Play It as It Lays

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Play It as It Lays
First edition
Author Joan Didion
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux
Publication date
ISBN 0-374-52171-9
OCLC 312968389

Play It as It Lays is a 1970 novel by the American writer Joan Didion. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1] The book was made into a 1972 movie[2] starring Tuesday Weld as Maria and Anthony Perkins as BZ. Didion co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Plot summary

The novel begins with an internal monologue by the 30-year-old Maria (Mar-eye-a) Wyeth, followed by short reminiscences of her friend Helene, and ex-husband, film director Carter Lang. The further narration is conducted from a third-person perspective in eighty-four chapters of terse, controlled and highly visual prose typical of Didion.

The protagonist, an unfulfilled actress, recounts her life while recovering from a mental breakdown in an exclusive Neuropsychiatric Institute. The reason for her confinement is purportedly having participated in the suicidal death of a befriended bisexual movie producer, BZ (an abbreviation for benzodiazepines, sedative drugs).

The “facts” from Wyeth’s childhood include being raised in the small town of Silver Wells, Nevada, by a gambling, careless father and a neurotic mother who used to “croon to herself” of chimeric yearnings. After graduating from high school in Tonopah, encouraged by her parents, she leaves for New York to become an actress. In the Big Apple, Maria works temporarily as a model and meets Ivan Costello, a psychological blackmailer who does not scruple to use her money and her body.

In the city, Maria receives news of her mother's death, possibly a suicide by car accident. Her father dies soon after, leaving useless mineral rights to his business partner and friend Benny Austin. Maria withdraws from acting and modeling, splits up with Ivan, and eventually meets Carter and moves to Hollywood. Later, we find that she and Carter have a 4-year-old daughter Kate, who is under mental and physical “treatment” for some “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Maria truly loves Kate, as indicated by her tender descriptions, her frequent hospital visits, and her determination “to get her out.” Indeed, Kate seems to be the only significant person in Maria’s life. Her love for the girl means more to her than her marriage to the despotic Lang or her affairs with men, including their Hollywood acquaintances Les Goodwin and BZ.

In the course of the novel, Maria becomes pregnant, plausibly by Les, and Carter coerces her to abort. The traumatic procedure leaves her mentally shattered, haunted by nightmares of dying children. Seeking oblivion, she plunges into compulsively driving the roads and freeways of southern California, wandering through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with second-rate actors and ex-lovers. She spends a night in jail for car theft and drug possession after a one-night stand with a minor film star, Johnny Waters. Eventually she involves herself in a perverse love quadrangle with Carter, BZ and his wife Helene, which ends abruptly when BZ overdoses on barbiturates in Maria’s hotel bedroom. The book ends with the reclusive Maria planning a new life with Kate, resolved to “keep on playing,” despite her past.

The main character

Maria’s problem seems to be that, apart from her daughter, she lacks a purpose in life. She admires strong personalities, including her father (who “always had a lot of plans”), an unyielding woman she played in the film Angel Beach, and the resolute wife of an Italian industrialist she reads about in Vogue magazine. She is submissive with men, a pattern her agent calls “very self-destructive.”

Didion's heroine owes much to such modern Lost Generation writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her world, like theirs, is filled with psychologically wounded decadents, corrupted members of the rich middle class, and cracked-up members of the elite. She also shares their rejection of the past, and Fitzgerald's sense of the ravaging oppressiveness of material reality; but her constant awareness of the innate ambiguity of language gives her a more postmodern voice.

In the Encino room, the man in white duck pants who facilitates Maria's abortion watches a movie featuring Paula Raymond. “Funny she never became a star,” he says later to Maria. Raymond's career began promisingly in the 1950s, but she ended up playing in second-rate horror films and soap operas. In many respects, she is Maria’s alter ego.

