• Play title: Cock 
  • Author: Mike Bartlett 
  • Published: 2009 
  • Page count: 75


Cock is a comedy by Mike Bartlett. The play was first performed in London in 2009 and starred Ben Whishaw with Andrew Scott. There are a total of four characters in the work: three men and one woman. The only character who is named is John. At first, he is in a long-term relationship with a man but later begins a relationship with a woman. Bartlett focuses on the theme of identity, specifically how one defines their sexuality. The three main characters who are interlinked romantically (M, John, W) are all in their late twenties/early thirties. The playwright depicts the problems of a demographic on the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of the era of Millennials. Sexuality is depicted as a battleground because the idea of choice morphs into an obligation to choose – only then can others comfortably label John’s identity. However, the play is also comedic and has many farcical elements like the dinner party where John’s differently gendered partners fight over him. John displays an inability to define himself to the satisfaction of others, which causes their unending frustration. The play’s dialogues are naturalistic and also peppered with expletives and crude terms. Cock is a modern play and yet seems dated in light of the constant changes to the landscape of sexual politics and terminology.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

It is relatively simple to find an online source of Cock by Mike Bartlett. However, reading the play is not wholly rewarding because most of the dialogue is written as free-flowing, natural conversation with repetitions and an overall lack of punctuation.

I would recommend an audio version. Luckily, there is currently a full audio version of the play on YouTube entitled “Cock by Mike Bartlett”. The running time is 1hr and 23 minutes. The play is voiced by the original London cast.

Why read/listen to Cock?

The male appendage.

The play is entitled ‘cock’ for a reason! Bartlett presents an amusingly reductive approach to sexuality, i.e., one really likes cock or one doesn’t. If you’re a man then liking means gay, and for women, it means heterosexual. The play is not especially concerned with gender performance, it simply looks at sex as being like a Lego set where certain pieces fit with other pieces. What is subsequently constructed is a sexual identity but the liking/disliking of cock is the primary test. The central character, John, hasn’t yet decided what he likes (the most). The playwright satirizes society’s obsessive need to neatly categorize people like John. Bartlett’s play will resonate with an in-between generation of people who span the divide between the old, heteronormative world and the new, label-free world where queerness defies definition, categorization, or restriction.


Bartlett depicts characters and situations which are all archetypes. For example, John’s male partner, simply referred to as “M”, is a stereotype of the controlling, bitchy, camp, gay man. On the other hand, John represents the typical, indecisive ‘bisexual’ male who will take advantage of all sexual opportunities regardless of the gender of the partner. At least this is how M sees John, whom he berates with the line “nice little bit of skirt you picked up you fucking lad” (248). “F” who is M’s father, represents an older generation of men who tolerate modern society but hold vivid memories of how things used to be in the olden days. “W” is John’s girlfriend and she stands for normality in the form of marriage and children and ‘natural’ sexual desires. Regarding situations, the playwright swaps the age-old tale of two men fighting over a woman, to the more modern tale of a man being fought over by his male and female partners. When presented with such archetypal characters and situations then we are gently prompted to dismantle them and find the truth of the situation.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

‘The quite reluctant, almost invisible bisexual’


On first reading Bartlett’s 2009 play, I thought it was dated. Like a newspaper whose inky pages are barely dry before the message is obsolete, Cock also appears to be old news. The reasons for such an opinion take different forms. Part of the problem is context because we live in an era where sexual and gender identities are topics in a constantly evolving debate, most recently it has been on transgender people. Yet, Bartlett presents us, by and large, with simple reversals of normal expectations in regard to a character’s sexuality and such meagre crumbs are used to garner our attention. The chief points of interest in the play are that a gay man realizes he likes sex with a woman, then he comes out as … (fill in the blank), and finally, we are shown how a man and woman fight over (drumroll) a man. A cursory reading of the play suggests that John is simply bisexual but this is hardly the great taboo that the play’s dramatic presentation suggests. Others have also called the play outdated but for different reasons, like Caleb Triscari writing for Beat who took issue with the “misogyny and transphobia present in the dialogue.” Since Cock is a comedy, Bartlett probably deserves some leeway in regard to provocative dialogue but Triscari’s article nonetheless highlights a valid issue for readers. The question remains – is this play dated and mildly offensive or does it actually offer something interesting to a current audience? Is Bartlett merely confronting a very tired and old sexual issue, namely bisexuality, but hiding the staleness of his topic with flashy, comedic fireworks? Like Peggy Lee once drolly sang, “Is that all there is?”.  

One may certainly read John as being a bisexual, however, this is surprisingly not the author’s intention. This single, obstinate fact changes the significance of the play. When Bartlett was questioned on his own sexuality during an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he was apparently evasive. Bartlett went on to say that “The play [Cock] is all about those categorisations. So watch the play and then make a conclusion. But by the end you’ll hopefully go ‘that’s not the point’”. The fact that Bartlett avoids sexual categorization in real life ties in neatly with the message of the play, because as John says, “it’s about who the person is. Not man or woman but What they’re like” (297). This viewpoint corresponds with the familiar saying of “person not parts” (Swan 49) which is quoted in a book entitled Bisexuality that is edited by D. Joye Swan and Shani Habibi. The saying “points to the idea that bisexuality may be more about a refusal to exclude a gender rather than simply the inclusion of males and females in one’s field of possible attractions” (49). However, Bartlett is not using John’s motto to slyly refer to bisexual preference, not at all! When the playwright spoke to the Evening Standard newspaper and was asked– “which [play] brought you the most joy”, then he responded, “My play Cock, about fluid sexuality, seemed to chime with a lot of people and speak about their experiences”. Fluid sexuality suggests a label like queer rather than the more traditional labels of gay or bisexual. In the book, Bisexuality, the authors pose the salient question – “Is bisexuality a fluid process or a stable identity?” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 6) and the answer is, “There appears to be tension between work that proposes that bisexuality is a stable identity and that which proposes a more dynamic, fluid sexuality” (6). Therefore, there is not an outright contradiction between bisexual and fluid sexuality but there is certainly a notable discrepancy. If one looks specifically at sexual fluidity then as Swan writes, “Fluidity, as it is commonly conceptualized, is either the ability to bend one’s sexual orientation in certain, specific, or compelling situations or a change in one’s sexual identity all together” (51). Is this how Bartlett wishes us to see John’s sexuality and does it simplify the situation, even a little? The complexity of the terminology and the manner in which different terms have partially overlapping definitions show that Bartlett’s play enters a quite debated field. Rather than presenting old news or simply reversing sexual stereotypes, Bartlett drags his readers into the mire of poorly defined or outright contested sexualities. In this light, Cock is still exciting and new (excuse the deliberate double entendre).

To fully understand Bartlett’s play, one must arguably read it in opposition to the author’s intentions with John as a bisexual man. The argument is simple. At the end of the play, John continues to self-identify as gay but in a quite unhappy manner since he only does it out of fear of a crumbling identity, exasperation, and for relationship security. This is hardly a healthy situation. John takes protection under a label, but it’s clearly the wrong one, which proves how important labels can be! Bartlett tries to escape labels as does his play’s protagonist yet a label is shown ultimately to be unavoidable, not just for family, friends, and lovers but most importantly for the person themselves too. John never identifies as sexually fluid or pansexual so bisexual is a safe compromise. One may classify him as a queer character but that leads to separate problems. Arnold M. Zwicky explains that “some have seized on queer as an umbrella label for the ‘sexual minorities,’ taking in not only homosexuals and bisexuals but also transgender and transsexual people, tranvestites, leatherfolk [etc.] … others protest that this extension bleaches any useful meaning from the term” (23). One founders on a term like queer since it covers almost all sexualities and therefore does justice to none. To consider John as sexually fluid in accordance with Bartlett’s views is similarly to open Pandora’s box as will be explored in this essay. By reading John as a bisexual man, namely going against the grain of the play, then one gets to appreciate the depth of Bartlett’s complex presentation. Yes, the message of the play is that John is utterly confused and the labels that his two lovers and father-in-law (ish) insist he adopt are perceived by him as utterly oppressive. However, bisexual is the only logical fit for his situation but we will discover why he cannot adopt the label as his own. The explanation reveals Bartlett’s play to hold some distinction among modern plays because it tackles a blatantly obvious but usually overlooked topic.   

Sexual attraction.

An apt starting point for a discussion is the title of Bartlett’s play which is provocative, funny, and clever too. The basic premise for the title is the idea that one’s sexual orientation is clearly indicated by sexual attraction. In crude terms, the cock is a man’s barometer to whom he desires. It is a strong argument. D. Joye Swan comments on the practice of “Using sexual behavior to define bisexuality” (46), writing that “As many behavioral psychologists would argue, if you want to know about a person, measure their behavior. And, indeed, besides self-identity, sexual behavior is the most common measure used to define bisexuality” (46). In the play, we know that John is sexually attracted to M, confirmed by his X-rated revelations such as “I still whack off to you [M] every night” (244) and “you [M] give me a really big dick metaphorically or actually sometimes looking at you” (248). Okay, so no doubt as to John being sexually attracted to M and they have a full relationship because as John puts succinctly, “we fuck and chat and cook” (240). The complication arises when John meets W. When initially considering her offer of sex, he confesses that he has “never found women attractive” (260). Yet, John’s body responds to W and he admits – “I certainly have biological feelings, things are happening without going into details when I look at you there’s definitely something going on” (261). In time, John and W embark on a full sexual relationship. John declares his newly found heterosexual vigour with statements such as “her vagina is amazing” (296) and tells M that “sex with her is … better you have to, to know that I enjoy it more” (296). In short, Bartlett has defined John as bisexual if behaviour is the guideline.

Why then is John not named as bisexual in the play? Some answers come from the shortfalls of using behaviour as a test for sexual orientation. Swan writes as follows:

“Despite its empirical strengths, solely using behavior as a definition has serious limitations that call into question its validity as the defining measure of bisexuality. First, it imposes upon people a definition with which they may or may not identify; in a sense, a counter-problem to solely using self-identity. Second, many sexual behavior measures impose a timeline as part of the definition”.

(Swan 46)

It is clear that John has only ever self-defined himself as gay. The timeline that Swan references simply means that a same-sex/other-sex partner may be from the past or a bisexual person may not yet have had sexual experiences with both sexes. How one self-identifies and sexual experience are crucially intertwined. At first John is embarrassed by his own lack of self-knowledge. For instance, W thinks he is straight and therefore he worries that, “she’ll embarrass me if I I don’t know [my sexuality]” (249). John remains unable to use the term bisexual because, as he explains, “I mean there’s never been any other women so” (293). The relative newness of his sexual experiences with a woman means that redefining himself with a different, sexual orientation label is too difficult, for now.

This brings us to Bartlett’s purpose in satirizing the old adage that all men are led by their, well, let’s just say it … cocks. He mocks such sayings since they are totally reductive of human sexuality. Swan explains the limitations of narrowly defining bisexuality:

“The final criticism of using behavior to define bisexuality is that it does not take into account the emotional aspects of intimate partner choice. In other words, it is a genital-focused definition whose ‘unitary lust conceptualization of sexual orientation’ (van Anders, 2015, p.  1178) does not take into account all the nonsexual aspects of sexuality”.

(Swan 47)

Bartlett’s one-word, play title is the most genital-focused title possible. However, it is not a shallow ploy to sell theatre seats (though it probably achieved that too). Instead, the play’s title is a horribly clever ruse to drag us all into a debate on sexuality! When M is totally perplexed by John’s new sexual desire for women, he states that “sexual feelings just don’t work like that” (251), then John responds, “Maybe it’s all more complicated than anyone …” (252). Bisexuality indeed becomes far more difficult to quantify if one must depart from a mere catalogue of sexual experiences and enter instead the realm of messy emotions and self-identification. Both M and W refer to John as “the one” (243, 269) in the traditional, romantic sense and he reciprocates by expressing his love for both of them (247, 261). Thus, we have John’s sexual behaviour and emotional attachments as two of the three noted qualifications of bisexual identity. But he doesn’t identify as bi. Like it or not, words still help to mark the accepted boundaries of sexual preference. John says he’s gay, then has sex with a woman, cannot call himself bi, and what does fluid mean again?

Identity labels.

When one enters the arena of identity politics then words are immensely important. The act of defining oneself with a label is more complex when one’s sexuality is, well, complex! The editors of the book, Queerly Phrased, refer to the work of philosopher Judith Butler when they write that “self-determination does not necessarily result from self-naming, since the names themselves have their own historicity, which precedes our use of them” (Livia, Hall 12). Labels carry baggage and much of it is unhelpful but to understand this we must look to history. For example, “The term bisexuality was not used to describe attraction to and/or sexual contact with members of both sexes until about 1915” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 3). Sigmund Freud made the term problematic (from a modern viewpoint) when he “proclaim[ed] that all individuals had bisexual predispositions but that at some point they would become heterosexual or homosexual through a psychological developmental process” (3). In effect, the word bisexual has a history that means it connotes a transitional phase which leads to an eventual decision. Even in modern times, “some studies find a subset of men who experience a transitional phase of calling themselves bisexual before adopting a stable identity as gay” (6). Bartlett turns this example on its head by beginning with an out, gay man and suggesting he is now turning straight. All these examples are underpinned by a fundamentally flawed understanding of bisexuality. Bartlett’s example is just very tongue in cheek.

The immense power of labelling a person is underlined by the theories of someone like Michel Foucault, because as Livia and Hall write, “For him [Foucault] it is the act of naming homosexuality as such that brings it into being” (8). This is an example of linguistic determinism and entails “the idea that categorizing creates or constitutes that which it refers to” (Livia, Hall 8). Against such a backdrop, it is no surprise that Bartlett’s protagonist John is reluctant to label himself or allow others to do so. Like a magic incantation, a simple word transforms everything. We may say that words like homosexual or heterosexual are largely well defined today but other terms are not. Arnold M. Zwicky writes that “In modern English, for example, there are an enormous number of lexical choices in the domain of sexual orientation. Virtually everyone is publicly contested” (22). This means that many labels evade a consensus on what they mean, and bisexual is one of the most contested terms of all. The yoke of an inadequate, ill-defined, or inappropriate label will only do Bartlett’s protagonist more harm. M. Lynne Murphy quotes Hutchins and Kaahumanu when she writes that “a bisexual in the gay and lesbian community is ‘a queer among queers’” (46).

John has a muddled sense of self and this shows in his inability to label his sexuality. The problem arises after John has sex with W. In light of the revelation, M newly defines John’s sexuality, saying “you are in fact yes yes not gay not that not gay” (48). John responds, saying “I’m not straight” (48), which he asserts on account of his continuing relationship with M. Since John is neither gay nor straight then bisexual would be a reasonable assumption. However, when M’s father confronts John with this solution, “You’re telling us you’re bisexual” (293) then John responds “no” (293). The only sexuality label that John ever uses is gay (266), for example when he’s breaking up with W and a declaration of homosexuality conveniently replaces any other explanation. But gay, the single label that John seemed to feel at home with, doesn’t fit either. John reveals this when speaking of how it felt to come out at university.

“John: I was part of a scene, even walking differently I think and everyone said the real me was emerging, that I’d been repressed, and so I thought I must’ve done the right thing then, but it didn’t feel like that to me. I had to make more of an effort than before, and yes I fancied men, a lot a lot but I never got why that changed anything other than who I wanted to fuck. What did it matter? Gay straight, words from the sixties made by our parents, sound so old, only invented to get rights, and we’ve got rights now so”.

(Bartlett 297)

One can appreciate why John feels uncomfortable with a label that does not fully represent him. The gay label was oppressive since he had ‘to make more of an effort.’ Yet, there are inherent benefits for someone to ally themselves with a solidly defined sexual grouping. For one, John would no longer endure a barrage of questions on his orientation, and secondly, he would have membership of a clearly delineated community (‘part of a scene’).

Years later, John is asked to choose a new sexuality label so that his lovers may feel more secure in their respective relationships with him. W advises John that by making a decision to continue his relationship with her, the result will be – “Then you’ll know exactly who you are” (281) . This returns one to the contentious definition of sexuality being based on sexual object choice. It is crucial to note that “relationship status makes bisexual individuals look, at times, heterosexual, gay, or lesbian. However, when their relationship status changes, we would recognize that their sexual orientation did not change, it had always included the possibility of either same-sex or cross-sex partnerings” (Swan 52). In effect, W and M are asking John to wear a temporary mask (straight/gay) which foremost comforts them but hides John’s full sexual identity. If John identifies as bisexual in this environment, then, if anything, it sparks the competition between his lovers which he is trying to avoid. John unsurprisingly fails to define himself but his decision to stay with M is less of a choice than a capitulation. John admits, “This isn’t what I want. I just. I think this is easier” (301).  

Bisexuality & its problems.

We have established a few valid reasons why John cannot identify as bisexual. From his subjective point of view, identifying as bisexual carries no obvious benefits. However, Bartlett’s play expertly shows the immense pressure John endures when he defies an easy definition. Society with a big S and also the people around John seek clarity and apparently John needs, really needs, to make a decision! He could declare himself as being sexually fluid but this brings us full-circle back to the same problem of him making a choice. Interestingly, when John compares M’s reaction to the car accident to his own predicated reaction, he says, “I’d be liquid you’d have to freeze me, solidify me before I could do or say anything you know” (240). This idea of freezing something into an identifiable, useful shape is comparable to using a universally understood label (like bisexual) to define a scatterbrained protagonist like John. Also, if John said he was sexually fluid then others would also need to solidify this into a meaning that would complement/contradict certain relationships possibilities. All the shaping, moulding, tampering, and questioning inevitably comes from external sources. It is worth considering these forces.

Disbelief in John’s sexual choices is a recognizable aspect of bi-negativity. The harshest critic is John’s gay partner M who uses insults to invalidate him. For instance, M tells John, you’re a “different person” (246), “you don’t add up” (253) and even questions the tale of heterosexual sex – “is this a lie?” (251). W is equally dismissive, saying of John’s return to M – “you went back but you’re pretending” (266). Such attitudes reflect that, “monosexual individuals (i.e., heterosexual, gay, and lesbian individuals) often do not express a belief in the veracity of bisexuality as a legitimate orientation category” (Swan 41). Also, there is the idea that John’s preference is somehow temporary, like when his mother thought he was going through “a phase” (254) or later when F bluntly tell him, “I think you need to work out what you are” (288). These criticisms concur with the belief that “bisexual individuals are either confused about their sexual orientation, temporarily experimenting, or in denial about their true gay or lesbian identity” (Dyar, Feinstein 96).

In Cock, a strict essentialist understanding of sexuality is the norm, meaning that “sexual object-choice orientation is innate and sexual identity derives from sexual object-choice” (Murphy 37). John eventually and passively submits to this view, saying, “Maybe they’re right, it’s what I’m born with, my genes, my my my nature, just men, just gay, clear” (298). He becomes a reluctant prisoner to the label of gay. John had previously been presented with a dilemma of picking men or women and this precipitated his final, dramatic non-decision. In Queerly Phrased, M. Lynne Murphy writes “the default situation is to view bisexuals as having ‘mixed’ sexuality. This is reflected in epithets (AC/DC, switch-hitter, fence-sitter) and assumed in most scalar views of sexuality” (38). We witness John’s response to such a categorization – “I don’t know, I don’t – maybe it’s not a switch, one way or the other, maybe it’s more like a stew, complicated things bubbling up” (291). There is an inherent flaw in the word bisexual because “the word “bi” would seem to imply a 50/50 split or an equal desire for people of either sex … However, most research finds this simply is not the reality of those we label or who identify as bisexual” (52). John proves this by providing quite different reasons for why he loves M and W. John cannot feel comfortable with the label of bisexual because foremost it suggests an unrealistic, binary choice. To say that bisexuals always need to choose is effectively to negate bisexuality, to make it invisible. Alfred Kinsey created the now familiar Heterosexual/Homosexual Rating Scale with ratings from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). This was an important advance, but “While some believe that individuals identifying as 1–5 on Kinsey’s scale are bisexuals, the most fascinating point is that bisexuality per se is never marked on the rating scale” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 4). In spite of our best efforts, the following quote sums up the problem of how we think about sexuality.

“In most Western societies, sexuality is constructed as a simple binary—a belief that there are “two kinds of people in the world: homosexuals and heterosexuals” (McIntosh, 1996, p. 33). These binary positions sexual identities as mutually exclusive and infers that if a person does not identify as heterosexual—the normative position—then they can naturally be assumed to be the opposite—homosexual. It also reinforces the idea that there are only two sexual identity categories to choose from. This construction erases and silences bisexuality in public and academic discourses on sexuality, as well as in wider society”.

(Mclean 78)

Bartlett depicts John as making concurrent, relationship commitments to both his partners, M and W. The overlap emphasises his inability to choose so both are promised love. Yet, the centre ground is too ill defined and unstable to sustain an identity and John says, “I’m two different people with the two of you when you’re separate and now I’m in the middle and no one” (281). This somewhat odd sense of losing one’s identity is recognised in academia – “Hartman-Linck (2014) argues that while bisexual people “lose” their identity in relationships, this appropriation does not happen to gay, lesbian, or heterosexual individuals whose identities remains stable” (McLean 85). If John chooses, not matter what the choice, he denies a large element of himself.

John exists in a no man’s land because he does not fully satisfy either side of the usual dichotomy of gay/straight. M. Lynne Murphy describes bisexual as “a nonpolar label” (44) and goes on to elaborate that “In identifying with a label, one develops an identity based on contrast with another group, but to contrast oneself with more than one group simultaneously is not easy, since different criteria for comparison usually exist” (44). There is a label that does contrast with bisexual and that is monosexual which as Murphy writes, “denotes both exclusively-same-sex and exclusively-other-sex orientation. Thus, the criterion for differentiation of the groups is not sexual-object orientation but the rigidity of that orientation” (44). Homosexuals, heterosexuals, and lesbians would all fall under the heading of monosexuals. Unfortunately, this label is virtually unknown. If one labels oneself as bisexual or sexually fluid then there is really nothing to define oneself against and this causes a problem. As Murphy writes, “Choice seems to be a core concept to bisexual identity, not just in terms of choice of sexual partner, but in terms of identity, community, and lifestyle” (53). Bartlett throws a caustic glance at the idea of bisexual choice because what is often seen as unbridled sexual freedom only reveals a prison door.


Bartlett evades using the term bisexual to label John and for good reason. It’s a toxic label because it hangs a giant question mark over the head of anyone who self-identifies with it. The person’s sexuality becomes a lifelong, excruciating demand from others to choose, pick, decide! Furthermore, the term lacks the kind of assured definition, for example, as enjoyed by those who identify as heterosexuals or homosexuals which allow them to feel secure in their identities. Swan writes that “If there is one thing that sexuality researchers agree on, it is that producing a definitive definition of bisexuality is like trying to nail Jello to a wall” (37). Bartlett’s comfort with using the term fluid sexuality for his protagonist interestingly matches what sexologists were already saying in Victorian times. Swan writes that “over 150 years ago Krafft-Ebing (1886) asserted that feelings, not behavior, were the key to defining sexual orientation” (48). Such a view recognises someone’s right to fall in love with different people over time, even if those people are of different sexes. The bleak scenario that appears in Cock is the opposite of such tolerance.

“M: You’ve made a decision now.

You can’t go back.

John: I KNOW.

I’m your fucking trophy.”

(Bartlett 302)

Even though fluid sexuality has the disadvantage of being without clear definition borders, this is equally its value and strength. We appreciate that a label like fluid is indeed to open Pandora’s box but only after having first understood that older, apparently simpler labels are still wholly unresolved. John may be bisexual but it’s irrelevant since the label offers him nothing but a headache and he sinks into despair, or as W says, “down down … quicksand” (295). Similar to using the word queer to self-identity, there is the same air of belligerence to self-identifying as fluid. It’s like the Goth that John admires because “what he was wearing was like fuck you to the world you know?” (257). Bartlett’s protagonist fails to ever make such a bold statement. Instead, John is shown to implode under the pressure he suffers and it’s all because he won’t conform to a neat, tidy category. In the end, he almost pleads, “I just want to be happy” (298). Bartlett’s play offers a stimulating contemplation of how society and individuals become beholden to labels. Additionally, if we the general public cannot handle the label of bisexual then what real, true gravitas do newer labels carry in society, for example, pansexual or cis or trans. Cock, though it appears a dated work at first, turns into quite a challenge to our ideas about being modern, open-minded individuals.

Works Cited.

Bartlett, Mike. Plays:1.  Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2009.  

Hoby, Hermione. “Most theatre is still really bad.” The Guardian, 8th November 2009.  

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, editors. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press, 1997.  

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall. “‘It’s a Girl!’: Bringing Performativity Back to Linguistics.” Livia and Hall, pp. 3-20.

Murphy, M. Lynne. “The Elusive Bisexual: Social Categorization and Lexico-Semantic Change.” Livia and Hall, pp. 35-57.

Zwicky, Arnold M. “Two Lavender Issues for Linguists.” Livia and Hall, pp. 21-34.

Swan, D. Joye, and Shani Habibi. Bisexuality: Theories, Research, and Recommendations for the Invisible Sexuality. Springer International Publishing, 2018.  

Elia, John P., Mickey Eliason, and Genny Beemy. “Mapping Bisexual Studies: Past and Present, and Implications for the Future.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 1-18.

Swan, D. Joye. “Models and Measures of Sexual Orientation.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 19-36.

Swan, D. Joye. “Defining Bisexuality: Challenges and Importance of and Toward a Unifying Definition.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 37-60.

McLean, Kirsten. “Bisexuality in Society.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 77-94.

Dyar, Christina and Brian A. Feinstein. “Binegativity: Attitudes Toward and Stereotypes About Bisexual Individuals.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 95-112.

Lee, Peggy. “Is That All There Is.” Capitol Records, 1969.

Thompson, Jessie. “Mike Bartlett: ‘If any art form should reflect all of society, it’s theatre.’” Evening Standard, 25 May 2018.  

Triscari, Caleb. “REVIEW: Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ is theatrically strong, but its themes are outdated.” Beat, 4th February 2019. 

The Long Christmas Dinner

  • Play title: The Long Christmas Dinner
  • Author: Thornton Wilder
  • First performed: 1931
  • Page count: 29


The Long Christmas Dinner is a one-act play by Thornton Wilder. The playwright traverses ninety years of the Bayard family by focusing on a series of Christmas dinners. The restrained, polite dialogues of the play reflect the solemnity of Christmas day dinners in a religious household. In the first scene are Mother Bayard, her son Charles and his wife Lucia. In subsequent scenes we are introduced to a total of four new generations of the family and the work ends with news of a fifth generation. Birth and death are symbolized in the play by two separate doors that lead off the dining room. The new house of the opening scene, built on land formerly occupied by Indians, transforms into the old house of the closing scene, surrounded by factories. Wilder gives his audience an artistic perspective on the passage of time. The subjects dealt with in the work include ill health, depression, war, industrialization, youthful rebellion, birth, and death.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

The text of Wilder’s play is available via the Open Library. One may also find alternative sources of the text via a simple internet search.

If you would prefer to watch the play then there is an Encyclopaedia Britannica film from 1976 entitled “The Long Christmas Dinner”. This version is available on the Britannica website. The film has a running time of 37 minutes.

Why read/watch The Long Christmas Dinner?

The passage of time.

Wilder presents his audience with time accelerated, relying only on the actors and particular theatrical techniques to convey the passage of many years. Although the location and day of the year are fixed, namely a family dining room on Christmas day, the years fleet past and characters appear, age, and disappear in a matter of minutes. The effect is sombre. The playwright uses repeated patterns of dialogue, changed seating positions at table, and even the title of ‘Mother Bayard’ to communicate cycles of life within a single family. Christmas day which is the most joyous of feast days for Christians, becomes a day mixed equally with sad reflections and hopeful prospects for the Bayards. While time is never depicted as an enemy, Wilder shows how whole stages of one’s life can slip by almost imperceptibly and then there is a jolt of recognition when something major happens.

An eerie effect

Many aspects of Wilder’s play are mildly disconcerting. For instance, the actors’ plates are empty so each person simply mimics the actions of dining. Empty plates on a feast day suggest a hollowness to the festivities. Then there are the ever-absent servants whose names are frequently called but who never appear. These ghostly presences who tend to the family’s needs may be understood as indicative of a rigid class system because servitude equals invisibility. The differently decorated portals which represent birth and death are the most symbolic aspects of the work and their location within the house is also salient. The Bayard home is the first and also the last sight for almost every member of the family.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

‘The Ghost of a Future Christmas’


In The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder offers his audience a slice of concentrated time. A selection of festive dinners from various unspecified years are chosen to represent a family’s history. Each scene melds into the next with only sporadic acknowledgements by characters of the years which have invisibly passed. By taking this approach, the playwright must focus on the most salient points in the Bayards’ lives which means a record of births, deaths, marriages, romances, careers, and downfalls. The result is sombre and decidedly un-festive but equally a wonderful contemplation of intertwined lives within one home. What is conspicuous about Wilder’s presentation of time is the artificial nature of it because ninety years is encased in a theatre performance which lasts less than an hour. The central theme of the play is time and the passage of time is constantly referenced throughout the work. Wilder is clearly using this chunk of carefully represented time to convey a message. Mark Currie provides an insightful comment on such literary representations of time.

“In the oral delivery of a story, the future is open, and particularly so if I am making it up as I go along. In written text, the future lies there to the right, awaiting its actualisation by the reading, so that written text can be said to offer a block view of time which is never offered to us in lived experience” (Currie 18).  

Wilder’s particular take on the block view of time has overtones of moralistic judgement. It seems that by showing us the predictable consequences of his characters’ life choices, he is also telling us that the straight and narrow road is the key to salvation. This complements the fact that the Bayards are a religious family. Currie writes that, “there are two futures, the future that we envisage correctly, and the future that comes out of nowhere. But whereas in fiction, the future may be lying in wait for us, in life it is not, so that the idea of futures correctly or incorrectly envisaged cannot be meaningful” (43). In contrast to this view, Wilder’s play has a didactic tone where the future can indeed be reasonably predicted based on present actions. When one reads the play then there is no sense of events coming out of nowhere for key characters.

In addition, Wilder displays how our subjective views of time often trick us, for example when we ignore or try to postpone the future because the present, fleeting moment is immensely pleasing. Any attempt to hold onto the moment of ‘now’ rather than accepting its ephemeral nature is ominous. In Wilder’s special concentration of time in the play, he gives the moment of now a sticky, gel-like consistency explained by the proximity of the long past and also the connection to the blurry future. In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote of the normal, slippery nature of the moment of now where he “compares the passage of time to the recitation of a psalm, in which the text of the psalm passes from the future into the past, and the now of this recitation is comprised only of the awareness or memory of that which has already been and the expectation of that which is still to come” (Currie 13). In The Long Christmas Dinner, the moment of now has the same basic characteristics except that it still carries the weight of events some twenty years previous and equally acts as a portent of future events. Such an effect is only possible in art and it is the most fascinating aspect of Wilder’s short play.

Ninety years.

The timeframe of the play is constructed in a particular manner by Wilder so that it does not resemble calendar time and forms something more like a circle. This enhances our impression of the play as depicting ‘a block view of time’ where events run a full course, only to begin again. One could set this play in any era as it is unhindered by dates of any kind. The circular effect is achieved through a simple technique of making the end of the play reflect back on the beginning. In the final scene, Cousin Ermengarde reveals to a house-maid the news that Lucia II is expecting a child. Lucia II and her husband along with Leonora (not called Mother Bayard) are celebrating their first Christmas in the new house. As Cousin Ermengarde reads the news in the letter, she slowly begins to drift towards the portal of death but her last words are “Dear little Roderick and little Lucia” (Wilder 29). Most likely she remembers Leonora’s children, Roderick and Lucia, when they were young because as Charles remarked back then, “the twins have taken a great fancy to you [Ermengarde] already” (21). One may also consider the family’s tradition of recycling names and the fact that Lucia II will soon be naming her new child who, if a boy, could well be a new little Roderick. However, since Ermengarde is from the same generation as the first Roderick and Lucia of the play then she may actually have a memory of her cousin Roderick as a child when she was a child too. For an audience, the names crucially remind us of the opening scene which is also populated by a Roderick, Lucia, and Mother Bayard in a new house celebrating their first Christmas. The names are simply a trigger for memory and an audience is reminded of the Bayard family history and future and these points seem to loop and meet as in a circle. The result is that we view the paradigm of a normal family and view the lessons that may be extracted from their combined experiences over several generations.

Predicted & predictable events.

Wilder provides numerous hints in the play that make the futures of certain characters quite predictable. Some of these hints may be read as unmistakably foreboding, for example when the formerly bedbound but newly recovered Roderick considers going ice skating with his son. Roderick is soon dead. Less obvious is the ubiquitous remark made by Charles on his new son, Roderick Brandon, being “a regular little fighter” (20). Roderick does grow up to rebel against his father and abandon the Bayards but the original hint is too vague to interpret accurately or definitively. This feeling of knowing what is going to happen based on clues in the text can be given the formal name of prolepsis which Currie defines as “a form of anticipation which takes place within the time locus of the narrated. It is the anticipation of, or flashforward to, future events within the universe of narrated events” (31). Yet, he asks “Is a hint, for example, a prolepsis?” (38). This is an important point since Wilder does not employ any moments of flashforward in his play. On the other hand, our default setting as readers or as audience members is to invest certain conspicuous hints as indicative of a future outcome.

“So common is this kind of hint, or invited inference, that we normally assume that early events are only narrated if they will acquire significance later that is not apparent at the time of their occurrence. In other words, an actual excursion into the future events of a narrative is not required for the production of teleological retrospect, and we find ourselves projecting forward in the act of reading to envisage the future significance of events as a basic process in the decoding of the narrative present” (Currie 38).

In The Long Christmas Dinner, Roderick and his daughter Genevieve offer the most consistent and interesting hints as to how each of their life stories will develop. These characters are also polar opposites since Roderick enjoys life until it ends far too soon for him whereas his daughter unnecessarily puts her life on hold and lives long to regret this decision. Therefore, the characters reflect the way that time may be subjectively experienced. Given that the play speaks of a devoutly religious family, it is also unsurprising that Wilder adopts a moral tone in regard to characters’ lives. To begin with Roderick, one may say he is the patriarch of the family. He is a successful businessman with a new wife, house, and horse but he has a marked liking for alcohol. The hints in the play that Roderick will pay a price for his imbibing are subtle yet unmissable too. He urges his new wife and his mother to partake in red wine on Christmas day because it’s “full of iron” (Wilder 6). Lucia’s reluctance to drink wine is motivated by her father’s stern views but also hints that alcohol is a problem in the household. Roderick hides behind his motto of “statistics show that we steady, moderate drinkers …” (11), but Lucia reminds him of his doctor’s orders to take just one glass. Illness eventually strikes down Roderick and he is bedbound for several years. When he returns downstairs for Christmas dinner some years later, he finds that he has been replaced by his son who now sits at the head of the table and carves the turkey. Roderick’s pathetic response to the new situation and to his sudden death are precisely the same – “but … not yet” (13). Mother Bayard had once warned Roderick, “I used to think that only the wicked owned two horses” (5), and it seems that her son indeed attempted to journey through life on two tracks simultaneously, one being career and the other being hard living. Roderick ignores the first warning of a serious illness and defiantly says “I’ll live till I’m ninety” (13) and reaches his grave all the sooner for his hubris. In this light, Wilder presents a cautionary tale in quite moralistic tones.

Genevieve Bayard takes a different route to her father. She is a homebird and devoted to her mother. In this case, the hints are far less subtle about Genevieve’s predicted future because she says in plain terms at the Christmas dinner table, “I shall never marry, Mother – I shall sit in this house beside you forever, as though life were one long, happy Christmas dinner” (15). Her desire to artificially freeze time on account of a happy day is immediately recognised as a mistake by her mother who bursts into tears. The significance of the moment is also underlined by the resemblance of Genevieve’s words to the play’s title. Genevieve was due to travel to Germany for her music but her mother’s sudden death immobilizes the young woman. She says, “I don’t want to go on. I can’t bear it” (18). Genevieve is shown to enter a form of stasis and it transforms her into a bitter woman who obsesses on family history, scraping moss off gravestones (21) in order to piece together her family’s ancestry. Eventually, Genevieve has a form of breakdown and says, “I can’t stand it any more” (27) and refers to “the years grinding away” (27). She finally plans to move to Munich or Florence to die an old maid instead of her original plan, 25 years earlier, to study music in Germany. Her inability to live has devalued the years until she now awaits only death.

The problem remains that we may misread Roderick and Genevieve and it is only the conclusion of each character’s story that solidifies our anticipations into facts. As Currie contemplates, “Are we then to say that an event or object is proleptic only when it anticipates an event which does indeed confer significance on it, and not so when it turns out to be a red herring or an instance of redundant detail?” (38). Due to the brevity of Wilder’s play and the repetition of hints relating to specific characters, it is unlikely that his intent is not wholly deliberate and I would argue, didactic too. As Currie notes, “Tomachevsky (1971) outlined a kind of technical sense of motivation, according to which the presence of a gun at the beginning of a narrative anticipates the murder or suicide of one the characters later in the plot” (38). If there is an equivalent of a gun in The Long Christmas Dinner then it is characters’ nonchalance towards time itself, since, as the saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man.’

Passage of time.

The play depicts the passage of time in the Bayard household from several distinct aspects. This is true to the fact that time is a largely subjective experience. Therefore, within the ninety years covered in the play, we witness all the various ways time is felt and experienced. There is the stereotypical refrain of time being a healer which is heard twice in the play with the deaths of Leonora’s first baby and then with Sam who dies in the European war – “Only time, only the passing of time can help in these things” (Wilder 17). Since Sam was still “a mere boy” (23) in his mother’s mind, the phenomenon of children growing up is also an important subject in the play. One notices a distinct contrast between, for example, Roderick, who says, “no time passes so slowly as this when you’re waiting for your urchins to grow up and settle down to business” (11) versus Lucia’s view, “I don’t want time to go any faster thank you. I love the children just as they are” (11). Leonora later repeats this sentiment when Roderick II is born, saying “Don’t grow up too fast … stay just as you are” (20). Genevieve latches onto the former line and repeats it sarcastically which is a reflection on her own stasis in life, not progressing, just frozen. While Genevieve is a good example of someone in stasis due to emotional problems, Wilder also touches on career stasis and the perception of stasis from the point of view of a rebellious youth. These latter examples are exemplified by Cousin Ermengarde who has been teaching “the First Grade for ever and ever” (17), and then there is Roderick II who complains that “Time passes so slowly here that it stands still, that’s what’s the trouble” (25). One may compare the sense of unmoving time with the perception of time during periods of excitement and joy. For instance, when the young Genevieve was planning on going to Germany, she told her mother, “I’ll be back in the twinkling of an eye” (16). Charles the industrialist comments on time on a national scale, saying, “Time certainly goes very fast in a great new country like this” (21). Depending on the scenario, time is a comforter, a laggard / a dawdler, a rigid unmoving presence, or an exuberant rusher. Each depiction adds to the complexity of Wilder’s work.


Wilder’s play looks at the fast moving ‘present moment’ for the Bayard family. Yet, we do not witness clock time as denoted by a familiar ticking sound but instead we witness an artificial type of time only available in art. As Currie writes, “The present, as philosophy knows well, doesn’t exist, and yet it is the only thing which exists. The past has been, and so is not, and the future is to be, and so is not yet. That only leaves the present” (8). Wilder emphasises the weight of the present for the Bayards and he manages this by discarding whole chunks of their life experiences and giving the viewer a concentrated rush-through of events. The message of Wilder’s play is difficult to pinpoint. Time as an entity is not malignant but the playwright observes how our disrespectful attitudes to it can horribly taint our lives.

One may follow the proposition that “the reading of fictional narratives is a kind of preparation for and repetition of the continuous anticipation that takes place in non-fictional life” (Currie 6). As previously discussed, the play highlights certain decisions by characters which eventually bear ill-tasting fruit. If Roderick is shown to live his life hard and fast with overuse of alcohol then Genevieve is shown to sourly withdraw from life – neither path is good. Maybe the message is simply that a moderate, middle ground is best. It is tempting to consider if Wilder had John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in mind because in that story, Christian receives the following advice.

