A Student\'s Guide to Some Major Plays (PDF Download Available)

October 20, 2017 | Author: Anonymous | Category: Documents
Share Embed

Short Description

revising his old vaudeville, On the Harmful Effect of Tobacco. While shaping the new play and developing the characters,...



A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Kian Pishkar Pyeaam Abbasi University of Isfahan Winter 2014

‫پیشکار‪ ،‬کیان‪- 8431 ،‬‬


‫‪Pishkar, Kian‬‬ ‫‪/ Kian Pishkar, Pyeaam A student's guide to some major plays‬‬

‫عنوان و نام پدیدآور‬ ‫مشخصات نشر‬

‫‪Abbasi.‬‬ ‫اصفهان‪ :‬انتشارات نگارخانه‪۱۱84 =84۳۱ ،‬م‪.‬‬

‫مشخصات ظاهری‬

‫‪ 3۴۴‬ص‪.‬‬

‫وضعیت فهرست نویسی‬

‫‪978-600-7148-25-9‬‬ ‫فیپا‬







‫زبان انگلیسی ‪ --‬کتابهای قرائت ‪ --‬نمایشنامه‬

‫شناسه افزوده‬

‫عباسی‪ ،‬پیام‪- 84۴۱ ،‬‬

‫رده بندی کنگره‬

‫‪Abbasi, Payam‬‬ ‫‪۳ 84۳۱ 88۱۱‬پ‪1‬ن‪PE /‬‬

‫شناسه افزوده‬ ‫رده بندی دیویی‬


‫شماره کتابشناسی ملی‬


‫‪A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays‬‬ ‫مؤلف‬

‫کیان پیشکار‪ ،‬دکتر پیام عباسی‬



‫ناظر فنی‬

‫علیرضا جنّّّّت‬

‫صفحه آرا‬

‫مرضیه ضیایی‬

‫طرح جلد‬

‫فاطمه نوروزی‬


‫نگار اصفهان‬

‫نوبت چاپ‬

‫اول‪2931 -‬‬


‫‪ 2111‬نسخه‬

‫قطع اثر‬



‫‪ ..........‬ریال‬



‫این اثر مشمول قانون حمایت مؤلفان و مصنفان و هنرمندان مصوب ‪8431‬است‪.‬‬ ‫هرکس تمام و یا قسمتی از این اثر را بدون اجازه مؤلف(ناشر)نشر‪ ،‬پخش یا عرضه کند مورد پیگردقانونی خواهد گرفت‬


‫‪Cellphon: 09131703597‬‬

‫‪E- mail: [email protected] com‬‬

Table of Contents AUTHORS 1. Sophocles 2. Sophocles 3. Shakespeare 4. Sheridan 5. Chekhov 6. Moliere 7. Ibsen 8. Ibsen 9. Ibsen 10. Ibsen 11. Shaw 12. Shaw 13. Shaw 14. Williams 15. Williams 16. Miller 17. Albee



Oedipus Rex Antigone Othello, The Moore of Venice School for Scandal The Cherry Orchard

7 13 25 33 39

The Misanthrope An Enemy of People The Wild Duck Hedda Gabler A Doll’s House Candida Major Barbara Arms and The Men A Streetcar Named Desire The Glass Menagerie Death of a Salesman The Sandbox

69 75 87 95 105 109 127 151 159 173 189 203

18. Albee Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? 19. Osborne Look Back in Anger 20. Becket Waiting for Go dot 21. Lorca Blood Wedding 22. Strindberg The Stronger 23. Bibliography

209 215 239 249 259 265

Preface Drama is not simply literature but a composite art-form; a mixture of literature and visual art, speech and movement, story and spectacle.

As a student’s guide to the critical analysis of drama, the present book is a collection of critical essays on some major plays by some major playwrights like William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen and Tennessee Williams. The essays provide students of English literature and those who are interested in reading about drama, with good critical pieces of information that will, hopefully, help them with the analytical look needed for further drama reading and analysis. The book, also, helps the readers to see that an analytical approach to a play is not an end but a means to deepen understanding and appreciation of text, and intensify reading experience. The authors of this book have tried to be cautious in writing, selecting, rewriting, and producing content so that students who wish to know more of the meaning and purpose of drama may not regret the time they give the book. Although excellent sources have been consulted, the book has, definitely, certain shortcomings that will not be improved unless our dear professors and students of the field, kindly, share their valuable suggestions and comments. May God accept this as a service to our students of English literature. Kian Pishkar Pyeaam Abbasi University of Isfahan, 2014

OEDIPUS REX By Sophocles For the beginning readers of literature, this play is of course made more difficult by the conventions of classical tragedy—the use of choruses, the nonrealistic set speeches, the “static” stage action, the (translated) poetry, the reporting off-stage action by messengers. But this particular example of Greek tragedy is made even more difficult by the apparent importance to the story of incidents that precede the play. Almost without exception, readers that precede the play. Almost without exception, readers asked to recount the plot will begin not at the beginning of the play, but at the beginning of Oedipus’s career or even at the point of the first oracle to Laios predicting a parricidal, incestuous son. The distinction between the action on stage and antecedent events must be made very clear if the nature of this play is to be properly understood. A city wracked by plague turns to its king for relief, trusting that his almost superhuman wisdom will save them. Oedipus, however, has already begun the task, for he is awaiting the return of Creon from the oracle; the message is that the murderer of the former king, living unpunished in the city, is the cause of the plague. Oedipus lays a curse on the murderer (“that the man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness,”) and begins his search for the identity of the guilty person. At Creon's suggestion he consults the blind Tiresias and forces him to divulge what he is reluctant to reveal “in hideous shame with


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

those / Most dear”. Enraged at what seems an incredible lie, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of plotting with Creon so that the latter may gain the crown. Tiresias leaves, pronouncing further that Oedipus is “to her / Who bore him, son and husband”. Creon's denial of a plot against Oedipus is logical and prudent: since he already has the rights and powers of the kingship, why would he want to add the anxieties and responsibilities of the crown? When Queen Jocasta tries to patch up the quarrel between her husband and her brother, Oedipus reports to her Tiresias’s accusation of murder, and to dispel his anger she skeptically offers him proof that soothsayers and oracles are not trustworthy: she and Laios had been told that their son would kill his father and marry his mother—yet as everyone knows, Laios was murdered by a band of murderers at a place where three highways meet. Oedipus uneasily recalls that he had received a similar prophecy, and fleeting from the home of his supposed parents to avoid such guilty acts, he had killed a man at just such a place. He begins to realize that he may indeed have been Laios’s murderer –which his own curse may alight on himself. But he takes hope from the report that the king had been killed not single-handedly but by a group. He sends for a shepherd, the lone survivor of Laios’s party, to hear the true circumstances of the murder. A messenger from Corinth arrives to announce that Oedipus’s presumed father Polybus has died of age and illness, thus apparently disproving the oracle’s prophecy that Oedipus would kill him, but Oedipus is unwilling to return as king of Corinth because his mother Merope still lives. When he tells the messenger of the prophecy that had driven him from

Oedipus Rex


home, the messenger offers him the good news: he need not fear, for he was not in fact the son of Polybus and Merope. Tending his flock near Mount Kitharion, this very messenger had received from a Theban shepherd an infant who had been exposed to die on the mountain, and had taken him to Polybus, who raised him as his son. Jocasta tries to dissuade Oedipus from further questioning, having deduced from this news the whole horrid truth; she is the mother of her husband, who had killed his father. The shepherd appears who had been with Laios at his death, and is recognized by the Corinthian as the man who had given him the infant. He reveals that the baby was said to be son of Laios, and was sent to be exposed on the mountain for fear of the prophecies. Now Oedipus possesses the whole truth, and rushes into the palace, from which another messenger emerges to report that the queen has hanged herself, and that Oedipus has stabbed himself in the eyes with her brooches to blind him to all the horror and misery he had unknowingly created. Being led forth from the palace, he acknowledges that although Apollo brought his “sick, sick fate” upon him, “the building hand was my own!” He summarizes his life in a powerful lament, asks Creon to care for his children, bids his daughters farewell, and begs for the fulfillment of the curse he had pronounced on Laios’s murder; banishment from Thebes. This rehearsal of the actions of the play demonstrates several important dramatic points: the only casual effect of the oracle in the action is Oedipus’s vow to discover and punish the murderer; the whole movement of the plot is toward knowledge, first the discovery of the identity of the murderer, and then the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

discovery of Oedipus’s true parentage. Confusing discussions of the casual role of the gods and oracles are not necessary, even though they are tempting: we are presented with what Oedipus is, not with what he was; we share with him his quest for the truth of his past, put it is important of the throne nor the early years of his marriage. All those come forth as he searches for the truth of his past, but it is important to accept what the king is at the beginning of the play (“not one of the immortal gods, … [but] the man surest in mortal ways / And wisest in the ways of God.”) In the justified pride of his position, he goes on when others beg him to top. The search for enlightenment is rewarded with knowledge of the most horrid kind, too horrid for a mere mortal to look upon, and yet he presses for the execution of the sentence he has pronounced upon himself. Recognizing the boundaries of the action within the time of the play also clarifies the question of Oedipus’s tragic flaw. It is not the rashness of having killed a group of men who attacked him on the highway, nor is it arrogance of supposing he could avoid the prophecy by fleeing from Corinth. The pride he displays within the action is justified: as a wise king, he must take the responsibility of ridding the city of its pollution; in undertaking the search for the murderer, he is following the instructions of the oracle. His rage at Tiresias and his suspicion of Creon's plot are motivated by his certainty that he did not kill the king, and an intelligent inference based on the fact that Creon had recommended consulting the soothsayer. His flaw—the traditional terms is an unfortunate one—is his insistence on learning the truth, extending his knowledge to discover himself fully. The

Oedipus Rex


sight / blindness, light / dark ironies that abound in the play point in this direction, toward enlightenment too great for a man to bear. The chorus has several important functions in this drama: it comments, in a slightly obtuse, conservatively pious way on the actions it has witnessed, acting in part as a surrogate for the audience; and its songs (and dances) reinforce the moods created by the actions. By interrupting the action, it also makes the passage of time between events more dramatically credible. The links between the coral songs and the preceding actions are not always immediately clear. The Parodos is a payer for divine intervention in the plague, springing directly from the news that the oracle is being consulted. Ode 1 comments on the oracle’s warning that Laios’s murderer is still in the city, but rejects as impossible Tiresias’s pronouncements against Oedipus—the chorus is thus torn between belief and disbelief in the messages from the gods. Ode 2 is a shocked response to Jocasta’s protective and impious skepticism about oracles. Ode 3, after the revelation that Oedipus had been rescued from exposure on the mountain, ignores Jocasta’s newfound awareness that her husband will discover himself to be the most miserable of men, and instead is a hymn to Kithairon and the gods who attended Oedipus’s rescue, as if the chorus cannot bring itself to face the situation being revealed. Ode 4, after the full revelation of Oedipus’s past, grieves for the fall of so great a man, “Majestic Oedipus! … now of all men ever known / Most pitiful is this man’s story.” In the Exodus, the chorus joins with Oedipus in a “commons,” a responsive song or chant, as an introduction to the lament in


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

which he looks back on his life; and it concludes the play with a moral which is not exactly the central theme of the action but is appropriate to the insight of the chorus. Are the gods just to Oedipus? Has he deserved his catastrophic fate? Too much has been written on this subject already, but one might well remember that these are not the questions one usually asks about great interpretive literature— they mean “has poetic justice been served, have the good been rewarded and the wicked punished?” One might as well also ask “does suffering always bring wisdom?” and “does wisdom always bring happiness?” Perhaps rather than asking for poetic justice or for philosophic truisms, we need to bear always in mind that although Oedipus is almost godlike in wisdom, he is human, and that although his sufferings are terrifying, he bears them with courage and determination that are themselves almost godlike (for which, in another play about the end of his life, he is rewarded with elevation to an immortal demi-god). Sophocles is not writing a play about the acts of the gods—just or unjust—or about an intrinsic relationship between suffering, wisdom, and happiness. Rather, his subject is a great man who loyally does his duty to others and to his own need to know himself. Such men are not always happy.

ANTIGONE By Sophocles PROLOGUE (Lines 1-99) Antigone and Ismene come out of the palace. Antigone tells her sister about Creon’s edict forbidding the burial of Polynices and confides that she intends to defy the order: She asks Ismene to help, but the older sister is afraid and protests that they are only women and too weak to resist the king. Antigone asserts that their highest obligations are to the dead and the gods, not the king, and says: Go your own way; I will bury my brother; And if I did for it, what happiness! Convicted of reverence –I shall be content … Live, if you will; Live, and defy the holiest laws of heaven Ismene promises to keep the plan a secret, but Antigone scornfully rejects his offer of token assistance.

Ismene is hurt by her sister’s harsh words. She assures Antigone that she will always love her. The Prologue sets up the first part of the conflict of the play: Antigone feels the duty to bury her dead brother. From the legend, we know that Polynices had earlier asked Antigone to give him a decent burial. Furthermore, in the Greek view of death, a person’s soul could never come to rest (peace) until the body is decently buried. Consequently, the burial rites assumed great importance for the ancient Greeks.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Antigone, therefore, is determined to carry out her promise to her brother, but also she is, in her view, fulfilling a higher law that is, she is acting according to her religious duty. Her comment to Ismene; “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living,” implies that she cannot dishonor the laws which the gods have established. PARODOS (Lines 100-152) The chorus of elders enters, chanting the verses, Hail the sun! the brightest of all that ever Dawned on the City of Seven Gates, City of Thebes!

They sing an ode in praise of the recent victory of the Theban army, describing the great battle in which Eteocles and Polynices killed each other. FIRST EPISODE (Lines 163-331) Creon enters and thanks the assembled elders for their continued loyalty. He assures them that he hopes to be a wise ruler and will always keep the interests of the state and the people foremost in his mind. “Our country is our life,” he says; “only when she rides safely have we any friends at all.” Creon announces his decision about the corpse of Polynices. He explains that Polynices was a bloodthirsty traitor who would have destroyed his own city. This act of retribution will deter all others who contemplate the betrayal of their homeland. Creon adds: I am determined that never, if I can help it, Shall evil triumph over good. Alive Or dead, the faithful servant of his country Shall be rewarded.



Creon is interrupted when a frightened sentry guarding the body of Polynices enters and reports that someone has buried the corpse. Creon angrily accuses the soldier of having accepted a bribe to neglect his duty and threatens to execute him if the rebel is not found. Creon’s opening speech to the assembly of Thebans solidifies the essential conflict of the drama. Creon views the laws of the state as the highest laws. Consequently, since Polynices had deliberately attempted to destroy the state, Creon orders that his body be defiled as an example to anyone else who would intentionally revolt against the state. Creon’s action is for the benefit of public welfare; Antigone’s defiance is for her concept of religious duty. For Antigone, religious laws are superior to the laws of the state. In this first appearance, we see that Creon hopes to be a wise and good ruler. We must note that he does act out of sincere belief that his decision is best for the state. It will be much further in the play before we see that Creon is too narrow and strict to be the ideal ruler. FIRST STASIMON (Lines 332-383) The chorus sings a beautiful ode acclaiming the many accomplishments of mankind, but ending on the pensive note that death ultimately comes to all. This poem is one of finest and most famous lyrics written by Sophocles: Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of Perilous seas That surge and sway …


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

There is nothing beyond his power. His subtlety Meeteth all chance, all danger conquered. For every ill he hath found its remedy, Save only death.

SECOND EPISODE (Lines 384-581) The sentry returns with Antigone. Creon at first does not believe that she would dare defy his command, but the soldier’s detailed account of her capture at the graveside convinces him. Antigone proudly admits that the story is true. She says she knew about Creon’s proclamation. But That order did not come from God. Justice, That dwells with the gods below, know no such law. I did not think your edict string enough To overrule the unwritten, unalterable laws Of God and heaven, you being only a man.

Creon suspects that Ismene is Antigone’s accomplice and sends for her. While they are waiting, Antigone boasts that she has followed the path of honor and has no fear of punishment. Creon repeats his conviction that Polynices was a traitor to Thebes and points out that his burial is an insult to her other brother, the heroic Eteocles. Antigone replies that even the dead have rights given to them by gods. It is not for mortals to question or amend the divine law, she says. Ismene is brought in by the soldiers. When Creon accuses her of treason she tearfully claims to be guilty and asks to share her sister’s punishment, but Antigone contemptuously recounts Ismene’s earlier refusal to assist her. After listening to the women quarrel for a while. Creon decides that they are both insane. Ismene begs him to spare her sister for the sake of his son



Haemon, to whom Antigone is betrothed, but Creon refuses. The women are taken away. In this scene, Antigone seems to be almost a fanatic. She does not listen to Creon’s logic. She will not admit that one brother deserved a better fate than the other. She simply affirms and reaffirms her position that she was only following the dictates of the gods. In other words, here is a woman ruled more by her instincts and her emotions than by her rational faculties. She is also a woman of extreme pride in that she wants to take full credit and blame for her action. She will not allow her sister to assume any of the guilt. She believes that what she has done will be approved by the gods. She says that the world approved Ismene’s caution, but the gods approved her courage. The reader should remember that Creon is a new king, This is the time his order has been disobeyed. He feels, therefore, that he must by very strict, or else the populace will not respect his authority. SECOND STASIMON (Lines 582-630) The chorus sings an ode which tells the story of the ancient curse that has afflicted all the descendants of Labdacus—Laius, Oedipus, and now the children of Oedipus. The law of Zeus, it says, is immutable. No man can oppose the will of the gods: For mortals greatly to live is greatly to suffer … And short is the time before that suffering comes.

THIRD EPISODE (Lines 631-780) Haemon enters, saying he is devoted to Creon’s interest and is not moved by any personal consideration. He tells his father that he has been circulating in the city and in view of the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

mood of the people and thinks it would be better to temper justice with mercy and spare Antigone. Haemon advises: It is no weakness for the wisest man To learn when he is wrong, and know when to yield.

Creon resents his son’s interference and a heated argument between them follows. Both men become furious and exchange bitter insults. Finally Heamon angrily shouts that his father will never see him again and rushes out. Creon tells the elders that he will spare Ismene, but Antigone must die. She is to be sealed up in a deserted cave outside the city and will be given a small supply of food so that Thebes will not incur the blood-guilt for her death. Haemon expresses an important Greek concept here. Generally, the Greeks thought that all justice should be tempered with a certain amount of mercy and compassion. Haemon attempts to advise his father. But we see that Creon is too proud and too inflexible to listen to the advice of others. He must insist on his own way. Consequently, his failure to heed the advice of others makes him directly responsible for the tragedy at the end of the drama. THIRD STASIMON (Lines 781-882) The hours chants an ode on the power of love, Where is the equal of love? Where is the battle he cannot win … . He is there; he is here … . And the grip of his madness Spares not god or man. Aphrodite immortal Works her will upon all.



FOURTH EPISODE (Lines 883-943) Antigone is brought in guarded by soldiers. The elders are moved by her pitiful appearance and cry, But there is a sight beyond all bearing, At which my eyes cannot but weep; Antigone forth faring To the bridal-bower of endless sleep.

Antigone is no longer self-assured and defiant. She does not regret her violation of Creon’s order, but is grieved by the realization that her life is coming to an end, that she will never experience the joy she has yearned for. She chants a pathetic lament for herself: So to grave, My bridal-bower, everlasting prison, I go to join those many of my kinsmen Who dwell in the mansions of Persephone, Last and unhappiest, before my time … Never a bride, never a mother, unfriended, Condemned alive to a solitary death. What law of heaven have I transgressed?

Creon enters, remarks that lamentations are no help to anyone and orders the soldiers to carry out the sentence. The guards lead Antigone away. FOURTH STASIMON (Lines 944-987) As the soldiers and Antigones pass by, the chorus sings an ode about well-known figures of the past who were also forced to endure cruel punishments. Upon them, they say to Antigone, “the grey fates laid hard hands as upon thee.” FIFTH EPISODE (Lines 988-1114) The blind prophet Tiresias comes in. He warns Creon that


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the gods are angry about the blasphemous treatment of Polynices’ body and will punish the city for this sacrilege. He advises Creon that: Only a fool is governed by self-will. Pay to the dead his due. Wound not the fallen. It is no glory to kill and kill again.

Creon suspects Tiresias of making a false prophecy for personal gain and refuses to heed the warning. The seer predicts that if Creon does not end the desecration of the cropse and pardon Antigone, the gods will take vengeance by the death of his own son and the city will be defiled. Having said this, Tiresias turns and leaves. Torn between what he believes to be right and the fear of the horrible fate foretold by the prophet, Creon cannot decide what to do. He appeals to the elders for advice, and then rushes out with his attendants to bury Polynices and free Antigone. As in Oedipus, the blind prophet comes in and gives his prophecy, which Creon refuses at first to believe. Again we see that Creon is unable to acknowledge that someone else might be right and that he could be wrong. He cannot admit that there is a higher law than that of the state. When he finally comes to the realization of his error, he goes out to correct his mistake, but in the last scene, we see that he is too late. FIFTH STASIMON (Lines 1115-1152) The chorus sings a joyful ode in praise of the god Dionysus. EXODOS (Lines 1153-1353) A messenger enters and calls everyone together to hear his



news, shouting, … hear and attend … people of Thebes! What is the life of man? … Chance raises a man to the heights, chance casts him down, And none can foretell what will be from what is.

Haemon has killed himself, the messenger says, and Creon, who once was envied by all men, who once was rich, powerful, honored, is now broken by his misfortunes. Queen Eurydice comes out of the palace and asks what the excitement is about. The messenger tells her how Creon and his servant buried the mutilated body of Ploynices and then went to the cave where Antigone had been entombed. Inside they found Haemon mourning over her dead body, for she had committed suicide. When Creon tried to comfort him, Heamon drew his sword and attacked his father, then stabbed himself. Eurydice begins to weep and goes back into the palace. The elders worry that she may attempt to harm herself and send the messenger after her. Meanwhile, the king and his attendants return. Creon is carrying Haemon’s body in his arms and seems overwhelmed by remorse. The messenger appears at the door of the palace and announces that the queen has killed herself. Creon cries pitifully, “I am nothing. I have no life. Lead me away.” He acknowledges his responsibility for all these tragic events and prays that his own death will come soon. The heartbroken Creon wanders away while the chorus muses about the things that have taken place and says: Of happiness the crown


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

And chiefest part Is wisdom, and to hold The gods in awe. This is the law. That, seeing the stricken heart Of pride brought down, We learn when we are old.

In Antigone, Sophocles examines the age-old conflict between the requirements of human and divine law. This universal problem is crystallized in the dispute about the burial of Ploynices, in which Creon’s understanding of the public welfare is opposed to Antigone’s conception of her religious duty. The central character of the play is Creon, a distinctly tragic figure who acts from sincere, patriotic, and selfless motives, but who is too inflexible and narrow in outlook to heed criticism or admit error until it is too late. At the close of the play Creon recognizes and accepts his guilt, but the consequences of his acts can no longer be changed. Creon’s tragedy is his inability to recognize that anyone else can be right and his failure to acknowledge a higher good than that of the state. In part, the characterization of Creon is Sophocles’ commentary on the corrupting influence that absolute power has even on a good man, and is typical of the democratic Athenian attitude. Though her role is smaller, Antigone is the more difficult character to understand. Some have judged her to be guilty of the sin of pride and overwhelmed by an immature or masochistic desire to martyr herself. Others consider her a woman of innate nobility and idealism, unwilling to compromise the truth as she sees it, who suffers a cruel and undeserved punishment. In either



case, it is important to realize that Antigone is driven by her instincts and emotions, while Creon acts on the basis of principle and a reasoned analysis of the situation. The positions of Antigone and Creon are opposed; but both posses stubborn belief in their own righteousness. Thus, on the issue of the burial one is right and one is wrong, but to an extent both share the blame for the tragic end of the play. There are many excellent minor characters in this play and the psychological authenticity of the conversations (e.g., the political argument between Creon and Haemon which is an undertone of father-son rivalry) has often been praised. The choral odes and Antigone’s lament are all of high poetic quality. The first stasimon is particularly renowned because of the similarity between its expression of traditional Greek religious thought and the ideas of certain Old Testament Psalms. Because the tragedies of Sophocles were written in a foreign language, and an ancient one at that, the English speaking reader is faced with certain difficulties. There are many prose and verse translations of Sophoclean drama available, but inevitably each one differs to some extent for all the other. Since translators are individuals, it is only natural that their own personalities and preconceptions may affect their versions of the play. In addition, translators’ aims often differ, and this too can affect their work. One, perhaps, will strive for an accurate and literal prose version for students of Greek; another will attempt to duplicate the majestic poetry of Sophocles and capture the spirit of the original in an English metrical from, even if some accuracy must be sacrificed; and still another will exercise great license on


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the text to produce a simplified up-to-date version for use in the modern theater. Other divergences may be caused by translators’ interpretations of the play, the degree of their understanding and sympathy for Greek culture, the environments of which they are themselves products, and, of course, their knowledge of Greek and their ability in writing English.

OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENCIE By William Shakespeare Of the many “problems” that have been analyzed in the extensive criticism of this play, the one that most intrigues beginning readers is explicitly voiced by Othello when he asks about Iago in act 5, “Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body,” to which Iago retorts “What you know, you know,” and vows silence. Iago’s motivation is a central issue because he himself so often talks about it, and no doubt also because Coleridge famously pronounced that the soliloquy that concludes Act I reveals “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,” a fiendish lack of human motivation in a character who continually attempts to find in himself the motives that other men do have. At one point or another, Iago credits himself with ambition, spiteful envy of Cassio’s promotion to first lieutenancy, sexual jealousy because Othello has cuckolded him, profit from robbing Rodrigo, the pleasure of deceiving Rodrigo and Othello, jealousy that Cassio too has slept with Emilia, love for Desdemona, hatred of Cassio’s handsomeness, and mere hatred of Othello; and the careful critic will have no difficulty in finding other implied but not stated motives. That these do not sufficiently define Iago may be seen in disparities between stated motives and action; why, if he loves Desdemona, does he conspire in her death? Why, if he wants the lieutenancy, does he destroy the man who could give it to him? Why, since Rodrigo can so easily be robbed of cash, does he kill him? Why, if he is so jealous of his wife, does he, align


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and finally kill her? While the changing circumstances of the play may answer some of these questions, it is this sort of arithmetic of motive and action that makes Coleridge’s conclusion so attractive. Intelligent, cunning, capable of tempting and controlling the characters around him, Iago nevertheless does not use his powers to achieve his stated goals, but in fact renders those goals unattainable. Like Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s antagonist fascinates, drawing the attention of the reader to himself and in part robbing the protagonist of the attention due him. The more we notice Iago, the less we Othello, whose ontological presence interferes with Iago’s absence. The result is what Shakespeare certainly did not intend, that Othello be read merely as Iago’s victim, as passively susceptible as are Roderigo, Desdemona, and Cassio. If only Coleridge’s word could be taken, one might more easily focus his interest not on Iago and what makes him sick, but on the great central figure, the tragic hero. Othello’s greatness is nearly a definition of the Shakespearean tragic hero: his weakness or “flaws” are virtues carried to excess. He loves, but “too well,” too intensely and totally; he trusts, but too much, and too indiscriminately; he has so great a sense of moral virtue and of his own honorable responsibility that he makes of himself an agent of divine justice to extirpate sin; his sensitive, poetic imagination leads him to vivid, pictorial fantasies of his wife and her lover. Iago in his soliloquies provides a partial catalogue, though of course he sneers at the general’s virtues: “The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”; “The

Othello, The Moore of Venice


Moor, howbeit that I endure him not, / is of a constant, loving, noble nature.” And Lodovico spokesman for the Venetian government can only grieve to witness Othello’s abuse of Desdemona: “Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue / The shot of accident nor dart of chance / Could neither graze nor pierce?” The thematic center of the play is the perversion of Othello’s goodness by the evil workings of his mind, and the chief concern is Othello’s fall from greatness, not as victim but as the agent of his own destruction. By insinuation and apparent reluctance to speak, Iago forces Othello to draw from him his suspicions, and excites Othello’s visual imaginations into picturing scenes of Desdemona’s lustful acts; and then, once he has administered this small dose of poison, Iago urges Othello onward into a deeper conviction by pretending to argue against the certainty of Desdemona’s guilt. The growth of Othello’s jealousy is the result of his own energies, the strength of his love and his desire for perfection driving him to take up the sword of divine justice. Is Othello gullible? Does he succumb too quickly, too easily to Iago’s temptation? Roderigo is indeed what Othello calls himself in act 5 after he has learned of Desdemona’s innocence: fool, dolt, a man without honor. Roderigo’s willingness to wait his turn to enjoy the woman he “loves,” the ease with which Iago can manipulate him into the cowardly attempt on Cassio’s life, the whining stupidity which makes him so easy a prey—these are explicitly contrasted to Othello’s true love and noble nature. Iago


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

marks the contrast in his first soliloquy when he apologizes to himself for wasting time gulling such a “snip” as Roderigo (“sport and profit” excuse the waste), and sets as his real target a man of “free and open nature” to be led (he hopes as easily as such “asses” as Roderigo. Like Satan’s, Iago’s cunning is in leading people into self-destruction, not merely in duping them—and his skill is great. For no one in the play has the least suspicion of him (until Roderigo in act 4), not even the two people who must know him best, his wife Emilia and his battlefield companion Othello. If Othello is vulnerable to him, so are Cassio, Desdemona, and Roderigo, and even Montano and Lodovico: everyone to whom he lies believes him (a statistical demonstration that Othello is not to be considered especially susceptible), and ironically almost everyone turns to him for advice. Structurally, Othello moves toward its catastrophe inexorably, with an increasing narrowing of focus. The first act, in Venice, has the breath of three parallel situations, the gulling of Roderigo, the military danger of the invasion of Cyprus, and the private conflict between Brabantio and the newly married general and his wife. The subplot of Roderigo is maintained right up to the fifth act, repeating again and again Iago’s ability to manipulate the young man’s sensual ambitions for his own profit and the pleasure of watching him squirm. In terms of development, the Iago-Roderigo action is less a subplot than a recurring situation, a reminder of what Iago can do to lesser men whose “love” is only lust. The great public issue of a Turkish invasion, which in act 1 vies in importance with the private affair of the “unnatural” marriage, is removed at the opening of act 2

Othello, The Moore of Venice


when the enemy fleet is “banged” and dispersed by the storm (no doubt Shakespeare’s audience would recall the similar fate of the grand Spanish Armada), constricting action to Iago-OthelloDesdemona. The reader hears of the Turks the proclamation in Act II that links their loss with the celebration of Othello’s nuptials as the double occasion for general holiday. The cashiering of Cassio raises Roderigo's false hopes and sets up Iago’s plan to make Othello suspect the motives of his wife as she generously pleads for the lieutenant’s reinstatement. Othello’s downfall commences in Act IV, after the play has amply established the many virtues in his character. As the poisonous suspicion grows in him, we witness a deterioration of his free, open, and trusting nature, as he commits himself to one act after another that undercuts his greatness: he sets Emilia to spy on Desdemona, he deputizes Iago to take vengeance on Cassio, he stoops to eavesdropping as Iago interviews Cassio, he subjects Desdemona to verbal and then to physical abuse, he lurks in the darkness observing the ambush of Cassio, and then finally murders his innocent wife. But this deterioration is all the while accompanied by the perplexing and paradoxical constancy of his love, for although he is convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, he cannot refrain from loving her. This is shown clearly when he exclaims on the “pity of it” after Iago draws him back from thoughts of her sweetness, delicacy, gentleness, and beauty. As he approaches the murder in the last scene, he has managed to subdue whatever hatred he had displayed in abusing her, and thinks of himself as the abstract agent of divine justice, however, but simultaneously, he is drawn by the beauty of her skin, her


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

balmy breath, the “cunning’s pattern of excelling nature,” to kiss her again and again, even to wish that he could preserve her physical perfection and love it after her death. Like the loving God who must punish his beloved creature for her sin, he must strike the one he loves and pities. After the murder, as the unwinding mysteries reveal to him the extent of his injustice, Othello’s character sinks lower. For a moment he is willing to hide his crime behind Desdemona’s dying words, but then pulls himself up to denounce her lie. His lowest moral point comes in the speech at, in which he gives way to self-pity, blames his act on “fate” and the stars, and cries out for punishment of hell to remove him from the sight of what he has done all without acknowledging that he has been personally responsible. This is counterbalanced by his final speech, when once again he resumes his noble, moral character: he yields up his pride as a great commander, asks only for an honest, plain report of his character, and then reorienting himself in the wide geographical world he had inhabited, he accepts both his guilt and his responsibility to the state. Recalling his defense of Venice against her enemies, he identifies himself both with the Turk who “bent a Venetian and traduced the state,” and with the hero who brought him to justice. He began the last scene in ignorant usurpation of the role of divine justice; he ends his life in an enlightened act of human justice and a final farewell to his beloved. There can be no serious question about Othello’s race. Iago, Brabantio, and Roderigo all refer disparagingly to it (“thicklips,” “sooty bosom”), and Othello himself states plainly “I am

Othello, The Moore of Venice


black.” The word “moor” was used in Shakespeare’s time to identify black Africans as well as practitioners of Mohammedanism. Ideologically speaking, Othello is black and, insofar as his religion is identified, a Christian, and a foreigner in Venice. His race is thematically important, particularly as it would have provided a prejudiced point of departure for Shakespeare’s audiences. Brabantio’s attitude toward it may be taken to represent the common attitude: his daughter is “unnatural” in loving a black, her action to extreme as to make him suppose that magic or witchcraft is the cause (and Desdemona herself acknowledges that her elopement was “downright violence and storm of fortunes”). Common prejudices of the time would have presumed the black man to be less rational, more passionate and lustful, less civilized, and, at the extreme, inherently evil (as the play indicates, the devil himself was thought to be black in hue). Against these assumptions Shakespeare creates a noble, Christian, virtuous man of great imagination, calm self-control, frankness, and honesty, and he bestows on white Iago the qualities of a devil. An audience perceives not only the literal color contrast between the protagonist and antagonist, but the contrasting inversion of the moral qualities symbolically associated with their colors. As he so often does, Shakespeare achieves intense dramatic effects by demonstrating that common prejudices are opposite to the truth.

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL By Richard Brinsley Sheridan The situations in The School for Scandal are quite a possibility. The dialogue of The School for Scandal is light, witty, and airy, but it is also literary, and few characters open their mouths without giving expression to a carefully rounded or phrased sentence or period. The dialogue abounds in wit throughout; the piece produces new and interesting situations in every scene, and sentiments the most natural and elevated arise from those situations. Virtues and principles, operating on conduct, are strongly recommended. Vice is described in its most hideous garb. It is the unfailing point that wit and polish of dialogue make this play a classical of the English stage. The two main kinds of comic language are the language of humor and the language of wit. In Sheridan's conception of character, he is a wit rather than a humorist. He creates character by a distinctly intellectual process; he does not bring it forth out of the depths, as it were, of his own being. His humor, fine and dry as it is, is the humor of the wit. His wit is the wit of common sense. The language of wit predominates in The School for Scandal. The language of wit uses grammar and sentence structure and rhetorical devices with such uncommon fluency that its speech diverges from a norm of good speech and writing, by its more considerable excellence. The language of wit is superb writing, and the nature of its excellence is a symptom of what is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

right with the speaker, using the language of wit. The speaker exceeds the civilized norm and makes us admire his urbanity, insight and wisdom. In the language of wit, the audience perceives a consummate use of words that stems from excellences of character, and the resultant laughter is admiring. The School for Scandal, largely because of its witty language, has been Sheridan's most admired play. The Scandal scenes in particular have been considered a triumph of witty language and they will only work because they are witty. The danger of these scenes, particularly in a poor production, is that they are situations. Nothing happens in term. The plot does not advance. In the language of wit, the audience laughs at the cleverly-used language and becomes a literary appreciator. The point might by proved by taking any the play’s well-turned jokes if not, indeed, destroying the strength of the jokes. For instance, in act 1, the poetaster Sir Benjamin Backbite, unknowingly, makes a joke against his own vapid verses when he describes the appearance of his forthcoming slim volume "a beautiful guar to page, where a neat rivulet of text shall meander through a meadow of margin.” The delight of jokes comes from two sources. The obvious point is the originality of the metaphor, and the subtler point is the reinforcement of sound first in the "neat Rivulet of text," and next in the m's of "meander through a meadow of margin." To rephrase the remark in unmetaphorical and unalliterative statement is to arrive at some thing like: "a beautiful quarto page where a few lines are set off by a wide margin." Sheridan's wit could be genial as well as icy— of which there could be no better proof than the success with which he has enlisted our sympathies for the characters of this

School for Scandal


comedy. Sheridan's characters have descriptive names such as Mr. Snake and Sir Benjamin Backbite. The entire cast of this play consists of comic stereotypes whose ruling passions are accurately labeled by their names. This is an expose of social vice and hypocrisy in which the name of characters contributes to both the comic and moral dimensions of the drama. One group of characters clearly represents the scandal mongering which forms the major activity of the play, their names revealing their various skills in the arts of gossip and slander. The allusion to Miss Prim and Miss Nicely suggest a fleeting satire on social prides—the word nice in the eighteenth century English conveyed the idea of fussy, and finicky, while the figures of Moses and Mr. Premium similarly attack the practices of usury and brokerage. Indeed, almost every name in the play has its satiric point. Perhaps the most important name in the play is Maria. Maria may allude to the purity and innocence of the Virgin Mary, though a religious reference of this kind would seem to be on a very different level from the social satire of the other characters’ names. However, one interprets her name, Maria, to represent true candor and levelheaded judgment in the artificial, brittle social world which Sheridan portrays, refusing to participate in, or even listen to, the malicious gossip of the school for scandal, she steadfastly remains true to Charles, despite all surface evidence. The chief characters are all stock characters of comedy such as the elderly husband, the giddy young wife, the spendthrift young man with a heart of gold. And not only are the character all witty, but they all talk alike. Their wit is Sheridan's wit, which is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

very good wit indeed. Much more to Sheridan's taste was the reputation of a society with which the work chanced to be the best comedy of his century. The great objects of the satire are detraction and hypocrisy which, according to character and situation, the author has very artfully blended, sometimes in the same person and sometimes distinct. The point of the scenes of gossip is to show malicious wit at work and to satirize "high society" as Sheridan saw it. However, Sheridan also employs a double plot of considerable intricacy, involving on the one hand the intrigues of the school for scandal and on the other Sir Oliver Surface's legacy to his nephews. The plot centered on Sir Oliver is a farcical exhibition of the misjudgment which results from scandal mongering and belief in surface appearances. These recognition of scenes employs comic and dramatic irony to make their satiric point: the audience knows more than characters and so can enjoy the working out of the delicious twists and turns of the plot from the eminence of superior knowledge. Thus, all the witty talk of the play is reinforced by the patterned action, with a denouement in which Lady Teazle and Joseph are chagrined and Charles and Maria rewarded. Indeed the moral of the play is that actions speak louder than words. In the eighteenth century, sentiment referred to a refined moral perception combined with emotional sensitivity. Throughout the play, there are many allusions to sentimental comedies in which virtuous characters spoke in eloquent phrases, and proverbs became a literary vogue in the middle of the

School for Scandal


eighteenth century. Sheridan's attitude toward sentiment is mainly ironic. By equating Joseph's sanctimonious platitudes and proverbs with sentiment, he implies that facial expression of moral idea, and tender feeling is suspect unless accompanied by genuinely moral actions and behavior. The custom and fashion for literary sentences is satirized in Joseph's hypocritical epigrams, which often comically contradict each other. Sheridan's satiric treatment of the sentimental man is in part a reaction to the custom of the period, which saw the word used as an almost meaningless term of approbation. Despite Sheridan's ironic view of moral platitudes, he does not banish all sentimental feeling from his play.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD By Anton Chekhov Despite Chekhov’s designation of the play as “A Comedy in Four Acts,” and his correspondence with the Moscow Art Theater during the preparation for the first production in 1904 reaffirming that designation (it is “not a drama but a comedy, in places even a farce”; “the last act will be merry, and indeed the whole play will be merry and frivolous”), the serious interpretation used in that production has generally prevailed the play which has most often been performed as pathetic drama or even tragedy. It is not difficult to understand why this contradiction of the author’s intention should have taken hold among producers and critics, for the subjects of the play are depressingly serious: the loss of an ancestral estate, the rise of a semiliterate, ambitious middle class to replace the aristocrats, the dispossession and scattering of an entire family, the guilt and remorse of a woman who cannot resist her attachment to an unworthy man, and the utter ineffectuality of an entire household. The play is concerned with loss, the failure to comprehend and communicate, and the destruction of an old order. The Cherry Orchard presents a dilemma: the family faces two unacceptable alternatives, either to lose the estate by auction because of the unpaid mortgage (an experience Chekhov’s own family suffered during his childhood), or to destroy it by chopping down its unique distinctive feature and razing its house to replace it with summer cottages. The second alternative (which is finally


