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Parents and Children

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The ways in which parents influence their offspring have changed over the past century, as society has imposed different pressures on the average family, but the parent-child relationship remains problematic for many. Modern dramatists tend to concentrate on the more problematic and abusive parent-child relationships, possibly because these make for better drama. Oftentimes such dramatizations are semiautobiographical, written from the perspective of the now-grown son or daughter—purgations or celebrations of how the child fared growing up with such a mother or father. Equally often, in the act of writing, the “child” comes to a better understanding of the parents’ behavior. Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father are both examples of such plays.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds has as its central character an embittered mother, Beatrice, whose unrealistic dreams have been shattered and who vents her frustration on her two daughters. The title concept suggests that even in harsh conditions, beautiful flowers can grow, and we see this in one daughter’s unrelenting enthusiasm for science. Beatrice is based on Zindel’s own mother. His parents had separated when he was young, and his domineering, abusive mother raised him and his sister, moving them around as she pursued a variety of failed schemes. After college, Zindel taught high school chemistry for ten years, evidencing his interest in the sciences, and Tillie is modeled, in part, on his own juvenile experiences.

A Voyage Round My Father is a memoir of growing up in a middle-class English home in the 1930s with a dictatorial, blind father. Differing from a play like Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang For My Father (1968), in which the son is apparently haunted by his past and tells of his uncomfortable paternal relationship as an act of psychological purgation, Mortimer merely retells the past. The father-son relationship that it reveals may not have been close, but the son clearly loved and admired his father, and the play is intended as a tribute. Closely autobiographical, with few fictionalized details, this memory play presents a chronological series of episodes unified by a narrator who appears as both boy and man. Almost a personal essay in dramatic form, the events described all appear in Mortimer’s later autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage (1982). Although none of the main characters are named, being referred to as father, son, and mother, this is not to universalize them, as they are uniquely the Mortimers, but more to emphasize the familial bond that exists beneath the surface, despite the lack of emotion expended on its upkeep.

The rift between father and son in The Migrant Farmworker’s Son by Silvia Gonzalez S. is not autobiographical, but is both culturally specific and universal in its rendition. On the one hand, it is fueled by a conflict between the immigrant father’s Old Mexican values and the son’s fascination with American pop culture and desire to assimilate—a conflict affecting many immigrant families. In such families it is often the children, who attend local schools, who adopt most quickly the language, dress codes, and musical tastes of the newer culture, and who desire to leave the old behind to better fit in. This causes an inevitable clash with parents who wish to maintain their ethnic values and culture. In this play, the spirit figure, Oliverio, shows the possibility of compromise between the two, just as the ghostly Blue Peasants remind the parents of the sadness of their past, and protect the new generation from repeating it. On the other hand, the rift between the father and son is a product of the father’s own abusive upbringing, which has led him to become a physically abusive parent himself, and his deep-seated guilt over his daughter’s death, which he has suppressed. By communicating his awareness of these “weaknesses” to his son, and both admitting that they love each other, the two manage to reaffirm their relationship, and try to be more respectful of each other in future.

In The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds we enter the untidy home of Beatrice and her two daughters: science-minded Tillie, and her older sister, Ruth, who is prone to seizures. Beatrice seems like a monster, full of caustic self-pity, keeping Tillie home from school to clean the house, talking sweetly to Tillie’s teacher on the phone, then denigrating him in front of his pupil once she has hung up, and patently favoring Ruth—sharing her cigarettes and makeup with her—as she continuously belittles Tillie. To add to the chaos is “Nanny,” the latest in a series of frail, elderly people who live with them in a kind of assisted living home-care arrangement to help the family earn some income. When Tillie becomes a finalist in the school science fair, Beatrice initially refuses to let her daughter participate, but when Tillie begins to cry, her mother relents. In a turnaround, Beatrice gets excited about Tillie’s opportunity to shine, assists her, and plans to attend the presentation. However,   she and Ruth argue over which of them can go, since someone must stay home to look after Nanny. Ruth turns on her mother, telling her what people have been saying about her at school, and Beatrice stays home, missing Tillie’s victory, but wreaking revenge on everyone she can. This sends Ruth into convulsions, but Tillie refuses to be touched by her home life and continues to dream of a better future.