“Look before thee: dost thou see this narrow way? That is the way thou must go. It was cast up by the men of old, prophets, Christ and His apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it: this is the way thou must go” (Bunyan 36).

One may indeed interpret The Long Christmas Dinner as a moral tale. The way that Wilder makes his play accessible to such a reading is chiefly by making the present, ‘now’ moment of the play fat with meanings and therefore it is readable and communicates a clear message. In real life, we never see the present moment quite as clearly because the past and pre-determined future are not available to us as he depicts. Yet, Wilder makes us thoughtful due to the depiction of others’ faulty paths in life. As Currie writes, “To look back on an event is to give it a significance it did not possess at the time of its occurrence” (33). Wilder’s play performs this educational task for an audience.  

Works Cited.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Project Gutenberg. Accessed 20 December 2021.

Currie, Mark. About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.  

Wilder, Thornton. The Long Christmas Dinner. Samuel French, 1960.  

Blithe Spirit

Advertising poster for Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945 movie version).

  • Play title: Blithe Spirit 
  • Author: Noël Coward 
  • Published: 1941 
  • Page count: 86 


Madame Arcati is a medium who is invited one evening by the Condomines to their house in Kent. Mr. Charles Condomine is a novelist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural but simply wishes to use the evening’s events as subject material for a new book. Events take an unexpected turn when the supposed charlatan really does summon a presence from the other side. Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, is a well-known work which is regularly performed on stage and has also been adapted for radio dramatizations as well as several films. The play is a farce told in three acts with four main characters, namely, the current Mr. and Mrs. Condomine, the former Mrs. Condomine, and the medium. Minor roles are held by the Condomines’ dinner guests, the housemaids, and Madame Arcati’s ‘control’ who is a dead child from the 19th century named Daphne. The song “Always” by Irving Berlin is referenced many times in the work and is played during a séance. Coward takes a cynical view of marriage for humorous effect and the song lyric, “I’ll be loving you always”, takes on a whole new interpretation. The comedy is light and the play entertaining.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

The playscript of Blithe Spirit is reasonably easy to source online. For example, it is available via the Open Library, and Scribd.

If you would prefer to view a performance then there is a recording on YouTube entitled “Blithe Spirit 1956 Live TV Theatre.” This stars Mr. Coward, however, the quality of the recording is inferior and it’s in black and white. An alternative is a radio dramatization available on YouTube – “Blithe Spirit – Noel Coward Comic Play – BBC Saturday Night Theatre.”

Why read/watch Blithe Spirit? 

Light humour

The main reason to read/watch Blithe Spirit is for its entertainment value. Coward’s script is full of witty lines and engaging characters. Proof of the quality of the play is that it continues to be staged some eighty years after it was first released.

An artist

Noel Coward presents us with not one but two artists in his play Blithe Spirit. Mr. Condomine and Madame Arcati are both published authors. Even though it is  a comedic play, Coward still manages to focus our attention on topics that concern all artists, like inspiration, fame, financial success, and imposters or fakes! While Madame Arcati is a caricature of the eccentric, old-lady psychic, she is nonetheless a formidable character in the play and quite an equal to Mr. Condomine due to their shared profession. The many facets of artistry are explored in this enduring play.

Marriage & eternal love

Eternal love is an important theme in Coward’s play. One senses Coward’s wry smile as he shows how marriage vows unblushingly predict an eternity for loving unions. Yet, the hazards of foretelling the future are stated by none other than Madame Arcati with her warning – “I disapprove of fortune tellers most strongly” (Coward 14) because she dismisses their predictions as “guesswork” (14). The playwright has some fun with the topic of marriage when he raises a former spouse from the dead to the background music of the song, “Always”. The former Mrs. Condomine, Elvira, was indeed the love of Charles’ life. The great divide between the living and the dead is dissolved with the help of Madame Arcati and suddenly Charles is faced with not just a memory, but the presence of his former wife. The materialization and subsequent dematerialization of spirits in the play mimic the incantations of the marriage rites and the divorce rites.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Madame Arcati, an artistic chameleon.


Blithe Spirit is a comedy written by Noel Coward and first staged in 1941. This play was an astounding, commercial success for the playwright and ran continuously in theatres for several years after its first release. In Noel Coward: A Biography, written by Philip Hoare, we learn that the playwright made an entry in his diary on the 22nd of April 1941, which reads as follows, “Spent morning with Lorn discussing financial troubles which are considerable. Also discussed play as possible solution. Title Blithe Spirit. Very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost. Feel it may be good” (491). This was clearly not art for art’s sake, but plain business acumen. Mr. Coward was a playwright but also an actor and composer and one may even add singer as he had several hit songs, for example “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” In short, he knew how to diversify and survive in the often intensely competitive world of showbusiness. However, few people would say that one of Coward’s most well-known characters, Madame Arcati, has anything in common with her creator – but she does. In his characterization of an eccentric, English medium, Coward shows us a survivor and more crucially, one who shares his own dual talents for performance and writing.

The actress Margaret Rutherford played the part of Madame Arcati in the original London production. Philip Hoare writes that Rutherford “perfected the dotty eccentricity of the character, a foil for the sophistication of her sceptical hosts” (491). However, the character proves to be much more than merely a figure of fun. Rutherford originally rejected the part on somewhat surprising grounds that reference Madame Arcati’s credibility. Hoare gives an account of the event in his book.

“Rutherford explained to Beaumont [a theatrical impresario] that she believed in spiritualism and did not want to be party to its mockery. Beaumont pointed out that the fun poked fun at fake mediums, not genuine ones, and that, as she was a fraud, mockery of Arcati was justified. Rutherford retorted, ‘Will you explain how she raises two ghosts if she is a fake?’ ‘By chance, Margaret dear. Even fake mediums can have a stroke of luck and this doesn’t stop them from being fakes, does it now?’” (Hoare 493).

Rutherford was eventually convinced to accept the part and she was a great success in the stage version and also starred in the later movie directed by David Lean. Yet, her point is valid in that one may choose how to interpret Madame Arcati, either bona fide medium or charlatan. The authenticity of spiritualists is a moot point so one may take either side. It seems clear that Coward, if the name Arcati is a hint, supposed his character to be a fake. Arcati is Italian for ‘arch’ which in English, apart from a curved structure, also means when someone is self-consciously teasing and being a rogue. Philip Hoare quotes Coward as having described his play as containing, “Disdaining archness and false modesty” (491). Even if Madame Arcati is an arch-scoundrel, the playwright instructed that the part always be performed in a sincere fashion, that is, played straight. Madame Arcati is an engaging figure and one deserving of our attention, even more so if her act is indeed a case of style over substance.

Another way of approaching the character of Madame Arcati is to look at Coward’s inspiration for this figure. In Hoare’s biography of Coward, he refers to the playwright’s friendship with a woman named Winifred Ashton, better known as Dane, whom Coward had known since the nineteen twenties. This woman is described as “striking in appearance, tall, with an aquiline profile, and large in girth, and had trained as an artist and as an actor” (Hoare 468). Hoare goes on to state the following:

“It was only a matter of time before Coward used his colourful friend in one of his dramas, and sure enough she provided the inspiration for Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, the unworldly psychic riding her bicycle, described as ‘a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias towards the barbaric’ (Coward’s lesbians are often dressed ‘barbarically’)” (Hoare 469).

The link between the eccentric medium and a real life friend of the playwright may alter, ever so slightly, our perception of the play. It imbues the medium’s characterization with a sense of affection rather than ridicule which may otherwise be presumed. Also, the figure in the play is based on an artist, a bohemian, and someone whose company Coward found to be most stimulating. Noel Coward spent most of his life working and socializing with theatre people who are gregarious, colourful, and often demanding personalities. These were people who knew how to graft, to survive through slack times and rejoice in success. The theatre was also a space that tolerated certain levels of eccentricity/oddity that conventional society shunned and stigmatized. When Coward created, Madame Arcati (obviously a stage name) then he was bringing to life a figure who, with performance skills and bravado, would hold our attention in his work.

One may gain much more from a close reading of Coward’s Madame Arcati with the above points in mind. To recap, Coward and Arcati are essentially birds of a feather because like all artists and performers they present themselves before an often critical audience and yet they endure, survive, and often thrive. Arcati serves as an interesting commentary on issues like artistry, inspiration, theatricality, and fame. Furthermore, Arcati’s profession as a medium provides a prompt to consider the rich history of English mediums, beginning in the 19th century. Mediumship was considered by many to be little more than a branch of showbusiness but, crucially, it offered one of the few opportunities for women to gain fame and fortune. As a single, independent woman, Arcati holds an unusual position in the play and she offers an important counterbalance to the idea that marriage is a woman’s main option for security. With this in mind, one may eventually answer the riddle of the subplot in the play – why was Elvira summoned back to the Condomines’ house? Finally, one should not ignore Coward’s inspiration for Madame Arcati, and therefore acknowledge that the character has substance and is an affectionate rather than derogatory caricature.

The artist.

Charles Condomine and Madame Arcati are fellow artists. In fact, they share the exact same profession because they are both published authors. Charles recounts his first encounter with Madame Arcati, saying “’We originally met as colleagues at one of Mrs Wilmot’s Sunday evenings in Sandgate” (Coward 9). The parity between these individuals is a point that may too easily be overlooked or missed. As an audience, we are led by others’ disparaging views on Madame Arcati’s books. It is a simple case of artistic snobbery but upon investigation, one sees important differences between an inspired artist versus an artist who simply scavenges to complete a work.  Contrary to expectations, Madame Arcati is not the scavenger.

It appears that Charles Condomine has writer’s block or at least is producing quite anaemic work.  We learn that he is hoping to begin a “mystery story” (48) entitled “The Unseen” (3), and that the séance is wholly inspiration for this upcoming work. Previously, Charles wrote “The Light Goes Out?” (3) inspired by “suddenly seeing that haggard, raddled woman in the hotel at Biarritz” (3). It is not stated whether Charles always takes inspiration from real life figures, in these cases, older women who are a source of amusement or who have fallen on hard times. In any case, it appears like scavenging rather than true inspiration. Also, Charles has a predetermined idea which he hopes the séance will merely confirm, saying “I suspect the worst. A real professional charlatan. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyhow” (8). There is something decidedly stale about Charles’ artistic process, be it his rigid formula, his clichéd expectations of a medium to turn out a fraud, or his derogatory attitude to older women (first exhibited with his spiritualist aunt). Charles may have been a good writer in the past but that success now eludes him as confirmed by Elvira’s cutting remark to her husband, “Your books aren’t a quarter as good as they used to be, either” (68). However, none of this stops Charles from deriding Madame Arcati’s books as “Rather whimsical children’s stories about enchanted woods filled with highly conventional flora and fauna; and enthusiastic biographies of minor royalties, very sentimental, reverent and extremely, funny” (9). In contrast to Charles, Madame Arcati shows no signs of writer’s block and her standards are surprisingly high in some respects. For example, she has chosen to abandon her book on Princess Palliatani due to the subject’s death and has simply moved onto a different project which is a children’s book. Arcati confounds her critics by producing new works with little effort which shows a well of inspiration. She even makes light of her profession, possibly to Charles’ chagrin, telling him that “Anybody can write books, but it takes an artist to make a dry Martini that’s dry enough” (11). Madame Arcati is an artistic chameleon, moving from one project to another, one field to another, and succeeding by such diversification.

In the context of a farce, it is easy to be transported away from any form of analysis by Mr. Coward’s humorous playscript. Yet, Blithe Spirit is not only a comedy but also a prime example of metaliterature. Noel Coward is writing about a writer, Charles Condomine, who plans to write about Madame Arcati, who herself has recently been busy writing a “memoir of Princess Palliatani” (11). The play is an exploration of the writing process, and more specifically about the roles of inspiration and source material. It may be that the art of living is the key to being easily inspired. Madame Arcati is able to diversify as an artist because she leads a fulfilling life. She is a medium and also a prolific writer and the two are most definitely linked. Charles is a stifled writer, a man who grasps for inspiration on topics and yet ends up with only cliches. His personal life is just as stale, proven by his joy at finding freedom again at the play’s close. If Charles sees himself as a bulwark for artistic integrity, then Madame Arcati as a successful, productive, working artist defeats such pretensions.


A fruitful interpretative approach to Coward’s play is to view spiritualism as a metaphor for the artistic muse. First, one must reiterate that artists, even those with excellent work ethics, cannot force their work to succeed. Inspiration is something that strikes and the artist lays himself or herself open to experiencing it. In quite a similar fashion, mediums enter a trance state so that contact can be made with the other side and contact is only successful when the medium is in an entirely passive, receptive condition. For example, on the night of the séance at the Condomines’, Madame Arcati enters a trance state and when she finally regains consciousness, she says, “Something happened all right, I can feel it” (23). Quite similar to an author who has been inspired to write a particular work, the ‘something happened’ is only later apparent via book sales, positive reviews, etc. There is an inherent mystery to creating something which is not just about the person who acts as the artistic conduit but also involves the future audience. This does not discount the fact that the medium/artist is always unique in producing a particular result.            

Alex Owen authored a book entitled The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, and it proves helpful to a discussion on Madame Arcati. Owen provides three possible explanations for the results which mediums sometimes succeed in presenting to their audiences. The 1st explanation is outright fraud, and the 3rd is the field of telepathy and telekinesis etc. but, the 2nd explanation rests on the idea that the medium has a motivation in their unconscious which is not apparent to their conscious mind. Owen writes the following:

“Unconscious production was usually characterized by states of altered consciousness during which the medium produced phenomena in a readily explicable way, but later would not be aware of what she had done” (Owen 2).

The production of phenomena by an artist is merely a way of saying that the artist succeeded in their field of artistry. It may be a spiritualist bringing a spirit back from the land of the dead or it may be a writer producing a successful, critically acclaimed work. The success is the visible result but it also comes from an individual who is motivated to produce such an effect even when they don’t fully understand the process.

Coward shows that Mr. Condomine not only tries to take inspiration from Madame Arcati as subject matter, but literally mimics her in his own strange behaviour. Charles the middle-class writer, soon begins to stare into space and converse with figures that no one else can see. The rather conservative chap with writer’s block adopts the pose of the eccentric, bohemian medium. Is this a quest for her secret? Charles may even suspect that he is successful because Elvira chides him, saying, “I think you might at least be a little more pleased to see me. After all, you conjured me up” (Coward 27). The power to conjure an effect is the crux of the matter. When Madame Arcati is tasked with putting the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, Charles is curious as to how, and asks, “what is the formula?” (71). The formula to undo the situation, similar to the rules of the séance, is a method to bring about a desired result. In this case, it is “a little verse” (71) which in plainer terms is just a combination of words. When Madame Arcati uses the verse to dematerialise Elvira, it has the unexpected result of materialising the ghost of Ruth! Earlier, when the living Ruth had enquired about exorcism, Madame Arcati had referred to “the old Bell and Book method” (47) but explained that it no longer worked. For a writer, the formula is always just a combination of words and the audience determine if it works now or is only fitting to a bygone era. The spiritualist’s formula is analogous to the formula on how to be a successful writer, something one will find endless advice on nowadays. Unexpected results in the field of writing can be explained by the chasm that sometimes separates authorial intent from readers’ interpretations.

Another striking similarity between a writer and a medium is the idea of a calling or vocation. Owen writes that it was not uncommon for female mediums to speak of “childhood intimations of spiritualist leanings which manifested themselves in prolonged daydreaming, visions, or rare flashes of clairvoyance” (42). Coward fittingly provides a most amusing line for Madame Arcati where she states – “I had my first trance when I was four years old and my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five and a half” (13). Additionally, just like a writer, a spiritualist must hone their craft until they have the necessary level of control over their work. Owen did extensive research on 19th century English mediums and explains how many of them mastered their gifts.

“Mediums must serve an apprenticeship which involved gaining control over the spirits and harnessing their power. It was this vital element of control that differentiated possession from derangement, and unsupervised novices dabbled with the spirit world at their peril” (Owen 44).

Madame Arcati has worked successfully as a medium for some time because as Charles says of her career as a medium, “Apparently she’s been a professional in London for years” (Coward 8). Her training in the art of writing seems no less professional, confirmed by her comment to Ruth about her writing schedule – “Every morning regular as clockwork, seven till one” (11). Inspiration alone is not sufficient if the artistic recipient does not have the requisite tools. Spiritualists and writers alike need to feel a calling to their tasks as well as going on to hone their crafts before maximum effect can be extracted from moments of ghostly visitation or artistic inspiration. The comic image of Charles copying Madame Arcati’s antics symbolises the lengths artists will go to in order to find the winning formula.


A great deal of the humour of Blithe Spirit is due to Coward’s superb caricature of spiritualists. Madame Arcati as a comic creation is practically flawless. What lies at the core of our interest in this character is probably her over-the-top, theatrical style. Although not on the stage, and only in front of a select group of people, Madame Arcati is nonetheless a performer. In The Darkened Room, Alex Owen gives us some insight into the showmanship of the most popular mediums in 1870s England, writing that, “The most famous of them could produce spectacular and theatrical seances during which invisible spirits played upon musical instruments, rapped out messages, and occasionally quite literally ‘materialised’” (5). Madame Arcati shows a similar flair, nonchalantly laying out the possibilities before her captivated audience.

“Madame Arcati: Of course, I cannot guarantee that anything will happen at all … On the other hand, a great many things might occur. One of you might have an emanation, for instance; or we might contact a poltergeist, which would be extremely destructive and noisy …  They throw things, you know” (Coward 18).

In the middle of Madame Arcati’s trance at the Condomines’, we are told in the stage directions that she “(suddenly gives a loud scream and falls off the stool on to the floor)” (20). This is an echo of spiritualist performances from a much earlier era. Alex Owen writes of how “The entire business of mediumship was, of course, superb theatre. Some of the best seances of the 1870s resembled nothing more than masterpieces of dramatic orchestration with young girls in the starring roles” (54). Many people say that theatricality is in the blood and Madame Arcati is literal proof of this because her own mother was a medium of the Victorian era, the era Owen writes about. In fact, Madame Arcati is aged “(between forty-five and sixty-five)” (10) which places her birth date between 1876 and 1896 (Coward’s play is dated 1941). Since Madame Arcati was a child prodigy in spiritualist terms, entering a trance at four years of age, then she has plausibly been performing since 1880!  The link is important as it ties into an important historical archive. To understand Madame Arcati is to begin to understand one of the few domains in which women could attain fame and influence in Victorian England.


Noel Coward looks at the value of having an established name in one’s field. One may call this fame or just a proven record of artistic integrity but in most cases it leads to financial security. Charles Condomine and Madame Arcati are established writers, meaning they have publishers and a proven audience. However, Madame Arcati is the more fascinating of the two as she works in separate disciplines, writing and spiritualism, but there are important links. It was as a medium that Madame Arcati first established her name (medium from childhood). She later utilized her established name and connections to enter into a second career as an author and this is a sign of her shrewdness and intelligence. Alex Owen gives many examples of how mediums made their names in the 19th century and such methods would also hold true for Madame Arcati given her age. For instance, mediums sometimes had magazine articles printed about them like the famous English medium Florence Cook – “In June 1871 Blyton published an article on Florence Cook in The Spiritualist, and other believers became aware for the first time of a new and promising young medium” (Owen 45). Promotion in the media usually came as a result of proven success and in the case of a medium, success was secured through materialisations. However, “Materialisation was considered difficult and dangerous to perform and was undoubtedly the acme of mediumistic development” (Owen 42). In Blithe Spirit, Madame Arcati is delighted with the news that Elvira has been materialised, saying, “At last! At last! A genuine materialization! … It’s tremendous! I haven’t had such a success since the Sudbury case” (Coward 45). The medium later explains the Sudbury case to Charles, noting, “It was the case that made me famous, Mr Condomine. It was what you might describe in theatrical parlance as my first smash hit!” (79). On that occasion, Madame Arcati dematerialized a spirit. The fame that the medium earned as a result was literally global and it is pertinent that she compares it to a theatrical success. It would be incorrect to think that spiritualism had decreased in popularity by the time Coward wrote his play. On the contrary, in Jenny Hazelgrove’s book, Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars, she writes that “Geoffrey Nelson, the only historian to comment in any detail on Spiritualism in the postwar period, designates the 1930’s as its ‘high water mark’” (14). Therefore, Madame Arcati’s recent success would have, in real life, caused a considerable media stir.

Mediumship was to Madame Arcati what modern readers would call an opportunity to social network. In the 19th century, the renowned English medium, “Daniel Dunglas Home, gave seances for the royalty and aristocracy of Russia, France, and Holland, and was eagerly sought after by the wealthy and titled in Britain” (Owen XII). It is most likely that Madame Arcati first struck up her personal relationship with Princess Palliatani in a similar fashion. This minor royal then serves as the subject of one of Madame Arcati’s books. It was not unknown for a medium to take up the profession of writing and Owen notes that “A few, like Madame Llancoré, who played the piano entranced and blindfolded whilst controlled by Mozart and Mendelssohn, managed to produce a novel and lucrative forms of entertainment which no doubt found favour with middle-class spiritualists” (61). That Madame Arcati successfully capitalized on her spiritualist fame with a writing career is evident and shows a savvy business mind. When she speaks of her current children’s book, she notes that “I have to finish it by the end of October to catch the Christmas sales” (Coward 11). While Charles Condomine’s work may be more high-brow, it is not necessarily more famous or lucrative than Madame Arcati’s. Alex Owen writes that very successful mediums could be the beneficiaries of rich patrons or receive the support of spiritualist societies but that the large majority were not so fortunate, “most were small-time mediums who remained heavily reliant on personal recommendation and their advertisements in the spiritualist press” (61). Madame Arcati remains a working medium but bolsters her financial security by adding the second skill of writing to her curriculum vitae. In this way, she gains a level of independence rare even among spiritualists. She is a formidable character whose understanding of the potential of fame is quite modern.

Women & power.

One falls too easily into the trap of mild misogyny when viewing Coward’s play. This occurs quite simply because we hear all the negative comments about Madame Arcati from her audience of social elites. Madame Arcati is seen by the Condomines (both the living & dead) as a charlatan and silly, old woman, and Dr. Bradman’s views are no different. In the aftermath of the séance, the assembled guests make references to the medium as “raving mad .. mad as a hatter” (Coward 24) and Dr. Bradman claims that even though her trance was real, this could be accounted for by “a form of hysteria” (25). The discrediting of a woman by recourse to the ‘disorder’ of hysteria is a reminder of the Victorian era. These dismissive remarks obscure what Madame Arcati additionally symbolizes within the story – an independent and intelligent woman. She effortlessly quotes Hamlet (44) and a line from a poem by François Villon entitled “Ballade of the Ladies of Time Past” (47). The poem references great women of history such as Joan of Arc, women who held prominent positions despite their gender or lack of a husband. This other side of Madame Arcati’s characterization is less obvious due to the comedic nature of the play. Given the history of English, female mediums, it is appropriate to consider Arcati’s level of power. Even though Madame Arcati’s methods are often haphazard, she still manages to relieve Charles Condomine of two tenacious, interfering, ghostly wives. She is the only person qualified to solve the problem and it is her gifts as a medium which set her apart from the others.

As a single woman, Madame Arcati’s mediumship allows her to not only provide for herself financially, but also to assert herself. It is impossible to ignore the example of Madame Arcati’s robust repartee with Dr. Bradman whose wife later remarks, “she certainly put you in your place, George, and serve you right” (24). This special role allowed to mediums may be traced back to issues of women’s rights in the previous century. Owen writes the following about the interconnection between women’s rights and spiritualism.

“It was no accident that spiritualism, a movement which privileged women and took them seriously, attracted so many female believers during a period of gender disjunction and disparity between aspiration and reality. Spiritualist culture held possibilities for attention, opportunity, and status denied elsewhere” (Owen 4).

It has already been established that Madame Arcati is an experienced medium and also has a career as an author. As Owen states, “Spiritualism validated the female authoritative voice and permitted women an active professional and spiritual role largely denied them elsewhere” (6). If one focuses on the female characters in Blithe Spirit, namely the current and former Mmes. Condomine, Mrs. Bradman, the maids Agnes and Edith and Madame Arcati, then only the last woman in this series has a profession. This is proof that times have not significantly changed for women since the heyday of spiritualism in England. Alex Owen provides a quote from the BNAS (British National Association of Spiritualists) in reference to the era of 1870 and 1880.

“The Association recognised that marriage often represented the only respectable means of support available to women – particularly middle-class women such as those of its own membership. The problem of the ‘distressed gentlewoman’ who, in the absence of a husband, had little realistic means of subsistence, struck home with some BNAS members” (Owen 33).

Marriage as a ‘respectable means of support’ seems quite an apt description for most of the marriages depicted in Blithe Spirit. The spinster, Madame Arcati, is treated as an amusement by Ruth Condomine and Mrs. Bradman, yet their independence is anchored to their husbands’ professions. Madame Arcati, though a figure of ridicule, stands detached from such concerns due to her independent income.


If one begins to focus on marriage, the subject at the centre of Coward’s play, then several issues come to the fore. Firstly, there is the very humorous aspect of Elvira’s love being eternal in an all too literal sense! As Elvira says to Charles – “There was a time when you’d have welcomed the chance of being with me for ever and ever” (Coward 67). The comedic delight generated by Coward’s resurrection of a 1st wife from the dead is the energy that propels his play. The second issue regarding marriage pertains to the subplot of the play and the question – why exactly was Elvira summoned at all? The possible explanations explored in the play are that Elvira desired to return to visit her husband Charles and this is true but apparently insufficient to cause her materialization. Then there is the fact that Charles discussed Elvira with Ruth just before the séance but Charles vehemently denies he wanted his former wife to return. Finally, Madame Arcati, having assessed the possibilities, says of the now-present spirits of Elvira and Ruth – “Neither of them could have appeared unless there had been somebody- a psychic subject – in the house, who wished for them” (79). This psychic subject is Edith, as the medium soon discovers thanks to her crystal ball. An unanswered question remains – why did Edith want the return of Elvira? The maid is new in the household so presumably never even met the former Mrs. Condomine.

The reason for summoning Elvira in Blithe Spirit may be explained by the posters for the movie adaptation of the play, for example the poster shown at the top of this essay. Like in many works of farce, sex is the answer. Charles says of Elvira, “I remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous” (4). His current wife, Ruth, is quite different and sexual satisfaction is not something she expects from her marriage, saying, “we’ve both been married before. Careless rapture at this stage would be incongruous and embarrassing” (5). Another interesting point is that Ruth’s former husband, who is now deceased, was much older than her. Charles, who is approximately 40 years old, remarks ironically that he hopes he hasn’t been a “disappointment” (5) to Ruth suggesting that sex may be, for her, an unwelcome expectation in a relationship. If Ruth committed herself to a decidedly middle-class marriage of convenience and her husband is sex-starved as a result then it comes close to explaining why Edith wishes for the return of Elvira the reckless femme-fatale who died laughing (literally). The answer to the mystery lies with Agnes the former maid. Agnes had become pregnant but Charles pleads ignorance to the reason for her departure, asking Ruth, “What do you suppose induced Agnes to leave us and go and get married? (2). Ruth curtly replies that “The reason was becoming increasingly obvious, dear” (2). Although we cannot say Charles is the father, his feigned lack of observational skills, especially for a novelist, are decidedly suspect. Furthermore, Ruth says, “You’re up to something, Charles – there’s been a certain furtiveness in your manner for weeks” (39). Ruth makes this observation on the day just after the séance so the timeframe corresponds with Agnes’ departure, rather than the current issue. Charles eventually admits to extramarital affairs when he was married to Elvira but he also says to Ruth, “I was reasonably faithful to you, Ruth, but I doubt if it would have lasted much longer” (85). Reasonably faithful is a nice euphemism for unfaithful. Perhaps Edith had heard of the former maid’s pregnancy or maybe Charles has a reputation as a ladies’ man, either way, she has cause to be concerned in her new job. The playwright, having opened the comedy with a tale of a pregnant maid, closes it with another maid in fear of her good reputation. Edith is hypnotised by Madame Arcati and then awakes to her surprise in her nightdress in the living room. At which point, Charles “(presses a pound note into her hands) [saying] Thank you very much indeed” (84). Edith’s response in her strong cockney accent is worthy of a classic, British, Carry On movie.

“Edith: Oh, sir, whatever for? (She looks at him in sudden horror) Oh, Sir!!”.

(Coward 84).

Noel Coward presents a scenario where a young, vulnerable house-maid is the potential prey of a sex-starved, over-sexed, middle-aged man. This scenario is, in large part, the result of a marriage of convenience between Ruth and Charles. Coward somewhat strangely directs our sympathies towards Charles in the end, who declares that – “You said in one of your more acid moments, Ruth, that I had been hag-ridden all my life! How right you were! But now I’m free” (85). The subtext of the play is that women have value only if they are sexualised like Elvira, or submissive and vulnerable like the housemaids. Marriage is repeatedly degraded as it is shown as an escape route, a mark of respectability, or a financial support. Only Madame Arcati stands aloof of the situation because she is free of the need to either marry or work a menial job for financial security.


The history of English spiritualism shows that women like Madame Arcati were always treated as oddities, however, despite the ridicule they endured, such women enjoyed a level of independence impossible in conventional society. Noel Coward’s depiction of an eccentric medium is a homage to show people. Madame Arcati sweeps into the Condomines’ lives and performs multiple séances, followed by materialisations and dematerialisations, and then departs leaving her audience in awe. No doubt, she is also a figure of fun but this popular character of stage and screen encompasses a whole spiritualist history too. Jenny Hazelgrove writes the following about female mediums:

“The authenticity of her identity was continually called into question, and demands were made upon her to produce ‘proof’, but what counted as ‘proof’ was itself a subject of doubt and conflict” (7).

What Hazelgrove describes is the plight of any artist because the proof is always artistic output. In writing Madame Arcati, Mr. Coward depicts a figure as adept at diversification as he was himself. She confounds her possibly more skilled contemporaries like Mr. Condomine because her artistic output is impressive. One may consider her an incorrigible rogue which is probably how Coward viewed her, but she is also interesting for all the reasons explored here.

Works Cited.

Coward, Noel. Blithe Spirit: An Improbable Farce in Three Acts. Samuel French, Inc., 1968.  

Hazelgrove, Jenny. Spiritualism and British society between the wars. Manchester University Press, 2000.  

Hoare, Philip. NoëlCoward: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 2013.  

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Virago Press, 1989. 

’night, Mother

Caramel apples.

  • Play title: ’night, Mother
  • Author: Marsha Norman
  • Published: 1983
  • Page count: 89


Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, ’night, Mother, was published in 1983. The work consists of a single scene between a middle-aged daughter named Jessie and her mother named Thelma. Norman sets her drama in an isolated house way out in the American countryside. Jessie is a highly introverted individual and even though she married and has an adult son, she has now returned to live with her mother after the breakup of her marriage. Thelma is a chatty, upbeat woman who takes life as it comes. The two women live in what seems like placid domesticity until one evening when Jessie reveals her grave unhappiness. The play looks at two lives that are so intertwined that there seems no space for secrets or surprises and yet they exist. The playwright depicts an uncomfortable and emotive conversation between the two women. The theme of the play is the loss of hope.

Ways to access the text: reading. 

’Night, Mother is available to read via the Open Library. Members of Scribd can also access a text of the play.

There are full length recordings of theatrical performances of the play available on YouTube. There is also a movie version from 1986 entitled ’night, Mother. However, I have not viewed any of these so I cannot comment on them.

Why read ’night, Mother

Talking about suicide.

In ’night, Mother, Jessie has had a long held intention to commit suicide and she finally reveals this to her mother. Even though this is announced quite early in the play, it still seems like a spoiler to share it with potential readers. However, the entire play revolves around the topic of suicide as Jessie delves into the hurt arising from her childhood, broken marriage, wayward son, epilepsy, and very restricted and lonely life. One’s focus is not only that Jessie suffers from suicidal ideation but also her surprising move to share the details with her mother. Suicide is often conveniently wrapped in a narrative that no one expected it from the individual concerned but Marsha Normal shatters that narrative. Jessie states clearly – “I’m going to kill myself, Mama” (13) and the rest of the play explores the reason, if any, for such a revelation especially if that suicide will go ahead at some point in the future. It would be difficult to classify the play as a depiction of a young woman’s cry for help, nor is the play a straightforward justification for suicide. ‘Night, Mother explores the gut wrenching discomfort of a daughter telling her mother that she wants to die.

Small lives.

Norman depicts two women from different generations but who have equally small lives. Jessie, for example, almost never leaves the house, has no friends, never takes holidays, and only found a husband due to her mother’s influence. Thelma likes doing needlework and watching television. What value do such lives hold? This question is not for an outsider to answer but for the individuals themselves. Is eating candy and watching television, like Thelma, a way of life? Apparently yes, but Jessie is different. The play shows how some people with small, restricted lives may become far more vulnerable to despair. The limited geographical space of the home, the restrictiveness of one’s daily routine, the expectations of one’s family – all of these pressures may negatively shape a life into something stifled.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

‘Unravelling the hopeless life of Jessie Cates.’


In ’night, Mother, Marsha Norman describes how the life of middle-aged Jessie Cates has become hopeless. Norman’s play is not based on a specific, real-life incidence of suicide but the playwright does open a valuable and complex discussion about the topic. What is often thought to be imponderable, namely why someone would end their own life, is the central discussion. The playwright’s work is a rebuttal to the often heard refrain of – ‘no one understands why they did it’. As readers or audience members, we witness the discussion between Jessie and her mother Thelma and during their interaction all doubt as to why suicide is the answer for Jessie is finally removed. The play is discomfiting because it confronts a topic that most people feel more comfortable ignoring or pleading ignorance to. People commit suicide for specific reasons and these reasons are not exclusively psychiatric illnesses. Life is full of impediments and challenges which are not always surmountable. Norman validates Jessie’s choice which upsets some readers and critics alike due to the emotive nature of any discussion about suicide. Interpretations of ’night, Mother, range from steadfast support for Norman’s depiction of a woman liberated from an unbearable existence to virulent opposition to the playwright’s apparent message that suicide is justifiable. I find that I fall midway between these poles of opinion, agreeing that Jessie makes the right choice but also seeking a fuller explanation for why, an explanation that pushes ’night, Mother to reveal where blame lies. Suicides happen for specific reasons and since Norman expertly opens this discussion, it is valuable to interrogate her play to find out who, or what, is to blame. After all, blame is often what is feared the most in the wake of a suicide.

Norman not only provides readers with an engaging depiction of Jessie in the play but she also gave invaluable insights into her work in interviews. For example, in 1987 Norman spoke to Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig for their book, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Norman said the following about ’night, Mother:

My sense of ‘night, Mother is that it is, by my own definitions of these words, a play of nearly total triumph. Jessie is able to get what she feels she needs. That is not a despairing act. It may look despairing from the outside, but it has cost her everything she has. If Jessie says it’s worth it, then it is” (Betsko and Koenig 339).

Norman’s stance did not find favour with some critics. For example, Sarah Reuning writes that “Marsha Norman describes her drama ‘night, Mother (1983) as ‘a play of nearly total triumph’– controversial words for a work in which the main character, a divorced epileptic, commits suicide” (55). Reuning’s perspective is clear when she writes, “I insist we understand depression in its medical context, for in so doing, we discover that Jessie’s suicide must be a relinquishing, rather than a regaining, of control” (55). It is a valid point that Jessie’s apparent depression is central to her decision but one may still disagree with Reuning’s view that suicide does not offer control to Jessie. Reuning writes – “I argue that despite Norman’s efforts to portray Jessie as a logical individual, Jessie’s thinking and behavior demonstrate a mental disability” (55). The crux of the disagreement here is if Jessie is competent to make her own decisions with Norman giving an affirmative answer and Reuning countering with a negative response. Norman’s stance directs one to look at what Jessie is being released from, whereas Reuning lays focus on the act of suicide as an incorrect choice. Taking Norman’s side, I would like to look at Jessie’s life as depicted in the play and pinpoint one turn, one decision, one problem, that above all others, leads to Jessie’s final decision to kill herself. The aim here is to eschew the shrouding of suicide in mystery routinely achieved by the refrain of ‘nobody knows why’ and grasp instead the nettle and say look, here it is, this is a solid, visible reason.

Jessie’s epilepsy.

The key question in ’night Mother is why Jessie commits suicide. When Jessie is preparing her mother for the future, she says, “somebody’s bound to ask you why I did it and you just say you don’t know” (Norman 71). It is common for the family and friends of suicide victims to state that they didn’t see any warning signs and that the deaths of their loved ones remain unfathomable. Marsha Norman challenges this norm by opening a discussion in the play. Jessie tells her mother that the reasons for her planned suicide are because, “I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used” (28). When Thelma suggests that the real reason for Jessie’s planned suicide is epilepsy then Jessie refutes this, saying, “It’s not the fits, Mama … you said it yourself, the medication takes care of the fits” (68). However, epilepsy is precisely the topic that readers of Norman’s play should focus upon. In ’night, Mother, the reason for Jessie’s suicide is not solely epilepsy but it is certainly the most compelling one. Much research has been done in recent years on epilepsy and one may readily consult academic essays on the topic such as “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?” and “Suicidal Ideation and Thoughts of Death in Epilepsy Patients.” Modern research on epilepsy allows one to nuance the old interpretations of Norman’s play. Even though Jessie’s marriage has failed, her son engages in criminality, and she is quite isolated, it is her illness that seems most relevant to her decision about ending her life.

Recent studies show that an epileptic like Jessie Cates is in a high risk category. According to Andrijić et al., “Suicide is an important cause of death in patients with epilepsy” (52) which is backed up by the statistic that “Suicide is present as a cause of death in 11% of patients with epilepsy which is significantly more than the rate of suicide in the general population of the USA” (52). In a study of 50 epilepsy patients, Andrijić et al. found that “depression is present in 52% of patients with epilepsy” (55). In “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?”, Alison Pack informs us that “People with epilepsy have a 5-fold increased risk of suicide” (236). Such studies allow a reader of ’night, Mother to hold an objective distance from Jessie’s emotive reasoning for her planned suicide and her denial that it has anything to do with her illness. Quite contrary to Jessie’s proclamation, one may indeed follow Thelma Cates’ intuition that her daughter’s illness is what has precipitated the suicidal ideation.

One may chart the repercussions of epilepsy in Jessie’s life from the evidence in Norman’s play. Points of interest are medication, stigmatization, duration of illness, heredity, and employability. The aim is not to dismiss the other contributing factors to Jessie’s suicide, for example her broken marriage, but to investigate the most influential reason for her decision to end her life.


When we first meet Jessie then her epilepsy is already well under control. Her mother reassures her that “You haven’t had a seizure for a solid year” (Norman 66) and Jessie responds, “Yeah, the phenobarb’s about right now” (66). Jessie refers here to a well-known medication called “Phenobarbital (phenobarbitone) [that] was first used as an antiepileptic drug 100 years ago, in 1912” (Yasiry and Shorvon 26). There are side-effects to using this medication, for example, even as early as “the 1920s, phenobarbital was recognized to cause sedation, but remarkably, it was better known, universally, for ‘clearing the mentality’” (Yasiry and Shorvon 29). Jessie attests to this latter benefit when she says, “The best part is, my memory’s back” (Norman 67). Another benefit for Jessie is that she has a lot more freedom due to the medication – “I’m even feeling like worrying or getting mad and I’m not afraid it will start a fit if I do, I just go ahead” (66). This remark is significant because one understands the level of emotional restriction Jessie grappled with before her diagnosis and subsequent treatment with medication. Therefore, while the medication has transformed Jessie’s current life, there is also a lot of unspoken history. A young woman who has spent most of her life avoiding strong emotions and challenging situations has an inbuilt propensity to deal with the world as one in constant fear. The medication facilitates Jessie’s painful and emotive conversation with her mother on the night depicted in the play, but unfortunately it is not a beginning but rather an ending. Jessie’s emotional openness is not what it should be, which is the commencement of a healing process. The newly found freedom has come too late.  


