Lee Blessing

Eleemosynary

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Eleemosynary Summary

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American playwright Lee Blessing’s play Eleemosynary (1985) concerns three generations of women and the delicate relationships between them. The word “eleemosynary” is an adjective used to describe something that is related to or supported by charity. It is also the youngest character Echo’s favorite word, as it was the final word in a spelling bee she once won.

The play’s three characters are the Westbrook women: Dorothea, Artemis, and Echo. The eldest, Dorothea, is a willfully eccentric woman whose purposely-strange behavior is a way to assert her independence as she ages. Dorothea’s daughter Artemis—or “Artie”—abandoned her overbearing mother many years ago, living her own life as a prominent and successful biochemist. Artie’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Echo, was raised by Dorothea and barely knows her mother until her adolescent and teenage years. Echo is also extraordinarily intelligent and a particularly excellent speller.

At the beginning of the play, Echo directly addresses the audience, spelling out “eleemosynary” and defining it as “of or pertaining to alms; charitable.” Having successfully spelled it to win a spelling bee as a child, eleemosynary is Echo’s favorite word. Echo explains that her seventy-five-year-old grandmother, Dorothea, has been raising her, but things are about to change as Dorothea has just suffered a stroke. The stroke has taken away Dorothea’s ability to speak, but Echo insists that she can hear her grandmother’s thoughts. The audience, Echo says, can also hear Dorothea’s thoughts.

In a flashback, the audience is introduced to Echo’s mother, Artie who enters the scene wearing a pair of crude, homemade angel wings. Dorothea believes that if the wings were better constructed, Artie would be able to fly. Over time, Artie becomes alienated from her mother, abandoning her, and leaving her baby daughter, “Barbara,” in her care. Dorothea promptly renames the child “Echo.” When Echo is an infant, Dorothea teaches the three-month-old baby the Latin and Greek alphabets. Another flashback shows Artie plagued by the fact that she remembers everything she reads and hears with perfect recall. She views her inability to forget anything as a curse rather than a blessing.

Echo and Artie begin to reconnect with one another. Much of this takes place via phone conversations during which the two avoid talking about real issues like Artie’s abandonment of Echo. Instead, Artie encourages Echo to talk about her academic successes, including her spelling bee victories. Despite the fact that Artie is plagued by her perfect memory, she repeatedly drills Echo using memory exercises presumably to increase her intellectual capacity.

In another flashback, Dorothea recalls her father forcing her into an arranged marriage. Her husband is kind enough, but he forces her to be a mother and housewife and nothing else, rejecting her appeals to allow her to attend college. She gives birth to Artie and two sons. Dorothea feels nothing when her husband suddenly passes away. As Dorothea speaks, her words are interspersed with Echo’s faint spelling from offstage. Artie enters and recalls a recurring nightmare in which Dorothea throws all of Artie’s books into a bonfire.

In the present, Dorothea is in a hospital bed in a coma with Echo and Artie at her side. They debate whether Dorothea can hear them. Echo believes she can, but Artie views her mother as nothing more than a vegetable. Artie exits; Echo explains to the audience that for much of her childhood, she believed she had no mother. That all changes when Artie calls Echo unexpectedly, and Dorothea is forced to tell Echo that she lied about her mother being dead.

After putting on her grandmother’s wings, Echo revisits the weeks following her birth, even though she was too young to remember them. When Echo’s father dies shortly after her birth, Echo, Dorothea, and Artie drive across the country to Dorothea’s home in the Eastern United States. At Dorothea’s insistence, the family makes many “educational” stops along the way to places that hold spiritual or supernatural importance to the grandmother. They visit an Indian burial ground, a voodoo cult, an alleged UFO landing strip, and various locations related to the life of American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce.

In another flashback, Echo attempts to reunite Dorothea and Artie by inviting both of them to her performance at the National Spelling Bee finals. Both women attend but end up sitting so far from one another, they aren’t aware of each other’s presence. In the final round, Echo correctly spells eleemosynary and wins the competition. Dorothea and Artie both run up to congratulate Echo, reaching the stage at the same time. After an awkward and brief reunion, Artie flees.

For the next two years, Echo and Artie barely talk. Only when Dorothea suffers a stroke are the two forced to reconcile. Dorothea passes away in her hospital bed but continues to narrate from the beyond. After some convincing, Artie agrees to be Echo’s guardian, though it is Artie who needs to be cared for, according to Echo.

Eleemosynary is a somber yet emotionally compelling multi-generational saga.