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

taken by the man who busies it at auction) offers a “vulgar” economic solution at the expense of the old values; the first preserves the sense of values, at the cost of everything. In this impossible situation, where the choice of either action is insupportable, Mme. Ranevskaya chooses not to act (the play has been criticized for its lack of action, a curious judgment since the subject is inaction). But before we lament the losses presented in the play, it is well to understand precisely what is being lost—and whether it was really ever possessed by the characters in the play. The cherry orchard is the central symbol, representing to the characters various things: to Mme. Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev, the orchard represents childhood innocence, the stability of generations, the beauty of the past, and their own identity as landowners; to Lopakhin, the self-made man who is sentimental about the past but is creating his own future, the orchard (and the estate and its owner) is a reminder of serfdom and the generous condescension of the landed class, but is now non- productive and useless, remarkable only for the acreage it covers; to Trofimov, the idealist pressing for a utopian socialist future, It is a remnant of oppression and injustice; to the half-deaf old servant Firs (who preferred to remain with his former owners) cherries were abundant, sweet, and profitable. But in this variety of attitudes, Chekhov also presents a number of undercutting realities. Mme. Ranecskayan is not, nor has she been for long time, an innocent girl living in a beautiful world (it is to recapture that lost past that she has come back to Russia); the days of serfdom which both Firs and Trofimov link to the orchard were neither as sweet as

The Cherry Orchard


Firs claims (Lopakhin reminds him, though Firs does not hear it, that those were the days of flogging) nor as vicious as Trofimov declares (since both Firs and Lopakhin recall their early lives sentimentally). What is being lost is not in fact an old order of stability, family love and unity, innocence, and usefulness-these which are already long gone. The destruction of the orchard and the estate is the destruction of illusions, a symbolic double negative which the play explores at many levels of action, characterization, and theme. Throughout, this comedy relies for its comic effort on the linking of contraries, the ambivalence of opposite extremes united in single persons and actions. To take on obvious example from the opening of act II, the governess Charlotta soliloquizes about her rootlessness, the emptiness of a life without purpose, her lack of identity (“where I come from and who I am—I do not know”) and then, even before she has finished, she pulls a cucumber out of her pocket and chomps on it, muffling her words (“I have no one”) with a ludicrous action. She combines her pathetic selfevaluation with clownishness and, in her magic tricks, exuberance. Her very first line, during the tearfully joyous entry of the family in act I, is “My dog even eats nuts,” and hilarious irrelevancy that punctures the sentiment of the scene. All of the other characters, and many of the scenes of emotion, follow this pattern: sentiment, pathos, joy, idealism, is suddenly or simultaneously juxtaposed with ludicrousness, pomposity, and slapstick clumsiness. Chastising herself for being a spend-thrift, Mme. Ranevskaya gives a gold coin to a beggar. Apparently insensible to the beauty of the orchard, Lopakhin recalls “when


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

my poppies were in bloom, what a picture it was!” Like Charlott with her cucumber, Gayev pops a candy in his mouth as he is vowing “On my honor, I’ll swear by anything you like, the estate shall not be sold.” This device is not merely ironic undercutting or the satirizing of people whose actions do not match their words or whose words are inconsistent. It is based on Chekhov’s honest observation of human nature and the human predicament: we are all mixtures of opposites (a religious writer like Tolstoy would see this as the condition of mankind after the fall of Adam), and the ending of the play does not falsify this fact by providing or promising any implausible conversions. Mme. Ranevskaya will return to Paris, squander the little money that she has borrowed to pay the mortgage, and then—who knows? Varya will continue to yearn for the two opposite types of existence (wife, nun) while she duplicates her life as housekeeper in someone else’s family. Anya’s naïve innocence will no doubt ultimately give way, probably to imitate her mother whose childhood she represents. Gayev, the victim of mortgage holders, is not likely to last long working in a bank. And so on—nothing will really change these people, since they are genuine human beings for whom miraculous changes are unavailable. Having been stripped of the illusion of stability and beauty, they may not be so easily duped in the future, but there is not even any certainty that this has been a “learning experience” for them. They have had to face their reality, but in life that does not mean they will not again succumb to an unrealistic vision of themselves. The ambivalent structure of the play reinforces this

The Cherry Orchard


evaluation of character. Act I takes place at dawn in springtime, with the orchard in full bloom—but the weather is freezing; the family has come together for a joyous homecoming, yet the progression of the act is toward sleep and silence (Semyonov – Pishchik even dozes off in the middle of speaking, and Anya falls asleep while Varya is telling her of the household problems); only the idealist Trofimov is awake at the end, looking forward to sunshine and springtime and love. Symbolically throughout this act of reunion and family solidarity, very little of the dialogue is actual conversation: each character speaks from within, without responding to the beginning, the family reunion is a collection of separate, self-involved people—and, as Lopakhin keeps reminding them, they are in the process of losing the symbol of their identity and unity. Act II is a midsummer sunset scene, out of doors, with the future in the modern world implied by the distant town and the telegraph poles leading toward it, the past is represented by decaying relict of religion. The family group assembles after a meal in town, but we do not have the idyllic fulfillment of familial closeness that was forestalled by travel weariness in act I. Rather, lassitude predominates, topics for conversation have to be concocted, and the act is full of pensiveness, pauses, and long silences. Lopakhin and Trofimov press for their two very different versions of the future, but silence overcomes them all as they “sit lost in thought,” together but isolated as the action winds down to a standstill. And then the sound of the breaking string propels them into various responses—fears, confusion, prophecy—and the beggar shows them another version of the future, a frightening


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

vision of poverty and wandering. While the first two acts seem to be moving into lethargic disunity, in ironic contrast to the seasons and to the desire to reaffirm community and stability the last two acts are bursting with life though the occasions are dismal. Mme. Ranevskaya has scheduled her party on the day of the auction, and alternately gives way to anxiety and bursts forth with gaiety. Slapstick and clowning are at their height; Charlotte’s tricks delight them all, while Yepikhodov’s clumsiness seems to have infected Trofimov (falling down the stairs), Lopakhin (knocking over a table), and Varya (swinging the pool cue). Gayev enters with grief in his heart, and anchovies and herrings in his hand. Act IV is in almost every way an inverted mirror image of act I: in the same room, now denuded of its nostalgic reminders of childhood, it is afternoon (not morning) in October (not springtime) –and the uncharacteristic frostiness of the spring has been replaced by an autumn that is warm and sunny. The family is preparing to disperse to various destinations, to carry out separate, individual lives, in contrast to their coming together to reunite in shared community. There is the same amount of hustle and bustle, a lavish amount of sentimentality, but at the end the only one to doze off (perhaps, according to some critics, to die) is the ancient servant Firs. The gaiety of Anya and Trofimov, looking to the future, is balanced against the despair of Gayve and Mme. Ranevskaya as they grieve for “life, youth, and happiness.” This is not, on the face of it, a “happy ending,” with all still form of Firs alone on the stage while the breaking string again sounds and the axes destroy the orchard and all the past. It is,

The Cherry Orchard


however, a “real” ending, and it holds some promise. Old Firs is the embodiment of the last illusion, dressed as always in his formal jacket and white waistcoat as if there were still a prosperous, aristocratic world to be served. Anys, Varya, and Mme. Ranevskaya have all voiced concern that he was to be sent to the hospital, but this sincere emotion has not been put to practice; the deaf old man has been left behind, a memory of loyal and efficient service in a life now past. What prompted Chekhov to undertake in The Cherry Orchard a dramatic work with new thematic dimensions, one strikingly different in key from his preceding dramas? The answer must be sought in the attitude of the critics toward the thematic content–not the style—of The Three Sisters, as well as in Chekhov’s own responsiveness to the social and aesthetic demands of the time. Even when working on the new play, Chekhov was critical of his manner of writing. “I have the feeling that my style has grown old.” Or, “I feel that as a writer I have already outlived my time; every sentence I write strikes me as completely worthless and unnecessary.” Chekhov sought “renewal” of his dramatic technique in devices of the comic genre. Let us consider Chekhov’s observations on vaudeville at the time when he was writing The Cherry Orchard, his penchant for a comic tone: these reveal to us the sources of the unique compositional features of The Cherry Orchard, especially as they relate to tone. Directly following the staging of The Three Sisters early in 1901, Chekhov notes: “The next play that I write will be, without


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

fail, funny, very funny, at least in its conception.” Or: “At times I am overcome by a strong desire to write a four-act vaudeville or comedy for the Moscow Art Theater.” And again: “I still dream of writing a funny play, where the devil is running loose,” “I’d like to write a vaudeville, but there is just no time; I can’t pull myself together. I have some kind of presentiment that vaudeville will soon come back into fashion.” At this very time Chekhov was revising his old vaudeville, On the Harmful Effect of Tobacco. While shaping the new play and developing the characters, Chekhov wrote to O.L. Knipper “if my play doesn’t come out as I have conceived it, then clout me on the head. There’s a comic part for Stanislavski, for you too.” “The last act will be gay, light hearted.” Apropos the comic role of Charlotta Ivanovna, Chekhov wrote: “Ah, if only you were to play the governess in my play. It’s the best role; the other ones don’t appeal to me.” In characterizing the play as a whole, Chekhov wrote again: “I have a feeling that there is something new in my play, however boring it may be. Incidentally, there’s not one shot in the entire play.” “I’m calling the play a comedy.” “It turned out to be not a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce.” In the dramatis personae, there is a tendency to indicate by the first and last names of the characters whether they belong to the “intelligentsia” or not. The characters in the play are delineated through 1) recurrent themes in their dialogue and 2) peculiarities of individual speech and gesture. We may single out by way of example Lyubov Andreevna Ranevskaya. She is characterized by Lopakhin, Gayev, Anya, her own words; by an incident from everyday life (she drops her purse, the money

The Cherry Orchard


scatters); by her relations with Varya, Trofimove, Gave, and with “him” [her lover] living in Paris who sends her telegrams open, “joyous” emotions, excitability, rapid transitions from tears to laughter—all this is typical of Ranevskaya. Her movements, intonation, patterns of behavior are set forth in Chekhov’s stage directions. There is no division of the act into scenes. We may single out the basic themes that recur in the dialogue, as follows, in the order of their appearance within the act.

The first act introduces the initial and characterizing themes that arise in the context of Ranevskaya’s arrival at the estate. Thus the theme of Lopakhin with a flashback and a view of Ranevskaya, as well as a partial development of the theme of Dunyasha. Transition: the arrival of Epikhodov. The theme of Epikhodov and, partially, that of Dunyasha. Transition: the scene of the arrival of Ranevskaya, speeches and special characterizations of Ranevskaya and Varya. The theme of Anya and, partially, that of Dunyasha. The theme of Anya, characterization of Ranevskaya by Anya, with a general flashback, and with the introduction of the everyday plot element (the bankruptcy and impending sale of the estate). The theme of Varya. The dialogue between Varya and Anya is interrupted by a brief exchange between Yasha and Dunyasha. The dialogue concludes with a flashback by Anya. The theme of Firs. The theme of Gave. As we progress—with all the characters introduced—the characterization themes recur and interchange, though there is no full development of these themes. Thus: the themes of Ranveskaya and Lopakhin, with the exposition of the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

plot, with the settlement on a general theme, and with a preliminary clash of the characters (Lopakhin, Ranevskaya, and Gave and the sale of the cherry orchard); the themes of Gave, Pishchik, Charlotta, Pishchik, Firs, Ranevskaya. The arrival of Trofimov. The theme of Trofimov and the termination of the theme of Pishchik. A new grouping of characters. The theme of Yasha, the characterization of Renevshaya as seen by Gave. The theme of Anya and Gave with a general exposition. The theme of Varya. In the final scene we have a genre scene lyrically presented. We shall designate the main themes in Act I with capital letters: A-Lophakhin; B- Ranevskaya; C-the sale of the estate. We shall use small letters to indicate the other themes. We get a picture of an unsystematic movement of themes. In Act II, the characterizing themes are these groupings: Charlotta and Epikhodov, Dunyasha and Yasha. Transition: the arrival of new characters. Episodic scenes. Themes and speeches of Gave, Ranevskaya, Lopakhin; the theme of the sale of the estate serves as a stimulus for the characterizing theme of Gave and Ranevskaya. The theme of Ranevskaya, with self-exposition. The theme of Lopakhin. Episode with the theme of Firs. Arrival of new characters. Characterization of Lopakhin by Trofimov. Trofimov’s theme of the proud man, of the intelligentsia, of life, all of which is picked up by Lopakhin. Later, successive interchange of episodes with internal themes: Gave’s declamation, the falling bucket, characteristic replies of Firs, of the Passer–by, and the characterizing theme of Ranevskaya. Termination of the themes and the exist of characters. In the final—the theme of

The Cherry Orchard


Anya and Trofimov, with disclosure of the general synthetic theme of the play, lyrically interpreted. The background, in Act III, is the ball, with music. The theme of Pishchik, which is broken off by the start of the episode of Trofimov and Varya. Start of the movement of the basic theme in the act of the sale of the estate, which is broken off by the start of the episode “Charlotta and her tricks,” and later by the end of the episode of “Trofimov and Varya,” which is interpreted as the theme of the relationship of Lopakhin and Varya. The recurring, basic theme of the act is again replaced by the Trofimov and Ranevskaya, settling on the overall, “synthetic” theme, which is interrupted by the themes of Ranevskaya and Trofimov and which is concluded by a vivid, [lyrically] expressive scene. Conclusion of the scene. Start of the theme of Firs and Yasha. Recurrence of the basic, “synthetic” theme. Interchange of episodic themes: Pishchik, Charlotta Ivanovna (silent scene), Dunyasha, Epikhodov and Dunyasha, Epikhodov and Varya, Varya and Lopakhin. Recurrence of the basic theme, which makes the basic theme of the act, settling on the overall, “synthetic” theme. In the final— the theme of Ranevskaya as seen by Anya, with a lyrical treatment of the overall theme. In Act IV, the movement of the themes occurs in the context of the dialogue of departure and Farewell. The introductory dialogue between Lopakhin and Yasha, the theme of Lopakhin. The theme of Trofimov and Lopakhin with a partial movement toward the overall, “synthetic” theme. Start of the movement of the episodic theme of Firs, which moves through the entire act. The theme of Dunyash and Yasha, which concludes


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

their relationship. The theme of Charlotta and Pishchik. Recurrence of the theme of Firs. The theme of Lopakhin and Varya. Start of the departure scene, with the themes of Gave, Ranevskaya, Epikhodov, Yasha, Anya, and Trofimov standing out. Termination of the plot line and of the distinctive themes-inpairs: Gave – Ranevskaya and Anya-Trofimov. The finale presents the termination of the theme of Firs. Thus, the movement of themes through the acts is accomplished according to the principle of unorganized articulation, of a kind of disintegration of composition in which the devices of interruption, severance, and recurrence of themes clearly stand out. Each act, however, acquires its compositional unity through the primary movement of one basic theme in the act. Thus, Act I gives, in abundance, the themes characteristic of Ranevskaya and only partially introduces the sale of the estate. Act II distinguishes the theme of Lopakhin. Act III is organized on the principle of an uninterrupted and intensifying movement of the theme of the sale of the estate. Act IV is constructed by distinguishing the episodic theme of Firs. The functions of the acts in the general structure of the play are not unusual: Act I discloses the background in everyday life, gives the disposition of characters and their basic characterizations, and partially points up the plot line of the play (in the encounter of Lopakhin and Ranevskaya). Act II brings out the themes of the preceding act but complicates the thematic sequence with the new general themes of Trofimov [ the need for work, censure of the intelligentsia, dream of happiness, etc]. Act III dramatizes, partially along personal lines, the basic theme of

The Cherry Orchard


the play (Trofimov-Ranevskaya), reveals fully the synthesizing role of Lopakhin, and terminatez the plot line. Act IV rounds out the fates of the characters: Lopakhin, Trofimov, Ranevskaya, Anya, Varya Firs, and partially hints at a continuation of the action beyond the play. The play has no dramatic plot, that is, the play has no such correlation of “events” as would make it possible to develop or bring out the characters, or disclose the phases of their “movement.” Therefore, there are no dramatic moments in the play. The fate of characters, their actions and behavior, are motivated entirely by common everyday situations and “events”. The basic everyday “events” –the sale of the estate predetermined from the start of the play—is the motive force which organizes the characters and the plot structure of the play, that is, the background against which the characters unfold. There are no love themes and relationships in the play: the relationship of Trofimov to Anya is qualified as one which is not a love relationship; the relations of Lopakhin and Varya are not revealed; the love theme of Ranevskaya—of which there are clear hints—also is not spelled out in the play; the love themes of Dunyasha and Epikhodov or of Dunyasha and Yasha come across as plain comedy, almost on the plan of parody. The plot line is developed through the contrasting movement of the characters; these are arranged in two opposing groups: Ranevskaya and Gave, on the one hand, and Lopakhin, Trofimov, and Anya on the other. There is a common ground: the sale of the estate. Both groups are disclosed in their thematic and tonal relationships: that is, the sale of the estate serves to bring out


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the individuality of the characters; in time these characters become polarized in patterns representing a thematic (ideological) contrast (Ranevskaya-Lopkhin), and they are presented in contrasting, lyrically expressive tones (the speeches and conduct of Ranevskaya and Gave introduce a minor tonality; those of Lopakhin, Trofimov, and Anya, a major tonality; those of Lopakhin, Trofiov, and Anya, a major tonality). Each group of characters is differentiated within itself according to the principle of antithesis. Ranevskaya is more vigorous in self-expression and address than Gave. Expressive emotional speech in Lopakhin is distinctively local and individual, whereas the expressive emotional element in Anya and Trofimov partakes of their general grasp of the “questions of life.” The play has a “synthetic” theme: a psychological pattern and then a social one are superimposed on a pattern of everyday life. The “synthetic” theme is established through the relationships of the characters to a single, everyday matter; the exact motivation of these relationships, of course, is different with each character and has a different tone color. The author develops the basic theme of the play dialectically; at the same time he suggests its markedly synthetic character in his mastery not so much of individual scenes and speeches, as of the harmonious thematic composition of the whole play. The synthetic catalyst is indicated on the comic–not the dramatic–plane of the play, in the predominantly major key of the speeches of Anya and Trofimov. Lopakhin and Trofimov carry the central speeches which reveal the general theme. But though their speeches coincide in theme, their point of departure is different.

The Cherry Orchard


The function of other characters is to create a background of everyday life. The relationships among the characters in the play are notably unresolved (Lopakhin-Varya; Yasha, EpikhodovDunyasha). The absence of a dramatic plot and of dramatic treatment of the majority of characters (Ranevskaya and Gave are the exceptions), together with the abundance of comic scenes and situations, allows the acts to unfold without pressure form plot or dramatic requirements. The single crisis in the play—in Act III when the sale of the estate might have been a moment of dramatic disclosure of Ranevskaya and Gave is presented in a dramatically weakened, lyrically expressive from; on the other hand, the highly dramatic action preceding this moment of everyday comedy. In short, the action is developed in the unique style of the grotesque. The same technique for lessening dramatic intensity may be observed in the design—generally lyrical—of the ends of the acts. As a rule themes are not extensively developed, but only hinted at in speeches of various characters, and then broken off. The intervening theme or episode can lead to a return to one which was dropped or not fully developed. The alternation of themes is generally without motivation, except of the most common kind. Observations grow out of ordinary situations. Rejoinders often are laconic in style and underlined to any particular theme in the dialogue. The dialogue is rich in incidents and situations drawn from everyday life. There is a conscious and extensive disposition of expressive forms of dialogue. We may distinguish some typical


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

examples: 1) the direct, vivid lyrical utterance which signifies an open but tense emotional state; thus, Ranevskaya [looks at the orchard through the window]: “Oh, my childhood, my innocent childhood!” and so on. 2)The lyrical, passive utterance, large, overarching themes are conveyed lyrically. Thus, Trofimov: “Yes, the moon is rising (Pause). Here it is! Happiness is here. Here it comes, nearer, ever nearer. Already I hear its footsteps. And if we never see it, if we never know it, what does that matter? Others will see it!”. 3) The short, expressive comment which reveals basic themes; for example, Anya: “Goodbye, house! Goodbye, old life.” Trofimove: “And welcome, new life!”. 4) The expressive monologue: Lopakhin’s and Anya’s. 5) The expressive, charged dialogue: the episode of Trofimov and Ranevskaya. 6) Play with contrasting overtones: Gave and Ranevskaya as opposed to Anya and Trofimov in the finale. 7) The buildup of emotions which is lyrically, though not dramatically, resolved. (Act III-Ranevskaya). 8) The lyrical endings of the acts. 9) The expressive parody forms: Gave’s speech to the bookcase; Gave declaiming; Gave. The extensive use of pauses conditions the lyrical character of the dialogue. Pauses are introduced as a sign of “reflection,” usually with Lopakhin; as a sign of a change of theme; as an indication of troubled speech; as an indication of an emotion that is being revealed. There is an abundance of pauses containing sounds— sounds that have nothing to do with the dialogue, or which form a kind of lyrical accompaniment to words; music, waltzing in Act III. The general pause with some sound which is related to the

The Cherry Orchard


plot is of special significance. This kind of pause emphasizes the symbolic level of meaning in the strong sound effect; e.g., the sound of the “breaking string”, the sound of the “axe striking a tree”. The general pause which is taken up by the ordinary business of life has a plot function; for example, the moment following Lopakhin’s brief remarks about the purchase of the estate. Other pauses with everyday life content bear functions having to do with staging. The pauses are distributed through the acts as follows: 10, 17, 1, and 15. The almost complete absence of pauses in Act III is explained by the compositional requirements of the act. The dialogue proceeds against the background of the ball, in the intervals between dances and amidst comedy scenes. The general decrease in pauses as compared with the peak in pauses in the preceding play [The Three Sisters] can be explained, over and above the realization of the theme of the play on a different (comedy) level, by the small scope of the entire play, but especially of the final act. The lyrical conception of the acts extends even to the formulation of stage directions; the latter not only are designed for the stage, but have a literary, narrative function. Here are some examples from Act I and Act II: (Act I) Dawn is breaking and the sun will soon be up. It is May. The cherry trees are in bloom, but it is cold and frosty in the orchard. (Act II) In open country. A small, tumble-down old chapel long ago abandoned. Near it a well, some large stones which look like old tombstones, and an old bench. A road can be seen leading to


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Gave’s estate. Dark poplar trees loom on one side and beyond them the cherry orchard beings. There is a row of telegraph poles in the distance and far, far away on the horizon are the dim outlines of a big town, visible only in very fine, clear weather. It will soon be sunset. Everyone sits deep in thought. It is very quite. All that can be heard is Firs’s low muttering. Suddenly a distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky and is the sound of a breaking string. It dies away sadly. One might also note the stage directions in the other acts, and also directions of the following type: Anya “has reverted to a calmer mood and is happy.” We find wide use of everyday mise-en-scene, of, common entrances and exist of characters, the double playing areas (Act III—the arch which divides the reception room from the ballroom), and the introduction of silent scenes saturated with the mood of everyday surroundings. The lyrical background of the action is created through lyrical pauses and sound effects, and also by silent lyrical scenes and through the alternation of “natural” background (in Act I it is May; in Act IV, October). What is original in the composition and style of The Cherry Orchard as a whole –in comparison with the preceding plays—is the understructure of comedy: comic situations and episodes in the play’s ensemble, a large number of comic characters, the introduction of a general major tonality. This style of comedy did not exclude a dramatic treatment of the emotions of the separate characters, but it forms a leitmotif to this dramatic treatment throughout the course of the play.

The Cherry Orchard


We may speak of another new feature of the play: through the technique of dialogue and the disposition of characters, Chekhov wrought an organic, frankly social theme – but one which is nevertheless structured within a psychological framework of everyday life. The devices for character drawing and of successive, unmotivated interchange of dialogue themes, the everyday motivations of dialogue themes, the everyday motivations of dialogue and plot, devices for treating the dialogue lyrically—all mark back in nuance and detail to the stylistic practices, chiefly, of The Three Sisters, which was closest in time to The Cherry Orchard. However, other facets of the new play give evidence that Chekhov set new dramatic tasks in his last dramatic experiment. The play’s “plotless” quality, together with the absence of love entanglements (which usually organize, dramatically, the overall actions of the characters in a psychological drama of everyday life) and the absence of “events” (which usually dramatize the sequence of happenings in daily life); the absence of any visible organization of the episodes and speeches in an act (composition without the usual dramatic principle of composition); the use of expressive lyrical transitions all solved particular tasks in the spirit of a compositional –stylistic system to which the author was already accustomed. The new general and particular tasks of the play did not destroy the principle which Chekhov had mastered in his other plays, but the combination of them in one scheme gave rise to “mixed,” distinctively grotesque forms. The features of The Cherry Orchard which we have noted


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

are reflected in the evolution of the text of the play and in Chekhov’s reactions to various correspondents. An examination of the evolution of the text brings into relief the author’s extremely careful reworking of the dialogue and those elements of the







acknowledges, were “difficult.” The letters disclose those aspects and areas of The Cherry Orchard which draw Chekhov’s attention. Chekhov observes: “The play … is making slow progress, which I explain … by the difficulty of the plot.” Or: “how hard it was for me to write the play!” Defining the scope of the play, Chekhov writes: “My Cherry Orchard will be in three acts. That’s how it looks to me, but I have not made the final decision yet.” Or: “I wanted to make The Cherry Orchard into three long acts, but I can do it in four. It’s all the same to me, whether there are three or four acts—the play will be the same anyway.” And later: “The fourth act in my play, in comparison with the other acts, will be meager in its content, but effective.” And again: “The fourth act is coming easily, almost smoothly.” In these remarks Chekhov in a way was underscoring the following compositional feature of his play (which we find also in the preceding plays): the plot of the play is brought to a close in Act III; the final act in its combination of common everyday affairs and lyric mood has the character of a final: it emphasizes the fact that the problems and relationships of the characters are not resolved and it projects the action beyond the limits of the play into a realm of everyday life. As he worked over the play, the author was troubled principally by the second act with its exclusively lyrical design.

The Cherry Orchard


“It was hard, very hard, to write the second act.” He writes again: “The third act itself is not boring, but the second is boring and monotonous, like a spider web.” Then again: “I was mainly frightened by the lack of movement in the second act.” At the same time Chekhov was worried by the weakening of those devices for obtaining lyrical effects which he has used in preceding plays: “it will be necessary […] very likely, to change two or three words at the end of Act III, otherwise it will probably be like the end of Uncle Vanya.” We have already seen that Chekhov, in his letters, defied the formal problem of the play as an attempt at providing an understructure of comedy, with corresponding comic characters. He paid a great deal of attention in his letters to explaining the comic and dramatic functions of the characters. When comparing, apparently, the number of people in the new play to the larger group of people in The Three Sisters, Chekhov wrote: “I am making an effort to limit the number of characters as much as possible; it will be more intimate this way.” And later, in various letters, we find characterizations of people that Chekhov defined as being, in a stage sense, “live characters”; comic characters are affirmed and comic traits singled out (Gave, Lopakhin, Charlotta, Varya, and others). Chekhov stresses the importance of maintaining a gay and lively tone in the play and gives an exact interpretation of the roles of the different characters, especially Lopakhin in Chekhov’s view the “central role in the play.” Chekhov gives special attention to the stage interpretation of gesture and external appearance of characters, to expression in the roles the characteristic themes, as well as the environment


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

surrounding the performance and to sound effects. Chekhov was himself present at the rehearsals of the play and frequently corrected parts of it in the interests of clarity and expressiveness. The Cherry Orchard was performed at the Moscow Art Theater while Chekhov was still living. The thematic conception of the play had demanded a new structural framework; it had been realized on a new plane of comedy; it had been implemented by well-tried methods of Chekhov’s dramatic style. The directors of the Moscow Art Theater interpreted the thematic conception of the play according to the principle which they had used in earlier Chekhov plays. But in acting by analogy and in transferring to Chekhov’s last play the directing practices used in earlier plays, the Moscow Art Theater somehow ignored the original conceptions and new dramatic perspectives of The Cherry Orchard. And Chekhov sharply censured the staging of the play in this theater: “How terrible this is! Act IV, which should last twelve minutes maximum, runs forty minutes with you. I can only say that Stanislavsky ruined the play for me.” Or again: “Why is my play so insistently called a drama in the playbills and the newspaper announcements? Nemirovich and Alekseev [Stanislavsky] simply don’t what I have written in my play, and I am ready to bet that not once has either of them read my play attentively.” The Cherry Orchard is often accused of having no plot whatever, and it is true the story gives little indication of the play’s content or meaning; nothing happens as the Broadway reviewers so often point out. Nor does it have a thesis, though many attempts have been made to attribute a thesis to it, to make

The Cherry Orchard


it into a Marxian tract, or into a nostalgic defense of the old regime. The play does not have much of a ploy in either of these accepted meanings of the word, for it is not addressed to the rationalizing mind but to the poetic and histrionic sensibility. It is an imitation of an action in the strictest sense, and it is plotted according to the first meaning of this word which the readers have distinguished in other context: the incidents are selected and arranged to define an action in a certain mode; a complete action, with a beginning, middle, and end. Its freedom from the mechanical order of the thesis or the intrigue is the sign of the perfection of Chekhov’s realistic art. And its apparently casual incidents are actually composed with most elaborate and conscious skill to reveal the underlying life, and the natural, objective form of the play as a whole. In Ghosts, the action is distorted by the stereotyped requirements of the thesis and the intrigue. That is partly a matter of the mode of action which Ibsen was trying to show; a quest “of ethical motivation” which requires some sort of intellectual framework, and yet can have no final meaning in the purely literal terms of Ibsen’s theater. The Cherry Orchard, on the other hand, is a drama of “pathetic motivation,” a theater-poem of the suffering of change; and this mode of actions and awareness is much closer to the skeptical basis of modern realism, and to the histrionic basis of all realism. Direct perception before predication is always true, says Aristotle; and the extraordinary feat of Chekhov is to predicate nothing. This he achieves by means of his plot: he selects only those incidents, those moments in his characters’ lives, between their rationalized efforts, when they


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

sense their situation and destiny most directly. So he contrives to show the action of the play as a whole—the unsuccessful attempt to cling to the cherry orchard—in many diverse reflectors and without propounding any thesis about it. The slight narrative thread which ties these incidents and characters together for the inquiring mind is quickly recounted. The family that owns the old estate named after its famous orchard—Lyubov her brother Gave, and her daughters Varya and Anya—is all but bankrupt, and the question is how to prevent the bailiffs from selling the estate to pay their depts. Lopakhin, whose family were formerly serfs on the estate, is now rapidly growing rich as a businessman, and he offers a very sensible plan: chop down the orchard, divide the property into small lots, and sell them off to make a residential suburb for the growing industrial town nearby. Thus the cash value of the estate could be not only preserved, but increased. But this would not save what Lyubov and her brother finds valuable in the old estate; they cannot consent to the destruction of the orchard, but they cannot find, or earn, or borrow the money to pay their debts either; and in due course the estate is sold at auction to Lopakhin himself, who will make a very good thing of it. His workmen are hacking at the old trees before the family is out of the house. The play may be briefly described ensemble pathos: the characters all suffer the passing of the estate in different ways, thus adumbrating this change at a deeper and more generally significant level than that of any individual’s experience. The action which they all share by analogy, and which informs the suffering of the destined change of the cherry orchard, is “to save

The Cherry Orchard


the cherry orchard”: that is, each character sees some value in it— economic, sentimental, social and cultural which he wishes to keep. By means of his plot, Chekhov always focuses attention on the general action: his crowded stage, full of the characters I have mentioned as well as half a dozen hangers-on, is like an implicit discussion of the fatality which concerns them all; but Chekhov does not believe in their ideas, and the interplay he shows among his dramatis personae is not so much the play of thought as the alternation of his characters’ perceptions of their situation, as the moods shift and the time for decision comes and goes. Though the action which Chekhov chooses to show onstage is “pathetic,” i.e., suffering and perception, it is complete: the cherry orchard is constituted before our eyes, and then dissolved. The first act is a prologue: it is the occasion of Lyubov’s return from Paris to try to resume her old life. Through her eyes and those of her daughter Anya, as well as from the complementary perspectives of Lopakhin and Trofimov, we see the estate as it were in the round, in its many possible meanings. The second act corresponds to the agony; it is in this act that we become aware of the conflicting values of all the characters, and of the efforts they make (offstage) to save each one his orchard. The third act corresponds to the pathos and periphery of the traditional tragic form. The occasion is a rather hysterical party which Lyubov gives while her estate is being sold at auctioning the nearby town; it ends with Lopakhin’s announcement, in pride and the bitterness of guilt, that he was the purchaser. The last act is the epiphany: we see the action, now completed, in a new and ironic light. The occasion is the departure of the family: the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

windows are boarded up, the furniture piled in the corners, and the bags packed. All the characters feel, and the audience sees in a thousand ways, that the wish to save the orchard has amounted in fact to destroying it; the gathering of its denizens to separation; the homecoming to departure. What this means we are not told. But the action is completed, and the poem of the suffering of change concludes in a new and final perception, and a rich chord of feeling. The structure of each act is based upon a more or less ceremonious social occasion. In his use of the social ceremony – arrivals, departures, anniversaries, and parties—Chekhov is akin to James. His purpose is the same: to focus attention on an action which all share by analogy, instead of the reasoned purpose of any individual, as Ibsen does in his drama of ethical motivation. Chekhov uses the social occasion also to reveal the individual at moments when he is least enclosed in his private rationalization and most open to disinterested insights. The Chekhovian ensembles may appear superficially to be mere pointless stalemates—too like family gatherings and arbitrary meetings which we know offstage. So they are. But in his miraculous arrangement the very discomfort of many presences is made to reveal fundamental aspects of the human situation. That Chekhov’s art of plotting is extremely conscious and deliberate is clear the moment one considers the distinction between the stories of his characters as we learn about them, and the moments of their lives which he chose to show directly onstage. Lopakhin, for example, is a man of action like one of the new capitalists in Gorky’s plays. Chekhov knew all about him,

The Cherry Orchard


and could have shown us an exciting episode from his career if he had not chosen to see him only when he was forced to pause and pathetically sense his own motives in a wider context which qualifies their importance. Lyubov has been dragged about Europe for years by her never-do-well lover, and her life might have yielded several sure-fire erotic intrigues like those of the commercial theater. But Chekhov, like all the great artists of modern times, rejected these standard motivations as both stale and false. The actress Arkadina, in The Seagull, remarks, as she closes a novel of Maupassant’s, “Well, among the French that may be, but here with us there’s nothing of the kind, we’ve no set program.” In the context the irony of her remark is deep: she is herself a purest product of the commercial theater, and at that very time she is engaged in a love affair of the kind she objects to in Maupassant. But Chekhov, with his subtle art of plotting, has caught her in a situation, and at a brief moment of clarity and pause, when the falsity of her career is clear to all, even herself. Thus Chekhov, by his art of plot-making, defines an action in the opposite mode to that of Ghosts. Ibsen defines a desperate quest for reasons and for ultimate, intelligible moral values. This action falls naturally into the form of the agony, and at the end of the play Ibsen in at a loss to develop the final pathos, or bring it to an end with an accepted perception. But the pathetic is the very mode of action and awareness which seems to Chekhov closest to the reality of the human situation and by means of his plot he shows, even in characters who are not in themselves unusually passive, the suffering and the perception of change. The “moment” of human experience which The Cherry Orchard


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

presents thus corresponds to that of the Sophoclean chorus, and of the evenings in the Purgatory. Ghosts is a fighting play, armed for its reasons. Chekhov’s poetry, like Ibsen’s, is behind the naturalistic surfaces; but the form of the play as a whole is “nothing but” poetry in the widest sense: the coherence of the concrete elements of the composition. Hence the curious vulnerability of Chekhov on the contemporary stage: he does not argue, he merely presents; and though his audiences even on Broadway are touched by the time they reach the last act, they are at loss to say what it is all about. It is this reticent objectivity of Chekhov also which makes him so difficult analyze in words: he appeals exclusively to the histrionic sensibility where the little poetry of modern realism is to be found. Nevertheless, the effort of analysis must be made if one is to understand this art at all; he is asked to consider one element, that of the scene, in the composition of the second act. Jean Cocteau writes, in his preface to Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel: “The action of my play is in images (imagee) while the text is not: I attempt to substitute ‘poetry of the theater’ for ‘poetry in the theater.’ Poetry in the theater would be coarse lace; a lace of ropes, a ship at sea. Les Maries should have the frightening look of a drop of poetry under the microscope. The scenes are integrated like the words of a poem.” This description applies very exactly to The Cherry Orchard: the larger elements of the composition –the scenes or episodes, the setting, and the developing story—are composed in such a way as to make poetry of the theater; but the “text” as we read it literally, is not. Chekhov’s method, as Stark Young puts it

The Cherry Orchard


in the preface to his translation of The Seagull, is “to take actual material such as we find in life and manage it in such a way that the inner meanings are made to appear. On the surface the life in his plays in natural, possible, and at time in effect even casual.” Young’s translation of Chekhov’s plays, together with his beautifully accurate notes, explanations, and interpretations, have made the text of Chekhov at last available for the Englishspeaking stage, and for any reader who will bring to his reading a little patience and imagination. Young shows us what Chekhov means in detail: by the particular words his characters use; by their rhythms of speech; by their gestures, pauses, and bits of stage business. In short, he makes the text transparent, enabling us to see through it to the music of action, the underlying poetry of the composition as a whole and this is as much as to say that any study of Chekhov (lacking as we do adequate and available productions) must be based upon Young’s work.

THE MISANTHROPE By Moliere Much modern criticism is devoted to psychoanalyzing Alceste’s misanthropy, and to pointing out such inconsistencies between his actions and feelings, and statements as to question his right to that title. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, Alceste provides fertile ground for investigation, as, for example, when he insists that the patent rightness of his case at law will be sufficient to bring him the justice he deserves and then drops his cries for justice to take satisfaction inconsistent in his love affair, wanting the social sanction of marriage, and insisting that Celimene join him in an antisocial retreat form the world. Critics have been tempted to search for a single key, an unstated motive that will explain such conflicting desires; but it may be as well to take Alceste at face value, as one takes Iago—as a character in a drama who has no more (and no less) to him than the playwright endowed him with. That is, we must see Alceste as a central figure that provokes the conflicts that move the comedy forward. Alceste has three areas of conflict: he wants to reform the manners of society so that all speech and action will be honest and sincere; he wants to win his lawsuit (the exact nature of which is not mentioned) so as to vindicate his honor and honesty and to demonstrate that plain truth can overcome lies; and he wants to marry Celimene so as to satisfy his beloved and win her from her false and brittle manners. The first and third of these desires are similar, for they require that insincerity give way to direct


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

expressions of feeling and thought; the second, since it is defensive, differs to the extent that it assumes that honesty is the purpose of the system of justice rather than dishonesty is the purpose of the system of justice rather than dishonesty needs to be extirpated. In all three conflicts Alceste fails, thus justifying to himself his breaking from the social, political, and emotional bonds that hold him. (Historical criticism suggests that what he proposes to share with Celimene and determines to undertake alone is not an exile to some rocky cave or barren wilderness, but only a withdrawal from Paris, presumably to a country estate away from the court world.) The opening conversation between Philinte and Alceste establishes these three conflicts and, in the prudent and realistic attitude of Philinte, reveals the potential of them. Philinte tells Alceste that conforming to the traditions and rules of social and judicial behavior is not onerous, and is appropriate in a talk with the judges before his case is heard, is not a suggestion of bribery or corruption, but rather pints him in the right direction, toward making his human situation open to judgment, it is what Celimene has done in her own law case, and is unsavory only to the extent that she must put up with the stupidity of a man of influence. But Alceste is not willing to see himself in such mixed terms—right and wrong are to him absolutely clear; as he presumes they should be in a court of law. As his later reaction to losing the case reveals, Alcetse wants to win, but more than that he wants to be right, and if the system of justice will not proclaim him right he will have the personal satisfaction of knowing that the system is wrong.

