A Rat's Mass is a poetic, magical-realist one-act play by Adrienne Kennedy, a 20th-century African-American playwright.[1][2] The play portrays the negative aspects of the black experience in the United States by depicting two African-American children longing for a white child.[3] The play was, like many of Kennedy's plays, not aligned with the Black Arts movement, with a focus on dislocation and femaleness rather than the ideology of blackness.[4]

Characters edit

Character Description
Brother Rat (Blake) Has a rat's head, a human body, and a tail; black.
Sister Rat (Kay) Has a rat's belly, a human head, and a tail; black.
Rosemary Wears a holy communion dress and has worms in her hair; white.
Biblical Characters March in a procession around the stage; silent until the end.


Plot summary edit

Like many of Kennedy's plays, A Rat's Mass doesn't follow a standard chronological plot. It follows Kay and Blake (Sister Rat and Brother Rat), black siblings who commit a sexual act on the playground at the insistence of Rosemary, a white child who Blake loves. The play takes place in Brother and Sister Rat's house, which they refer to as a cathedral. Sister Rat explains that her mother sent her away to Georgia when she became pregnant with her brother's baby, and the play is Brother Rat and Sister Rat's commiseration on their circumstances. The two siblings discuss Rosemary's beauty and how their house was once a religious place that now runs red with blood; Rosemary explains to the siblings that they are no longer holy. The plot must be ascertained from the non-chronological and absurdist dialogue between the characters. A 1969 New York Times review wrote, "The action is nothing but Brother and Sister Rat equating their love for each other with their former adoration for Rosemary - the white and beautiful 'descendant of the Pope and Julius Caesar and the Virgin Mary'."[6]

Allegory and symbolism edit

Symbol Representation
Rats the black experience
Rosemary the oppressive white population
Holy Family the uncaring Catholic Church
Blood life, violence, death
Holy Communion hope in a system that does not serve you; blind faith
Worms decay, death
Rosemary's white dress the corrupting influence of Catholicism
Nazis the evil in our modern life


Historical reasoning edit

The play was written in 1967, during the civil rights movement. Kennedy stated that the characters were taken from a vivid dream she had[8] when she was on a train with her seven-year-old son from Paris to Rome, where she was moving for a few months: "It was a very difficult thing for me to do because I'm not really that adventurous. I had never tried to do something like this. In a way, I just wanted to turn around and go back. I had this dream in which I was being pursued by red, bloodied rats. It was a very powerful dream, and when I woke up the train had stopped in the Alps. It was at night. I had never felt that way. It was a crucial night in my life. So, I was just haunted by that image for years, about being pursued by these big, red rats."[9]

Kennedy was inspired by the black experience in the United States, and A Rat's Mass, along with most of her work, deals with the dichotomy between blacks and whites in America.[10] The struggle for power and identity is the main focus of this play, because it was a main focuses of the African American community at that time.[11] A scholar wrote, "Her writing is in many ways an expression of her psychological frustrations. These frustrations often deal with cultural conflicts stemming from her experiences as a black woman and her international travels to Europe and Africa. She is also known for extensive use of symbols and metaphors to convey a deeper message to her audience. She draws on her own experiences as well as those of her friends and families to create rich characters and vivid story lines."[12]

Productions edit

On August 17, 1969, A Rat's Mass / Procession in Shout was performed at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.[13] This version featured music by Lamar Alford. La MaMa then took the show to London's Royal Court Theatre, where it was met with a positive response.

A Rat's Mass was produced at La MaMa multiple times during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mary Alice performed as Sister Rat in the September[14] and October 1969[15] productions and the January 1971[16] production.

In 1976, La MaMa's Annex performed the show with music by Cecil Taylor.[17] A New York Times review wrote that the "plangency of the music echoes the doom-filled sentences of the text."[18]

References edit

  1. ^ Gavin, Christy (2012-10-12). African American Women Playwrights: A Research Guide. Routledge. ISBN 9781136521478.
  2. ^ "Adrienne Kennedy". pabook2.libraries.psu.edu. Archived from the original on 2016-08-12. Retrieved 2016-04-24.
  3. ^ "A Rat's Mass Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-04-24.
  4. ^ Als, Hilton (2014-01-27). "Girl Talk". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  5. ^ Kennedy, Adrienne (1988-01-01). Adrienne Kennedy in One Act. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816616923.
  6. ^ "' A Rat's Mass' Weaves Drama of Poetic Fabric". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  7. ^ "'The Service for Joseph Axminster' And 'The Rat's Mass' | News | The Harvard Crimson". www.thecrimson.com. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  8. ^ "Adrienne Kennedy: An Inventory of Her Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". www.lib.utexas.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  9. ^ Adrienne Kennedy, "A Growth of Images (1997)" (from a recorded interview transcribed and edited by Lisa Lehman), in Annemarie Bean (ed.), A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People Movements, Routledge, 1999, p. 217.
  10. ^ "Project MUSE - The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy". Modern Drama. 27 (4). 1984. doi:10.1353/mdr.1984.0067. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  11. ^ "The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy | A.R.T. - American Repertory Theater". americanrepertorytheater.org. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  12. ^ "Adrienne Kennedy". pabook2.libraries.psu.edu. Archived from the original on 2016-08-12. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  13. ^ Overbeck, Lois More (1992-01-01). Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9781452900353.
  14. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: A Rat's Mass (1969a)". Accessed May 16, 2018.
  15. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: A Rat's Mass (1969b)". Accessed May 16, 2018.
  16. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: A Rat's Mass (1971)". Accessed May 16, 2018.
  17. ^ La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: A Rat's Mass (1976)". Accessed May 16, 2018. Archived May 17, 2018, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Theater: 'A Rat's Mass'; Death Images Dot Play About Prejudice". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-04-27.