Orpheus Ascending: Music,race, and Gender in Adrienne Kennedy's 'She Talks to Beethoven.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)

By Kolin, Philip C. | African American Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Orpheus Ascending: Music,race, and Gender in Adrienne Kennedy's 'She Talks to Beethoven.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)


Kolin, Philip C., African American Review


A drienne Kennedy's recent play She Talks to Beethoven first appeared in Antaeus in the spring of 1991 and was subsequently included as the first of the Alexander Plays published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1992. Alisa Solomon's observation in the foreword to the Alexander Plays that "Kennedy's plays scare off theatre producers" (xiv) is unfortunately true regarding She Talks. First staged in an unnoticed production by River Arts in Woodstock in 1989, the play received a Kennedydirected student reading at Harvard University in 1989 (Kolin, Kennedy interview)--and thus ends She Talks' brief production history. Sorry to say, the play was not performed at the Kennedy Festival at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in March 1992, despite the fact that the longest of the Alexander plays--the Ohio State Murders--received an exemplary production directed by Gerald Freedman (Kolin, "Adrienne" 85). In spite of its sparse stage history to date--one hopes for many spirited productions--She Talks to Beethoven is a central play in the Kennedy canon, since it marks a new direction, I believe, for the playwright and her work. She Talks has all the earmarks of earlier Kennedy plays, but this work offers healing consolation instead of the nightmarish world of fragmentation that has characterized Kennedy's surreal theatre in the past. Unique in the Kennedy canon, She Talks assures happy conjugal closure and promotes racial reconciliation.

Set in "Accra, Ghana, in 1961, soon after independence" (She Talks 4), the plot deals with the forced separation of Suzanne Alexander, an American writer, from her physician/artist husband David, whom, it is feared, has been kidnapped or driven into hiding to protect his sick wife. As in so many other Kennedy plays, historical personages appear alongside fictional ones. Beethoven talks and travels with Suzanne, Kennedy's heroine. As in other Kennedy plays, such as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) or The Owl Answers (1965), a festering wound is associated with a decaying whiteness, a horrifying fistula of miscegenation. Suzanne suffers from a wound which results in "part of her arm and shoulder" being "wrapped or bandaged in gauze" (5), and the "color" of this "surgical" wound is deathly "pale white." But the suffering of Kennedy's black heroine/protagonist in She Talks is matched, if not exceeded, by the suffering of the great white composer Beethoven, with whom she communicates throughout the play. The characteristic betrayal and suffering of Kennedy's black women characters are thus shared with a white male. Additionally, the wild hair that marks many of Kennedy's own protagonists, and perhaps reflects her concern about her own personal appearance (Kolin, LeBlanc interview 308), is transferred to the white composer-"The neglect of his person which he exhibited gave him a somewhat wild appearance. His features were strong and prominent; his eye was full of rude energy; his hair, which neither comb nor scissors seemed to have visited for years, overshaded his brow in a quantity and confusion to which only the snakes of Gorgon's head offer a parallel" (8). This description of the white composer, with its emphasis on the gory and the exaggerated, would seem more appropriate to a Kennedy black female.

The violence we have come to associate with a Kennedy play--for example, the bloody cleft in Patrice Lamumba's head in Funnyhouse of a Negro or the heinous tortures in A Rat's Mass--also occurs in She Talks, but it is in the background, not foregrounded with bloody props and graphic detail. We only hear about the violence in Beethoven's Vienna or Suzanne's Accra through reportage; it is not represented with gripping horror. For example, Suzanne reads from one of Beethoven's published diaries: "... the war with Napoleon escalated .... the Russians have retreated as far as Saint Polten. Vienna is in great danger of being swept over by marauding Chasseurs" (6), and a little later we hear an account by Barron of events in Vienna before the premiere of Fidelio: "To make matters worse, [Beethoven's] lodging was next to the city wall, and as Napoleon had ordered its destruction, blasts had just been set off under his windows" (11). …

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