The Misanthrope


The solution to his love problem, as Philinte presents it, is rather different: not that he should conform and find a livable compromise, but that he should transfer his attentions from Celimene to her more honest and sensible cousin Eliante. Such a reasonable course of action is of course rejected by Alcetse, who acknowledges that in some situations (law, manners) he is ruled by reason, but in love his irrational heart, Alceste is almost a formula for the classical definition of human nature, for in some instances he is wholly rational, while in others he is entirely emotional. This mixture in himself is what Philinte wants him to accept in others. The three conflicts are resolved is the other of their initial presentation in 1.1. Detesting both Oronte’s artificial manners and the artificiality of his sonnet, after a momentary attempt to disguise his rejection Alceste treats Ornote with such candor that his rudeness nearly leads to a duel, requiring the intervention of the Marshals to patch up the quarrel. The resolution is a defeat for Alceste, since he must seem to apologize (for his bluntness, but not for his judgment). The legal decision follows another failure that again feeds Alceste’s sense of singular superiority. Finally, when fear of solitude prevents Celimene from acting on her own proposal of marriage to Alceste, she experiences failure for a third time. Is Alceste a comic figure? Philinte credits him with the reputation of a “crank,” a characterization which seems to fit rather well, making him a subject of ridicule. The key to his personality—if there is a key—is his inflexibility, his temperamental inability to keep his rectitude “plaint” as Philinte


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

advises. He displays occasional attempts at pliancy, as when he euphemistically offers his judgment of Oronte’s sonnet in terms of what he once told “one whose name I shall not mention,” or when, as Philinte reports, he allows his equivocal remarks to the Marshals to be taken for an apology. But with Celimene there are no such attempts, for his courtship of her includes a fervent confession that he has tried to “exorcise” her possession of his hearth, ultimatums and demands that she says publicly what she has frankly told him in private, and a misanthropic proviso that when married they live away from society. This final condition requires that they literally exist in that microcosmic world of lovers’ hyperboles, where each is to the other the whole universe. In a tragic world, Alceste’s inflexibility would make him comparable to such tragically inflexible characters as Oedipus and Othello, but as Philinte tells him, his “philosophic rage is a bit extreme for the worlds he lives in. “Alceste’s rage does not lead to catastrophe and self-awareness, but to conflicts in which the outcome serves only to disappoint and isolate him, driving him from a society whose norms he will not accept. The compromises suggested by Philinte are the compromises required in a peopled world mixing the good and devil propensities of humanity. Modern psychology can certainly diagnose in him a case, and we are free to wonder whether he truly wants to win his battles or whether his misanthropy is a rationalization that he reinforces by losing. But whatever lies behind, in the foreground, Alceste is a self-created “crank” who invites his own unhappiness. Alceste’s position is complicated by the fact that however extreme his approach, an audience is tempted to find his values

The Misanthrope


superior to those he rejects. Sincerity, candor, and honesty are posed against the patent falseness of Celimene and her courtiers. Acaste’s self-approving catalogue of his qualities in the opening sense of Act III explicitly defines what his society approves, as Celimene’s gossipy portrait painting and her letters to Clitander and Acaste define the rejection. The brilliant exchange of “friendly advice” between the pretended prude Arsione and the socially successful Celimene is a direct confrontation of the do’s and don’ts of this world, made more complex and intriguing since Celimene’s retort is both beautifully balanced against Arsinoe’s attack and also is honest in response to hypocrisy. It might have done Alceste good to have heard this exchange, since Celimene’s position is not very far from his own. The pairing of Eliante and Philinte as common-sense characters exiting between Alceste’s inflexible rectitude and Celimene’s permissive pliancy provides a gauge for measuring such extremes. They demonstrate, for one thing, that persons can be in this world without being amoral double-dealers. Why doesn’t Moliere say “All people should measure up to this norm,” or at least allow Alceste and Celimene the chance to find happiness by emulating them? The Misanthrope is not a play in which such miracles are dramatically or psychologically possible: its mannered society is a true mirror of the court world of Louis XIV, not a fantasy or caricature, and it would be as out of character for Alceste to learn compromise as it would be unrealistic for Celimene to give up the pleasure of society. Celimene is as honest as her world permits—more honest, in fact, since she has plainly informed Alceste that she loves him,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and bluntly offers herself in marriage. It is not Moliere’s purpose to show that Eliante and Philinte define a better sort of society, for their predominance would be at the cost of brilliance, sparkle, and the beautiful art of living by wit and poetry. By stage tradition, the entrances and exist of characters mark the change of scene— but the scene also does literally change, since the visual spectacle. These changes are matched to modulations in the brilliance of speech, the balance of the Arsinoe-Celimene debate, the satiric portraits Celimene draws as the names of absent friends are given to her, Acaste’s ridiculous catalogue of his virtues, the low comedy of Dubois’s frustrating inarticulateness, or the spluttering rages that rob Alceste of his coherence. The defining quality of this society is the achievement of superficial beauty in this mingling of visible and audible performances, and just as Celimene is unwilling to sacrifice it for Alceste’s “desert,” so an audience is unwilling to wish that Moliere replace it with the merely sensible goodness of Eliante and Philinte.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE By Henrik Ibsen The first act of the play is concerned with providing background information and other matters of exposition. We are not far enough in the play yet to draw definite character personalities the exposition (i.e., the handling of background material) provides us with the knowledge that Dr. Stockmann has often been on the verge of extreme poverty, that his brother the Burgomaster has obtained a nice post for him with the new baths in the town, that the idea of the baths were originally Dr. Stockmann’s, but the Burgomaster took ever and directed the building of the baths along lines which Dr. Stockmann did not approve of. Further more, we find out that the two brothers have very little in common. The Burgomaster adheres to old and traditional views and Dr. Stockmann is a man of modern and liberal views. At this point, it is suggested that Hovstad is in agreement with. Dr. Stockmann and opposed to the Burgomaster, but this will later be dramatically reversed. There are also enough hints in his first act to indicate that Dr. Stockmann is an impulsive man. He writes articles for the newspaper on any new idea he has. He does things impetuously and without consultation. He has had many “crackbrained notion” in the past, and has refused to consult the proper authorities. Dr. Stockmann is also somewhat native in thinking that the community will be proud of him for discovering that the baths are poisonous. He fails to realize that as important as the discovery is,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

it is one which will cause an immense amount of expense and inconvenience. The readers know that he was annoyed at the Burgomaster for refusing to lay the pipes where Dr. Stockmann wanted them. Now that he has found out that the pipes are causing the baths to be poisonous, there is a hint of personal satisfaction in proving the Burgomaster wrong. In fact, his happiness can drive directly from his vindication against the Burgomaster who refused to follow Dr. Stockmann’s specification for building the baths. In the statement that Dr. Stockmann has prepared, the reader must inquire whether this statement is an explanation or an accusation. Dr. Stockmann is somewhat naive and innocent when he thinks that the Burgomaster will be pleased at this discovery. The act ends on a note of irony. Dr. Stockmann thinks that he is going to be honored as a hero and feels good that he served his town and fellow citizens well. It will be only a short time before he will be declared an enemy of the people. At the end of the first act, the problem has not yet been fully presented. Now it is only that the baths are unsanitary and the conditions of the baths must be changed or altered. Act I only presents the need of the baths to be cleansed. Act II begins to develop the problem with more implications. We are now able to see that the play is going to handle the broad subject of private vs. public morality. Or as the problem will later be developed, the conflict between personal integrity and social obligation. This idea will be more fully developed in later acts. This act presents out first hint of the public’s refusal to believe Stockmann. It comes from Stockmann’s father-in-law. He believes that Dr. Stockmann is slyly trying to avenge himself

An Enemy of People


against his brother by making the Burgomaster and the entire town council admit that they made a tremendous mistake. If Dr. Stockmann can do that, old Morton Kill will be happy because they had previously forced him off the town council. With the appearance of Hovstad, we see the liberal who is ready to jump at any cause and champion that cause as long as he thinks the cause will be popular and will increase circulation. With Aslaksen, we see the man of cautious good will. He wants to do everything with moderation and not offend anyone. He represents the “compact majority” –that group of people who have no opinions and who follow other like a heard of animals. When the Burgomaster appears, Dr. Stockmann is shocked to find out that his proposal will cost so much and will take so long to effect. The Burgomaster then is seen as a practical man who believes that the men in authority should decide everything. His view is that the individual freedom should be subjected to the demands of the authorities. This is, of course, a legitimate view, but Ibsen does not leave it a clash between two opposing ideological views. The Burgomaster’s views must be seen in terms of his personal involvement. If the news of the bath is made public, he as the authority will be seen to have made a mistake. This will be a personal slight. But also, if the news of the baths is made public, the town will suffer tremendous losses and will be virtually destroyed; thus, his duty as the chief magistrate of the town is to try to save the town. Thus as was Dr. Stockmann’s discovery tainted by his desire to avenge himself against the authorities, so now is the Burgomaster’s defense somewhat tinged with personal motives.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Dr. Stockmann is still seen as somewhat the impractical visionary, who can see nothing except that the baths are dangerous and poisonous. It may be suggested that he is so confident in his views since he knows (or thinks) that the press and the compact majority are behind him. And under all circumstances, he is a man who does believe strongly in personal freedom and will not submit blindly to the rule of the authorities. Mr. Stockmann is seen in this scene as the eternal matriarch; that is, he is the eternal mother and wife figure whose main concern is with the personal welfare of (her) immediate family. At the end of the act, we find that perhaps the town will consider Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the society. This is, of course, ironic because Dr. Stockmann thought he was doing a great service to the community. It is his desire to serve his fellow man that hurts more than anything else. Unlike the Burgomaster who believes that people are like a herd and not worthy of consideration, Dr. Stockmann here believes in the potential capabilities of all the people and counts strongly on the general public to see his point of view. Act III is the changing point in the drama. Here we see the various motives of the characters examined under pressures and thus we find out who the real men of principles are. In the beginning of the act when Aslaksen and Hovstad think that the doctor’s discovery will be popular and beneficial and when they think it will provide an opportunity to get rid of the old authorities, they are supporting him. Later when they realize that it will be harmful to the town and therefore unpopular, they turn

An Enemy of People


against the doctor. Aslaksen is a man who does not wish to offend anyone and who wants to proceed with moderation. But more important, when his principles are confronted with the possibility that he will lose financially, the principles are no longer important. With Hovstad, we see in his discussion with Petra, that he is not a man of true principles. He publishes not what he believes in but what he thinks will increase circulation. Thus his allegiance to Dr. Stockmann stems not from a belief in the truth of Dr. Stockmann’s ideas, but from the hope that his cause will be a popular one and thus increase circulation. With the appearance of the Burgomaster, the theme of personal integrity and social obligation becomes dominant. The Burgomaster is attempting to save the town, but in doing so, he is also trying to preserve his image as the town’s foremost citizen. If the report is made public, it will destroy both the town and the Burgomaster’s reputation because he was responsible for the construction of the water pipes which cause all the trouble. Thus for the benefit of the town and his own personal integrity, he refuses to believe the truth of Dr. Stockmann’s report and hints that the doctor has always been impetuous and wild in his ideas. Dr. Stockmann is now seen as the impractical idealist. In striving to achieve the ideal or the perfectly moral solution, he ignores all practical advice and opposes everyone who would stand in his way. In other words, he is ready to carry his idealism to absurd degrees. Mrs. Stockmann is somewhat comic in these scenes. She is opposed to her husband’s plans until people turn against him.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Then she is ready to stand by him simply because he is her husband. She doesn’t understand what is at stake here, but is nevertheless convinced that her husband is right even through a few moments earlier she was trying to get him to change. The act opens with Stockmann still convinced that he is working for the sake of the people: he obtains a hall in order to give lecture. Thus, this act pits the idealist against the common herd of people, those whom Stockmann wants to serve. Apparently, Stockmann wanted to give his speech about the baths. But the democratic principles of electing chairman for the committee and then entertaining a motion as to whether Dr. Stockmann should be heard changed the nature of the speech. He therefore delivers a tirade against the democratic processes and attempts to prove that the common man has no business having a voice in the government. He is, of course, still the idealist, but here the idealist is trapped in the involved processes of bureaucracy. He sees his idealism being defeated by the very people he wanted to help; thus, he attacks the people and the officials elected by the officials. The reader must realize that Stockmann’s speech is offensive. But he remains a sympathetic character because the purpose of his speech is noble. He is striving to realize his ideals without compromising his principles. Everyone else at the meeting has in one way or another compromised himself—has sold out for personal gain or to avoid a difficult conflict. But in his attack, we must step back and realize that Dr. Stockmann has carried idealism to its extreme. The question arises then: Is Dr. Stockmann an enemy of

An Enemy of People


the people? If we were to isolate Dr. Stockmann’s speech, that is, take it out of the context of all that went before, and if we were to hear only what the audience at Dr. Stockmann’s speech heard, then we would see that Dr. Stockmann’s present position is one that justifies his being called an enemy of the people. He has openly advocated that the people are not capable of voting correctly. He has insulted the common people and has referred to them in terms of a herd of animals. Thus, by this speech alone, Dr. Stockmann is an enemy of the people. But actually, we know that his attack is motivated by more noble reasons and only in his disillusionment does he make such heavy charge against the very people he wants to help. Act V is a practical or materialistic test of Dr. Stockmann’s idealism. In the last act, we saw Aslaksen and Hovstad react when they stood to lose something personally. This act now confronts Dr. Stockmann with great personal losses if he continues to assert his views. This test is necessary before we can formulate a complete view of Dr. Stockmann. Before he faces his test, he first learns that his views have caused Captain Horster to lose his ship and Petra to lose her position in the school. Furthermore he has faced his own dismissal from the baths. Thus when Old Morton Kill comes to him asking him to retract his charges or else all of his inheritance will go to charity, Dr. Stockmann is about ready to yield to the public opinion. He is prevented by the appearance of Hovstad and Aslaksen. When Dr. Stockmann sees that he can gain the admiration of his fellow townsmen by admitting that he engineered the entire plan so as to gain control of the stock of the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

baths, this accusation (or this admiration) is worse than the rejection by the people. He therefore decides to stand by his idealistic views. Finally, we must note that Dr. Stockmann’s idealism is not consistent. In Act IV he denied that the common curs could be of any value to society. But in Act V, he sys he is going to take the common “street-curs” and educate them into the leading men of society who will then drive out all the bureaucrats. His saving factor, however, is his strong belief in that which is right. As with most problem plays, An Enemy of the People takes a specific situation and uses it to make a larger general statement about mankind. Here we have the specific problem of the bad water pipes at the new health baths. The question then is simply one of cleaning the baths. It is a matter of civic health and sanitation. From this specific situation, Ibsen then moves to the more complex problem of private versus public morality. Or to state it in other words, Ibsen is investigating the relationship between moral and ethical responsibility when seen against practical exigency. To present this problem, Ibsen creates an idealist in the person of Dr. Stockmann and has him diametrically opposed by his own brother who is the man of extreme practicality. In other words, Dr. Stockmann represents private and public morality while his brother, the Burgomaster, represents the practical aspect of life. The problem which perplexes many readers of this play is Ibsen’s apparent failure to make his position clear. But this was not Ibsen’s purpose. He is not offering a stated solution to his

An Enemy of People


problem, but instead, he is presenting a full measured discussion of the problem. The sensible man would assume a position somewhere between that of Dr. Stockmann and the Burgomaster. In his idealism, Dr. Stockmann forgets that the world moves by practical means. It is revealed early in the play that Dr. Stockmann conceived the idea of the baths but could never bring them to a practical completion. It took the Burgomaster to do that. Thus, Dr. Stockmann is seen essentially as a comic figure whose idealism blinds him to the common place practically of the world. But the burgomaster is equally as blinded to the ethical questions of the world. Therefore, after a thorough consideration of the ideas, the reader should take a stand somewhere between two extremes represented by the main characters. Aslaksen is the man of cautious good will. His constant comment involves “proceeding with moderation.” He afraid of offending anyone who is in authority, unless that person is some distant abstract person who cannot immediately affect him. He represents the compact majority who believes in civic progress so long as it does not involve any expense or effort. He is the type who would rather suffer any type of bad situation rather than get involved in a drastic change. Hovstad is the professional type of liberal who constantly wants to stir things up as long as he is not directly involved and will not be personally affected. His main concern is to increase the circulation of his paper, and for this purpose he will ignore any principle. He supports Dr. Stockmann as long as he thinks compact majority and the public are behind Dr. Stockmann. But as soon as it is known that the public will not support any idea


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

which is going to cost money, he turns against Dr. Stockmann and supports the Burgomaster. Mrs. Stockmann is a minor character who represents the eternal matriarch. Her interest is in the family. She does not care for civic causes, but when her husband is attacked by other people, she comes to his side even though she does not understand the principles behind the cause. The Burgomaster (Peter Stockmann) represents the old established order of things. He believes that authority should rest in the hands of the officials and that all individuals should be subjected to the rule of these authorities. He does not believe in personal or individual expressions. He is convinced that he is right and anyone opposed to him must be wrong. He tells Dr. Stockmann that “the individual must subordinate himself to society, or, more precisely, to the authorities whose business it is to watch over the welfare of the society.” He is, then, the reactionary who is afraid of any change because change implies a reevaluation of authority. The Burgomaster is not a man of strong ethical principles. Instead, he is the practical man who looks to see how something will bring a practical or material reward. He cannot conceive of the possibility that he might be wrong in anything. Thus, part of his opposition to Dr. Stockmann’s news about the baths is due to the fact that the Burgomaster was responsible for placing the water pipes in the wrong place. He is incapable of facing the fact that he made a tremendous error, and therefore, he must repress the news of the bad sanitary conditions so that his own reputation will be preserved.

An Enemy of People


Dr. Stockmann represents the extreme idealist who has no concept of the practical side of life. His idealism blinds him to the common procedures of everyday activity. As an idealist, Dr. Stockmann believes strongly in individual freedom and the right of every man to express himself freely. He cannot become a party to any dishonest or unethical act. Thus, he cannot bend in any sense of the word. He is accurately characterized as too impetuous. As soon as he finds out about the bad sanitary conditions at the baths, he immediately makes the news public and refuses to listen to any compromise and demands that the water pipes be relied. He does not try to convince the people of his view, but instead, goes directly and blindly at a demanded improvement. It is, therefore, his lack of tact and understanding of the practical issues which place him in such an awkward position. There is, however, a touch of jealous revenge in Dr. Stockmann’s actions. He was annoyed that the Burgomaster did not build the pipes according to the doctor’s original specifications, and thus he is delighted that he is able to prove the Burgomaster to be wrong. Furthermore, Dr. Stockmann’s idealism is somewhat muddled. He is not consistent. At one point he maintains that the common people have no right to a voice in the government. But this is what the Burgomaster had previously told the doctor and the doctor had stoutly asserted the right of every citizen to express his own views. Likewise, he suggests that the common people are like curs or impure animals and can never be educated to take a significant role in the development of a society. Yet at the end he is going to take some “street-curs” and educate them to run the wolves out of the government.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Dr. Stockmann is saved as a character because he puts his principles above his own desires and gains. He is not tempted by financial rewards enough to deny the truth of the condition of the baths. He is thoroughly disgusted by the petty and dishonest interpretations placed on his actions. And as a man of great personal integrity, he spurns a large inheritance in order to maintain an ethical and moral responsibility to himself and to his community.

THE WILD DUCK By Henrik Ibsen Ibsen wrote this play in 1884 as an answer to An Enemy of the People, just as that play answered the critics of Ghosts. But in The Wild Duck, Ibsen seems to focus upon himself; at least that was the interpretation given to the play by its contemporary critics, as well as by many recent scholars. In Doctor Stockmann, Ibsen presents a well-intentioned idealist and reformer who is rather bumbling and easily taken advantage of. The message of that play centers on the necessity for truth and freedom, for which the Doctor would make any sacrifice needed, of himself, his family, and his town. In The Wild Duck Ibsen concerns himself with the life-lie or life-illusion which seems necessary to bolster up some people’s lives. The idealist in this play is Gregers Werle, whose stupid attempts to satisfy his craving for truth lead eventually to tragedy. The major difficulties in interpreting this play are two. To begin with, the plot seems, at first glance, to have no central character. A closer reading, however, suggests what Ibsen is trying to do. He attempts in this play to give an objective picture of a group of interrelated characters in a domestic scene. His attitude towards all the persons of his drama except Gregers Werle is detached. Only for the idealist Gregers does Ibsen reserve his scorn. Even the tragic conclusion of the play is handled with a degree of detachment that maintains the dominant comic rather than tragic tone. Although the play is basically a


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

comedy with serious overtones and a tragic conclusion. It is sardonic and often bitter, especially in the treatment of Gregers Werle. The second and more serious problem concerns the symbolism in the play. Ibsen himself remarked that he gave the critics a few things to fight about and interpret. Most of the squabbling has been over the meaning of the central image, the wild duck. The following are the most common interpretations: 1. It represent Gregers Werle, the idealist who fails. 2. It represents any such idealist whose aspirations are misplaced. 3. It represents Hialmar Ekdal, limited by marriage and parenthood, and saddled with a business (photography) in which he has no real interest. This interpretation is suggested by Gregers in the text. 4. It represents Ekdal Senior, broken in mind and weakened in body, whose only contact with the bright world of nature is in the model woods set up in Ekdal’s attic. 5. It represents Ibsen’s own reforming and moralizing spirit. 6. It represents the social castaways in the play: the outcast Gregers, the pretentious Hialmar, the tipsy play-hunter old Ekdal, the washed-out Doctor Relling, and the alcoholic theology student Molvik. Good arguments can be presented for any of the above interpretations, yet no one really presents the final word on the subject. The reason for this interpretative problem is that Ibsen developed a habit in his later plays of manipulating his symbols so as to give them plural values. The result is often confusing to the reader, and critics have sometimes considered this habit one of

The Wild Duck


the major structural faults of Ibsen’s later dramas. As usual, Ibsen gradually unfolds his exposition or disclosure of basic facts. We are introduced to the Werles and to Hialmar (his son, a photographer). At this point, the latter seems a shy and unobtrusive young man, obviously out of place since he was the thirteenth at the table. Mrs. Sorby’s warning to Werle about the bright lights, and the latter’s admission to his son about his failing eyesight anticipate the convention later to be divulged between the elder Werle and Hedwig, the Ekdals’ daughter. The discussion between the Werles is important for two reasons. It supplies the reader with needed information about Werle Senior’s relations with the Ekdals and Mrs. Sorby. Even more important is the light that is shed on young Werle’s character. His hatred for his father and near idolatry for the memory of his mother suggest his unbalanced psychological state. Thus Ibsen supplies him with the basic ingredients of an Oedipus complex. The frequent allusions in this act to Hedwig’s weak eyes reinforce the suggestion that she may be old Werle’s daughter. Gina, however, insists that the blindness is inherited from Hialmar’s mother. This is another of those things the author said the critics would squabble over. Hialmar’s flute-playing as much as his subsequent melancholy over Hedwig’s sight is evidence of how much he enjoys being the center of little family scenes of domestic happiness. When the topic turns to Hedwig he, perhaps subconsciously, becomes melancholy until the offer of beer turns the focus back upon him. Thus our shy and retiring Hialmar of the first act is seen to be very much of a poseur (one who affects a


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

particular pose to impress others). This impression is verified by the elaborate lies he tells about his conversation at the dinner. Old Ekdal’s description of the shooting of the wild duck is important, because it forms the basis of most of the symbols later used by Gregers in speaking of his quest. Gregers’ mime begins to speak in mysteries. His message goes completely over the head of Hialmar, but Hedwig at least realizes that there is some hidden meaning behind much of what Gregers says. The final scene is an excellent comment on Hialmar’s / Gregers’ complete inability to make fire, and the mess he makes of his room suggest the futility and destructiveness of what Doctor rolling later refers to as his “claim of the ideal.” Hialmar’s utter indifference to productive work is completely in character. Although he refers to himself as a hardworking breadwinner, it is obvious that Gina and even Hedwig with her poor eyesight do more work than he does. The sympathy that the Gregers seem to feel for each other prepares the way for the young girl’s assuming the role that the idealist suggests to her in the last act, her last supreme self sacrifice. The warning that Hialmar gives her about the pistol is a technical preparation for Hedwig’s suicide. The fact of the gun’s being ready and loaded is established, as well as her knowledge of its location. Hialmar refers to his after-dinner periods of meditation on his invention, but Gina always simply calls this period his nap time. Hialmar’s reaction to Gregers’ prompting and suggestions is one of uneasiness, for he prefers to hear only pleasant things. His curiosity finally gets the better of him when he goes out for the walk, although his motive seems to be more to help Gregers than to learn anything.

The Wild Duck


Young Werle’s determination to place Hialmar’s marriage on a basis of truth reminds us of A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Pillars of Society, all dealing with marriages not based on truth. Hialmar, however seems quite content with what he has; his only concern is to avoid unpleasantness. The final comment of Doctor Relling requires some explanation. The original reads “enakut retskaffenheber” the usual translation of “acute integrity “or probity “or “uprightness" is hardly adequate. The most brilliant translation of this phrase is by the critic and scholar Otto Heller, who calls it “acute rectitudinitis.” Although Hialmar is perfectly sincere in his confrontation of his wife, he is extremely melodramatic. What he cannot understand is her comparatively unemotional reaction to the situation. As she puts it, she was too busy making a home for him and running the business to worry about the basis of their marriage. Hialmar’s love of theatrical poses is most evident in his very dramatic tearing of the letter. What he needs to do is to dramatize himself, to create a scene in which he is, as always, the center, then enjoy it, then to relapse into ordinary routines again. The doctor’s warning about Hedwig appears a little forced. It is hardly called for, but it does prepare for her suicide. Ibsen is always careful to lay all of the necessary groundwork for his conclusions. Gregers’ surprise at Hialmar’s ungenerous conduct is to be expected, since he still admires Hialmar, considering him a wild duck capable of soaring high, in a spiritual sense. But young Ekdal as we have already seen is too much attached to his beer and bread and butter to fly in any sense


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

of the word. At the end of the act, Gregers literally intends that Hedwig should sacrifice her wild duck. But as early as the end of the second act, Hedwig is aware that he often means more than he says. It is possible, then, that further reflection upon his words may induce thoughts of suicide. The principal theme of the play is stated at the beginning of this act, after Relling attempts to open Gregers’ eyes as to what sort of man Hialmar really is. Young Werle admits that he can only fulfill his “claim of the ideal” outside himself. Gregers is thus the opposite of Brand, who sought his demand of the ideal within himself and found it in his final sacrifice. Young Werle, on the other hand, is only able to sacrifice others. Relling then remarks on how essential the “life-lie” is to a man—Hialmar’s greatest life-lie is his invention. Even Gregers, who insists on ideal truth, has a life-lie: his blind admiration of his former schoolmate Hialmar. What Ibsen suggests at this point is that the ideal truth thought to be beneficial may often be dangerous. Men need their little illusion in order to adjust to their lives. Hialmar’s conduct during this act leaves no doubt about his character. He builds up a little melodrama, turning Hedwig away and preparing to leave forever. His self-pity can be seen in the melancholy picture he draws of himself and his father looking for shelter in the storm. The lack of a hat settles that matter, since Hialmar is averse to taking unnecessary risks. All the time he talks about leaving, he drinks coffee and east bread and butter and even asks for more butter. His pasting together the letter is almost a stroke of genius on Ibsen’s part.

The Wild Duck


Dramatic irony is evident when Gregers tells Hialmar that Hedwig may make a sacrifice for her father’s sake. The sacrifice she finally makes is not what Gregers is thinking of. Also ironic is, Hialmar’s remark about his great love for Hedwig. By now it is fairly obvious that the only person he ever really loved is himself. At the end of the play we see more evidence of his selfishness when he asks why this was done to him. Gregers’ final lines suggest either that he contemplates suicide or that he now finally realizes he is a superfluous person, the thirteenth at table. Ibsen gives us no definite clue, but Gregers’ earlier refusal of money from his father was motivated by his feeling no need for it, since what little he has will last his time. The ending of this play would be tragic if it were not for the focus on Hialmar’s selfish posing. Ibsen thus maintains the comic spirit over the tragic, but the comic is rather sardonic, especially when Relling is the spokesman as he is at the end. Gregers Werle is an impractical idealist whose sole concern is to present his “claim of the ideal.” This urge manifests itself in a desire to place the Edkals’ marriage on a firm basis of fact. He idolizes Hialmar Ekdal, whom he considers graced with a noble soul and a high mind. Ibsen gives us some explanation of Gregers’ neurosis. The young man was raised by his mother to hate his father. The sympathy he feels for Hialmar may in part be due to the latter’s having been raised by two maiden aunts. Hialmar Ekdal is a true cousin of Peer Gynt, quite happy to loll about the studio while his ego is fed by his wife and daughter as well as by the admiring Gregers. Young Ekdal likes the sound of his own voice and incessantly moralizes on his position as


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

worker, breadwinner, and future inventor, none of which he has ever been or is ever likely to be. He inclines toward the center. As we learn from Doctor Relling, Hialmar was brought up to be admired as the center of attraction. Gina, his wife, is basically a sound, steady type, despite her past affair with Werle Senior. Her bad grammar and inept choice of words display her lack of education, yet she keeps the Ekdal household together by feeding her husband’s stomach as well as his ego, while at the same time she takes care of the family business. Hedwig, the Ekdals’ daughter, is the only true idealist in the play, since she alone is willing to make a sacrifice for others. Her near blindness, like that of her probable real father, Werle Senior, is symbolic. This defect may be taken as representing the unseeing lives of the Ekdals, happy in their own life-lies or illusions, just as old Werle’s poor eyesight is indicative of his moral blindness. Old Werle is reminiscent both of Consul Bernick (Pillars of Society) and Chamberlain Alving (Ghosts). A former libertine, he is equally unscrupulous in business. Old Ekdal went to jail in his place as a result of one of his illegal business deals. Werle salves his conscience by paying the broken old man a high price for the little copying he does. Doctor Relling and Molvik are two examples of social wreckage, like Krogstad in A Doll’s House. The Doctor, however, despite the ruin he made of his own life, is still intelligent, and, like Doctor Stockman (An Enemy of the People), is Ibsen’s own mouthpiece at times. Ibsen attempts without success to give added dimension to Relling’s character by alluding to an earlier attachment with Mrs. Sorby.

HEDDA GABLER By Henrik Ibsen Beginning with The Wild Duck (1884), Ibsen turned away from dramas of social significance to devote his energies to psychological analyses of character. His next two plays, Rosmersholm (1886) and The Lady from the Sea (1888), are thus more concerned with inner emotional conflicts than with social or political themes. Like The Wild Duck, both of these plays afford penetrating analyses of character in Ibsen’s usual fashion of disclosing past facts, one by one, that are comparable with their predecessor in the emphasis placed on symbolism, which is so complex that the plays are difficult to interpret. In Hedda Gabler, however, Ibsen returned for the last time to the realistic technique of the great social plays. The play is written with almost complete objectivity. Symbolism is absent, except for Hedda’s thin hair and her pistols, and the recurrent phrase “vine leaves in his hair.” But these are so transparent compared to the white horses and the sea in Rosmersholm, or to the wild duck, that they hardly qualify as symbols. Some critics prefer to regard them simply as marks of character. Although the major emphasis in Hedda Gabler is on intimate psychological analysis, it is not hard to find at least some social significance. Hedda represents an emancipated woman who, like Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, finds herself with a great deal of intellectual freedom, yet with emotions that have failed to keep pace in their development. Hedda, then, is left without any outlets


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

for her emotions, which appear almost dried up. Accordingly she has no opportunity ever to find herself, to come to any understanding of herself, as Mrs. Have ruled her, or as Peer Gynt does, when he finally sees what may be regarded as a study of the effects of the new emancipation that patterned Hedda’s character after an eighteen-year-old Austrian, Emilie Bardach, who intended to devote her life to taking married men away from their wives. In 1889, Ibsen was captivated by her for a brief time. He kept up a lively and sometimes passionate correspondence, but he soon terminated their friendship and settled down to an objective study of her. The result was Hedda Gabler (1890). The characters of George the scholar and Hedda his wife are particularly well delineated in this act. George is sufficiently involved in his work to take his aunt’s hints as meaning his library. He also remarks on the quantity of notes he was able to take during their wedding trip. It is easy to envision George and Hedda spending their honeymoon going from one library to another. Hedda’s neurotic disposition is clear in the episode over the bonnet. As she confides to Brack in the second act, she only pretended to think it was the servant’s hat. Hedda’s urge to injure motivates the greater part of her conversation with her husband. Her whole attitude is one of condescending tolerance, and her caustic remarks could only go unnoticed by a man like George Tesman. The manner in which she repulses Aunt Jualian’s attentions and then practically forces herself upon Mrs. Elvsted, shows her intensely and completely selfish nature. Eilert Lovborg the brilliant but alcoholic scholar, formerly a friend of Hedda and

Hedda Gabler


George, is introduced. The references to Hedda’s thin hair and Mrs. Thea Elvsted’s–a former schoolgirl with Hedda, and at one time a friend of George—abundant blond hair are very significant. Ibsen suggests that their capacities for life and love are matched ritually arid, although intellectually and social brilliant; Thea Elvsted, although a little inclined towards stupidity, leaves her husband to follow Lovborg mainly because of her comparatively greater emotional capacity, which was unfulfilled in her loveless marriage to the Sheriff. Thea’s reference to the lady with the pistols and Hedda’s comment pave the way for the conclusion of the play, as does Hedda’s leaving to play with her pistols at the end of the act. Another and more subtle example of this sort of dramatic preparation is George’s persistent mistake in referring to Thea Elvsted by her maiden name, Miss Rysing. It anticipates the budding partnership between the two at the end of the play. Hedda’s utter lack of sympathy for George’s dismay over the competition for the professorship as well as her bitter disappointment over their financial restrictions are clear proof that the marriage was one of convenience only. Hedda’s obvious ability to shoot is another example of dramatic preparation, since Hedda later lends one pistol to Lovborg and shoots herself with the other. Her dialogues with Brack, a friend of the Tesmans, reveal her apparent incapability of feeling deep emotions. She is disgusted by the word “love,” and knowledge of her own pregnancy, which George and Aunt Juliana already suspect, makes the though of motherhood repellent to her. Hedda’s boredom is the result of her inability or complete


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

unwillingness to commit herself emotionally to anyone or anything. It is symptomatic of a pathologically self-centered nature. Hedda’s earlier friendship again suggests her fear of emotional commitment. Her affair with Lovborg was never anything more than a Platonic relationship, devoid of anything sensual. When it did promise to become “serious,” then Hedda threatened him with her pistols. These pistols are thus Hedda’s symbolic weapon of her personal boredom; she takes the pistols out and fires them, as she does in the direction of Brack, whose intentions are not acceptable to her even if his conversation is. The reference to “vine leaves in his hair” of course refers to a manner of self-decoration common in classic times, particularly in the worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and his Roman counterpart Bacchus. For an interesting if rather forced reading of Hedda Gabler’s character as “Dionysiac,” the reader should refer to G. Wilson Knight’s Henrik Ibsen. The chief significance for us is that Hedda is looking for Eilert to do something beautiful, noble, and great, for her and through her help. We are reminded at this point of Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, who also was compelled by his own spiritual aridity to seek his ideal outside himself. Another significance of this phrase is that Hedda, by so insisting on Eilert’s performance, betrays a well-concealed depth of emotion in herself. Her taut, overrestrained feelings also show in her nervous habits like clenching her hands or rapping on windowpanes. The most obvious betrayal of these inner feelings was her momentary lapse when she told Lovborg that her greatest cowardice years ago was not in failing

Hedda Gabler


to shoot him. Her meaning is that it was more cowardly of her to send him away, thus rejecting her own feeling for him. Hedda’s sending Eilert off to the party despite the danger of a relapse into his former alcoholism cannot be interpreted as anything beautiful, although she insists on his returning with vine leaves. Her motives are mixed. On the surface, she is torn by jealousy of Thea Elvsted, who is able to inspire Lovborg to write great books. A more subtle motive, however, is connected with her irresistible urges, as in the bonnet incident, to do injury. These feelings, which in the case of Lovborg may be in effect urges to hurt a loved one, have a basis in her emotional and sexual frigidity. Although she seems to have feelings deep within, she is incapable of expressing them, and horrified by the thought of their development into anything more substantial. In a word, she is afraid of sex when it involves emotion, and only disgusted with it when emotion is not present, as with Tesman. George’s state of mind when he enters with Lovborg’s manuscript is not difficult to perceive. He cannot help admitting to Hedda his jealousy of Eilert’s talent. His delay in returning the manuscript and his decision not to tell anyone, brought it home or what he intends to do with it. Brack’s motives are very obvious. He insists that he will be the only “cock-in-the-basket,” and to assure his comfortable arrangement with Hedda and George, he will remove any possible intruders. Hence he is interested enough in Lovborg’s doings to get him drunk at the party and then afterward finds out what he did. Brack’s designs upon Hedda are quite evident, and she fully realizes what he wants when she tells him that she is glad he has


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

no hold over her. Hedda’s destroying of the manuscript is prompted largely by Thea Elvsted’s and then Lovborg’s references to the manuscript as their child. Hedda cannot bear the thought that anyone could have more power to inspire Lovborg than she herself. Therefore she first gives him a pistol to shoot himself, and then destroys the last evidence of his relationship with Mrs. Elvsted. At the beginning of the act Hedda is dressed in black, which represents her mourning for Eilert, who she hopes is to die beautifully. George’s reaction when she admits burning the manuscript is particularly enlightening. He betrays himself not really as grief-stricken as perhaps he should be. His feelings are tinged slightly with joy, so that his happiness overflows when Hedda implies that she is pregnant. Mrs. Elvsted’s sudden production of Lovborg’s notes is one of the more obvious faults in the plot of Hedda Gabler. It is extremely unlikely that any woman in her situation would carry a large package of notes everywhere she goes. Hedda’s guest for something beautiful, earlier symbolized by the phrase “vine leaves in his hair,” now is concentrated in desire to learn of Lovborg’s beautiful death. That his death can seem so lovely to her now is a clear indication of where her own thoughts for herself are beginning to turn, as is her inability to refrain from comments upon his death even in front of George, is a sign that she is now even more aware of her surroundings. When she smuggles the pistol into the inner room, it is obvious that she contemplates suicide.

Hedda Gabler


The end of the play presents a powerful scene in which Hedda seems to make one futile bid for acceptance. She refuses Brack’s offer of a genteel adultery and her answer to the Judge’s remark on its being inevitable is ironic, since she has already been contemplating what now seems even more inevitable, her own death. The ease with which George and Mrs. Elvsted work together arouses Hedda’s jealousy, which she controls with great effort while she strokes Thea Elvsted’s hair, the hair she had years ago at school once threatened to burn. When she is told she can be off no help she perhaps further realizes her loneliness. Hedda’s long pent-up emotions burst forth in the wild dance she plays on the piano. Her answer, that after his she will be silent, is another example of dramatic irony, since she plans the total silence of death. The final motive for Hedda’s suicide comes with George’s simple suggestion that Judge Brack entertain her in the evening. Unable to face Brack now that he has “a hold” over her, she ends her life. The judge’s final comment is typical of his thoroughly conventional outlook, but it also recalls Hedda’s comment to Mrs. Elvsted in the first act. When the latter mentions an unknown woman who once threatened Eilert Lovborg with a pistol. Hedda replies, “no one does that sort of thing here.” Hedda Gabler was thus just as much a slave of convention as Judge Brack. Hedda Gabler is an extremely neurotic woman. Intellectually she is brilliant compared to her husband, whom she treats with thinly veiled contempt. Her upbringing as General Gabler’s daughter prepared her for a life of bright, gay social


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

entertainment which as the wife of a scholar she cannot afford. Partly because of this upbringing, she has gradually developed into a coldhearted, perverse woman, utterly incapable of showing affection for anyone. So disciplined are her emotions that she can no longer entertain any affection for a former friend, Eilert Lovborg. What should have been love in Hedda becomes a passion to see him do something she would consider beautiful. But her idea of beauty, like her own character, is perverted. His death, if done nobly, would seem beautiful to her. This concentration upon death, first Eilert’s and then her own, is indicative of the spiritual emptiness of Hedda Gabler. In reassessing herself, as she seems to do after Eilert’s unlovely death, she catches a glimpse of her own emptiness and purposelessness. Her suicide is then almost inevitable. Despite her external coldness, Hedda does have a potentiality for feeling. But her emotions have been suppressed for so long that they can only display themselves in grotesquely altered for so long that they can only display themselves in grotesquely altered forms. Hence she is satanically jealous of Thea Elvsted, contemptuous of her husband, occasionally abusive to Aunt Juliana, and not very careful with her toys, the pistols. Finally, whatever emotion she feels toward Eilert is expressed in the destruction of the manuscript, a symbol of his relationship with another woman, and in her wish for his death. All of these expressions of emotion are in the form of irresistible urges, as for example, her final wild piano-playing just before her death. Her suicide may be viewed as the final manifestation of a deep-seated death wish (intense longing for self-destruction),

Hedda Gabler


which is symbolized by her playing with her pistols. Like many neurotic women, Hedda is intensely selfcentered. Lovborg, for example, is important to her only in that she might be able to influence him to do something beautiful for her. His death affects her only in so far as it gives her a feeling of liberation to know that something meeting her twisted standards of beauty can occur. George Tesman is a caricature (exaggerated comic portrait) of a scholar. His intellect is well adapted to what he calls his “special subjects,” but he is no match for Hedda’s subtlety. He spent his honeymoon collecting research materials for his projected history of the domestic industries of Barbant in the Middle Ages. His days are spent in reading, studying and writing, whereas his wife would prefer brilliant entertainment and sparkling conversations. George Tesman is far too conventional and stodgy to participate in either. His favorite expression, “Fancy that!” is a good example of his conversational ability, and is indicative of his completely colorless personality. Eilert Lovborg is a less successful characterization. He belongs to a personality-type which Ibsen has already thoroughly explored; he is representative of the social wreckage in earlier plays, such as Krogstad in A Doll’s House, and Relling in The Wild Duck. His motive for destroying himself by returning to drink is rather conventionally melodramatic. He feels that Thea Elvsted by following him has shown lack of faith in his reformation, and, goaded by Hedda, he proves that Thea was right. He affords good contrast to George Tesman, for while the latter is conventional and talented, Lovborg is unconventional and inspired.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Thea Elvsted is a foil or contrasting character to Hedda. She has abundant blond hair of which Hedda is wildly jealous. The hair symbolizes Mrs. Elvsted’s capacity for emotion and for partaking fully of life; while Hedda’s thin hair reflects her own emotional aridity.