Illness and stigmatization often go hand in hand. In ‘Night, Mother, Jessie rejects the idea that her illness defines her. She tells her mother “It’s just a sickness, not a curse. Epilepsy doesn’t mean anything. It just is” (71). Is Jessie simply rebelling against the negative connotations of epilepsy or does she believe her words? Norman depicts how an ill daughter is invariably defined by her illness, most especially when things go wrong. For example, when Jessie begins to discuss suicide with her mother, then Thelma instinctively responds, “It must be time for your medicine” (13). The covert message of Thelma’s words is that Jessie is not fully competent. The tags of incompetence and illness serve to rob Jessie’s words of their meaning. Illness is not just a weakening of one’s body and a strain on the mind, but also a slur that may be used against one by others during times of conflict. Furthermore, Thelma confides in Jessie that their neighbour, Agnes, does not like visiting the house because of a superstitious belief regarding Jessie’s cold hands which are “like a corpse” (42). Sarah Reuning writes that “In ‘night, Mother, Jessie’s epileptic body embodies society’s fears concerning death, and the resulting ostracization Jessie faces increases her depression” (60). What is discomfiting for a reader, because it further complicates the story, is that “The epilepsy community is increasingly aware of the high percentages of psychiatric disorders among persons with epilepsy” (Pack 236). This means that Thelma Cates is correct to question her daughter’s competence when she speaks about suicide, yet this mother has also undermined her daughter for many years by stigmatizing a common and treatable illness. The situation is a form of catch-22. Thelma chose not to tell her daughter of her childhood fits because, in Thelma’s words, “make you feel like a freak, is that what I should have done?” (Norman 71). When Jessie finally gets a diagnosis then most of the harm has already been done in regard to Jessie’s self-image. Jessie attempts to disown the stigma, yet others persist in reapplying it to her.

Timeframe – duration of illness

Marsha Norman presents her readers/audience with an interesting timeframe in her play. The timeframe in question relates to Jessie’s epilepsy, when it was first diagnosed and medicated, and also to Jessie’s associated depression. Jessie says she has planned her suicide for some time with the specific marker of, “after Christmas, after I decided to do this” (77). Reuning’s close reading of the play uncovered clues that suggest “that ‘night, Mother takes place in autumn. Thus, Jessie has contemplated suicide continuously for at least eight months” (57).  The timescale of Jessie’s depression has apparently been for much longer because as she says, “If Dawson comes over, it’ll make me feel stupid for not doing it [suicide] ten years ago” (Norman 17). One could argue that this is the comment of a depressed person in a gloomy, retrospective mood but it is nonetheless an unignorable indication of a depression that long predates her diagnosis of epilepsy. Jessie’s epilepsy was only diagnosed after she fell from a horse and her husband suggested she seek medical advice. We cannot date the horse riding accident but we know that Jessie’s medication, after some adjustments, has worked well for a year now. The contrast is a diagnosis in the previous, let’s say 1.5 years, versus a depression of up to 10 years. Thelma had failed to tell her daughter that the epileptic fits actually began when Jessie was five years old. When Thelma admits this then Jessie responds – “Well, you took your time telling me” (69). The timeframe is crucial since Jessie could not live a full life before she started taking her medication. Jessie’s depression can be seen as inextricably linked to the quality of life that was possible for her in the intervening years.

Timeframe – heredity.

One may also look at the timeframe in regard to the biological inheritance within a family. Alison Pack writes that “Suicide attempts and recurrent suicide attempts are associated with epilepsy even before epilepsy manifests, suggesting a common underlying biology” (236). This information suggests a vulnerability in epileptic persons based on biology and therefore totally separate from quality of life issues. The same author goes on to state that “These [research] results suggest that the biological or genetic makeup (or both) of persons who are diagnosed with epilepsy also puts them at risk for suicidality” (Pack 237). Thelma admits to Jessie, “I think your daddy had fits, too” (Norman 62) and modern research supports hereditary/genetic elements to epilepsy. Thelma witnessed the detrimental, long-term effects of un-treated epilepsy in her husband but she still denied her daughter the benefit of an early diagnosis and suitable medication.

Upon analysis of the timeframes outlined in the play, one sees that Jessie was vulnerable on two wholly separate fronts, the biological side, and the quality of life side. Only via a diagnosis of epilepsy could such issues begin to be confronted. The different timeframes that Norman recounts literally frame the crushing and prolonged powerlessness and depression that Jessie suffered before being treated for epilepsy.


Employability is a major concern for people with epilepsy. Jessie Cates does not have a job and experience has shown that she cannot hold down a job. The topic of work is raised when Jessie admits her unhappiness to her mother who responds with the idea of getting a job. Jessie recalls a “telephone sales job” (35) that did not work out. Jessie’s experience of working and her potential to re-join the workforce is expressed in quite pessimistic terms. She says:

“I tried to work at the gift shop at the hospital and they said I made people real uncomfortable smiling at them the way I did. … The kind of job I could get would make me feel worse” (Norman 35).

In a study conducted by Andrijić et al., it was “shown that suicidal ideation in epilepsy patients is independently and significantly related to the level of hopelessness (BHS score) and unemployment as an important psychosocial factor” (55). Jessie was previously unable to cope with the outside world because she had always been so isolated and protected at home, due to illness. Jessie’s new status as seizure-free, thanks to her medication, does not impact on her pessimistic world view. A job would mean independence for Jessie both financially and socially but her lifestyle up to now has not prepared her for a job outside the home. Without the prospect of a job, and without hope, Jessie is shown to be in a particularly vulnerable position but one which is not unusual for sufferers of epilepsy.


The sum total of the repercussions of Jessie’s epilepsy may be seen as creating a sense of hopelessness. Amy Wenzel and Megan Spokas write that “Hopelessness, or negative expectations for the future, is the cognitive variable most extensively studied by suicidologists” (236). The authors go on to write that “Hopelessness is a more potent variable than depression in accounting for suicidal behavior, and it explains the association between a number of established risk factors and suicidal behavior” (237). Sarah Reuning’s article on ‘night, Mother, presents a very compelling case for diagnosing Jessie as depressed. Unfortunately, such a diagnosis brings its own stigma and impels a reader of Norman’s play to doubt Jessie’s competency to make any informed decision. On the other hand, if one looks at hopelessness and its links to suicide then Jessie’s plight becomes more relatable and her decisions more lucid. There are many theories as to why individuals commit suicide, one is called the “Cry of Pain model” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). This specific model helps explain Jessie’s actions in ’night, Mother. We learn that “According to the CoP model, there is an increased likelihood of suicidal behavior when people experience stressful or negative life events associated with four psychological characteristics” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). These characteristics are as follows:

“The individual experiences a sense of defeat and loss.”

“The individual cannot escape the situation … views himself or herself as trapped.”

“The person has little hope for rescue.”

“The perception of entrapment induces learned helplessness, which promotes beliefs that the person will not be able to change his or her life experiences” (Wenzel and Spokas 247).

In contrast to a more traditional view of a person seeking attention through self-harm, “The ‘cry’ is the suicidal act in which the person engages as a reaction to his or her painful life circumstances and psychological state” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). In Norman’s play, Jessie is reacting to her circumstances and she clearly states that she feels that nothing will change in the future. The following quotes sum up Jessie’s perspective on life.

“I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse” (Norman 28).

“And I can’t do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work. But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there’s nothing on I want to listen to” (Norman 36).

If one had to name a single issue that has always affected Jessie and that acts as a foundation to most of her problems in adult life, then it is epilepsy. To follow the Cry of Pain model, Jessie has a sense of defeat and loss (loss of independence, job loss, husband loss, problem son), she is trapped (living with her mother), she has no hope of rescue (no career, no romantic partner, no social life), and finally, she has learned helplessness because her mother chose to infantilize her rather than tell her the truth. Jessie responds to this situation with suicide as the chosen solution. However, Marsha Norman does not present her audience with the story of an epileptic who commits suicide, she presents us with epilepsy at the centre of Jessie’s life and how the world reacts to Jessie’s illness, how Jessie reacts to her illness, and the tangle upon tangle that results over time.

Apportioning blame.

Suicide is a serious risk factor for those with epilepsy but never a fate. Something else is depicted in Norman’s play, a wrong turn at some stage that we may glimpse. When Norman spoke with Betsko and Koenig about her work, she made a general observation, saying, “I’m also interested in the issue of protection, that, in fact, it’s not possible to protect each other. And the efforts to protect each other are often the most dangerous things that we do” (331). The most dangerous thing that Thelma Cates does is protect her daughter from understanding her own illness and this is crucially where one may find blame in the play. After revealing Jessie’s long history of epileptic seizures, Thelma defends herself saying – “You never hurt yourself. I never let you out of my sight. I caught you every time” (Norman 70). Out of love for her daughter, Thelma dispossessed Jessie of a problem thus also robbing her of the potential tools to deal with that problem. As Jessie tells her mother, “That was mine to know, Mama, not yours” (70). Jessie chastises her mother for not telling her sooner because, as she states, “If I’d known I was an epileptic, Mama, I wouldn’t have ridden any horses” (71). The horse riding incident where Jessie’s problem first became apparent to her husband, Cecil, is an unsolved riddle in the play because it may or may not have precipitated the end of her marriage. Thelma interprets it as the cause by saying to Jessie, “your fits made him sick and you know it” (56). Jessie denies this but admits that many normal things were a huge effort for her – “I tried to get more exercise and I tried to stay awake … but he [Cecil] always knew I was trying so it didn’t work” (59). Jessie does not blame her mother, but as a reader, one may understand an early misstep by a parent that disproportionately shapes Jessie’s life.

Do suicidal persons sometimes apportion blame? Yes, and they may discuss it with a therapist or with a friend or family member before a suicide, or it may be written on a suicide note. When discussing the merits of ’night, Mother, the playwright herself says, “I felt that if you were going to talk about suicide, there was really no way to talk about it without having someone argue back” (Betsko and Koenig 330). In the early 1980’s, this was what made Norman’s play distinctive from other theatrical works that avoided facing the topic head on. The argument between Jessie and Thelma about the merits and demerits of suicide is certainly the debate of the play but is there really no blame signalled in this argument? Norman asserts that no blame is apportioned in her play, that Jessie “wants Mama to live, and to live free of the guilt that Mama might have felt had Jessie just left her a note” (Betsko and Koenig 328). This is reflected in one of Jessie’s statements in the play:

“I only told you so I could explain it, so you wouldn’t blame yourself, so you wouldn’t feel bad. There wasn’t anything you could say to change my mind. I didn’t want you to save me. I just wanted you to know” (Norman 74).

On the other hand, even a cursory glance at the text of the mother-daughter narrative exhibits several red-flag issues. The most apparent is that Thelma betrayed her daughter’s trust by never revealing her history of epilepsy until the night Jessie plans to commit suicide. The blame game is usually interpreted as unhealthy and unhelpful especially in the case of a suicide since the damage is irreversible but Norman leads us into the middle of an emotive argument so maybe apportioning blame is constructive and ultimately meaningful.

Suicide narrative.

Norman depicts a suicide narrative within the frame of a theatrical play. Jeremy Holmes, a contributor to the book, Phenomenology of Suicide, writes that “Finding ways to develop a ‘suicide narrative’ enables death-preoccupied sufferers to talk about, rather than enact, suicidal impulses” (114). He goes on to state that, “The suicide narrative is an attempt to impose meaning on the inchoate life experience integral to suicidality, to ‘make sense’ of incomprehensible and overwhelming negative affect” (114). Jessie engages in such a narrative with her mother, Thelma. In spite of Thelma’s efforts, nothing she says or does serves to dissuade Jessie from her plan but the mere fact that Jessie engages in a suicide narrative indicates an inconclusiveness to her own internal debate. Since we know that Jessie’s plan is unalterable, the playwright turns the suicide narrative on its head because the normal, desired result of saving the person is not a possibility here! So why does Jessie discuss the plan with her mother? The suicide narrative that Jessie engages in does not have a future but only seeks confirmation on issues from the past – it is a reinforcement of an idea that something already went wrong, long ago, and cannot be fixed now. The missing piece of Jessie’s plan is a show of control because this is the one thing that she has been unable to exhibit during her life.

Jessie’s exercise of control is, unfortunately, also an allocation of blame. For Jessie to take command of her life, she must wrestle it from her over-protective mother’s grip. The suicide narrative is an argument where Jessie wins and must know that she can win for the plan to be worthwhile. Thelma inevitably interprets this as a condemnation of everything she has done and been for her daughter, saying, “you gave me this chance to make it better, convince you to stay alive, and I couldn’t do it. How can I live with myself after this, Jessie?” (Norman 73). Jessie acknowledges this point, advising her mother on what to say to people – “You had no idea. All right? I really think it’s better that way. If they know we talked about it, they really won’t understand how you let me go” (82). Jessie’s awareness of her mother’s dilemma makes these words all the crueller because it becomes a new secret for Thelma to carry, like the long held secret of Jessie’s epilepsy. After Jessie has taken her own life, Thelma’s final words in the play are, “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (89). In this statement is love, regret, and the acknowledged loss of control. For once, Jessie has been in total charge of the situation and her choice not to leave a suicide note but to speak with her mother confirms this.


Norman’s play, ’night, Mother, continues to be a valued and valuable piece of modern literature. The playwright confronts her readers with a discussion about suicide that accurately reflects the hopelessness and powerlessness that people feel in such situations. The motif of – nobody understands why they did it – often heard in the aftermath of suicides is brought under intense scrutiny by Norman. The story of the play induces discomfort in an audience because there are always clues when something has gone wrong in a person’s life. If the play depicts Jessie finally in triumph, then it also depicts a tragedy for Thelma Cates. This mother is not cruel, or unloving, or neglectful, and yet she doesn’t understand her daughter, saying finally in desperation – “Jessie! Stop this! I didn’t know! I was here with you all the time. How could I know you were so alone” (Norman 88). What was a small but tolerable, even happy life for Thelma was unbearable for Jessie.

At the opening of this essay, I set out to locate the turn where it went wrong for Jessie Cates. The answer lies in a single, potent act made by an overprotective, controlling mother. Jessie never truly shaped her own life, as has been explained, but instead she ever so slowly lost more and more control over what happened – “I am what became of your child … It’s somebody I lost, all right, it’s my own self. Who I never was” (Norman 76). The reason that Jessie initially lost control was because her mother shielded her from a diagnosis of epilepsy. Jessie’s illness went on to shape every little aspect of her life, causing irreparable damage by the time she reached middle age. The only way that Jessie perceived she could regain control was by committing suicide because as she tells her mother, “I’m not giving up! This is the other thing I’m trying” (75). The guaranteed solution is sad and also a triumph (as the playwright labels it) because one must respect a decision made after so many years of experience.

Works Cited.

Andrijić, Nataša Loga, et al. “Suicidal Ideation and Thoughts of Death in Epilepsy Patients.” Psychiatria Danubina, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2014, pp. 52-55.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Holmes, Jeremy. “Suicide and Deliberate Self-Harm: When Attachments Fail.” Phenomenology of Suicide, edited by Maurizio Pompili, Springer, 2018, pp. 113-130.

Norman, Marsha. ‘Night, Mother. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Pack, Alison M. “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?” Epilepsy Currents, Vol. 16, Issue 4, 2016, pp. 236-238.

Reuning, Sarah. “Depression – the Undiagnosed Disability in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother.” Peering Behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater, edited by Thomas Fahy and Kimball King, Routledge, 2002, pp. 55-67.

Wenzel, Amy, and Megan Spokas. “Cognitive and Information Processing Approaches to Understanding Suicidal Behaviors.” The Oxford Handbook of Suicide and Self-Injury, edited by Matthew K. Nock, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 235-254.

Yasiry, Zeid, and Simon D. Shorvon. “How phenobarbital revolutionized epilepsy therapy: The story of phenobarbital therapy in epilepsy in the last 100 years.” Epilepsia, Vol. 53, (Suppl. 8), 2012, pp. 26–39.


  • Play title: Sweat  
  • Author: Lynn Nottage   
  • First performed: 2015   
  • Page count: 114


Sweat by Lynn Nottage is set in Reading, Pennsylvania. The play tells the story of a town undergoing deindustrialization and the resulting negative effects on the local residents. The main characters are middle-aged, factory workers named Cynthia and Tracey, but we also meet their respective sons, Chris and Jason, around whom crucial scenes revolve. Nottage explores the lives of black, white, and mixed-race Americans in a job market that becomes increasingly competitive. The events depicted in the work take place in the years 2000 and 2008. Each scene in this two-act play begins with a summary of news stories, mainly related to national politics and the stock market but also covering local events in Reading. The style of the work is realism which reflects that Nottage went to Reading and “spent two and a half years interviewing residents” (Crompton). The themes of the work are deindustrialization, friendship, competition, powerlessness, racism, and violence. The climactic scene of Sweat exposes how the rage stirred up in small communities as a result of job losses and shattered dreams rarely finds a healthy outlet. 

Ways to access the text: reading.  

The full text of Sweat may currently be sourced online via the following webpage - 

If you’re already a member of Scribd then you will be able to access the play via the website. 

Nottage is a contemporary playwright so you may consider purchasing her work to support her.  

Reasons to read Sweat. 

21st-Century, American workers.  

Nottage looks at the plight of American workers in an era of increasing globalization. The example of Reading, Pennsylvania, is one which reflects a broader debate in modern economies. The fundamental question is how workers should, or even can, respond to an ever-changing industrial landscape? In Sweat, the example of NAFTA is used to highlight what may occur when old boundaries between countries disappear due to new, trade agreements. Should companies continue to pay their staff good wages if they have the option to relocate and employ a much cheaper workforce? What Nottage scrutinizes is how the threat of such action erodes the beginning, negotiating position of American workers. However, the playwright avoids a simplistic good guy/bad guy scenario and presents readers with the messiness of real-life situations. There is also no ‘good-ole-days’ in Sweat, only work conditions that remain forever in a state of flux. What the play does explore is the proposition that unskilled workers have long since lost the battle.  

Interpersonal competition.  

Sweat depicts a long-standing group of friends & workers who must respond to sudden deindustrialization in their region. What begins as a fight between factory-workers and factory-bosses slowly transforms into worker versus worker. This shift in focus is from a hierarchical dispute with industrialists on top and unskilled workers at the bottom, to the divisions that appear laterally between workers. The lesson one learns is that when workers’ job security is taken away then interpersonal competition increases exponentially. Former friends become enemies and latent prejudices begin to surface. It is open to interpretation in the play if this is presented as a natural consequence of the hot-house environment of industrial unrest or if it is something that may be orchestrated by certain actions of selfish industrialists. In either case, Nottage depicts the ugliness that people face when forced into dog-eat-dog competitive circumstances. 

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.  

Dismantling the American Worker:

“You’re dealing with vipers. The game’s changed! They’ll lock you out” (Nottage 91). 


Lynne Nottage’s Sweat addresses the interlaced topics of deindustrialization and interpersonal conflict. Through the playwright’s technique of alternating between past events from the year 2000 and present events in 2008, she depicts how the factory workers lose not just their jobs but how their entire lives undergo negative upheavals. In a way, the deindustrialization of the city of Reading is a lesson in how to dismantle an American worker. The stereotypical image of a factory-floor assembly line becomes the space where workers’ lives are disassembled. In this essay, I will look at the issues that underlie the doomed future that Nottage depicts. There are two primary relationships that must be investigated to understand Sweat and they are the relationship between employer and worker, and then between worker and fellow worker. The first of these relationships is relatively easy to understand because it is based chiefly on financial profitability. Nottage references NAFTA and this informs the increasingly globalized nature of doing business and the pressures and opportunities that companies encounter. The second relationship, namely worker and fellow worker, opens a far more complex discussion. The big question in the play is why the workers’ demands fail? Are they outmanoeuvred and ultimately sabotaged by wily industrialists or does their infighting fatally fracture the united front that would be required to secure their futures? In order to comprehend the situation depicted in the play, one needs to look to the psychology of cooperation, competition, and conflict while also paying attention to factors like NAFTA. Nottage depicts the fall of the unskilled American worker but within her play are clear messages as to why this happens.

Everyday language.  

In the context of an escalating, industrial dispute, and fractured friendships between fellow workers then language becomes a natural focal point in a dramatic representation. The characters in Sweat are plain-speaking which is a realistic depiction of factory workers. In fact, the language of Nottage’s play is deceptively simple because what she actually achieves is a vivid articulation of all the points of conflict between industrialists and workers, and indeed, between workers and fellow workers. Plain language clearly and efficiently delineates the conflict at hand. Nottage is not afraid to use derogatory terms in her work when they will give a reader/viewer an immediate understanding of the emotions and mindsets of characters. Uncensored language also reveals the fault lines in relationships like old grudges, prejudices, and suspicions. The cool, assured, authoritarian voice of the industrialist is never heard in the play because there is no specific representative of Olstead’s factory and therefore we only learn of the changes to the factory’s operations via the workers’ narratives. The dividing wall between the office staff and the worker on the factory floor is not just an architectural reality, or a perception, it is a very real block in lines of communication. Nottage emphasizes how workers are abandoned by their employers, pushed out, and eventually, locked out. The inability of the factory floor workers to truly engage on a one-to-one basis with their enemy is a salient point in the play. The Olstead family, while known to the workers, never appear on the work floor anymore and certainly do not engage in direct negotiations with workers. The anger that workers rightfully feel when confronted with demands for pay cuts may only be unleashed on trade union officials or fellow workers – all of whom have essentially the same interests and therefore are not enemies. When workers vent their frustrations then we hear emotive words like ‘traitor’, ‘cowards’, and ‘spic’. The chasm between those in power and ordinary workers serves as a prompt to investigate Nottage’s play’s depiction of infighting. Olstead’s decision to cut costs and even relocate is the headline news of the play but Nottage directs us to look also at the nitty-gritty of how personal relationships dissolve under the pressure of job losses and increased competition.

The psychology of cooperation, competition, and conflict.   

In a sense, Sweat is a faithful depiction of how industrial disputes fail the workers involved. In order to adequately frame what Nottage depicts, one may turn to theories that cover subjects like cooperation, competition, and conflict resolution. Morton Deutsch, an American social psychologist authored an essay entitled “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond” which proves helpful when looking at the social dynamic that Nottage depicts. One certainly need not intellectualize an interpretation of the play but Deutsch’s essay helps one understand why the workers’ demands are so ineffectual. While the play may appear a straightforward elegy for well-paid, unionized, factory jobs in America, Nottage does not present a clear-cut argument for this interpretation. For one, the factory jobs appear to be uncompetitively well-paid. Secondly, the failure of the workers’ demands may be the result of the factory’s strategy of divide and conquer achieved through Cynthia’s promotion. Thirdly, NAFTA is identified by the factory workers as the root of the problem but this suggests that only trade deals have destroyed the coveted ‘good job’ of old, rather than inevitable cuts to inflated wages or the underhand strategies of industrialists. There are multiple possible reasons for why Olstead’s eventually decide to employ picket-line-breaking workers instead of their old staff members. However, a broader theoretical perspective about how the workers react to change offers a reader the chance to understand the interactions between these workers, and between workers and employer. It appears that the various interactions mainly between workers themselves finally destroy their chance of victory over the industrialist’s interests. Nottage’s portrayal of racism, ageism, and classism signal that tensions already exist just beneath the surface of the Reading community. Such tensions show that cooperation is already damaged.

In “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond”, Deutsch provides an overview to some of his lifelong work. The major points that one may summarize from his text are as follows. When writing about people’s competitive relations, he identifies “two basic types of goal interdependence: positive … and negative” (278). Deutsch explains the difference, “To put it colloquially, if you’re positively linked with another, then you sink and swim together; with negative linkage, if the other sinks, you swim, and if the other swims, you sink” (279). Using Sweat as the example, the factory workers have a goal interdependence which is positive, identifiable as such since it has many of the traits Deutsch identifies: “liking one another … holding common membership [the Union] … common enemy [Olstead’s]” (279). Positive interdependence is the label one may use to describe the workers at the outset of the play. Deutsch writes that “the existence of a conflict implies some form of interdependence” (279). There is interdependence between the workers who form a group, and then separately between that group and the factory owners. In the example of Sweat, the common enemy of the workers is the Olstead family. Once industrial relations deteriorate, then the goal interdependence between the factory and the workers’ group is negative because they each will be “rewarded in such a way that the more the other gets of the reward, the less one gets” (279). This is the scenario where you swim if the other party sinks! As such, the dynamic of the play is easily understandable within a theoretical framework. It is really just a question of who is dependent on who and then whether it is a positive or negative scenario. Deutsch also points out a salient point which applies to the relationship between the workers and the factory in Nottage’s play – “asymmetries may exist with regard to the degree of interdependence in a relationship; suppose that what you do or what happens to you may have a considerable effect on me, but what I do or what happens to me may have little impact on you” (279). Since the factory can and does replace existing workers with cheaper labour then the negative goal interdependence between the factory and its workers is actually a situation that favours the factory since the interdependence is asymmetrical from the outset.

It is relatively clear why the industrialists in Sweat engage in negative interdependence and the reason is financial gain. Savings made by cutting staff wages and pensions along with possible gains through relocation will ultimately increase company profits. However, the relations between the workers in the group are much more complex. Yes, one may categorize the workers’ relationship in the beginning as positive interdependence but their once solid relationship ultimately unravels. Deutsch asserts that cooperation and competition are both underpinned by three social psychological processes, namely “substitutability, cathexis, and inducibility” (279). Using these terms, one may decipher what occurs in Sweat and why the workers ultimately fail. Deutsch’s three terms are defined by him as follows:

“Substitutability: Unless the activities of other people can substitute for yours, you are like a person stranded on a desert island alone.  

Cathexis refers to the predisposition to respond evaluatively, favorably, or unfavorably to aspects of one’s environment or self. 

Inducibility refers to the readiness to accept another’s influence to do what he or she wants; negative inducibility refers to the readiness to reject or obstruct fulfillment of what the other wants” (Deutsch 280). 

According to Deutsch, these three processes are “involved in creating the major effects of cooperation and competition” (279).  In easy terms, if one is in a cooperative relationship like the factory workers then one will accept that others may perform different tasks to you (substitutability), for example, on a factory production line. Furthermore, one will respond positively (cathexis) to one’s work environment, and one will be readily influenced (inducibility) by fellow workers on your team. However, there is “a natural tendency for cooperation to break down” (Deutsch 282) and the breakdown may be attributed to these exact same processes. The negative turns that may occur are that substitutability turns into specialization and therefore produces inequality between workers in a factory setting. We witness this when Cynthia is promoted because her new task indicates a specialization that her old friends do not qualify to perform. The second point is cathexis which “can lead to in-group favoritism, clique formation, nepotism, and so on” (282) and these problems are clearly shown in Sweat. Finally, inducibility can lead to “excessive conformity” (282). The negative side of inducibility is easily perceptible when one considers that “You are willing to be helpful to another whose actions are helpful to you, but not to someone whose actions are harmful” (280). The cooperative relationship that certainly existed between the group of factory workers in Olstead’s was not without its flaws before the industrial dispute. However, cooperation breaks down totally and becomes competition within the group of workers for precisely the reasons Deutsch outlines. Cynthia’s promotion causes a rift (specialization) and her fellow workers no longer accept that she is on their side (inducibility). Nottage also shows us that there had long been work cliques in Olstead’s as well as obvious nepotism (cathexis). With the emergence of a competitive relationship comes the belief that each worker must fight for their individual jobs and no longer trust their old colleagues. 

The pattern of behaviour displayed by the workers in Sweat is somewhat predictable when one consults Deutsch’s writings. His focus is “a theory of conflict resolution” (283) and the crucial question he asks is, “What determines whether a conflict will take a constructive or destructive course?” (283). A key point is that cooperative relationships prove most effective and Deutsch writes that “earlier research on the effects of cooperation and competition had indicated that a cooperative process was more likely to lead to constructive conflict resolution and a competitive process to a destructive resolution” (283). The Olstead factory bosses pursue a competitive course and do not deviate from this plan. For the industrialist, cooperation means compromise and this is deemed unnecessary in the current situation, a point that will be discussed further in the context of NAFTA. On the other side is a group of workers whose interpersonal relationships have a huge effect on their prospects of success. Since the workers are forced into a competitive process with the factory, and then fall into competition with one another, they experience a truly destructive resolution which Nottage outlines by reference to people losing their jobs, homes, succumbing to substance abuse, serving jail time etc. Deutsch gives a summation of how what one sees on the surface of a dispute is actually determined by the type of relationship, the actions taken, and various psychological processes. His summation is as follows:

“The surface effects of cooperation and competition are due to the underlying type of interdependence (positive or negative) and type of action (effective or bungling), the basic social psychological processes involved in the theory (substitutability, cathexis, and inducibility), and the cultural or social medium and situational context in which these processes are expressed” (Deutsch 284).  

For readers of Sweat, it is not particularly enlightening to state that a breakdown of cooperation leads to failure. Nottage depicts a nuanced situation where an industrial dispute taints practically every aspect of the workers’ lives and futures. Using Deutsch’s terms, one may burrow down into why the bonds between the workers deteriorate so badly. 

The breakdown of cooperation.  

Cynthia plays a pivotal role, albeit unintentionally, in the deterioration of the bonds between the factory workers. As previously noted, her promotion (substitutability) from the work floor to the offices serves to distance her from her friends, especially Tracey. Cynthia is aware that her promotion may have been a strategic move by the company to sow discord.  She says to Stan – “I wonder if they [Olstead’s] gave me this job on purpose. Pin a target on me so they can stay in their air- conditioned offices” (93). This is an interesting point because if the company deliberately pins a target on Cynthia, then they are orchestrating the breakdown of worker solidarity and this shows an astute understanding of the psychology of conflict. Deutsch writes that “The basic psychological orientation of cooperation implies the positive attitude, “We are for each other,” “We benefit one another;” competition, by contrast, implies the negative attitude “We are against one another” and, in its extreme form, “You are out to harm me” (280). Cynthia’s promotion drives a wedge of resentment between her and her fellow workers and friends. Furthermore, Cynthia is tasked with communicating the company’s negative news about wage cuts etc. In response, Tracey demands that Cynthia “Fight for us!” (89) but trust has already been broken and the workers perceive that Cynthia has changed sides in the fight (inducibility). Deutsch sets out the dilemma as follows, “if you are in a positive interdependent relationship with someone who bungles, the bungling is not a substitute for effective actions you intended; thus, the bungling is viewed negatively” (280). Cynthia is perceived to bungle by her co-workers but in fact she has no real influence over the company’s managerial decisions. She then becomes a convenient target for the anger of her fellow workers. As Deutsch predicts, when one looks at the type of interdependence, the actions, and the psychological processes involved here then what one sees on the surface, namely the anger towards Cynthia, is predictable. 

Work cliques and nepotism are the negative sides of cathexis and both are in evidence in Sweat. The factory has been, to a large extent, the preserve of white, unionized workers and new workers always needed insider approval. Since the work clique translates as mostly white workers then one must address the issue of racism. However, nepotism may first be tackled as it provides a convenient lead in. The tradition of nepotism is made clear in Tracey’s conversation with Oscar. When he produces a flyer advertising jobs at Olsteads, Tracey explains “that’s not how it works” (63). Tracey states that “First off, you gotta be in the union” (63) and “Anyway. You gotta know somebody to get in. My dad worked there, I work there and my son works there. It’s that kinda shop. Always been” (63). The rebuff that Oscar receives from Tracey concludes with her saying, “Olstead’s isn’t for you” (65). It is ironic that during this conversation, Tracey praises her own grandfather who was a migrant worker from Germany while she ostracizes a fellow citizen of Reading based on the fact that he is from a migrant background. When Oscar eventually crosses the picket line then he feels no regret. This is because he had repeatedly asked but failed to get a reference for a job at Olstead’s from the local bar’s patrons. In fact, as he explains, he got “nothing but pushback” (107). Oscar recounts his father’s experience of being blocked from joining a union – “My father, he swept up the floor in a factory like Olstead’s—those fuckas wouldn’t even give him a union card” (108). In Sweat, Nottage portrays a closed system which is a prime example of inequality and therefore any attempt to break open the system cannot be viewed as wholly negative. Deutsch explains that nepotism as the negative side of cathexis is merely a psychological process that may occur in a relationship of positive interdependence. At a simpler level, Nottage is informing her audience that even cooperative relationships like between the factory workers can still have quite negative aspects.

In the context of the play, the aforementioned work cliques become a euphemism for racism. Some present day examples are highlighted but racism has existed at Olstead’s factory for a long time. Cynthia gives personal testimony of this when speaking with Stan at the bar. She says “You know what’s crazy, when I started at the plant it felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us” (93). The word ‘us’ refers specifically to African-Americans and Cynthia’s original offer of employment was notably unusual given the factory’s history. The factory worker clique of all white staff is broadened by the employment of African American staff but a clique always suggests an ‘us versus them’ scenario, an inbuilt inequality. Cynthia goes on to explain the value of her job because, as she says, “I’ve stood on that line, same line since I was nineteen. I’ve taken orders from idiots who were dangerous, or even worse, racist” (99). What is evident from Cynthia’s account is that regardless of past problems, this job was her lucky break and therefore she is unwilling to leave her job despite the current problems. In this light, Cynthia’s promotion may have been an exceptionally cynical move by the factory as they favoured someone who was all too conscious of her lucky break in the first place and therefore unlikely to let down the factory. Cynthia’s unusual position as a black worker in a mostly white work force also comes to the fore when racism re-emerges during the dispute, for example, Jessie says “Tracey’s been going around town whispering that the only reason Cynthia got the job is cuz she’s black” (66). Tracey devalues Cynthia’s achievement by telling Oscar “I betcha they wanted a minority” (64). Targets of racism like Cynthia and Oscar are from quite different backgrounds and yet they fare equally badly in the current situation. Jason turns on Oscar for crossing the picket line, referring to him as “That fucking spic” (117) and saying “What the fuck does he have, huh? A green card that gives him the right to shit on everything we worked for?” (118). While this is blatant racism, it is helpful to understand how it links to a long standing clique of mostly white workers at the factory. Such cliques are threatened in times of industrial unrest. When cooperation breaks down then competition shows itself in many unsavoury guises.

Nottage depicts what Deutsch theorized, namely that cooperation has a natural tendency to break down. In answer to the question posed at the start of the essay – does the workers’ infighting destroy their chances of success? The simple answer is yes, but when one looks at the psychology of the situation including old problems (work clique and nepotism) and new problems (breakdown of trust) then blaming the workers seems erroneous. On the other hand, Cynthia’s promotion is a key factor in the disintegration of trust between the workers. Olstead’s, a company that employed almost exclusively white staff decides to promote an African-American just before cost cutting measures and tasks this newest member of the office staff with communicating the company’s unpalatable plans for wage cuts. This is a deliberate decision by an employer that appears cynical and strategic. Olstead’s tactic makes it far less likely that the workers will be able to hold a united front. One is reminded of the well-known saying – united we stand, divided we fall. When we meet Cynthia again in 2008 then she has also lost her job at Olstead’s and her house too, so she is hardly rewarded for her unenviable task. Her son Chris recalls how when he was a child, his father Brucie motivated fellow workers to picket their factory. Chris tells how the men “looked like warriors, arms linked, standing together” (105) and how this contrasts with the current situation, “listening to Lester [Union official] tell us about what we’d have to sacrifice to keep the plant running” (105). Nottage’s message is that apart from workers’ solidarity or a company’s attempts to sabotage that solidarity, times have simply changed.

When considering what goes wrong for the workers then one needs to consider two other big topics in the play which are wages and NAFTA. The playwright maintains a surprisingly dispassionate approach when she tackles the subject of workers’ inflated wages. This point just underlines that Nottage does not seek to oversimply what is a complex situation. We also gain vital insight into NAFTA which created an entirely new scenario for American workers. It is worth looking at both of these issues before allotting blame to one single party or individual for the ills depicted in the play.

Over-inflated wages.  

In Sweat, many problems existed ever before the industrial relations unrest. The myth of good old times versus troubled current times is not a picture that Nottage sells her readers. There are unresolved, old problems such as over-inflated wages for unskilled jobs, along with the racism and nepotism previously discussed. In the introduction to scene five of act two, we are told that “200 people camp overnight at a Reading electronics superstore hoping to be the first to buy the $350 Sony PlayStation 2” (106). The general message is that competitively priced goods sell well, and the covert message is that such goods cannot be produced with an expensive workforce. There are clear indications that the workforce of Olsteads’ is exceptionally well paid, probably over paid. For example, Chris talks of becoming a teacher but Jason tells him that he will need a second job just to pay his bills because of teachers’ poor salaries and Stan concurs, saying “Seriously, son, not many people walk away from Olstead’s, cuz you’re not gonna find better money out there” (46). Stan adds that, “I know a couple of the old guys who are bringing in close to forty-something dollars an hour” (46). It is evident that the Olsteads’ staff earn disproportionately high salaries for unskilled work as highlighted by the comparison with the earning power of colleague graduates. When the industrial dispute begins then Cynthia advises her friends that management is “eyeing jobs and some of you are making a lot of money” (87) and that the company will look for a “sixty percent” pay cut from staff wages (90). Even though this is a huge pay cut for existing staff, Oscar, the Columbian-American decides to cross the picket line and take a job at Olsteads because as he explains to Stan, “They’re offering me three dollars more per hour than I make here [the bar]” (107). Therefore, new workers who cross the picket line and accept the wages that the current staff refuse are still better paid than in their previous jobs. It is equally clear that the new staff can be trained quickly which indicates that most of the jobs do not require skilled labour. From this perspective, the old salaries are disproportionate to the skill level required. However, if the company is profitable and the wages have been sustainable until now, what changes that requires such a dramatic pay cut? The answer to this question seems to be NAFTA.


The relationship between Olstead’s and its employees is radically redefined because of the existence of NAFTA. This trade agreement is mentioned only twice in the dialogues, but it has a huge influence over how the factory staff envision their respective futures. Workers who would traditionally have been in a strong negotiating position are now placed in a difficult win/lose scenario because of an influential trade agreement. In the play, Stan tells Cynthia, “You saw what happened over at Clemmons Technologies. No one saw that coming. Right? You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit” (35). In a later discussion, Cynthia also refers to NAFTA and advises Tracey that the company, “can move the whole factory to Mexico tomorrow morning, and a woman like you will stand for sixteen hours and be happy making a fraction of what they’re paying you” (87). The manner in which NAFTA is perceived to operate by workers means that a hard line stance is far more likely to be taken by workers and their union. Yet, a hard line approach is the most counterproductive because we learn from Cynthia of “what went down at Clemmons. The union took a hard line, and look what happened to them. You wanna join those folks on unemployment, be my guest” (88). One is reminded of Deutsch’s remarks on asymmetries of interdependence where a situation is effectively out of balance from the starting point, meaning that one party is always more likely to win if the engagement is seen as a competition. One could say that the rules of engagement in this particular battle are newly defined by NAFTA.

NAFTA remains a highly debated issue in the United States. Nottage taps into an ongoing debate which remains largely unsolved. In NAFTA at 20, edited by Michael J. Boskin, the trade agreement is evaluated as a success. One is advised that “It is important to note that the result of NAFTA has been something far different from the simplistic outsourcing its opponents described” (Boskin 23). The arguments in support are firstly that “NAFTA generated a real increase in wages for all members—Mexico, Canada, and the US” (129) and in regard to trade – “In 2012, there was over $1 trillion in merchandise trade, up from $300 billion in 1993. There was $123 billion in services. FDI (foreign direct investment) tripled to over $600 billion among the three countries” (135). Furthermore, opposition to the deal is explained as based on “anti-globalization” (Boskin 146) and also the fact that NAFTA coincided with “a period where unemployment around the world is high. Wages have stagnated. Outsourcing has become a touchy subject. There is a lot of inequality” (Boskin 146). However, if one refers to Jeff Faux’s 2014 article in The Huffington Post entitled, “NAFTA, Twenty Years After: A Disaster”, then one gains a different perspective. Faux writes that NAFTA, “opened the door through which American workers were shoved, unprepared, into a brutal global competition for jobs that has cut their living standards and is destroying their future.” This is a perspective that matches the portrayal in Nottage’s play. Faux argues that the trade agreement led to a net loss of jobs in America, and that NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements “traded away the interests of American workers in favor of the interests of American corporations eager to produce for the U.S. market in countries where labor is cheap”. In the same year that Nottage released her play, Faux had written the following.

