Produced at The Public Theatre
A Study Guide
by Martin Andrucki
Charles A. Dana Professor of Theater, Bates College
The Public Theatre and Professor Martin Andrucki
own all rights to this Study Guide.
I. THE AUTHOR
Born in 1970, David Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston, the son of a factory worker and a fruit peddler. He studied playwriting at the Julliard School in New York with Christopher Durang. The influence of the latter, black comedian and chronicler of domestic dysfunction and moral deformity, is apparent in Lindsay-Abaire’s writing, especially in Fuddy Meers with its gothic family of cripples, arsonists, drug-abusers, and criminals.
Asked to identify the “original impulse” that prompted this play about an amnesiac woman named Claire who must re-learn every day the basic facts of her life, the playwright recalls that he,
had seen a news report on a book about various neurological disorders, and one of the stories featured this specific form of amnesia where everything is erased when you fall asleep. I filed the idea away thinking it might be something to use in a play.The most haunting questions for the dramatist concerned the beginning and ending of each day of such a person’s life: “What is it like to wake up and not recognize the bed you're in, the clothes you're wearing, the people around you? . . . . And what is it like at the end of the day for this family? After living a full day with her, making strides and filling in those blank spaces, what is it like when she starts yawning? What is it like to lose her all over again? How does it feel knowing tomorrow may be exactly the same, and despite everything that's occurred, nothing has changed?"
He also acknowledges that Claire’s amnesia is a “convenient device to get out exposition. The audience is right in Claire's head, being told all sorts of tidbits. Like her, they also have no idea who anyone is, what information is pertinent, or whom to believe.”
Lindsay-Abaire acknowledges a Mulligan-stew of influences on his work: “John Guare, Tina Howe, Joe Orton, Sam Shepard, Christopher Durang, Edward Albee, Feydeau, Ionesco, Chekhov, Kaufman and Hart. Also 19th-century novelists, namely Dstoevsky and Tolstoy (the Russians), and Dickens. 1930's screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century or anything by Preston Sturges. Frank Capra. The Marx Brothers. Abbott & Costello. And even less erudite influences like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and Monty Python.”
This crazy-quilt of sources, ranging from the tragic to the farcical, and from high-brow literature to low-brow T.V., suggests the kind of emotional roller-coaster the playwright creates in his work, careening from the serious to the ludicrous and back again in a dizzying whirlwind of dramatic energy.
Fuddy Meers premiered in New York in 1999. His other works for the stage include The Devil Inside and The Wonder of the World.
II. THE SETTING
The action of the play takes place in several locations: in the bedroom of Claire, the main character; in an automobile with Claire and Limping Man; in another automobile belonging to Richard, who calls himself Claire’s husband; and in the kitchen and basement of Claire’s mother, Gertie. Events move fluidly from one place to another, which means that each location can only be selectively evoked by a few significant props or pieces of furniture.
More important than the fluidity of the scene changes and the minimalism of each location, however, is the psychological setting of Fuddy Meers. According to Lindsay-Abaire, the “audience should experience the play through Claire’s eyes as much as possible.” But because Claire suffers from acute amnesia, large sections of her life are blank. Thus, says the playwright, “the world that the designers create should be a world of incomplete pictures and distorted realities.”
Because Claire’s amnesia gradually lifts as the play proceeds, the playwright suggests that “Claire’s vision of her world becomes clearer. . . . For example, each time we revisit Gertie’s kitchen, maybe there’s a new piece of furniture, or there’s a wall where there wasn’t one before. But ultimately this is a world of mirrors and memories.”
“Mirrors and memories” are important motifs in the symbolic economy of the play. Gertie is constantly hauling out cartons full of old photos, snapshots that capture the family memories Claire has lost, while Claire repeatedly returns to a barely-remembered fragment of her past, a visit to the funhouse with its distorting and disturbing mirrors. In fact, the author tells us, “Claire’s world is like a funhouse, where anything can happen. A floor can drop. A room can suddenly be filled with noise. Something terrifying can suddenly pop out of the darkness. Giddiness can turn into horror at the turn of a corner.” With this in mind, he suggests that the visual world of the play might contain elements that are “a bit oversized or askew,” thereby suggesting the disorienting experience of the carnival. Above all, Lindsay-Abaire tells us, “Claire lives in an unsettling world where mad fun and genuine danger are wrapped around each other. The design should help bring this world to life, and include the audience on the ride.”
III. THE PLOT
As the play opens, Claire, a woman of 40, is awakening to another day of confusion. A victim of “psychogenic amnesia,” she must constantly relearn the most basic facts of her life: her own name, her husband’s name, whether she likes fruit juice and hates puzzles, or vice-versa. Richard, who identifies himself as her husband, attends solicitously to her needs, every morning explaining anew her psychological handicap, re-introducing her son, seventeen-year-old Kenny, and reminding her of her various likes and dislikes.