A DOLL’S HOUSE By Henrik Ibsen Perhaps the most important corrective that can be applied to Ibsen is his own statements twenty years after the play opened, when he was saluted by the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights as the creator of Nora: “I have been more of a poet and less of a social Philosopher than most people have been inclined to believe. I Can’t claim the honor of ever having worked consciously for Women’s rights. I’m not even sure I know what they are. To me It has seemed a matter of human rights.” This disclaimer is important because it broadens the theme rather than denying that Nora’s situation makes a statement on the position of women. Nora is certainly the protagonist, but as Ibsen implies, that does not mean that she alone carries the themes of the play. scholars today generally agree that the title used for the present translation is incorrect though in common use since it derives directly from the first English version of the play. A Doll House, referring to a child’s toy, is the literal meaning of Ibsen’s words, and more accurately reflects the situation in which Nora, Torvald, their children and servants, and to some extent their visitors exist: a prettified imitation of a home and a marriage. It focuses less on Nora and does not imply so strongly that the “house” is her possession. While her noble, criminal act has presumably made it possible for Torvald to survive and even thrive, not even Nora supposes that she is the possessor of the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

home (clearly, when she departs, she wants to take nothing of Torvald’s with her.) As to who is responsible for the doll-house condition of their marriage, the reader must recognize that it is a mutual creation. After criticizing her financial irresponsibility, Torvald insists “I don’t want you any different from just what you are –my own sweet little songbird;” Nora is no less conscious of the pretenses required to maintain their play family when she tells Mrs. Linde that she might tell Torvald of her life-saving act “when I’m no longer young and pretty […] I mean when Torvald no longer feels about me the way he does now, when he no longer thinks it’s fun when I dance for him and put on costumes and recite for him.” They are both aware that their marriage is founded on childish role-playing, but at the opening of the play neither wants to change that-and it seems, with Torvald’s business success, they will never need to do so. But there are stirrings in Nora, as she tells Mrs. Linde that someday she would like to tell Torvald of her sacrifice for him, and as she tells her and Dr. Rank that like a mischievous child she wants Torvald to hear her say a naughty word. These are the stirrings toward rowing out of her child’s world that provide the impetus for the plot. The plot gets underway as a consequence of one of the many ironies that fill the play: Torvald’s promotion, which promises the happiness that money is presumed by the Helmers to buy, motivates both Krogstad and Mrs. Linde to become involved in the life of this house, and these two influential outsiders precipitate Nora’s self-examination and her final decision. Both of them enter the action with good intentions and with financial

A Doll’s House


difficulties, paralleling Nora’s situation of years before: Krogstad needs to improve his position in the bank and rehabilitate his name for the sake of his growing children, and Mrs. Linde needs a job and a sense of being useful to others. Krogstad’s villainy develops as he is thwarted and then scorned, while Mrs. Linde’s desire to help leads her to push Nora toward the full revelation of the past so that their marriage can be re-established on firm ground then and , by marrying, resolve their own situations and remove themselves form the life of the Helmers. Much of the action of the play involves Nora’s efforts to maintain her secret, putting herself in conflict with Mrs. Linde’s principle of honesty and at the mercy of Krogstad’s blackmail. She thus creates a dilemma for herself out of her two desires (to outgrow her child-bride role and show that she has been mature and responsible, and to maintain her presumed innocence and make the crime). The role of Dr. Rank in this action is to shed light on the dilemma Nora faces. As friend and confidant, he is a pillar of the household, both Torvald’s best friend and the person with whom Nora can talk of her hopes and affections. But under the pressure of Krogstad’s demands, Nora desperately, but playfully, turns to Dr. Rank for financial help and her coquetry leads him to declare his love, which makes it impossible for her to pursue their intimacy. On the other hand, the doctor’s fatal illness cuts him off from further friendship with Trovald (Rank knows that his friend is too immature to stand up to the ordeal of watching death). With their only friend gone, the Helmers are forced into the intimacy of the final scene. Is Nora’s transformation from child to adult too sudden to


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

be plausible? In one sense, the question is impertinent: we should ask instead, does her change represent a vital, human truth? Her change occurs in the space of three hours in a theatrical performance, in the space of about 36 hours of elapsed time in the dramatized action, and at a rather late point in the life of a woman with three children. However, those three “clocks” by which we measure this dramatic event all have in common a literalism about the relationship of personality to action. They ask, that is, for an examination of literal psychological causalities rather than for an analysis of a realistic drama. For we must not confuse “realistic” with “real” or “literal.” In a realistic play, the pertinent questions should be: Do people make self-discoveries that change the course of their actions? Is Nora sufficiently characterized to explain how the events that are dramatized (and those from the past that are called into the present action as influences) can account for a change in her? Does her change embody Ibsen’s themes? The answer to these questions is “yes.” And what does the future hold for Nora and Torvald? This, too, is an impertinent question, for of course there is no “future” after the final curtain. We should ask, rather, with what feelings Ibsen leaves the audience. Do we want Torvald to discover himself and the errors that have led him to his isolation? Do we believe that Nora has the courage to seek out the meaning of her life without the comfortable hypocrisies she deserts?

CANDIDA By George Bernard Shaw Shaw devotes an ample paragraph to a description of the Reverend James Mavor Morell as he is opening his morning’s letters. The energy and enthusiasm of the forty-year-old parson are underscored, as are his geniality and considerate manners, but notice is taken of his unsubtle features and that he is “a great baby, pardonably vain of his powers and unconsciously pleased with himself.” Miss Proserpine Garnett, his secretary, is “a brisk little woman of about thirty.” Candida supplies a bit more exposition as she explains to her father (to whom she is only “Candy”) who Eugene is. “A dear boy,” as she calls him, Eugene had been discovered by James (some four months earlier in the summer, sleeping on the Embankment (of the Thames River). Eugene, erroneously believing that he had no money at all, was befriended by James. Burgess cannot hide his excitement upon learning that Eugene is an aristocrat, the nephew of an Earl. Eugene’s threatening is by way of preamble to his declaration: “I love your wife.” And to James’s attempts at laughing this off as “calf love,” he accuses the husband of “complacent superiority.” But even though James begins to be shaken by the poet’s impassioned candor, he still cannot “put aside all that cant,” as Eugene suggests. In effect, he goes on preaching to an “unimpressed and remorseless” Eugene, whose “boyish crudity” is noteworthy. In other terms, the Realist poet


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

effectively confronts the Idealist parson. Notice should be taken of Eugene’s way of characterizing Candida at this point: “A woman with a great soul, craving for reality, truth, freedom.” Thus Eugene himself is portrayed in Candida, even if Candida, the object of his adoration, is not. Burgess wonders about Eugene’s sanity; G. K. Chesterton wondered about the propriety of ascribing such reaction as Shaw does to Eugene when he is apprised of Candida’s menial chores. In his readable George Bernard Shaw, written early in the century, Chesterton considers this detail “completely and disastrously false to the whole nature of falling in love.” According to Chesterton, Shaw, because of “his great heresy of looking at emotions from the outside,” makes Eugene “a cold-blooded prig at the very moment when he is trying, for his own dramatic purposes, to make him a hot-blooded lover.” Chesterton’s argument is that “no boy in love with a beautiful woman would ever feel disgusted when she peeled potatoes or trimmed lamps. He would like her to be domestic. He would simply feel that the potatoes had become poetical and the lamps gained an extra light. This may be irrational; but we are not talking of rationality, but of the psychology of first love.” Chesterton concludes his amusing drubbing of this part of Shaw’s anti-artistic program by stating: “for dramatic purposes, G.B.S., even if he despises romance, ought to comprehend it. But then, if once he comprehended romance, he would not despise it.” “Here is one of the most audacious speeches in any modern play,” wrote critic James Huneker, of Candida’s explanation. “It has been passed over by most English critics,” he added, “who



saw in Candida merely an attempt to make a clergyman ridiculous, not realizing that the theme is profound and farreaching, the question put being no more and no less than: Shall a married man accept his wife’s love without working for it, without deserving it?” This “audacious” speech was not passed over by the American playwright Robert Anderson, who scored a Broadway success with his play Tea and Sympathy, in which a married woman, perhaps five years younger than Candida, does give her shawl, goodness and purity to a young man, the age of Eugene, who is not loved as he ought to be. Appropriately, the young man in the Anderson play, asks the woman, whether she—a former actress—had ever acted in any of Shaw’s plays. He especially wants to know whether she had ever played the role of Candida. She had, and he asks if she thought Candida did right to send Eugene away. The woman, who is married to one of his schoolmasters, replies: “Well Shaw made it seem right. Don’t you think?” The Anderson play is concerned with a topic, homosexuality, that was not the concern of Shaw in Candida (or in any other of his sixty plays); but basically it dramatizes the sympathy the woman feels for “the boy” who adores her—a sympathy that grows as he is made to feel (by his school generally) that he may be homosexual. Shaw’s Candida asks her husband whether Eugene will forgive her for not teaching him the value of love. Anderson’s Laura tells her husband that she feels guilty at having failed to teach his student Tom the value of love. Moreover, since Laura is not restrained as Candida is by love for her husband (Laura tells her husband she is leaving him forever),


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

she enters Tom’s room at the end of the play, bolts the door, unbuttons the top button of her blouse, seats herself along side Tom in the bed, brings his hands “toward her open blouse, as the lights slowly dim out … and … the curtain falls.” In effect: an exercise in how to be totally un-Shavian while writing a variation on a Shavian (Candida) theme. The pure fool Eugene fancies he is witnessing a tragedy. The parson manages to recover himself. The second act curtain falls on a resolute and forceful Reverend James Mavor Morell. At first, however, he moves in the direction of impatiens when Lexy expostulates with him about his breaking his engagement to speak for the Guild of St. Matthew. Fiercely, he complains about people who “think I am a talking machine to be turned on for their pleasure every evening of my life.” Interestingly, apropos of the “talking machine,” Shaw was also known as “the writing machine (for that is what G. B. S. is).” It is possible that parson Morel comes to resign himself to being a talking machine even as author Shaw has resigned himself to being a writing machine; at any vent, remembering his wife’s gentle taunts, he refers to her phrase “Prossy’s complaint.” To Burgess’s asking what is wrong with Prossy, Lexy replies, “I’m afraid she’s a little out of her mind sometime.” Thus, with his comic character Burgess, we reach the grand finale of the comedy routine that Shaw entered upon in Act I: “Four in the sameouse!” cries the businessman, overwhelmed by this contagion of madness. Eugene would seem to be a symbolist poet. Much of his dialogue early in this Act is fairly clouded with symbols— certainly the Morells find it so. Despite his fanciful allusions,



however, he and Candida are definitely not lovers, as were Tristan and Isolt, and there is no woodland grotto. The two are sitting in chairs beside the still-burning fire of a Vicarage hearth in London. At least they are till the moment Candida expresses a desire to talk and invites the poet to sit nearer to her on the hearth-rug. Her invitation might well have dashed most poets and most men: “talk moonshine as you usually do. I want to be amused.” Shaw tells us that Eugene accepts “half in terror, half enraptured.” Stretching out on the hearth-rug he throws his head back across her knees and looks up at her—“a great grown-up wicked deceiver,” in the cajoling words of his hostess. When she is asked by the poet, who is soon “on his knees, with his hands clasped and his arms on her lap,” if he may say “some wicked things” to her, Candida gives a negative answer. Here, the stage directions merit close attention. Candida replies “without the least fear or coldness, and with perfect respect for his passion, but with a touch of her wise-hearted maternal humor.” Instead, she asks him to say anything he really and truly feels. The one word he knows that does not belong to some attitude or other is the one he keeps repeating softly: “Candida.” Every utterance of her name is “a prayer to you,” he tells Candida, who asks if it doesn’t make him happy to be able to pray. To his “yes,” she assures him that “that happiness is the answer to your prayer. Do you want anything more?” Eugene’s reply, made a moment before James’s return, is: “No: I have come into heaven, where want is unknown.” Eugene desires nothing more; he does not desire to consummate his love; his heaven is indeed spiritual. Numerous


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

poets and other writers could be quoted at length in their praise of the passion of ideal love. Eugene is to allude further to it himself to the husband who views with gravity a scene that might well have shocked another parson. But James is as self-contained as Candida and Eugene are unembarrassed. The playwright summarily arranges an exchange of views between the two men only. He has Candida march off to the kitchen to tell the servant Maria she may retire, for the others are off supping somewhere. The husband’s suspense keeps mounting in proportion to the poet’s failure to satisfy James’s curiosity about what has passed during his absence. Clearly, however, the poet no longer views the parson’s decision to leave him alone with Candida as brave and beautiful; he now regards it as “heroics,” which, he adds, are infectious. He too has succumbed to heroics. According to Eugene, his two-hour reading stint has been his heroic way of “standing outside the gate of Heaven, and refusing to go in.” Learning that his wife could not bear being read to any longer, James takes up what seems to be the poet’s language of sexual symbolism: “And you approached the gate of Haven at last?” Eugene’s answer brings us back to the poker, now transformed into “a flaming sword that turned every way so that I couldn’t go in; for I saw,” he continues, “that that gate was really the gate of Hell.” Thus sexual consummation is equated with the infernal, even as Candida is equated with the angelic (“she became an angel”). The “flaming sword” was the conscience of the worshiper of this angel. But the angel’s husband mundanely surmises with triumph, “She repulsed you!” –a conjecture greeted with contempt by the young poet, who states that had she done



that he would never have seen that he “was in Heaven already.” Much ink of speculation over these two lines has flowed since they were set down. Needless to say, the playwright’s own comments on the matter are the best of the lot, even though he was careful to indicate that his is not the only way of looking at it. “Everybody who buys the book,” Shaw conceded, “may fit it with an ending to suit his own taste.” Yet as early as April 1904, in a letter to James Hunker, Shaw was suggesting that Candida makes a man of Eugene, finally, “by showing him his own strength— that David must do without poor Uriah’s wife. And then she pitches in her picture of the home, the onions, and the tradesmen, and the cosseting of big baby Morell. The New York hausfrau thinks it a little paradise; but the poet rises up and says, ‘Out, then, into the night with me’ –Tristan’s holy night. If his greasy fool’s paradise is happiness, then I give it to you with both hands, ‘life is nobler than that.’ That is the ‘poet’s secret.’ The young things in front weep to see the poor boy going out lonely and broken-hearted in the cold night to save the proprieties of New England Puritanism; but he is really a god going back to his heaven, proud, unspeakably contemptuous of the ‘happiness’ he envied in the days of his blindness, clearly seeing that he has higher business on hand than Candida. She has a little quaint intuition of the completeness of his cure; she says, “he has learnt to do without happiness.” Much later, in a reply to Henry Charles Duffin’s interpretation of the “secret” in his Quintessence of Bernard Shaw of 1920, Shaw wrote that “the secret in the poet’s heart’ is the one you descried as the most probable: that is, that the domestic life is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

not a poet’s destiny: Life is nobler than that. The starry night, and not the cozy room with the paraffin lamp, is the place for him. Your alternative solution that ‘sooner or later she will come to me after all’ is wildly silly.” In 1920 a query about the secret made by students at Rugsby elicited another such Shavian response: “The secret is very obvious after all—provided you know what a poet is. What business has a man with the great destiny of a poet with the small beer if domestic comfort and cuddling and petting at the apron-string of some dear nice woman? Morel cannot do without it: it is the making of him; without it he would be utterly miserable and perhaps go to the devil. To Eugene, the stronger of the two the daily routine of it is nursery slavery, swaddling clothes, mere happiness instead of exaltation—an atmosphere in which poetry dies. When Candida brings him squarely face to face with it, his heaven rolls up like a scroll; and he goes out proudly into the majestic and beautiful kingdom of the starry night. Read the scene over with that in your heads, and every word of it will come right. Read it with the sentimental delusion that the poet is going to drown himself because he cannot have the other fellow’s wife, and every word will seem utter nonsense. Mind, I have no doubt the Eugene found that though his head was in the start he had to keep his feet on the ground as much as Morell, and that some enterprising woman married him and made him dress himself properly and take regular meals. But he did not steal her from a friend.” It seems clear that the Auction Scene is not mounted by Shaw to dramatize Candida’s choice of two men. After all, in Act II Candida had affirmed her love of her husband. Moreover,



nowhere is there much of a pretense that Eugene poses a serious threat as a rival for her hand—unless it be at the close of Act I. interest resides no more in whether Eugene will steal his wife form James than in whether James is physically stronger than Eugene. The challenge posed by the outsider, the poetic visitor to the Vicarage, concerns ideas –“your ideas and mine,” as Eugene says in Act I. Of course, at that point in the play, Eugene wanted Candida to be able to choose between these ideas. But by the end of the play, viewing a Candida who has not changed even a jot during the course of it, an audience should not expect her to choose a new set of ideas any more than to choose a new husband or lover. Chiefly, in his comedy, which is a play of ideas, Shaw gives us, the readers and spectators, a choice between the two ideas. For what is delineated as the arsenic and the poetic, the author leaves little doubt about his preference. But of course he may not have prevailed upon all of us to share this preference with him. Shaw sometimes described his plays, as “dramas of ideas,” as he did, for example, in the opening scenic description of Man and Superman. Serious discussions of serious ideas may be found in nearly all Shavian plays, even though the first of his fullfledged dramas of discussion or disquisitory plays as they are often called, may be Man and Superman (especially Act III dream interlude, the so-called “Don Juan in Hell”) of the opening years of this century. Following the success of this venture, discussion became a staple of the twentieth-century drama. One has but to consider the numerous contributions to the art of discussion subsequently made by Shaw alone. Back to Methuselah and


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Heartbreak House are two examples. The Devil and Don Juan, or even James Morell and Eugene Marchbanks, inaugurated a distinguished series of “debates,” including those in Major Barbara and Saint Joan; moreover, such speeches as those intoned by Candida emanate from even quite late Shaw plays. Some of Aubrey’s long sermons in Too True to Be Good provide noteworthy examples, and that play followed immediately The Apple Cart, in which king Magnus is allotted an eleven-minute solo. All of these plays prove to Shaw’s detractors that in his drama “people just talk.” To his admirers, however, they often demonstrate Shaw’s inimitable success in somehow dramatizing the thrust and parry of trenchant ideas. Alongside “drama of ideas,” Shaw was well content to employ other phrases to describe his plays—“problem play” (or “thesis plays”), for example. In the “Author’s Apology” attached to one of his earlier plays, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw spoke of his determination “to accept problem as the normal material of the drama. It will be seen that only in the problem play is there any real drama, because drama is no mere setting up of the camera to nature: it is the presentation in parable of the conflict between Man’s will and his environment: in a word, of problem.” And even as he commented on one descriptive term, Shaw supplied still another one—“parable play” –that seems to some critics admirably suited to describe such Shavian drama. Sui generis (of its own kind): this Latin phrase has been used by Shaw, fittingly enough, to describe his drama, generally. In truth, definition and description are not easily brought to bear on a playwright who has said: “I am not governed by principles; I



am inspired; how or why I cannot explain because I do not know, but inspiration it must be; for it comes to me without any reference to my own ends or interests.” Nevertheless, he occasionally confronted the problem of play writing, in his non dramatic writing, in a somewhat more concrete fashion. “Now a playwright’s direct business is simply to provide the theater with a play,” he wrote, in his Prefatory to The Six of Calais. “When I write one with the additional attraction of providing the twentieth–century with an up-to-date religion or the like, that luxury is thrown in gratuitously; and the play, simply as a play, is not necessarily either the better or the worse for it. In answer to his own question, “What is a play simply as a play?” Shaw wrote, “Well, it is a lot of thing.” But its basic function, he argued, is the interpretation of life in action—“and all the academic definitions of a play are variations of this basic function.” (Shaw was forever assuring his readers that he did not deal in definitions.) Many of Shaw’s plays emerged with subtitles, indicating here a comedy, and there a political one. In later editions these subtitles were often dropped—as was the Shavian subtitle for Candida in its first publication: “A Mystery.” Tragedy (especially if we accept the Devil’s description of it in Man and Superman as “a play in which everybody is murdered at the end”) was decidedly not Shaw’s forte, even though he would sometimes refer to his Saint Joan, which he subtitled “A Chronicle Play,” as a tragedy. Part Four of Back to Methuselah is titled The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman; “A Tragedy” stands also as the subtitle of The Doctor’s Dilemma. This last play was Shaw’s extraordinary reply to the complaint of his friend William Archer


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

that the Shavian repertory contained no tragedy, a play culminating in death. If the “tragedy” label scarcely suffices for these plays, it must also be admitted that “comedy” seems a good deal less than adequate as a description of such plays as Heartbreak House or On the Rocks. Nevertheless, Shaw was usually content—as he was in his Preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant—to let the label “comedy” be applied to the sort of plays he wrote. In the “Warning from the Author,” prefixed to The Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw, in a Horatain manner, that “If I make you laugh at yourself, remember that my business as a classical writer of comedies is ‘to chasten morals with ridicule’; and if I sometimes make you feel like a fool, remember that I treat your toothache by pulling out your tooth. And I never do it without giving you plenty of laughing gas.” Candida, arrayed alongside the “Pleasant” plays, is one of numerous Shavian “comedies” that takes place in a drawing room, whether wholly (as with Candida) or in part (as with The Philanderer). Yet, as has been observed, the play is no more a typical “drawing room comedy;” then the room of the Vicarage is a typical drawing room. Reviewing a production of this “domestic play (another convention phrase), Stark Young, after arguing that “in a sense, all drama moves toward a condition of farce,” stated that “Candida is fundamentally a farce, a kind of cerebral farce.” Young also mentioned the possibility of taking the play “as a farce of ideas pitched delightfully against each other.” Shavian characters are often spoken of as mere mouthpieces of Bernard Shaw even by persons who declare that



they have read some Shaw plays. Shaw himself liked to think that he “allowed every person his or her own point of view;” and an unbiased survey of the evidence of his plays should bear out the prevailing truth of his testimony. Still, in most of the plays, there is likely to be a character who, we feel, voices the beliefs and feeling of his or her creator to a marked degree. Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra is a good example. At an opposite extreme is the “most parsonic parson,” James in Candida. Even though James is not denied sympathetic strokes of delineation while he is wholly being allowed his own point of view, there is no blinking the fact that he is, in Shaw’s own phrase, “the butt of the piece.” Specifically, he is the butt of his chief antagonist, Eugene, who early tells the parson, “I’ll fight your ideas … . I’ll pit my own ideas against them.” In pitting his ideas against James’s, Eugene is usually made to seem tight—so much to that we feel that Candida’s delight may well be the playwright’s own as she is made to exclaim extravagantly about Eugene to her husband. “He is always right. He understands you; he understands me; he understands Prossy; and you, darling, you understand nothing.” Of course, this all understanding poet, attains still further understanding before the final curtain descends—no doubt aided in reaching it by Candida herself, who finally feels she can declare with assurance that Eugene “has learnt to live without happiness.” For there is one major learning experience for the young poet that Shaw is intent upon dramatizing. The apprentice in realism cannot hope to become a Realist (at least not a Shavian one) while even so much as inclined to the amoristic complaint.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

The admiration that Shaw felt for the actual poet Shelley was tempered by the reservation he felt for Shelley the amoral; apparently he sought to amend this disability in his imagined poet—to bring him to a conviction of error. What better way to open the eyes of one who is inclined to idealize Love and Woman that to plunk him into a scene of middle-class domesticity, where he could observe the male as the doll in a managerial wife’s doll house? But even granted that this “fault” in Eugene gets corrected, is one to conceive of this eighteen-year-old as the voice of Bernard Shaw in Candida? From where else in the Vicarage could Shavianism emanate? It is almost solely owing to our being made to see this domestic circle through the eyes of a far-out outsider that the comedy can be called Shavian. But surely some of Eugene’s dialogue is a disservice to poets and poetry? It is; but impatience with some of Eugene’s lines might be softened by a consideration of the time (1894), as well as of the speaker’s age— a consideration that should also extend to what some very fine English and Irish poets of the period thought and wrote, especially when they were Eugene’s age. R. F. Rattray, in his Bernard Shaw: A Chronicle, records an actor’s telling him that when he acted as Eugene in early productions of the play he regarded the poetic passages as “Faustian,” but that the playwright told him they were real poetry. Whether or nor one views this report as Shavian leg-pulling, he may sense the justice of critic Bentley’s observation that “Even the things that arouse most derision are truths which nobody in the play—or perhaps in the playhouse— shares with Eugene.” According to Bentley, “Eugene March is



strong by any standard. He is all the time acquiring that last ability of noble mind, the ability to live without illusions, and at the end he has acquired it. A look through the play will convince the skeptic that Shaw invariably puts the truth in Eugene’s mouth and seldom in anybody else’s.” An interpretation of Eugene that classifies him as either a comic or burlesque figure has simply jumped the tracks. Candida-worship that denigrates the role of the poet thus is idolatrous. Eugene’s role corresponds in essential with the Realist—or Vitalist—role of Captain Bluntschil in that other “Pleasant” play, Arms and the Man, which Shaw wrote just before Candida, as well as with the role of Caesar, in Caesar and Cleopatra, and many another “teaching” roles among Shaw’s dramatis personae. The title of the play plays an impressive role. But the main controversial issue about Candida concerns the part she plays in “Shaw’s theme of reality and corrupting ideals. There is likely to be far more agreement about how to apply Shaw’s three labels— Idealist, Realist, and Philistine—to the hopelessly bound parson and the eventually unbound poet than to Candida. This mother once elected to marry the Reverend James Mavor Morell and she loved him, and the kind of household we visit during the three acts of the play is overwhelmingly her handiwork. At the same time, she feels some fondness for Eugene and she sympathizes with him; and in some measure she understands him. In addition, she is more than unconsciously instrumental in helping Eugene become cured of his illusions. Candida is herself singularly free of illusions. Because this is so, and because she assists Eugene in his drive toward freedom,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

she is sometimes viewed as the play’s Realist, Vitalist, Teacher. But this is a role a trifle awkward for the parson’s wife to play in this Vicarage. True, she is more than partially a realist, just as she is unconventional. But even her husband has –certainly for a parson—his unconventional moments too. Candida is, besides, “immoral”; that is, in precisely the sense that Shaw was, in his own words, “an immoral writer.” Writer and character both are opposed to what passes for morality in a society conventionbound and dedicated to current ideals. Candida’s emancipation from such “morality” is not, however, comparable to the freedom of Eugene. Eugene might well say of Candida what Schopenhauer said of women generally that they are “decidedly more sober in their judgment than we are, so that they do not see more in things than is really there, while, if our passions are aroused, we are apt to see things in an exaggerated way, or imagine what does not exist. The weakness of their reasoning faculty also explains why it is that women show more sympathy for the unfortunate than men do, and to treat them with more kindness and interest; and why it is, on the contrary, they are inferior to men in point of justice, and less honorable and conscientious.” What? Let the last word on Candida be spoken by a misogynist? How much more reasonable and fitting it will be to reflect a bit on the perceptive judgment of Stark Young, who found that “Candida ends by being a play whose roles are capable of many interpretations and are hospitable to many actors.” Why need Candida Burgess Morell be pigeon-holed into any one category, Shavian or otherwise? Why not respond with gratitude



to the ambiguity of a vividly realized character? “When an author’s works produce violent controversy, and are new, people are apt to read them with that sort of seriousness which is very appropriately called deadly.” It may be well to bear this (of course Shavian) warning in mind as his labels “Realist” and “Philistine” she is in part. Is she also part “Philistine”? Definitely, yes—provided that you are an “Idealist.” Here is the way Shaw put the matter of such classification. Speaking about the vast majority of persons “who comfortably accept marriage as a matter of course, never dreaming of calling it an “institution,” much less a holy and beautiful one, and being pretty plainly of opinion observed (in The Quintessence of Ibsenism) that “the idealists, hurt by this, will retort by calling them Philistines.” Let us, finally, remember another Shavian warning—about “the sort of criticism which seeks to create an impression favorable or otherwise” by simply pasting “characters all over with good or bad conduct marks.” He must have asked himself this question, for he let this subtitle drop out of sight following the first publication of the play. It was by way of allusion, no doubt, to “the secret in the poet’s heart” –the one (remember?) that husband and wife do not know. We of course know because Shaw has told us that Eugene was thinking, “if this greasy fool’s paradise is happiness, then I give it to you with both hands,” for he had frown “contemptuous of the ‘happiness’ he envied in the days of his blindness, clearly seeing that he has higher business on hand than Candida.” Very likely, as he fled out into the night, he uttered the triumphant cry of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra at the end of Zarathustra’s


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

discourse: “Do I seek for happiness? I seek for my work!” And later on, he doubtlessly muttered Owen Jack’s words in Shaw’s Love Among the Artists: “I sometimes shudder when I think that I was once within an ace of getting a wife and family … it is marriage that kills the heart and keeps it dead. Better starve the heart than overfeed it. Better still to feed it only on fine food, like music.”

MAJOR BARBARA By George Bernard Shaw Major Barbara, together with Man and Superman and John Bull’s Other Island, form part of a trilogy of philosophical comedies, all of which deal with the bankruptcy of nineteenthcentury liberalism in the face of the brute facts of sex, nationalism, and not by chance that critics holding a formalist position, from Shaw’s friend A. B. Walkley down to Francis Fergusson on our own day, have denounced the play as a kind of literary monster, while philosopher-critics have regarded it as one of the few dramas with anything serious to say on the subject of politics. Indeed, Major Barbara raises the central issue of modern aesthetics as squarely as any piece of writing can. This question— putting it in the simplest possible terms—seems to be whether art is to be regarded as autonomous and ‘sui generic’ or whether it is to be judged in relation to some ulterior standard of reality, that is, as a form of science or knowledge. The second view of the nature of art—which is certainly Shaw’s view first to the dominant literary theory of our day, and second to our political and social ideals—seems acceptable. Only the inordinate length of Man and Superman kept Shaw from publishing his three philosophical comedies together in a set as he did the Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant and the Three Plays for Puritans. For his German edition, Shaw suggested that they be grouped and given the title Comedies of Science and Religion. Like the grouped plays of the other cycles,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

these plays share, besides their common theme, a common mood and a common dramatic structure. It is this latter feature—their unique dramatic form—which has first of all confused, puzzled, and exasperated critics. What Shaw does is to mix together in each play a Molieresque comedy and a Socratic dialogue. This is a heavy mixture which has delighted many and infuriated not a few who have simply found these plays morally and aesthetically indigestible. But let us see first how this slicing of forms works in practice. Each play beings by presenting us with a high-minded idealist, who takes himself with earnest seriousness and looks upon himself as an unlighted reformer. He is then made subject of a comedy in the style of Moliere, not with the idea of unmasking his hypocrisy, but with the intention of exposing the comic contradictions within his ideals and temperament. Then the problems raised by this character, which appear originally in a farcical satirical light, are treated more and more seriously until they are shown to be bound up with what Shaw calls “the destiny of nations,” and the audience which had settled down for a night of fun finds it must either transform itself from an audience of pleasure-seekers into a “pit of philosopher” or founder hopelessly in the dream sequence of Man and Superman or the last act of John Bull’s Other Island and Major Barbara. But not, Shaw would answer, to someone who believed that “Every joke is an earnest in the womb of time,” and who was firmly convinced that the prophet who did not make his audience laugh would suffer, at worst, the fate of Socrates and Christ, and, at best, that of Voltaire and Tom Paine. The idealistic liberals who are the butts of the satire are

Major Barbara


Roebuck Ramsden in Man ands Superman, Tom Broadbent in John Bull’s Other Island, and Lady Britomart Undershaft in Major Barbara, but since our subject is the latter play let us look at Lady Britomart as a representative of the species. The character of Lady Britomart, like most of those in Major Barbara, was drawn from a real person. It is a well-known fact that Shaw based Adolphus Cusins, his professor of Greek, on Gilbert Murray, but it is less well known that he based Lady Britomart on Murray’s real-life mother-in-law, Lady Rosalind Frances, Countess of Carlisle. (Indeed, Shaw jokingly told Murray in a letter that he was at work on a play to be called “Murray’s Mother-in-law.”) The Countess of Carlisle was, like Lady Britomart, a Whig peeress; her father was the Liberal whip in Parliament, and she was herself a crusading temperance reformer and eighteen years the leader of the natorial Woman’s Liberal Federation. Her husband the earl was more interested in art than in estate management, and she ran the extensive family estates attending in minute detail to the farmers’ personal welfare—and to their moral characters. Castle Howard and her house in Kensington were saloons for the Liberal intelligentsia. Murray himself has paid tribute to her crusading enthusiasm and to the heartening quality of her formidable benevolence. The clue to Shaw’s treatment of the comic contradictions on Lady Britomart’s character may be found in a remark by James Froude, Carlyle’s biographer, on the subject of Lady Rosalind. Froude, who disapproved of her politics but admired her character, said that though she professed to be a Liberal, she was by temperament better fitted to be an “empress.” Hence if Shaw


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

had chosen to make her the central figure of the play he might have imitated Moliere’s “Bourgeois Gentelman” to the extent of calling it “The Imperious Liberal.” By family tradition and personal conviction Lady Britomart is an avowed believer in free speech and a democratic franchise, but every speech that she utters shows her native aristocratic spirit and natural masterfulness at odds with these ideals. She thinks she is consulting her son Stephen about the family inheritance when she is in fact revealing her own firm convictions. She can no more be said to be consciously bullying Stephen than an avalanche can be accused of intending to obliterate a tree in its path, but the effect is just the same. She declares that her children are her fiends and equals and in reality treats them like kindergarten toddlers unable to take care of themselves. If she were not as amiable as she is willful and domineering, she would be an atrocious tyrant; but as her children are as strong-minded as herself, and as she is prevented by her affectionateness from acting as peremptorily as she talks, we even end by feeling something like pity for her as a well-intentioned mother balked in the pursuit of her heart’s desire, and too heroic in temperament to take refuge in self-pity, sulking, or quarrels. Major Barbara has been glibly likened to The Importance of Being Earnest for its wit and farce, and there is indeed a superficial resemblance between Lady Britomart and Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s play, but nothing could be more unlike Wilde than the stroke by which Shaw has the frustrated Lady Britomart burst into tears at the end of act one when her children desert her for their father. But where, if we take Shaw’s formula seriously, is the

Major Barbara


“earnest” of the particular joke which underlies this brilliant piece of high comedy? We do not have to look far for it. It lies in the fact that Lady Britomart represents the hereditary British governing class in its most enlightened and liberal aspect, but also under its limitations. For, with all her admirable civic energy her vision is circumscribed by two principles: her conventional “morality” and her belief in the divine right of the aristocracy to rule the country. Behind her reformism is an intense moral fervor, but she does not see that moral tyranny is in itself the most oppressive of all tyrannies and that moral indignation is no substitute for critical thought and action. When Stephen shows embarrassment, when he thinks she is about to reveal some youthful indiscretion of his father’s, she chides him: “It is only in the middle classes, Stephen, that people get into a state of dumb helpless horror when they find out that there are wicked people in the world. In our class, we have to decide what is to be done with wicked people; and nothing should disturb our self-possession.” But, as we shall see later, “helpless horror” and moral indignation are almost all that Lady Britomart can oppose to the brutal facts of the Undershaft munitions works, and the political power of a capitalist class to realize its profits at whatever cost. Lady Britomart’s moralist is not an aristocratic Mrs. Grundyism, a Queen Victoria-ism so to speak; it is merely a rationalization of her class prejudices and privileges, “right” and “propriety” being whatever furthers the Stephen age family interests, and “wrong” or “impropriety” being whatever conflicts with them. The central issue of the first act, and indeed of the play as a whole, is who will inherit the armament factory owned by


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Lady Britomart’s husband, Andrew Undershaft. The question of the Undershaft inheritance has caused a rift between the husband and wife: according to the tradition of the firm, the inheritance must go not to a son of the owner but to some promising adopted heir. This condition, utterly at odds with aristocratic belief in birth and blood, so offends Lady Britomart that it is useless for Andrew to argue that the Roman Empire was run successfully on this scheme and that it brought to the throne Marcus Aurelius. She is so used to thinking of the Stephenages as governors by natural right that when Andrew had refused to break the firm’s law of succession in favor of his son Stephen the resulting quarrel led to a legal separation. Lady Britomart’s way of putting this is to declare that nothing can bridge fundamental “moral” disagreement. One has only to spend two minutes is Stephen’s presence to realize the soundness of his father’s decision, for Stephen is a conscientious, thoroughly well-intentioned prig and moral pedant, tediously prating about “right” being “right” and “wrong” being “wrong”; in short, he is ten times the slave of conventional morality his mother is, with her spiritedness all soared into sulky petulance of the most high-toned sort. His sister Sarah lacks his pretentiousness, but also his starchy character, and is, in fact, no more than a fashionable nonentity. Only in their third child, Barbara, has the Undershaft Stephenage marriage justified itself as an evolutionary experiment in the crossing of types and classes, for Barbara has Lady Birtomart’s genuis for leadership and mothering, with none of her class limitations. So little is she concerned with mere propriety and good form, and so intensely

Major Barbara


does she identify herself with the religious spirit of the race that she has thrown aristocratic prejudice to the winds and demonstrated the family independence of mind by joining the least snobbish of the reforming religious sects of the day, the Salvation Army. We learn that Sarah and Barbara have both become engaged; Sarah to Charles Lomax, an amiable aristocratic noodle as empty-headed as herself, and Barbara to a man as complex and subtle in his moral and intellectual perceptions as Lomax is silly. Shaw shows us in Cousins a representative of the humane conscience in its most tender and perceptive form. In writing to Gilbert Murray, his model for the part, Shaw pointed out that he had taken pains to make his professor “the reverse in every point of the theatrical strong man:” “I want him to go on his quality wholly, and not to make the smallest show of physical robustness or brute determination. His selection by Undershaft should be a standing puzzle to the people who believe in the, strong, silent still-waters-run-deep hero of melodrama. The very name Adolphus Cusins was selected to that end.” In choosing Murray as his model, Shaw had in mind a type of Liberal strong contrast to the active, bustling Lady Britomart the academic, cloistered, sympathetic, skeptical, ironic, super civilized Liberal who shrinks instinctively from what E. M. Forster has called the world of “telegrams and anger.” Murray’s liberalism sprang from several sources—from the radicalism of Castle Howard, from his Irish rebel background, and from a strain of Shelley an humanitarianism that made him, like


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Shaw, a vegetarian and a hater of all forms of cruelty. The other side of the picture was his Hellenism. For Murray, Greek literature was a living force having direct bearing on modern politics, morals, and culture. Here is how he writes of Euripides, the Greek playwright to whom he felt especially drawn: “His contemporary public denounced him as dull, because he tortured them with personal problems; as malignant, because he made them see truths they wished not to see; as blasphemous and foul-minded, because he made demands on their spiritual and religious natures which they could not overlook.” In short, Murray regarded Euripides as standing in relation to the golden age of Athens as the “New Drama” of Shaw and Ibsen stood in relation to the age of Victoria and Edward VII. Shaw returned the compliment by hailing the production of Murray’s translations of Euripides as the Court theatre as modern masterpieces that had earned their place on the contemporary stage through their own right. During the Boer campaign of 1899-1901, Murray belonged, with his cousin by marriage Bertrand Russell, to the small but vocal Liberal minority who opposed the war. No doubt his anti-war sentiments endowed Euripides’ Andromache and The Trojan Women with particular significance for him; at any rate these were two of his earliest choices for translation into English verse. In Major Barbara Shaw makes Undershaft give Cousins the nickname “Euripides,” thus implying that he looks on human affairs with the same mixture of ironic pessimism and pity as did his Greek predecessor. When Cousins is brought face-to-face with the facts of armament-making, he tells Undershaft, “there is an

