"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds"

Pulitzer-winning play by Paul Zindel


Lisa Kehoffer/EyeEm/Getty Images

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds" is a play by Paul Zindel that won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Content Issues: Some lines of homophobic slurs, cigarette smoking, drunkenness, and mild profanity.


Cast Size: 5 actors

Male Characters: 0

Female Characters: 5

Tillie is a bright, sensitive, resilient young girl who loves science. She works with marigold seeds exposed to varying amounts of radiation. She plants the seeds and observes the effects.

Ruth is Tillie’s prettier, less intelligent, but much cooler older sister. Her extreme fear of death leads to seizures and her temper causes her to lash out at people, but when Tillie’s marigold experiment brings accolades, Ruth is genuinely excited for her sister.

Beatrice is a sad, mean, beaten-down woman who loves her daughters, but finally admits, “I hate the world.”

Nanny is an ancient, hearing-impaired woman who is the current “fifty dollar a week corpse” that Beatrice is boarding. Nanny is a non-speaking role.

Janice Vickery is another student finalist in the science fair. She appears only in Act II, Scene 2 to deliver an obnoxious monologue about how she skinned a cat and reassembled its bones into a skeleton that she will donate to the science department.


The playwright provides extensive notes about the details of the setting, but throughout the play, the action occurs mainly in the unsightly, cluttered living room of the home that Beatrice shares with her two daughters and her most recent boarder Nanny. In Act II, the stage for the science fair presentations is also a setting.

References to things like mimeographed instructions and one home telephone suggest that this play is set in the 1950s–1970s.


This play starts with two monologues. The first one by Tillie, a young schoolgirl, begins as a recording of her voice that she continues in speech. She reflects on the phenomenon of the atom. “Atom. What a beautiful word.”

Tillie’s mother Beatrice delivers the second monologue in the form of a one-sided phone conversation with Tillie’s science teacher Mr. Goodman. The audience learns that Mr. Goodman gave Tillie a rabbit that she loves, that Tillie has many absences from school, that she has performed highly on some tests, that Beatrice considers Tillie to be unattractive, and that Tillie’s sister Ruth had a breakdown of some sort.

When Tillie begs her mother to be allowed to go to school that day because she is so excited to see Mr. Goodman’s experiment on radioactivity, the answer is a firm no. Beatrice informs Tillie that she will spend the day at home cleaning up after her rabbit. When Tillie pleads with her again, Beatrice tells her to shut up or she will chloroform the animal. Hence, Beatrice’s character is established within the first 4 pages of the play.

Beatrice earns extra money by working as a caretaker in her own home for elderly people. It turns out that Ruth’s breakdown is connected to the fright she got when she discovered an elderly boarder dead in his bed.

Beatrice comes across as a mean, hardened character until she is comforting Ruth after a nightmare in the first act. By Scene 5, however, she identifies her own deep-seated issue: “I spent today taking stock of my life and I’ve come up with zero. I added up all the separate parts and the result is zero, zero, zero…”

When Ruth bursts in after school one day exclaiming with pride that Tillie is a finalist in the science fair and Beatrice learns that, as her mother, she is expected to appear on stage with Tillie, Beatrice is not pleased. “How could you do this to me? … I have no clothes to wear, do you hear me? I’d look just like you up on that stage, ugly little you!” Later on, Beatrice reveals: “I hated that school when I went there and I hate it now.”

At school, Ruth overhears some teachers who knew her mother as a teenager refer to Beatrice as “Betty the Loon.” When Beatrice informs Ruth that she has to stay home with the current elderly boarder (Nanny) instead of attending the science fair, Ruth is furious. She insists, demands, pleads, and finally resorts to shaming her mother by calling her the old hurtful name. Beatrice, who has just admitted that Tillie’s accomplishment is “the first time in my life that I’ve felt just a little bit proud over something,” is completely deflated. She pushes Ruth out the door and removes her hat and gloves in defeat.

Character Work

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds offers deep character work for the actors who play Beatrice, Tillie, and Ruth. They will explore questions such as:

  • Why do people who share the same home behave and react so differently?
  • What prompts people to treat one another cruelly? Is cruelty ever justified?
  • How does love endure within cruel and unfair treatment?
  • What is resilience and can people learn to be resilient?
  • What is the significance of the play's title?


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Flynn, Rosalind. ""The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds"." ThoughtCo, Sep. 27, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-effect-of-gamma-rays-on-man-in-the-moon-marigolds-2713579. Flynn, Rosalind. (2021, September 27). "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-effect-of-gamma-rays-on-man-in-the-moon-marigolds-2713579 Flynn, Rosalind. ""The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-effect-of-gamma-rays-on-man-in-the-moon-marigolds-2713579 (accessed May 30, 2023).