Welcome back to the blog. This week we’re featuring The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds – a word salad title if there ever was one.
Here is a plot synopsis: It focuses on three members of the Hunsdorfer family: mother Beatrice and her daughters Tillie and Ruth. The Hunsdorfers live in what used to be Beatrice’s father’s vegetable shop, but the shop has been closed for years. Beatrice married young, a disastrous failed marriage that ended in divorce (later, her husband died by heart attack). Now the Hunsdorfers are scraping by in poverty, with apparently their only source of income being the $50 a week that Beatrice gets for boarding Nanny, a senile old woman. Beatrice is angry and bitter about her fate, hating the whole world, projecting that hate out onto her daughters. Ruth has epilepsy, and at some point in the past had a mental breakdown—a condition that runs in the family, apparently, given her mother’s school nickname of “Betty the Loon”. Younger sister Tillie is a bright high-school student with a talent for science, but her vicious mother, hating everyone who’s better off in life than she is, seeks to crush Tillie’s success.
The play is a very good one, but also very depressing. It has a small cast, all female, with a wide age range. The film version is on Youtube.
The play did quite well. It premiered at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1964 before premiering Off-Broadway in 1970, where it ran for 819 performances.
It also won all the Obies:
It also won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The most prominent actors in the play were probably Swoosie Kurtz (as Janice and as a replacement Tillie) and Joan Blondell (as a replacement Beatrice). Kurtz would go on to a stellar career on stage, in film and on TV. Blondell had already been super mega famous since the 1930s.
You can read the whole play here.
The play has been revived on Off-Broadway since and is commonly produced around the country. These are stills from the original Off-Broadway run.
Tillie: Today I saw it.
Towards the beginning of the play, Tillie is curious after having observed atoms exploding.
Ruth: She was just like you…
This is when Ruth is trying to do Tillie’s hair.
Janice: I got the cat from the A.S.P.C.A…
Tillie’s sorta rival is Janice, who basically has a cameo talking about a dead cat she used for her experiment…
Janice Vickery-same age as Tillie, competes against Tillie in the school science fair.
The Past: I got the cat from the A.S.P.C.A. immediately after it had been killed by a high-altitude pressure system. That explains why some of the rib bones are missing, because that method sucks the air out of the animal’s lungs and ruptures all the cavities. They say it prevents cruelty to animals but I think it’s horrible. (she laughs) Then I boiled the cat in a sodium hydroxide solution until most of the skin pulled right off, but I had to scrape some of the grizzle off the joints with a knife. You have no idea how difficult it is to get right down to the bones. (gong sounds)
I have to go on to The Present, now—but I did want to tell you how long it took me to put the thing together. I mean, as it is now, it’s extremely useful for the students of anatomy, even with the missing rib bones, and it can be used to show basic anatomical aspects of many, many animals that are in the family as felines. I suppose that’s about the only present uses I can think for it, but it is nice to remember as an accomplishment, and it look good on college applications to show you did something else in school besides dating. (she laughs and gong sounds again)
The Future: the only future plans I have for Tabby—my little brother asked the A.S.P.C.A. what its name was when we went to pick it up and they said it was called Tabby, but I think they were kidding him—(she laughs again) I mean as far as future plans, I’m going to donate it to the science department, of course, and next year, if there’s another Science Fair perhaps I’ll do the same thing with a dog. (third gong) Thank you very much for your attention, and I hope I win!
Tillie: He told me to look at my hand…
Tillie really likes her science teacher (pretty much the only person in the world who cares about her). This seems to be the most common monologue.
Tillie: The seeds were exposed..
Tillie explains the experiment. Now, if you’re really into this play, Tillie is also talking about the abuse her and her sister receive from Beatrice. This is a powerful monologue when you know the context.
Beatrice: Will somebody get that…
The very next line launches into Beatrice’s monomania monologue.
Ruth: Can you believe it?
So this is Ruth getting excited about her sister’s success. Maybe.
Beatrice: Oh, I’ll tell you why…
Beatrice, like many abusive parents, has a weird way of “helping” her children. Here, she’s concerned about gamma rays and her daughter – yet calls like this are also an attempt to smother Tillie’s science passion by alienating the teacher.
Tillie: My experiment has shown…
The final monologue is also the final scene in the play. It offers Tillie’s hope, despite all her obstacles.
And thus we reach the end of our play. But we have trailers!!!
Here’s a Canadian high school production.
Romanian university theatre version.
And here are some stills from a French-language Montréal production in the early 70s. You can read that here.