As a mother, Beatrice leaves a lot to be desired. Despite her moments of caring and concern, such as when she tends to Ruth after her fits or rallies around Tillie and her science project, she is predominantly self-absorbed and abusive to both. Accusing them to their faces of being stones tied around her neck, she blames them for her lack of attainment. Her occasional attempts to clean seem to make things messier, and the clutter of the home reflects her cluttered mind, full of crazy schemes to become successful. Yet these schemes, however improbable, such as opening a tearoom in their home, are what keep her from despair. We learn that she was once very much like Tillie, but lost her idealism along the way.

Referred to at the school as “Betty the Loon,” Beatrice has never received any support for her schemes. She still feels the loss of her father, now dead, and had married young to please him. But soon she was divorced with two children to raise on her own, and it is clear that her life has been a struggle, and now she feels utterly isolated. That she drinks, and takes out her frustrations on her own children is reprehensible, but she has no one else in her life. Next to Tillie, Beatrice seems more like the child, as though her mental development were arrested in her youth. She displays a childishly paranoid response to a world she sees as having rejected her and conspired to keep her down. This response is revealed in her inability to stick to a topic or plan; her mean-spirited revenge as Ruth tricks her into staying home, when she calls the school to leave an emotional message; her telling Nanny’s daughter to take her mother back immediately; and her killing the children’s rabbit. Nanny fits right in, as she is simply another social outcast, sent to live there by a daughter who does not want to have to tend her herself.

Unlike her mother, Tillie apparently has one person who believes in her, Mr. Goodman, her teacher. He has given her a rabbit to try to draw her out; encourages her in her scientific interest, helping her buy seeds for her experiment; and keeps an eye on what she is doing. This may be what makes the difference, for Tillie seems not to be affected by the teasing she gets from schoolmates or the criticisms fired at her by her mother and sister. She openly chats with both about her interests, helps out at home as much as she can, and calmly accepts most of her mother’s outrageous demands. Her escape is science, which gives her a measure of self-esteem, success, and respect, as well as a perspective that helps her transcend the petty squabbles at home. Her science presentation is inspirational next to Janice’s silly report on her cat. And her closing speech is far more persuasive than anything we have heard from Beatrice.

It is ironic that both Tillie and Beatrice are the ones accused of being crazy, as it seems that Ruth is the most unbalanced of the three. We later learn that this stems from her horror at discovering a previous lodger, Mr. Mayo, dead; she still has nightmares about this. She enjoys telling lies at school, tends to wear too much makeup (perhaps to cover up her insecurity), is self-consciously absorbed with how her family’s behavior reflects on her, and behaves meanly to both her mother and her sister, feeling that her mental fragility justifies anything she says and does. Perhaps it does, for of the three she certainly seems the most damaged, which we see most clearly in the fragile state to which she is reduced by her convulsive fits.

The English play A Voyage Round My Father begins with an elderly, blind father asking his son to describe to him his garden. The action then reverts to the past as the son recalls his relationship with his father and various scenes from their lives. We learn that a gardening accident blinded the father and the son was sent to boarding school. The son has various conversations with his father, a barrister, about education, sex, the law, and nature. We follow the son’s development from boy to man as he finds a wife and two careers: law and writing. The son tries to copy his father’s style in court, but comes off ridiculous, yet finally wins a major divorce case, despite defending the less deserving half of the couple. He is proud of this, though his wife, Elizabeth, accuses him of becoming like his father in his too casual attitude toward life. After we hear the father tell stories to his grandchildren, he and his garden both deteriorate and die, and the son is left to mourn his loss.