On the morning the play begins, a jarring new element appears: during a moment when Richard is in the shower and Claire is alone in her room, a grotesque figure in a ski mask pops out from under her bed. Walking with a limp, speaking with a lisp, and wearing a manacle on one wrist, the intruder identifies himself as Claire’s brother, Zachary—or as he says it, “Thacary.” He insists that she leave with him at once because, “That man in the shower ith going to kill you.” Lacking any memories that would help her evaluate Zachary’s dire warning or resist his urgent demands, Claire lets herself be taken away by the intruder, thus plunging from one void into another, both equally strange to her.
We next see Claire and “Limping Man”—as the script calls him—in the latter’s car, his ski mask removed and the full extent of his physical deformities revealed. In addition to his lisp and limp, he is afflicted by a grotesquely misshapen, and deaf, right ear—“a twisted mass of burnt scar tissue”— and by blindness in his right eye. When Claire presses him to explain how he came to suffer these miseries, he refuses to divulge the information, insisting that, “Thum things are better left forgotten. . . . Your memory problem and the thtory of my physical infirmiteeth are two things I can’t talk about.”
All he can tell her, it seems, is that they are headed to the house of her mother, Gertie, a recent stroke victim “who hath trouble forming thententheth properly.” To which a baffled Claire can only respond, “We’re quite a family, it seems.”
Scene 3 takes us to Gertie’s kitchen where we encounter further fragments of Claire’s past—she remembers her father and his dogs, for example—and yet another grotesque character, Limping Man’s (non-sexual) partner, Millet. Millet first appears not in his own person, but through the medium of his manacled hand puppet, Hinky Binky, an invention who seems far more intelligent than his maker, and who utters Millet’s repressed or forbidden thoughts. As the scene progresses, we learn that Limping Man suffers from bacon phobia, that Millet’s mother was a free-basing cocaine addict, and that he was sodomized in a house much like Gertie’s. As the scene ends, Gertie, in her stroke-impaired speech, talks frantically into the telephone, delivering an urgent message that no one can understand: “Fee cape . . . . Ee brogue adder summer.” Limping Man takes the phone away from her and warns her to keep silent: “You mention anything and I’ll kill you. . . . I’ll cut off your . . . head and bury you.”
Next we see Richard and Kenny in their car, pursuing the abducted Claire, only to be stopped by Heidi, who introduces herself as a state trooper. As Heidi is about to arrest the two for speeding and pot smoking, Richard—dreading the exposure of some dark deed from his past—disarms the Heidi and takes her captive.
Meanwhile, back at Gertie’s, we learn that Millet met Limping Man while in prison for stealing a ring. We also hear, from Millet’s free-talking puppet, that Claire has been habitually abused by her husband, who hit her in the head with an Empire State Building paperweight, poured cereal over her, and knocked her unconscious by slamming her head against the oven door. Ever more about those two subjects Limping Man had earlier refused to talk about—his infirmities and Claire’s past—emerges from the mouths of Hinky-Binky and stroke-addled Gertie, most sensationally the news that Claire’s brother, Zack, died as a boy when he fell out of a tree. Who, then, is Limping Man? As we ponder this question, Richard, Heidi, and Kenny arrive and plunge the stage into chaos. Gertie stabs Limping Man, Kenny and Heidi struggle over possession of her pistol, Richard chases a terrified Claire around the room, and shrieks of pain, rage, and fear fill the air. Finally, as the gun discharges, Claire wails “Stop it” at the top of her lungs, and the first act comes to a chaotic end.
Act Two begins with the terminal gunshot of Act One. The bullet has wounded Kenny in the arm, and Heidi is now in possession of the pistol. In a rush of exposition, we learn that Heidi is no state trooper, but Limping Man’s girlfriend, a prison worker who helped him and Millet escape; that Philip, Heidi, and Millet are planning to flee to Canada, but that Philip first wanted to say goodbye to Claire; that Richard, who actually committed the crime for which Millet was imprisoned, is Claire’s second husband; and that Limping Man is in fact Philip, Kenny’s father and Claire’s first husband—the wife-abusing head-basher and arsonist who burned their house down.