Symbols and motifs


Rattlesnakes appear throughout the book, mostly denoting personalized danger and the threat of male predators. In an introductory monologue, Maria wonders why a coral snake needs “two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive, while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none.” Maria's mother makes her read the “rattlesnake bite” entry in the "American Red Cross Handbook." Snakes, “stretched on the warm asphalt” roads of Nevada, figure in Maria’s fantasies about car accidents, and inflict deadly bites upon those who venture out. Maria tells Carter a story about a man who wanted to talk to God and was later found dead, “bitten by a rattlesnake.” “[T]he rattlesnake in the playpen” and “on the plate” are also significant metaphors.

In world religions, the snake appears as a Biblical tempter, an agent in ritual suicides, an author of stratagems, and the symbol of fertility in general and male sexuality in particular. In "The Philadelphia Journal", Benjamin Franklin suggested the female rattlesnake as a symbol of America: “The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies.”[3]

In the film version of Didion's book,[2] a Los Angeles highway is seen in an aerial view as a snake.


Maria watches a hummingbird while in the psychiatric ward. It suggests real life and tangible reality, in contrast to the superficial and empty life in Hollywood. Earlier, Maria has worried that “glossy plants” in her agent’s office are taking away her oxygen, and a guest at BZ’s party complains of being given an “artificial lemon.”


Wyeth eats eggs while driving on the freeway. Talking with her agent, she asks him if he’s “playing with a Fabergé Easter egg.” Conventionally, eggs are signs of fertility -- a mocking reminder of Maria’s abortion.

Freeway and Road Signs

Initially, Maria’s road obsession is related to the loss or lack of communication between the characters. While a freeway is “a way of getting somewhere,” Maria has nowhere to go.

In the desert, Maria has trouble following road signs. She chafes at the gravity (in both senses) of earthbound secondary roads, which don’t allow her the carefree flight of a freeway (though her travels upon them are equally aimless). Just as Maria is “trying not to notice the signs,” Ellis’s protagonists are reluctant to put any meaning on the surface of reality around them.


Maria’s father is an addicted gambler. He loses a house in Reno in a private wager, and puts money in uncertain business deals. He teaches Maria to assess her chances in the game of craps, which he compares to life. Though he never wins, Maria claims to have inherited his optimism and tenacity.

Maria often calls herself a “player,” not an "actress," and mostly in the context of the roles society imposes on her. BZ constantly accuses her of “playing,” and forces Helene to “play-or-pay,” though his nihilism brings him to suicide. Hollywood is a place where the thin line between real-world actions and fictional games is blurred.


After the abortion, Maria suffers from recurring nightmares and ghastly visions featuring dead fetuses, dying children, severed body parts and plumbing.

Air conditioners

Air conditioners appear regularly in this desert world, even in the Encino room where Maria undergoes abortion. They suggest the suffocating, artificial human atmosphere that surrounds her. Carter is said to dislike air conditioners.


Maria dreams of driving “into the hard white empty core of the world.” Before terminating her pregnancy, she sleeps between “immaculate” white sheets in “white crepe pajamas,” hoping to induce a miscarriage. A recurring dream figure is the “man in white duck pants” from her abortion.

Whiteness prefigures nothingness and obliteration of memory. She speaks of her mind as a “blank tape,” merely recording impressions and experiences. And she hopes to write “a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. ... white space. Empty space."[4]


An aggressive madwoman in a supermarket attempts to engage Maria, accusing her of inattentiveness. After marrying Carter, she receives letters from “mad people.” Her daughter is having mental problems, and she herself is admitted to a neuropsychiatric ward. In Didion’s world, normality and cause-effect notions are conventions established by an unspecified “them.”


Maria’s mother croons to herself the lyrics of the hit single by Jo Stafford, "You Belong to Me". Maria replays in her head lines from 1969’s "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield and "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat & Tears.


  1. "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Play It As It Lays (1972)
  3. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III: London, 1757 - 1775 - The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America
  4. Burke, Ted (2005-11-02). "Brett Easton Ellis". Like It or Not. Retrieved 30 December 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>