Major Barbara


abyss of moral horror between me and your accursed aerial battleships.” It is this group Lady Britomart has invited her estranged husband to meet in the drawing-room of her West End mansion. Her intention is the eminently practical one of extracting dowries from Andrew for the two brides-to-be, her estimate of a feckless man-about-town and a classics professor being realistically small. But Lady Britomart’s attempt to bring up once more the matter of the inheritance meets flinty resistance from Undershaft. Indeed, the family reunion appears headed for a fiasco, and only the unexpected interest Undershaft shows in Barbara’s novel religious aspirations, saves the meeting from shipwreck. It is an immense puzzle to both the naïve and the sophisticated members of the family group that Undershaft should show such a concern with his new faith, particularly since he is resolutely unashamed of his destructive trade and even seems to glory in it, declaring, “Your Christianity”, which enjoins you to resist not evil, and to turn the other cheek, would make me a bankrupt. My morality—my religion—must have a place for cannons and torpedoes in it.” Barbara challenges him to maintain this faith after visiting her East End Salvation Army shelter. Her father accepts the invitation, and issues a counter-challenge: she shall, in return, pay a visit to his arms factory and face the temptation offered by a religion of “money and gun-powder.” He warns her that she may end by giving up the Salvation Army for the sake of the cannons; strong in her conviction of the impossibility of any such enormity, she accepts his condition. The scene at the Salvation Army shelter is a remarkable


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

piece of law-life melodrama; equaled in English only by the works of O’Casey. The refugees at the barracks include a cynically smart young man and an old crone, both posing as redeemed sinners, and an unemployed older man who is brought in a state of semi starvation. This man, Peter Shirley by name, has been turned out of his job as overage; he finds the necessity of accepting charity all the more bitter because he holds the faith of a secularist, in contrast to the others who believe in nothing but their right to exploit the capitalist society as it has bilked and exploited them. Finally Bill Walker enters, a half-drunk, blustering bully in a very mean mood, who bawls angrily for his girl, and curses the Army for taking her from him. It will be seen that this is not a particularly cheerful, amusing, or attractive group of slum dwellers. Unlike other writers who are sympathetic to the poor, Shaw does not sentimentalize or idealize them, his argument being that if poverty actually did improve people it would be the strongest argument for making poverty compulsory. Shaw insists rather that poverty is unequivocally demoralizing: its fruits are not simple piety, honest rectitude, and altruistic sentiment; they are more likely to be, at best, hypocrisy, cynicism, and shattered self-respect; and, at worst, conscienceless brutality. Looking into this abyss, Lady Britomart would first of all be shocked at the total lack of respect of the poor for their governors—sincerely shocked, since she would be conscious of having their spiritual and physical welfare at heart; Barbara and Cousins as humanitarians seem appalled by the bitterness and violence of these lives. Moreover, Christianity itself must assume

Major Barbara


part of the blame for this moral debasement. For besides teaching humility and acquiescence, it also, through its Pauline Theology first preaches a retaliatory morality and then allows the blackguards to escape the consequences of his actions through a belief in a divine atonement. Shaw’s second act makes this last point through a moral parable in the vein of Tolstoy. Bill Walker, the bully, first strikes the old woman and then a young Salvation Army girl. When the old woman curses him he simply jeers at her, knowing that hard words break no bones and that she is, spiritually speaking, on the same level as himself in her vindictive desire for revenge. The young girl, by contrast, instead of reproaching him prays for him. This unexpected behavior has the effect of giving his anger time to cool, and then, as he reflects more soberly on his deed, causing a noticeable twinge of conscience. This sensitivity Barbara exploits skillfully, not scolding him, but keeping the naked fact of his deed inexorably before him. Finally he feels he must somehow make amends, and the way he tries to do this is highly significant. First he tries to “atone” by getting himself pummeled by a Salvation Army officer who is a converted boxer: this is the Pauline Christian method. When this fails, he then “fines” himself as he has seen other blackguards fined in law courts: this is, of course, only Pauline Christianity as we have institutionalized it with our legal system of planties and prisons. But Barbara, whose Christianity is not that of Paul but of Christ—that is, a Christianity which scorns vengeance, retaliation, and punishment –is still memorable; she will not play the role of Tetzel on any account. Bill Walker cannot “buy” salvation from the Salvation


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Army. The only way he can redeem himself is through a growth of conscience that will make it impossible for him to repeat his deed. Under no circumstances must he be encouraged to sin so that grace may abound. Barbara’s fight for Bill’s soul comes very near to success and only fails on the part of her father. The latter frustrates her simply by demonstrating that although the Salvation Army can afford to refuse to sell the blackguard his salvation for twenty shillings, it cannot, no matter how scrupulous it affects to be, refuse to sell the millionaire his for, say, five thousand pounds. Barbara had refused to accept her father’s suspense in the collection plate because the money was earned through the creation of destructive forces far more brutal in their effect than anything the slum ruffian might aspire to. But when Mrs. Baines, the Army commissioner, comes to plead for money to carry on the Army’s work in a hard winter, she is forced to accept Undershaft’s offer of the aforementioned thousands despite his sardonic emphasis on the terrifying nature of his enterprises. The ruffian, when he sees the rich man’s gift accepted where his own conscience money was rejected, turns on Barbara with cynical scorn, and Barbara, facing the failure of her attempt at salvation and a realization that the Salvation Army, if it is to exist at all, can only exist as the pensioner of the distillery and cannon industries, utters her bitter and heart-rending cry of despair, “My God: why hast thou forsaken me?” The melodrama of the scene at the Salvation Army barracks thus reaches its, climax in this loss of faith. But it is at this point that the play takes the most surprising of its many

Major Barbara


surprising turns. For at the moment that Barbara’s God, the God of Evangelical Christianity, appears to have failed her, the professor of Greek hails as a new deity the very man Barbara now fears as anti-Christ, her diabolical-seeming father. Cousins, in a transport of ecstasy, declares himself to be possessed by the spirit of Undershaft, whom he addressed as the new “Dionysus.” Barbara, in the pain and confusion of her loss, can of course see nothing in this behavior but a piece of perverse irony. Since the reader or spectator of the play may be left in the same puzzlement as Shaw’s West End heiress, it may be well at this point to ask what Shaw means by his idea of a “new” Dionysos. What has the ancient Greek god to do with modern society? The answer is to be found in the meaning Dionysiac religion had in the Greek world. Historians and philosophers, of whom Nietzsche is the most famous, have repeatedly emphasized the strange disparity between the serene rationalism of Greek society as we usually conceive it and the wild barbarity of the Bacchic cult which entered Greece from Thrace and Macedonia in the tenth century before Christ. Nietzsche traces the birth of dramatic tragedy itself to this irruption of frenzied rites and ecstatic orgies into the calm order and moral rationalism of Greek life, which the new religion challenged with its worship of supernormal psychic energy and its identification of the worshipper both with the new God and with the life processes of the Salvation Army as the “true worship of Dionysos,” finding in the Army’s ecstasy and enthusiasm (literally, a standing outside oneself and possession by the divine will) an analogue of the uncouth religion that shocked the cultivated Greeks as the Army


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

shocked the conventional Anglicanism of the West End. In its stirring religious music he had seen the primitive dithyramb reborn, its trombones, tumbrels. And drums being the antithesis of the both the tepid hymns sung in fashionable churches and the salon music of the fashionable drawing room. Even its symbols, Blood and Fire, Cousins points out, are Dionysiac symbols. Its joy and happiness are those of the God possessed, as Barbara’s later grief is that of the God forsaken. Thus Dionysianism is what Bergson calls a “dynamic religion,” with its basis not in conventional morality or institutionalism but in a mystical union with the divine will. It breaks down social barriers, taking the intellectual into University Settlements in the slums, and pitting him actively against evil. It carries its devotees beyond the bounds of logic and reason. Aroused and lacking rational direction, it finds its expression in the frenzy of the revolutionary mob. Cousins is a sophisticated intellectual who has joined the Army, as Lady Britomart puts it, to worship Barbara; (no bad object of worship, Shaw would insist.) But Barbara’s obvious religious genius attracts him strongly, and her evangelicalism, on its practical side, is not at all incompatible with his own religion of love, pity, and forgiveness. Indeed, for all his sardonic irony, he faces a crisis of his own beliefs at the same moment Barbara faces hers. As we have already seen, Cousins, in his skepticism and humanitarianism is akin to the young Euripides who casts doubts on the traditional Greek attitudes to such questions as patriotism, religion, women, and slaves. But the Greek playwright’s later development has a strange

Major Barbara


and unforeseen twist to it. For Euripides, who first turned the Greek drama away from its roots in Dionysiac religion toward a critical and skeptical direction, does return to Dionysus at the end of his career. In what is generally regarded as the last work of his old age, The Bacchae, the humanistic and humanitarian playwright does come face to face with the religion in which the drama had its origin. It is probably no exaggeration to say that The Bacchae is, by a good margin, the most terrifying, unedifying, and enigmatic of all Greek tragedies. You will recall that in this play Dionysus visits in disguise the city of Thebes where his rites have been forbidden by the moralistic King Pentheus and works a horrifying revenge. The problem Euripides’s drama poses, put in the briefest terms, is this: what attitude are we to adopt to this new force in society, at once so terrible of vital religion or does he symbolize some dark, demonic power from which we are to recoil in dread? Now, like the Greeks of Euripides’ day, Cousins has also been brought face to face with a brutal, primitive force of life and death which the cultivated, sensitive side of him recoils from, but which the clear-headed student of society is forced to take into account. This power is the destructive-creative energy of Cousins’ prospective father-in-law, the arms maker. And Shaw, to emphasize the fact that he has had the parallel with Euripides’ drama in mind all along, has Cousins quote some twenty or thirty lines from the play in the Salvation Army scene, in what Cousins identifies as his “own” (that is, Murray’s) new translation. It is no exaggeration to say that Shaw’s Undershaft has created the same bafflement in critics as Euripides’ Dionysus,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

whether the critic be as naïve as the Time reviewer who accused Shaw of making a “complete about-face” and firing on his own socialist ranks, or as sophisticated as Mr. Francis Fergusson, who for all his learning and intelligence, denounces Major Barbara as a tissue of “unresolved paradoxes.” What then are we to make of this man who has so puzzled Shaw’s commentators? It may perhaps be best to turn first to the living models from whom Shaw may have obtained hints for his millionaire munitions maker. One was a neighbor as Ayot Saint Lawrence, Charles McEvoy, a quite and gentle man, who had manufactured torpedoes for the North during the American Civil War. But we should like to suggest that Shaw, in drawing the sardonic side of Undershaft’s character, seems to have had in mind the Swedish arms maker Alfred Nobel, the inventor of nitroglycerine. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Nobel’s success in creating more and more powerful explosives had sent a wave of panic around the world. A leading figure in European business and international finance, Nobel was also a man of an intellectual and literary cast. Like Undershaft, he belonged to a munitions dynasty, his father having been an armaments maker before him. In thought and sentiment, Nobel was as Shelley, a radical and humanitarian, but this did not limit his hardheadedness in business, and he sold his patents indiscriminately to autocratic and liberal states alike. Nobel’s motto, “my home is where my work is, and my work is everywhere,” might well have been Undershaft’s. And, of course, one of the last deeds of this complex and enigmatic man was his endowment of the Nobel Peace Prize, which challenged the

Major Barbara


humanitarian liberals among his personal fiends to solve the problem his discoveries had created. The Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901, four years before Shaw began his play. This will perhaps explain, in part, the paradoxes of Major Barbara—that it is a dealer in lethal weapons who plays the role of Socrates in this socialist drama. But what of Undershaft’s peculiar commercial ruthlessness, that specifically cold-blooded side of hid personality that has so shocked and baffled critics and audiences? To unravel this puzzle we must begin by considering his background. Undershaft is an East End slum boy, reared in that wilderness of desolation that was East London in the middle of the nineteenth century. He has, like all the members of his dynasty, taken the name f the firm’s founder, an abandoned orphan reared in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft in the City. His early career had resembled in its single-mindedness the career of the American industrial barons of the post-Civil War period. Determined to escape from the indignities of poverty, he had taken for his own the stern old Scots’ slogan: “Thou shalt starve ere I starve.” Here the second paradox appears, for as a Socialist we expect Shaw especially to condemn this spirit. But he condones it and even insists that for a poor person it is indeed the only possible “manly” attitude. (Undershaft’s Christian name, “Andrew,” means “manly.”) For Shaw, the great cardinal virtues are courage and self-respect, and he believed that if the poor in a democracy let themselves be exploited, starved, and snubbed, it is only because of their own invented abjectness.) Hence the cutting remarks which Undershaft, the ex-slum boy, addressed to Peter


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Shirley, the down-trodden, long-suffering worker, in the Salvation Army shelter: Shirley: [angrily]. Who made your millions for you? Me and my like. What's kept us poor? Keeping you rich. I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your income. Undershaft: I wouldn’t have your conscience, not for all your conscience, Mr. Shirley. Undershaft is driving home the point that the play makes over and over again, that a conviction of moral superiority is in itself the hollowest of consolations, the last resource of the weak and cowardly, and the treacherous quagmire in which true worth and manhood are lost. Honor, justice, and truth are indeed part of Undershaft’s religion, but he is firm in pointing out that these can be known as the “graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.” Any liberal like Cousins who preaches the virtues to the poor without taking into account economic realities is a fool. Undershaft can even declare that his determinedly ruthless conduct satisfies the Kantian test, since the world would be an immeasurably better place if all the poor, behaved exactly as he has. But first we must rid ourselves of the liberal belief that moral virtue by itself is ever capable of becoming a significant force in the world. Shaw made this point abundantly clear in a speech of Undershaft’s in the unpublished Derry manuscript of the play: “Come, come, my young friends: let us live in the real world. Your moral world is a vacuum nothing is done there, though a good deal is eaten and drunk by the moralists at the expense of the real world. It is nice to live in the vacuum and repeat the fine phrases and edifying

Major Barbara


sentiments a few literary people have manufactured for you: but you know as well as I do that your morality is tolerated only on the assumption that nothing is to come of it. Your Christmas carols about peace and goodwill to men are very pretty; but you order cannons from me just the same. You ring out the old, ring in the new: that is, you discard muzzle loaders; they have no responsibility and no power; but she does not sing it by Greek verses. It can be stopped only by a mighty power which is not in his class room.” Undershft soon makes it clear that this power is the power of bombs. Liberal intellectuals frequently distrust power and decry the use of force. In so doing, they blind themselves to the fact that the authority of governments in liberal democracies rests on the police and army as surely as in any authoritarian state. Shaw, speaking through Undershaft, defines a government as a body of men with the courage to kill. Stephen, the conventionally-minded parliamentarian, must himself be as ready to kill his political opponents as Caesar, Cromwell, Washington, Lincoln, and Stalin were to kill theirs. Being a totally conventional young man with his head stuffed full of moral clichés and a conviction of the divinely righteous nature of upper-class British interests, he will kill stupidly and senselessly. How little his high-mindedness represents anything in the way of real scruples we see when the Undershaft arty arrives, is now all admiration for this triumph of industry. But for the intellectual humanitarian and the former Salvationist the reconciliation to the factory of death is not so easy. The last scene of the play is at once an intellectual argument


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and a religious wooing of the souls of Cusins and Barbara by Mephistopheles Dionysos-Undershaft. Cusins may admit that force is the basis of present-day society and that a capitalist state exists for the sake of protecting the rich man’s dividends, just as the Salvation Army inadvertently plays into the hands of the rich by diverting the attention of the poor from revolution. But perhaps the answer is not to use force against force but to abandon force completely and to appeal for social justice on the grounds of Christianity, love, and mercy. No: Undershaft inexorably insists, government and rule means killing, and all political progress (not to mention political conservatism) rests ultimately on the willingness to kill. Since this is the idea which readers and audiences of Major Barbara have found most puzzling and unintelligible, coming as it does in a work of a writer who can by no means be accused of lacking moral sensitivity and bowels of compassion, and who otherwise hardly seem to be of the school of Hobbes and Machiavelli, let us see if we can determine exactly what Undershaft means before we raise the cry of “unresolved paradox.” It is likely that Shaw’s intention is clear enough if we give full weight to what he says in the final scene, but since these relatively straightforward statements have been for most people as music to the deaf and sunsets to the blind, we may profitably take another look at the unpublished manuscript version of the play in the possessions he maintains in the final version of the play, but he is perhaps more explicit: Undershaft [grimly]: Why do [the poor] starve? Because they

Major Barbara


have been taught that it is their duty to starve. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”-eh? But now mark my highest claim, my proudest boast. To those who are worth their slat as slaves I give the means of life. But to those who will not or cannot sell their manhood—to those who will not stand tamely and suffer their country to be ravaged by poverty and preyed upon by skulkers and idlers—I give the means of death. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to sermons and Bibles and leading articles and pious platitudes: they will not stand to my machine guns. Let every English citizen resolve to kill or be killed sooner than tolerate the existence of one poor person or one idler on English soil: and poverty and slavery will vanish tomorrow. Barbara: Killing! Is that your remedy? Undershaft: It is the final test of conviction, the sole lever strong enough to lift a whole people. It is the right of every man who will stake his own life on his faith. It is the only way of saying Must. At this point it is perhaps natural to ask whether Shaw, in giving Undershaft these speeches, was expressing his own political philosophy or merely presenting an idea, so to speak, dramatically. Any doubts on this subject may be resolved by consideration of another British Museum manuscript that contains Shaw’s notes for a lecture on Darwin delivered to the Fabian Society in 1906, the year after the production of Major Barbara: “Revolutions, remember, can only by made by men and women with courage enough to meet the ferocity and pugnacity of the common soldier and vanquish it. Do not let us delude ourselves with any dreams of a peaceful evolution of Capitalism into


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Socialism, of automatic Liberal Progress, of the conciliation of our American bosses, and South African Landlords and British country society and Pall Mall military caste by the Fabian Society. The man who is not a Socialist is quite prepared to fight for his private property, or at least to pay someone else to fight for him. He has no doubt whatever of the necessity and morality of such warfare.” We must clear our minds from cant and cowardice on this subject. It is true that the old barricade revolutionists were childishly and romantically wrong in their methods; and the Fabians were right in making an end of them and formulating constitutional as fighting. Rents cannot be collected now without force, nor are they socialized—to the small extent to which they are already socialized—without force. Shaw is here appealing to history to verify Undershaft’s statement that “the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.” The bloody suppression of the Commune of 1871 had demonstrated the willingness of the proprietarily class to fight for their property right. Later in this same Fabian lecture Shaw argues that the classic was in favor of his view, for the Reform Bill passed only when the temper of the English nation reached the point where it was clearly a choice between passing the bill and facing a revolution. The readers have called the last act a religious wooing of souls. Undershaft, seeing in Cousins the brains and sensitivity he thinks necessary in anyone who is to run a factory of death (or let us say, a democratic, or any other kind of state), offers him the

Major Barbara


management of the munitions work. The intelligentsia is to undertake the responsibilities of political power, that is, the power of life and death over millions. Cousins finds himself in the position of a famous predecessor of academic fame; Mephistopheles has once again put in a bid for a professor’s soul, and though Cousins, wiser than Faustus, realizes that he has already sold his soul for his professorship, this does not make his dilemma less cruel. For Barbara’s engagement to Cousins is both a love match and something more again. That is to say, their marriage is to be a religious marriage in a sense of devoting them to something beyond themselves; To “larger loves and diviner dreams than the fireside ones.” Their understanding is that unless their marriage can foster this religious side of themselves they are to part and seek other matters, or join the legion of the world’s celibate saints and philosophers. If Cousins elects to sell his soul to Undershaft he thus jeopardizes his relation with Barbara, who is first of all a “Salvationist” (in an unsectarian sense) and only secondly a fiancée. At this point Shaw turns to an episode from real life to solve the dilemma. When an idealistic student of Murray’s set out for the Greco-Turkish War in 1897, Murray had given the young man, not a copy of Plato’s Republic, but a revolver. Shaw ascribes this incident to Cousins, and makes Undeshaft seize upon it to demonstrate to the professor that he is, for all his hatred of war, committed to the side of the industrialist. Cusins is forced to concur, and declares that he will choose the “reality and power” of the factory of death, even if it means losing Barbara.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

But Barbara, for all her talk about turning her back on wickedness, can no more turn away from life than can Cusins. Now she will be able to preach to the well-fed, self- respecting men and women in Undershaft’s model factory-town and know that, when they abandon their snobbishness and selfishness for higher ends, they are not simply being tempted by the bribe of bread. She has regained her faith and courage: the enthusiasm of the new Dionysianism possesses her and she goes “right up into the skies,” saved forever from the fate she has most dreaded, the boredom and triviality of the genteel drawing room.

ARMS AND THE MAN By George Bernard Shaw Arms and the Man is like a lemon meringue pie—all fluff as seen form the top, but with a good dollop of tartness underneath. Regarding the theater as both school and church, Shaw used it for educating the public and for preaching to it. Though delightfully funny, his comedies are comedies of ideas, and Shaw wrote them to instruct as well as to entertain. Typically, Shaw’s plays pit realism against romantic idealism, and support the superiority of the former. By an “ideals” Shaw meant some noble-sounding but conventional and unexamined principle of conduct with which we fool ourselves or attempt to fool others. Defying common sense, “ideals” have undesirable social consequences. When Sergius tells the story about a Swiss officer who took refuge in a Bulgarian lady’s bedroom, and charmed both the lady and her mother into protecting him, Raina and Catherine both reproach him. “Your life in the camp has made you coarse, Sergius. I did not think you have repeated such a story before me,” says Raina; and Catherine adds, “If such women exist, we should be spared the knowledge of them.” Raina and her mother here consciously use the ideal of feminine delicacy to shield their own identities as the women in the story. Much more frequently, however, the ideal is an instrument of self-deception. When Catherine pictures the famous charge: “our gallant splendid Bulgarians with their swords and eyes flashing, scattering the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

wretched Serbs and their dandified Austrian officers like chaff,” she is misled into absurd hyperbole by her ideals of patriotism and national pride. The main conflict in Arms and the Man is between romantic idealism and pragmatic realism—particularly in the realms of war and love. The conflicting ideas are embodied in Sergius and Captain Bluntschil respectively, who are rivals in both war and love. Raina supports romanticism for three quarters of the play, and is then converted to realism dramatically symbolized by her breaking her engagement to Serguis and becoming engaged to Bluntschi. Sergius and Bluntschli are contrasted in five areas: appearance, social class, warfare, love, and general outlook on life. In appearance Sergius is “a tall romantically handsome man;” a man of dashing appearance and magnetic eye, the very essence of glomar. Bluntschli, on the contrary, is of “middling” stature and undistinguished appearance. There is no glamour in common sense. Serguis is by birth a member of the Bulgarian aristocracy, with all the glamour that high station implies. Bluntschil is a middle class Swiss, accused by Raina of having a “low shop keeping mind.” These contrasts in appearance and social class are symbolic of larger ones. Shaw seeks to discredit war by de-glamorizing it, stripping it of its romantic trappings, dissociating it from glory and heroism. Wars are won, he implies, not by heroism on the battlefield, but by the same qualities that make for success in managing a string of hotels. Shaw’s title ironically quotes Virgil’s

Arms and The Men


great patriotic epic The Aeneid. Shaw also sings “of arms and the man,” but in a quite different key. Sergius, disillusioned by the way wars are actually fought, gives Catherine a bitterly contemptuous definition of war; “Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms.” Sergius wants war to be like a sporting event. When your opponenet is down, wait till he gets up before attacking again. The greatest glory is to attack against overwhelming odds (as in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Bridge”). Bluntschi regards war as a trade or profession. He would define war, if asked, in the same words as Sergius, but without the word “coward’s” and without Sergius’s embittered, ironic tone of voice. Sergius and Bluntschli are directly contrasted as soldiers on three occasions. First, the famous cavalry charge. Sergius, defying orders, leads a regiment of cavalry against a battery of machine guns. Bluntschli runs away. Bluntschli is undoubtedly wrong in claiming that Sergius’s horse was merely running away with him, but he is right in saying that Sergius should have been court-martialed. If the Serbians had not been sent the wrong ammunition, Sergius’s unit would have been decimated. And Bluntschli runs away—not because he is a coward—but because he recognizes that discretion is often the better part of valor, in this encounter, Sergius exhibits foolhardy courage, and Bluntschli prudent courage. Shaw’s point is that the battle wasn’t won by


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Sergius’s heroic charge, it was lost by a quartermaster’s stupid mistake—by bad paperwork. The two men are compared again when Sergius and Petkoff must make out orders for moving three regiments to another town. Sergius and Petkoff are helpless before the complexities of this take; Bluntschli sees immediately what must be done, and, sitting down, does it. Sergius justifies his helplessness with one of his grandiose romantic statements: “This hand is more accustomed to the sword than to the pen.” In a third encounter Bluntschli humbugs Sergius and Petkoff into trading him fifty able-bodied men for two hundred worn-out chargers. In all three of these encounters Bluntschli is the more efficient soldier. Sergius “hasn’t the slightest chance of promotion” until his superiors are “quite sure that the peace will be a lasting one.” Shaw discredits war also by undermining its patriotic basis. Patriotism, a romantic ideal which prompts Catherine to talk of “gallant splendid Bulgarians” and “wretched Serbs,” lends glamour to murder. Patriotic Bulgarians battle patriotic Serbs, neither side really aware that they are pawns in a larger power struggle between Russia and Austria. Shaw’s hero in this struggle is neither Bulgar nor Serb but a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs because theirs was the first country he came to on leaving Switzerland. This does not constitute an endorsement by Shaw of mercenary soldiering. It means only that his hero, if he does engage in war, does so undeluded by romantic ideals. He knows what he is doing and why. Romantic love, Shaw’s second major target, is illustrated

Arms and The Men


in the relationship between Sergius and Raina. They think of their feelings for each other as being exalted and noble. They call it “the higher love.” Actually we discover a good deal of pose in the higher love. Sergius and Raina constantly tell lofty lies to each other. When her hero returns home alive from the wars, Raina, rather than rushing out and throwing herself into his arms, waits for the most propitious moment to make an effective “entrance.” Left alone with her, Sergius declares, “Dearest: all my deeds have been yours. You inspired me. I have gone through the war like a knight in a tournament with his lady looking down at him!” Raina replies (forgetting her moments with Bluntschi in her bedchamber), “And you have never been absent from my thoughts for a moment.” When Raina goes to fetch her hat, Sergius tells her, “Be quick. If you are away five minutes, it will seem five hours.” But as soon as she is out of sight, he begins to flirt with Louka, confessing that the “higher love” is “very fatiguing” to keep up for any length of time. Question: Does Sergius really believe in “the higher love”? Answer: Yes. When Louks suggests that Raina may be spying on them, Sergius is “stung.” “I may be worthless enough to betray the higher love,” he tells Louka, “but do not you insult it.” Sergius is disillusioned about his ability to live up to his ideal, but not about the merit of the ideal itself. The relation between Bluntschli and Raina contrasts sharply with that between Sergius and Raina. Raina tells Bluntschli: “I want to be quite perfect with Sergius no meanness, no smallness, no deceit. My relation to him is the one really beautiful and noble part of my life.” When Bluntschli challenges her with her lie about the ice pudding, Raina replies, “I did to save


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

your life … . That was the second time I ever uttered a falsehood.” When Bluntschli also challenges this assertion, Raina grows indignant. “Do you know, sir, that you are insulting me?” “I can’t help it,” Bluntschli responds. “When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a single word you say.” Raina, almost beside herself with injured dignity, suddenly collapses and says, “How did you find me out?” Her bubble of romanticism has been punctured by Bluntschli, and she is won over to his realism. Romantic lovers idealize the character of the beloved, and exaggerate their feelings for each other. Since neither really feels as strongly as they both think, and since neither is as perfect and noble as the other thinks, romantic lovers continuously pose before each other. They act out a game of make-believe, but act it out quite seriously and earnestly. Each is taken in by the other’s pose. Each thinks the other quite perfect and noble. Bluntschli, in contrast, treats Raina as an attractive but ordinary human being quite capable of lying to herself and others. And Bluntschli turns out to be the more efficient love as well as the more efficient soldier. An amusing manifestation of Sergius’s romantic temper is his fondness for striking a pose and uttering some grandiose statement of loyalty to his ideal. The utter foolishness of this “idealism” is exposed when Louka tricks him into kissing her hand after he has vowed to marry her if he ever touches her again. Louka haughtily tells him he can withdraw if he likes. Sergius declaims, “Withdraw! Never!” But when Catherine protests that he is bound by his word to Riana, Sergius draws himself up and

Arms and The Men


proclaims, “Nothing binds me!” In two consecutive speeches he has said in effect that he never breaks and that he never honors one. And he never recognize the contradiction. He is convinced throughout that he is acting according to some consistent principle of personal honor. He uses his “ideals,” quite unconsciously, not to guide his conduct, but to rationalize it. As Shaw informs us in a stage direction, Sergius’s “brooding on the perpetual failure, not only of others, but of himself, to live up to his ideals,” and his naïve “credulity as to the absolute validity of his concepts and the unworthiness of the world in disregarding them” have led him to a “cynical scorn for humanity.” Near the play’s end he tells Raina that love is “a hollow sham” and life is “a farce.” Bluntschli, in contrast, finds life “quite sensible and serious.” Nicola and Louka re-enact the play’s theme on a lower level. Louka has no illusions about the “higher love,” but she does have romantic aspirations of becoming a “lady.” Her fiancé, Nicola, is a realist. When Louka reproaches him with having “the soul of a servant” (compare Raina’s accusation that Bluntschli has “a low shop keeping mind”), Nicola replies, “Yes, that’s the secret of success in service.” Nicola, when the play begins, is engaged to Louka; but when he realizes that she has a real change of catching Sergius, he does not challenge Sergius to a duel. Rather, he helps her. He realizes that she is too proud and extravagant to make him a good wife; but she can be very useful to him as Sergius’s wife and his customer should he set up shop in the city. Bluntschli, recognizing a fellow realist, declares Nicola to be the “ablest man in Bulgaria” and offers him a hotel


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

managership if he can speak French and German. Shaw in this play has the forces of romanticism and realism lined up neatly against each other. But Shaw likes to upset the apple-cart. By a typical Shavian inversion, Sergius’s heroics do work (his charge wins the battle); Louka’s romantic aspirations prove practical (she catches Sergius); and Bluntschli, near the play’s end, describes himself as a man who has spoiled all his chances in life through an incurably romantic disposition. But we need take none of this too seriously. It’s Shaw’s mischievous tomfoolery plus his sense of the ironies of life. It doesn’t alter the basic thrust of the play. One more word about Bulntschli. He carries chocolate in his cartridge belt. Is not this a romantic whimsy? No. First, as an artillery officer, he has little need for a handgun. Second, during World War I, the U.S. Army developed a special ration for soldiers on missions that might separate them from their unit kitchens. What was it? A solid bar of chocolate. Concentrated energy food!

A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams It is a small poor section of New Orleans, 1947. On a small street called Elysian Fields Blanche DuBois has come to see her sister. She comes bearing bad news. The family’s money has run out and with the loss of their estate Belle Reves, Blanche has no home and must now stay with Stella and her husband Stanley for a while. This news upsets Stella who moved to New Orleans to escape the hardship and death that permeated Belle Reve. As Blanche familiarizes herself with her new surroundings, problems are already apparent: Her constant condescension to Stella, her reproachful attitude towards the living condition, and her view of Stanley all provide seeds for later conflicts. Blanche DuBois is about 30. When she appears in New Orleans she appears to be the essence of purity. Wearing a white dress she is delicate and cannot bear vulgar language. She is intelligent yet prefers magic over realism. When she was 16 she married a young man who was gay. She found him in a compromising situation and when she told him he disgusted her, he committed suicide as an act which would affect her for the rest of her life. To deal with the death she began drinking and became rather promiscuous. However, there were other reasons for all the men. She felt that she had dissatisfied her husband in some way and she needed to fill her empty heart. Through the times of promiscuity she managed to retain a sense of purity and innocence. She demands to be seen for what she wished to be


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

rather than what she really is. This is the reason for the paper lanterns and the constant bathing – she is creating her world of illusion. When Blanche meets Mitch, she shows him her world of illusion and he falls in love with it to the point that he asks her to marry him. When Stanley tells Mitch about the true Blanche, the illusion is shattered. He tries to tell this to Blanche and she insists that he leave. While they are having this conversation, Stanley is at the hospital with Stella who is in labor. When he comes home Mitch is gone and they get into an argument which culminates with the rape of Blanche. This is the ultimate violation of Blanche who was already in a shattered state. This destroys her completely as she has no where left to turn. She loses whatever little sense she has left and as Stella does not believe her she is committed to an institution. As a factory worker aged 29, Stanley Kowalski is more ambitious than any of his friends. He is childish, cares about what he wants, and is very rude. He is so concerned with getting his own way –and hurting Blanche – that he has no compunction about hurting Mitch his friend by telling him the truth about Blanche. He is very dominating: he overpowers his timid wife Stella constantly to keep her from leaving him. He does the same to his friends when he wants to. Stanley is also incredibly protective of Stella: he doubts everything about Blanche from the beginning, and tries to make sure that he and Stella are not being tricked by a con artist. He is very proud, and is enraged when Blanche calls him “common,” or a “Polack.” He seems incapable of subtlety, and does everything whole-heartedly: he loves Stella thoroughly and hates Blanche vehemently. Stanley is honest to

A Streetcar Named Desire


the point of brutality, and he does not care about offending others—he even brags to Mitch about raping Blanche. He despises Blanche because she is the opposite of his honesty; she thrives on illusion and pretense. His hatred of Blanche is so great that he rapes her, causing her final mental breakdown. Stella Kowalski is the connecting figure to two different worlds— the supposed royalty world of Blanche DuBois and the more common world of Stanley Kowalski. Stella is five years younger than Blanche, about 25, and has been submissive to her for her entire life. Blanche and Stanley both attempt to influence her, and they succeed, to a degree. Stella says “Mr. Kowalski is too busy making a pig of himself to think of anything else!” This statement shows a direct influence from Blanche on Stella, as Stella never would have said that if she was alone. However, Stanley pulls his weight as well. He reminds her of all the wonderful times and nights they had together before Blanche came. He also succeeds in convincing her that his side of the rape story is the true one, which is the true goal of the power of influence within the book. Stella is the only place where a connection between Blanche and Stanley could occur. She is a mix of the two worlds. She still has many of the qualities instilled in her at Belle Reve, yet she does not let that get in the way of her having some fun. As she is seen entangled between two completely opposite worlds, she is stuck and, eventually, is forced to side with one of the two. She is not strong, and therefore the “winner” of the battle is the one who gets her to side with them, Stanley.

Harold Mitchell (Mitch) is a friend of Stanley’s from the plant. The two are about the same age. Mitch falls in love with


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Blanche, and wants to marry her. He is very sensitive. There are two reasons for this: the death of the girl he loved in his youth, and the terminal illness of his mother, who has no more than a few months to live. This sensitivity makes him feel very awkward sometimes. Mitch is, in Blanche’s words, “capable of great devotion:” he wants to stay home to make sure his mother is alright, and is so concerned about her that it hampers his enjoyment of the card game with his friends. He has a very close relationship with his mother, exemplified by the fact that he tells her about Blanch and his great concern for her. This makes his mother’s impending death even harder for him to take. Mitch is not very intelligent, and so he cannot see through Blanche’s feigned innocence or her lies. Mitch is a gentleman, especially compared to his friends, Stanley in particular. He is also very trusting. He refuses to believe Stanley when he first says that Blanche has been lying to him, and he is deeply hurt when he finds out that Stanley has been right. This pain is compounded because he had never suspected her dishonesty before. The fact that his mother wants to see him married before she dies makes breaking up with Blanche even harder for him. In the final scene, he breaks down after seeing Blanche, and realizes that he has lost her because he did not appreciate her great sensitivity. The theme of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire follows Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: the emotional struggle for supremacy between two characters who symbolize historical forces between fantasy and reality; between the Old South and a New South; between civilized restraint and primitive desire; between traditionalism and defiance. If Blanche DuBois

A Streetcar Named Desire


represents defunct Southern values, Stanley Kowalski represents the new urban modernity and pays little heed to the past. If Stanley cannot inherit the DuBois plantation, he is no longer interested in it. Williams’ stage direction indicates that Stanley’s virile aggressive brand of masculinity is to be admired. His cruel intolerance of Blanche is a justifiable response to her lies, hypocrisy and mockery but his nasty streak of violence against his wife appalls even his friend. His rape of Blanche is a horrifying and destructive act as well as a cruel betrayal of Stella. Ultimately however, this survivor disposes of the "paper moon" Blanche, and as we see in the closing lines of the play he is able to comfort with crude tumescence Stella’s weeping. As the neighborhood returns to normalcy, Blanche and Stella are the last in a line of landed Southern gentry. Years of "epic formation" as Blanche puts it, swallowed up the material resources of the family, and all that remain are the manners and pretensions. Yet Blanche with all her possessions in a valise clings to her gilded gaudy grab and imagines a world in which the values of the Old Guard –charm with chivalry –are still relevant. Stanley in sharp contrast is born of Polish immigrants, is a new breed without breeding, and not the type that goes for jasmine perfume. Stella, meanwhile, has renounced the worn dictates of class propriety to marry this uncouth sweetheart and plays the placating intermediary between the poles of her husband and sister. Blanche’s husband understandably shot himself many years ago and she has been avoiding reality in one way or another since. In New Orleans reality catches up to her in Stanley who greets her


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

brusquely. When he mentions her dead husband, Blanche becomes confused, shaken and then ill. Later while Blanche, as is her wont, is bathing, Stanley imagining himself cheated of the Bell Reve plantation property tears open Blanche’s trunk looking for sale papers. Blanche demonstrates a bewildering variety of moods in this scene: first flirting with Stanley and then discussing the legal transactions with clam irony, and finally becoming abruptly hysterical when Stanley picks up old love letters written by her dead husband. As the play proceeds Blanche copes by dissimulating the problem—full Elysian Fields for “a moonlight swim at the old rock quarry.” Her feelings against Stanley galvanize when she sees him strike his pregnant wife in a fit of drunken rage. Stanley’s feeling for her similarly harden when he overhears her belittle him as Neolithic and brutish. Williams who was an overt homosexual in a time unreceptive to such concepts implies that Blanche like himself is the society’s scapegoat, yet despite her new roses she is not a "bad person" perhaps "no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets" as McMurohy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest proclaims. Alas her doomed dandy personality is no match for the destructive dissolute Stanley who represents the raw animal, the prevailing dog in a dog –eat – dog world, the "one hundred percent American.” As Blanche admits to Stanley and later to her fiancé Mitch “a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion" and this woman has "old - fashioned ideals"; she doesn’t "tell the truth she tells what ought to be truth" and prefers fantasy and shadows to the light of reality.