“As a result [of NAFTA and similar agreements], the bargaining positions of U.S. workers — union and non-union — were severely undercut. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began using the threat to move elsewhere in order to force U.S. workers to work longer and harder for less. Threatening employees with outsourcing is now standard practice in American business”.

In this light, one begins to understand the position the workers in Sweat are manoeuvred into. When the trade border between the United States and Mexico disappeared then wage competitiveness became an instant threat. If relocation is legal for companies, then employees, even those with long service history, lose the vital bargaining chip they once held. The debate between employer and employee becomes a zero sum game but the terms of the game are clearly dictated by the employer. Nottage empathizes with the underdog in this situation.


In Sweat, the American worker is most assuredly dismantled and often deemed obsolete due to their high wages and generous benefit packages. The social cost of casting such workers aside is disastrous and Nottage portrays lives of hardship and disappointment after the industrial dispute in Reading. The reasons for why the workers’ demands fail in Nottage’s depiction reflect real life scenarios. In this essay, each factor that influences the workers prospects has been considered such as psychology, existing employment agreements like wages, industrialist’s underhand tactics, and new trade deals like NAFTA. Each factor does indeed contribute to the workers eventually being locked out and losing their battle with big industry. However, NAFTA is the game changer event because it pits worker against worker in a race to find the cheapest labour in the cheapest location.

The climactic scene of Sweat depicts workers physically attacking fellow workers. The workers are fighting over a now scarce resource, namely well-paid jobs. What we witness is a competitive process where all elements of former cooperation have disappeared. Deutsch writes that “The competitive process stimulates the view that the solution of a conflict can be imposed only by one side on the other, which in turn leads to using coercive tactics such as psychological as well as physical threats and violence” (280). The workers first understand that they are in competition with their employer, but then it becomes competition with one’s fellow workers. The workers’ increasing pessimism and feelings of powerlessness act as fuel for angry outbursts.

The rules of engagement for industrial relations are now defined by trade agreements like NAFTA which only exaggerate a pre-existing asymmetry of power between large corporations and workers. What Nottage depicts is a scenario in which the individual worker, especially an un-skilled worker, will always fail. Yes, cooperation between workers breaks down and yes, there are blatant pre-existing problems like nepotism and latent racism, but the imbalance between industrialist and worker is a starting point from which there will always be a predictable winner. The absence of a real future for unskilled workers is clearly summed up by Chris when he says, “Now they got us fighting for scraps … the writing’s on the wall, and we’re still out here pre- tending like we can’t read” (115). Nottage, a playwright and academic, may be far removed from the workforce she writes about but she accurately sums up their dilemma in an increasingly globalized market. The message of Sweat is that the worker loses because the game has indeed changed.

Works Cited.

Boskin, Michael J., editor. NAFTA at 20: The North American Free Trade Agreement’s Achievements and Challenges. Hoover Institution Press, 2014.  

Crompton, Sarah. “Playwright Lynn Nottage: We are a country that has lost our narrative.” The Guardian, 2 December 2018. 

Deutsch, Morton. “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond.” The Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, edited by Paul A. M. Van Lange, Arie W. Kruglanski, and E. Tory Higgins. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2012, pp.275-295.  

Faux, Jeff. “NAFTA, Twenty Years After: A Disaster.” The Huffington Post, 1 January 2014, 

Nottage, Lynn. Sweat. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2017.  

Dracula (play)

Cover images of first edition of Dracula from 1897 & Liz Lochhead’s adaptation.

  • Play title: Dracula (play) 
  • Author: Liz Lochhead 
  • First performed: 1985 
  • Page count: 114 


Poet and playwright Liz Lochhead adapted Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the stage in 1985. This work is just one in a long line of stage adaptations with Stoker himself being the first to create a playscript for his novel in 1897. Lochhead’s adaptation consists of two acts with a total of thirty scenes. Her stage version retains most of the key events of Stoker’s novel but also includes significant changes. Adapting a novel of several hundred pages to a two-act play obviously demands cuts while also allowing for artistic license. For instance, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are effectively excised from the story whereas Renfield’s role is much expanded. Also, Lochhead presents Mina and Lucy as sisters (the Westermans) rather than friends. New characters appear, most notable is Florrie Hathersage who is the Westerman’s maid, and in Dr. Seward’s mental asylum there are three additions, nurses Nisbett and Grice along with a male orderly named Drinkwater. Lochhead’s version of Dracula includes one significant working-class voice in Florrie, and a fresh style of emphasis on the main female characters. The playwright modernizes the way the characters speak and adds humour and innuendo. The adaptation focuses on the themes of female sexuality and madness.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

The text of Lochhead’s stage version of Dracula is not easily sourced online. However, it is available via Scribd which offers a free 30-day trial.

If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, then there is a BBC radio dramatization by Liz Lochhead and John Foley. The running time is 1hr and 54 mins. This radio adaptation is available through multiple online providers and many of them offer a free 30-day trial, for example,

Why read/listen to Lochhead’s Dracula?

An adaptation.

The joy of an adaptation is what the adapter brings to the text. It is precisely because Lochhead’s new work is not identical to Stoker’s original that we want to explore it. The playwright takes a 19th-century, Gothic novel and shapes it to fit a different medium, namely theatre, while also recrafting the work in line with her own interpretation and artistic aims. This particular adaptation by Lochhead inhabits a strange space because it is not entirely necessary for you to have read Stoker’s original novel since his creation, Count Dracula, has been disseminated into cultural consciousness via practically every known artistic medium. Yet, an adaptation is always founded on a separate, older work and one will inevitably judge the new work comparatively. When a novel is shrunk to a theatre size performance then gaps unavoidably appear, yet our prior knowledge may recover what has been de-emphasized or cut from Stoker’s story. What is exciting or infuriating for Dracula fans is how the playwright changes emphasis, adds and even loses characters, and puts a new spin on an old tale.

Gains and losses.

Lochhead’s Dracula is indeed a series of gains and losses. Adaptations from novels to theatre productions are notoriously difficult and her stage version of Dracula is both inspired and flawed. A strong point of Lochhead’s Dracula is her expansion and enhancement of the character of Renfield. She creates a more articulate, sympathetic man who expresses himself in clever rhymes that foreshadow the coming doom. This new Renfield suffers many cruelties during his enforced hospitalization as divulged through his own words but also supported by observations from nurses and the hospital orderly. Lochhead casts Renfield as a victim in a manner that diverts from Stoker’s representation of Renfield.

Some people view Lochhead’s manner of putting female sexuality to the foreground as a positive aspect of the work. However, even though she certainly vivifies the expression of female desires, she does not alter the fate of either Lucy or Mina nor does she make them stronger characters. In Stoker’s original, the image of the “New Woman” (86) aka feminist is implicitly feared. Yet, he still depicts Mina Murray as the indispensable mastermind who helps track down the ancient vampire, but Lochhead’s pared-down version unfortunately loses this narrative strand entirely.

The main loss and therefore fundamental critique of Lochhead’s text is that our sense of Count Dracula’s aura of power relies entirely on Stoker’s original creation. She does not alter the most important figure of the original text in any significant way. However, the play is still a worthwhile read and especially so for Dracula fans.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The Difficulties of Making Dracula Anew.


“An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work” (Hutcheon 176).

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in 1897 and is one of the most adapted texts of all time. Even though many people have never read the novel, they nevertheless know the story’s outline simply through having watched numerous movie adaptations. The opening quotation is from Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation and exhibits her general view on adaptations and serves to conveniently open a discussion on Dracula thanks to the apt metaphor of vampirism. In this essay, the focus will be on Liz Lochhead’s 1985 theatrical adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula. The topic of discussion is if Lochhead’s play indeed holds up favourably in comparison to Stoker’s original novel.

Instances of Stoker’s novel having been successfully adapted for the stage are rare and frequently bypassed for that reason. Lochhead’s adaptation came some 88 years after the novel’s original publication. Stoker wrote his own dramatization of the novel, but this was done chiefly to establish his copyright within the theatrical realm. A far more successful dramatization of the novel came in 1927 and was called Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. This was not a collaboration but the product of Deane’s initial adaptation and then Balderston’s later changes. It was a successful play in its day but is now largely forgotten. Interestingly, Bela Lugosi starred in this stage version before going on to reprise his role as Count Dracula in the now world-famous, 1931 film Dracula directed by Tod Browning. The movie writing credits include Deane and Balderston, but it was Garrett Fort who produced the winning screenplay. In truth, the playscript by Deane and Balderston makes for a plodding reading experience, and one quickly begins to understand why this particular stage adaptation has since been neglected. In stark contrast, numerous screenplay adaptations of Dracula have worked excellently. However, it is the theatre which perversely proves more interesting due to the immense difficulties of staging a successful version of Dracula. For all its flaws, Deane and Balderston’s adaptation is what helped turn Stoker’s novel into a “culture-text” (Kobetts Miller 6). The theatrical revival of Stoker’s story arguably paved the way for the proliferation of later screen versions. Of course, one must not forget the 1922 movie Nosferatu directed by F. W. Murnau but that was a silent film. Nosferatu is acknowledged as a great cinematic achievement, but it is a purely visual representation of Stoker’s novel and thus was not hindered with the difficulties of written dialogue. It was Lugosi, working from a script produced by playwrights and screenwriters, who became the archetypal representation of Count Dracula. Therefore, looking to a theatre production of Dracula is quite relevant to the emergence and staying power of this famous, fictional figure.

Deane and Balderston, the early adapters of Dracula, encountered precisely the same difficulties that later faced Lochhead, namely the complex task of abridging a longish novel into a stage play. Not only must an adapter produce a play with a theatre-friendly performance time but there is also the thorny issue of fidelity to the original text. These two factors of abridging and fidelity are crucial to a successful transfer from one medium to another, in this case from a novel to a play. In this essay I will focus on the topics of abridging and fidelity and how Lochhead navigates these hurdles in her adaptation. Fidelity is entangled with an adapter’s artistic license since any change can be viewed as either enhancing or betraying an original source work. The more notable changes made by Lochhead, which equally concern fidelity and artistry, relate to Renfield and the role of women in Dracula. As previously noted, Lochhead drains much of the substance from Mina’s character leaving her “paler” (176) to use Hutcheon’s word, and as Renfield says in Stoker’s Dracula, “I don’t care for the pale people” (245). The female characters will be given cursory analysis due to the need to prioritize certain story elements but also, frankly, because Lochhead dilutes the original role of Mina Murray.

Fidelity and artistry are a broad, complex field, so it is best to begin with how a Gothic novel is cut down to size without ruining the spirit of the work. As readers, we tend to overlook or misunderstand this burdensome yet crucial work.

Creating an abridgement.

To abridge any literary work is simply to shorten it. However, all notions of simplicity quickly disappear for those who attempt such a task! Stoker’s Dracula is a novel of some three hundred pages and editing this down to a stage script format is an immense task. It is said that Stoker’s original stage script is so long that it is unstageable in any practical sense. We may forgive him since copyright was his true aim and not artistry. Nonetheless, Dracula’s own creator failed to successfully transfer him from novel to stage. Linda Hutcheon supplies an insightful quote from the novelist John North on the taxing experience of adapting a novel.

“Writing a screenplay based on a great novel [George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda] is foremost a labor of simplification. I don’t mean only the plot, although particularly in the case of a Victorian novel teeming with secondary characters and subplots, severe pruning is required, but also the intellectual content” (Hutcheon 1).

While North is referring to producing a screenplay, it definitely helps one to appreciate the task of changing mediums since the running time of a movie and a play are quite similar. In regard specifically to plays, Hutcheon writes that “In the move from telling to showing, a performance adaptation must dramatize: description, narration, and represented thoughts must be transcoded into speech, actions, sounds, and visual images… Because of the required changes, the epistolary novel would seem to present the most obvious difficulties for dramatization” (40). Dracula is indeed an epistolary novel and a Victorian novel as well which was the bane of North’s work. Therefore, we have already alighted upon some of the recognized difficulties of adapting a novel like Dracula for the stage, regardless of the skill of the adapter.

In Lochhead’s introduction to her adaptation, she writes that she received the request to write a play script for Dracula with a tight deadline and that she had never actually read Stoker’s classic upon receiving the request (6). Obviously, she did subsequently read the novel before accepting the challenge. Due to the haste, it is possible that Lochhead was not fully aware of the problems in the work she had been invited to take up. This leads one to digress temporarily to a separate question – why did Ian Wooldridge, a theatre’s artistic director, even make such a request of Lochhead? Surely the historical evidence, namely unworkably long playscripts and plodding playscripts, were a cautionary showcase of the inherent difficulties.

Why adapt Dracula?

Dracula has been adapted countless times because it is a popular tale. This is a plain and simple fact but also a relevant one. Hutcheon writes that “For economic reasons, adapters often rely on selecting works to adapt that are well known and that have proved popular over time; for legal reasons, they often choose works that are no longer copyrighted” (29). In Lochhead’s case, the suggestion of adapting Dracula came from Ian Wooldridge and the copyright on the original novel had indeed expired in the United Kingdom. Due to the costs of staging a play, a concern which is equally relevant for movies, operas etc., the works which are chosen for adaptation are often “safe bets with a ready audience” (Hutcheon 87). No one can deny that Dracula is a popular tale, but in this light the whole adaptation process sounds increasingly like a financial investment and not an artistic project. However, Lochhead accepted the proposed commission because she was gripped by Stoker’s novel, saying “I couldn’t put the book down” (6), and she foresaw great potential for a new work. When one considers these combined motivating factors of artistic challenge and potential financial gain then they surely mitigate the aforementioned strong deterrents to adapting an epistolary novel dating from the Victorian era.

The task of adapting the novel still remained gigantic and makes one think of Samuel Beckett’s famous line, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (7). Except in this case, the ‘try again’ is done by a succession of adapters over many decades. To use John North’s words again, ‘pruning’ and ‘simplification’ are key tools and Lochhead needed to employ them to create a solid foundation for a workable stage script of Dracula. Unfortunately, Lochhead does not state in her own adaptation’s introduction if she read previous stage adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula or, as we must presume, she relied solely on the original novel. If Lochhead stumbled in her task then maybe it was because she did not read and therefore could not learn from others’ prior mistakes.

Lochhead’s failure.

It is indeed anticlimactic to state that the key failure of Lochhead’s adaptation is the way she abridges Stoker’s novel. This is not a shameful fault given that Stoker himself produced an unworkable stage version, and many others too. One must clarify that abridging refers solely to the process of deciding on what to keep or cut from the original text and does not refer to Lochhead’s significant artistic additions. Linda Hutcheon provides a long but illuminating summary on how an adaptation must end up as an autonomous work, yet one that always communicates with the original.

To experience it as an adaptation … we need to recognize it as such to know its adapted text, thus allowing the latter to oscillate in our memories with what we are experiencing. In the process we inevitably fill in any gaps in the adaptation with information from the adapted text. Indeed, adapters rely on this ability to fill in the gaps when moving from the discursive expansion of telling to the performative time and space limitations of showing. Sometimes they rely too much, and the resulting adaptation makes no sense without reference to and foreknowledge of the adapted text. For an adaptation to be successful in its own right, it must be so for both knowing and unknowing audiences” (Hutcheon 120).  

In Lochhead’s version of Dracula, she insists on maintaining almost the entire plot of the novel and this is to the play’s detriment. Hutcheon writes of adapters who rely too heavily on the audience to fill in the gaps in the story, but Lochhead does not allow at all for such gaps. One may speculate that since she had just read the novel for the first time that she approached the play as if most of her audience were on the same plain. While not an erroneous presumption, it does not help her work since a theatre audience does not need to know every event that occurs in the novel. On the other hand, maybe Lochhead did not lack trust in an audience to be able to fill in the story’s gaps but rather the spectre of a great book loomed over her, and she showed far too much fidelity. Lochhead’s work is a declared adaptation since it shares its name with Stoker’s original. This means that comparison is openly invited between the adapted work (Dracula) and the adaptation (Dracula). In regard to Hutcheon’s test of knowing and unknowing audiences, Lochhead’s adaptation works worst when it veers too close to Stoker’s original as this weakens the autonomy of her work. For knowing audiences, it is sometimes like looking at two, too-similar paintings, whereas for unknowing audiences there are far too many links to the entire plot of a hefty Gothic novel.

In an essay entitled, “The Value of Fidelity in Adaptation,” James Harold writes somewhat derogatorily about the task of abridging and by extension, the task of adapting. One wonders if the following views expressed by Harold secretly play in the minds of many artists who desire to create art and feel burdened by the manual labours of cutting, pruning, and dumbing down.

Adapting the story of the source text is itself not a particularly praiseworthy aesthetic achievement. Consider, by comparison, the practice of abridging a novel. … no aesthetic praise is generally attributed to professional abridgers” (Harold 96).

However, though abridging a novel may not be an aesthetic achievement in Harold’s opinion, it is nonetheless essential to do it well so that the end product is not ruined. Lochhead was not just abridging Dracula but adapting it into a viable stage play too. Irrespective of the reasons, Lochhead’s failure to judiciously cut and simplify the story detracts from the final product. Renata Kobetts Miller who studied adaptations of novels for the stage in the 19th century uses the following quote to express the dangers involved in the task.

“Careless adaptation of narrative fiction can lead towards nothing but the stringing together of episodes, and it is this episodical treatment which, more than anything else, mars the workmanship of the plays of the half century” (4).

Lochhead’s own 20th-century adaptation comes in with a tally of thirty scenes in two acts. Some of these scenes are conspicuously short and merely echo a major scene in the novel but without the support of novelistic exposition. A sympathetic reader may protest that this is indeed an exercise for an audience to fill in the gaps but unfortunately, it often appears more like a checklist of scenes from the novel. There is no apparent balance between providing some morsels to knowing readers so that they inevitably ponder what is absent in certain scenes, and on the other side, overwhelming unknowing readers with a barrage of references to the full plot of a Gothic novel. In truth, many of these scenes should certainly have been cut as they mar Lochhead’s otherwise impressive work.

Fidelity and artistry.

Lochhead’s work on abridging Stoker’s novel was not a success but it does not mean that her adaptation is without merit. In fact, when one considers issues like fidelity and artistry then Lochhead provides Dracula fans with much to appraise. The work of abridging naturally falls under the heading of fidelity but the topic is much broader. Hutcheon writes that “Perhaps one way to think about unsuccessful adaptations is not in terms of infidelity to a prior text, but in terms of a lack of the creativity and skill to make the text one’s own and thus autonomous” (20). Fortunately, Lochhead does exhibit considerable creativity in her adaptation which is its strongest point, but one must first tackle the more contentious issue of fidelity. An adaptation is, after all, only an adaptation due to a recognizable level of fidelity to another work. Hutcheon explains that adaptations “are examined as deliberate, announced, and extended revisitations of prior works” (XIV). So how does one measure the success of fidelity? Since Lochhead arguably retained too much of Stoker’s story then this is a good starting point.

Regarding fidelity, Hutcheon points out that there are actually three different measures by which an adaptation is deemed a success or failure. Firstly, there is “the elusive notion of the ‘spirit’ of a work” (10), then there is “the story [as] the common denominator, the core of what is transposed across different media and genres” (10), and finally, there are “Themes … perhaps the easiest story elements to see as adaptable across media” (10). The spirit of a work is indeed too imprecise a term under which to accurately evaluate an adaptation. If one must broach the ‘spirit’ of the work then Lochhead’s preservation of Count Dracula, almost totally unchanged, does arguably retain the spirit of Stoker’s novel. Even so, it is a moot point since one is then forced to revert to Stoker’s creation and not Lochhead’s adaptation. The story, a subject discussed at length already, is a very solid and measurable factor so surely Lochhead’s adherence to Stoker’s story is a commendable mark of fidelity. According to James Harold – no, “merely preserving the story from one medium to another does not typically involve an aesthetically significant accomplishment” (2). As one must take a position on fidelity, I agree with Harold chiefly because Lochhead’s strict story fidelity detracts from her adaptation. This leaves one with themes as the true mark of fidelity and as Harold writes, “Successfully preserving a theme across different media, … is an accomplishment deserving of our praise and attention” (99). In this essay, fidelity will be viewed chiefly in terms of preserving themes.

The two main themes that Lochhead not only preserves but also stamps with her own creativity are the themes of madness and female sexuality. In order to assess Lochhead’s treatment of these themes in her adaptation, one may look to the character of Renfield for the theme of madness and to Mina, Lucy, and Florrie for depictions of female sexuality. This is analysis from a bottom-up perspective because, as Harold writes, “Sometimes we may be concerned with fidelity to character: how similar is a character’s inner life and even, sometimes, outer appearance” (94). The balance that the adapter must strike is a partial mirroring of the original characters while still making space for changes in characterization. Hutcheon provides the quote that, “Some critics go so far as to insist that a ‘truly artistic’ adaptation absolutely must “subvert its original, perform a double and paradoxical job of masking and unveiling its source” (92). Interestingly, Lochhead comes close to subverting Renfield’s role but never loses the core elements of the original character when exploring anew the theme of madness.

It is by looking at thematic fidelity and also artistry that one may assess if Lochhead provides her audience with a truly autonomous work. On a superficial level, Lochhead’s Dracula is undeniably an autonomous work because it is not identical to Stoker’s Dracula. However, the true test is that we stop thinking of the new play as a mere reflection of Stoker’s Dracula and instead as something worthy in itself. We encounter the paradox of a work which needs to be sufficiently similar yet different from its progenitor. Hutcheon asserts that “Multiple versions exist laterally, not vertically” (XIII). This concurs with Hutcheon’s avoidance of terms like ‘original’ or ‘source’ text which privilege the older work and she chooses instead to call the forerunner, the “adapted text” (XIII). Discerning readers may want a new depiction that dislodges their fixed ideas about the adapted text and themes are malleable enough to display loyalty and newness simultaneously. Since Lochhead makes the most changes to the character of Renfield then he may act as the chief litmus test of her thematic fidelity when it comes to madness.


In Stoker’s 1897 text of Dracula, we are first introduced to Mr. R. M. Renfield aged 59 years. Dr. Seward describes his patient as follows, “Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom, ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out” (Stoker 62). This fixed idea of Renfield’s is the kernel of Stoker’s characterization of madness. The theme of madness is vitally important to a novel where the most horrific, vampiric creatures attack innocent victims whose sanity sometimes crumbles, like Jonathan’s. Sr. Agatha writes from Budapest that Jonathan “has been under our care for nearly six weeks, suffering from a violent brain fever” (95) and “will require some few weeks’ rest in our sanatorium in the hills” (95). In stark contrast, Renfield does not receive such compassion and care and suffers enduring mental illness. To preserve the theme of madness in her adaptation, Lochhead must show that Renfield is a deranged acolyte of Count Dracula who first helps but then realizes his error (coinciding with a return to sanity) and finally betrays the evil, vampiric lord. The playwright must inevitably retrace much of Stoker’s storyline and the crux of the theme of madness is that Renfield initially shares Count Dracula’s ideas. Renfield later confesses this, saying, “I used to fancy that life was a positive and perpetual entity, and that by consuming a multitude of live things, no matter how low in the scale of creation, one might indefinitely prolong life” (206). Renfield’s madness aligns him with the forces of evil and only a return to sanity proves his salvation. It is the preservation of this theme across mediums, from novel to play, that is Lochhead’s mark of achievement.

Lochhead holds true to Stoker’s original character of Renfield in the most important respects. The three anchor points that one may cite from the original novel are firstly, that Renfield is mistreated, secondly, that he is the ‘weak link’ who allows Count Dracula enter Dr. Seward’s asylum, and thirdly, that Renfield tries to defend Mina and is killed by Dracula for this betrayal. This last point links with the subject of suicide. While the overarching theme of madness is preserved by Lochhead, one comes to view each crucial stage in the plot quite differently. Lochhead expertly changes emphases while still retaining the outline of the story and the core theme. It is enlightening to compare Lochhead and Stoker’s texts.

Renfield’s mistreatment.

Lochhead focuses on the mistreatment of Renfield. This focus explores how mental illness combined with mistreatment creates a toxic, pressurized environment for Renfield. As a result, new meanings break through for readers. In Stoker’s novel, Dr. Seward’s mistreatment of Renfield is far less obvious and certainly does not match Lochhead’s depiction of blatant physical violence and serious neglect. However, abuse is in evidence in the original story. The mistreatment refers specifically to Seward’s hopes that he “might advance my own branch of science” (71) and to do this he considers giving Renfield a cat as “It would almost be worthwhile to complete the experiment” (71). The experiment that Seward speaks of has commenced and advanced much too far, even without the addition of a cat to further fuel Renfield’s morbid fantasies. Renfield’s strange game involving insects and birds exacerbates his delusions and could easily have been stopped in an asylum environment but was not. Renfield eventually recognizes and rejects his role of medical guinea-pig, telling Dr. Seward “You must get a new patient, doctor, if you wish to study zoöphagy!” (236). Lochhead retains mistreatment, which is an important aspect of the original story, but she reshapes it, intensifies it, so that we view Renfield and indeed Dr. Seward too in quite new ways.

Lochhead makes Dr. Seward a cruel, neglectful, impatient figure, who at one point “grabs Renfield by the throat” (96) in an attempt to get answers to his questions. This is a major character transformation. One quickly gathers that the doctor has no cure for Renfield and hope dissolves. Stoker’s original Dr. Seward is conscientious and professional and never neglects Renfield as Lochhead depicts. For instance, when Seward is away treating Lucy then Dr. Hennessey is tasked with sending Seward regular updates on Renfield. In the adaptation, we sense a strong parallel being established between Dr. Seward and Count Dracula. These two figures are not so different because both allow their patient/guest to descend into a horrible psychological abyss. The evidence is that Renfield and Jonathan Harker are prisoners of different kinds and both experience debilitating, mental terrors. Lochhead’s Dr. Seward starves, drugs, and neglects Renfield and this depiction allows an audience to view Renfield and his madness quite differently, and the difference is the strong evocation of sympathy.

The other step that Lochhead takes is the transformation of Renfield into an abject victim. In Stoker’s original, Dr. Seward’s professional opinion of Renfield is as “an undeveloped homicidal maniac” (Stoker 70). This is proven when Renfield soon attacks Seward with a “dinner-knife” (129) and cuts the doctor’s wrist quite deeply. The patient has numerous other violent outbursts, like his attack on the carters who move boxes at Carfax, as recounted in Dr. Hennessey’s letter to Seward (142). In the adaptation, Renfield is a much changed, pitiable figure. Since Renfield now shows no signs of aggression or violence then he is transformed into a figure that one may more easily communicate with, even potentially heal. Such a characterization is salient to Lochhead’s aims. At no point does Lochhead remove the theme of madness since Renfield is still an asylum patient and clearly delusional, but she does radically transform how we view this character which is key to the autonomy of her depiction.

Renfield as the weak link.

The second story point concerns Renfield as the weak link who foolishly invites in the vampire. Lochhead writes that when deciding to accept the task of adapting Dracula, “what really attracted me, above all, to the story, what compelled me to say yes, gave me my ‘in’ to the whole thing, was Rule One for becoming a vampire-victim: ‘First of all you have to invite him in.’” (7). In Stoker’s novel, we are told about how Dracula appeared at Renfield’s cell window and “Then he began promising me things—not in words but by doing them” (244). The obscene offerings made by Dracula to Renfield are mainly rats but also other creatures. Renfield is entranced and says that “before I knew what I was doing, I found myself opening the sash and saying to Him: ‘Come in, Lord and Master!” (245). Lochhead presents a different scenario where the mentally ill man initially feels that he is being poisoned in the hospital and thereby weakened. Renfield then tells Dr. Seward, “You got to listen, help me or he [Dracula] get in. The poison make me want to let him in” (21). Seward’s deafness to his patient’s plea is important, as is Renfield’s resistance to the vampire. In both the adapted text and the adaptation, Renfield’s mental illness makes him quite vulnerable to the vampire’s manipulation. Lochhead creates a further nuance by showing that the medicine Renfield receives further erodes his willpower. Yet, the most subversive aspect of Lochhead’s text is the manner by which Count Dracula gains the vital invitation. The playwright subtly implies that Renfield is homosexual which was classified as a mental illness in the 19th century. Renfield’s willingness to invite the vampire inside suddenly bears reinterpretation.

The textual indications of Renfield as gay occur on multiple occasions. To begin, there is Renfield’s plea for help to Dr. Seward which refers to stopping Count Dracula (as yet unnamed) from getting into the building. Renfield says, “I say no I say no I shut my mouth ears nose eyes I say no he say yes he say isn’t it shame isn’t disgrace I’ll get in though it be not through the hole in your face” (21). As all references here are to the orifices of the human body, it does not take much speculation to deduce that Count Dracula’s route of entry is sexual penetration, and this reading is supported by the references to shame and disgrace which were synonymous with sodomy even in the 1980’s. This scene confirms Dracula’s pansexual appetite, but equally prompts one to question Renfield’s sexuality, something Stoker does not address directly. Dracula overtly threatens but maybe it is also a covert enticement since it is something, like the rats of Stoker’s text, which will assuredly gain him his needed invite. If the vampire must target a victim’s weak point, then surely the threat is not physical rape, but Renfield’s possible shameful desire because Dracula understands just how to subjugate him. Critics have long noted the homoeroticism of Stoker’s Dracula, especially between the Count and Jonathan Harker, but Lochhead presents something new here. A clearer indication of Renfield’s sexuality appears later in the text when he bursts into Mina’s room in Bedlam (asylum). Grice and Drinkwater quickly arrive to remove the patient, and Grice confides to Mina, “he’s madder than a broom-cupboard of brushes but I doubt if he’s harmful in any way. Not to us ladies, if you get my drift” (105). This innuendo is the closest to a confirmation that Renfield is gay. Lastly, when Renfield has died and the nurses lay out his body in preparation for burial, Nurse Nisbett comments, “Sewage pipes. Who’d have thought old Renfield’d commit sewage pipes?” (119). This phrase, ‘sewage pipes’ is cockney slang for suicide. Yet, it is unfortunate that the phrase also seems a derogatory reference to anal sex, an association prompted only by Count Dracula’s initial threat about his means of gaining entry. In all, we are presented with a sexually aggressive vampire, and a victim with presumed homosexual tendencies. The undeniable outcome is that Count Dracula (somehow) gains the all-important invite from Renfield.

The core question for readers is how the theme of madness is altered by Lochhead’s homosexual twist on Stoker’s story? Renfield’s strange “fixed idea” (Stoker 62) and homosexuality gain equal billing as mental illnesses in the 19th century but sexuality makes Renfield understandable. Sexuality becomes part of the reason for the illogical invitation Renfield gives to a deadly man. Renfield and Lucy are the first to invite Dracula into their respective dwellings because they fawn upon him. Since we never seriously doubt Lucy’s sanity despite her hospitalization then a direct comparison between her and Renfield raises questions about the roots of their respective problems. Renfield is exceptionally poorly treated in Lochhead’s version, exposing that his most basic needs go unmet. Thus, one begins to shift focus and look at the circumstances under which Dracula is invited in, and not just the apparently weak-minded individuals who concede the invites. It is Dr. Seward who surprisingly emerges as the true weak link since the care he provides to Renfield and Lucy is lacking. Lochhead makes Dr. Seward the fiancé of Lucy rather than the rejected suitor of the original text. The doctor occupies a strong, authoritarian role along with a romantic role. Yet, it is Dracula who daringly seduces Dr. Seward’s fiancé Lucy and his patient Renfield. The vampire is invariably chosen over Dr. Seward. The previously referenced alignment that Lochhead bolsters between Dr. Seward and Dracula suddenly becomes relevant to the plot.

Stoker emphasized Renfield’s madness and Lucy’s sexual precociousness, whereas Lochhead seeks to redeem these characters by emphasizing their doctor’s failures. Dr. Seward is Lucy’s fiancé but, in the adaptation, there are strong homosexual undertones to Seward’s long bachelorhood. The mention of Jonathan having “fagged” (22) for the older Seward, an English public schools’ tradition, is also an allusion to probable earlier homosexual relations. When Jonathan recounts his seduction by the vampire brides then we are told that Mina and Seward “experience extreme jealousy” (98) but why would Seward be jealous? When Lucy is ill, Seward tends to her but when she proposes that he sleep with her, he refuses on the grounds that he “cannot take advantage” (75). This refusal, while ethical, may hide a greater impediment to their relationship. Moments later, when the bedroom is empty, Lucy says “Come in. Come to me, my love. Come in” (76) at which point Count Dracula appears. Lochhead depicts how a strong, sexually magnetic figure like Dracula may replace someone possibly incapable of a heterosexual relationship. Lucy is no longer the nymphomaniac of Stoker’s text who wishes to marry three men (60) but a woman with normal, healthy, sexual desires. The invite she gives to the vampire becomes understandable, though still deadly.

In Renfield’s case, Lochhead exposes the archaic, cruel treatments of Victorian asylums. Incidentally, Lucy suffers the degradation of some of these treatments too like having her head shaved bare (77). Renfield describes how his inhumane treatment including ECT and drugs has made him weak to resist the predatory man (Count Dracula) and he asks his doctor’s aid – “Help me, Doctor Seward, help me! Listen, listen, they put things in my food, they do!” (20). Renfield’s desperate, confiding tone betrays a possible affection for the doctor especially if we understand both men to be secretly gay. When Dr. Seward must leave the asylum to tend to Lucy’s health, Renfield makes the danger quite clear by saying – “Doctor Seward, don’t go to her. Don’t go. Don’t leave me. You leave me, I let him in” (65) and when the doctor has left the room Renfield adds, “She’ll let him in and that’ll get you! Don’t go” (66). The ultimatum to Dr. Seward by Renfield has undeniable hints of sexual jealousy. The playwright may also be slyly alluding to our modern understanding of how patients sometimes fall in love with their therapists. Renfield’s invite to Dracula occurs due to an emotional vacuum, a loss, a betrayal. An understanding that Renfield is gay adds considerable complexity to these scenes.

Lochhead also adds a very dark note to the depiction of homosexuality. If one is already conditioned to an environment of abuse, like Renfield, then the identity of the abuser becomes less relevant. Even though Renfield’s reliance on Dr. Seward suggests the doctor is caring and competent, what we are witnessing is a plea resulting from Renfield’s position of utter degradation. For example, we are told that “Renfield is chained up, sniffling and snuffing like a dog” (26) and when Nurse Grice enters, she tells him “’Mon now, Mr Renfield, drink up your nice medicine or Doctor Seward won’t come back and take you walkies” (26). Later, Nurse Nisbett comments on Dr. Seward’s care, saying “I wouldn’t treat a dog like he treats you, Mr. Renfield” (36). In the climactic scene where Renfield meets his death, Count Dracula falsely gains entry to Mina’s room and we are told that he “has an almost naked and tightly gagged Renfield on a lead like a dog, muffling and gasping” (110). The similarity of the depictions of Renfield like a dog, either with Dr. Seward or Count Dracula, are quite unsettling. The difference between a dark lord and a medical doctor suddenly and uncomfortably blurs. The vampire’s procurement of an invite in such circumstances relies on a mere paltry show of attention. Whether that attention is sexual or not relies on one’s close reading of the text. In Lochhead’s depiction, an audience appreciates the systematic sadism of Victorian mental asylums, but she controversially mixes this with a scene of gay sadomasochism.

Lochhead puts a considerable and indeed sensational spin on why Renfield invites Count Dracula inside. She utilizes the one-time classification of homosexuality as a mental illness to recast some of the major scenes involving Renfield without diluting the theme of madness.

Renfield’s defence of Mina, and possible suicide.

The third point, namely that Renfield defends Mina/commits suicide is probably the most complex. Renfield’s defence of Mina is a rejection of Count Dracula. This scene is crucial because in a moment of lucidity, Renfield takes the side of the good and ultimately dies as an exonerated, sane man. This marks the end of the story arc of Renfield’s madness. Admittedly, the theme of madness is abused in servitude to a horror novel’s plot where good is pitted against evil in simplistic binary terms. However, Renfield is not remembered as a champion of the good. Lochhead holds to Stoker’s storyline because Renfield is again presumed to have committed suicide as noted by Nurse Nisbett. In the original, the attendant named Simmons “found him [Renfield] lying on his face on the floor, all covered with blood” (Stoker 240). In each version of Dracula, suicide is highly implausible yet is deemed the cause of death to avoid awkward questions. In Stoker’s novel, van Helsing euphemistically brands the event “a sad accident!” (241). Suicide, which itself retains a moral stigma, serves to mask a suspicious death and effectively close down speculation.

The theme of madness and the act of suicide are intricately connected. The classification of Renfield as a suicide in both texts denies his sanity and simultaneously hides the murderer. Renfield remains stigmatized and uncredited for his sacrifice in defending Mina. Stoker provides an interesting backstory in the original, namely Renfield’s feeling of abandonment by Count Dracula. Renfield tells of how Dracula had already secured the all-important first invite but then on returning, “He sneered at me, … and he went on as though he owned the whole place, and I was no one” (Stoker 245). Stoker captures the hurt that Renfield experiences because the man he worships then suddenly treats him like a mere dupe, a gullible gatekeeper. On the night that Dracula comes to attack Mina, Renfield describes how “when I tried to cling to Him, He raised me up and flung me down” (246). This embrace is ambiguous as it is a blocking technique and yet it suggests physical intimacy too. In Lochhead’s adaptation, when Dracula infects Mina with his blood then we are told how “She grasps at his cloak. Very ambiguous. Almost like an embrace, but also to detain him” (112). It is this embrace of Dracula by various victims that makes one reconsider the topic of suicide and how it links to the theme of madness. Lochhead seems to allude to an aspect of the original text, namely the embrace, and this allows us to interpret the texts as exposing a disturbing allure in death. Also, we are dealing with texts which were published in vastly different contexts and this also affects interpretation.

In Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire symbolized sexual freedom. Count Dracula had three vampire brides and his alluring touch led to moral degeneration. Yet, the vampire also promised power, escape, and eternal life so death lurked behind sweet enticements. Renfield became a minion of Count Dracula so maybe it is unsurprising that he is condemned to retain his shame in a death branded as suicide. Lochhead’s Dracula retains the same sexual overtones and strange promises of the vampire but we must pay attention to the new context of publication.

Hutcheon explains that an adaptation will unavoidably enter new contexts with the obvious examples being temporal, cultural, and geographical. Lochhead’s text came almost ninety years after Stoker’s novel. Hutcheon writes that “An adaptation, like the work it adapts, is always framed in a context—a time and a place, a society and a culture; it does not exist in a vacuum” (142). Therefore, it is relevant that Lochhead wrote her adaptation against the backdrop of 1980’s Scotland where the city of Edinburgh became known as the Aids capital of Europe. These Aids sufferers were mostly homosexual men and intravenous drug users, people on the edges of society often due to stigmatization and social deprivation. In the new context in which Lochhead released her play, Renfield’s apparent suicide is once again the hushing-up of a death not comfortably explained. He is the victim of a licensed drug pusher (Dr. Seward) and a sexually promiscuous man (Count Dracula). Stoker’s Dracula is, if nothing else, a sexually undiscriminating figure who spreads death via a blood borne disease. In this light, the vampire tale translates well into modern life. Gay men and drug addicts sought freedom, escape, release, but often with deadly consequences. The figure of the vampire is a metaphor for all the hollow promises. The fact that Renfield’s death is classed (again) as suicide conveys a new message of shame where he is cast aside as unimportant, the human detritus of big city life. Madness is the theme that Lochhead preserves, but as readers we also become more conscious of the topic of victim-shaming. What is erased from Renfield’s story, as for many in society, is the value of his life. The question mark over Renfield’s death, that Stoker etched in our minds, has a new meaning.

Thematic fidelity.

To return to James Harold’s point which opened this section of the debate – the retention of a theme across media is a praiseworthy accomplishment. It is a solid mark of fidelity to an original work. One may say that the theme of madness is broad and difficult to quantify, but Lochhead’s fidelity to Stoker’s plot as it concerns Renfield shows great skill and supports the retention of the theme. The theme is guided in the same storyline track, so to speak, and yet we understand Renfield’s madness in quite a different and notably modern way.

