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Dreamwrighting: The Oneiric in the Plays of Adrienne Kennedy and Eugène Ionesco
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Although Adrienne Kennedy does not cite Eugène Ionesco as an inspiration, one is struck by the common thread of dreamwork in the nonrealistic, nonlinear dramaturgy of both playwrights.1 Though these two authors could not be more different culturally or stylistically, the oneiric, in terms of dream-like images, action, and characterization, is a common element of both writers’ work. If a historical linkage need be sought to somehow bridge the divide between these two authors, it should be noted that Kennedy began her career as an early student of Edward Albee’s playwriting workshop at the Circle in the Square and Albee was the coproducer of her first production of Funnyhouse of a Negro. Albee was himself profoundly affected by Ionesco’s work, and shares with Ionesco a method of dreamwrighting, a chance-oneiric style, that subverts traditional linear dramatic structure—something that can be seen in many of his less naturalistic plays such as The American Dream or more recently, Me, Myself, and I.2

It is not so far a leap to make that Albee naturally influenced Kennedy’s early work as a playwright, and perhaps it is here where one might find a connection between Ionesco and Kennedy’s writing. However, this is of less interest to me as a playwright and teacher of playwriting than the fact that both authors specifically cite the use of their dreams as a means to developing a dramaturgical framework for their plays. Given the paucity of published pedagogy on nonrealistic, nonlinear playwriting technique it is instructive to look closely at the work of these unusual playwrights and compare their oneiric strategies. Both authors seem to “teach” a new kind of playwriting technique with their plays by using their dreams to subvert psychological realism and traditional dramatic structure. Both writers have had enormous influence on contemporary writers. Ionesco’s absurdist influence can be seen perhaps in the works of the language-writers like Mac Wellman, Len Jenkins, and Jeffrey Jones, and also in the dark comedies of John Guare, Christopher Durang, and Nicky Silver. Kennedy’s influence on black women playwrights is equally profound, particularly on writers who have a nonlinear style like Ntozake Shange, Lydia Diamond, and Suzan Lori-Parks.

Though Kennedy and Ionesco explore dreamwrighting in unique ways, the early dramatic technique of Kennedy, the African-American playwright whose intensely autobiographical tragic-absurdist drama flowered in the 1960s, bears an uncanny similarity in her use of dream structure as a subversion of traditional playwriting technique with the late dramaturgy of Ionesco, the much older Franco-Romanian, crypto-Jewish, existentialist metafarceur, writing his last seriocomic mystery plays in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a sense, Kennedy seems to begin where Ionesco leaves off—in a streamed, transformative montage of dramatic action, characters, and setting. And while both writers diverge into writing very different types of plays, dreams are both a source of inspiration and a means of structure in the early plays of Kennedy (Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers will be discussed here) and in Ionesco’s two last plays, The Man With Bags and Journeys Among The Dead (Themes and Variations). Dreams are a common element bridging the cultural divide between their writing.

In the plays explored in this essay, both playwrights seemed to eschew an overt political focus in favor of a subliminal one, and this makes sense in that dreams seem to do the same thing—the politics of our lives are revealed in the anxieties, inconsistencies, violence, and horror that lay within the dream journey. Specifically, identity politics, such as those that may be found in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, and a Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White are described by Elin Diamond as the “mimesis of syncopation,” in that Kennedy provides a subjective experience of culture that unmasks the unspoken racism inherent in American culture.3 Even specific objects and identities within her plays contribute to this dream-like syncopated mimesis, “including swarming ravens, floating skulls, ebony masks, a statue of Queen Victoria . . . ” and “various cultural icons, what Kennedy calls “selves”: The Duchess of Hapsburg, Patrice Lamumba, a hunchback...

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