A Streetcar Named Desire


Stanley as her foil acts as if life itself were a game of seven-card stud. He is unamused by Hollywood glamour stuff that is the genteel Lawn culture of French chitchat social compliments and humoring a fool and fraud like Blanche. Thus, in one sense Blanche and her brother- in-law are trying to outdo each other in competing for Stella whom each would like to pull beyond the reach of the other. But there is some thing more elemental in their opposition. They are incompatible forces and harmony is no more than an evanescent regard for family. And yet there is a precarious sexual tension between the two. Indeed in both origin and occupation Stanley is new blood to Blanche and Stella’s blue blood. He stands on no ceremony, and does not care to crush the outmoded sense of entitlement and superiority that Blanche personifies. Williams has him trounce a lonely and wide winged gadfly of ruthlessness and perhaps soullessness. And yet Blanche having watched her family estate slip through her fingers, fails to see the decadence of her patrician Belle Reve existence. Social Darwinism has replaced gentility and this old maid schoolteacher is really an alcoholic nymphomaniac parasitical casualty of the changeover. She puts on the airs of belle who has never known indignity but Stanley sees through her. As Eunice says "life has got to go on. No matter what happens you've got to keep on going.” Blanche has a difficult time relinquishing illusion. Even as Mitch begins to confront her with the truth she seeks to brush aside anything that is bothersome. She wants to pretend everything is fine, however, she suffers weakness, immaturity, and a fear of reality. She tells Mitch that she speaks of the world


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

as it ought to be and as people would prefer it to be. She lies because she has a taste for a fantasy life believed to be better than her reality. But Mitch continues to insist on the truth and when Blanche finally gives up her lies the effect is like a dam breaking. We hear in chilling and lurid detail about her escapades in laurel. The description of the soldiers calling out her name from the lawn of Belle Reve is Williams at his lurid bees. The story shows the depths of Blanche’s loneliness and depravity, and her attempt to seek comfort and protection in impossible places with men who were only interested in one thing. She might as well have been alone at Bell Revenant in all the beds she frequented. Blanche is terrifyingly isolated. In her desperate loneliness her desires become more and more difficult to control and more and more unhealthy. Throughout this whole scene the theme of death and oblivion is underscored (none too subtly) by the vendor selling flowers for the dead. The flowers recall the deaths of the elderly Dubois family members and foreshadow Blanche’s destruction. Blanche puts herself at Mitch’s mercy. She asks him to save her but he refuses and when he leaves so does Blanche’s last hope in salvation. She listens to the polka music again and she is in shape for the coming confrontation with Stanley. Blanche’s illusions are not with the intent to hurt. When she speaks of the only unforgivable crime being deliberate cruelty she is not being hypocritical. As she says it is a crime of which she has never been guilty. And here at the end of her rope she spins out other series of illusions. Unlike before, these lies are not even remotely credible. She does not seek necessarily to be credible:

A Streetcar Named Desire


she only seeks the comfort of fantasy even if the fantasy is ridiculous. Blanche is drunken, rejected and about to become a vagabond; all she asks is to be indulged. Stanley refuses. He is on the brink of his great triumph. His child is about to be born whose birth is coinciding with Blanche’s birthday and destruction is a symbol of the new order coming into being as the old passes away. Blanche will have no descendents. The South she represents ineffectual and frail and ultimately sterile is dying. In this horrible climax the paired themes of desire and loneliness once again come into focus. Blanch has longed for some kind of contact she needs and the protection of men. She is not a stranger to desire. But finally the man she hopes for rejects her and the man she despises takes her by force. She is not strong enough to offer any resistance and at the same time Stanley is right when he says that we had this encounter coming since the beginning. Part of her does long for Stanley, for in her loneliness she is desperate for contact. Her previous comments indicate that some part of her is fascinated by Stanley’s animal nature. The animal side of desire is emphasized by the jungle sound effects outside the apartment. Howeve, Blanche does not want to be raped. The rape will deliver the deathblow to Blanche’s sanity. Although Blanche is the character most dependent on illusion throughout the play, it would be too simple to describe Stanley and Stella as representing “truth.” Stella is able to stay with Stanley only after a monumental act of self-deception. Stella tells Eunice that she wouldn’t be able to stay with Stanley if she believed Blanche’s story. Eunice’s response is telling. She tells


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Blanche not to believe it, but she does not seem interested in trying to see if the story is true or not. The priority believes whatever it takes in order to go on with life: “No matter what happens,” she says, “you’ve got to keep on going.” Eunice’s advice dismisses the accusation outright. And on some level, it seems likely that Stella knows she has betrayed her sister. As the nurse wrestles Blanche to submission, Stella cries out, “What have I done to my sister?” Note that as she leaves, Blanche pays no heed to Stella’s cries. Even in the midst of her dementia, some part of Blanche is aware that Stella has betrayed her. Stanley’s comforting of Stella is an act of supreme hypocrisy. Blanche’s madness is largely his doing, as Mitch correctly ascertains. But Stanley comforts Stella lovingly, “voluptuously,” and plays the role of a tender caretaker. Their relationship will from now on be based in part on a series of lies. Blanche’s famous line is full of terrible irony. It is true that Blanche has often depended on the kindness of strangers, but all of them have abused and abandoned her. In the end, even her own sister has betrayed her. Her fragility, her inability to fend for herself, and her self deception have brought her to madness; she clings to a belief in chivalry. But we have seen no chivalry in this play. The representative of the new man, Stanley, is more ape than knight. But Blanche’s line is earnest in that it shows her terrible loneliness. For so long, she has known only strangers; young girl in a house full of the dying, and then a woman losing her looks seeking protection from callous men. Men choose to go on with their poker game on this day denying Blanche. The Old South dies and the New South does not mourn

A Streetcar Named Desire


her passing. Everyone is going to move on; as the play ends Steve is already dealing a new hand. The most critical part of the play is when Stella chooses Stanley over Blanche. Stella must choose between Blanche her sister and Stanley her husband. She must decide whether or not to accept Stanley’s pronouncements about Blanche’s dishonesty and also whether or not to believe that Stanley raped Blanche as Blanche claims. Spousal abuse is another great family conflict and theme. Stanley abuses Stella verbally and physically. An example of physical abuse is when Stanley slaps Stella during the poker game. Blanche mentions this and is verbally abused by Stanley. She also feels the need to get Stella out of the house for their own safety and sanity. However, Stanley feels he is simply looking out for Stella’s best interest as she is pregnant. Blanche’s past haunts her: Alan’s suicide, the loss of Belle Reve, and the deaths of her loved ones all play heavily upon her mind. Blanche is too delicate to deal with what has become of her life. She relies on illusion to escape its feigning innocence and happiness. After Stanley rapes her Blanche loses the ability to differentiate between her fabrications and reality. Also one major reason for the personality clash between Stanley and Blanche is their conflicting views on reality. Stanley is always brutally honest and Blanche prefers illusions and niceties. A Streetcar Named Desire contains issues from life; a guilty feeling of abandonment, the anger and frustration between two complete opposites, and the violation of rape. Stella abandons her sister to try to make things work with her husband. She knows that she cannot stay neutral this last time. As Blanche is taken


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

away Stella is overcome with feelings of guilt, loss and betrayal. She has abandoned her sister for her husband. Stanley and Blanche are opposites trying to coexist in a small area and finally fall miserably. Her refusal to deal with Stanley and his rough nature cause her to regent further and further into her world of pretentions as he becomes more and more rough culminating in the rape of Blanche. She has mocked him in his home and he cannot deal with her and her lies. He violates her in the most personal way and she cannot deal with any semblance of reality anymore. If this rape had happened in 1999, it would have been all over the news and it would have been one of the greatest crimes and / or scandals in local news. In the small neighborhood of Stanley’s flat, it would have been news within the local area. However, if the rape were not believed and did not make the news, the commitment of Blanche to the mental institution would not have been made a big deal, for if it was, the family would never at it in the same light again. After the rape Blanche loses her mind. She would become a world of almost complete fantasies. Blanche feels that she is the picture of femininity, and tries to be prim and proper but fails the minute she says anything degrading about Stanley to Stella. Along those lines Blanche’s world of fantasy has been created by the lies that she cannot seem to stop telling. When she lies she tends to contradict herself revealing the falsities. When Stanley catches hold of this he calls a few people to find out the truth and destroy her world. Had Blanche simply been truthful and accepted her past, she may not have found herself in the sticky situation that she found herself in. Accordingly, the play’s conflicts are as the following:

A Streetcar Named Desire


1. Blanche’s delusion vs. reality 2. Blanche’s delusion vs. Mitch 3. Blanche’s need to believe that she is superior vs. Stanley’s need to feel powerful 4. Stella’s love for Blanche vs. Stella’s dependency on Stanley Blanche depends on the Kowalskis for support. Stella depends on Stanley for love and monetary support. Mitch depends on Blanche for companionship after his mother dies. Blanche finds keeping the appearance of luxury very important. Stanley wants to make sure Blanche isn’t chiding him out of money. Stella tries to move on after leaving Belle Reve. Blanche tries to find new love after her first husband kills himself. Stanley tries to apologize for his rough action and forget them. Blanche’s husband kills himself. Many of the DuBois have already died. Mitch’s only love had died and his mother is about to die. Blanche must forget her past and find new happiness. Stella has accepted her less luxuries surrounding upon marrying Stanley. Many people in her apartment building must deal with physical abuse Stella included. Blanche constantly looks down on Stanley and the general surroundings. Stanley hates Blanche for it and pretends he has not heard anything Blanche said about him. Blanche only comes to Elysian Fields because she has to. Mitch is rushing things with Blanche because his mother is about to die. And Blanche fools everyone into thinking her better than she is, and tries to pretend her husband was not gay.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE By Tennessee Williams “Illusion” is the most important word in the thematic and symbolic organization of the play, The Glass Menagerie. In its most general sense, an illusion is simply a deception –usually a harmless one. In more specific terms, it is a misinterpretation of the facts an opinion based on what we think is true or should be, rather than what actually is true or will be. An illusion is pretense, not reality; it plays with the actual, and often mocks it. In this play Williams has made illusion integral to his underlying idea. He uses Tom Wingfield to tell us directly that the play is an illusion. The Glass Menagerie is “memory”, Tom says and by means of the “tricks” of stagecraft, he will “turn back time” to recreate a short sequence of episodes in the life of his family. Tom explains that his purpose is not simply to produce an illusion that appears true, a photographic representation of his family’s life in the 1930s, but, instead, to reveal “truth” in the “disguise of illusion.” Tom wants us to see that the truth in The Glass Menagerie is contained and on which it depends so strongly. Williams wastes no time in pointing out the illusions that are important in the play. The stage directions tell us that transparent walls create the illusion of an apartment building, while music and colored lights suggest a dance hall across the alley. The fire escape that leads into and out of the Wingfields’ apartment only seems to provide an escape from what Williams


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

calls the “slow and implacable fire of human desperation.” Several times Tom comments directly to us that Americans in the 1930s believed that the world’s troubles were not important enough to worry about. Young people thought that change and adventure were possible in their lives only through “hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sees.” But, in truth, the world in the 1930s was not “waiting for the sunrise,” according to the popular song; it was waiting for the “bombardments” of the Second World War. As Williams takes us inside the Wingefields’ apartment and the lives of his characters, he reveals more illusions and shows how his characters use them and respond to them. To avoid the unpleasant truth of her family’s present and probable future condition, Tom’s mother, Amanda, cherishes several illusions. She believes that she still has the charm she once had as a young girl in Blue Mountain, and she treasures the memory of having “received seventeen gentlemen callers” one Sunday afternoon, any one of whom she could have married. She believes that her children are “bound to succeed” since they are “just full of natural endowments.” The fact is that Tom is close to losing his job at the warehouse, has decided to become a merchant seaman, yet really wants to be a writer. Tom’s sister Laura, suffers acute shyness, is lame, and seems interested only in caring for her collection of glass animals and listening to old phonograph records. It is typical of Amanda’s desperate clinging to illusion that she believes Laura can be happy and successful if she goes to Business College and learns to type. It is almost painful for us to watch Amanda convince herself that the gentleman caller Tom has invited for

The Glass Menagerie


supper is a remarkable young man who will be a fine suitor for Laura. She believes that if she makes Laura look pretty and attractive, if she alters one of her old dresses to wear herself, shines up the three remaining pieces of weeding silver, recovers the furniture, gets a new lamp, and if she herself plays the role of a charming. Youthful Southern matron, Laura’s gentleman caller will be so captivated that he will become a frequent caller and will eventually marry Laura. The fact is that Jim O’Connor is only an average fellow, whose moments of popularity and success are fading memories of high school days. He seems to feel sorry for Laura as a brother might rather than enamored of her as suitor. What is more, Jim is engaged and when he makes his announcement, Amanda’s illusion is smashed. While Jim O’Connor temporarily becomes an illusion of Laura’s salvation in Amanda’s mind, Jim also has illusions. He has created them in order to believe in a happy and successful future. Jim has faced the fact that he has not achieved the success everyone in high school expected of him, but he believes that he can still capture it. By taking a course in public speaking and thereby gaining “social poise,” he is certain that with his brains and ability he will be fitted for an executive position. He also believes that by taking a course in radio engineering he will be able to “get in on the ground floor” of the television industry and go right to the top of the ladder of success. Jim’s buoyant selfconfidence, native sincerity, and boyish insensitivity to many of the things going on around him help him to create his illusions. The various generalizations that he proclaims about life, himself, and other people provide him with a protective cloak but the cloak


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

may well turn out to be threadbare as time passes. Laura, shy and withdrawn as she is, also has illusions. She believes that, when she was in high school and wore a brace on her leg, everyone used to watch her when she was later for chorus practice and had to go “clumping” to her seat in the back row of the auditorium. In explaining her agonized self consciousness, she tells Jim that, to her, the clumping sounded like thunder. Of course, Jim “never even noticed.” When Laura talks to Jim about her favorite glass animal, a unicorn, she is really talking about herself. She develops her illusion by saying that the unicorn loves the light, may feel lonesome being different from the other animals, but does not complain about it and get along nicely with the horses that do not have horns. She also says that all of her glass animals like a change of scenery to the movies or to the Jewel-box, “where they raise the tropical flowers,” instead of going to her classes at business college. When the unicorn falls from the table and loses his horn, Laura says that she will imagine that the unicorn had an “operation,” that the horn was removed to make the unicorn feel less freakish. Similarly, in her brief time with Jim, during which they talk, dance, and kiss, Laura apparently feels less “freakish.” To explain why Jim has been beyond her reach, Laura has imagined that Jim married Emily Meisenbach. When she learns that he did not, Laura hopes that Jim will call on her again or ask her for a date. Her momentary hope is destroyed, however, when Jim announces that he is going steady with a girl named Betty and that they are in love. Although she has illusions, Laura nevertheless, seems to have accepted what she is and what life has offered to her. She

The Glass Menagerie


does not try to gloss over or deny the ways things are as Amanda does. She does not project a happy and successful future for herself, as Jim does for himself. Nor does she quarrel with the way things are, as Tom does. Like the animals in her glass menagerie, Laura remains delicate and vulnerable. In her own way she is hard, as glass is hard and just as easily damaged if not protected, but she also possesses beauty as fine glass does and an inner light of varying shades of color. With his apparently clear view of the facts around him, Tom seems, at first, to have no illusions. He believes that by joining the Union of Merchant Seamen he will even escape the fanciful views and pretensions that others have. As a traveler, he will experience change and adventure first-hand and so dispel what he regards as the harmful illusions about life and the world that surround him in his family and in society. At the end of the play, however, Tom admits that he has been pursued by the memory of his sister’s fragile existence. His escape itself was an illusion, and he discovers that he has been more “faithful” to Laura than he intended to be by continuing to remember and appreciate the fragile, the delicate, the beautiful things that Laura appreciates and comes to represent. Since the play itself and the characters re so obviously immersed in illusions, what is the “truth” that Tom Wingfield in his opening speech promises to reveal? What is Tennessee Williams’ theme in The Glass Menagerie? Illusions are deceptions, misinterpretations of facts, and so would appear to be things to avoid, to be rid of; yet at the same time it is impossible for human beings to escape them. Williams shows us clearly that


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the various illusions the characters have are their means of coping with the facts of their lives. However foolish and silly their illusions may seem, all of the characters would suffer, perhaps even be broken, if they did not have them. Without pretense and self deception, Amanda would have no self-confidence or hope for the future remaining after her failure to approach the success people had believed she would have. Laura would wither and die because she could not identify with anything, nor see beauty, delicacy, and truth in small, fragile, even commonplace things. Tom would not escape because he could not hope to experience change and adventure. Unquestionably, illusions are potent things! But Williams does not say that illusions are necessarily better or more pleasant than facts. Just as facts can produce heartache and anguish—knowing the clear truth about someone or some thing can sometimes be unbearable—illusions, too, can bring sorrow and pain. Amanda’s are painful to Tom. Laura’s and Tom’s are painful to Amanda, but perhaps the saddest illusion of all in the play is the one that prompts Tom to say “good-bye” to Laura. She is a reminder to Tom of an illusion-filled past that impeded his growth by obscuring his view of the way things truly are. To grow and to see things clearly, he had to leave. Moreover, when he says “nowadays the world is lit by lighting,” Tom means that the world must be seen not in the soft, delicately flickering candle flame that is Laura but in the electric, dynamic illumination of a force beyond human influence. The force, manifest in lighting, is inexorable, and it blots out any candle flame. A glowing light, soft color, or nostalgic sound—or a shy,

The Glass Menagerie


lame sister who appreciates such things—have no place in the busy and insensitive world Tom sees around him. This belief, which is both Tom’s and the world’s, is, however, an illusion. That it is an illusion is shown by the very existence of the play. Tennessee Williams shows us that illusions, though hazardous, provide shelter from the hard facts of life. If we, like Tom, earnestly desire to escape the shelter and know these facts truly, we may have to give up our willingness to recognize and preserve the delicacy and beauty in life. This sacrifice may haunt us as it does Tom, but, according to Williams, the belief that we and the world must and will permanently say “good-bye” to all that Laura is and represents is itself an illusion—a sad deception. During this discussion, we have been using the primary meaning of the word “Illusion”: a misinterpretation of the facts, pretense, deception. The word also means a delicate, thin, gauzelike material—rather like a cobweb, but still something tangible not just imagined or though—used for trimming and veiling. Williams applies this definition in his stage directions by calling for a “transparent exterior wall” of the apartment building and “transparent gauze” curtains between the dining room and living room in the Wingfield’s apartment. A loosely woven, gauzelike material called “scrim”, when used on stage and lighted from the front, appears to be a solid surface; when lighted from behind, it is transparent. Scrim or tangible illusion used in this way gives the play a quality of veiled memory; a quality, indeed, of the intangible illusion we considered earlier. The Glass Menagerie is “memory”, and Tom’s images from the past remind him of his feeling of being ensnared by


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

gauze or Cobwebike veils of deception so long as he remained at home in the alley in St. Louis. Because his vision was blurred and his movement encumbered by these cobwebs of illusion, he wanted to escape from their stifling influence into a world he believed devoid of illusions. Amanda’s preparations for the arrival of Laura’s gentleman caller also show Williams’ application of this definition of illusion as trimming or veiling. Among the tangible trimmings in the apartment are rose-silk shades on the new lamp, a colored paper lantern that hides the broken fixture in the ceiling, Laura’s new dress that is “coloured and designed by memory,” as well as the powder puff “Gay Deceivers” for Laura, and Amanda’s girlish frock. All these things suggest a veil of delicacy, thin decoration, and fragile trimming that is in keeping with Tom’s statement that the play is an illusion about illusions. While an illusion may be a symbol and often is, a symbol is not necessarily an illusion. People, places, and objects endowed with wider and deeper meaning than themselves are symbols, and Tom tells the audience that he has “a poetic weakness for symbols.” Tom states that Jim O’Connor is, for example, “the long delayed but always expected something we live for.” Jim, that nice young man from the warehouse, represents to Amanda her change to recapture the ways of Southern graciousness and respectability and to relive the pleasant memories of her own girlhood courtships as Jim, she hopes, becomes Laura’s beau. He is a symbol as well as an illusion of her daughter’s change to be saved from unnatural loneliness and spinsterhood. To Laura in high school, Jim has been a symbol of

The Glass Menagerie


worldly happiness and success; thereafter, he becomes a symbol confirming her inability to respond to the world on its terms. To Tom, Jim is the symbol of his own desire to break with the past and the present, to change the pattern and direction of his life. Jim’s making such a break symbolizes to Tom what he and other young people should do. Other symbols include the fire escapes in the alley, which represent the possibility of freedom from boredom and frustration for many of the people within the apartments. The glass animals, especially the unicorn—a symbol in itself of purity and chastity symbolize Laura and her life, the qualities they have, she has. Significantly, Jim says unicorns are extinct in the modern world. Something becomes extinct when it cannot combat its natural enemies. Amanda’s D. A. R. outfit, tatty and out of date, symbolized her pretensions to a long standing respectability, while Laura’s typewriter and typing chart symbolize Amanda’s compromise between the marriage that would be proper for Laura and job that will be necessary if Laura is to find any place at all in the world. The warehouse is a symbol of the dull, changeless lives the young workingmen lead, while that Paradise Dance Hall as well as the movies are symbolic of the illusions to which the young people turn. Tom tells us, in order to give their lives some variety and adventure. Even Jim’s schoolboy nickname for Laura is symbolic of his charming lack of sensitivity; Laura had pleurisies in high school, but Jim misunderstood Laura’s difficulty and subsequently called her “Blue Roses.” It is significant that Laura comments on the unnaturalness of a blue rose. Such a rose, however beautiful, would be an oddity, unique,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

but strange and abnormal. So it is with Laura, who by the end of the play has become a symbol of strange beauty. The Glass Menagerie, as Tom Wingfield tells us, is a “sentimental” play, not a “realistic” one. Accordingly, Williams is not interested in duplicating on stage an authentic alley in St. Louis in the 1930s but only in creating the atmosphere or mood of such a place and in demonstrating its effect on people. The truth is that Williams is not the photographic kind, but the psychological, and this sort of truth lies not in the pictorial accuracy or the practical functioning of the environment on stage but in the characters’ reactions to it. To have his characters ring true as people, the playwright is obliged to clarify their motives, feelings, and attitudes in any way he can. Since in his opinion the realistic or photographic use of the stage limits the truth that he can express, Williams uses non realistic techniques to present what he thinks is true. Tom’s being the narrator of the play as well as a character in it is one such non realistic technique. The frequent use of music is another as it helps to blend scenes together and establish various moods within them. Williams indicates moments when the lighting on the phonograph of Amanda’s husband should increase markedly. At other times the lighting should be strongest on one character Laura, for example even though other characters are speaking. For instance, when Laura hesitates to open the door to admit Tom and Jim, the word “terror” would flash on the set. The comment “Suspension of a Public Service” would appear when the electricity goes off in the apartment during Jim’s supper with the Wingfields. The device is indicative of Williams’ desire to break

The Glass Menagerie


away from the familiar “realistic” conventions of the theatre, and to broaden theatre’s scope in portraying life. In The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams presents three of the most complex and moving characterization in modern drama. They are studies of frustration. Throughout the play Amanda, Tom, and Laura are involved in an attempt to communicate. Their hearts are full of things that need to be said to each other, but somehow they cannot express what is in their hearts. Only Tom in his role as narrator can understand the other characters. In his role as a character in the play, he is as blind as the other members of the Wingfield family. However, these characters do approach an understanding of each other. Nevertheless, because of their own inadequacies, they cannot transcend this superficial understanding into complete awareness. Through these characters, all three of whom vacillate between the world of fantasy and reality, Williams gives us “truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.” And this truth is never spared by the illusion. The characters in The Glass Menagerie are doomed because they are lost. The characters Williams creates are genuine, and he does not destroy the realness of them. The success of the play stems from these portraits of lifelike characters in a believable and meaningful situation. The kind of characters Williams presents in the play prevents it from becoming a true tragedy. All of these characters are failures. They are incapable of coping with their dilemmas. This incapability is internal to themselves. Thus the play invokes pathos instead of purgation. This, of course, is no reflection on the quality of the play either as theater or as literature. But it is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

important that the play be recognized not as tragedy, but as a mood play concerned with the universals of beauty and love in a society that pays little attention to either. Amanda Wingfield is one of the most successful characterizations in American drama. She is truly heroic and many sided. She develops as the play develops. She is strong and willful, and at the same time she is susceptible. She must seek beauty and refuge in her own worlds. She is both practical and romantic. She loves her children, and she is insensitive to them. At the end of the play there is some indication that she has come to an awareness of her problems. To a large extent it may be said that Laura is the least successful characterization in the play. She never emerges as a character in her own right. We know little about her except through the stage directions and the speeches of the other characters. We do not identify with her; we can only sympathize with her. Perhaps the reason Laura does not develop into a fleshand-blood character is that Williams identifies her too closely with his sister Rose. However, her plight—her quality of lustiness—adds greatly to the pathos that is carefully developed throughout the play. Laura is the girl in glass whose world is infinitely more beautiful that the real one. She is overly shy, and this shyness is even more striking in contrast with Amanda’s forcefulness. Her role in the play is central. All the action centers round her. Her destruction, her final retreat into a make-believe world, is the most touching-indeed, almost tragic-element in the play. Tom is the eternal dreamer. He knows that he must

The Glass Menagerie


somehow find a more exciting life, but he also feels a strong bond of responsibility to his sister and mother. He is the romantic trapped by reality. When he leaves—he takes the most positive action in the play. This positive step, however, seems to have been doomed to the same failure as Amanda’s aborted attempts to provide Laura with first a business career and then a husband. Tom was never able to forget his selfishness. The characterization of Tom is an extremely sensitive one. This is his story, his memory. Tom is forced to act heartlessly. And in the years since the action of the play, he has been plagued by his memory of his family. Although Tom was forced by his nature and by his role as a poet to desert his family, he cannot be excused. Just as Amanda is not the villainess of the play, Tom is not the paragon. On a realistic-nonrealistic scale, The Glass Menagerie lies perhaps midway between A Doll’s House and Blood Wedding, with Everyman and The Sandbox even farther than Blood Wedding toward the nonrealistic end of the scale. Its principal (though not only) nonrealistic elements lie in the use made of (1) a narrator, (2) lighting, and (3) music. 1. Tom combines the roles of narrator, stage manager, and character. As narrator he tells us, “The play is memory.” He clearly means his own memory, and the play may be said to assimilate the first person and dramatic points of view. It is not realistically consistent, however, for in some scenes (2, 6, 7) Tom is not present, and these scenes could not logically come from his memory. 2. “Being a memory play,” Tom informs us, “it is dimly


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Lighting is indeed used for emotional and sentimental effects. At the climax of the quarrel between Tom and Amanda in scene 3, the upstage area is “lit with a turgid smoky red glow,” while in scene 7 the new floor lamp, with its rose-colored silk shade, throws a soft light on Laura’s face. Williams skillfully handles his plot so that inopportune-opportune electrical failure in scene 6 not only underlines Tom’s preparations for leaving home by using the light bill money to pay dues to the Merchant Seamen’s Union but also requires the final romantic scene, between Laura and Jim, to be played out by candlelight. Laura’s final blowing out of these candles both ends the play and symbolizes the extinction for her of any hope for a fulfilling life. Lighting is also used for ironical effects, as when the outsize photograph of Tom’s father suddenly lights up in scene 4. 3. “In memory everything seems to happen to music,” says Tom. The “fiddle in the wings” playing the glass menagerie theme adds poignancy and delicate beauty to the scenes is featuring Laura. The music from the Dance Hall turns ominous when some cruel revelation is about to be made. But the music, like the lighting, is also used for ironical effects, as when in scene 5 the music from the Dance Hall –“All the World is Waiting for the Sunrise” –is counter pointed against Tom’s remarks about the thirties, when “All the world was waiting for bombardments,” or to have “a gentleman caller,” and this “annunciation” is “celebrated with music.” William’s original script called for a fourth nonrealistic feature, the “Screen Device,” by means of which magic-lantern

The Glass Menagerie


slides were to be projected on one wall bearing titles. Williams also makes an impressionistic use of time. The domestic drama and the illusions of the “American dream” are played off by Tom against the social realistic of the thirties throughout the play. In the last scene Jim speaks of having visited the Chicago World’s Fair (1933-1934) “summer before last,” but Tom in his narration refers to the bombing of Guernica (1937) and the Mubich Pact (1938), and in scene 5 he reads a newspaper with the enormous headline “Franco Triumphs” (1939). Whatever its nonrealistic features, which include the poetic prose spoken by Tom as narrator, the dialogue of the play is completely realistic, real as granite, and the characters rendered through it are solid and unforgettable. Whose play is it? –Tom’s, Laura’s, or Amanda’s? A strong case can be made for each. Tom is both the narrator and the trapped young artist struggling to break away from a stultifying environment. Of the three main characters he is the one who takes positive action to break out of illusion and pursue his goal, though apparently to no effect, for in his first appearance he is still dressed as a merchant sailor, and his final narration indicates he has done little but travel a great deal. The negative imagery (“The cities swept about me like dead leaves”) enforce a feeling of futility. Instead of pursuing, he is “pursued” –by the memory of his sitter Laura. –Is it then Laura’s play? The play’s title refers to her; she is the focus of the action, which, according to Williams’ opening notes, consists of two parts: preparations for the gentleman caller, and appearance of the gentleman caller; it is she who brings the curtain down by blowing out the candles. Yet


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Laura is almost entirely a passive character, a figure of pathos, acted upon rather than acting. She has her brief moment of hope and disappointment, and at the end is the same wistful, pathetic creature she was at the beginning. –Is it then Amanda’s play? Certainly, Amanda is the most rounded, fully developed character in the play; her role would demand the most talent from a player taking her part; and the actress taking her part would receive top billing on the theater marquee. She is all that Williams says she is in his opening note –heroic, foolish, tender, unwittingly cruel, lovable, laughable, pitiable, and, above all, vital –a unique dramatic creation. The chief symbol of the play is the glass menagerie, the dream world which Laura retreats to and which, in its delicate and fragile beauty, is a symbol for Laura herself. When Tom, in scene 3, quarrels violently with his mother, tries to leave, has trouble with his coat, and hurts is across the room shattering several of the figurines and drawing a cry of wounded pain from Laura, we see his dilemma. His quarrels with his mother distresses Laura, and he cannot leave without damaging her. Of all the figurines in the collection, the glass unicorn most symbolizes Laura, because its horn, like her shyness, separates it from the normal world and makes it unique. When Jim, during the dancing, temporarily overcomes her shyness, and breaks of the horn, Laura is not distressed. “It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.” But when, after kissing her, Jim draws himself up short and reveals his previous commitment, Laura gives the broken figurine to him to keep as a souvenir, and withdraws forever from the world of normality.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN By Arthur Miller Arthur Miller’s play perches between realistic and nonrealistic drama, with stage directions that call for visual changes as lights focus on different playing areas. Walls appear and disappear; surrounding apartment buildings emerge or give way to lefty greenness; musical motifs punctuate and interpret the actions. The scene changes often coincide with movements into the past or with imaginary entrances of the dead brother Ben, or with movements into scenes not observable by the protagonist, Willy Loman. Such fluidity of time and place is more characteristic of the novel than of the drama and except for Ben’s entrance into the “present” when the dead man appears to urge Willy to suicide, could easily be accommodated to the most realistic cinema techniques. The lack of dramatic realism in the staging is almost entirely due to what in a novel would pass for psychological realism, the author’s ability to enter into the mind of the character so as to bring memories or imaginings vividly into the present. Death of a Salesman shares with The Glass Menagerie the sense of being largely “a memory play,” but without so obvious a device as a narrator, and with a stricter sense of the present time from which to view the past. And it shares with Oedipus Rex the sense of the present as the culmination of past actions, and the revelation to the audience of the past as it comes to light in the present. But the differences between Miller’s play and these


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

others are great. In Williams’s play, the device of Tom’s narration is less rigid in its focus, particularly insofar as it suggests that Tom is the center of attention. The memory scenes in Miller’s play are restricted to Willy’s recollections. Willy’s rival for the role of central character, Biff, has no scenes dependent on his memory even the scene in the Boston hotel, revealing the major conflict between father and son as Biff discovers Willy’s adultery, is presented through Willy’s point of view when he suffers his breakdown in the restroom of the restaurant. Miller provides a realistic motivation for those memory journeys: Willy’s feverish desperation, his exhaustion, has slightly unhinged his brain, a condition familiar to Linda and Happy, but news to the visiting Biff. The sequence of flashbacks begins as presents thoughts of the car lead Willy to begin a carpolishing conversation with the boy Biff, and then the boys appear as a literal, visual representation of Willy’s memory; the past comes to life in the present. In the course of the play, we learn much about Biff’s development, but chiefly as a manifestation of Willy’s influence on him. Both sons are Willy’s spiritual heirs, dividing his attributes between them. Like Willy, Biff is a petty thief, and Happy has inherited Willy’s charm and his habitual mendacity. But neither of them shows any sign of the goodness that Linda sees in her husband (her judgment in that matter may be questioned, of course: she says to her sons, “You’re both good boys, just act that way, that’s all,” suggesting that the goodness she sees in Willy may also be a matter of loving faith rather than an ethical or moral fact). Unlike Williams, Miller is concerned with a realistic

Death of a Salesman


motivation for the memories, and with their direct relevance to the protagonist. Unlike Sophocles, Miller does not imply that the incidents of the past are newly discovered by the protagonist. Willy has known these things, and has evaded their implications and lied to himself and others about their truth. Willy is not searching the past to explain the present; rather, in the misery and mental confusion that afflict him from the first scene, the past seems to be forcing itself into his consciousness, as if to offer him the chance to revalue his life. But his final imaginary conversation with his lucky brother Ben implies no alteration in his value: the world is still a dark jungle; there are diamonds there for the bold man’s taking, and defrauding an insurance company is a proper and courageous means to obtain them. Willy’s sacrifice of his life is an act of love for Biff, not for Linda, who is absent from his last speeches but is guided by the same principles that governed his life. He wants Biff to be “magnificent,” to be a hero by making an impression on “all kinds of people.” The voyage into memory has not shown Willy the hollowness of his values. Biff’s claim to be the protagonist of the play rests mainly on two things: his return to New York opens his eyes to his father’s deterioration under the pressures of his failures; and this experience leads him to some self-awareness, for in the Requiem he judges Willy (“He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong … He never knew who he was”) and asserts to Happy “I know who I am, kid.” Though this seems a positive development, especially in contrast with Happy’s reaffirmation of Willy’s dream, it is difficult to know what genuine gain Biff has made. Presumably he will return to his wandering life in the West, sustaining himself by


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

manual toil, following the self-reliant dream of his pioneer grandfather who deserted wife and sons to fulfill his own dream. Except for the rural setting, which Willy himself had sought in buying a house that was later swamped by apartment development, this self-reliant notion is merely an older, more idealistic (and more selfish) version of the dream that Willy followed. It may be that Biff will be more honest with himself and others in the future, which would certainly be an improvement; but a different setting, with the wife he hankers for, does not necessarily imply a different set of values. Willy’s values are all based on the “American dream” of success, and some critics have seen them as the twentieth-century debasement of Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance—a term that Willy himself uses, but in a sense far different from Emerson’s meaning. For Willy, the dream has been of fame, one’s name is the paper, riches. His father seems to embody an earlier version of the dream—the free-spirited wanderer, the pioneer in the wilderness carving his way (literally), the success through “Yankee ingenuity,” an irresponsible Ben Franklin. That nineteenth century flute maker and flute player (Thoreau played the flute in his cabin at Walden pond) provides the recurring musical motif that opens and closes the play “telling of grass and trees and the horizon,” the old simplicities of rural American and has been used to mask ethical and moral shortcomings. The center of Willy’s philosophy is to be “well liked,” to achieve success as a salesman through charismatic personality. The measure of success is material possession, and Willy has allowed himself to believe in advertisements, to buy “brand name” cars, a washing

Death of a Salesman


machine, a vacuum cleaner (his mistake with the refrigerator was in buying an off-brand). He has always looked to the future to bring fulfillment and happiness (he’s “never so happy as when he’s looking forward to something”), not only to his hopes for Biff but even to his own funeral. The past he tries to remember with nostalgia about the rustic setting of the house; the future has always seemed ready to open up to those horizons of possibility. But these dreams have assumed such importance in his life that they have justified the petty deceits employed in trying to achieve them—the lies about his sales records, the pilfering of sand and lumber to improve the house, the encouragement of Biff’s cheating for the sake of a college scholarship—as well as the notso-petty adultery that destroyed his son’s respect for him, and the suicide made to look accidental to defraud the insurance company. Success at any cost was Willy’s program for himself and Biff, but the wage of his sins is self-destruction. As the comparison with Sophocles suggests, this play does not seem to be a great tragedy. Miller’s achievement is genuine and important, embodying a serious theme and defining a serious flaw in a modern, materialistic world. For Willy Loman, modest hopes and minor dishonesties became a way of life, and Miller shows how understandably they arose, how temperamentally they persisted, and how pathetically they concluded. Much of the language of Death of Salesman gives the impression of being ordinary everyday American speech. What variations there are tend to come in occasional moving speeches, and in the difference in tone between the mood of despair of the present day for Willy and the dreamed-up times of hope and


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

happiness. It may be said that Willy’s special tragedy lies in his inability to articulate the problems in his life, which he nevertheless understands and feels guilty about. Arthur Miller says in his Preface: “That he had not the intellectual fluency to verbalize his situation is not the same thing as saying that he lacked awareness”. Such feelings of guilt and frustration would seem to have caused him to become schizophrenic making him shift between present and past in his mind, and causing rapid changes of mood in which he often contradicts both himself and others. In a dream scene in act one, for example, he tells Linda: “I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me.” The fact that he realizes the limitations of his own words makes it all the worse for him. He can tell Biff not to say ‘Gee’ to Oliver, yet uses the word himself. His speech is full of clichés which ring false, such as his angry words in his final quarrel with Biff: “The door of your life is wide open!” Such words, of course, are near to the language of advertising which for a salesman is particularly, appropriate. It is, however, this sort of expression which has deceived him, and which he persists in using in his efforts to influence Biff. At the end of act one, discussing the interview with Oliver, he tells Biff, “Start big and you’ll end big,” and then, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” The language of advertising at its worst claims to improve life simply by the use of certain products, and it is significant that Willy’s language is full of brand names and expressions which could be part of advertisements. He talks of “simonizing” the car

Death of a Salesman


more than once; he buys the boys a punch-bag with Gene Tunney’s signature on it, and he is thankful his sons are both built “like Adonises.” Even when things go wrong, as his refrigerator does, he accepts Linda’s assurance that it must be good because it had “the biggest ads of any of them.” Willy then really seems to believe what the advertisements claim, and in using such terms as, “knocking’em cold” and “That is a one million dollar idea!,” he is preventing others from helping him by the extreme nature of the claims he makes. Moreover, such language is false in what it claims, and its pervasive use in the play helps to reveal the false attitude which Willy has developed in his sons. It is Biff’s understanding of real values which changes him at the end. The final clash between Willy and Biff includes, significantly, the expression “a dime a dozen.” It is the reverse of most of the extravagant claims made by Willy in the play, and he is enraged by Biff’s suggestion into answering “I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman.” This is a piece of moving and effective language, rare for Willy in its simplicity. This limited style of language of the play is not confined to Willy and his sons. Howard’s expression, “Kid, I can’t take blood from a tone,” shows us that he too is merely part of this insincere system. Even Charley’s parting words of Bernard in act two, “Knock’em dead,” recall similar expressions between Willy and Biff in the dream conversations of act one. Linda is an exception in respect of having an articulate language free from clichés. Her weakest speech, which does include some clichés, comes in the dream sequences, and so may be seen as language created by Willy. When she speaks in the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

present to Willy, and especially to Biff and Happy, her meaning is usually absolutely clear. Her ‘attention’ speech, therefore, may be seen as a natural development caused by emotion. Certainly she helps to give Willy a greater stature by her words here. Charley’s final speech, in the Requiem, is effective for a different reason. Throughout the play we have come to respect Charley for the friendship he shows to Willy, especially as it is disguised partly by modesty, reticence and humor. His intelligence we assume from his relative success in business. Now, at Willy’s funeral, even he is moved to make an emotional speech which excuses Willy his mistake. Lastly, even Biff, and Willy have moments when their language rises above the false jargon of so much of the play. Willy’s plea to Howard, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!”, is far more original and powerful than Howard’s, “blood from a stone” remark, and his repeated phrase, “The woods are burning” has an urgency and originality which conveys a sense of Willy’s limited world and his hopes being destroyed. “The woods are burning” as a phrase, apart from being an example of Willy breaking free from his normal limited language, is also given a more profound meaning for us by its symbolic implications. The woods seem to be connected with the past when Willy lived outside the towns traveling across America with his father. They are also linked with ideas about Ben who is associated with “timberland” and “the grand outdoors.” Willy has his most optimistic plan at the start of act two of building a little place in the country to retire to. The motif of planting seeds is associated with the dreams about the country. Willy desperately

Death of a Salesman


tries to grow vegetables but cannot in the surroundings of the city. Ironically, he is critical of Biff for working on a farm. Biff’s moment of underrating on leaving Oliver’s office, however, had come when he looked up and saw the sky, something less associated with the city than with the countryside. Willy’s confusion is suggested in his dreaming of success for his son in the city, and seeing his failure in terms of the woods being destroyed. Biff, in his new understating of what he wants, is able to say to Willy in their last quarrel, “Take that phony dream and burn it.” Willy is clearly out of place in the city, as the leit-motif of the flute music suggests, for it is associated with his childhood in the countryside with his flute-maker father. One might ask if Willy’s and Biff’s enjoyment of whistling is associated with the flute music. If this is thought likely, then one should examine the possible significance of the whistling heard on Howard’s wirerecorder. Willy’s wish for success would seem to be an unacknowledged desire to escape from the city, and it seems significant that most of his car accidents have been caused by is dreaming about trees. The stage setting symbolically reinforces these ideas, the apartment blocks harshly towering over the fragile house. Willy complains that they are “boxed-in” seeds do not grow, and elm trees have been cut down. The state of his house represents Willy’s life. When the shower is faulty, he says, “All of a sudden everything falls to pieces.” Throughout the play success has been seen in terms of money, and Willy keeps his faith in it right to the end. It is, however, linked with the motif of stealing which also runs


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

through the play. Biff’s claim that he is “a dime a dozen” is therefore particularly appropriate in terms of the play’s imagery. Being well liked and impressing people with one’s personality are repeatedly claimed by Willy as the key to success. However, this attitude is often undermined by laughter, whether it is the Boston woman’s knowing laughter or Charley’s good-humored joking. The woman’s laughter is also associated with her accepting gifts of stockings form Willy. Linda is often seen darning, a homely occupation, but thoroughly unromantic and a source of irritation and guilt for Willy whenever he sees stockings in her hand. In his dream of the day at Boston, Willy has the young Biff say, “You— you gave her Mama’s stocking!” thereby brining together the two women. The laughter we hear in the play is part of the variety of sound which contributes greatly to the effect of the play. Flute music is used when there is a move into the past. In contrast, the restaurant scene starts with raucous music, and the crucial discovery by Biff of Willy’s adultery is introduced by a single trumpet note and it is coarsened by raw sensuous music as the climax is neared. Willy’s death is preceded by a mixture of voices and music rising to a frenzied scream of sound as the car crashes and sinking then into a dead march. In addition to the music, the audience is also helped in appreciating the shifting moods of the play by the use of lighting. The apartment blocks have an angry orange; Willy’s memories are usually in green, recalling the countryside; and the restaurant scene is given a red light. Death of a Salesman is concerned with the problems of the

Death of a Salesman


individual in fulfilling himself as a human being in modern society. The frequent references to the past illustrate the way American society has changed during the course of the twentieth century. Three different parts of the century are contrasted. The earliest time is about the year 1910 when Willy embarked on his career as a salesman. Most of the play, however, is concerned with events in the present, that is, about 1945, and with those in 1928, the year most often recalled in Willy’s dreams. The references to the 1910 period and before relate to the American dream of creating a society in which each individual had the opportunity of living a rich and rewarding life. Willy’s father had the satisfaction of making and playing the flutes which he sold as he traveled across the country. It hardly sounds a prosperous occupation but it suggests a freedom which is not possible in the city life of the present where one is at the mercy of one’s employer. Ben too is associated with the “grand outdoors” but it seems that he has to leave America to make his fortune, and his success in terms of going into the jungle and to Alaska may not seem entirely desirable. What makes it seem attractive to Willy would seem entirely desirable. What makes it seem attractive to Willy would seem to be simply its end-product— wealth—although it also contains a sense of escape from the confines of the city. What seem to have been important in these early days were personality and friendship, especially in an occupation like selling, as the example of Dave Signleman illustrates. It is claimed to have been an age in which there was ‘respect, and comradeship, and gratitude’.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

The years following the First World War saw a rapid increase in industrial production. Products such as the refrigerator motioned in Willy’s first dream conversation with Linda and his Chevrolet car were made during this broom. Selling was still important, but the salesman, had no part in the making of the product now. The late twenties, however, brought the slump which caused high unemployment and shortage of money. Although this crisis in American society is not stressed in Willy’s dreams, it does seem that his job as a salesman would have added to his anxiety about the future expressed in his hopes for Biff. It seems surprising that the Second World War is hardly mentioned in the play. (There is only a brief comment by Stanley, the waiter). What is important is the ever-increasing mechanization of society at this time. Machines have replaced men; craftsmen (and Willy with his skill in doing jobs about the house would seem to have the ability to have become one) are disappearing; advertisements are disappearing; advertisements have become increasingly false; the population is growing to the extent of life being stifled (as suggested by the new apartment blocks preventing plants from flourishing in Willy’s garden). Now it is much harder work. The American dream of the U.S. being the land of opportunity for every individual has gone. That Biff feels this is suggested in his words: “Willy you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?” Charley’s example of the wealthy J. P. Morgan being liked only because he is rich also relates to the disappearance of personality as an essential ingredient of success. In his Preface, Miller says, “I wished to create a form

Death of a Salesman


which […] would literally be the process of Willy Loman’s mind.” What we get, then is the contrast between Willy’s view of himself and his position in society. It is the contrast between “I am Willy Loman’s” and “He’s just a guy” which is complicated by Willy trying to live by society’s values. However, Willy confuses the new gods of money and power with the values of the past. His own values have, therefore, been corrupted, and we sense that his insistence on being well liked is not far from Happy’s using his good looks to steal other men’s women, and this is also linked with Ben’s advice: “Never fight fair with a stranger.” Death of a Salesman has been called a drama of the little man as a victim in his society, a man who can do nothing to change life significantly. In his Preface, Miller calls the play a contribution to the “steady year-by-year documentation of the trust ration of man.” That Willy feels this is apparent when he remarks to Linda, “I’m not noticed,” and Linda tells her sons when explaining Willy’s breakdown: “A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.” Escape from being just a little man seems to Willy to be through sporting prowess (in Biff’s case), by leaving the country (as Ben did), or by accepting society’s false values. Even the suicide act is seen by him in terms of money, the goal of this society, but Willy’s killing himself, mistaken as it is, does make him something more than the average American man. Miller writes in his Preface, “Had Willy been unaware of his separation from values that endure he would have died contentedly while polishing his car, probably on a Sunday afternoon with a ball


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

game coming over the radio.” In response to Bernard’s advice that it’s sometimes better to walk away, Willy asks, “But if you can’t walk away?” to which Bernard says, “I guess that’s when it’s tough.” And later as Willy makes up his mind to die, he tells Ben, a man can’t go out the way he came in. Miller has written, in his Preface, that Willy has broken the unwritten “law which says that a failure in society and business has no right to live.” This law he calls the ‘law of success’. Willy believes in this law and tries to live by it, and this makes his tragedy the more intense, for, as Miller goes on to say, “to fail is no longer to belong to society in his estimate. His position is made harder to bear because of his sense of responsibility to his family, and the setting of the play in and around the house emphasizes the importance of the family.”