Yes, a new context independently shapes how one interprets Lochhead’s story of Dracula, but that does not overshadow the author’s clear intent to make changes too. Hutcheon uses an interesting quote from Kamilla Elliott which reflects and critiques what Lochhead does in her adaptation, although Elliott refers to other media.

“Film adapters build on a hypercorrect historical material realism to usher in a host of anachronistic ideological ‘corrections’ of novels. Quite inconsistently, while adaptations pursue a hyperfidelity to nineteenth-century material culture, they reject and correct Victorian psychology, ethics, and politics” (152).

For example, Lochhead’s apparent sympathy for Renfield reflects a modern understanding of the barbarity of Victorian asylum conditions. She chooses to cleanse Renfield of his violent behaviours and to vilify Dr. Seward. Lochhead’s resulting, victim-centered presentation of Stoker’s tale certainly includes anachronistic ideological corrections, to use Elliott’s phrase. However, this is a legitimate decision made by the playwright and one need not side with Elliott’s view that it shows inconsistency since Lochhead was not writing a history volume. Yet, pointing out this ideological shift helps us to understand why Renfield is so similar and yet so different from the original.

As we have now covered the topics of abridging and fidelity in some detail, it is possible to move to the most interesting aspect of Lochhead’s adaptation which is her creativity. Once more, the focus will be on Renfield. It is via Renfield’s use of poetry, rhyme, and song that Lochhead solidifies her artistic aims in her adaptation. All her groundwork, both good and flawed, can be seen in the intricate web of links she creates between Renfield’s ramblings and the major themes of Stoker’s novel.

Lochhead’s artistry and creativity.

In Lochhead’s adaptation, Renfield’s speech is striking due to his use of children’s nursery rhymes, poetry, ballads, and various allusions to other literary works. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the artistic effect of this new aspect of the characterization of Renfield. The complexity of the situation is that an adapted character, namely Renfield, also adapts other texts (not linked to Dracula) in his own speech. Therefore, the ‘problem’ of deciphering Renfield reflects the general problem of any adaptation but is taken one step further. We recognize that original works are being referenced (Stoker’s Dracula and common nursery rhymes etc.) yet we struggle to make sense of the newness of the presentation. In the case of Renfield, Lochhead achieves something quite unusual because his speech is at once familiar and yet at the same time, we feel alienated from it. A man in an insane asylum speaks with the medical staff using a jumble of common nursery rhymes etc. The familiar texts are reframed simply because they come from the mouth of a presumed lunatic. However, nursery rhymes are a primary example of communicating a message to a child in the simplest manner. Nursery rhymes combine fun with meaning. Should not communication with Renfield be ‘child’s play’ as a result? Lochhead depicts Renfield far more sympathetically than Bram Stoker and she has a modern concern for the plight of those with serious mental illness.

Is the playwright’s point that no earnest effort is made to understand Renfield by the other characters? The task of communicating with Renfield is certainly not insurmountable. Nurse Nisbett give a quite insightful theory of how one may communicate with the insane.

“I sometimes fancy they can tell us things. Oh, I know it’s stupid, really, but sometimes I thinks mad talk is just like… moon talk or baby babble and if we only had the lingo – well, he looks at you sometimes so wise, like an ape in a zoo. I’m sure Renfield ent so green as he’s cabbage-lookin’” (Lochhead 93).

Nurse Nisbett identifies the two key necessities for communicating with Renfield which are empathy and the desire to solve a puzzle. Her reference to baby babble reminds us that children learn via repetition and often with the help of rhymes and stories. Nisbett’s statement comes so close to solving the riddle of Renfield’s style of communication yet infuriatingly misses the last vital piece of the puzzle. Her theory is ignored by Dr. Seward.

How should one understand Renfield given that Lochhead also creates a palimpsest where Stoker’s original madman is written over? Linda Hutcheon argues that in adaptations, “Part of this pleasure … comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise. Recognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaptation; so too is change” (4). This naturally applies not just to the overall adaptation (Lochhead’s Dracula) but adaptations within adaptations like the nursery rhymes quoted by Renfield. The surprise and risk in this case are that children’s ditties are spoken by a man in a straitjacket, medicated on opiates, and unfit for release into the community. Renfield is a symbol of danger! Thus, the speaker and his spoken words jar uncomfortably. Yet, one may not discard Renfield’s speech as mindless babble since it is laden with meaning. Hutcheon, on the topic of adaptation, suggests that one ponder “a child’s delight in hearing the same nursery rhymes or reading the same books over and over. Like ritual, this kind of repetition brings comfort, a fuller understanding, and the confidence that comes with the sense of knowing what is about to happen next” (114). Renfield fulfils this expectation since his speeches, often collages of nursery rhymes, foreshadow events in the story. Stoker’s Renfield also burdened his listeners with coded warnings and Lochhead builds upon this foundation but adds a distinctly poetic touch to Renfield’s new speeches. If one put these coded messages under the headings of themes then they would list as follows: death/suicide, sex, madness, and prophet/devil. Renfield’s web of jumbled speech appears complex at first and yet the key to solving each riddle is a well-known rhyme, ballad, or poem.

Death is surely the core message of Renfield’s strange chattering. This shows great thematic fidelity to Stoker’s text since Count Dracula is the face of death. In the original novel, the Count wishes to infect London, the great centre of population density (Stoker 26), with his deadly contagion. There are two distinct strands to Renfield’s references to death, namely his own potential suicide and then Dracula as a harbinger of death. We know that Renfield does not commit suicide in the strict sense as he does not die by his own hands. However, Renfield’s willing alliance with Dracula brought inherent dangers, death being the chief one. Lochhead references this apparent choice quite early in the text. Renfield alludes to Hamlet’s great soliloquy, saying, “to die or not to die, that is the question” (17) rather than the original “to be, or not to be, that is the question” (Shakespeare 3.1.56). In this soliloquy, the Danish Prince goes on to contemplate suicide but foresees no rest, even in death – “To die, to sleep – / To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub” (3.1.64-65). Renfield knows that vampirism, like Hamlet’s idea of a post-death nightmare, is an undesirable state. Count Dracula as the literal Undead does not enter death but remains in an intermediate state only sustainable through the satisfaction of a desperate hunger. Renfield’s own reference to death/suicide comes embedded in his adaptation of the traditional rhyme, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. The cumulative effect of devouring larger and larger prey eventually kills the old lady, and this aptly reflects the path of consuming insects that Renfield has erroneously chosen. There is a fatalism to Renfield’s ponderings as if the path initially chosen can never be abandoned. The riddle of Renfield’s “to die or not to die” (17) is that not dying is actually vampirism. True death becomes a mercy.

The second aspect of Renfield’s contemplation of death is that Dracula delivers death in an alluring manner. This is communicated in Renfield’s allusion to John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci when he speaks of, “The Beldams of Bedlam sans merci” (20). In Keats’ poem, death comes disguised as a beautiful and enchanting woman and the narrator of the poem, having been seduced by her, slips unexpectedly into death. On the one hand, Renfield’s hospitalization and subsequent opiate medication combined with severe food rationing could explain this feeling of life slipping away. However, Keats’ poem refers to a strange seducer and in Renfield’s case, this is Count Dracula. In the poem, the man has a dream where he meets the now dead, previous victims of the seductress, and “death pale were they all” (Keats 38). This reminds one of Renfield’s comment in Stoker’s text on the unappealing “pale people” (Stoker 245) i.e., vampires. Lochhead’s use of an allusion to Keats’ poem shows again that death is imminent, wished or unwished, but it comes in the arms of an alluring stranger.

Most readers are aware that apart from death, sex is a dominant theme in Stoker’s original novel. The most striking scene is when the vampire brides seduce Johnathan Harker in Dracula’s castle (Stoker 42). Stoker’s characters react to sexual situations just like normal people do, namely in quite visceral, often illogical ways. Sex is reconfirmed as a powerful tool of manipulation and also what initially leads characters into situations that later become uncontrollable. Lochhead likewise focuses on the attractions and the dangers of sex. When Renfield says “come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly. Perhaps you’ll die” (37) then he is adapting The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt. This poem tells how a spider flatters, cajoles, and seduces a female fly into his web so that he may devour her. Renfield speaks these lines just before the scene where Jonathan wishes to leave Dracula’s castle having been long detained under charming yet false pretences. The message of the adapted poem is twofold because it shows the glamour of initial seduction but then the cold reality of later entrapment. Renfield ends up incarcerated in an asylum where he also serves as prey to a deadly predator. The adaptation of Howitt’s poem effectively communicates the power of seductive masks. The smiling face of one’s friend transforms into the fanged mouth of one’s enemy.

Lochhead interlaces references to sex, pleasure, and freedom via the single motif of a fluttering bird in her adaptation. For example, Florrie tells the tale of “Poor Fanny Waller” (63), the girl who gets pregnant mysteriously and tells the wise woman that she feels “somethin’ like li’l bird, flutterin” (64) inside her. The wise woman poses the humorous yet crude question to Fanny – “And did you not feel that li’l bird go in?” (64). In this manner, the playwright links a fluttering feeling to illicit sexual relations. However, the same feeling may also be connected to the pleasurable feeling of consuming life forms, like in the nursery rhyme where the woman swallows the spider “that wriggled and tickled and tickled inside her” (17). Thereby, the consumption of life associated with vampirism is obliquely connected with sexual pleasure. Renfield is also described in a manner that references the motif of fluttering birds. Nurse Grice tells of how Renfield escaped to Carfax and was “pressed up ’gainst that old iron-studded oak door, cooin’ like a dove through the chink and whisperin’, ‘Master, master, I’m here to do your bidding. Now you are near me do not pass me by” (82). The dove is a traditional symbol of love, and the cooing of the dove is normally done during mating season by the as-yet unmated male. Renfield as the potential lover/servant of Dracula is one who metaphorically has felt the strong flutter of attraction. Lochhead even manages to use an allusion to the nursery rhyme, Goosey Goosey Gander to refer to Dracula’s sexual impropriety. Renfield asks Seward to be released and thereby escape Dracula, saying, “He is at hand. At hand? At throat, he is at it! Next door, next week, upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber” (93). In Goosey Goosey Gander, the mysterious figure found in the lady’s chamber is “an old man / who wouldn’t say his prayers” (5-6). Dracula is easily identifiable as the sex fiend unable to say his prayers. In these various references to the fluttering bird, there is a compelling interplay between the idea of being consumed by the vampire and being consumed by appetites and desires.

The antithesis of the idea of pleasurable consumption is the purgation sometimes necessary afterwards. The wise woman warns Fanny Waller of the pain she will feel when the baby is born. Likewise, the vampiric consumption of life is shown to be morally corrupt. Renfield eats bugs and then birds and we witness him singing of his own self-disgust having regurgitated them – “Who ate Cock Robin / My head is throbbin’ / The sweet sound of sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’” (36). Who Killed Cock Robin is an English nursery rhyme where the other creatures of the forest hold a solemn funeral for the fallen robin. Renfield, in an attempt to envelop the delicious fluttering feeling, digests the bird only to vomit it out later. This correlation of sexual impropriety and “zoöphagy” (Stoker 236) is an intriguing element in the horror story.

The motif of the fluttering bird finally leads one to the theme of freedom. Renfield says “Me, I sit, I sit with my birds in the wilderness, pretty birds, little victims, pretty ones, how they do flutter! The struggling sacrifice, Nurse Grice, ain’t it nice, that do quicken the heart, that give a little flutter …” (27). The birds’ panicked flutter for freedom sparks the quickened beating of a human heart thereby mimicking the flapping wings. Renfield himself has been shown to be both the fluttering dove and the one who sacrifices such birds. All these intermixed references to fluttering birds bring us to Renfield’s chief point. He tells Seward, “Did you know the ancients – realising the aerial powers of the psychic faculties, imagination and, indeed, ‘soul’ – portrayed it as a winged thing, as butter – or even common – fly?” (95). The whole heady mix of sexual attraction, consuming lives, and raised heartbeats leads one to the final, simple idea of freedom. The feeling of lightness, of being untethered and free, which can be symbolized by a butterfly or common fly is what Renfield always sought. Yet, the elusive sensation of freedom is difficult for Renfield to capture since he is incarcerated in a mad asylum.

Madness never means danger to others in Lochhead’s text, despite one’s reflex to find madness and danger almost synonymous. In Act One, Lochhead describes how “Renfield is singing ‘Loving Mad Tom’ in the moonlight. In his cell. Very sweetly” (58). This is the Tom o’ Bedlam ballad which is an old English work. It is relevant to Lochhead’s depiction of Renfield because it reinforces our idea of him as a harmless victim. The vulnerable beggar and madman of the ballad seeks protection from evil – “From the hag and the hungry goblin / That into rags would rend ye. / The spirits that stand by the naked man / In the Book of Moons defend ye” (58). Renfield sings several verses but one which particularly stands out is “Come dame or maid, be not afraid: Poor Tom will injure nothing” (58). This reminds one of the nurse’s comment on Renfield that he is not a danger to women and indeed opens a quite separate interpretation of his harmlessness, i.e., it does not reference sexuality at all, but simply an incapacity to harm. The playwright reinforces the idea that Renfield poses no threat to others and like the ex-inmate of Bedlam from the ballad, Renfield deserves help and pity. The inclusion of the ballad in the adaptation also broadens one’s view of Renfield’s life chances outside the walls of a mental asylum and the difficulties of survival that potentially await him. It is unsurprising that a person like Renfield may all too easily cling to a potential benefactor.

Renfield views Count Dracula as a special individual. He actively worships the vampire which is an element of the story that Lochhead retains from Stoker’s text. What is interesting about Lochhead’s presentation is the dichotomy of Renfield as an enlightened prophet or a misguided fool. Is Dracula a saviour or a far more malign figure? While the answer is clear to readers, Renfield’s contemplation is captivating. Renfield speaks of the feeling of personal value that many believers gain from their religious faith, saying “My whole head is a temple. Full of precious things for my master to come and worship. Because he’s coming in his warship. My-master-that-I-worship-is-coming-in-his-warship” (18). Renfield later refers to himself as a “Prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming his [Dracula’s] coming” (28). The image of a prophet awaiting a message from God in the wilderness is a familiar trope from the Christian bible. It may refer to St. Elijah but may equally refer to several other comparable religious figures. The playwright assigns Renfield the role of the madman/chosen disciple who awaits the new saviour’s coming. The wilderness of long ago becomes the mental asylum of modern life. Renfield eventually realizes his mistake, telling Mina, “He [Dracula] is come among us. He can kill us all. You have to make them see” (104). There is an allusion here to a line from the Crucible by Arthur Miller where the Reverend Hale says, “he is come among us” (42) and ‘he’ is the devil. The saviour that Renfield initially anticipates is proven to be an imposter who is dangerous and ruthless. Stoker depicted Dracula as a foreign conqueror arrived on the English shore to subjugate an entire people, but Lochhead delves deeper into the religious aspect of the new, strong leader. Renfield is personally invested in Dracula’s potential to change things, most especially Renfield’s own tortured life, but it all turns out to be yet another delusion. The new depiction of the crestfallen Renfield is more affecting that Stoker’s because Lochhead makes it personal, and somehow more tragic on that account.

Lochhead’s creativity in regard to Renfield’s new depiction has been explored here under thematic headings. This is not strictly necessary but holds to the previous point of the importance of thematic fidelity as a mark of achievement. The key point is that the playwright’s creativity allows Renfield to appear renewed, modern, and quite relatable. The use of various nursery rhymes and varied literary allusions serve to underline both Renfield’s messages and the accessibility of such messages for a modern readership. The focus is on communication which for Dr. Seward proves fruitless until it is too late, but for us, communication becomes as easy as a children’s rhyme which is Lochhead’s point. It is also interesting how the adapted character acts as a commentary on the interpretation of any adaptation – he makes strange of all that is familiar, forcing us to rethink and come to a new understanding.


The aim of this essay is to evaluate if Lochhead’s adaptation stands independently of Stoker’s classic, or ends up as a pale imitation. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon writes in her introduction, “as we shall see, disparaging opinions on adaptation as a secondary mode—belated and therefore derivative— persist” (XIII). In my own analysis, I have tried to find a balance between being critical and acknowledging the stronger aspects of Lochhead’s adaptation. The chief criticism of Lochhead’s adaptation is that she fails to sufficiently shrink Stoker’s novel into a story that will work on stage. A quotation from Hutcheon outlines not only the necessity of this task but also recognizes its difficulty – “Usually adaptations, especially from long novels, mean that the adapter’s job is one of subtraction or contraction; this is called “a surgical art” (Abbott 2002: 108) for a good reason” (19). Given that Lochhead was working to a tight deadline, was previously unfamiliar with the novel, and possibly had not read other adaptations of Dracula, it is difficult to reject her work based solely on the issue of her flawed abridgement. Also, since this essay focuses on a reader’s experience of the stage version of Dracula, the flaw is less evident than it would be for an audience member at a live performance.

One must also give credit to the playwright for attempting an adaptation into a more difficult medium than film. Kobetts Miller writes that the theatrical adaptation of a novel is “the first step toward abstracting from the original novel what Paul Davis has called a “culture-text” (6). Deane and Balderston set Count Dracula free to roam theatre stages around the world and this stage history is a somewhat hidden part of the Dracula that we recognise today. Once one has learned that Bela Lugosi acted the part of Dracula on stage then it is hard to disregard this medium. Lochhead participated in a tradition of theatrical adaptations and therefore added to the culture text which “creates a frequently renewed audience for the originating text” (6). The question remains if Lochhead’s text just feeds an interest in the original novel or if it is worth reading for its own sake?

The key arguments in defence of Lochhead’s text in this essay have been that she showed thematic fidelity to Stoker’s original while also exhibiting considerable creativity and artistry. Her stage adaptation of Dracula is significant not due to her depiction of the vampire, but due to her inspired characterization of Renfield. As Hutcheon writes, “The adapted text … is not something to be reproduced, but rather something to be interpreted and recreated” (84). In Lochhead’s adaptation, it turns out that Renfield, not Count Dracula, is the “single protean figure, culturally stereotyped yet retrofitted in ideological terms for adaptation to different times and place” (Hutcheon 153). The madman becomes a key focus, not the vampire. If one compares how Renfield may have been newly interpreted in 1985 versus now, then we sense the constant shift due to an ever changing context. The new breath of life that Lochhead infused into Renfield is her adaptation’s chief claim to autonomy.

Works Cited.

Anonymous. “Tom o’Bedlam.” Wikipedia, 2021, Accessed 15 August 2021.

Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho. Grove Press Inc., 1983.

Deane, Hamilton, and John L. Balderston. Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts. Samuel French, Inc. 1927.

Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning, performances by Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler, Universal Pictures, 1931.

Harold, James. “The Value of Fidelity in Adaptation.” The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 58, Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 89–100.

Howitt, Mary. “The Spider and the Fly.” Familyfriend Poems, 2021, Accessed 18 August 2021.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2006.

Keats, John. “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Poetry Foundation, 2021, Accessed 15 August 2021.

Kobetts Miller, Renata. “Nineteenth-Century Theatrical Adaptations of Novels: The Paradox of Ephemerality” The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, edited by Thomas Leitch, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 67-72.

Lochhead, Liz. Dracula: Adapted from Bram Stoker’s Novel. Nick Hern Books, 2014.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books, 2000.

Nosferatu. Directed by F. W. Murnau, performances by Max Schreck and Gustav von Wangenheim, Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, 1922.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by Richard Andrews and Rex Gibson, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula, edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.

  • Play title: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.
  • Author: Christopher Durang 
  • First performed: 1979 
  • Page count: 36


This one-act play is a comedy by American playwright Christopher Durang. There are a total of six characters, namely the titular Sister Mary Ignatius along with a seven-year-old boy named Thomas and four adults: Gary, Diane, Philomena, and Aloysius. The setting for the events is Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow School where Sister Mary Ignatius has long been a teacher and is currently giving a lecture on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Thomas is the epitome of an excellent student and supplies word-perfect answers to the nun’s questions on Catholic teachings, especially the ten commandments. The four adults are former students of Sister Mary Ignatius’ and they visit the school unexpectedly. The middle-aged nun’s rigid Catholic views and authoritarian attitude lead to friction when she learns of her old students’ current lives. It seems they have not turned out to be good Catholics and the nun expresses her scorn in politically incorrect terms. Durang uses church dogma as his material to create many wonderfully comic scenes. The former students eventually challenge Sister Mary Ignatius due to her teachings. Her unexpected response leads to a climactic scene which is humorous, shocking, and absurd all at once.

Ways to access the text: reading.

It is possible to read the play script online via the Open Library. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find other sources.

Why read Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You?

Catholic dogma.

Much of the humour in the play requires that a reader have at least some familiarity with Catholic dogmas. Durang taps into a particular vein of humour as he shows how a church that expects total obedience to its teachings sometimes changes those same teachings. The examples given in the play include topics like Limbo, eating meat on Fridays, and the existence or not of a certain saint. When Sister Mary Ignatius discusses these topics then her own conclusions are quite amusing as they expose the difficulties of steadfast belief, even for those in the church. When tackling the core issue of papal infallibility, Sister Mary Ignatius says that the Pope is only infallible when “he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ which is Latin for ‘out of the cathedral’” (1). Her translation is flawed and therefore funny as it sounds as if the Pope is only infallible when he speaks outside of his domain and not as ‘ex cathedra’ is usually translated – ‘from the chair/throne’ which denotes the Pope’s seat of authority. Maybe Durang had in mind that the Pope was also speaking ‘out of’ something else! Catholic dogma has admittedly been flogged for laughs many times, but Durang’s play is well crafted, witty, and overall, quite effective.

The stereotypical nun.

Sister Mary Ignatius is a wonderful creation because she embodies what many consider to be the stereotype of the stern, Catholic nun. She first appears in an “old fashioned nun’s habit” (1) signalling her inability to adapt even to the modest updates in nuns’ ever-conservative fashions. Durang cleverly presents two women, the nun as a child depicted through her own memories and then the resulting adult who stands before her audience. The little girl from a huge Catholic family of twenty-six children grows up to dislike children, has a penchant for graphic descriptions of Christ’s suffering on the cross, and a general intolerance of anyone who complains about anything because it will never compare to Our Lord’s suffering. The playwright presents a woman who has a knack of controlling situations to her own satisfaction, something that others should evidently bear in mind. It seems that an authority figure in a child’s eyes remains ever so, even when the child has become an adult.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation

Beyond Nuns & Therapy.


Durang’s play about a Catholic nun may reasonably be viewed as a dated work. Not only have nuns become a rare sight in general but teaching nuns even more so. Also, derision of the Catholic Church on the grounds of its dogmas or indeed numerous other issues have become commonplace. Therefore, one needs some encouragement to read a play published more than forty years ago, a play which seems like little more than a precursor to a style of humour with which we are now overly familiar, even jaded. Luckily, there are two key motivators for potential readers, namely that the play is genuinely amusing and secondly, there is worthwhile satire beyond the lighter humour.

While most critics accept that Durang’s play is satirical, it is debatable what he hoped to achieve by deriding the Catholic church. M. H. Abrams writes that “satire can be described as the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking towards it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. It differs from the comic in that comedy evokes laughter mainly as an end in itself, while satire derides; that is, it uses laughter as a weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself” (275). The ‘butt’ in the case of Durang’s play is chiefly the Catholic Church. Yet, Abrams’ quote exposes the problem of too easily labelling Durang’s play a satire because the playwright does seem to aim at evoking laughter as an end in itself. Only by closely reading the play can one determine if Durang truly hopes to change the church itself, or influence its faithful congregation, or maybe the play is aimed at non-believers aka atheists. Also, Abrams’s definition seems too loose and fails to tell us what satirical derision aims to achieve. In such circumstances, it is helpful to look at a more exacting definition of satire. Terry Lindvall, in his book God Mocks, defines satire as having two recurring characteristics which are as follows:

“First, as satire is used to attack, it aims not just to slice and dice, but to correct and reform. I argue that the heart of true satire is recognition of a moral discrepancy between what is proclaimed and what is practiced, often with an attempt to remedy it. It ranges from moral outrage to mischievous exposing of the Emperor’s new clothes” (5).

“Second, satire employs wit and humor; it entertains. It is not always funny, but it appeals to a recognition of the ridiculous” (6).

Lindvall is writing specifically about religious satire and his definition is quite detailed, especially where he notes that such satire aims to correct and reform. Durang’s play is a satire of the Catholic church, but does it qualify as religious satire, that is, did the playwright actually hope that his work would influence (correct/reform) an institution renowned for its intransigence? Maybe this question is too simplistic and the ‘remedy’ that Lindvall writes of is to be found elsewhere than the church itself. This essay has the aims of giving an informed reading of how Durang’s play satirizes the Catholic Church and who/what precisely he wishes to influence, correct, or reform. The starting assumption is that Durang’s play does qualify as religious satire but that the church is not necessarily where we will witness a correction or reform.

The playwright also satirizes elements of modern society where many people have a strong disposition to find the root of all their problems in their childhood experiences and they then seek to allocate blame as a form of resolution. It is noteworthy that the figure of the psychiatrist is lampooned in the play and is just as hated by Diane Symonds as is Sister Mary Ignatius. One may plausibly conjecture that the psychiatrist prompted Diane to link her unhappiness to her Catholic upbringing. Diane’s need to confront her past, literally to confront Sister Mary Ignatius, also seems to align with possible psychiatric advice, but she sorely misinterprets it. Neither Diane, as a self-confessed murderer nor the unethical psychiatrist (sexual affair with a patient) comes out as the voice of objective reason in the play. Therefore, one may confidently state that Durang’s satire, while chiefly aimed at the Catholic church, also targets other authority figures like modern psychiatrists, and even critiques the purported victims of the church. Nevertheless, Durang exposes the faults of Catholic teachings and shows that people have a right to their anger and disillusionment. This indeed seems paradoxical. However, the somewhat hidden theme of Durang’s play is actually self-empowerment but this argument will become clearer upon investigating the play. Thus, even though the play is a little dated, it has not lost its value for readers because it looks at how individuals must tackle the world.

This essay is divided into sections, namely: Durang’s motivation, homosexuality, Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood, dogma, the age of reason, theodicy and finally, a conclusion. Though Durang’s play is just one act, it provides ample subjects for discussion. Apart from the conclusion, each section looks at who/what Durang is satirizing and how he, to repeat Abrams’ words, “uses laughter as a weapon” (275). The first step is crucially to look at what may have been the playwright’s motivation to satirize the Catholic Church. One is more convinced of a strong intellectual intent behind the humour if one senses that there is a personal axe to grind, so to speak.

Durang’s motivation.

If Durang was motivated to spur a reform, then where would such a reform occur? Terry Lindvall writes that “At its best, Christian satire combines laughter and a vision of reform, in what scholar Ralph Wood once called a comedy of redemption (20). However, either can exist without the other. Satirical laughter without the hope of correction can devolve into mere sneering and scoffing” (7). The key target of Durang’s satire is Catholic dogma which by its very nature is practically written in stone so surely he cannot hope to influence such teachings. This reminds one of the saying, “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.” One may be equally sure that Durang was not hoping to move the unmovable. This observation simply allows one to discount at an appropriately early stage of the discussion any illusion of Durang influencing or even hoping to influence Catholic dogma. Unfortunately, this returns one to the idea that he only wished to elicit laughter at the church’s expense. Yet, Durang’s motivation for writing the play may shed light on his aims. In a New York Times article from 1981, Durang told the interviewer Carol Lawson that he understood that some people would be offended by his play, but he said, ”I didn’t write this play to throw water in the face of those who believe. My purpose wasn’t to make people angry, but to get off my chest how I look at things” (7). The interviewer noted that Durang “looks at things as a self-proclaimed ‘ex-Catholic’” (7). Therefore, he is clearly not a zealous Catholic hoping to reform the church but he does hold a sharpened axe in his hands. The purpose of Durang’s play is probably most easily deduced from the following quote from the same interview.

“Even when I was a teenager and still a believer, I saw things about the church that I disapproved of,” he said. ”For instance, when I was about 15, my mother befriended a woman who had a brute of an alcoholic husband. She was 24 years old and had five children. She went to the local parish priest and asked if she could use birth control in case her husband raped her. The priest said no. After that, her husband did force himself on her, and she had another child. The whole issue of birth control just makes me crazy” (7).

Maybe Durang was sincere in saying that he did not want to offend the faithful but it is obviously the minds of the congregation and not the clergy that may be swayed, and it is upon such minds that Durang’s play may be influential. Logically, the play is not deliberately aimed at atheists as few would be sufficiently familiar with Catholic dogma to appreciate the humour and any laughter elicited from the audience would be just that, pure entertainment. Judging from the New York Times article quote, Durang’s point seems to be that the inflexible and often severe church teachings as extolled by Sister Mary Ignatius are teachings from which one may indeed extricate oneself. It is a telling point that the play’s character of Diane Symonds has, in truth, failed to leave the church behind and that is why she mistakenly seeks an admission of guilt from the nun whom she despises. It is with slightly hung-up ex-Catholics and lingering Catholics that Durang’s play will truly resonate and therefore they are his target audience. His personal motivation comes from the experience of witnessing how church dogma can be unrealistic, even cruel in real-life situations. The reform possible through religious satire is to expose the absurdity of some of the church rules, thus making people’s choices clearer. To reject something that does not work often requires that you first stop taking it seriously and laugh at it.

One may also look to Durang’s personal life for motivation to write a cutting satire of the Catholic church. Durang was an openly gay man, and the play’s character of Gary is significant as it is an accurate portrayal of how the Catholic church has consistently been unable to accept homosexuality. The only acceptable homosexual man in the eyes of the church is a celibate one and this is obviously a denial of any variance in human sexuality beyond heterosexuality. The Catholic church’s teaching on celibate, homosexual men entering the priesthood is more revealing as in this particular case the men are, though celibate, still considered to be “intrinsically disordered” due to their sexual orientation and therefore unfit to join the church. This stance was most recently repeated by the former Pope, Benedict XVI who retired in 2013. Durang rejected a church that would always seek to fix what they perceived to be a fault. One message of the play seems to be that you must abandon a faith that is unaccepting of you but that also means foregoing the option of later seeking an admission of guilt from the same church.


Sister Mary Ignatius’ prejudice against gay men is the source of several jokes. At an early point in the play, one audience member asks the nun, “what exactly went on in Sodom?” (8) to which there is the response of an irritated silence. Sister Mary Ignatius goes on to inform her listeners that “Modern day Sodoms are New York City, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Los Angeles …” (9). As previously discussed, the topic of homosexuality may have struck a more personal cord with Durang, and his satire is equally funny and cutting. One of the funnier lines in the play comes when the nun is asking her former pupils about their current lives and families.

“Aloysius: I have two boys.

Sister: I like boys (to Gary) And you?

Gary: I’m not married” (Durang 19).

When the nun subsequently asks Gary about birth control then his answer prompts her to guess that he is gay. He explains “I got seduced when I was in the seminary” (23) which in the context, adds insult to injury. Sister Mary Ignatius’ initial response to Gary is to say, “Okay. You do that thing that makes Jesus puke, don’t you?” (23). The nun’s unexpectedly colloquial expression reveals her own disgust but the line is funny because she attributes such an attitude to Jesus.

As a counterweight to the nun’s intolerant attitude, Durang cleverly draws an implicit comparison between Jesus and the character of Gary. The source of the comparison comes from Sister Mary Ignatius herself when she first responds with a simple ‘yes’ to the question – “Was Jesus effeminate?” (5). Later, she refers to Gary as “the little effeminate one” (25) who “might get better with shock treatments and aversion therapy” (25) which means a cure for his homosexuality. The only religious guidance that Gary receives from the nun is to live a celibate life. The similarity between Jesus and Gary is not simply that both may be described as effeminate and that the nun uses this word to denote homosexuality, but also in the idea of celibacy being appropriate for gay men. Sister Mary Ignatius says that “Christ was warm, loving, and not attracted to anybody” (8). The description of Christ as asexual is highly amusing and accurate to a surprising degree in terms of dogma. Ludwig Ott writes that “According to the testimony of Holy Writ, Christ possessed a truly human soul with the corresponding emotions” (174) and this means he experienced sadness, fear, anger, love, joy etc. Yet a crucial point is that “In Christ’s conception, concupiscence was completely removed, so that the powers of the senses were completely subject to the direction of reason” (Ott 203). In short, Christ never experienced feelings of lust. As Jesus is referred to as effeminate in the play (i.e., code for homosexual) then his lack of sexual desire means he led a perfectly celibate life. Sister Mary Ignatius finds fault only with Gary’s homosexual practices because in all other respects he is a good Catholic. Traditional Catholic teaching is that the sin and not the sinner is the problem, namely not homosexuality but the homosexual act. Yet, this is patently untrue as proven by the church’s rejection of celibate, gay men for the priesthood. The playwright seeks to mock a hypocritical church that prefers ‘fixing’ someone by condoning aversion therapy etc. or alternatively getting them to totally deny their sexuality through celibacy. Acceptance is not on the church’s menu of responses to homosexuality. Through the slightest intimation that Jesus himself was gay, Durang delivers a stinging rebuke to the institutional church. The playwright’s astute comparison of Jesus with a modern-day gay man is cutting satire. Sister Mary Ignatius dramatically murders Gary in the end, apparently sending him to heaven due to his recent confession. The implication is that Gary’s relationship with a man will otherwise lead to his eternal damnation. The impossible position of gay men seems quite clear, either as clerics or members of the church faithful.

Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood.

When not mercilessly judging others, Sister Mary Ignatius speaks freely and fondly of her childhood. The nun obviously adheres to Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim – “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Through the recounting of the future nun’s chaotic childhood home life, Durang explores the real-life problems of following Catholic teachings. Sister Mary Ignatius is one of twenty-six children in her family, an obvious caricature of the traditionally large Catholic family. She describes, with no apparent sense of irony, how her mother hated children and was a terrible cook but had little choice in the matter as she could not use birth control. The outcome for such a family seems appropriately dysfunctional and the nun says that “From my family 5 became priests, 7 became nuns, 3 became brothers, and the rest were institutionalized. My mother was also institutionalized shortly after she started thinking my father was Satan” (9). It is apparent that the institutional church and institutions for the insane attract similar candidates in Durang’s humorous opinion. One obvious shared factor in both types of institution is the rigid hierarchal and authoritarian structure which provides, along with a demand for obedience, a structured, reliable, and stable routine!

The nun’s childhood, defined by mayhem, was largely due to the church’s ban on contraception and the reliance on prayer to solve problems. It is also important to note that Catholic marriage was and still remains an inseparable bond. In Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott outlines the rules in relation to Catholic marriage.

“The Council of Trent declared that the bond of marriage cannot be loosed on account of heresy, or of difficulties in living together, or of absence, with evil intent, of one marriage partner (D 975),: and that the Church does not err when she has taught and teaches that according to evangelic and apostolic doctrine, the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the parties (D 977)” (463).

“The intrinsic reasons for the indissolubility of marriage are the assuring of the physical and moral education of the children, the protection of marital fidelity, the imitation of the indissoluble union of Christ with His Church, and the welfare of the family and society” (464).

The dogma of the Catholic church as quoted above is mocked by the real-life example of Sister Mary Ignatius’ childhood. The future nun had a mother who hated children and finally went insane and a father who invited strangers into his marital bedroom! Such childhood conditioning leads Sister Mary Ignatius to hold peculiar views on what is normal. For example, when she questions her former student, Aloysius, then she is most pleased to hear that he is married and does not use birth control but he unexpectedly adds, ‘I’m an alcoholic and recently I’ve started to hit my wife, and I keep thinking about suicide” (22). The nun’s response is hilarious, saying that “Within bounds, all those things are venial sins” (22). Durang depicts a nun who herself is the dysfunctional product of a household bound by the unreasonable and ultimately unhealthy demands of Catholic dogmas. Now a teaching nun, Sister Mary Ignatius merely perpetuates the wrong by holding other families to the same impossible standards. The key to Durang’s satire here is the link he deftly makes between an atrocious childhood and an abominable nun.


In order to fully appreciate the effectiveness of Durang’s satire of Catholic dogmas, one must look at actual church teachings. The book, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, is widely recognized as an authoritative and comprehensive overview of church teachings. Ott informs us that “By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such” (4). The seriousness of not following these prescribed teachings of the church is exposed in the fact that “If a baptized person deliberately denies or doubts a dogma properly so-called, he is guilty of the sin of heresy (CIC 1325, Par. 2), and automatically becomes subject to the punishment of excommunication (CIC 2314, Par. 1)” (Ott 5). While many Catholics ignore some of the key teachings of the church in the present day, Durang’s play dates from the 1970’s when adherence to the rules was more uniform and less questioned.

An interesting aspect of Durang’s play is how he depicts the church’s insistence on maintaining an influence over people, even those who appear to be self-confessed ex-Catholics. This is a reality rather than an imaginative exaggeration in the play. The reluctance of the church to abdicate the right to tell people how to live their lives is humorously shown in Sister Mary Ignatius’ condescension towards her former pupils. Ott quotes the exact teachings of the church from which we may find the source for this attitude:

“As the baptismal character which effects incorporation in the Church is indestructible, the baptized person, in spite of his ceasing to be a member of the Church, cannot cut himself off so completely from the Church, that every bond with the Church is dissolved. …

Thus, the Church claims jurisdiction over baptized persons who are separated from her.” (311).

This continuing claim of jurisdiction is evident in Sister Mary Ignatius’ critical comments about her former pupils’ lifestyles. In the hands of someone like Sister Mary Ignatius, dogma becomes little more than a tool of control.

Catholic dogma provides rich material for satire, but a crucial ingredient is that the dogma be expressed in an environment or in a manner that emphasizes the absurdly rigid nature of the teaching and/or the fantastical nature of the teaching. It is a most effective tactic of Durang’s to make an inflexible, intolerant, and comically obnoxious nun the mouthpiece of the church’s key teachings. When she quotes dogma, sometimes inaccurately, to an audience not versed in theology then the resulting humour is often abundant. Durang takes aim at many of the church’s key dogmas but Limbo is probably the best known. Sister Mary Ignatius tells her audience that Limbo is “where unbaptized babies were sent for eternity before the Ecumenical Council and Pope John XXIII” (2) but now these babies go straight to Purgatory. The problem with Limbo is that it was always a grey area but was held to be a formal teaching of the church. Ludwig Ott wrote in the 1950’s that “Theologians usually assume that there is a special place or state for children dying without baptism which they call Limbus puerorum (children’s Limbo). Pope Pius VI adopted this view against the Synod of Pistoia” (114). However, under Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 the concept of Limbo was officially dropped, and Sister Mary Ignatius’ comments show that this was already a controversial topic in the nineteen seventies. Of course, the idea that for two whole millennia all unbaptized children were denied salvation but everything changed with the stroke of a pen in 2007 is indeed comical. The nun’s wry humour about the change in dogma underlines how difficult such changes are for devoted members of the church, never mind ordinary observers.

Sister Mary Ignatius is not averse to making interesting additions to church teachings. She lectures her audience that, “you can expect to be in Purgatory from anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years” (2). In fact, the church’s official line is that “As to the length of the purification process for the individual souls, nothing can be said in terms of years. Cf. D. 1143” (Ott 485). When one considers that this nun teaches junior school pupils, the idea of them trying to comprehend even the starting point of 300 years is quite amusing.

The nun is especially irritated when people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. The former means that the Blessed Mother was born without original sin. Whereas the Virgin Birth, in Sister Mary Ignatius’ words, means that Mary managed to get pregnant “without the prior unpleasantness of physical contact” (2). These are in fact church teachings. Pope Pius IX declared in a Papal Bull in 1854 that “The Most Holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception … preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Ott 199). However, it is the Virgin Birth that is more impressive due to the level of incredulity it usually prompts in people. Ott informs us that “The Lateran Synod of the year 649, under Pope Martin I, stressed the threefold character of Mary’s virginity teaching of the ‘blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary’ that: ‘she conceived without seed, of the Holy Ghost, generated without injury (to her virginity), and her virginity continued unimpaired after the birth’ (D 256)” (203). In the pageant staged by the former pupils of Sister Mary Ignatius, Diane plays the Virgin Mary and recites the lines, “And I’m still a virgin / and he’s not the father.” (12). This particular teaching of the church has long been a source of ridicule. However, the sexless marriage of Mary and Joseph is official church teaching. Ott writes that based on readings of the Holy Scriptures, “up to a definite point in time the marriage was not consummated” (207) and he adds that “Among the Fathers many upheld the teaching of Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus” (207). The issue is further complicated by the marriage because “As Mary was living in lawful wedlock with Joseph, the latter was the legal father of Jesus. Luke 3, 23: “The son of Joseph, as it was supposed.” Cf. Luke 2,23. 48.” (Ott 204). Therefore, we have a child who is not his legal father’s child, born to a woman who insists that she is still a virgin and Durang capitalizes on the obvious humour of this story.