And then, most momentous of all disclosures, the cause of Claire’s amnesia is finally unveiled. The torrent of revelations that has been pouring down on her at last prompts Claire to remember the fateful day when she forgot everything. On that day, as a treat for Kenny’s fifteenth birthday, Claire was preparing to take her son to the Piermont Fair, where she and her father used to visit the fun house to look at the crazy mirrors. But just as they were leaving the house Philip, in his habitually overbearing way, demanded a hot breakfast of bacon and eggs. Whereupon Kenny, angry adolescent, asked his father why he couldn’t make his own breakfast. At this Philip exploded, punched his son, and smashed up the kitchen. Then, his tantrum ended, he turned to Claire, who was dutifully frying up his bacon, told her he was no longer hungry, and went back to bed. At this point Claire snapped. She picked up the pan full of hot grease, went to the bedroom, and poured it in Philip’s ear. Hence his deformity, his deafness, his blindness, and his fear of bacon. Having finally taken her revenge on Philip, she proceeded to the fair with Kenny where, in front of the fun-house mirrors, she literally lost her mind. Unable to bear any more of the crazy-mirror distortions of her own life, she fainted, awaking without a trace of memory.
We also learn that virtually every character in the play has been conspiring for various reasons to keep this information from her, some to protect her from reliving the trauma, others to hide their evil deeds. But now that the cat is out of the bag and she knows the full circumstances of her past, Claire is free to make an informed choice about her future. She unsurprisingly rejects Philip’s plea to accompany him to Canada. Instead she grasps the extent of Richard’s decency and devotion, decides to turn Philip and Heidi over to the police, and embraces life with her son and second husband. As the play ends, we see her, Richard, and Kenny in their car on the way home. Richard, feeling hopeful, speculates that, “Maybe tomorrow will be the second day of our marriage. And you’ll say something like, ‘Remember that puppet that crazy guy had?’ And I’ll say, ‘yeah.’” Kenny joins in this moment of optimism, saying, “Maybe you’ll remember everything. You think, maybe, mom?” But Claire has fallen asleep, leaving us and her family not knowing whether she will wake up again to memory or forgetfulness.
IV. THE CHARACTERS
In drama, as in life, characters define themselves through their objectives and actions—what they want, and what they do to get it. In Fuddy Meers these objectives cluster around the opposing poles of search and concealment, as some characters try to penetrate the veil of amnesia, while others strive to keep it intact and opaque.
Claire. The English word “character” comes from a Greek word meaning “sharp stick,” an implement used to etch an identifying mark on the hide of an animal—something like a cattle brand. This reminds us that to be a “character” is to be readily recognizable. And one acquires recognizability by remembering to be distinctly oneself from day to day. “My friend is a diehard Red Sox fan,” I might say. But my friend can only be a diehard Red Sox fan because he roots for the team this year while remembering having rooted for them last year, and the year before that, and every year back through 1986 and beyond. And I remember it too, which is how I know him as a diehard.
Claire has no such memories, a problematic condition for a character in a drama. Every day she must relearn the fundamentals of her life: the names of the people she lives with, what kind of clothing she prefers, and even whether she likes orange juice. And every day, having grasped a few facts about herself, she sleeps and forgets it all, obliterating whatever character she might have been able to build. And yet, by the end of the play, we do manage to form an image in our minds of Claire as a complete person, and not just a physical being; we gain a sense of her character. How does this happen?
Essentially, the playwright creates Claire by showing her striving to find the past and then, finally, remembering. In her struggle to recall, she reveals herself as a person of determination and, given the frightful memories she must confront, even bravery. By the end of the day she has faced up to some terrifying demons, one of them her first husband, the other her own violent self, and managed to exorcise them. This is the kind of action that defines dramatic characters, allowing us know who is up there on stage.
Limping Man/Philip. Unlike Claire, this character remembers only too vividly the horrors of his past. And it is these guilty memories—of abusing his wife and son, of burning down his house—that prompt what he considers to be his moral regeneration. He assures Claire that during his years in prison, “I worked hard. . . . And rehabilitated myself. . . . I read the Bible.” And he is convinced that the bacon fat that Claire poured on his ear “burned the bad part out of me. The bad bit ith a dead bulb. Only the good parth twinkle now.”
But the playwright has gone out of his way to brand Philip physically as well as morally. The deformed ear, the blind eye, the limp, the lisp—these are the stigmata of his evil nature, of an unreformed self that leaps into view when, Claire having refused to travel with him to Canada, he takes her hand “bends it back suddenly,” and calls her a filthy name. Try as he might, Philip cannot expunge the indelible mark of his character.