THE SANDBOX By Edward Albee A brief one-act play of seven rapidly moving scenes, The Sandbox employs listening effects which range from bright day to total darkness; and the performing time is about fourteen minutes. There are four main characters and a musician who plays throughout. Characters are Mommy and Daddy, a middle-aged couple; Grandma, an old lady about to die; and a Young Man who is later identified as The Angle of Death. The Sandbox is nearly identical to a longer one-act play, The American Dream, and in theme and technique both plays are closely associated with the Theater of the Absurd. At the time of the commission Albee was in the process of writing The American Dream and he accomplished this new task by extracting the major characters from the longer work and placing them in an expressionistic setting—a sandbox, for example, is intended to represent a beach. There is close thematic continuity between The Zoo Story and The Sandbox and, of course, The American Dream. In The Sandbox Albee again attacks the hypocritical sentiments and stereotyped attitudes which were embodied in Peter. In this play the major emphasis is placed specifically on the social institution of the American family. The family is seen here as a trite relationship devoid of sincere affection and true communication. For Albee, the family unit is part of the great American myth, now a meaningless thing, but which in our pioneer days played a hardy and integral role in the development of the nation.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

However, Americans, in Albee’s view, have long since failed to live up to the tradition. In the modern world the typical family is caught up in a mesmerizing commercially-oriented society which has turned the so-called “American Heritage” into a grand illusion, and is a prime example of the absurdity of life in the modern world. But this theme is hardly original with Albee. A stereotyped and vacuous family life is one of the basic themes of the European Absurdist playwright, perhaps best seen in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Mommy and Daddy, in The Sandbox as well as in The American Dream, are representative of what has been called the phenomenon of Momism—the relationship within the family unit in which the mother is dominant over the male and everyone else in the household; She guards her position of authority with jealous enthusiasm and has become, in most respects, the “male” figure of the family. The Sandbox also attacks the clichéd “American way of death” –replete with its false expressions of sympathy and loss, tender euphemisms, and gaudy display. In fact, the children’s true feelings in the play, and often in reality, are the very opposite of bereavement at the death of a parent. The appealing old grandmother in this play, lying in the sandbox waiting to die, humorously mimics Mommy’s and Daddy’s superficial and insincere expressions of concern and sadness. They are, in fact, eagerly awaiting the “blessed” event of her death and their thinly veiled sentiments might well be described as murderous. Perhaps it is because Albee wrote the play shortly after the death of his own grandmother that the character of Grandma alone is portrayed with any true vitality and honest wit. She is directly

The Sandbox


contrasted with the cull and disgustingly phony Mommy and Daddy. When Grandma finally dies (the sandbox becomes her coffin), she leaves with a smile and a few tender words, which are the only sincere ones in a play filled with clichés. A heightened sense of the Absurd is generated by the presence, unexplained and seemingly taken for granted, of two very conspicuous characters: a young, extremely good-looking man in a swimming suit who performs calisthenics throughout the play and then assumes the role of the Angel of Death. The other character is a musician who plays a base violin during the action. The Young Man, as it turns out, is an aspiring (and a very bad) actor who has been sent there by some unknown person to play this eerie part, which he does with comic awkwardness, but without offensiveness. The final moment in which he gives Grandma the kiss of death, and which brings a mischievous grin to her face, is one of touching tenderness. The obvious theatrical nature of what occurs is meant to convey a sense of the Absurd and to demonstrate in an exaggerated, but truthful sense, the phoniness and sterility in so many of modern man’s responses to the realities of life. The close integration of form and content in the play creates a “moving picture” of one aspect of the Absurdity. In an introduction to his play The American Dream, Edward Albee writes, “the play is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Elsewhere he tells us that in writing The Sandbox he extracted several characters from The American Dream, which he was working on at the time, and “placed them in a situation different than, but related to, their predicament in the longer play.” We may assume, therefore, that his dramatic purposes in The Sandbox are similar to, though not identical with, his purposes in The American Dream. The play belongs, of course, to the “Theater of the Absurd,” a contemporary dramatic genre in which the logical absurdity and meaninglessness of the events presented on the stage reflect an absurdity and meaninglessness which the playwright sees in life. But the meaninglessness of the events presented does not mean that the play is meaningless. The Sandbox, indeed, is a brief summation of a life and a death; a dramatic synecdoche. What it shows is a life emptied of content and value. Life, as presented here, is vapid, barren, and sterile, and death is without dignity. The play works largely by means of symbols, many of them multiple symbols. The sandbox itself, for instance, represents (1) a beach; (2) Grandma’s second childhood (she plays in it with a toy pail and shovel); (3) the grave (she buries herself in it); and (4) the bareness of modern civilization, which T. S. Eliot presented as a desert in The Waste Land. The bareness of the stage reinforces the symbolism of emptiness and sterility. The toy shovel, like the sandbox, is a childhood symbol, but simultaneously a gravedigger’s spade. The Young Man, too, is a multiple symbol. Young, athletic and a movie actor, embodies those three popular idols of

The Sandbox









comprehensively, he represents illusion. Handsome and friendly on the outside, he is empty on the inside. Though he greets everyone with a “Hi!” and a smile, he doesn’t know what his name is, he forgets his lines, and his smile is vacuous. As a movie actor, his trade is illusion. The worship of such illusions is equivalent to spiritual death; and the Young Man is also the Angle of Death. But the death he brings is as empty and meaningless as the life he represents. Mommy and Daddy have a marital relationship all too common in modern life, though exaggerated in the play. They call each other by pet names, but there is no affection between them. Mommy is the emasculating female: dominant, scornful, mocking, reproving, impatient, sarcastic. She gives the orders. Daddy, though he has fulfilled his social function by getting rich, is humanly a cipher, completely subjugated by Mommy. Toward Grandma they observe all the properties: they give her a place in their house, they give her a “decent” burial with music and the appearance of mourning. In life, however, they really buried her alive, and on stage they literally do so. Beneath conventional expressions of grief (“the time has come for poor Grandma … and I can’t bear it!”), Mommy is eager to get Grandma out of the way and be done with her. Grandma is the most authentic character in the play: she says what she thinks, and doesn’t wrap her feelings in pious ceremonial. She is also the most perceptive character: she knows what’s going on, sees through the Young Man’s imbecility, is capable of using metaphor. But Grandma has been soured by her


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

life, rendered disagreeable, cranky, difficult, and even subhuman (“Graaa!”). The life that Albee has depicted in The Sandbox is absurd and meaningless, and what, he implies, is much of American life today.

WHO IS AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? By Edward Albee The world which Albee's characters inhabit is filled with hostility, cruelty and illusions that continually evoke images of Waste Land, a view of the modern world in which both physical and spiritual sterility are pervasive. Physical sterility is nearly a commonplace condition in Albee's plays. Martha is a middle-aged woman of fifty-two, six years Older than her husband, George, a fact that infuriates her. Martha's abrasive and often obscene language and her unmasked sexual aggressiveness make her an extremely unpleasant person. Her bitter dissatisfaction from her married life which has nothing for her but years of disillusionment and frustration consequently soured her personality. She is an alcoholic and desperately wants a child. She is most sensitive of all characters. She is driven and controlled by an abnormal sexual desire. Martha has retreated into illusion by creating the wish fulfillment projection child and uses it to find meaning for her existence but it is at base only a projection of a sterile imagination. She is not a happy one and the only communication which occurs between she and George is the battle of insults. She has passed her life in meaningless infidelities with men such as Nick. George, a history professor, is strongly but somewhat misleadingly characterized by Martha's detailed account of his many failures in both married and professional life. He is the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

constant target of her sharp-edged reproaches and elevates savage attacks. According to Martha, George's main difficulty is that he lacks aggressiveness and never does anything but talk. Martha scorns George's bookishness. George is far more complex and as the play progresses he visibly changes and finally becomes a fully developed and very engaging character. He is the most intelligent of all characters and a humanist who possesses a social consciousness. He is powerless to effective action, least of all to put his own house in order. Passion was the base for his marriage with Martha. George's sole motive is revenge, and his real purpose is to destroy the evils which caused Martha's frenetic behavior rather than to hurt Martha herself. At the end George frees both himself and Martha from the painful refuge of illusion. Nick is the embodiment of the American dream, a cultural phenomenon which has occupied the past. He represents and indeed epitomizes a number of characteristics which, in Ablee's view, Americans regard as sure ingredients of success: a perfectly balanced combination of intelligence handsome feature, a powerfully athletic physique, a naïve enthusiasm and belief in the future, and a showcase wife. He married Honey, his childhood friend, because she was pregnant and because of her father's money their marriage is grounded on illusion and therefore potentially destructive. His aggressiveness is exactly what George lacks and he recognizes in him precisely the kind of husband Martha had envisioned. Nick and George are also representatives of two opposing cultures of science and humanism. Honey is the most comic of the characters, the most thinly drawn. In appearance she is plain, petite blond of twenty-six and

Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


she has bad habit of sucking her thumb. Martha describes her with characteristic candor as being a “mousy little type” who lacks “hips”. Honey is a rather pathetic figure throughout the play, she is quite unaware that Nick and Martha are carrying on and certainly does not realize the significance of what occurs in the exorcism ritual, though frightened by its intensity. She has a hysterical pregnancy, and she has a fear of child bringing, and for which she takes abortion pills. The title of the play is an allusion which has been taken from an American song that says: “Who is afraid of big bad wolf?” that refers to Martha as a big bad wolf. Another is a phrase written on a graffiti wall in Greenwich village bar. It is intended to mean: Who is afraid of facing life without illusions? And it is Martha who is certainly afraid of what life without her precious illusion will hold. Albee first intended the title of this play to be “The Exorcism,” but then changed it when he saw the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virgins Wolf?” written on the graffiti wall in a Greenwich Village bar.

Walpurisnocht, the title of the second act, refers to the belief of medieval people in central and Western Europe that on Walpurgis Night, the eve of May day, the evil powers of witches were at greatest peak. Men of the villages would assemble after sunset and make banging noises to drives the witches away. Albee, by this act, attacks both marriage’s sexual antagonism, jealousy, rage, frustration and in a ritualistic way makes these evils ready to be exorcised. George, a history professor, and his wife, Martha, arrive home at two in the morning, after a cocktail party given by


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Martha’s father. Martha informs her husband that she has asked Nick, a handsome new professor and his wife Honey to an afterparty party. Because of their inability to have a child, George and Martha have created an imaginary son for themselves in order to reduce their sense of emptiness. But they have a rule that both of them must obey. It is this that everyone who remarks their secret to a stranger the other one will kill the imaginary son. After Martha’s breaking the contraction, George decides to kill their imaginary son in order to hurt Martha and free himself from illusion. Martha has used their son as a club to dominate George. Martha shows her hatred of George by having sex with Nick in the kitchen. As a final triumph over Martha, George decides to tell her that a messenger has come with news that their son is dead. George finally announces that their son died in a car wreck. Thus like God the Creator, the parents kill their children before they are born. With rage and loss, Martha screams that George cannot decide for himself that their child is dead, as they created him together. The death of the son is the price of surrender to the need to exhibit emotional turmoil before strangers. Just as God sent Christ to comfort the suffering, they created their son. Their son as a real child was born of a mutual, profound need. Fun and games provided a means of keeping the illusions alive. The death of their imaginary son may make love possible; not a great love; not a healthy love, indeed. Now Martha is afraid of Virginia Wolf, for the “wolf” that each person creates has been unleashed within her. Man’s failure to face reality and to deal with it without

Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


being overwhelmed and destroyed is considerable in the play. Man resorts to illusion in order to avoid the pain and invariable disappointment inherent in facing reality. Albee uses his favorite theme of desecration and decay of family unites to depict this harmful approach to existence. One of the aims of this play is to convey the strong sense of bureaucratic nightmare of external world and feeling of unreasoning inexpiable guilt which compresses the individual. And this play is a central link in Albee’s penetrating study of American family unit and of the relationship between husband and wife in the modern society. The other themes are cruelty and violence, sexual strife, homosexuality and sterility. Albee manages to achieve his characterizations in depth by using significant free associations and acted-out fantasies. George’s story of a child who rejects his parents is quite the opposite of George’s own dependence on the older generation. The mournful poem “Dies Irae” which George recites, symbolizes not only the death of their imaginary son but the death of their neurotic way of life; hence the ritualistic rebirth of themselves. George and Martha live in a world which revolves around central illusions; the imaginary child, which is complete with a detailed mythology, was formed slowly over the years. Such a mythic creation gives meaning to their love without having to give it to each other; in fact they find their parents unworthy of love. George and Martha are freed of their great illusions and must now take their chances depending on each other, which is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the most optimistic note of salvation that Albee can sound. One aspect of the play that shocked audiences was the absence of language, all of which is quite characteristically, delivered by Martha. Such language is purposely abrasive, and Albee uses it to construct a closed universe of bitterness and destructive illusion. Albee uses cruelty and violence to help obtain the function of making his characters face the reality of their lives. In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” characters are engaged in violent and games intended to propel them to the destruction of their illusions. These motifs thus become tools of constructing a play which intends to lull an audience from its own illusions and complacency. By setting the action in the living room of a Middle class home, Albee indicates that he is analyzing a domestic relationship in the arena where the family reveals itself by socializing on its own terms. Albee is a veritable magician who knows precisely what the auditory and emotive powers of words can accomplish. An attractive quality of Albee’s language is his comic dialogue. In this play there are two main kinds of comic language intended for comic relief as in the discussion of Honey’s tendency to vomit at the least emotion and the black humor, the comedy which is both wildly funny yet injected for serious purposes. The language of black humor is used in the running battle of furious insults between Martha and George, and only veils the deep bitterness and emotional reactions that fill each character.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER By John Osborn The action takes place in a midlands town, in the one room flat of Jimmy (Main Character) and Alison Porter and centers on their marital conflicts, which appear to arise largely from Jimmy's social and financial frustration: he is a jazz-playing ex-student from "White-Tile" university, working on a market sweet stall. Alison is a Colonel's daughter. The first act opens as Alison stands ironing the clothes, and Jimmy reads of the Sunday papers and abuses Alison–Jimmy is a misogynist. The third act opens with Helena at the ironing board; Alison returns having lost the baby whom she was expecting; and she and Jimmy find a manner of reconciliation through humiliation and games playing fantasy—games-playing is symbol of absurdity of life and situation— which shows that the whole of life is only a kind of game playing and all of it is funny. The play opens with Jimmy's shouting and nervousness about the sameness, repetition, and dullness of modern life and shows annuity of new generation, their wondering, alienation and hollowness of their life. But most of the people (Mobs) cannot understand the situation and for this reason feel happy in their life. The play is a protest to the society and it is against the society's indifferent, thoughtless people, (Cliff: she can't think. Jimmy: can't think: She hadn't had a thought for years). And some people who think only for eating and sexual matters (Jimmy: I like to eat. Like the live). Most of the characters are from middle class and


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

they can be symbols or ordinary people in a society where there is no support for artists, intellectuals, and poor persons even from the bishop, (Jimmy: He (Bishop) supports the rich people against the poor). The play is a kind of protest to youngest and the new generations that are insensitive to their society and they get used to every thing and to every situation very soon, (Alison: I don't mind it. I've got used to it … Jimmy: she is a great one for getting used to things). Lack of communication, frustration and hopelessness of the new generation are the most important ideas of the play. Jimmy is tall (like Lord Jim, by Conrad), who can be a symbol of intellectual people. His clothes at the first scene of the play are a worn tweed jacket—which can be a symbol of his protest to superficial subjects (see Hamlet by Shakespeare), and his indifference to appearance. He is restless and full of pride. He is simply a loud mouth, he is an artist (Musician) (Like Stanley in Pinter's Birthday Party): (Jimmy: Anyone who doesn't know and does not like real Jazz, hasn't say feeling either for music or for people). Jimmy is an honest man: Colonel: we are to blame, in our different Ways, No doubts Jimmy acted in good faith. He is honest enough. Helena: … I have discovered what is wrong With Jimmy; he was born out of his time (Like Miniver Cheevy, by A. Robinson) … there is no place for people like him any longer in sex, or in politics or anything. That is why he is so futile Sometimes, when I listen to him I feel he thinks he is something in middle of French Revolution.

Look Back in Anger


Jimmy has married for the sake of revenge (like George, in Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by E. Albee): (Alison: some people actually marry for revenge.) People like Jimmy, or perhaps he should have been Shelley, cannot understand now why I'm not another Mary). Newspapers can be symbols of tortures and pain for the artists and intellectuals, because reading of the newspapers with their repetitious subjects are the means of tortures to these intellectuals, (see Stanley in Birthday Party by H. Pinter and K. Trial, by Kafka). At rise of the curtain we can see that characters are hidden beyond of the newspapers and they reading. Beside them and between them is a jungle of newspapers and the weeklies. Jimmy hates The Sunday because he is sensitive, educated from a low class, but with high intelligence, (Jimmy: our youth is slipping away … but I' am alive. I've idea, why we don't have a little game? Let's pretend (only pretend) that we are human beings and that we are actually alive. Just for a while.) J. Culler says, "Jimmy is a post modern character, and he is a super character, he is alive and sensitive." Jimmy continually protests to the society, baselessness, emptiness, hollowness, absurdity and finally superficiality of the life and its people: “Nobody thinks, nobody cares, no beliefs, no convention, and no enthusiasm. Just another Sunday Morning.” People like Jimmy are not very patriotic. Now in the postmodern western society the most important thing for the young is the protest for getting identity. They want nothing but identification. (see Absent fathers and Lost sons: The


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

search for masculine identity, by Guy Corneau). They protest to the absurdity of western post-modern life, to its sameness, and aimlessness (see Great Gatsby, by S. Fitzgerald). But these young’s words for others are strange and Greek: “Jimmy: Let's pretend we are human … Cliff: what did he say?” Jimmy is a misogynist, “Jimmy: … Thank god –we–have not many women surgen. Those primitive hands”; and he attacks women’s cosmetic means, (The Rape of the Lock, by A. Pope). Jimmy Porter, the central character, does most of the talking and does it exceedingly articulate and speaks with the fluency of a highly educated person. Simply he talks too much and talks at people rather to them. He is a young graduated, from a working class background, and is married to Alison from an upper class family. Jimmy’s attacking Alison’s brother, Nigel, is his first sustained attack on the upper classes. Up to this point he has used his considerable power of rhetoric to attack various kinds of culture and to taunt both Cliff and Alison into some reaction, but now he releases his full fury on the topic which seems to obsess him most: the attitudes and privileges which he claims to have detected in the upper classes. What makes his speech more significant is the fact that it is really an indirect attack on Alison and values embraced by her family. His attempt to humiliate and wound his wife is embarrassing to Cliff and makes him feel awkward toward his friend. Alison’s silence and lack of reaction to this speech, has been shown simply by her plodding ironing, and downcast eyes reveal her suffering and inability to respond to what has obviously been a consistent verbal battering. His style is like that of an

Look Back in Anger


orator; his speech is more like a public address than a person speech to others. It is designed entirely for effect and he moves around with nervous energy, intending to provoke reactions. Jimmy’s vocabulary is clearly chosen, full of witty expressions and plays upon words and is deeply ironic. He uses rhetorical questions to try to evoke responses, but the whole speech cannot be interrupted. He ridicules his victims by using clichés of patriotism and indulges in some exaggeration for effect. The speech is the product of well educated, extremely literate persons, but Jimmy talks at rather than to his listeners. The tone of his speech is ironic and aggressive. He uses his language to get the upper hand over a class and set of attitudes which he despises and which he sees embodied in Nigel. The speech does not seek an answer; much of his power of speech comes from clever repetition and alliteration. This is a political speech and has all the eloquence, passion and cutting edge of a diatribe by a left-wing reformer. The reality of speech comes from the excitement and vigor with which it is delivered. Because his character is a mixture of working class vitality and literary sophistication, his speech, too, is powerful. Jimmy is like a caged animal, (see O’Neill’s Hairy Ape) pacing around and delivering his speech with venom and frustration. There is a sharp and effective contrast between the incisiveness and energy of his speech and the haziness he is attacking. His speech is also thrown into relief by the impressive Alison ironing and Cliff’s uneasy staring at the floor. Most of the writers and critics who talk about a revolution in the English theater date on 8th May 1956, when Look Back in


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Anger was performed for the first time at the Royal Court. Obviously it was not a revolution, but as Ronald Hayman says it was "to popularize the new type of hero and the new type of actor." It is as a means to express the mood of its time, the mood and feeling of the post-war generation, which labeled the mood of "Angry Young Men." Before discussing the mood of this generation, there is a point that the label of "Angry Young Men" was applied to writers with different outlooks. But in fact it signifies an attitude of the mind common among them all. The mood of "Angry Young Men" is related to circumstances peculiar to the post-war era, and above all to the vacuum left by the collapse of the writers of the thirties. It is here indeed that the "Angry Young Men" have performed a service that must not be underestimated. The political disillusionment of the post-war era made most of the writers try to convey the mood of their society in their works. At this era the idealists of the society felt that all should be right with the world. They hoped in the system of Labour Government, and in the 1945 they celebrated its victory. But gradually the major parties in Britain seemed to move together. And those who hoped that political activities could be a solution for the world's ills were all disappointed. They saw that there was no difference if any one of the parties were out of power and the other was in. All of the people and mostly young men and women were dissatisfied and disappointed. It was the same situation that Jimmy Porter portrays in Look Back in Anger: “I suppose if our generation aren't able to die for good causes longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties

Look Back in Anger


and forties, when we were still-kids. There aren't any good brave causes left.” Such dissatisfaction in the society had to be expressed in different ways. One of them was literature writers such as Kingsly Amis in his Lucky Jim and John Wain in his Hurry on Down who portrayed the frustration of their society in their works. The most influential work was Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Taylor says: "Look Back in Anger was rather rich in causes for agitation or disillusionment, depending which way one chose to look at it." Some causes for agitation were the rebellion of the Hungarians against their Russian-imposed Communist Government and the intervention of Russia to put down the revolt. The other was the war over the Suez Canal among Egypt, Britain and France. And the other was about the nuclear weapons which were kept in Britain. All of these causes contributed to the success of Look Back in Anger. Look Back in Anger is a rallying point that represents dissatisfaction with society. Its protagonist symbolizes the fury of the young post-war generation that feels itself betrayed, sold out and ruined by the misuse of power. Look Back in Anger is a sociological phenomenon. Some believe that the period of its appearance was called the emergence of working-class drama. The life that is represented in such a kind of drama is of people disorganized and drifting; youth and poverty are important factors in this kind of drama. Social experiences are expressed very well in these plays. And as Enright believes, "the true social experience that was coming through [working-class drama] was a general restlessness,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

disorganization, and frustration, and expression of these moods was simpler through the selection of especially restless and disorganized people." A general definition of Look Back in Anger is not difficult; it has indeed been widely made. Its details of talk and atmosphere and, through these, its expression of intense feeling—a frustrated anger, a prolonged waiting must be broken, at any cost, by a demonstration, a shout, have an authentic power. It is that traditional room of the naturalist theater: the room as trap, with the sounds and messages of a determining and frustrating world coming in from outside; the people staring from a window, looking on and raging at their world. But what comes is not the wistfully confident. What come through in Look Back in Anger are a new voice and a different edge: not the sweet hopelessness, and the measured despair, but the directly disordered talking and crying, the social criticism, the cruelty, and the sentimentality, of a trapped, identifiable group. It is intensely personal cries in the dark. Look Back in Anger is a valid study of a highly complex personality at odds with his world. The central effect of this play is to show the hero himself and the validity of his anger. Jimmy Porter its protagonist pours his anger on everything that surrounds him –Alison, Cliff, Helena, the Sunday papers, and the social system. Jimmy is raging at himself, through the raging at others and at an intolerable general condition, the sickness of a society is re-enacted in this particular enclosed form, as the sickness of available relationship and this sick man at their centre. Jimmy is himself negative in that he has no alternatives to offer. He would

Look Back in Anger


like to see things changed, but he has no alternatives to offer. He would like to see things changed, but he has no ideas about what they ought to be changed to. His basic feeling seems to be that if there are not any "good brave causes" left which are worth dying for, then there can not by any causes that are worth fighting for. His frustration is justified because he can not put his desire into action. Katharine J. Worth says: “The lament missing in this play is not meant to us thinking of the good brave causes that do exist. This is not a play about causes, but about a special kind of feeling, what Osborne has described as the "texture of ordinary despair." Jimmy is a suffering hero, and the action designed to illuminate his suffering rather than to force a conflict.” Jimmy Porter is not only a warm-hearted idealist raging against the evils of man and the universe; he is also a cruel even morbid misfit in a group of reasonably normal and well-disposed people: obviously he is not at peace with himself nor with the others. In spite of the fact that Jimmy is an unstable person who contradicts himself all the time, the other characters behave in an unnatural way so that the only thing one can think of them is a society of people sick in mind. His anger undoubtedly starts in human idealism, and the desire that men should be more honest, more alive, more human than they normally are. He says: “Oh heavens, how I long for a little human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm-That's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! Hallehlujah! I'm alive! I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say? Let's pretend we're human.”


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

He is determined to stay alive which means that he must struggle against the nonsense substitutes for real life. He is tired of listening to himself and wants to hear another tone. He wants to be where something is really happening, where there is a little enthusiasm. He hates a monotonous life with its Sunday programmed: the steady soft thud of the iron and the regular sound of newspapers. He suffers from lack of identity. At first glance, the main actors in Look Back in Anger seem to be three newspapers and an ironing-board. When the curtain goes up, on a cheap one-room flat, the audience sees a pair of Sunday papers, a cloud of pipe-smoke, and some men's feet and leg protruding; more papers are scattered on the floor, and, off to one side, a woman is silently ironing a shirt. "Why do I do this every Sunday?" says Jimmy Porter while he throws his paper down. "Even the book reviews seem to be the same as the last week's. Different books – same reviews." At the rise of the thirdact curtain, some months later, the two male characters are seen among the Sunday papers, while a woman is silently ironing a shirt. Same scene, different girl. Nothing really changes; nothing can change. That is the horror of Sunday and reason of boredom of Jimmy. He feels that something ought to happen, something a little different, to break the monotony. To relive himself from this monotony, he plays trumpet in the next room. He pours his anger on this instrument. Its sound is another tone to be heard. And this action can be considered as mock to the universe. Ferrar believes Jimmy opposes the jazz wail of his trumpet against the selfconfident, zombie world rung in by the stately bells. The disordered, aching sufferer blasts a futile raspberry at the

Look Back in Anger


unheeding world. In a society that prizes emotional deadness, Jimmy struggles for openness, spontaneity, and vulnerability. His trumpet is his way of nay-saying . Jimmy's anger as we see later in the play has deep roots. He is one "to whom the miseries of the world are misery and will not let him rest." He is capable of vicarious suffering, of living in other people's lives. He suffers for Hugh's mother, an old woman going through the sordid process of dying. He expects people around him be like him and all share his suffering. But when he does not receive such a reaction from them, he becomes disappointed. When he comes back from Hugh's mum's funeral, he is enraged because Alison has not sent even a bunch of flowers to her: “For eleven hours, I have been watching someone I love very much going through the sordid process of dying. She was alone, and I was the only one with her. And when I have to walk behind that coffin on Thursday, I'll be on my own again. Because the bitch won't even send her a bunch of flowers—I know! She made the great mistake of all her kind. She thought because Hugh's mother was a depriver and ignorant old woman, who said all the wrong things in all the wrong places, she couldn't be taken seriously.” Jimmy is a man of action frustrated because there is nothing left to fight for, and no one left to respond. Jimmy relates the story about his father's agony to his wife when he himself is pleading for human compassion, asking why she seems to care so little about what people are doing to him. No part of Jimmy's anger, hate, love, sentimentality is explicable in terms of selfindulgence. And even that is a shallow fickle thing that is


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

dependent upon the waywardness and versatility of his ability to talk himself into one posture or another. There is no surer evidence of this than in the famous speech about his dying father, hailed by many as an example of an underlying sensitivity and vulnerability in the anger, deprived, perturbed spirit of Jimmy porter. In truth, what is remarkable about the speech is not any revelation of the deeper soul of porter, but of the utter shallowness of his response. The language as it grows more rhetorical turns on the sentimentality, and as this proceeds, the object of the speech turns away from the dying father to Jimmy himself. He has talked himself into being a victim: “Every time I sat on the edge of his bed, to listen to him talking or reading to me, I had to fight back my tears. At the end of twelve months, I was a veteran. All that feverish failure of a man had to listen to him was a small, frightened boy. I spent hour upon hour in that tiny bedroom. He would talk to me for hours, pouring out all that was left of his to one, lonely, bewildered little boy, how could barely understand half of what he said. All he could feel was the despair and the bitterness, the sweet, sickly smell of a dying man. You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it.” Having given Alison everything, he indirectly asks her to respond and grant him the care and affection he so desperately needs. Jimmy can not bear the thought that he may end his days in the same way as his father. This is his plea. Is there not something wrong with a society which permits such a death and comfortably goes about its everyday life? Can society make people so unfeeling? It is in this sense that Look Back in Anger is a play

Look Back in Anger


about people, about human relationships. In his ranting speeches Jimmy pours his anger on everything. He abuses his wife and his friend for having no beliefs, no conviction, no enthusiasms. But his targets are not consistent. He lashes at Cliff both for not reading the new Statesman and for reading it; he taunts his wife with her education and Cliff with his ignorance. He asks Alison and Cliff: “Did you read Priestley's piece this week? Why on earth I ask I don't know. I know damned well you haven't. Why do I spend nine pence on that damned paper every week? Nobody reads it except me. Nobody can be bothered. No one can raise themselves out of their delicious sloth.” He insults them continuously and expresses his suspicious view of life and existence through his criticism upon his wife and his friend in long ceaseless speeches: “You two will drive me round the bend soon. I know it, as sure as I’m here. I know you’re going to drive me mad. Oh, heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm.” The principle sufferer from all this is his wife Alison, whom he cannot forgive for her upper-middle-class background and whom he constantly torments in order to extract some reaction from. She stands for the whole day at the ironing-board, smoothing trousers, shirts, ties, while he insults her. His complaints against are endless. He resents her because she has tried to keep some of her friends, she still has her old social smartness, she still writes letters to her mother and Jimmy considers this as conspiracy and betrayal. He says to Cliff: When she goes out, I go through everything—


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

trunks, cases, drawers, bookcases, everything. Why? To see if there is something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed … Only because I’m pretty certain of finding it. Look at that! Oh, I’m such a fool. This is happening every five minutes of the day. She gets letters. Letters from her mother, letters in which I’m not mentioned at all because my name is a dirty word. And what does she do? She writes long letters back to Mummy, and never mentions me at all, because I’m just a dirty world to her, too.

So the endless tirade goes on but she says nothing and does nothing reply but goes on “ironing, ironing, with a look of blanched sorrow on her face, which is white and exhausted as if after a hundred sleepless nights, tormented by a hundred ceaseless headaches.” Alison is unable to react and take the steps which would probably save her marriage and her husband. She remains indifferent to both Jimmy’s attacks and his pleas, for in being so, she is able to keep something at the earlier “self” which irritates Jimmy so much. The only thing that she says is that the only thing that she wants is only peace, a little peace. Alison hardly deserves such treatment, but we appreciate how Jimmy has been pressured by the forces of society to take it out on her. It is her lack of response and affection toward Jimmy which causes him to treat her so badly. Jimmy is neither black nor white he is capable of the full range of emotions but no one seems interested. His disaccord with his wife stems from the fact that he blames her for a similar lack of interest. In attempting to hurt his wife he outrages every decency of love and of life itself, the certainty of his moral mission to her

Look Back in Anger


merely justifying every savagery of tone and mood he can command. All of this goes with a peculiar sensitivity to shock on his own part. He can accept neither life nor death with ease. The sound of church bells torments him with the thought of possible worlds other than his own. When the church bells start ringing he shouts: Oh, hell! Now the bloody bells have started! (He rushes to the window.) Warp it up, will you? Stop ringing those bells! There’s somebody going crazy in here! I don’t want to hear them!

Jimmy shouts and shows his reaction to the sound of the bells. In Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie there is a scene when Tom has come back from a late night show. There is deep voiced bell in the Church telling the hour five. After each sudden bell he shakes a little noisemaker to express “the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty.” The forceful mighty voice of the bell goes deep down through each cell of this frustrated young man. His response to the dignity of the Almighty is perhaps insignificant and “tiny” but it is expressed similarly in Jimmy’s reaction to the church bells. Through such a reaction Osborne shows us the decline of religious belief. He tries to draw our attention to the fact that the established churches have failed in their task. Jimmy’s outburst is a plea for more religion, not less, real religion, not the imitation we accept. Osborne conveys this message also by other characters. At the beginning of Act I, Cliff reads to Jimmy and Alison from the Sunday papers a statement of the Bishop concerning an appeal to all Christians to do all they can to assist


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

the manufacture of the H-bomb. Here Osborne’s language presents an ironical contrast of peaceful religious profession and alienated practice. Jimmy retorts that Bishop Bromley denies the difference of class distinctions, but acts differently. Here Osborne is implying through his character that true human existence is denied by class distinction. In this same dialogue, Jimmy relates further an American woman at an Evangelistic meeting “broke four ribs and got kicked in the head,” which implies an ironical contrast between professed love and the dehumanization of organized religion. Other elements that show us the decline of religious belief are choosing of Sunday instead of other days of the week for the time of the play. Sunday is the day of praying, but in the play the family is at home not in Church. It sarcastically emphasizes the decline of religious belief. Jimmy says: God, how […] Sunday! It’s always so depressing, always the same. We never seem to get any farther, do we? Always the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing. A few more hours, and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away. Do you know that?

Jimmy is a sort of man who needs, but is too proud to demand, absolute devotion. He needs it all the more from Alison because she comes from the sort of upper-class family which he, as a good socialist, despises as useless and effete and which at the same time he envies and resents because he knows that it look down on him. In order to possess her, he had to marry her and submit to the conventionality that he hates. His attitude is perfectly presented in Alison’s description of his reaction to her

Look Back in Anger


virginity: “afterwards, he actually taunted me with virginity. He was quite angry about it, as if I had deceived him in some strange way. He seemed to think that an untouched woman would defile him.” One of the reasons for Jimmy’s abuses is that he feels that Alison has betrayed him by coming over to him in marriage while remaining mentally and spiritually in the world of her parents. In a sense he is right, as her habits of thought when she leaves him, and even more when she discusses him with her father, makes clear. She has responded to physical love, but not offered it. Her attitude is more obvious when her father says: Colonel: I don’t know. We were all to blame, in our different ways. No doubt Jimmy acted in good faith. He’s honest enough, whatever else he may be. And your mother—in her heavy-handed way you put it— acted in good faith as well. Perhaps you and I were the ones most to blame. Alison: you and I Colonel: I think you may take after me a little, my dear. You like to sit on the fence because it’s comfortable and more peaceful. Alison: Sitting on the fence I married him, didn’t I.