Sin is a central theme in the play. To categorize sins as venial or mortal is to use the old-style vocabulary of the Catholic Church. Sister Mary Ignatius tells her listeners that venial sins can be worked out in Purgatory, but “mortal sin, on the other hand, is the most serious kind of sin you can do – murder, sex outside of marriage, hijacking a plane, masturbation – and if you die with any of these sins on your soul, even just one, you will go straight to hell and burn for all of eternity” (5). Apparently, in the eyes of God, masturbation and murder deserve the same punishment which of course excites laughter due to the glaring inequity. The church does class masturbation as a grave sin but opinion is divided as to its classification as a mortal sin, however, many children in Catholic schools were advised it was, thus leading to the topic’s prominence. In terms of actual Church teaching on going to hell, Ott states that “The 2nd General Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438-45) declared: the souls of those who die in original sin as well as those who die in actual mortal sin go immediately into Hell, but their punishment is very different. D464, 693” (113). The difference in the punishments is between being deprived of the company of God versus the eternal flames of hell. The playwright generates great humour by having Sister Mary Ignatius juxtapose wildly different acts which she classifies as all equally grave sins and thus all deserving of Hell fire! If the church’s gradation of sins becomes ridiculous then one’s natural instinct is to reject such a system, a perfectly reasonable reaction.

The age of reason.

Thomas, who is Sister Mary Ignatius’ star pupil, is already seven years of age and has therefore reached the “age of reason” (3) when “God will hold him responsible for his sins” (3). The age of reason is used here as defined by canon law, i.e., church law, but the phrase will also prompt a reader to think of the Age of Reason also known as the Enlightenment or possibly Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason. The latter two refer to the importance of human reasoning and a move away from biblical revelations (the chief source of Catholic dogmas) and the historical move to separate church and state. While Sister Mary Ignatius is referring to the canon law definition, the other unavoidable meanings of ‘the age of reason’ serve to satirize her teaching. For instance, a child of seven in a Catholic school would be asked to take transubstantiation as a fact, based on faith, even though his/her logical mind and observations would find no reason to believe that bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is ironic that Thomas is most likely named after St. Thomas the Apostle, aka ‘doubting Thomas’ who disbelieved Christ’s resurrection until he saw the wounds.

Thomas is special chiefly because of his ability to learn by rote and then perfectly repeat Catholic catechism. We do not expect much critical thinking from a child, and this seems to make him the perfect Catholic. Durang repeatedly makes the observation that in Catholic schools, children at a very impressionable age are burdened with all the rules and regulations of the church even though they cannot possibly understand the lifelong implications. Thomas simply does his best to please his teacher and he is also motivated by the seemingly endless supply of cookies given for correct answers. The inability of a child to understand the world of adults is amusingly highlighted when Sister Mary Ignatius asks Thomas – “would you like to keep your pretty soprano voice forever?” (7) to which he naively replies, yes, and the nun says “well, we’ll see what we can do about it” (7). Sister Mary Ignatius previously referenced the castrati of church choirs which was a practice that persisted until the late 19th century and therefore we understand her thoughts even though the child does not. We also learn that people used to enter their religious vocations when they were little more than children, for example, Mary Jean Mahoney who “became a nun after graduating from 12th grade” (12). Durang’s comparison is a little crude but nonetheless amusing because a little boy who unknowingly agrees to his own castration is like the little girl who enters the convent (a life of celibacy) at an age when she cannot possibly understand such a commitment.

The playwright does not abandon the theme of immaturity and naivety but proceeds to expose Sister Mary Ignatius herself as somewhat gullible despite her hardened personality. For instance, when the former pupils arrive in full garb for a nativity play, she blurts out “Oh dear God” and immediately kneels until they explain that they are just former pupils, but she comments that they “look so real” (11). During the mock pageant, the camel says – the people must have “the faith of the dumb animals” (16) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While Durang’s intent is to portray believers in a derogatory manner, he is aiming especially at those in religious orders who hold steadfastly to some of the most incredible Catholic dogmas. The playwright undermines our estimation of Sister Mary Ignatius as an intelligent woman but this makes her position as a teaching nun more problematic. At the end of the play when Sister Mary Ignatius hands the gun to Thomas, it seems to metaphorically express the dilemma of the church investing huge power and authority in those ill equipped to wield it.


Unlike with Thomas the star pupil, Sister Mary Ignatius tells former pupil Diane Symonds – “You’re fresh as paint, and you’re nasty” (25). The character of Diane Symonds adds considerably to the complexity of Durang’s play. Diane once believed in Catholic teachings but she later rejected the church and turned to a psychiatrist for help. What Sister Mary Ignatius as a nun and the psychiatrist have in common is that both are generally accepted as authoritative figures who provide advice on how to live a fulfilling life. However, such figures, on account of their enormous influence, are often held responsible for not solving a person’s problems to an acceptable level. Indeed, the core message of Durang’s play seems to be that divesting oneself of total control over one’s own life by over-reliance on the church or psychiatry is a major error. While Diane makes valid points in her argument with Sister Mary Ignatius, the young woman’s desire to murder the nun subsequent to receiving a confession of fault, along with the previous murder of the psychiatrist, show that Diane cannot possibly be the voice of reason in the play. In this way, Durang extends the satire beyond an attack on the church to include the desire of a modern generation to find someone, anyone, to take the blame for a difficult life. This does not negate the damage done by Sister Mary Ignatius and the psychiatrist, but rather draws one’s attention to what is an appropriate solution.

The dilemma of who is responsible for the bad in life is first introduced by an audience question to Sister Mary Ignatius. The question is quite simple – “If God is all powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?” (5) but the nun quite tellingly skips the question. Obviously, this is a weighty philosophical question and one which cannot easily be answered in a short comedic play. Yet, Durang creates some mischief by making the nun silent on this core issue. In truth, the church and theologians have complex and detailed responses to this issue of God and evil. Richard Swinburne, in his book Providence and the Problem of Evil writes that “in our modern world, most theists need a theodicy, an account of reasons why God might allow evil to occur. Without a theodicy, evil counts against the existence of God” (2). This is precisely the issue for Diane Symonds whose mother died a painful death from breast cancer and Diane herself was a victim of rape and was later taken advantage of sexually by her psychiatrist leading to two abortions. As a result, Diane has stopped believing in God and treats Sister Mary Ignatius as a malignant fraud because life has been exceptionally cruel. Durang homes in on an interesting point here, namely that someone may too easily interpret the dreadful things that occur in life as being punishments from God because the church itself is obsessed with confession and punishment. This is a logical link considering the many rules and associated punishments to which the church subscribes. The Catholic church’s teachings may be compared to traditional cautionary tales. In 1907, Hilaire Belloc expressly wrote Cautionary Tales for Children to deride such a tradition of scaring children into becoming obedient subjects and one of his own tales has the self-explanatory and very amusing title of “Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death” (21). Swinburne writes the following on this issue of presuming bad events are a punishment from God:

“One of the most frequent ways in which people express their protest against the world’s ills is by saying that what happens to them or to someone else is not ‘fair.’ Lying behind this remark is often the feeling that God would only be justified in causing some ill as a punishment for wrongdoing” (242).

The paradox is that to believe that God is punishing you is to believe that God exists in the first place. Diane seems to alternate between a belief that God directed/allowed the bad things to happen in her life and therefore God exists, and contradictorily, that the bad events prove that God does not exist. It is possible to look dispassionately at the bad things that happened to Diane and classify them under two separate headings. Firstly, her mother’s illness and subsequent death can be classed as natural evils which as Swinburne writes, “Natural evil thus includes all the trail of suffering which disease and accidents unpreventable by man bring in their train” (10). Then there is the crime of rape which Diane fell victim to, along with her seduction by her psychiatrist when she was in a vulnerable state and under his care. These actions of two separate men fall under the category of moral evil. Swinburne gives an extensive definition of moral evil as follows:

“I understand ‘moral evil’ as including all bad states caused deliberately by humans doing what they believe to be bad, and especially wrong (or allowed to occur by humans negligently failing to do what they believe to be good, and especially what they believe to be obligatory) and also the bad states constituted by such deliberate actions or negligent failure” (10).

As Diane felt that her mother was allowed to suffer unnecessarily by Catholic medics then there is an element of presumed moral evil in such medical practices which the church condones. The gap between secular and Christian beliefs on this point is huge. In terms of church teaching, there are clear theological arguments as to why such suffering is allowed by an all-powerful God. Firstly, in regard to moral evils, Swinburne quotes the “traditional free-will defence” (17) as follows:

“This claims that many of the bad states which God allows to occur are ones which humans freely choose to inflict on each other, that it is a good thing that humans have such freedom, and the bad states—e.g., the pains and other sufferings which humans inflict on each other—are the price which is paid for that freedom” (17).

This explanation, satisfactory or otherwise, does seem to cover the actions of Diane’s rapist and her psychiatrist. On the other hand, the issue of natural evil is more difficult to explain to the satisfaction of an atheist or even a believer. Durang references The Book of Job in the play which is one of the most famous biblical examples of a man being allowed to suffer excessively by God. There is a very extensive and complex theological argument explaining why God allows natural evils and part of that argument is that no human suffering is eternal as death always ends a person’s suffering (true, but not very consoling) and a second point is that God often allows evils to occur for the sake of some greater good. Swinburne makes a point which concurs with Catholic teaching and answers the key question posed by Diane in the play – why does God allow evil in the world? Swinburne writes that:

“Humans only have a really good character if it is the sort of character which responds readily to suffering (in others and in oneself) in the right way. Natural evil provides the opportunity not merely to be heroic, but to make ourselves naturally heroic” (Swinburne 175).

Given the length of the above explanation, one can appreciate why Sister Mary Ignatius cleverly skips the question about God and evil. The information required to adequately answer Diane’s question is far from simple. In light of the answer to such a difficult question based on Swinburne’s writings, one can see that the church has a long established and robust defence. In the play, Diane is making the regressive step of trying to allocate blame to a flawed representative of a God that she probably no longer genuinely believes in. Therefore, Durang is signalling that this is a negative and ultimately dead-end road.


This essay began with a definition of satire in general and then more specifically, of religious satire. Durang deceptively appears to aim his satire at the church merely to evoke laughter but as has been shown, he references key issues/problems within the church. One could argue that Durang sought to reform the Catholic church indirectly by means of influencing its congregation. However, there is no need to complicate assumptions about Durang’s aim when it seems clear that lingering Catholics and indeed ex-Catholics like himself are the true target audiences of the play. Durang utilizes multiple routes of attack on the church: from exposing the fantastical nature of dogma as well as its dramatic consequences when applied to real-life situations, along with discrediting those who spread the word, like Sister Mary Ignatius. The reform or remedy that Durang brings is simply that of laughter. He shows that the church teachings are often ridiculous and unworkable and this derision robs such teachings of their power and facilitates doubting or even ex-Catholics to finally unhook themselves mentally from such teachings. Though this appears incredibly simple, the fracturing of the bonds of faith established through childhood indoctrination is anything but. As the church claims lifelong jurisdiction over all baptized persons, it is necessary for an individual to exercise free will and move away from an unmovable force, reminding one again of Mohammed and the mountain. The mammoth influence of the Catholic church will always loom on the psychological horizon of lapsed Catholics but to return to the church, even to accuse it, is a diminishment of the independent individual.

Durang criticizes psychiatry by making Diane’s psychiatrist comparable to Sister Mary Ignatius. The therapy that Diane receives reveals her obsession with her former teacher. We are familiar with the common therapeutic advice of facing one’s fears, of confronting one’s past, and such healing techniques require figurative and sometimes literal actions. Durang, who spoke in interviews of receiving therapy himself is not critiquing psychiatry or psychology per se. The crux of Diane’s problem is the abdication of too much personal power, of replacing a morally rigid nun with an alternative authority figure, a psychiatrist, but still ultimately seeking approval of some sort. Diane Symonds’ chief goal is to get Sister Mary Ignatius to take full responsibility for Diane’s own ill preparedness for the tribulations of life. Diane says to the nun – “I want you to admit that everything’s your fault, and then I’m going to kill you” (30). For Sister Mary Ignatius to make such a confession of guilt would contradict church teaching on theodicy and also run counter to her own steadfast beliefs. Durang’s satire relies upon the church’s own belief that it is always right and therefore anyone seeking an admission of fault from such an institution is foolhardy. In the end, Durang comedically depicts a gun-toting nun who dispatches an obstreperous former pupil before taking a nap. If any of us is to avoid being eternally and unfavourably compared to Mary Jean Mahoney, or Thomas, then we need, simply, to take control of our own lives. Maybe the best summation of Durang’s play comes in the following advice taken from the bible – “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

Works Cited.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Heinle & Heinle, 1999.

Belloc, Hilaire. Cautionary Tales for Children. The Camelot Press Limited, 1907.

Durang, Christopher. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Actor’s Nightmare. Nelson Doubleday, 1981.

Lawson, Carol. “Durang Explains It All For You-Satirically.” The New York Times, 8 December 1981, p. C7.

Lindvall, Terry. God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert. New York University Press, 2015.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Translated by Patrick Lynch, Tan Books and Publishers, 1974.

Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Clarendon Press, 1998.


Old-fashioned sewing kit.

  • Play title: Trifles   
  • Author: Susan Glaspell 
  • First performed: 1916 
  • Page count: 20 


Trifles is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell about a murder investigation. All events depicted take place in the setting of an isolated farming community. The playwright’s focus is on the central character of Minnie Foster who married John Wright. John has died in mysterious circumstances and Minnie says that she was asleep when it happened. She is now being held on a preliminary basis at the local prison house. The story is told through the narratives of the couple’s neighbours along with the local sheriff and county attorney. In this short work, Glaspell depicts the scene on the day after the murder when the farmhouse is inspected for clues. The male characters focus on the investigation while the sheriff’s wife and a female neighbour gather some of Minnie’s belongings to bring to her. Through the search for evidence, the playwright exposes clues that allow the reader to piece together what John and Minnie’s married life looked like. One crucial clue holds the reason for the mysterious death.

Ways to access the text: Reading

The text of Trifles is freely available to read online via multiple sources. For example, you can find it on the Internet Archive and it is also available on Project Gutenberg under the title of “Plays by Susan Glaspell.”

Why read Trifles?

A plausible motive.

Glaspell’s play is a feminist work shown by the playwright’s acute awareness of the gender divide combined with sympathy for the female characters. This dualism becomes most evident when we view the men’s and women’s quite separate approaches to the crime under investigation. For example, the county attorney, Mr. Henderson, believes that “what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger, or—sudden feeling” (14). However, this necessarily limits our understanding of motive because it reduces it to a matter of cause and effect played out within an instant of time. The men simply wish to convincingly tie their only suspect, Mrs. Minnie Wright, to her husband’s murder and thereby condemn her. In contrast, the women look at motive as something quite complex that may evolve over an extended period of time and culminate in an act. This second approach takes old grievances into account so anyone could be responsible. Since the search for a plausible motive becomes entangled in gender issues then we witness a battle between the sexes become a battle for justice.

Reading between the lines.

In Trifles, we never hear the voice of Minnie, the accused woman. At best, we learn second-hand of her account of her husband’s death. In this manner, Glaspell underlines our distance from the hidden truth. The picture that one gains of Minnie and John Wright’s life together comes from limited details. We learn of how Minnie changed significantly since she married and we get a general impression of Mr. Wright’s character. Yet, what is surprising is that Mrs. Hale, the neighbour, and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, do indeed succeed in imagining a scenario of what life was like for the Wrights in the privacy of their home. It is this act of reading between the lines, of taking some meagre details and constructing a vivid picture that ultimately leads to questions of responsibility in the play. To read between the lines often requires great empathy and Glaspell considers if having first understood a situation, should one then take action?

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

A Foreseeable Tragedy.


In Trifles, Glaspell presents us with the examination of a crime scene in the form of a dramatic work. The play addresses various themes such as gender roles, marriage, violence, and justice. The story is somewhat simple in its outline because just one vital clue effectively solves the mystery. However, the conclusion of the play highlights who specifically gets to decide what constitutes justice, and why. What is most striking about Glaspell’s play is the way it evokes one’s social conscience because at the heart of the work is a foreseeable tragedy. Minnie Foster is certainly an unlikely perpetrator of murder but this merely serves to focus one’s attention on the set of circumstances that may lead to a violent crime. This essay will examine the character, marriage, and home situation of Minnie Foster in an attempt to piece together a plausible motive for murder that looks beyond the “dead canary” (21). After all, if the men had found the dead bird then it would have supplied the linchpin for a conviction, but the playwright purposely directs us beyond easy answers. The central focus of this essay is the predictability of Minnie’s crime which is an issue that Glaspell herself focuses upon.

As Ronald Mah writes, “Retrospective examination often finds cues and indications of potential violence lurking in the hearts and minds of eventual perpetrators” (5). By reading Trifles for such cues and indications then one follows the playwright’s lead. Even though the play is not particularly complex, therein lies its paradox, because a seemingly opaque situation suddenly becomes clear – but wasn’t it always clear? Is it not the clarity of the situation as long understood by Mrs. Hale that leads to a particular type of justice in the end? It is of note that the accused woman, Minnie, pleads ignorance of the crime by saying she was asleep. As such, there is never a conclusive resolution of the case since no confession is forthcoming. The playwright constructed the play in a way that places emphasis on issues of interpretation and responsibility. Firstly, we witness that one can indeed interpret a domestic situation and predict serious problems even as a third party with scant information. Secondly, when one does ‘crack’ a mystery then the result is an unavoidable sense of responsibility. Therefore the play’s focus is not primarily on who, but rather why and what next? Mrs. Hale interprets the male-led investigation as “trying to get her [Minnie’s] own house to turn against her!” (15). If the house can provide clues to secure a conviction now, then the same house and domestic situation was long providing clues in advance of the murder. This essay scrutinizes Minnie’s situation for evidence that she was a prime candidate to commit a violent crime. The aim of this approach is to emphasize Glaspell’s own key point with the aid of psychological profiling.

To understand the character of Minnie, one may refer to Ronald Mah’s book, How Dangerous is this Person?, in which he outlines a total of seventeen characteristics which a “therapist, professional, or concerned person can use for assessment for violence or danger potential” (43). It is not necessary that a person exhibit every characteristic, but each positive match helps to build a profile. From this full list, the eight characteristics relevant to Minnie’s situation are as follows:


Avoidance behavior

Self-esteem gain or loss


Specific triggering event

Intense emotional arousal

Opportunistic behavior

Presence or lack of remorse

Even though it is impossible to predict with one hundred percent accuracy that someone will commit a violent crime, Mah provides a solid framework so that one may identify a potentially dangerous person. Dangerous and bad are not synonymous which is a critical point when looking at the play. The aim is not to negatively portray Minnie Foster but rather to understand her character and actions. The following analysis looks at each characteristic as outlined by Mah and assesses how they apply to Minnie Foster. This reading reflects Glaspell’s sympathetic view of the character of Minnie and reveals insights into the play’s ending.

Isolation, and avoidance behavior.

When someone is isolated then it indicates their physical remoteness and loneliness. Glaspell depicts the Wright’s farmhouse as existing in almost perfect isolation. The play opens with Mr. Hale’s story of visiting the Wright’s farmhouse to enquire if John Wright would “go in with me on a party telephone” (7) only to discover a murder. Isolation is immediately imbued with a sense of danger. Minnie’s situation exhibits several aspects of isolation and this also helps to explain her avoidance behaviour.

As Minnie is in an isolated position, it means that she cannot gain objective distance from her situation through talking with others. Ronald Mah, a psychotherapist by profession, gives the example of one of his patients whose “inability and difficulty in social relationships led to deep isolation and a lack of relationships or community to give him any kind of feedback or reality check or testing of his perceptions” (33). When someone else listens to one’s story then they do not simply provide a reality check in the form of either agreement or disagreement, but may also offer examples of personal experience, support, or even solutions. Minnie seems to be quite detached from her community and as Mah writes, “Lack of opportunities to be social because of isolation or avoidance also precludes gaining feedback about how ones words or behavior affect others” (58). As Minnie’s behaviour has become violent then it exposes her total inability to cope with her current situation.

Mrs. Hale recognizes the risks of Minnie’s isolation as shown when she condemns herself for not having visited her neighbour. She says:

“I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (22).

There is obviously a perceived commonality to women’s experiences described by Mrs. Hale as the ‘same thing.’ If most women did experience a similar lot in life including a subordinate role in marriage and arduous work, then women obviously coped with these situations. Unfortunately, Minnie has become so isolated that she no longer has the benefit of other women’s advice and support. Also, the levels of hardship that women experienced should be seen as existing along a continuum. Glaspell indicates that Minnie’s situation is worse than most through suggestive details like Mrs. Hale’s understated excuse for not having visited her neighbour, saying, “it never seemed a very cheerful place” (10).

It is certainly pertinent to consider Minnie’s physical environment. As John Monahan writes, “behavior is a joint function of characteristics of the person and characteristics of the environment with which he or she interacts” (37). The Wright’s farmhouse and environs are notably unpleasant. In the opening scene, the playwright sets the atmosphere by describing “a gloomy kitchen” (5). After finding the bird cage, Mrs. Peters considers a singing canary in such a drab environment as odd and says, “Seems funny to think of a bird here” (17). Mrs. Hale gives an impression of the physical location and atmosphere of the farmhouse, saying, “it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road. I dunno what it is, but it’s a lonesome place and always was” (18). The environment is therefore psychologically oppressive in many respects as attested to by the women.

Apart from Minnie having no visitors, she also failed to socialize in the community which added to her predicament. When Mrs. Hale views Minnie’s clothes, she comments that Mr. Wright was mean which suggests the clothes are cheap, visibly old, and possibly mended. Mrs. Hale cites embarrassment as a reason for Minnie not socializing, “I think maybe that’s why she kept so much to herself. She didn’t even belong to the Ladies Aid” (13). The Ladies Aid organization was closely linked to Methodism and Ronald A. Brunger explains that “The Ladies Aid Society … was strictly a local organization, serving the local church constituency and the community” (31). Mrs. Hale’s comment indicates that most local women would have been members of this organization. Minnie’s avoidance of social interaction is significant because as Mah explains, – “Lack of desire or skills [sociability] both can sometimes result eventually in aggressive or abusive behavior with others” (58). In short, the absence of social interactions can lead to pent up personal frustrations which become dangerous.

Loneliness is a key aspect of isolation. We learn that the Wright’s farmhouse is exceptionally quiet which arguably compounds Minnie’s feelings of being alone. The Wright’s have no children and Mr. Wright is an unusually taciturn man. Mr. Hale recalls how John Wright previously rejected the idea of the telephone connection, “saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet” (7). The silence demanded by the head of the household obviously means that Minnie’s predicament is worse than most. Overall, Minnie’s isolation may be explained by reference to her rural dwelling, the lack of a telephone connection, no visitors, few excursions, and mostly unbroken silence in her home.

Self-esteem gain or loss.

One may judge isolation based on evidence, whereas it is quite difficult to assess Minnie Foster’s level of self-esteem. Yet, it is crucially important to do so because self-esteem links to levels of aggressive behaviour and also the rewards for perpetrators of violence. Therefore, it is worth hypothesizing Minnie’s levels of self-esteem prior to and then after the death of her husband.

In an essay entitled “The Cognitive Regulation of Anger and Stress.” Raymond W. Novaco offers the insight that “Early personality research had shown that high self-esteem subjects respond with less aggression to provocations” (257). The inversion of this fact, namely that low self-esteem subjects respond with more aggression when provoked seems applicable to Minnie’s situation. We know, for example, that the murder scene is so gruesome that Mr. Hale’s face twitches when he recalls looking at the dead body.

Fortunately, we do learn of how Minnie Foster changed over the years and we may logically tie these changes to her confidence levels. Mrs. Hale recounts a formerly quite different woman, saying, “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress and blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang” (21). This image of a vibrant, socially confident woman has now been replaced by a reclusive homemaker. Minnie may undoubtedly have pride in her household duties such as bread baking and making preserves but the problem is that these are her only sources of self-esteem. In the play, it is noticeable that housework is constantly dismissed as trivial by the men. The erosion of Minnie’s feelings of self-worth may also be linked to issues like lack of personal freedom, self-expression, recreational time, and financial independence. In this scenario, the downtrodden woman with low self-esteem reaches a breaking point and reacts with high levels of aggression.

A separate but relevant question is if Minnie’s self-esteem increases after her husband’s death? Mah explains that, “Aggression and violence are often intended and often succeed in gaining power and control, and therefore self-esteem” (50). Take one minor clue from the text which is Minnie “rockin’ back and forth” (7) in the rocking chair in the kitchen when Mr. Hale first arrives at the farmhouse on the fateful day. When the Hales have learned of the terrible incident and Harry goes to call the coroner, we are told of how Minnie “moved from that [rocking] chair to this one over here [pointing to a small chair in the corner.] and just sat there with her hands held together and looking down” (9). Is the rocking chair in the kitchen Mr. Wright’s chair, and is it symbolic that when Minnie suddenly becomes fearful that she reverts to sitting in a little chair in the corner, possibly her normal seat? Also, is Minnie “kind of done up” (8) as Mr. Hale describes, because she has newfound feminine confidence on that particular morning? These are speculative considerations but they do add piecemeal to one’s understanding of a woman whose confidence has been damaged but is now free of her husband.


In order to view Minnie as a killer, then one needs to understand what possible grievance she could have to motivate such a violent crime. Ronald Mah explains the relevance of resentment in the prediction of violent crimes. He writes that:

“Resentments are grievances against a prior injustice that has not yet been avenged. The intense emotional energy of resentments drives the individual towards seeking satisfaction. This can only be achieved through counterbalancing a prior wrong (that caused harm) with retaliatory harm against the other person. Resentments are bitter discomforts that can continually deepen over time often to the point of motivating extreme retribution. The more the individual is unable to retaliate based on some resentment, the more resentful he or she becomes” (Mah 53).

One may postulate Minnie’s resentments. The dead canary may be excluded because it is too recent an occurrence to qualify as a resentment and should instead be seen as a trigger. One plausible cause of Minnie’s resentment is Mr. Wright’s rejection of the telephone connection. This decision meant that a possible avenue of communication with her neighbours was rejected outright, leaving her alone. The evidence of Minnie’s resentment is shown after the discovery of the dead body when Mr. Hale recounts how – “ I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone, and at that she started to laugh” (9). The laugh seems callous under the circumstances but indicates that Mr. Hale’s question was pointless, even had her husband still been alive. Indeed, Mr. Hale had previously said, “I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John” (7) when speaking about the proposed telephone connection. Mr. Wright’s obvious inflexibility and disregard of his wife’s opinions are key factor in the reasons for Minnie’s resentments.

If Minnie had influence over her circumstances then she would most likely have had fewer reasons to be resentful. It appears that Minnie is helpless, and this is a crucial point given how the story ends. Raymond W. Novaco explains the concept of learned helplessness as follows:

“The concept of helplessness is basically the learned expectation that one’s behaviour is non instrumental in achieving desired outcomes . . . Experimentally, helplessness is typically engendered by exposing subjects to an uncontrollable aversive situation that they can neither escape nor solve” (250).

If one cannot leave a problem behind nor solve a problem then there is obviously the consequence of psychological strain. While Minnie’s grievances are not stated outright, it is relatively easy to imagine her situation given the information we amass about her.

Specific triggering event, and intense emotional arousal.

Glaspell withholds from her audience a confirmation that Minnie murdered her husband. Therefore, like Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, we too must assess the clues that are unveiled. Of key importance is the identification of a triggering event that could have provoked Minnie’s actions. As John Monahan writes, “Angry aggression is motivated by a desire to harm someone and is reinforced by the victim’s pain” (26). Even though it is most likely that Mr. Wright killed the canary, it is still surely a weak provocation for murder. However, we need to look at the psychology of a strained marital relationship and how Minnie would have interpreted the death of the bird. Raymond W. Novaco delves into this issue of provocation, writing that:

“Ample research has demonstrated that the appraisal of provocation (the behavior of another person towards oneself or others that is experienced as aversive) influences the magnitude of aggressive behavior. Aggression has been found to increase with antagonistic appraisals and to decrease with syntonic appraisals” (257).

Did Minnie interpret the killing of the bird as the work of a cruel husband who was intent on hurting her? Furthermore, did she witness the killing of the bird or simply find it later? To understand the level of provocation experienced by Minnie we may take multiple approaches. Firstly, one may focus on concepts like expectation and stress. Minnie has been married to her husband for many years so she obviously knows his character very well. Novaco explains that “Expectation, conceived in a variety of ways, has been a widely recognized determinant of behaviour and emotion” (251). Expected behaviour has less chance of inducing an aggressive response due to familiarity and also as the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. We must presume that the killing of the bird is therefore an unusual, unforeseen shock to Minnie. Secondly, we may assume that Minnie has experienced significant levels of stress because she has lived with a difficult husband who Mrs. Hale describes as “a hard man … Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (18). Novaco writes that “Stressful circumstances long have been thought to affect mental and emotional functioning, whether the stress was engendered by discrete traumatic events or by prolonged exposure to adverse psychological conditions” (243). In Minnie’s case, one may say that there is a long history of enduring a stressful home life and that the death of the canary is an individual and additional pressure. Therefore, we begin to sense a stressed individual’s breaking point that was indeed reached by an unexpected and triggering event.

Another approach to gauging Minnie’s interpretation of the dead bird is by reflecting on her own changed personality. In the play, the canary comes to symbolize Minnie with Mrs. Hale saying that “she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery” (18). Yet, over the years, Minnie is reduced to wearing old clothes, becomes reclusive, and loses contact with the outside world. Mrs. Hale contemplates that “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird—a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too” (20). If Mrs. Hale’s opinion is correct and Mr. Wright had indeed crushed his wife’s spirit which left her silent then the chirping little bird would certainly hold an unusual significance for Minnie. The canary would be a hopeful symbol of who Minnie once was – joyous and full of song. For Mr. Wright to crush this one symbol of hope in Minnie’s life would indeed provoke an unusually strong response. As Ronald Mah explains, “Intense emotional reactivity surges past inhibitions that would otherwise reduce, restrain, or eliminate acting out, aggression, or violence” (51). Therefore, Minnie suddenly reacts, and it is out of character. The final result is that she commits murder.

Opportunistic behavior.

In the play, the discovery of clues is complemented by local knowledge to outline a credible picture of what occurred in the Wright’s household. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters ultimately uncover a motive for the unusual murder. The women’s main observations which lead to the unspoken conclusion that Minnie murdered her husband include the mysterious, half completed kitchen tasks, the irregular stitching on a piece of quilt, the bird cage, and finally the bird itself with its neck wrung. The half-finished tasks record someone who stops in their tracks due to a shock, the stitching on the quilt reflects the method of murder with a rope, the cage is representative of Minnie’s restricted, prison-like home life, and the killing of the bird is the triggering event that leads to murder. Mah writes that “Being triggered and being opportunistic are not necessarily exclusive” (44). We have already established the emotional import of the triggering event, but it is also necessary to look at the topic of opportunism. Due to the elaborate method of murder, planning and opportunity were necessary.

“MRS. HALE: Well, I guess John Wright didn’t wake when they was slipping that rope under his neck. 

MRS. PETERS: No, it’s strange. It must have been done awful crafty and still. They say it was such a—funny way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that” (14).

If Minnie had wanted to murder her husband then the gun in the house would surely have been the safest method. However, she chose to strangle her husband with a rope. One may only understand this strange act in relation to the bird’s manner of execution with its neck being wrung. As Mah writes, “‘Getting back’ or ‘getting even’ can be hugely satisfying and pleasurable” (53) and Minnie’s method of execution shows just such a desire to punish her husband in a fitting manner. Additionally, Minnie uses an opportunistic moment when her husband is sleeping to carry out the crime. Such an act falls under a specific heading – “Proactive aggression, also referred to as instrumental, premeditated, predatory, planned, and cold-blooded (Ramirez and Andreu 2006), is a goal-directed behavior, in which violence is a means to an end other than simply inflicting harm” (Ross and Babcock, 2009, page 608)” (Mah 42). Minnie has some time to consider her actions because she must wait for her husband to fall sound asleep. Her ultimate goal is not just to punish her husband but to end his life. The premeditated murder is her way of releasing herself from an oppressive marriage.

Presence or lack of remorse.

One must assess if Minnie exhibits genuine remorse at the death of her husband. Mah explains that “Remorse is very related to guilt – the violation of some socially or legally defined boundary” (61). Minnie’s behaviour after her husband’s death is unusual in a few respects but crucially lacks any indication of remorse. According to her own story, she finds her husband dead, yet she does not seek help but sits quietly in the kitchen. She responds in a factual and cold manner to the Hale’s questions. There are no tears, no emotional excitement, instead she laughs in response to two of Mr. Hale’s questions. One may interpret Minnie’s demeanour as defiant, and it is significant that only when her story that she “didn’t wake up” (9) is questioned and actively disbelieved by the Hales does she show signs of fear. Remorse is a complex reaction and as Mah writes, “may be from other consequences, including getting into trouble or being punished for the behavior or lack of behavior” (61). When Minnie realizes that her story lacks credibility then she becomes fearful which is indeed remorse but activated only by a realization of the consequences of committing a murder. Minnie expresses no genuine remorse which solidifies one’s belief that she is indeed the murderer.

Summation of characteristics.

The profile of Minnie Foster created by using Ronald’s Mah’s list of characteristics shared by people likely to commit violent acts is conclusive. This enhances rather than changes our appreciation of Glaspell’s depiction of a predictable tragedy. The assessment of Minnie as someone who is likely to commit a violent act due to the various and interlocking strains on her is simply more credible with the aid of psychological profiling because it does not rely solely on the subjective views of the other characters in the play. The depiction becomes more applicable to real life situations which indeed seems to be in line with Glaspell’s own artistic aims since Trifles was based on the trial of a woman that she covered as a young reporter. In the play, Minnie is neither victim nor murderer but both of these at once, and the author nudges her readers to this realisation.


Glaspell directs her readers to view Minnie as her husband’s only possible murderer. Yet, this is done without a confession from the accused. As readers are provided with emphatic clues as to the identity of the murderer and her motivation then what is Glaspell’s communicative goal in the drama? In this essay, the predictability of Minnie’s crime has been dissected step by step and Glaspell likewise directs us to look behind the particular incident of a man’s death and view the entire history of the domestic situation depicted. A murder mystery that begins with all the outsiders viewing the crime scene as an opaque picture unwilling to reveal its secrets slowly becomes clearer and clearer. However, even before the crucial piece of the puzzle is found, the dead canary, the willingness of Mrs. Hale to unflinchingly look at Minnie’s domestic situation has revealed the truth. She says, “I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now—[shakes her head.]” (18). What Mrs. Hale sees is the harshness of the domestic environment combined with an understanding of Mr. Wright’s severe character. The discovery of the bird is the clue that conclusively solves the murder mystery, but what Mrs. Hale has already seen is the makings of a crime, namely the hardship in which Minnie Foster had to live. Therefore, Glaspell’s clever construction of the plot allows one to come to a conclusion ever before the vital clue is found. The tragedy of the story is that no one ever intervened to help Minnie Foster.

There are evidently two crimes depicted in the play. The headline crime is murder yet it obscures our view of the life circumstances of the accused which form a less clearly delineated crime yet one that exists all the same. The menfolk are blind to the concerns of women, for example, Mr. Hale notes that “women are used to worrying over trifles” (10) meaning domestic issues. Of course, all the salient clues are inevitably located in the kitchen which is unsurprising since it is the chief suspect’s main work area. If the men empathized with a woman’s lot in life then they would see that the underlying crime is about abandonment by one’s peers, by the deliberate blind eye of society to all things that happen in the domestic and marital sphere, by a knowing choice of inaction when action is needed. Mrs. Peters comments on the investigation, saying, “The law has got to punish crime” (21) to which Mrs. Hale responds, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?” (21). The crux of the revelation is just as Mrs. Hale states, “I might have known she needed help!” (21). Again, this second less distinct ‘crime’ is one that the male investigators ignore and yet it is the foundation for the horrible murder that occurs in the Wright’s farmhouse.

The play concludes with the county attorney’s decision to stay a little longer in the Wright’s farmhouse because no conclusive evidence has been found. The county attorney summarises that there is, “No sign at all of anyone having come from the outside. Their own rope” (20). He later adds, “it’s all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women” (22). They have a suspect, a murder weapon, and no signs of forced entry, yet the county attorney and sheriff are unable to build a case and it seems that when it goes to trial that a jury will fail to convict a woman. What Glaspell is communicating is that the men’s total inability to empathize with a woman renders their investigation ineffectual. After the men have left the room, Mrs. Peter’s first attempts to hide the box containing the dead bird but upon failing to do so, Mrs. Hale takes over and successfully deposits the key piece of evidence in her own pocket. This is the removal of the most vital clue and one that would possibly convict Minnie Foster to long imprisonment or death. When the county attorney returns to the kitchen, he makes a joking enquiry about the type of stitches Minnie Foster was going to use and Mrs. Hale responds, “we call it – knot it, Mr. Henderson” (23). Glaspell uses a homophone here with ‘knot it’ sounding identical to ‘not it.’ Therefore, by her actions and her words, Mrs. Hale is asserting that there is no evidence of murder to be found in the Wright’s farmhouse. Of course, the stitching method links to the manner in which Mr. Wright was strangled with a rope but Mrs. Hale already removed the erratic stitches that Minnie had sewn prior to her husband’s death. The destruction and removal of evidence by the women, clues that they alone had discovered, leave the investigation at a dead end. When Mrs. Hale says, ‘not it,’ we witness the effective collapse of a convincing case against Minnie Foster.

After writing Trifles, Glaspell made additions to the text and created the short story named “A Jury of Her Peers.” The title is quite informative because it refers to the fact that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are effectively Minnie’s jury. Minnie’s female peers, women who understand the backstory to the tragedy are deemed the most appropriate people to decide her fate. In court, Minnie would be faced with a jury of twelve men who represent the law, just as the sheriff and county attorney represent the law during the investigation in the Wright’s home. The divide between the sexes is clear, as is the difference between justice and the law. If the men are unable to understand Minnie Foster and dismiss references to difficulties she had experienced in her marriage then how can they possibly administer justice? The exercise of the law is a blunt instrument which needs just a vital clue to close a case but to have justice, one needs to have empathy. The responsibility that Mrs. Hale feels due to her prior neglect of her neighbour is now atoned for by removing a damning piece of evidence. Glaspell presents her audience with Minnie as a murderer yet one may only see this frightening and indeed frightened figure if one first empathizes with her, otherwise she remains elusive.

Works Cited.

Brunger, Ronald A. The Ladies Aid Societies in Michigan Methodism. University of Michigan, 1967.  

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers. CreateSpace, 2014.

Mah, Ronald. How Dangerous is this Person?: Assessing Danger and Violence Potential Before Tragedy Strikes. Smashwords, 2013.

Monahan, John. The Clinical Prediction of Violent Behavior. Jason Aronson, Inc, 1995. Novaco, Raymond W. “The Cognitive Regulation of Anger and Stress.” Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions, edited by Philip C. Kendall and Steven D. Hollon, Academic Press, 1979, pp. 241-278.

Novaco, Raymond W. “The Cognitive Regulation of Anger and Stress.” Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions, edited by Philip C. Kendall and Steven D. Hollon, Academic Press, 1979, pp. 241-278. 

The Playboy of the Western World

Keating, Seán. Illustration for The Playboy of the Western World. 1923.