The father here is not a bad man, but a complex human being to whom the son has spent a lifetime trying to get close. Partly a product of a more restrictive social period when men were encouraged to hold themselves more emotionally aloof and a woman’s place and duty were still widely believed to be in the home, the father is totally dependent on his doting wife, yet treats her like a servant. Selflessly she provides for his every need and desire, with no affection or thank-you in return. His relationship with his son is no less distant, as implied by the play’s title, which only allows the narrator to voyage “round” his father, never “toward” him or “with” him, which would imply a closer connection.

It is ironically not the father’s lack of sight that separates him from his son, but his refusal to see, as implied by his utter disengagement from all other human beings. His refusal to even acknowledge his own blindness leads him to a solitary life, as he withdraws into his home and garden, only venturing outside to try a case, which he continues to do highly successfully. The father maintains his distance partly by his superior manner, but also by his refusal to become emotionally involved in anything, or with anyone. He also refuses to take life seriously and accept reality for what it is. He prefers to avoid anything he considers unpleasant, and discounts anything that gets too serious with a joke.

The father offers his son parental advice through the years on such matters as education, sex, career, the law, and marriage, but these are scarcely opportunities for connection or learning on the son’s part. When he informs his son that education is useless, sex overrated, and the law a simple game, the father may be imparting grains of truth, but they are hardly what a father usually tells his offspring. The father’s commentaries are largely contemptuous and dismissive, and it is hard for the son to gauge if his father means him to follow through on any advice so disparagingly offered. Yet the son continues to strive to emulate and please his father. At times he succeeds, at other times he fails, but neither success nor failure draw any clear reaction from his father.

Based on his father’s advice, the son ultimately goes into law, though his attempt to emulate his father in court is a disaster. He works in his father’s chambers, but receives such slight wages for his efforts that he is forced to moonlight at the Free Legal Centre to make more money. His father never intervenes to help, other than to advise him not to give up the law in favor of writing. Although the father had initially disapproved of the son’s decision to marry a divorcée with children, seeing it as economically unwise, it becomes clear that he has grown to like his daughter-in-law and pays more attention to her than to his son. We also suspect that he loves his grandchildren as he entertains them with stories, despite his inability to openly speak of love, regard, or even respect.

A clever man, the father makes an ideal barrister, in some respects: he needs no personal belief in people’s guilt or innocence to argue their case convincingly. But this ability comes at a price: it sets him apart from those who strive to believe in something, and suggests an empty inner life. Yet, through the play’s natural imagery, Mortimer seems to suggest that his father has an inner life, one that is just well contained. The garden blooms while his father lives, but deteriorates as his father’s final illness progresses. Nature is something in which his father believes, and it is something that cannot be restricted; hence his remarks about its persistence at the close of act one. Can this be read as a mute confession of the existence of his own natural love for his son? The son dutifully spends countless hours with his father, being his eyes, describing for him the garden and the scenery they pass on country walks. Together in physical proximity, they forge a bond without need of outward admission, which, on the father’s death, leaves the son feeling lonely rather than relieved, grown up, or freed.

The Migrant Farmworker’s Son begins with the death in the fields of farmworker Oliverio Santos. It swiftly moves on past a brief scene in which a father violently objects to his daughter singing to her baby brother in English, and then on to that baby, Henry, as a teenager in conflict with his father over the son’s apparent lack of interest in Mexican American culture. The mother acts as mediator between the two, encouraging her son to go to college and learn better English, while asking her husband to lighten up and be a better provider.   Henry discovers a surrogate father in the more open and balanced Oliverio, who has returned as his guardian angel. Henry never learns that Oliverio is a ghost, showing how one can keep the older generation alive by respecting them and listening to their advice. The father loses their savings on a restaurant scheme and the family threatens to fall apart, until the mother pressures her husband into revealing their guilty secret: an older sister they have never told Henry about drowned in the canal, and the death has haunted both parents ever since because both had had harsh words with her just before she died. The release of this guilt allows the family to start afresh, each more tolerant of the others, and the play ends on a hopeful note.