But this defense dose not convince even her father, who sees as clearly as Jimmy that she has never given herself to her husband with the honesty which she knows he demands and needs. There is a love and hate relationship between Jimmy and Alison. Jimmy angrily pours his taunts on her. Without any knowledge of her pregnancy he aggressively criticizes her: If only something –something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognizable human face emerge from that little mass of India rubber wrinkles. Place –if only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognizable human being yourself but I doubt it.

The climax of his anger has no bound. In his outburst of anger we hear that he wants “the front seat” to witness Alison miserable, groveling … and lost: I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing. I want to be there when you grovel. I want to be there, I want to watch it, I want the front seat. I want to see your face rubbed in the mud—that’s all I can hope for. There’s nothing else I want any longer.

Eventually Alison feels that she can not bear any more and leaves him. But she comes back and he finds that she has borne and lost a baby. She comes back heart-broken, groveling and suffering. Now she may understand him better. There is a certain awareness in her words: I was wrong, I was wrong! I don’t want to be neutral, I don’t want to be a saint. I want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile! Don’t you understand? It’s gone! It’s gone! That –that helpless human being inside my body. I thought it was so safe, and secure in there. Nothing could take it from me. It was mine, my responsibility. But it’s lost. All I wanted was to die. I never knew what it was like. I didn’t know it could be like that! I was in pain, and all I could think of was you, and what I’d lost. I thought, if only—if only he could see me now, so stupid, and ugly and ridiculous. This is what he’s

Look Back in Anger


been longing for me to feel. This is what he wants to splash about in! I’m in the fire, and I’m burning, and all I want is to die! It’s cost him his child, and any others I might have had! But what does it matters? This is what he wanted from me! Don’t you see! I’m in the mud at last! I’m groveling! I’m crawling!

This is the outcome of her miserable married life. And it shows her disintegration. Now Jimmy finds her quite acceptable. Jimmy confronts her real suffering and degradation and the appalling knowledge that this is what, in his anger, he has been demanding of her. This seems to awaken him. Alison herself, having really suffered, and then comes back, can be considered to have realized her own defects, and to have returned with a deeper commitment to Jimmy’s love. They unite and revert to the bears and squirrels game as a refuge from a world which sets “cruel steel traps” for its animals. The significance of the game of bears and squirrels has already been explained by Alison. She tells Helena: It was the one way of escaping from everything a sort of unholy priest-hole of being animals to one another. We could become little furry creatures with little furry brains; full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other, playful, careless creatures in their own cozy zoo for two; a silly symphony for people who couldn’t bear the pain of being human beings any longer.

Only by consciously accepting a life-lie, by nurturing the fantasy of comfort and by playing at love; can they go on, with no guarantee of freedom from further pain. There is no tragedy but


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

no triumph either. Just these people trying to live, learning that “men live and they are not happy.” When Alison leaves Jimmy, her place is taken by her friend Helena. She is an actress who is middle-class not by birth, but by instinct and conviction, and this is why she is disruptive to Jimmy both when she conspires against him, and when she seduces him. This is also why she can never really hurt him as Alison can. She interferes with his marriage for Alison’s good, since she honestly thinks that Alison will be better out of this madhouse. She does not allow Jimmy to question her values, so he can never think that she betrays him. When Helena leaves him, he is resigned rather than angry and he is hurt personally but not at the level of his ideals. Jimmy is a person who seeks from women far more than he could ever hope to get from them, and when he is disappointed turns on them with savage resentment. When Helena leaves he says: They all want to escape from the pain of being alive. And most of all, from love. I always knew something like this would turn up—some problem, like an ill wife and it would be too much for those delicate, hot-house feelings of yours. It’s no good trying to fool yourself about love. You can’t fall into it like a soft job, without dirtying up your hands. It takes muscle and guts. And if you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, clean soul—you’d better give up the whole idea of life, and become a saint because you’ll never make it as a human being. It’s either this world nor the next.

In fact Helena is withdrawing in favor of Alison, Jimmy’s lawful wife. And she says she can not bear taking part in all this

Look Back in Anger


suffering. She believes that her affair is sinful, and “terribly wrong” and she tells Alison that she knows that in the end Alison has all the rights. The other two characters of the play are Cliff and Alison’s father, Colonel-Cliff who keeps the sweet-stall with Jimmy as a light-weight character, whose significance, as John Mander believes, “might have been heightened, perhaps if the serious, self-improving side of his character had been developed further.” At the beginning of the play when Jimmy taunts him for his ignorance, he says “I’m trying to better myself.” But at the end when he sees that he can not improve himself, he decides to leave Jimmy and tells him; “I’ve just thought of trying somewhere different. The sweet-stall’s all right but I think I’d like to try something else. You’re highly educated, and it suits you, but I need something a bit better.” The situation has become unbearable to Cliff and he tells Jimmy he must leave. Unable to prevent this departure, Jimmy bemoans his betrayal of his friend, hating himself for letting a woman bleed him to death and knowing that Helena is incapable of giving him what he wants. In fact Jimmy’s friendship with Cliff seems much warmer and real than his relationship with either of the women. When Cliff announces his departure Jimmy replies: “It’s a funny thing. You’ve been loyal, generous and a good friend. But I’m quite prepared to see you wander off, find a new home; and make out on your own.” Later he tells Helena about him: He’s a sloppy, irritating bastard, but he’s got a big heart. You can forgive somebody almost anything


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

for that. He’s had to learn how to take it, and he knows how to hand it out.

The other character is Colonel who has an independent existence like Jimmy. Alison says she thinks that in spite of everything Jimmy rather likes him, though he is obviously in many ways the representative of everything Jimmy is against. And the reason for this is clear enough, because at least Alison’s father’s generation knew where they were, what standards ruled their lives and what was their duty, they had causes to die for and even if they were wrong they had a certain dignity. On the whole Look Back in Anger is a play about people not necessarily about ideas, and what matters is not that Jimmy is a study of contradictions but that Osborne has managed to make him into a convincing dramatic representation of a complex human being, and one who felt that the world of today was not treating them according to their deservs. Jimmy Porter is an energetic, vital young man, but he does not criticize simply for the sake of criticizing, behind his anger is a strong desire to establish a better world. His behavior in the play demands that the audience question values which they blindly accept as beyond question. While the older generation thought that their beliefs were being savaged, the younger generation feels that at last their opinions are being aired. In other words, Look Back in Anger involves people. It does not attempt to provide them with any answer(s), but to state the problem(s). Jimmy Porter seeks a system of values which will enable him to belong, he is unable to accept the traditional values of his society, and refuses to meekly accept his lot, and he is determined to break down the cruel insensitivity of

Look Back in Anger


“the establishment.” The play is creative in the sense that it makes obvious the need for greater opportunity of achievement than that provided by the “irresponsible society” Jimmy finds himself living in. He is a human worthy of more than what he is offered. Look Back in Anger, then, is more than a play of social protest. It is a virtual compendium of urgent mid-century concerns: isolation and alienation, no communication, the death of ideals and the vanishing of heroism, identity crisis and the disintegration of the self, the struggle for authenticity within the technological exposition, the confrontation of nothingness, and the uselessness of awareness for changing a cruel world.

WAITING FOR GODOT By Samuel Becket In Waiting for Godot the feeling of uncertainty produces the ebb and flow of this uncertainty from the hope of discovering the identity of Godot to its repeated disappointment. Beckett’s plays lack plot. Estragon presents his intuition of human condition by a method that is essentially polyphonic. Waiting for Godot does not tell a story. It explores a static situation. The dialogues have the peculiar repetitive quality of the cross-talk comedian’s patter. The two characters have complementary personalities. Vladimir is the more practical of the two and Estragon claims to have been a poet. He is volatile and Vladimir persistent. Estragon dreams and has stinking feet but Vladimir has stinking breath. Estragon likes tilling funny stories and he tends to forget the past as soon as it has happened but Vladimir remembers the past. He is hopeful for Godot’s coming but Estragon is skeptical through out and times even forgets Godot’s name. Estragon is the weaker of the two and Vladimir acts as his protector, sings him to sleep with lullaby. Pozzo and Lucky’s relationship is a more primitive one. Pozzo is a sadistic master, Lucky the submissive. Pozzo is rich, powerful and certain of himself; he represents the worldly man in all his facile and short sighted optimism and illusory feeling of power and permanence. Lucky taught Pozzo all higher values of life “beauty, grace, truth of first water.” Pozzo and Lucky represent the relationship between body


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and mind, the material and spiritual sides of man where intellect subordinates to the appetites of the body. Godot is the weak end form of the word God. Charles = Charlot and there is such a character in a play by Balzac. A character much talked about but never seen called Godeay, Godot is meant to suggest the intervention of supernatural agency or he stands for the mythical human being whose arrival is expected to change the situation or both of these possibilities combined; his nature is of secondary importance. The subject of the play is not Godot but waiting. It is in the act of waiting that the flow of time is experienced. Waiting is to experience the action of time, which is constant change and the change in itself is an illusion. Still Vladimir and Estragon live in hope, and they wait for Godot, whose coming will bring the flow of time to stop.

As Becket refers to, it is the uncertainty of hope of salvation which is based on the allusion to two thieves in writing of St. Agustin. Godot himself is unpredictable and his treatment of the boys who mind his goats and sheep is an allusion to Cain and Able: there too the Lord’s grace fell on one rather than on the other without any rational explanation. Here Godot acts contrary to the Son of Man at the Last Judgment: “And he shall see the sheep on his right hand. But the goats on the left.” Implied one notices the idea of the division of mankind into those that will be saved and those will be damned, which suggests that Pozzo’s activity is concerned with his frantic attempt to draw that fifty, fifty chance of salvation upon himself. Suicide remains their favorite solution though unattainable owing to their own incompetence and their lack of practical tools

Waiting for Godot


to achieve it. In support of the Christian interpretation it can be argued that Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for Godot are shown as clearly superior to Pozzo and Lucky who have no appointment, no objective and are wholly egocentric. Vladimir and Estragon are superior to Pozzo and Lucky because they are aware that suicide would be the best solution, they are less self centered and have fewer illusions. Vladimir is aware of the full horror of the human condition: “The air is full of our cries, … but habit is a great deadener.” The routine of Waiting For Godot stands but fruitful awareness of the full reality of being. “We are in no danger of thin king any more thinking in not worst what is terrible is and individuality is real matter. Pozzo, Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon are not characters, but the embodiments of basic human conditions and attitudes rather like the personified virtues and vices in medieval mystery plays and what is noticeable in the play is not events but types of situation that will forever repeat themselves. Verbal contradiction dominates the play. They range from simple misunderstanding and double intenders to monologues and clichés. Repetition of synonyms, inability to find the right words and telegraphic style to Lucky’s chaotic nonsense and the dropping of punctuation marks, such as question marks as an indication that language has lost its function as a means for communication, that questions have turned into statements not really requiring an answer. Beckett’s use of language is designed for developing language as a vehicle of conceptual thought or as an instrument for communication. Lucky’s speech is any thing but a parody of Joyce’s style. It is a parody of philosophical Jargon and scientific soluble talk the very opposite of what either Joyce


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

or Beckett ever wanted to achieve in their writing. Pozzo who would stand for Joyce is a search first persona; Becket’s entire work is a search for the reality that lies behind more reasoning. He may have devaluated language as an instrument for the communication of ultimate truths. Things happen in Waiting For Godot, but those happings do not constitute a plot or story. They are images of Beckett’s intuition that “Nothing really ever happen in man’s existence.” The structure of Waiting for Godot rests upon the relationship between image and action. Image is a paradigm for the play’s initial ontology and finding a new being. The crucial actions are the inverse of traditional dramatic progression. As organizing principles, image and action do not produce theatrical development, but they compose situation, i. e. a locus of relationships. In the beginning of Godot, it is the fusion of abstract and sensual within the image that is the model both for what is related (content) and how it is related (style). As content, Becket uses the image’s fusion of abstract and sensual to construct the possibility of coupling the expression of existence (the sensual) with an expression of it (the abstract). As style, the image conveys the play’s content through its two elements: abstractly, through the use of allusion to various literary, religious, and philosophical systems, and sensually, through the evocation of emotion. Beckett’s choice of genre extends this paradigm, for the theater fuses language and gesture, idea and ritual, thus creating itself by both the abstract and the sensual. The play then, imitates the image by fusing the same two elements in the same way. This

Waiting for Godot


organization constitutes the over-all order of the play as well as the order of each element in the play. For example, the relation of place to play is not to function as geographic space, nor primarily to ground an event. Place is a structural unit imitative of the image in its gesture to system and in its emotional effect upon the audience. The road gestures to the epic sense and all of the forms that it conjures: journey, trial, and transcendence. In any comic or burlesque act, there are two characters, traditionally known as the “straight man” and the “fall guy.” Vladimir would be the equivalent of the straight man. He is also the intellectual who is concerned with a variety of ideas. Of the two, Vladimir makes the decisions and remembers significant aspects of their past. He is the one who constantly reminds Estragon that they must wait for Godot. Even though it is left indefinite, all implications suggest that Vladimir knows more about Godot than does Estragon, who tells us that he has never even seen Godot and thus has no idea what Godot looks like. Vladimir is the one who often sees religious or philosophical implications in their discussions of events, and he interprets their actions in religious terms; for example, he is concerned the religious implications in such stories as the two thieves (two tramps) who were crucified on either side of Jesus. He is troubled about the fate of the thief who wasn’t saved and is concerned that “only one of the four evangelists” speaks of a thief being saved. Vladimir correlates some of their actions to the general concerns of mankind. In Act II, when Pozzo and Lucky fall down


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and cry for help, Vladimir interprets their cries for help as his and Estragon’s chance to be in a unique position of helping humanity. After all, Vladimir maintains, “it is not everyday that we are needed … but at his place, at this moment in time;” they are needed and should respond to the cries for help. Similarly, it is Vladimir who questions Pozzo and Lucky and the Boy Messenger(s), while Estragon remains, for the most part, the silent listener. Essentially, Vladimir must constantly remind Estragon of their destiny—that is, they must wait for Godot. In addition to the larger needs, Vladimir also looks after their physical needs. He helps Estragon with his boots, and, moreover, had he been with Estragon at night, he would not have allowed his friend to be beaten; also, he looks after and rations their meager meals of turnips, carrots, and radishes, and, in general, he tends to be the manager of the two. In contrast, Estragon is concerned mainly with more mundane matters: he prefers a carrot to a radish or turnip, his feet hurt, and he blames his boots; he constantly wants to leave, and it must be drilled into him that he must wait for Godot. He remembers that he was beaten, but he sees no philosophical significance in the beating. He is willing to beg for money from a stranger (Pozzo), and he eats Pozzo’s discarded chicken bones with no shame. Estragon, then, is the more basic of the two. He is not concerned with either religious or philosophical matters. First of all, he has never even heard of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, and if the Gospels do disagree, then “that’s all there is to it,” and any further discussion is futile and absurd.

Waiting for Godot


Estragon, however, is dependent upon Vladimir, and essentially he performs what Vladimir tells him to do. For example, Vladimir looks after Estragon’s boots, and rations out the carrots, turnips, and radishes; he comforts Estragon’s pain, and he reminds Estragon of their need to wait for Godot. Estragon does sometimes suggest that it would be better if they parted, but he never leaves Vladimir for long. Essentially, Estragon is the less intelligent one; he has to have everything explained to him, and he is essentially so bewildered by life that he has to have someone to look after him. Together Pozzo and Lucky represent the antithesis of each other. Yet they are strongly and irrevocably tied together—both physically and metaphysically. Any number of polarities could be used to apply to them. If Pozzo is the circus ringmaster, then Lucky is the trained or performing animal. If Pozzo is the sadist, Lucky is the masochist. Or Pozzo can be seen as the Ego and Lucky as the Id. An inexhaustible number of polarities can be suggested. Pozzo appears on stage after the appearance of Lucky. They are tied together by a long rope; thus, their destinies are fixed together in the same way that Pozzo might be a mother figure, with the rope being the umbilical cord which ties the two together. Everything about Pozzo resembles our image of the circus ringmaster. If the ringmaster is the chief person of the circus, then it is no wonder that Vladimir and Estragon first mistook him for Godot or God. Like a ringmaster, he arrives brandishing a whip, which is the trademark of the professional. In fact, we hear the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

cracking of Pozzo’s whip before we actually see him. Also, a stool is often associated with an animal terms or names. Basically, Pozzo commands and Lucky obeys. In the first act, Pozzo is immediately seen in terms of this authoritarian figure. He lords over the others, and he is decisive, powerful, and confident. He gives the illusion that he knows exactly where he is going and exactly how to get there. He seems on top of every situation. When he arrives on the scene and sees Vladimir and Estragon, he recognizes them as human, but as inferior beings; then he condescendingly acknowledges that there is a human likeness, even though the “likeness is an imperfect one.” This image reinforces his authoritarian god-like stance: we are made in God’s image but imperfectly so. Pozzo’s superiority is also seen in the manner in which he eats the chicken, then casts the bones to Lucky with an air of complete omnipotence. In contrast to the towering presence exhibited by Pozzo in Act I, a significant change occurs between the two acts. The rope is shortened, drawing Pozzo much closer to his antithesis, Lucky. Pozzo is now blind; he cannot find his way alone. He stumbles and falls. He cannot get along without help; he is pathetic. He can no longer command. Rather than driving Lucky as he did earlier, he is now pathetically dragged along by Lucky. From a position of omnipotence and strength and confidence, he has fallen and has become the complete fallen man who maintains that time is irrelevant and that man’s existence is meaningless. Unlike the great blind prophets of yore who could see everything, for Pozzo “the things of time are hidden from the blind.” Ultimately, for

Waiting for Godot


Pozzo, man’s existence is discomforting and futile, depressing, and gloomy and, most of all, brief and to no purpose. The gravedigger is the midwife of mankind: “They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” As noted above, Lucky is the obvious antithesis of Pozzo. At one point, Pozzo maintains that Lucky’s entire existence is based upon pleasing him; that is, Lucky’s enslavement is his meaning, and if he is ever freed, his life would cease to have any significance. Given Lucky’s state of existence, his very name “Lucky” is ironic, especially since Vladimir observes that even “old dogs have more dignity.” All of Lucky’s actions seem unpredictable. In Act I, when Estragon attempts to help him, Lucky becomes violent and kicks him on the leg. When he is later expected to dance, his movements are an ungraceful and alien to the concept of dance no one can possibly conceive. We have seldom encountered such ignorance; consequently, when he is expected to give a coherent speech, we are still surprised by his almost total incoherence. Lucky seems to be more animal than human, and his very existence in the drama is a parody of human existence. In Act II, when he arrives completely dumb, it is only a fitting extension of his condition in Act I, where his speech was virtually incomprehensible. Now he makes no attempt to utter any sound at all. Whatever part of man that Lucky represents, we can make the general observation that he, as man, is reduced to leading the blind, not by intellect, but by blind instinct.

BLOOD WEDDING By Federico Garcia Lorca To talk about this play vividly, we should divide it into two main parts: Theatrical devices, Tradition and morality. Theatrical devices can be considered as the synthesis of reality, poetry and symbols. Through these devices the writer expands the meaning of this folk tragedy. By reality we mean a vivid characterization which has been developed through the drama. The bridegroom’s mother always lives in commotion, so she is considered as an anguished woman. She has lost her husband and her elder son in a battle, so she always expects tragedy. Since tradition has penetrated her mind she searches for her identity within it, so she pursues the family destiny. The bridegroom is said to be a likeable, sensitive, but hesitant, perhaps frightened by his pending marriage to a woman who is more strong willed and passionate than he. But it seems he is a more simple man who lives based on accepted tradition. He always obeys his mother’s orders and thoughts resolutely: Mother: While you live, you have to fight. Bridegroom: I’ll always obey you.

He has grown to spread the seeds over the land in order to expand his family. The bride is a hesitant girl. She loves Leonardo and likes to marry the Bridegroom. When the servant accuses her of letting Leonardo come and meet her, she cannot reject it.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Bride: Who was it? Servant: It was Leonardo. Bride: Liar, you liar why should he come here? Servant: He came. Bride: Shut up, I shut your cursed mouth

(the sound of a horse is heard) Servant (At the window): Look lean out, was it Leonardo? Bride: It was I.

But when the Bridegroom and his mother arrived to woo her although she loved Leonardo she said she would like to marry the Bridegroom. Bridegroom’s mother: Come here, Are you happy? Bride: Yes senora. Father: You shouldn’t be so solemn. After all, she’s Going to be your mother. Bride: I’m happy, I have said “Yes” because I wanted to.

She really tries to shut the world out of her life. Bride: let’s go to the church quickly. Bridegroom: Are you in a hurry? Bride: Yes I want to be your wife right now, so that I can be with you alone, not hearing any voice but yours. Bridegroom: That’s what I want. Bride: And not seeing any eyes but yours, and for you to hug me so hard, that even though my dead mother should call me. I wouldn’t be able to draw away from you.

But a stronger power as she indicated later doesn’t let her keep her emotion under control. Bride: I was a woman burring with desire full of

Blood Wedding


sores inside and out, and your son was a little bit of water from which I hoped for children, and, health: but the other one was a dark river, choked with brushes that brought near me undertone of its rushes and its whispered song.

This trouble to bring emotion under control excites fear and pity in the audience. As to Leonardo, he is the only character who is individualized by his own name. He is a passionate volatile and overtly sexual: although he has married and has a child but still he loves the Bride. So he breaks the tradition of the society and runs away with a married woman. It is said that he is individualized by his own name for this great false, but why isn’t the Bride individualized by her own name although she runs away with Leonardo? Some reasons may come to the mind, although they do not seem so acceptable. For example we may say that she was a woman and at that time women were as dolls in the hands of husbands and fathers, so they were not free to make fatal decisions to be individualized. Or it may be said that Leonardo seduced her, but the facts in the drama show something else. When in the forest the Bride changed her mind and said that she would not continue with him (Leonardo), he became angry and said that, it was she who came downstairs, it was she who put bridle on the horse and … Lorca extended this characterization and conflict with the use of poetry and symbols. As G. G. Brown puts it: “The song or lullaby that somebody sings is never a mere ornament, but always


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

serves as a poetic gloss on the action, with symbolic significance that will emerge as the play proceeds.” Through the lullaby which Leonardo’s mother-inlaw says for the child, we are warned of a kind of disastrous adventure which is going to happen. Mother-in-low: “My rose, asleep now lie, The horse is starting to cry His poor hooves were bleeding, His long mean was frozen, and deep In his eyes stuck a silvery dagger. Down he went to the river Oh, down he went down! And his blood was running, Oh, more than the water.” Or “my rose, asleep now lie The horse is starting to cry.”

Through the images such as frozen mane (horse) and “running blood” he foretells of a disastrous event which is going to happen. Frozen horses may refer to Leonardo and Bridegroom’s horses which lead them to fatal destiny. Also the moon disguised as a young woodcutter stands for primal emotion and talks symbolically of blood. So, clearly, we see the synthesis of realistic devices (actions which happen one after the other) with poetic and symbolic ones. Rimond Williams believes that Blood Wedding is a remarkable example of a poetic drama in which imagery and action are fused. Symbols such as “Waste Land” and “Knife” are chosen so that they can serve the main idea of the drama. The Bride and her father live in a Waste Land, the representative of spiritual aridity,

Blood Wedding


death, nihilism, hopelessness and from the other side the conversation between Bridegroom and his mother (at the start of drama) is continued with the word “knife,” the word which is repeated about seven times at the first Page. So integrity of those two sides must logically lead in which she lives and Bridegroom loses his life by the Knife which he inherited from his ancestors. Furthermore the beggar woman is an image of death and degeneration, which is in close contact with previous symbols. Lorca took the story of Blood Wedding from a newspaper report, (like Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter). As we see within the Drama, much of the language and some of the poetry are called from the folklore of his native region. But as some critics believe the drama gets its power from the way Lorca combined the article devices with simple dramatic situation. As G. G. Brown puts it “this difficult combination is obviously also the aim of his tragedies. Ordinary Villagers are transformed into archetypal figures, usually without personal names, personifying elemental attractions, revulsions and incompatibility which are not necessarily confined to Andalusia, the characters, nature, desires and fears are expressed and emphasized by an elaborate apparatus of symbols”. The writer’s great suffering from rejected tradition which has penetrated the mind of individuals so deeply can be deciphered through the very techniques which we talked about so far. When the Bridegroom’s mother says, “Men are like the wind! They’re forced to handle weapons,” she means that they are to obey their destiny all the same. They are not free to think.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

“He’s (Bridegroom) of good seed.” The identity has been determined based on the seed. So everybody should search for identity in the idea of ancestors. The Bridegroom’s talk make it clear vividly: “Do you see this arm? Well, it’s not my arm. It’s my brother’s arm, and my father’s and that of all dead ones in my family.” So such a power of course leads to corruption. Destiny is an inevitable, and accepted reality specially when man cannot pursue a logical way to solve his problems: Neighbors: “with a knife, with a little knife on their appointed day, between two and three, these two men killed each other of love.” As Luei Paro in an introduction to Blood Wedding puts it “there are men who pursue death to fulfill the delusive destiny, and they all should be sacrificed to cover the passing of blood.” What can be concluded here is that this degeneration is not the result of one of the mentioned elements by itself, but the combination of all deficiencies in human mind or nature which can be counted as follows: 1. Hesitation (Bride) 2. Passion (Leonardo) 3. Obeying rejected tradition (Bridegroom’s mother) 4. Physical power as the only way for solving problems (Bridegroom) The most important point which can be deciphered is “lack of though.” Neither of these characters has the ability of thinking. In other words, they are not trained to ponder to find a way to solve their problems.

Blood Wedding


Lorca’s fame among other writers is not only for his great suffering from rejected tradition which had preserved its domination over the mind of people, but for the very techniques he used in this drama. We can not find a direct moral word, or any social or political view point explicitly within the play. As Haskel M. Block puts it “Lorca was a satirist of the regime, although there is not the slightest support for this view within the only.” But each of us, based on our capability and our literary training, can see ourselves in the mirror of the work of art. This is the reason why it is considered as a great drama. Blood Wedding is a tragedy of violence resulting from a conflict as old as civilization –the conflict between raw passion and convention; or perhaps one might broaden the range of his description and say the conflict between raw passion and civilization itself. Civilization implies (among other things materialistic concerns, the importance of fidelity, chastity, and honor, respect for tradition, and, particularly in certain localities, a strong belief in the importance of breeding, of “blood.” All these qualities are reflected in Blood Wedding. The Bride has earlier rejected Leonardo because “two oxen and a hut are almost nothing” and tradition requires that money marry money; Leonardo’s infidelity to his wife is a contributing cause to his downfall; the Bride holds her chastity dear even when she has nothing else left, and her sense of honor makes her beg for death at the hands of the Mother because she has defied another tradition by eloping with her layer on her wedding night; and both the Bride and Leonardo have “bad blood.” The Bride,


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

presumably, has inherited hers from her beautiful mother who did not have her father –although mitigating circumstances are suggested here—and the Felixs are a family of killers. The central conflict, however, is not the only conflict in the play. The Mother suffers internal conflict because, on the one hand, she wants her son to marry and provide her with grandchildren to take the place of the children killed in the feud with the Felix family, while on the other hand she dislikes being left alone by her son, whom she dominates. The Bride’s internal conflict derives from her natural passion for Leonardo, who is married and a father, and her desire to settle down with the Bridegroom, a worthy prosperous man who would be a fine father for her children. In this connection one should note that Leonardo is symbolized by the virile horse and the Bridegroom by water— the latter a double symbol because water is “weak” (we often use the phrase “weak as water”), but it is also a classic symbol of the preventative life force. Leonardo also is filled with an internal conflict. He is a proud man who resents the fact that the Bride had rejected him three years earlier because of his poverty; he feels a sense of responsibility toward his wife and child; but his passion for the girl who rejected him is relentless. Leonardo, however, is not the protagonist of the play, even though his being the only person named might make a reader think him so. Nor, despite the suffering that she undergoes, is the Bride the protagonist. By a process of elimination, then –since the play has only three dynamic characters—this distinction may be accorded to the Mother, the greatest sufferer of all; and Leonardo,

Blood Wedding


as representative of the whole Felix family (ironically named, for Felix in Latin means happy), is the antagonist. Leonardo’s passion, which arrays him against the society, gives him a personal force that justifies his being named. The Mother battles against all the oppressive forces that surround her, and ultimately, she wins her battle. She will remain where she is hating “the knife” and all it symbolizes, but “in paces.” Henceforth she will “sleep without terror.” Her victory is negative; it is ironic; but it is a victory, the only victory in a tragedy of defeat. The playwright’s use of prose, verse dialogue, and song is cunningly contrived. By a careful melding of the three, he manages to combine realistic effects (in the prose passage), effects suggestive of Shakespearean tragedy (as in the verse dialogue used in the passionate love scene between Leonardo and the Bride in act 3, scene 1) and (in other instances of verse dialogue and in the songs) the expository function of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. The symbols employed by Lorca in Blood Wedding are almost innumerable and have occasioned learned comments by various scholars –but too much delving into the symbolism is likely to obscure the main point of the tragedy: namely, that when the forces of passion (“Oh, it isn’t my fault -/ the fault is the earth’s -/ and this fragrance that you exhale / from your breast and your braids”) are in conflict with the forces of civilization, the latter win out. The “blood wedding” here is a wedding of “bad” blood, and cannot be morally consummated. Of the characteristic of civilization, particularly of the rural Spanish civilization depicted in the play, honor is perhaps the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

most important. It plays a part in all the conflicts presented in Blood Wedding, and it serves as the compulsive force that provides the denouement: for it is “honor” that causes the Mother to urge the Bridegroom to face almost certain death at the hand of Leonardo, the hand that holds the knife.

THE STRONGER By August Strindberg Expressionism is generally applied to the 20th century viewpoint that proclaims the primacy of emotion in all arts. An Expressionist, whether a painter, sculptor, or even an architect, subordinates formal and technical considerations to the communication of intense feelings. Although some critics have taken Expressionism to signify all modern art, it is actually a recurring tendency linked to romanticism and especially congenial to Nordic and Slavic cultures. Modern expressionism in the visual arts, however, can be traced back to developments in France during the 1880’s Toulouse –Lautrec, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, in reaction against impressionism, and deliberately distorted nature for emotional and symbolic purposes. Van Gogh’s statement that it was the artist’s duty to paint “the fundamental emotion, joy, sorrow, anger, and fear,” became the basic tenet for all subsequent expressionist effects. At the same time, but influenced by developments in France, the Norwegian Edward Munch, the Belgian James Ensor, and the Swiss Ferdinand Holder created images of unusual psychological and spiritual forces. Throughout Europe and in all areas of culture, realities were passionately rejected. For inspiration, artists turned to the highly expressive painting of Grunewald and EL Greece, to primitive and folk arts, and to the work of children and the insane. Around 1905, groups began to form that could be called Expressionist. The first, the Fauves (Wild Beasts), was French


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

and under the leadership of Matisse. But of the Fauves, only Rouault worked consistently as an expressionist producing some of the most moving religious art of the period. By 1909, Fauves in France had been superseded by the more formal approaches of Cubism. In Germany, however, expressionism became so important that it mushroomed into a world outlook covering a variety of religious, revolutionary and nationalistic aspirations. Expressionism in literature, as in art, was an attempt to widen the frontiers of aesthetic consciousness by exploring aspects of a mind unaccounted for by realism or naturalism. Exterior forms, so important in 19th century literature, were suppressed in favor of subconscious and the unconscious mind. The term “expressionism” was first used to describe the world of painters who departed from the values and techniques of the impressionists but it was soon extended to describe a variety of experimental techniques in all arts. Expressionist writers often distorted objects and actions from the outer world in order to represent them as they appeared in the inner mind. In such works the individual often emerged as the victim of a nightmarish industrial society. Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was a major influence on the new aesthetic, as were Einstein’s theory of relativity, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the philosophy of Henri Bergson. The Swedish writer August Strindberg is generally recognized as the first expressionist playwright. Expressionism in music is a 20th century movement that seeks to give artistic shape to inner, often subconscious states of mind. Expressionist composers portray inner torment and conflict as well as a music of extreme intensity and wild macabre content. The play The Stronger has been written by August

The Stronger


Strindberg. Strindberg was married three times. His first wife was the Swedish actress Sirivon Essen (married 1878, divorced in the 1880s); his second wife was the Austrian author Frida Uhi (married 1893; divorced 1896), his third wife was the Swedish actress, Harriet Boss (married 1901; divorced 1904). Strindberg lived in Switzerland much of the time and was active as a socialist with revolutionary tendencies. His belief was that the economic and social conditions of the age were constantly driving women into an increasingly selfish and immoral position. He showed violent hatred towards woman in general. By 1890, Strindberg had completely passed out of his socialistic stage and into that of anarchic individualism, in which he was strongly influenced by Nietzsche. The Stronger is about many aspects of two ladies, Mrs. X who is a married actress, and Miss Y, an actress, unmarried. At the beginning of the play Mrs. X for extension of her speech refers to Miss Y and tells her that she is very sorry to see her sit alone here in the Christmas Eve in the café. Continuing her speeches she tells her, “you must forgive your fiancé. At present you must have husband, home and children.” Mrs. X for declaring her disgust to Miss Y thus continues, when I was touring in Norway that brazen Fredrika came and wanted to seduce my husband, I’d have torn her eyes out, Fredrika wasn’t the only one; I don’t know why, but the women are crazy about my husband, they must think he has influence about getting them theatrical managements, because he is connected with the government. Perhaps you were after him yourself. I didn’t use to trust you any too much. Here we can see Mrs. X’s anxiety about husband. During her speech Miss Y does not answer her. This form of dialogue without answering is one of the characteristics of the


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

theater of Expressionism. In fact Miss Y tried to seduce Mrs. Bob by using such means as tulips and embodied slippers. Mrs. X found out this matter and tried to change her husband. I am stronger than you because you taught me how to love my husband, how to use those means by which you tried to attract my husband and at last she says; therefore you broke like a dry stalk. But I won’t break; thank you Amelia for all your good lesson, thus you see I am stronger than you. About Mrs. X’s character it can be said that she is a jealous woman who speaks emotionally and releases her emotions. About Miss Y’s character we should say that she does not speak in the play and only with her language and nodding, and with her strange acts answers Mrs. X. This form of performing of the play is also another characteristics of the Expressionism Theater. We can induce her character form Mrs. X talking when she says her ways are indifferent and she is also a personality that tries to attract men because Miss. Y performs ugly and bad deeds. She is isolated and lonely, and this is another characteristic of the Expressionism Theater; it means that a character by doing bad deeds must take revenge from the society. About the theme of the play as Strindberg says, women whose economic and social conditions of the age were constantly driving them into an increasingly selfish and immoral position were noteworthy. Therefore we can say Mrs. X hates Miss. Y and the deeds of Miss Y can be the cause of the poor conditions of their social life. The primary question confronting a reader of Strindberg’s The Stronger is obvious: Who is the stronger, Miss Y or Mrs. X? At first reading Miss Y may seem the stronger. Considerable evidence supports such a conclusion. In the first place we are

The Stronger


conditioned to believe that a person who is capable of remaining wordless in the face of an uncontrolled space of words is both strong and wise. A babbler, especially a female babbler, is supposed inevitably to wind herself into a cocoon of her own words and become entrapped. Thus preconditioned, we need to only reflect that Mrs. X, however unwittingly, has remade herself in limitation of her rival, to become convinced that Miss Y, the rival, is somehow victorious, even though she has lost both her fiancé and the man who formed the apex of the love triangle. When we document the evidence, Miss Y’s position as the true victor—the stronger—seems even more convincing. Mrs. X embroiders tulips (which she hates but which are Miss Y’s favorite flowers) on her husband’s slippers; she accompanies her husband to Lake Malarn (Miss Y hates salt water); her son is named Eskil (the name of Miss Y’s father); she wears Miss Y’s colors, reads her favorite authors, eats her favorite foods, and drinks her favorite drinks. Many a woman realizing, as Mrs. X does in a sudden flash of insight, how powerful Miss Y’s influence has been on her and her life, would acknowledge the superior strength of her adversary. Indeed, for a few moments Mrs. X seems to be making just such an acknowledgement. “I hate you, hate you, hate you!” she cries after a passionate speech revealing her recognition of the true meaning of past circumstances. “I hate you…,” however, does not express Mrs. X’s final position. Her character, indeed, is followed by scornful vituperation: “You only sit there … as quiet as a stork by a rat hole … and dread the papers … to see if someone hasn’t been given notice at the theater.” This gives place to pity: “You are unhappy, unhappy like one who has been wounded.” And pity


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

gives place to triumph: “thank you, Amelia, for all your good lessons. Thanks for teaching my husband how to love. Now I’m going home to love him.” At one point during this swift denouement, Mrs. X says of Miss Y, “You come out the weaker one”; at another point, “I am … the stronger one.” But a bald assertion is not necessarily a statement of fact: Mrs. X has earlier made several statements that were patently not statements of fact; for example, “And you see he’s true to me.” The question, then, presents itself: do we, upon consideration, have to concede that Mrs. Z is, in truth, “the stronger”? An affirmative answer to this question is supported by Mrs. X’s ability to accommodate her discovery. After the point of recognition has been reached, Mrs. X, rapidly progressing reveals that her strength lies in the acceptance of what is valid in her relationship with her husband, and she also recognizes that the delusions of fidelity with which she has comforted herself in the past are only delusions. Strindberg himself, writing to his wife, Siri, who was to play Mrs. A in the opening performance, instructed her how to play Mrs. X as the “stronger; that is to say, the softer.” For, he continued, “the rigid person breaks while the supple person bends, and rises again.”

Bibliography Abbasi, Pyeaam. A Friendly Practical Guide to Literary Schools. Isfahan: Payam-e-Alavi, 2012. Allibone, S. Austin (Samuel Austin). A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and American Authors, Living and Deceased, From the Earliest Account to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century, Containing Over Forty-Six Thousand Articles. Philadelphia: J. B. Lipppincott Company, 1882. Blain , Virginia, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, (eds.). The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. Brustein, R. The Theater of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama. Boston: Little Brown, 1962. Conboy, Sheila C. “Exhibition and Inhibition: The Body Scene in Dubliners.” Twentieth Century Literature. 37. 4 (Winter 1991): 405-419. JSTOR. Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, NY. March 4, 2007. Davis, Walter A. "The Drama of the Psychoanalytic Subject." Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992. Freedom, Mori. Essays on the Modern Drama. Boston: Jeoth Co., 1964. Graham, Walter. English Literary Periodicals. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1930. Howard, Jean E. and Scott Cutler Shershow, (eds.). Marxist Shakespeares. New York: Routledge, 2001. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981. Jameson, Frederick. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1996. Jung, Carl G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. trans. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York, 1933, pp. 156-157.


A Student’s Guide to Some Major Plays

Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. London: Pimlico, 1970. McKay, Claude and Paule Marshall. Cultural Crossings: Migration, Generation, and Gender in Writings by UMI-Ann Arbor, © 1993. Pishkar, Kian. Guide to English Literrature, Tehran: Sib-e-Sorkh, 1379. Pishkar, Kian. Love & Death in Shakespeare’s Major Works. Tehran: 1997. Pishkar, Kian. Guide to Practical English Literary Analysis, Jieroft I. A. U. Press, 2007. Pishkar, Kian. Preparation Course for M. A. E. L. Tehran: Rahnema Press, 1379 Pishkar, Kian. Summary of Basic Courses of English Literature For M .A. Pardazesh, 2006. Purdom, C. B. A Guide to the Plays of G. B. Shaw. New York: Thomas, Y, 1958. Ratner, L. Guide to English Literature, MacGraw Hill, 1985. Rezaei. A. An Introduction to Literature in English. Tehran: Samt Press, 1996. Santuccho, Jose’ Oscar. George Gordon, Lord Byron: A Comprehensive Bibliography of Secondary Materials in English, 1807-1974. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1977. Sokhanvar, J. The Practice of Literary Terminology. Tehran: Samt Press, 1996. Stephen, Sir Leslie, and Sir Sidney Lee, (eds.). The Dictionary of National Biography, founded in 1882 by George Smith. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-22. Valgemea, M. Albee’s Great God Alice. Modern Drama. New york: 1967. Vann, J. Donn, and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, (eds.). Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford UP. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford UP.

‫راهنمای دانشجویی چند‬ ‫نمایشنامه برجسته‬

‫کیان پیشکار‬ ‫پیام عباسی‬

‫دانشگاه اصفهان‬ ‫‪84۳۱‬‬

View more...


Copyright © 2017 ZILADOC Inc.