  • Play title: The Playboy of the Western World 
  • Author: John Millington Synge
  • First performed: 1907
  • Page count: 92


The Playboy of the Western World is a comedy by John Millington Synge which tells the tale of a notorious patricide. The play is set in County Mayo, Ireland, with most events taking place in a little shebeen (public house). Synge depicts the rural Ireland of the early 1900’s and pays particular attention to accurately capturing the Hiberno-English of the Irish peasantry. The central characters are Christy Mahon a Kerryman who murdered his father, Pegeen Mike the publican’s daughter in the bar where Christy finds refuge, and Shawn Keogh the fiancé of Pegeen. The situation is complicated by the Widow Quin, an amorous and wily woman. In three acts, Synge describes how Christy arrives as a stranger in Mayo, the strange and beguiling tale that he tells the locals, and how the truth finally changes everything. The play closes with Pegeen’s lament that she has “lost the only Playboy of the Western World” (224). Synge explores several themes in this work, most notably patricide, but also Irish nationalism and storytelling.

Ways to access the text: Reading/listening.

The play is available to read online on multiple websites including Project Gutenberg and the Open Library.

On YouTube, there is an audiobook version entitled “Playboy of the Western World.” This recording has a running time of 1hr and 28mins and is voiced by famous Irish actors Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, among others.

Why read/listen to The Playboy of the Western World?

Constructing a story.

Synge’s play explores how a stranger may create his own backstory. This is a metadramatic element of the work because Synge initially creates a character who in turn is shown to create his own story as the play unfolds. Christy Mahon is clearly an anti-hero, yet the paradox is that his bloody deed is praised as a great show of masculinity. It is patricide alone that secures for Christy the fawning attention of several women as well as the fear and respect of men. Once Christy comes to realise the power of his story then he consciously and cleverly enhances it thus securing even more adoration and infamy. Yet the play is not only the tale of a stranger who constructs his own story. What happens simultaneously is that a rural community projects onto Christy the image of a man now rare in such communities, namely a daring man of courage. This is a coincidental yet fruitful marriage of the desires of an individual with that of the community he enters. Somewhat unexpectedly, Christy begins to inhabit the new persona that was initially just a false construction, slowly turning myth into reality.


In The Playboy of the Western World, Synge writes in the Hiberno-English of rural Irish peasants rather than standard English which would have reflected his privileged, educated, Anglo-Irish background. He intentionally captures the language of ordinary Irish people due to its extraordinariness. In the preface to the play, he writes that, “anyone who has lived in real intimacy with the Irish peasantry will know that the wildest sayings and ideas in this play are tame indeed, compared with the fancies one may hear in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay” (137). He continues by asserting that “all art is a collaboration” (137) and this refers to how a playwright may use as his artistic material the “striking and beautiful phrases” (137) of the people of his country. Synge lived in various rural communities in the West of Ireland including the Aran Islands. The result in “Playboy” (abbreviation of title) is a work that exhibits Hiberno-English to full advantage. Take for example one local man’s assessment of Christy after hearing about the shocking deed – “bravery’s a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his father, I’m thinking, would face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell” (154). The witty, imaginative language of this comedy is a true pleasure for readers.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The Great Taboo.


On its first production, The Playboy of the Western World led to vehemently critical reviews and even riots. In short, Synge upset the sensibilities of his Irish audience. The chief reason was that the playwright unfavourably depicted the people of Ireland or was at least perceived to have done so. His audience was annoyed at several aspects of the play as was clear in newspaper articles and politicians’ statements of the time. Among the grievances were the depiction of Irish women as sexualized, the mention of women’s undergarments, the idolatry of a patricide by Irish peasants, and the portrayal of a rural community so fickle that they first praise but then quickly try to sacrifice their new hero. From a modern standpoint, one may surely say that Synge’s play is both realistic and surreal because he creates a depiction of a typical rural Irish community but also creates a storyline that is extraordinary in many ways. Yet, parricides do occur in real life and criminals are often protected by others and sometimes even admired. However, Synge wrote a play that undermined an ideal of Irishness at a crucial period in Irish history namely during the Celtic Revival. When the play was released in 1907, Irish nationalists among others expected that the literature of Ireland should espouse the Irish way of life, not denigrate it. Native Irish people had long been classed as inferior by their colonial masters and the country was still firmly under English rule. An added complication that exacerbated the problem was that Synge had primitivist views and therefore actually held up the Gaelic communities of rural Western Ireland as somehow ideal in their pre-industrialized states. For the playwright to expose dysfunction and depravity in an isolated, West of Ireland community, albeit not an Irish speaking region, was a shock as it indicated a rotten core in the community not easily attributable to the colonial overlord. In this essay, I will strive to expose the foundation for the drives and desires of the characters in Synge’s play. Crucially, this essay will delve into the aspects of the play that caused offence but will investigate why the fictional characters act as they do rather than analyse the audiences’ responses. The key to the play is not an ideal of primitive Irish peasants somehow horribly distorted by the playwright but is explained instead through the apparent and fundamental drives of all mankind as determined by primary taboos. “Playboy” is a work that depicts a man who apparently murdered his father and what more powerful taboo can one imagine!

The character of Christy Mahon has considerable prestige in the play as shown by the fact that he is compared with heroes of old, poets, and men of great courage. The writers of the Celtic Revival made frequent use of ancient Irish folklore and myths and Synge’s “Playboy” references and indeed builds upon such depictions, especially of ideal manhood. Yet, this fact does not imply that Christy’s terrible deed is a devaluation or besmirching of the heroes of Ireland’s past. In truth, Christy’s crime is only conspicuous due to its actual enactment rather than the thinking of it. After all, the Oedipus complex as outlined by Sigmund Freud tells us about the two main taboos of all mankind and a desire to kill the father is one of them. Therefore, one may conveniently untangle Synge’s play from the original concerns of Irish nationalists regarding the correct representation of Ireland’s people by turning instead to an investigation of man’s primary drives. In Freud’s famous work, Totem and Taboo, he explores how modern man’s darkest thoughts may be explained by reference to the rules of the tribal existence of ancient and primitive man. Through references to this work of Freud’s as well as to Charles Darwin’s writings on sexual selection and some more modern texts, it is ultimately possible to see clearly that Christy is not some mocking depiction of Irish manhood. Furthermore, one may still retain insight into Synge’s very apparent and indeed valid criticisms of certain aspects of Irish society. The play’s anti-hero does ultimately hold a political message. My interpretative approach looks at Christy’s motivations in a realistic manner and not just at him as a comedic character. There must, after all, be a reason that Pegeen laments the loss of Christy at the play’s conclusion. The approach also helps one to maintain an interpretation of Synge’s play as political but simultaneously unhook it from the narrow politics of satisfying one particular grouping that had specific expectations of him in regard to complimentary dramatic representations.

In order to productively apply Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo to Synge’s play, it is first necessary to briefly outline a few key points. We are familiar with the word taboo and Freud gives the following comprehensive definition of it, “For us the meaning of taboo branches off into two opposite directions. On the one hand it means to us sacred, consecrated: but on the other hand, it means, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean” (34). The idea of a taboo will be essential to explaining the aura surrounding Christy Mahon. Totemism is not quite so familiar, but it is most easily described as a system of beliefs and social organization used by primitive man, predating Christianity, where groups formed kinships and worshipped particular totems. The totem itself was normally a species of animal or plant. The chief connecting link between Freud’s book and Synge’s play is the important subject of patricide. Freud hypothesizes the formation of the ancient rules of totemism and the resulting taboos which are precisely the same taboos we recognize today as forming the Oedipus complex. His hypothesis rests on the killing of the father by a tribe of brothers and Freud describes this momentous event which happened sometime in the mists of history as follows:

“One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly. Perhaps some advance in culture, like the use of a new weapon, had given them the feeling of superiority. Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion” (Freud 195).

Freud goes on to write that the brothers mentioned in the above quote were struggling with the “father complex” (195) and therefore “They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him” (195). This accurately describes Christy Mahon who raises his hand in anger at a father who will not abdicate power or authority. Old Mahon has evidently not yet let his son inherit or take over his land because the older man is still clearly the boss, and this old man also thwarts his son’s sexual desires by trying to marry him off to a wholly unsuitable woman twice Christy’s age. Later, one witnesses Christy’s conflicted feelings when he almost weeps in front of the Widow Quin when speaking of his hatred for his father thus proving that the ‘father complex’ does indeed result in such mixed emotions. The figure of Christy Mahon becomes less of a comic figure when one bears in mind Freud’s statement that, “The basis of taboo is a forbidden action for which there exists a strong inclination in the unconscious” (52). What makes Christy special is his conscious enactment of a horrible desire. Since Synge viewed the peasants of Western Ireland with a primitivist’s eye then it is legitimate to go far beyond the specific myths and folklore of Ireland for Christy’s prototype and back to ancient man because modern man still shares the precise same taboos.

The structure of this essay is that particular characters, subjects, and themes will be addressed individually indicated by subheadings. As noted, the primary focus will be on how various taboos explain the action of the characters involved. This analysis also delves into what political message Synge wanted to impart by his fantastic depiction of an anti-hero in a rural Irish community.

Old Mahon.

It is essential to begin with the father, and of all the fathers depicted in Synge’s play, old Mahon epitomizes the fierce patriarch. Other patriarchal influences are ever-present in the community like the long arm of the law extending from colonial England and Father Reilly as the representative of the Catholic Church yet only old Mahon appears in the flesh. He is the father who must be conquered before Christy can assert that he has become a man. There is also a significant difference between the authoritarian but also highly regulated powers of church and state compared with Christy’s father who is volatile and a law unto himself. Christy battles for power in the most intimate of arenas which is the family. The first excuse that Christy gives for having slayed his father is because “he was a dirty man, God forgive him, and he getting old and crusty” (153). The description indicates not only an unclean and dishevelled peasant but strongly suggests immorality too. The old man is described by Christy as “a man’d be raging all times … you’d hear cursing and damning and swearing oaths” (161). Such a volatile temper shows fearlessness proven by the fact that old Mahon would sometimes be “locked in the asylums for battering peelers or assaulting men” (162). That such a man manages to hold his son in a subordinate position is no surprise. However, a tipping point does come. It is old Mahon’s abuse of his son by ordering him to marry the Widow Casey that eventually leads to the infamous altercation. The old man’s motivation is, in Christy’s words, to gain the widow’s “hut to live in and her gold to drink” (174). When Christy unexpectedly refuses, then the frighteningly authoritarian older man raises his scythe to strike the disobedient son who avoids the blow and strikes back with the loy. By felling such a potently masculine figure, Christy is elevated in the estimation of all those he later meets but he has also transgressed one of the fundamental taboos of all mankind.

In Synge’s text, we see much evidence that the son is made in the mould of the father. In this way, it is Christy’s genetic inheritance that largely determines his success in battle against the older man. Thus, the fearless and fierce father is eventually reflected in the newly mature son. This is most humorously indicated when old Mahon is seeking out his son to gain his revenge and the Widow Quin says that she indeed saw, “a hideous, fearful villain, and the spit of you” (190). Yet, the resemblance goes beyond looks and character traits and extends into skills that must have been learned by Christy from his father. For instance, the storytelling skills that Christy slowly crafts are already far more developed in his father, a man who is “after walking hundreds and long scores of miles, winning clean beds and the fill of my belly four times in the day, and I doing nothing but telling stories” (197). This contrasts with the novice, Christy, who is reduced to eating raw turnip and groans in a ditch most likely from hunger on his arrival in Mayo. Yet, once Christy has an audience to listen to his story, he shows that he is much like his father. Also, even though old Mahon is some sixty years old, he is surprisingly just a few days behind his son in pursuit and therefore obviously still quite a formidable character. The old man’s vigour may be summed up under the three headings of sex, drinking, and violence. He speaks of having been “three weeks with the Limerick girls drinking myself silly, and parlatic from the dusk to dawn” (204) and his violence is clearly shown when he physically attacks his son Christy on at least two occasions. Christy’s eventual defeat of his father marks the ascension of the next generation, boldly asserted by Christy with the words, “for I’m master of all fights from now” (224). The son has not alone matched but finally surpassed the father. Like in Freud’s account, the “violent primal father” (195) refused to share power and this led to inevitable rebellion. In this light, Christy’s actions are justifiable or at least defensible. Synge’s play can also be read as a condemnation of the other power wielding patriarchal forces in Ireland at the time who also cruelly subjugated their charges.


Freud writes of the domineering, tribal father who obstructs his sons by standing “in the way of their sexual demands” (195). This scenario is quite relevant to Synge’s play. Under the general heading of marriage, the playwright depicts various father figures who either meddle in, or actually arrange/dictate the young generation’s choice of marriage partners. Furthermore, Synge looks at several associated taboos, for example, the taboo of sexual relations between persons related by blood or kinship. Freud traces such taboos back to the rules of ancient tribal communities. The playwright also deals with a potent, societal taboo in Catholic Ireland which was pre-marital sex, and he adds a taboo scene of his own invention, showing how one man quite literally takes the place of another in a romantic relationship.

The trigger for Christy’s outburst of anger towards his father is the proposed marriage of Christy to the Widow Casey. The fact that the placid young man reacts to the prospect in such an uncharacteristically violent manner already hints at a taboo situation. The match is certainly odd due to the disparity in their ages with Christy just twenty-one and the Widow Casey aged forty-five. Additionally, she is an ill-suited partner for a young man because she is lame, blind in one eye, and “a woman of noted misbehaviour with the old and young” (174). Yet the taboo arises because the Widow Casey acted as a surrogate mother to the newborn Christy. He says, “she did suckle me for six weeks when I came into the world” (174). Freud writes that “Psychoanalysis has taught us that the first object selection of the boy is of an incestuous nature and that it is directed to the forbidden objects, the mother and the sister” (29) and he also notes the normal healthy process by which “the maturing individual frees himself from these incestuous attractions” (29). The fact that old Mahon tries to force Christy to wed the Widow Casey explains the son’s unusual anger given the subconscious power of the taboo. Admittedly, the Widow Casey is not a blood relation of Christy’s, but Synge cleverly imbues breast feeding with potent qualities in the play. This is alluded to in Pegeen’s insult to the Widow Quin who apparently “reared a black lamb at [her] own breast” (165) and when a bishop later ate the cooked lamb then he detected in the meat the “elements of a Christian” (165). As such, breast feeding made the lamb practically human! The recounting of this comic and superstitious tale in the play only serves to underline that in Christy’s case there was a clear kinship bond established between him and his wet nurse. The Widow Casey fulfilled the role of mother for the baby boy and this fact cannot be erased. Though a digression, it is of interest that Freud comments on the role of the Catholic Church who had “extended the marriage prohibitions always in force for brother and sisters, to cousins, and invented for them the grades of spiritual kinship” (19). Therefore, Christy is not only the man who kills his father but he is also destined to sleep with his surrogate mother, a woman who is most certainly linked to him in spiritual kinship. These are the two great taboos of society as most famously outlined by Freud in his writings on the Oedipus complex.

In a work that covertly proclaims the need for new blood, new heroes, and a new future, the playwright places an unusual prospective marriage at the play’s centre. The future union between Pegeen and Shawn is consanguineous and for this reason they require a special dispensation from Father Reilly. Not only is the marriage slightly unusual in modern times but in ancient times it would also have broken the traditional code of exogamy where one should marry outside one’s community. It is only with the arrival of Christy that Pegeen changes her mind and chooses to renege on her promise to Shawn because of her attraction to the brave man. When Pegeen’s father, Michael, agrees to her marriage to Christy, he alludes to a healthy gene pool which will be achieved with the help of the newly arrived hero. Michael says, “it’s the will of God that all should rear up lengthy families for the nurture of the earth” (213). While Michael is slightly afraid of a daring lad like Christy, he still says, “I liefer face the grave untimely and I seeing a score of grandsons growing up little gallant swearers by the name of God, than go peopling my bedside with puny weeds the like of what you’d breed, I’m thinking, out of Shaneen Keogh” (213). Although humorous, such a view is affirmed by scientific study. In an essay entitled, “Female and Male Perceptions of Attractiveness,” Ryan Schacht explains that “Masculinized males have higher genetic quality due to their ability to resist diseases and other adverse conditions, but will offer little parental investment. Feminized males will offer increased parental investment, but not high quality genes” (66). In this light, one clearly sees the perceived differences between Christy and Shawn. It is the unpredictable and fiery stranger who promises to breathe life into the community in the most literal manner. Christy is the new hope for a revitalized community. On the other side of the spectrum, the Catholic Church neutralizes the taboo of mild inbreeding in a small rural community through its dispensation to allow blood relations to marry. In the context of the play, one must read this as a detrimental influence.

In “Playboy” there is an arbitrary dichotomy between acceptable taboos and those deemed unbroachable. As noted, the Catholic Church’s authority to give a dispensation for the marriage of blood relatives, for a minor fee, is arguably an unnatural dispensation of a societal taboo. However, the taboo of pre-marital sex is one that the church cannot tolerate. Synge ridicules the church’s position in Ireland by showing how Father Reilly overly concerns himself with ensuring that Pegeen marries Shawn Keogh and not Christy. This is proven by the acceleration of the dispensation process. Michael Flaherty quotes the priest as having said – “so I’ll wed them in a hurry, dreading that young gaffer [Christy] who’d capsize the stars” (210). However, even earlier, one witnesses how the priest intervenes to keep Christy apart from Pegeen as shown when the Widow Quin comes with an offer to house Christy on his first night, saying, “It isn’t fitting,” says the priesteen, ‘to have his likeness lodging with an orphaned girl’” (164). The priest’s overriding fear is of budding romance and sexual relations between the two young people. However, it is not that Christy is unsuitable, the opposite is true because he is the one who may actually ignite sexual desire. The problem for the church is that someone like Christy is not governable and therefore to be feared. This trait proves to be Christy’s enticement to the opposite sex.

In Why Women Have Sex, Cindy Meston ponders if men’s sex appeal to women correlates with practical benefits in their choice of mate. Meston sums it up as follows:

“Biologists distinguish two broad classes of evolutionary benefits. Genetic benefits are the high quality genes that can endow a woman’s children with a better ability to survive and reproduce. Resource benefits, including food, shelter from the hostile forces of nature, and physical protection from aggressive men, help a woman and her children to survive and thrive” (29).

Under these classifications, one sees that Christy is the bearer of good genes and fulfils the role of protector and so offers both genetic and resource benefits whereas Shawn only offers resource benefits because he is wealthy. A discussion in this vein brings one back to the writings of Charles Darwin on sexual selection in his book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Even in 1874, Darwin writes of how women may choose a partner, “in civilised nations women have free or almost free choice, which is not the case with barbarous races, yet their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men” (2027). Pegeen does assert her own freedom by choosing Christy and this choice is based on his status as a brave man and a poet of sorts. Her choice is not based on Christy’s wealth since he is impoverished but this may be due to her own family’s secure business. The arrival of Christy upsets the well-made plans of the elders of the community. The potential marriage of Christy to Pegeen is based on mutual attraction and this contrasts sharply with the proposed marriages of Shawn to Pegeen or Christy to the Widow Casey as these unions are tainted with taboo elements.

Synge’s treatment of the subject of marriage in the play is noticeably cynical. There is a decidedly cold, transactional tone to the arranged marriages portrayed. For example, Shawn refers to his future marriage to Pegeen as a “good bargain” (142) because of the merging of their combined finances and property. Their union will be defined more by commerce than by love but there is no obstacle to this union since it has the stamp of approval from the Catholic Church. Thereby, the marriage vow is not just devalued by the allusion to the couple’s financial benefits but also by the clerical dispensation. In total, there are four prospective marriages noted in the play. However, only the proposed union of Pegeen with Christy is based on passion, all the others are mired in sordid bargaining of some sort. It is significant that both Michael Flaherty and old Mahon arrange the marriages of their adult children. In Christy’s case, as previously noted, his father in motivated by the prospect of the widow’s cottage and money for alcohol. In Pegeen’s case, her father remarks that Shawn is the “shy and decent Christian I have chosen for my daughter’s hand” (210). However, the truth is later revealed when Shawn is too afraid to fight Christy for Pegeen’s hand and commands his potential father-in-law to “Strike him yourself, Michael James, or you’ll lose my drift of heifers and my blue bull from Sneem” (212). In both cases it is primarily the wealth of the potential marriage partner that motivates the father. While marriage is the legitimate union of the parents of the next generation, Synge displays all that is fundamentally wrong in Irish society through the depiction of the aforementioned proposed unions. It is the biological fathers along with church fathers who, motivated by money and petty gains and power, facilitate the breaking of taboos thus ensuring short term benefits for themselves but ultimately selling out future generations.

Since Christy’s rebellion against his father is fundamentally linked to partner choice, it is interesting to view his progress when free of the patriarch’s influence. In whatever way one spins or unspins Christy Mahon’s fantastic backstory, he still represents new blood in the Mayo community. In “Playboy” it is evident that Christy fulfils some lack in the community and so his arrival seems natural, even destined. The young man’s success in romance is a marker between his old and new life. Synge, who is quite deft at inserting taboo moments in the text, shows how Christy unashamedly replaces Shawn, the groom-to-be. This occurs when Shawn attempts to bribe Christy to leave town and part of the bargain are his own breeches, hat, and coat. Christy tries on the new clothes, including the breeches (trousers) which are still obviously warm from Shawn’s body. The taboo here is quite evident since the two men are vying for Pegeen’s love. In a wonderful, comic twist, Christy is aesthetically enhanced by the new “tweeds and hat” (184) which only improve his plan to replace Shawn as Pegeen’s lover and future husband. Charles Darwin once wrote, albeit about savages, that “A weak man, unless he be a good hunter, and well-beloved, is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a stronger man thinks worth his notice” (1990). Synge most definitely presents a modern version of this same dilemma in the replacement of Shawn by the stronger man, Christy. Therefore, Christy’s success over his father was just his beginning step.

The ideal man.

The archetype of heroic manhood is defined by various characters in the play but most importantly by the bride-to-be, Pegeen. Synge’s play evokes and laments the loss of an older Ireland, a land of heroes fit to inhabit tales of great deeds. It is as if the rural Mayo community exists in the shadow of great forefathers who must be toppled by some modern hero. Pegeen denigrates her own community by telling Shawn that “we’re a queer lot” (142) and this refers primarily to a list of local men with obvious flaws like squints, lameness, or who suffer from madness. What is missing from her local place is men of substance and Pegeen recounts the following examples:

“Where now will you meet the like of Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler, or Marcus Quin, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes, and he a great warrant to tell stories of holy Ireland till he’d have the old women shedding down tears about their feet. Where will you find the like of them, I’m saying?” (143).

One may summarize the kinds of men Pegeen laments as possessing two important traits. Firstly, men who will not shy away from attacking any representative of the law, and by extension the English Crown. Secondly, men who can weave a tale so compelling that it draws an emotive response from even the most accustomed of listeners. Pegeen sees Christy as just such a man and compares him to “Owen Roe O’Sullivan or the poets of the Dingle Bay” (158) which coincidentally references his home place of County Kerry and she goes on to say, “it’s the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused” (159). Christy fulfils the image of ideal manhood because he is not afraid to fell an authority figure and he can spin a good story in the aftermath. There is a clear link between Pegeen’s description of the fiery poets and Darwin’s writings on sexual selection where he comments, “The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other’s ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry” (2007). It is therefore no surprise that a young woman would positively respond to Christy’s story of his dreadful deed. Yet, at this early point in the play when Pegeen showers Christy with praise, he has in fact been exceptionally coy and taciturn and said little beyond admitting to killing his father and that was divulged with little eloquence.

It is informative that Synge keeps returning his audience to the image of the father. As Christy has not yet proven himself beyond haltingly telling a story, we logically must look elsewhere to find an example of proven manhood. One may begin with Philly’s reminiscence of an unusual skeleton that he saw in a graveyard as a child. This dead man had “thighs as long as your arm” (197) and Philly remarks that “you wouldn’t meet the like of these days in the cities of the world” (197) signifying that such great men are unfortunately just skeletal remnants of a glorious past. Most conspicuously, it is just at this moment when the locals are speaking of the bones and skulls of great men that old Mahon appears and boldly says “you wouldn’t is it? Lay your eyes on that skull, and tell me where and when there was another the like of it” (197). Synge is clearly signalling that the uncouth and fiery Mahon is indeed such a man of legend. This is not so unusual as he is obviously Christy’s father and Christy is the newly crowned hero of the locality. It is therefore in Christy’s blood that the potential for greatness lies. One should also detect in old Mahon’s position as a great man the contrast between romanticized heroes of old and the somewhat blunter reality of such men in the flesh.

The image of the virile man, fearless and poetic, is superimposed on Christy by the Mayo community. It is an ideal long held in all societies and Darwin writes of how “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius” (1982). From the outset, even before Christy confesses his actual crime, the locals energetically speculate that he has committed bigamy, or was “fighting bloody wars for Kruger” (152) and Pegeen even mistakes him for a tinker. Christy resembles a tinker possibly due to his dirty, dishevelled state but it also signals that he is potentially someone to fear in Pegeen’s eyes. This occurs in the context of Michael leaving his daughter to spend the night alone in the bar when she professes fear of three categories of men, namely, harvest boys, tinkers, and militia (146). The three categories of men are ones that could not easily be trusted with a woman. Yet the image of the dangerous man is double sided since he may use his fierceness to attack or alternatively to protect. Jimmy asserts that “herself [Pegeen] will be safe this night, with a man killed his father holding danger from the door” (156). The group of men in the bar even consider a criminal like Christy to be the sort that the police/peelers would be loath to tackle. The characterization of Christy ignores his obvious fear of the police and of potentially being hanged. However, the young man does begin to inhabit the heroic persona once he has learned of its obvious benefits. The construction of a hero from the meagre stature of a man like Christy is only made possible on the grounds that he committed an almost unspeakable crime.

Sexual attraction.

Synge’s play looks at the kind of male gender performance typified by a hero and the resulting female response of sexual attraction. This topic closely interlinks with the aforementioned ideal image of manhood. While the playwright uses comedy to great effect when depicting the women’s romantic interest in Christy, one must not assume that the depiction is false, quite the opposite in fact. An analysis may begin with how the ideal of masculinity holds obvious connotations of sexual prowess. When Pegeen bemoans the loss of heroes of old like Daneen Sullivan and others then Shawn instinctively responds that, “Father Reilly has small conceit to have that kind walking around and talking to the girls” (143). In this context, the word conceit is best defined as favourable opinion. As such, a priest who is the moral guardian of his congregation would look unfavourably and indeed be fearful of heroic figures because of their expected influence on girls. It is as though heroism stokes a brand of exuberant sexuality in women that would otherwise be containable or tameable. Indeed, Synge’s depiction of Irish women as having sexual desires at all was one of the reasons for the protests against the play.

However, it is difficult to comprehend why Christy Mahon excites the adoration of so many women. How does one reconcile the real Christy with the image of a hero? The issue here is that there is fact and fiction, ordinary fellow and hero. To separate the ‘two Christies,’ one may simply look at the first impressions Christy makes on Pegeen and the Widow Quin, the two women who eventually wish to wed him. The playwright’s own opening description of Christy is as “a slight young man … very tired and frightened and dirty” (148) and Pegeen’s initial estimation of Christy is as “a soft lad the like of you wouldn’t slit the windpipe of a screeching sow” (152). Neither does the Widow Quin see a hardened criminal at first, but says somewhat derogatorily to Christy, “Well, aren’t you a little smiling fellow? … and you fitter to be saying your catechism than slaying your da” (163). The allotment of the mantle of hero to Christy and thereby the creation of Christy’s alter ego may be demystified by a quotation from Northcote W. Thomas which Freud uses in his own text, shown as follows:

“The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo … Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of tremendous power which is transmissible by contact, and may be liberated with destructive effect if the organisms which provoke its discharge are too weak to resist it” (37).

Christy is indeed singled out as a man who has broken a great taboo and he has an electrical charge as a result, to use Thomas’ metaphor. Christy’s crime of patricide is what gives him the electric charge of masculinity so distinctive that it secures the amorous attention of women. This explanation ties back to the subconscious power of taboos and our perceptions of those who dare to break them.

Christy’s horrible deed and the story that he later weaves are quite separate things. For one, the story is not fully under his autonomy because even though he changes it, the women also actively contribute to it. For Christy’s part, one may say that he engages in role play. Yet, he enters the role of hero in a most organic manner because he simply responds to the favourable stimuli he receives from all those around him who listen to his story. The first example of this is the way Christy slowly reveals his awful deed, dismissing the names of various listed crimes considered by him as somewhat trivial, like larceny, and adding teasingly, “I had it in my mind it was a different word and a bigger” (150). One senses that the young man’s swell of pride is concurrent with his gradual realization that an awful crime is even more impressive. Christy certainly plays up to the image of one who brutally murdered his own father, and the primary reason soon becomes obvious. At the conclusion of the first act, we witness Pegeen and the Widow Quin fighting over the young man which leads him to express the following thoughts:

“Two fine women fighting for the likes of me — till I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by” (167).

If Christy’s awful deed changes the opinion of all those around him then the story serves to extract the maximum results. The positive responses are that the men folk of the village treat Christy with respect tinged with fear while the women become amorous.

The partial appropriation of Christy’s story by the women reveals a separate aspect to the topic of sexual attraction. Freud explains that for anyone who has broken a serious taboo then the following occurs, “The most peculiar part of it is that any one who has violated such a prohibition assumes the nature of the forbidden object as if he had absorbed the whole dangerous charge” (39). While similar to Northcote W. Thomas’ previous quote, Freud focuses on the idea of the forbidden object which is quite interesting when applied to Christy. In line with this idea, the Widow Quin sums up the appeal of Christy as – “there’s great temptation in a man did slay his da” (164). Indeed, such temptation that Pegeen even denies that she is engaged to Shawn so that she appears to be single. The two women hold a similar view of Christy as a mercurial figure who is capable of fearsome deeds. The Widow Quin tells him to stop pretending that he is shy and describes him as “a fine, gamey, treacherous lad the like of you” (173). Pegeen thinks of Christy as “a coaxing fellow” (180) referring to her presumption that he is a ladies’ man and further describes him as “a fine lad with the great savagery to destroy your da” (180). What the women share is the need for a man who exceeds the pedigree of the men they have become used to in the locality. Christy’s appeal to all of the women in the village may be explained by a quote from Ryan Schacht who writes that “The more attractive a person is viewed by the opposite sex, the more potential copulations are possible” (67) and Christy’s stock is enhanced by the lack of eligible men in the locality but more importantly by his special status as a forbidden object. Pegeen, though annoyed by Christy’s flirtations with the local young women, says that “I wouldn’t give a thraneen for a lad hadn’t a mighty spirit in him and a gamey heart” (182). The constant implication, even though covert, is that a brave, heroic figure also promises a guaranteed level of sexual satisfaction to women. Synge overturns his audiences’ normal expectations so that it is now the amorous females who pursue the male based on their assessment of his desirability and suitability as a lover.

The proof of Christy’s strange allure is shown in the welcome he receives from the four eligible local women, Susan, Nelly, Honor, and Sara. The scene highlights one crucial difference between Shawn and Christy. The difference may be explained by a quote from Cindy Meston who writes that “Just as overexposure can douse the fire of sexual attraction, its opposite— novelty—can stoke its flames. Psychologist Daryl Bem sums it up with the phrase ‘the exotic becomes erotic’” (32). Christy is referred to by the Widow Quin as Pegeen’s “curiosity man” (163) which communicates his novelty status. Upon learning that Christy is indeed the man who killed his father, Sara says “Then my thousand welcomes to you” (171). The four women then produce an assortment of gifts: duck eggs, butter, cake, and a cooked chicken. Several of the gifts and the manner of their presentation have decidedly sexual undertones. For example, Christy commends the duck eggs which he is encouraged to hold in his hands by Sara, as being “a great and weighty size” (171). This reflects the growing tumescence of Christy’s own manhood as portrayed in his fighting tale. The butter is for Christy’s potatoes and Susan references the potato field, the crime scene from which he has recently fled. The cake, Honor’s gift, could be a form of barmbrack or currant bread which at Halloween would have contained a ring and other indications of one’s future marriage prospects. This could also be a slice of cake from someone’s wedding feast which Irish people traditionally saved. However, the most sexually evocative gift is the cooked chicken from Nelly who encourages Christy to “feel the fat of that breast” (172) and then Sara further encourages him, prompting, “will you pinch it?” (172). The sexual innuendo is apparent and adds a piquant atmosphere to the scene. If one views the scene from the aspect of sexual attraction alone then Schacht’s following observation seems appropriate, “For short term relationships, sometimes coinciding with long-term relationships, and especially during ovulation, females prefer more masculine males” (65). Synge depicts for his audience a community starved of virile men with sadly only compliant, God fearing and law fearing cowards like Shawn Keogh left to the women to choose from. In this environment, Christy with his story of a fearsome deed ignites unusual levels of sexual desire.

The Widow Quin sums up the chasm between Christy and Shawn, saying “it’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the like of you [Shawn]” (184). This concurs with what Cindy Meston writes, “women generally are not attracted to men who appear as though they could be easily dominated by other men” (41). Synge does not depict the Mayo women’s desires as simply immoral or wanton but explores themes like loneliness and the need for protection as partially motivating factors. The hero will thus fulfil not just natural sexual cravings but also tend to practical concerns like bodily protection and fending off a single woman’s loneliness. After all, the reason for Christy staying the night in the shebeen is to protect Pegeen and Christy’s other potential love interest, the Widow Quin, describes how she is sometimes lonesome in her own cottage. It is arguable that Synge merely uses female sexuality as a shorthand method to describe what is essentially missing in the community, which is strong, brave men. Yet, the longing is clearly expressed in sexual terms. The Widow Quin speaks of the men sailing the sea as “gallant hairy fellows” (192) who come to her mind when she feels lonesome. Pegeen too admits to desiring a man of adventure but equally one who can support her, saying “And myself, a girl, was tempted often to go sailing the seas till I’d marry a Jew-man, with ten kegs of gold, and I not knowing at all there was the like of you [Christy] drawing nearer, like the stars of God” (208). As Meston informs, “Studies of mate preferences reveal that women desire strong, muscular, athletic men for long-term mating as well as for sexual liaisons” (41). It is important to note that the menfolk also view Christy as a sexual threat with Michael Flaherty describing Christy as “a little frisky rascal” (210) and that “It’ll be a poor thing for the household man where you go sniffing for a female wife” (210). The image of the brave, heroic male is inseparable from the sexual usurper.

One may interpret Synge’s comedic depiction of women’s sexual longings for a hero as reflective of Ireland’s political quagmire and need for strong nationalistic leaders. Ireland was ravaged by famine and severely depopulated just over fifty years previous to the play being written and was still subject to mass emigration, especially young men seeking employment. The playwright avoids making such a bare political point, but the humorous content of the play still conveys a sharp political critique. Ireland was regularly represented in literature as a female figure, for example as Cathleen Ní Houlihan, the title of a play by William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory. Writers frequent use of this motif of Ireland as a female figure has interpretative implications when one considers Christy’s interactions with the women of Mayo. For instance, Old Mahon is amazed to learn that Christy is to marry Pegeen and says, “Is it in a crazy-house for females that I’m landed now?” (203). However, it is not specifically female hysteria but the hysteria of an entire community who have mistaken the impish Christy for the brave man in the concocted story. Old Mahon’s foolish son cannot possibly be the eligible young bachelor and bona fide hero that the small Mayo community takes Christy to be! The situation that has emerged in Mayo simply underlines the desperate need for someone who breaks the conventional rules and espouses freedom. Unfortunately, the father’s resurrection from the dead nullifies the strange, electrical aura of masculinity, heroism, and sexuality that had surrounded Christy. Like a broken spell in a story book, the young man is robbed of his powers. Old Mahon devalues Christy and removes the mantle of hero by describing his son as “the laughing joke of every female woman” (189) and “the fool of men” (200). However, until the truth comes out, Christy enjoys the attention a hero receives.

Christy and Shawn.

It is tempting to conclude that Synge believed the Irish peasantry were either too submissive to raise a leader or would promptly destroy any man who tried to lead them. He depicts a community in dire need of heroic men but also a community who will promptly attempt to hang any man who raises his head above the parapet. At the heart of Synge’s play are two men very much alike, Shawn and Christy. By comparing these men, one finds a specific criticism of Irish society which is neither about raising nor destroying a leader, but about nurturing one. The playwright portrays Christy and Shawn as opposites in all ways except for the fact that Christy was actually no different from Shawn before the day he raised a loy to hit his father. One finds clear evidence of this in old Mahon’s derogatory descriptions of his son which are similar to the negative points attributed to Shawn, and also in the descriptions that the two young men give of themselves. Christy describes himself as follows:

“Up to the day I killed my father, there wasn’t a person in Ireland knew the kind I was, and I there drinking, waking, eating, sleeping, a quiet, simple poor fellow with no man giving me heed” (160).

Later, when Shawn is trying to bribe Christy to leave so that he may marry Pegeen himself, the weaker man confesses that:

“It’s the like of me only that she’s fit for, a quiet simple fellow wouldn’t raise a hand upon her if she scratched itself” (184).

It is striking that both men describe themselves almost identically. Christy is a “quiet, simple poor fellow” (160) and Shawn is a “quiet simple fellow” (184). There are in fact few differences between them either in temperament or background. When Christy refers to people not previously knowing “the kind I was” (160), it indicates that there was an inner, hidden potential in him which is only unlocked in Mayo. Shawn acts as a perfect foil for Christy as he has not broken from his submissive path in life and is portrayed as a sad figure who is afraid of the dark, strangers, the local priest, sex, and fighting. Synge directs the audience to view Shawn as a sort of eunuch who Pegeen advises should join the “holy Brotherhoods” (157) since he is ruled by Father Reilly’s instructions. When Michael Flaherty fails to convince Shawn to stay the night at the bar to protect Pegeen, he remarks that his daughter will not need to worry about Shawn ever being unfaithful even if there were “a score of young girls” (147) working for them. Shawn, though wealthy and with church approval for his marriage is convincingly portrayed as an impotent figure. In Shawn’s eyes, Christy is a “clever fearless man” (183) who will upset his plans for marriage to Pegeen. Yet, the true difference between the men may be summed up in one word – encouragement. When Christy begins to enjoy the attention that he receives in Flaherty’s sheebeen, he comments that:

“Didn’t I know rightly I was handsome, though it was the divil’s own mirror we had beyond, would twist a squint across an angel’s brow; and I’ll be growing fine from this day” (168).

It is not only that Christy’s father kept the young man in a submissive position and deprived him of encouragement, but that this treatment consequently robbed Christy of his sense of manhood. As Meston writes, “Masculine facial features are heavily influenced by the production of testosterone during adolescence, when the bones in the face take their adult form” (43) and it is only when Christy really considers himself a man that the image that looks back from the mirror is no longer distorted but one to be proud of. What transforms Christy and makes him grow into the man who famously wins all the prizes at the village sports day is simply the encouragement of others. This in turn makes real the image others at first just superimposed on him, the image of the hero. As Meston writes, “Across cultures, physical contests such as wrestling, racing, and throwing allow women to gauge men’s physical abilities, including speed, endurance, and strength” (42). The devil’s mirror is therefore a negative appraisal of Irish society, a society which holds back potential leaders and treats them as submissive fools. Only when the double yoke of a domineering father and a repressive society is removed from the young man’s shoulders, even temporarily, can he flourish.

The act of murder.

With each retelling of his story, Christy Mahon enhances the details and thereby builds a certain momentum that must eventually find an outlet. What is of foremost importance for a reader is to understand the significance of the story. Yes, it gains Christy respect from the community and aids his romantic goals. However, the story is most importantly about the breaking of a taboo. To kill one’s own father is to be the ultimate rule-breaker. From Synge’s text, one garners that any opposition to state authorities is valued, and the most visible arm of state authority is the local police force. When the locals initially guess at Christy’s crime then there is speculation that maybe his family’s land was taken and therefore bailiffs, agents, and landlords are mentioned. Most Irish land was still owned by Anglo-Irish landlords until the late 19th century and only the “Land Acts” helped begin a reversal so that Irish tenant farmers could purchase their lands. In all, Anglo-Irish estate owners, their representatives, and the police force are associated with England’s colonial power in Ireland. Christy is viewed as a dangerous maverick who is an equal to the oppressive authorities and thus, he reduces the community’s sense of oppression. Freud writes that “An individual who has violated a taboo becomes himself taboo because he has the dangerous property of tempting others to follow his example” (53). In this way, Christy has the potential to become an insurgent leader, but this would crucially implicate the whole community because their support is necessary. Christy’s story when retold with increasing rhetorical skill resembles a rallying cry for support.

