Ten Questions with Adrienne Kennedy
Adrienne Kennedy
Illustration of Adrienne Kennedy by Allen Todd Yeager (www.yeagermuseum.com)

What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child? In the fourth grade, I had a music teacher named Mrs. Filetti. She had dark curly hair and always wore dark black or brown crepe dresses. She told me she wanted me to try out for the Christmas play. I said I didn’t want to try out. She said, “We will go to the auditorium and I will see if your voice can carry to the back of the auditorium, then I want you to be Mary in the Christmas play.” I was puzzled as to why she wanted me. When I look back, I think it was because I was tiny very pale and spoke softly. I was very fearful kid. In the auditorium, Mrs Filetti asked me to speak from the stage. I spoke. She said, much to my surprise, “That was good, Adrienne. You will be Mary and Lawrence Axelrod will be Joseph. We will make you a costume.” I only remember the scene from the play I had a white sheet and Lawrence and I were standing at the edge of the stage looking down at the baby Jesus and staring at each other. After the play I got to wear the sheet for the rest of the day and many kids came up to me and said I looked beautiful. I sat on a bench in the hallway and so many people talked to me. I was so happy. That had never happened before.

Finally, Ms. Walker, a very stern teacher, came into [the] hall and told me the play was over and I should take off the sheet and go to my homeroom. It was a happy day. To be chosen by Mrs. Filetti over all the girls to be the Virgin Mary is something even today I ponder, and it still gives me pleasure. I was so, so thin, pale, and quiet. To be chosen gave me a special place. The kids at Lafayette Elementary school remembered that I was in the Christmas play.

Who was the person who made the biggest impact on your career? As a civilian I always have to mention my mother. She saw me as a confidant and talked to me in long emotional passages about her dreams, her disappointments, her childhood, and past and present people. On that level, I have merely imitated her in my plays. I knew it was captivating.

Her narratives held me spellbound, as did the scenes she painted; her observations about people.

Then I would leap past several teachers I had at the New School, Columbia’s general studies, and the American Theatre Wing to a workshop in January 1962. You entered the workshop with a completed play and got the chance to hear twenty minutes of it read. Then Edward Albee would critique it. It was Circle in the Square. Great actors read my work: Diana Sands, Andre Gregory, Yaphet Kotto, Fran Bennett, and Lynne Hamilton. All guided by devastatingly brilliant young Michael Kahn. I was 30 years old and had been writing forever but the reading and the critique by Edward Albee—who praised my play Funnyhouse of a Negro—had a gigantic effect on my career which lasts to this day. He praised, then produced the play, and people listened. I got messages from Molly Kazan, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins.

Edward then told Lucille Lortel about my play The Owl Answers, and Michael Kahn did the play at the beautiful Theatre De Lys. He was one of three people who wrote for my Guggenheim, and he suggested to Jerome Robbins that I work with him on an experimental workshop.

Over years he continued to praise my work and was the person who suggested to Jim Houghton that Signature do a season of my work. These gigantic things have had a lasting effect on my career because he is so admired all over the world.

If you could be anyone (past, present or fictional) who would you choose to be and why? As a kid I felt uninteresting and unattractive. Somewhere around The Little Foxes, The Letter, and Now Voyager, I became immersed in Bette Davis stories. How interesting she seemed. Sometimes she was twins; she could be cruel, and she commanded attention. In The Letter, she killed a man went on trial and was murdered. I found that exciting.

Now Voyager is far too complex to explain Charlotte Vale’s power. But I wanted to be these characters, and I wanted to be Bette Davis. All this happened before I was twelve. But what a mark she made on me. I secretly wanted to command, be beautiful at parties, be articulate, and speak my mind, my feelings as in her characters. Then she was a movie star. Even today, I think great movie stars hold power in your imagination and help you to move through distress and difficult dramas in your own life. They can give meaning to personal beauty, intelligence, and love.

Bette Davis and those films I saw before I was twelve inspired [me]. I could be more than the elementary school teacher, which I was expected to be, like my mother and all of her friends.

She made me dream.

p.s. I was named after movie star Adrienne Ames.