Henry finds American culture more compelling and seductive than Mexican culture, of which he has no direct experience. But his every attempt to ignore his culture riles his father, whose own English is poor and who insists on calling him Enrique as a way to encourage him to speak Spanish at home. Henry prefers English and is fast losing his Spanish, he listens to rap, and he demands to be treated like an American child, with respect. Yet respect is a two-way street, and it takes Oliverio to teach him this. Henry disrespectfully ignores his father, wearing headphones when his father is speaking, or provoking him by arguing back. He even sprays him with beer, admittedly an accident, but a careless one that could have been avoided. He shows no gratitude for what his parents have done for him and only complains.

Henry does not initially understand Oliverio’s lesson about the important connection between family members, cemented by what they sacrifice for one another. This ghostly father figure gradually leads Henry to understand that it is possible, and indeed preferable, to balance Mexican and American cultures, combining the best of each. Thus, a beautiful Spanish poem is rendered ugly when translated into English, yet America can offer great opportunities through a college education. The most important lesson Henry learns, however, is respect for what his parents have achieved, and the backbreaking work and sacrifices they have undergone to ensure that he gets those opportunities. He finally agrees to go to college, and offers to work in the fields for extra money to show respect for what his parents do. They refuse his offer, since they only do such work so he will not have to, but they appreciate the sentiment behind his desire to join them.

The father is not a bad man, just misguided. He has a good heart and has led a tough life, full of disappointment. Coming from an old-fashioned background, he feels his manhood and family position threatened by his inability to provide for his family, exacerbated by his wife having to work. He keeps his love of cooking secret, fearing it will make him less of a man. Likewise, he bottles up his guilt and sadness over his daughter’s death, viewing these as signs of weakness.

Eager to be successful for his family, his trusting nature continually sets him back, such as when he uses Henry’s college money to finance a restaurant and is cheated by his partner, Julio. He buys Henry a Nintendo to please him,   teaches him how to fish the old peasant way, and is rightfully upset at his son’s general lack of respect. However, he uses the cultural issue as an excuse to criticize Henry and cover up his guilt over how he treated his daughter. His first response to his children is the violent shouting we hear, directed at his daughter for singing baby Henry the English children’s song “The Itsy Bitzy Spider.” His anger, however, is less at the use of English than his response to the hurt he feels that she is growing away from him. Although he shouts at her, he also shows her affection, and his daughter evidently loved him back, despite his violent outbursts. He also loves his son, but cannot say so, and behaves harshly toward him, since that was how his father had treated him.

The father was himself beaten as a child whenever he displeased his parents, which is how he believes children should be raised. Henry tries to resist the violence, insisting that this is not how children are treated in America, but we see the danger of Henry following in his father’s footsteps as he lashes out at his girlfriend in his frustration. Under the tutelage of Oliverio, he realizes his mistake and tries to help his father by offering to be beaten, while explaining that violence is no way to win respect.

It takes the admission of guilt over losing a daughter immediately after punishing her (she had drowned while trying to wash the dress he had shouted at her for dirtying) for the father to break the cycle and realize that using violence in raising children can only destroy or alienate them. He swallows his pride and tells his son of his misery, incapacities, and sorrow over his daughter’s death, which allows his son to finally understand him and become closer to him, as indicated by their embrace. The father’s love for his children is what gives him the strength to change his ways and attempt to better understand his son, shown by his listening to rap and recovering some of the money Julio took for Henry to go to college. Henry responds by speaking Spanish to please his father and showing him the respect he now deserves.

Parker, Barrington D.(1915–1993) - Judge, Pursues Career in Law, Runs a No-Nonsense Courtroom, Chronology, Parker’s Independent Rulings [next] [back] Paracelsus (1493–1541) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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