. Contains the text of The House of Blue Leaves. Includes a foreword by Louis Malle in which he discusses Guare’s work and their relationship as well as an invaluable introduction by the playwright himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hewes, Henry. “The Playwright as Voyager.” Saturday Review/World, November 20, 1973, 48. Guare comments on various aspects of his writing, his work habits, working in the theater, and his work itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kroll, Jack. “Laugh When It Hurts.” Newsweek, May 14, 1979, 85-86. After reviewing Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect (pr. 1979), Kroll gives a profile of Guare’s background, his work, and his opinions on contemporary theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Lloyd. “A New American Master.” The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1984, 120-124. Discusses much of Guare’s work in general, including The House of Blue Leaves. Places Guare in relation to other major American playwrights, emphasizing Guare’s love of language, his free structures, and his sense of American culture, history, and art.

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