It is in self defence that Christy strikes his father. This point is salient as it ameliorates his alleged crime. In Christy’s version of the tale, he commits the ultimate offence, yet it is also a manly act as he simply retaliated in kind to a violent father. When Christy repeats his own tale then the fierceness of his opponent is not changed, it is the nature of his victory that is exaggerated. One may trace how Christy’s tale transforms in each retelling of it. He first confesses to the crowd in the bar that “I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack” (153). On the second occasion that Christy tells the tale, he recounts that – “He [old Mahon] gave a drive with the scythe, and I gave a lep to the east … and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet” (175). The new depth of the wound is conspicuous here and one suspects that his audience of admiring, young women may have had an influence. On the third occasion, Christy describes himself to the Widow Quin as “a gallant orphan cleft his father with one blow to the breeches belt” (187). The blow has become superhuman in power and what started as a head wound becomes the near division of his victim in two. Christy later refers to this famous “one single blow” (206). Yet the “gallous story” (220) may hold additional meaning because it asserts the right of a man to rise up against an autocratic father figure. Christy is the underdog who against the odds manages to conquer his oppressor. If interpreted as a form of political rhetoric, then Christy is amassing support to take on a leadership role in the community with the promise of achieving great things.

Christy is perceived by others as being unafraid of the police, yet this perception is as flawed as his own tall tale. In the beginning, Christy tells Michael that no police pursued him at any time on his eleven-day journey to Mayo. From this information, Philly asserts the following, “It’s only with a common week-day kind of a murderer them lads would be trusting their carcase, and that man [Christy] should be a great terror when his temper’s roused” (154). This aura of danger around Christy creates a complimentary comparison between him and heroes of old like Daneen Sullivan who knocked out a policeman’s eye. Yet, Christy clearly does fear the police as revealed by his first question to the landlord of the shebeen in Mayo, “Is it often the police do be coming into this place, master of the house?” (148). Synge uses to great comedic effect the contradictory status of Christy as simultaneously rebellious and law fearing. When Pegeen is angered by Christy’s flirtations with the girls she says, “a pack of wild girls the like of them do be walking abroad with the peelers, talking whispers at the fall of night” (179) and enhances this hypothetical threat by speaking of a local newspaper’s article on a man’s hanging. Christy immediately plans to flee until Pegeen reassures him of his safety. Yet, it is Pegeen and those in her community who betray Christy in the end and plan to hand him over to the peelers. Synge portrays a Janus-faced rural community who welcomes Christy through the door of the shebeen as a hero one day but wishes to drag him out the same door as a sacrifice just days later. This ultimately negative response to Christy is explained by Freud’s summation of what happens the one who breaks a taboo – “It is equally clear how the violation of certain taboo prohibitions becomes a social danger which must be punished or expiated by all the members of society lest it harm them all … If the others did not punish the violation they would perforce become aware that they want to imitate the evil doer” (54). In the play, this means that a rebel needs to be supported in his attack on authority whether it be a father or the peelers or the English Crown but failing this level of support, the community must destroy the rebel! The many references to the peelers in the play foreshadows how authority may ostensibly be rebelled against yet paradoxically relied upon to solve unsavoury situations like father killers. The playwright exposes the community’s complex relationship to the power structures of the day, and it is not a flattering depiction. Christy is himself a microcosm of the community because he shows a hair’s breadth between one being fearless/fearful of the law. When one takes account of the consequences of breaking a taboo then the community’s choice of Christy’s total annihilation versus total support becomes understandable at a new level. It is not just about self-preservation but also a rejection of the tilt towards rebellion.

When Christy’s deed of patricide is finally exposed as false then his mythical status crumbles and the community instantly rejects him. Pegeen says, “And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him [old Mahon] slitted, and you nothing at all” (214) and she later says, “and he [Christy] an ugly liar was playing off the hero, and the fright of men” (217). It is comedic, even absurd, to consider Christy’s alleged crime as ever having been heroic. However, as a breaker of taboos then he does become a feared and revered individual. Pegeen’s famous rebuke to Christy is – “there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (220). In effect, Pegeen means that the story loses all its sheen and becomes horrid when it is replayed in one’s own back yard. It is a case of romantic myth clashing with cold, sordid reality. It is Christy’s repetition of his awful crime, not in story but in actuality, which leads the community to turn on him. Only when old Mahon appears to lie dead outside the shebeen in Mayo does the crowd become a lynch mob. The young man repeated the crime because it had originally brought him fame and female attention yet ironically the community reject him because he commits the crime before their eyes. In this scene, Synge appears to be referencing something embedded in our psyches which originated in ancient tribal people and their relationship to their totem which Freud identifies as simply a symbol of the father. The following quote shows how one may make sense of the seemingly absurd double killing of old Mahon in the play.

“The religion of totemism included not only manifestations of remorse and attempts at reconciliation, but also serves to commemorate the triumph over the father. The gratification obtained thereby creates the commemorative celebration of the totem feast at which the restrictions of subsequent obedience are suspended, and makes it a duty to repeat the crime of parricide through the sacrifice of the totem animal as often as the benefits of this deed, namely, the appropriation of the father’s properties, threaten to disappear as a result of the changed influences of life” (Freud 199).

In this light, Christy performs a sort of ritual in order to renew the benefits of his original ugly deed. The ritual is to “repeat the crime of parricide” (Freud 199) so that he will continue to reap the benefits. Yet, because he now implicates his new admirers in the crime, he must be punished and harshly expelled from the community.

Christy’s transformation.

Synge’s depiction of how the Mayo community suddenly attacks Christy is one of the key scenes that originally brought the play into disrepute. It is a depiction of betrayal because a community takes the side of the oppressive authorities when Christy merely proves himself to be the man he always claimed to be, a father killer. The contentiousness of this episode in the play is explainable through reference to Freud’s definition of a taboo as quoted at the beginning of this essay. To paraphrase Freud, a taboo has dichotomous meanings with words like sacred and consecrated contrasting with the darker side which hold meanings like the uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean. The people of Mayo compare Christy to great men of the past like the heroes who hold an esteemed place in myths and folklore. In this way, the sacred, God-like warriors of stories are made flesh in the brave, young man. It is this link between Christy and heroic figures of the past that leads some to believe Synge may be mocking either past heroes or modern Irish men. Yet, as has already been discussed, Christy also carries the aura of the dangerous and the forbidden due to his crime. A single individual cannot house these two contrasting sides of the taboo and yet Christy’s transformation as a character rests on the brief period when he does. It is both the dark and light in Christy’s character that the community perceive which secures their support.

Synge is careful to fully represent the two conflicting sides of Christy. Therefore, some characters support him while others voice dissent against Christy and thereby the audience constantly views the blatant contrast of hero versus villain. As patricide is Christy’s only alleged crime, the locals haggle over an interpretation of this event. Some sympathetically consider Christy’s possible reasons for striking his father. Michael tentatively states that for Christy to kill his father, “You should have had good reason for doing the like of that” (152). Later, when old Mahon tells his tale to the Widow Quin, she facetiously quips that “you should have vexed him fearful to make him strike that gash in his da” (187). In this light, Christy is like a hero of old who only breaks a taboo with good and justifiable cause. On the other hand, Shawn describes Christy as “a queer kind” (155) and “a bloody-handed murderer” (155) while old Mahon refers to his son as “a small low fellow … Dark and dirty … An ugly young blackguard” (190). Shawn’s opinion of Christy reflects the rigid, law-abiding perspective but crucially disregards the reasons for Christy’s actions. Of more interest is old Mahon’s assessment of his son because it shows that an aggressively authoritarian father and by extension a society of the same ilk, will fail to see the potential in the next generation and will hold them in demeaning submission until forced to repent. However, once Christy remains in the central position of satisfying the two contradictory positions of villain and hero, then he transforms. In this space, he garners abundant support and encouragement while also commanding respect and awakening fear in others.

The revelation of Synge’s play is Christy’s transformation. It is a fascinating depiction of myth becoming reality with the underlying political message that communities should encourage and support strong leaders rather than shackle them into submission. The kind of men that Ireland produced were more typically the Shawn Keoghs of the world who Pegeen quickly dismisses when offered a better prospect, saying, “Wouldn’t it be a bitter thing for a girl to go marrying the like of Shaneen, and he a middling kind of a scarecrow, with no savagery or fine words in him at all?” (211). The scarecrow is the hollow figure, only a man in appearance and lacking in the vital aspects of masculinity. Yet, Shawn and Christy as not so unalike and therefore the formation of the hero relies overwhelmingly on support.

One only sees the transformed Christy when his tale of patricide dissolves into farce with the reappearance of his father. By this point, the young man has already been transformed by the community’s support and invigorated by a strong belief in himself. When Pegeen rejects him, Christy responds with reference to his great show in the games that day, saying “You’ve seen my doings this day” (215). However, the community is against him and jeers him, “There’s the playboy! There’s the lad thought he’d rule the roost in Mayo” (215). Synge has foreshadowed Christy’s fate through the example of the Widow Quin who killed her husband, though unintentionally, and then bears the burden of social ostracization. It is the reality of rebellion that the community find distasteful preferring instead to listen in safety to scandalous tales while sitting in the bar. Yet, Christy moves beyond storytelling and threateningly lifts a loy against Shawn and subsequently against his father symbolizing that he will never again submit to oppression. When the group of men and women in the bar seek to bind Christy so that he may be handed over to the police, he again shows a desperate fearlessness. When Pegeen shuns him, Christy says, “That’s your kind, is it? Then let the lot of you be wary, for, if I’ve to face the gallows, I’ll have a gay march down, I tell you, and shed the blood of some of you before I die” (222). In the end, when Christy departs the shebeen as the victor, he metaphorically wipes his boots of that place, saying, “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all” (224). Christy is the hero that the community nurtured into being, only to reject him when his ungovernability becomes all too real. However, the new man is fully formed and does not intend to give up his newfound freedom.


With the aid of Freud’s Totem and Taboo and various other texts, this essay has sought to delve into explanations for the actions of Synge’s characters in his acclaimed comedy “Playboy.” While a serious contemplation of a very entertaining play, it has revealed a solid, plausible basis for the main aspects of the play that originally caused offence. These are noted in the introduction but are chiefly concerning women’s sexuality, praising a parricide, and a community that turns on its hero. By going beyond Synge’s own idealized impressions of Irish peasants as summed up in his primitivistic views, then one finds specific fears and taboos that are common to all mankind. The main conclusion one may make is that Synge did not intend nor create a mocking depiction since the actions of people like Christy, Pegeen, and the rest of the community are explainable by reference to specific taboos. The more interesting aspect of this conclusion is the idea of a subconscious superstructure of actions and reactions which are set in motion by the triggering of certain taboos in real life. Synge incorporates a strong focus on the taboos of the Oedipus complex in his work as well as other taboos. When one views the play in reference to the taboos of killing one’s father and sleeping with one’s mother then Christy’s every action is laden with significance.

It is reasonable to assume that the heroes of Ireland’s past were sometimes flawed characters who transgressed many boundaries in order to achieve great things. Storytelling gives a polish to such men, a refined and pleasing presentation that is disjointed from reality. Characters like old Mahon and Christy chafed on the sensibilities of Synge’s early audiences because they are uncouth, contradictory, and often unheroic. To simply laugh is to dismiss them a little too easily, and miss their relevance. Synge gives his readers a bare reality with strong political overtones in a country that was still under English rule. Given Ireland’s long history of rebelling against English colonial rule with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 as a primary example, it would be foolish to interpret Synge’s play as critiquing Irish people for not having the stomach for rebellion. However, Synge’s criticism is evident in his depiction of an overly authoritarian societal structure which smothers the potential of new generations. The authority figures are indeed all patriarchs of one kind or another, familial, church, or state. Similarly, one senses in the play a distinct disapproval of middle-class Ireland represented by publicans, big farmers, and even priests when they are shown to turn everything they touch into a question of commerce.

A discussion of taboos is quite apt in Synge’s play given its Irish setting. Freud traces the origins of all religions and moral restrictions back to the killing of the primal father and the subsequent ritual of totem feasts. Ireland was a staunchly Catholic country for most of the 19th and 20th centuries and many acts and even subjects were quite taboo. If one had to cite an example from modern Irish history of a heroic figure being toppled by the revelation of a taboo then it would be Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist and Member of Parliament. Though a prominent and lauded politician, the exposure of his long-term affair with a married woman and the Catholic Church’s subsequent condemnation of him helped seal the premature end of his political career. Parnell died of pneumonia aged just 45 in the year eighteen ninety one. Against this backdrop, Synge cleverly depicts not the destruction but formation of a hero from a taboo act. It is true that Christy never actually succeeds in killing his father but it is not for want of trying. The plot of Synge’s play is extraordinarily counterintuitive because the protagonist is not destroyed in the end but instead is emboldened, masculinized, and empowered. An obscure and ordinary fellow broaches a great taboo and thus becomes one of the best know names in Irish literature, Christy Mahon.

Works Cited.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Delphi Classics, 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Translated by A. A. Brill, Acheron Press, 2012.

Meston, Cindy M., and David M. Buss. Why Women have Sex. Times Books, 2009.

Schacht, Ryan. “Female and Male Perceptions of Attractiveness: What is attractive and Why?” University of Nebraska, 2005.

Synge, John Millington. “The Playboy of the Western World.” The Complete Works of J. M. Synge, edited by Delphi Classics, Delphi Classics, 2018, pp. 132-224.

Hello Out There

  • Play title: Hello Out There.
  • Author: William Saroyan.
  • Published: 1941.
  • Page count: 13


Hello Out There is a one-act play by William Saroyan. There are two lead characters, a teenage girl named Emily Smith and a young man whose nickname is Photo-Finish. The setting is a small-town jailhouse in Texas where the man has recently been detained for a violent crime and where the girl works as a part-time cook. Emily and Photo-Finish strike up a conversation and there are elements of budding romance as well as sly manipulation. The title of the play comes from Photo-Finish’s repeated holler in the prison house when, at first, he thinks that he has been left completely alone. Saroyan explores the themes of loneliness, injustice, and the fate of the underdog. While short, the play’s dialogue is highly condensed and the event that occurs at the end is dramatic and violent.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

The play is available via the Open Library. It is also available on Scribd if you are already a member of the service.

If you would prefer to watch the play, then there is a production of the work available on YouTube under the title “Hello Out There – 1980.” The running time is 42 minutes.

Why read Hello Out There?

A story about outsiders.

In a truly short script, Saroyan manages to convey to an audience the plight of outsiders. The young girl and the suspected criminal are quite different characters, but both feel distinctly ostracized from society. The play is set in Texas just after the Great Depression. The playwright effectively communicates the daily grind that is required of people to survive. In such a society, victims are inevitably created. Emily comes from a poor background and is doubly exploited – by her father and her employer. In contrast, the young man sees through the hollow slogan that hard work leads to success and he opts out of the rat-race and prefers to gamble to make his money, understanding that wealth alone is the emblem of success. However, he is rarely lucky and seldom accepted. Emily and Photo-Finish exist at the edges of a society that does not value them, and it is through their mutual recognition of a kindred spirit that the central relationship of the play is established.

No way out.

The play is a tragedy. At the beginning, the young man finds himself in a prison cell with a serious wound to his head. He does not recall anything that has happened in the previous 24 hours. Almost from the first moment, we sense his fear, initially the fear of being alone and then the fear of what he suspects is coming. Later, he reveals that he has read stories in the newspapers about cases similar to his own, and therefore he senses his fate long before it arrives. Saroyan manages to depict Photo-Finish as compassionate while also letting us see that a man’s desperation may also flower into a certain manipulative charisma. Photo-Finish’s interactions with Emily are complicated by the possibility of a mob looming on the horizon. A man who has no way out of his dilemma may act in strange ways, but such a man’s assessment of the world is also enlightening. Saroyan takes his readers inside a little prison cell in Texas and reveals some cold truths about society.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The angry mob versus the lone man.

One striking aspect of Saroyan’s play is his depiction of a mob pitted against an individual. This is obviously an uneven contest, but it serves to better highlight the other relationship in the play between one individual and another. On one side, Photo-Finish has been accused of raping a married woman and we witness his increasing fear of mob retribution as the play progresses. On the other side, Photo-Finish forms a one-on-one relationship with Emily which proves to be the antithesis of his relation to the vigilantes from the town of Wheeling. The play is effective in communicating the plight of the young man largely because of this conspicuous divide between the trust and belief a suspected criminal receives from a young girl versus the distrust, fear, and hatred that exudes from the mob. One may look at these two aspects of the play in detail to reveal the intricacies of these quite different relationships. A complicating factor is Photo-Finish’s racial background which is never stated in the play yet proves to be vitally important. Though Saroyan’s play is quite short, consisting of just one act, it is a condensed work with an invaluable social commentary.

It is insufficient to look at the mob based solely on the description in the play. Although Photo-Finish expects them at any time, the mob only appear in the closing moments. Their work is brutal and done in a brief period of time. To really understand the actions of the mob, one must look at the psychology of such groups of people and thereby reveal their often-predictable behaviour. Many books have been written on the psychology of crowds including two very influential works, namely Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 work entitled The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and Elias Canetti’s 1960 book entitled Crowds and Power. It is worth noting that neither of these works specifically address racially motivated violence in the United States, an issue that this essay will explore, but one must keep in mind that Saroyan never clearly indicates that the violence depicted in his play is racially motivated. Therefore, the texts on crowds quoted here do not pigeonhole the interpretation of the play too narrowly. Le Bon was French, and Canetti was Bulgarian, and these writers provide highly informative insights into crowds of all sorts especially destructive ones which will be the focus in this essay.

In the play, Photo-Finish’s predominant attitude to the mob is one of fear. When Emily reminds him that he is in prison on a charge of rape, he responds that “they’re a lot of fools” meaning the mob and then he admits that he is “scared to death.” Later, when Emily shares the information that the local authorities fear that a mob may come for Photo-Finish, he responds in a manner that shows his astute understanding of the psychology of crowds, saying, “nothing scares a man more than ignorance. You can argue with people who ain’t fools, but you can’t argue with fools – they just go to work and do what they’re set on doing.” The crucial points in his observation are that the mob is characterized by its lack of intelligence, its deafness to reason, and its unalterable goal. Before exploring these points, it is necessary to first settle on a definition of a psychological crowd versus a harmless, haphazard grouping of people. Le Bon writes that a “psychological crowd” (21) comes into being when “the sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics” (21). This description matches that of the organized crowd in Saroyan’s play who have a specific aim. Regarding the intelligence of such a crowd, Le Bon states that “in crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated” (28). Indeed, Photo-Finish says on multiple occasions that he is aware that his words will be ineffectual when faced with the mob. A crowd’s inability to reason is explained by Le Bon by how a man changes once submerged within a crowd – “isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct” (31). The most chilling aspect of Photo-Finish’s assessment of a mob is regarding its goal, he says, “they just go to work.” One needs to understand why crowds get so riled up and the resulting singlemindedness that facilitates their sometimes-gruesome actions. Le Bon writes that “the violence of the feelings of crowds is also increased, especially in heterogeneous crowds, by the absence of all sense of responsibility” (50). Canetti describes the sense of momentum that a crowd achieves, explaining that “the crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal” (29). As such, the fears of Photo-Finish are legitimate because he is the sole cause of the mob’s feelings of outrage, and he is their ultimate goal.

Canetti categorizes specific types of crowds based on their characteristics and the following, called the baiting crowd, matches the mob who pursues Photo-Finish.

“The baiting crowd forms with reference to a quickly attainable goal. The goal is known and clearly marked, and is also near. This crowd is out for killing and it knows whom it wants to kill. It heads for this goal with unique determination and cannot be cheated of it” (Canetti 49).

Photo-Finish has been moved from Wheeling for his own safety and is now in Matador some seventeen miles away. Not only is Photo-Finish still within the mob’s reach but the woman’s husband has already drawn the accused man’s blood by striking him over the head with a blunt instrument. The initial spark that ignited the outrage of the Wheeling townspeople is the accusation that Photo-Finish raped a married woman. Yet, if this accusation is true then the jailed suspect will surely face justice in due course. To understand why this does not happen, one may refer to Le Bon’s statement that “the simplicity and exaggeration of the sentiments of crowds have for result that a throng knows neither doubt nor uncertainty … a suspicion transforms itself as soon as announced into incontrovertible evidence” (50). Additionally, Canetti explains how a crowd views its enemy, he writes, “one of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted, a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies” (22). Photo-Finish is deprived of his rights because an angry mob, specifically a baiting crowd, has already judged and sentenced him. The mindset of the crowd also requires that he first be branded as an enemy of the community. Photo-Finish’s solemn word that he is innocent has no value because he, a stranger, has been accused by a local woman. The mob has already come to a conclusion and the man’s death is their goal.

In Saroyan’s depiction, Photo-Finish is an enemy of the community by default of being an outsider. It is his identity as a stranger that allows the mob to disbelieve him and deny him justice. However, one may reasonably assert that his race is the unstated yet complicating factor. Le Bon explores several factors “which are found to underlie all the beliefs and opinions of crowds” (84) and race is the primary factor in his estimation. As Saroyan does not specify Photo-Finish’s race, one may deduce it by alternative means. One may begin by quoting Canetti’s definition of a pack where he states that, “relatively few people belong to it, but these few know one another well” (94). He goes on to explain about a pack, that, “since it consists entirely of people who know each other well, it can always form again, even if scattered by adverse circumstances” (94). The mob from Wheeling is just a few carloads of people, who are clearly known to one another, and may obviously have congregated on other similar occasions. As will be discussed later in more detail, Photo-Finish is familiar with the expected actions of the mob/pack who are looking for vengeance. There is clear evidence that such mobs gather on a regular basis because Photo-Finish has read about them in the newspapers. The mobs’ aims are invariably to take revenge on those they have designated as enemies. It does not take much research to reveal that the most frequent victims of mob violence in Texas in the 1930’s and 40’s were black men. As such, the logical conclusion is that Photo-Finish falls prey to the mob’s ingrained prejudices not just because he is an outsider but also because he is most likely a man of colour.

The play’s title, “hello – out there!” is also Photo-Finish’s cry to the world which opens the drama. Through the writings of Le Bon and Canetti, we are aware of precisely why a crowd is not amenable to logic or cries for mercy. As Le Bon states, a man who has been caught up in a mob “is no longer himself, but has become an automaton” (31) and therefore one cannot expect sympathy from such a figure. Saroyan writes in the play’s introduction that Photo-Finish “calls out dramatically, kidding the world.” This sets the appropriate tone for a play where the protagonist has no real hope of justice, no hope of a sympathetic response from the mob who pursues him. Yet, the teenage girl named Emily is the single exception because she shows care and affection, even love to Photo-Finish. This means that neither his identity as a stranger nor the possibility that he is a black man cause Emily to prejudge him. However, their bond may be viewed cynically by a reader. For example, Photo-Finish does not expect a sympathetic reaction from the world and therefore is he in fact kidding Emily, manipulating her, when he speaks in somewhat dramatic style of their future together? Saroyan uses Photo-Finish’s refrain to emphasize one salient point, namely that the world’s response to one’s holler is determined almost entirely by one’s identity. We may view Emily as a naïve dupe or instead as an individual of superior character, devoid of the prejudices that are rampant in her own community. When Emily asks Photo-Finish if he is lonesome, his response is “lonesome as a cayote. Hear me hollering? Hello out there!” Emily finds a connection with him precisely because he is a lonely outsider, saying, “I’m kind of lonesome, too.” This contrasts with Photo-Finish’s meeting with the married woman, a woman he thought may have invited him into her house because “she was lonely.” However, when their tryst goes awry, he says, “the next thing I knew she’d run out of the house and was hollering.” The married woman’s holler for help is what leads eventually to mob violence.

There is an odd parallel between Photo-Finish’s connection with Emily and with the married woman. Admittedly, each woman represents something quite different. Emily represents a compassionate world whereas the married woman ultimately becomes just a face in the vengeful mob. Yet the chief similarities are that Photo-Finish’s encounter with each woman happens totally by chance, is tinted with sexual desire and/or romance, and has huge repercussions for him. Emily and the married woman are from neighbouring towns, but they truly represent opposing worlds. Emily is a menial worker, undervalued and sometimes ridiculed, an outsider in her own place. The woman, George’s wife, has the backing of her whole community, she is an insider. Each woman is shown to hold the fate of Photo-Finish in her hands. It is Emily who promises to get her father’s gun for Photo-Finish which is his best hope of escaping. After all, an armed prisoner may gain his freedom through the element of surprise as no one will expect him to have a gun. The woman who accused Photo-Finish of rape is the one whose words set in motion the mindless mob. However, she has no actual control of the mob. Canetti provides a very poetic description of the appearance of an active crowd – “a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all performing in exactly the same way and with the same purpose” (32). In a way, the married woman stands for the potential of an uncaring, cruel society which may indeed transform into a monstrous being. The married woman is just one person yet also the key to unleashing the hatred of a biased society.

The conclusion of Saroyan’s play is quite violent and shows the ultimate result of Photo-Finish’s unequal battle with a mob. Canetti explains the importance of the victim’s body to the victor. In the context of the play, this means the value of Photo-Finish’s body to George, the woman’s husband.

“His [the victim’s] physical presence as a corpse is indispensable for the feeling of triumph. Now the victor can do whatever he wants with him, and he cannot retaliate, but must lie there, never to stand upright again” (Canetti 227).

The trophy is the corpse of the enemy and George and his pals claim the body of Photo-Finish at the close of the play. The ending is foreshadowed because Photo-Finish has already described what happens in such cases. Proof that the mob’s actions are mindless is shown by the fact that George’s wife only identifies Photo-Finish as the rapist, saying “yeah, that’s him” after he has already been shot multiple times. This trophy corpse is claimed to uphold the honour of George’s wife even if he suspects that she is indeed unfaithful and her original accusation false. Emily tries to stop them as she knows that the mob will defile the body. Emily’s action is in primary opposition to the mob, and she proves Photo-Finish’s statement that, “people are the same everywhere. They’re different only when they love somebody.” Emily has already declared her love for Photo-Finish, saying, “nobody anywhere loves anybody as much as I love you.” Photo-Finish’s interactions with both women expose different elements of society – the cruelty of the mob mindset versus a connection with one caring individual.

It is important to concede that Photo-Finish manipulates Emily to a certain degree. However, Saroyan does not depict the suspected criminal as a one-dimensional character. One should interpret Photo-Finish’s actions as partially motivated by his dilemma. Canetti gives a clear insight into the position of a victim in relation to the mob, he writes:

“One important reason for the rapid growth of the baiting crowd is that there is no risk involved. There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side. The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in flight, and cannot hit back; in his defencelessness he is victim only” (49).

Photo-Finish is in just such a position, trapped in a prison house whose jailer has gone home leaving the captive man vulnerable. Emily is the key to freedom and so Photo-Finish must use all his eloquence to win over this girl who alone stands between him and a dreadful fate. He flatters her looks even though she is described as “a plain girl in plain clothes,” he says he will marry her even though it is on the same day that he has met her, he praises her character in an attempt to make her feel special, and finally he promises her a future with him in San Francisco. Emily is naïve, too naïve to fully comprehend the slick lines of the drifter who habitually gambles to earn each buck and gain each advantage in life. Yet, Saroyan also challenges a reader’s preconceptions of such a character, forcing one to rethink, to move away from a prejudiced mob mentality to that of a sympathetic adjudicator. After all, Emily and Photo-Finish are both lonesome souls, outsiders, and grafters of different kinds. Their bond is not artificial, and Photo-Finish constantly surprises with actions that belie the cold trickster we may presume him to be. He gives Emily eighty dollars with no prospect of getting it back and more importantly he advises her that if he is gone when she returns to the jailhouse – “don’t be a fool,” which means do not try to use the gun against the mob. His advice is that she just leave town and go to San Francisco. Yes, he preys on an innocent girl in an attempt to escape his otherwise certain death, but he also treats her humanely, recognizes her sorry plight and tries to direct her to a better future. Emily earns just fifty cents for each day’s work which her malingerer father then confiscates leading Photo-Finish to brand the townspeople as “little punk people. Hurting the only good thing that ever came their way.” Saroyan give his readers a balanced portrayal of Photo-Finish, a man who lives by his wits yet has not abandoned his core humanity.

The young man has been nicknamed Photo-Finish because as he says, “my races are always photo-finish races.” He goes on to explain that “my horse never wins. It’s my bad luck, all the time.” A character’s name is an important choice for a playwright so one may scrutinize this distinctive nickname further. It is apparent that this eternally optimistic gambler takes a chance with Emily as there is nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain. There is also a clear analogy between the gambler betting on a horse race and the closing episode of the play where two parties, Emily and the angry mob, rush to reach him determining whether he wins or loses. True to his nickname, there is just a moment between the arrival of the blood-thirsty mob who will surely kill him and the girl who could potentially save him. Yet, he is clearly the loser, once again. Therefore, the name Photo-Finish also holds a possible hidden meaning about eternal losers. When the young man explains his nickname to Emily, he details how photo-finish races as “so close the only way they can tell which horse wins is to look at a photograph after the race is over.” In an article entitled “Photo-Finishes” in American Scientific from 1941, it is stated that “many racetracks, including Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, use the Photo-Chart Camera equipment invented and developed by Lorenzo Del Riccio.” Incidentally, this is the same year as Saroyan released Hello Out There. The modern technology simply made deciding the correct winner much easier because “in an average time of 48 seconds, an enlargement of the photo-finish negative is produced and delivered to the judges.” This technology was first introduced at Del Mar Racetrack in California in 1937. The interesting point here is that a negative photo was used to call the race. A negative photo is one where bright areas of the original image appear dark and the dark areas appear light. As the name of the main character is Photo-Finish and he is a racetrack gambler, then the technology of negative i.e., black and white images is covertly referenced too. Therefore, is Saroyan making a coded reference to Photo-Finish’s colour, his race? Does the plot of the play show how a white man loses the race, yet because it is a photo-finish we are looking at a negative photo and it is really depicting a black man? Is the playwright saying that black men always lose in the game of race relations? Since Saroyan neglects to state Photo-Finish’s race then we may presume that he is white with no evidence to prove otherwise, and therefore possibly view the character differently to how we would view a black man in the role. Yet it is a pertinent question to ask if Photo-Finish is the eternal loser because he is black and also because only a naïve young girl in a prejudiced town will even consider him worthy of sympathy?

The question of Photo-Finish’s race gives a certain nuance to the depiction of the two major forces at the play’s core, the individual and the mob. Emily proves that by making a connection with someone, you value them for who they are rather than lazily rely on a preconceived idea. The play communicates the message that without sympathetic interpersonal contact, one may all too easily be ruled by the mob mindset, by racial prejudices, by fear of anyone who is different. Although the psychological crowd as defined by Le Bon is a specific entity to which Photo-Finish falls foul, the idea of the masses and conventional thinking is also peripherally explored by Saroyan because Emily is also a victim of her community despite being a total innocent. It is Emily who calls out at the end of the play, “hello – out there!” and one can only wonder what her future holds.

The Newspapers.

Saroyan adds to the tragic atmosphere of the play by allowing Photo-Finish to foresee his own destiny. The crucial information about how the story will end is contained in newspapers. It is also from the reference to newspapers in the play that one gains the strongest evidence that Photo-Finish is indeed a man of colour. When Photo-Finish is confronted by the husband (George) of the woman that he is accused of raping, then Photo-Finish says the following:

“I know what you’re going to do. I’ve read the papers and I know. They have fun. A mob of ’em fall on one man and beat him, don’t they? They tear off his clothes and kick him, don’t they? And women and little children stand around watching, don’t they? Well, before you go on this picnic, I’m going to tell you a few things.”

Photo-Finish’s grim quote suggests that such mobs act in unison to a sort of prewritten script. This raises two key questions in the play. To begin, what sorts of offences normally result in vigilante mob behaviour, and secondly, can we give a solid classification to the sorts of victims involved? To find adequate responses to such queries, one may look at similar attacks to the one on Photo-Finish as reported in actual newspapers in the era of the play. To find appropriate comparisons, one must first summarize Photo-Finish’s situation. He is in jail accused of raping a married woman. He was arrested in Wheeling but then moved to Matador, Texas. Emily recounts that “they [the authorities] brought you [Photo-Finish] here from Wheeling” and that Photo-Finish has “got a whole gang of people all worked up.” Due to the public uproar caused by the reported rape, Emily adds that the authorities are considering moving Photo-Finish again because, “they’re afraid these people from Wheeling will come over in the middle of the night and break in.” The mob do eventually arrive and when finally confronted by the woman’s husband, Photo-Finish summarizes the mob’s view, saying, “a stranger has come to town and violated your women.” Although Photo-Finish knows his words will fall on deaf ears, he claims that the woman seduced him. George, the husband, replies by calling the accused rapist “a dirty liar” and “a dog.”

In order to elaborate on the kind of information Photo-Finish would have read in newspapers in the 1930’s and 1940’s, one may refer to newspaper articles on three widely publicized murders by hanging in Texas. These murders were the work of mobs. It is relevant to look at hangings because Photo-Finish expects such a death, saying to George who pulls a pistol, “what’s the fun hanging a man who’s already dead?” The incidents quoted here come from articles about murders in three locations in Texas, namely Kirbyville in 1934, Columbus in 1935, and Texarkana in 1942. The first two articles were carried in the New York Times and the last article is from The New York Age. Such hangings were not so infrequent, but the articles have been limited to Texas as that is the setting of Saroyan’s play.

The most striking similarity between the newspaper articles is that they all refer to black men. This informs one’s reading of Saroyan’s play as he does not mention race, but one may deduce that black men were certainly the most likely victims of such mob justice. Secondly, the crimes recounted in the newspaper articles are all linked to either sexual relations or rape. Furthermore, in each case there is an account of how the mob gained custody of the accused man. Finally, there are details on how the men were murdered. The information is as follows:

  • Kirbyville, Texas, June 21st, 1934 (New York Times article June 22nd).
  • Identity: “Son Griggs, a Negro, 30 years old.”
  • Crime: “Charged with associating with a white woman.”
  • Prisoner moved for safety: “Two deputies … rush[ed] Griggs to Orange for safekeeping.”
  • Mob arrest: “Forcibly taken from officers by a crowd of 150 men and women.”
  • Death: “Hanged, shot seventeen times, then dragged behind an automobile for several hours.”
  • Columbus, Texas, November 13th, 1935 (New York Times article November 14th).
  • Identity: “Benny Mitchell, aged 16, and Ernest Collins, 15” – black teenagers.
  • Crime: Murder preceded by sexual attack denoted by title of “ravishing murderers.”
  • Prisoner moved for safety: N/A
  • Mob arrest: “Taken from the custody of the sheriff by a mob.”
  • Death: “The two Negroes, still chained together, were hanged on a tree on the outskirts of Columbus.”
  • Texarkana, Texas, July 18th, 1942 (The New York Age article).
  • Identity: “Willie Vinson, 25 year old Negro.”
  • Crime: “Accused of an attempted attack on a white woman.” Details – “she was dragged from her trailer-camp bed early Sunday by a Negro.”
  • Prisoner moved for safety: N/A
  • Mob arrest: “Raiding a hospital, a mob of white men took Willie Vinson.”
  • Death: “Lynched him [Vinson] early Monday by hanging him on a cotton gin winch on the outskirts of the city after dragging him behind an automobile.”

The newspaper articles give details of gruesome murders committed in Texas before and after Saroyan’s play which dates from 1941. Given the importance of the newspaper articles in the play, one may extract two salient pieces of information, firstly, that Photo-Finish is most likely African American because his fate matches that of other black men accused of having sexual relations with or attacking white women at that time. Secondly, mob justice was common enough and widely enough reported that someone could indeed come to a foregone conclusion about the fate of black men in such situations. As Saroyan does not specify whether Photo-Finish is white or black, and since many productions of the play have a Caucasian man play his part, the evidence provided by newspapers complicates an interpretation of the play. It is possible that by not defining the character as being of one race or another, the playwright hopes that the audience focus on Photo-Finish without racial prejudice. If one thinks of Photo-Finish as an African American or indeed as from a Hispanic background, then his chances of survival diminish in the context of the racial politics and prejudices of the era. It is certainly possible that Saroyan imagined Photo-Finish as a Caucasian male yet then the newspaper articles have a converse effect where a white man’s unjust fate is more exaggerated by a comparison with black men who were actively discriminated against in the era. Photo-Finish defeatedly says to George, the husband, “I’m going to tell you a few things. Not that that’s going to send you home with your pals.” As such, Photo-Finish understands the uselessness of arguing his case, and it is with the advantage of seeing him as a man of colour that an audience will better understand this imminent defeat.

In many respects, the newspaper articles enlighten the overarching discussion of the mob. Firstly, newspapers, especially provincial newspapers would have reflected the sympathies of local people. Even though Gustave le Bon was writing in 1895, he commented on the relatively diminished power of influential writers versus the power of newspapers to reflect the public mood, writing that, “today the writers have lost all influence, and the newspapers only reflect opinion” (160). It is relevant here to supply the headline from the above cited New York Times article from 1935 – “Texas Prosecutor Condones Lynching; Calls Hanging of Two Negroes at Columbus ‘Expression of People’s Will’.” The article goes on to quote a judge who also declined to criticize the mob. The journalist then includes the information that “the Negroes, because of their ages, would have been sent to a reformatory until they were 21 years of age if they had been convicted in court.” The article is clearly biased because the judge’s racist remarks are corroborated by the journalist’s added summary of the possible light sentence for the suspected perpetrators, had they lived. As Le Bon noted, the opinion of the public seems to be uncritically reflected back to them. One may further interpret such journalistic reporting with the help of Elias Canetti who wrote in 1960 that “disgust at collective killing is of very recent date and should not be over-estimated. Today everyone takes part in public executions through the newspapers” (52). Indeed, the lurid details of the newspaper articles already quoted seem to presuppose a public appetite for the same. Canetti goes on to equate the “baiting crowd” (52) or hunting pack, with the modern reading public, writing that “the baiting crowd is preserved in the newspaper reading public, in a milder form it is true, but, because of its distance from events, a more irresponsible one” (52). One can therefore fully appreciate why Photo-Finish upon reading accounts of local hangings in Texas, expects no less a horrendous conclusion to his own confrontation with the locals. Also, such newspaper accounts of the atrocious deeds of vigilante mobs seem to have satisfied a cruel blood-thirst in the public audience of the day.  

By placing a reference to newspapers in the play, Saroyan creates a link to real-life newspaper articles which exposes the systematic injustices in America. The fictional events of the play link to news media realism. One may securely date the events of the play as circa 1940 because Photo-Finish recounts meeting the married woman at a lunch counter and says, “somebody had put a nickel in the phonograph and a fellow was singing New San Antonio Rose,” and the song was released that year. At this time, racial segregation enforced under Jim Crow laws in America was still the norm. The play is a scathing social commentary because just like in the newspaper articles quoted above, the jail keeper opens Photo-Finish’s cell with his key so that the mob can finish their cruel attack. In fact, the newspapers seem to script future events just as much as they report past happenings in the context of Saroyan’s play.

Works Cited.

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. Continuum, 1978.  

Falge, Francis M. “Photo-Finishes.” Scientific American, vol. 164, no. 1, 1941, pp. 32-45. 

“HANG, SHOOT, DRAG NEGRO; Texas Mob Lynches Prisoner Arrested with White Woman.” New York Times, 22 June 1934.

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Amazing Classics, 2017.  

Saroyan, William. Hello Out There. Samuel French, 1949.  

“Texas Prosecutor Condones Lynching; Calls Hanging of Two Negroes at Columbus ‘Expression of People’s Will.’” New York Times, 14 November 1935. 

“Texas Whites Lynch Negro; Drag Wounded Man From Hospital and Lynch Him On Cotton Gin.” The New York Age, 18 July 1942.