Gertie. With her advanced age and stroke-addled speech, Gertie seems initially too handicapped to be of much consequence in resisting the scheming grotesques that surround her. And yet she manages to take matters into her own hands as vigorously as anybody else on stage, whacking Millet over the head with her shovel, and stabbing Philip in the back with her knife. In these violent outbursts, we see the boiling over of a long simmering pot of rage, the explosion of a frustrated soul that has lost the power of coherent speech after a lifetime of timid silence. As she says while looking at snapshots of her daughter’s wedding to a man she despised, “I coo tah den. Bach den evabiddy onion stammy. I wizz-eye hat . . . (Tries very hard to say this.) Iiii wiissh … I had … sehd sssummttiiinnn weeeehnn . . . I c-could.” Or, in translation, “I could talk then, Back then everybody understood me. I wish I had said something when I could.” Now, she expresses herself most powerfully in the language of enraged violence.
Richard. This character genuinely is what Philip only pretends to be: a reformed man. As he says toward the end of the play, “You know what I wish? I wish I never did drugs, or robbed houses, or resisted arrest, but I did all those things. And the best I can do is make up for it.” And make up he seems to have done. His tenderness and concern for Claire are extraordinary. He daily oversees her struggle to remember, instructing her in her own identity, literally writing the book of her life. When insulted by his hostile adolescent stepson, he responds with patience and tolerance; when Claire is abducted, he immediately pursues; and when confronted with danger, he defents to his wife and family.
Millet. A man of split personality, a self partially embodied in his own person, and partially in the hand puppet he has created to express what he cannot say in his own voice. Millet has been misperceived throughout his life. He is the holy criminal, the man falsely accused, the guilty innocent whose frightening appearance and behavior misrepresent an inner goodness. This is the duality embodied in Millet and Binky.
Kenny. He has grown up watching Philip abusing Claire;
he came of age on the day his mother lost her mind; he must live daily
with a well-meaning step-father and a mother who does not know him.
Of course, every adolescent feels like a stranger to his parents, and vice-versa. Thus, in some ways, Kenny is typical of his age. But he represents a case of teen-age estrangement in the extreme. As we learn about the terrible circumstances that have made him what he is, we move from irritation at his insolence to a recognition of his love for Claire and his deep desire for a normal life.
The title of the play, Fuddy Meers, is Gertie’s stroke-impaired way of saying “funny mirrors,” those fun-house attractions that so fascinate Claire. Just as Gertie distorts her words, those mirrors distort the reflections of the people who stand before them. Or perhaps the images in the mirrors are not a distortion but a revelation. When, having poured the scalding fat into her husband’s ear, Claire stares into the mirror at a grotesque image of herself, she perhaps realizes she is seeing the deformity of soul that has developed during her miserable life with Philip, an emotional sickness that results in her bizarre act of violence.
Lindsay-Abaire has described the play as, “a parable about a woman who wants to forget her life, about people trying to forget who they are but needing to remember what they've done.” In other words the play is a kind of dance between confrontation and denial, both states of mind necessary for emotional survival. To dwell obsessively on past evil or to obliterate it from memory are only two ways of becoming its slave. To be free is to remember the past without being in bondage to it.
“It's basically a whodunit,” says the author, “nobody's been killed, but Claire is a detective following the clues to putting her life together. By the end, she knows who did what to whom.” At this point we should recall that the first great “whodunit” of our dramatic tradition is Oedipus Rex, a play in which the protagonist must also dig into the past to find out who he really is. For Oedipus, the discovery is catastrophic. For Claire we really don’t know the long-term consequences. If she awakes to recall what she did to Philip and he to her, will it only drive her back to the void? Or will it be a healing remembrance? The answer is unclear.
This ambivalence or ambiguity is reflected in the play’s unstable emotional tone, its simultaneous flirting with tragedy and farce. As the playwright recalls,
After sitting through hundreds of auditions for the New York production, I realized the tone of the play was a lot harder to grasp than I imagined. Some folks came in thinking, ‘Oh this is a wacky comedy, I know how to do this.’ And the result would be a broad cartoon. Other folks thought the play was an angst-ridden drama, and performed as if they were auditioning for Medea. The play rides the line between two very different worlds, and some people have trouble getting that, that the play can live in both worlds at the same time. Yes, it's silly and farcical, but it's also psychologically grounded and real, and navigating those sharp turns in the script may prove treacherous for some. Gild the lily a tiny bit and what was funny becomes stupid, what was poignant becomes melodramatic.VI. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Have you ever forgotten an important person or event in your life? Do you know anyone who has?
2. Why are memories important?
3. Have you ever intentionally tried to forget something? If so, why? Did it work?
4. Why does Limping Man want Claire to come away with him?
5. Why is Kenny so rude and angry?
6. Why is the play named Fuddy Meers? What do the words mean literally? What themes or ideas to they suggest?
7. Why does Millet need Hinky-Binky?
8. Do you think Claire was justified in injuring Philip? If so, why? If not, why not?
9. What does Heidi see in Philip?
10. Do you think Claire will remember the past the next time she wakes
up? If so, why? If not, why not?