If you could have a love affair with anyone (past, present or fictional), who would you choose? My father was a YMCA executive, and in the 30s and 40s in Cleveland, Ohio, the YMCA adopted boys—gave them places to stay, fed them, and tried to get them to stay in school.

When I was eight, I met one of these boys at the YMCA’s summer camp. I had heard my father say his parents had been killed in an automobile accident. He had a gift for singing, comedy, and impersonations. He was eleven. Very handsome, with freckles and curly hair, and very funny. At eight, I fell in love with him and remain so. In his early teens he was sent to reform school and later even jail. My parents would never tell me why. I loved him desperately. My mother said if I met him secretly she would kill herself. I was fifteen then. I obeyed. I wish we could have had an adult love affair, marriage, and children. I will always in life and death try to find him.

Fiction loves have been important. I have had fixations as recent as the last decade, the main one being Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, [about] a man solving dilemmas during World War II. [He] seemed [like] an ideal I had of men when I was an adolescent during World War II. In Foyle’s War, Foyle’s dead wife was who I longed to be.

Yet no one can compare to Heathcliff—a childhood love, then separation, then reunited before a romantic death is a love affair I would like.

When you sit down to work, what must you have with you in the room? I can write in any kind of room and have. I have often written on trains and buses, hotel rooms, rooms on campuses. I require nothing specific in the room, as I seem to blot out my surroundings when I am writing.

An observation: [I] have written a lot on trains. Perhaps motion has often enhanced [my writing]. But [it is] not a requirement.

When you’re in despair with a piece of work, how do you maneuver out of that? Often I despair. When in despair, I will totally abandon the work. I have learned often I am on the wrong path when I am in despair and am trying to write something that I thought I should write. Often I have abandoned a work as much as a year because I was forcing story lines or images.

A couple of times when I was commissioned to write a play, I was in despair because I could not deliver the subject matter the commission required, and I had [to] relinquish the commission and not take any further money.

If you hadn’t become a dramatist and teacher, what profession would you have chosen? I would love to have been a great novelist and write long important novels like Charles Dickens. Novels that define a time [with] hundreds of characters and hundreds of stories.

As a writer, what have you not done that you’ve always wanted to do? The 50s I saw several Broadway musicals. My husband was in grad school and we always sat in the cheapest seats. My favorites were Guys and Dolls, Allegro, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game.

Those theatres in the Broadway district, the shape of the streets, the lights, the crowd thrilled me. I read so many stories of those people and where they went. I will never feel like a real theatre person because I have not written [something like] The Pajama Game. To me in my twenties, those musicals, those theatres were ‘theatre.’ The theatre I had seen in movies, the theatre I had read about all my life.

The Broadway musical.

What haven’t I done?

I haven’t written Guys and Dolls.

Which of all your works is your favorite, and why? The play I tried to write and abandoned the most is A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White. I finished it circa 1976. For at least a decade I struggled to get my relationship to the movies on the stage. The kid from Cleveland owes so much to the movies [of the 1930s]. We went every Saturday; from the time I was a little girl, I had paragraphs on my favorite movie star [and] movie star scrapbooks. My neighborhood friends—Italian, Black, Greek—put on scenes from movies in [the] backyard. For years I never could get beyond these paragraphs, similar to the paragraphs in People Who Led To My Plays. I started scores of plays about the movies. Finally, I tried marrying scenes from movies to scenes from my life. For me [it was] my most successful attempt, after all those years. Joe Chaikin’s production of the play at the Public Theater is perhaps my favorite production of all my plays. Bette Davis on the ship, Brando in Zapata, and Shelley Winters on the lake…I think I finally captured the relationship of the anguish of my parents’ quarrels, my brother’s accident, my anguish at the change in my marriage after my husband returned from Korea…I finally captured how I clung to movie images to save me, perhaps even from suicide.

[I] will never be sure that I succeeded, but I know those years of struggling with that desire to write about film yielded something. The play reached the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I will always be in great wonder at the kids on my street in Cleveland, Ohio in the backyard trying to put on our movie version of Mrs. Miniver. I only wanted to capture that wonder.

What are you working on next? I have notes and many notebooks of thoughts. But nothing has taken shape. I do not know where these notebooks are taking me.


 plays are published by Samuel French. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a recipient of the Anisfield Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.