Rope

Marriage chest (cassone). ca. 1480-95, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • Play title: Rope   
  • Author: Patrick Hamilton  
  • First performed: 1929   
  • Page count: 82 

Summary.

Patrick Hamilton’s play, Rope, begins with a murder. A young man named Ronald has been killed by two of his fellow Oxford university students, Brandon and Granillo, and they have hidden his body in a chest. The murderers who share a house in Mayfair, have invited a selection of people for drinks and snacks the same evening. The guests include Ronald’s unsuspecting father, and a young poet named Rupert Cadell. Using the excuse that the room is cluttered with books, the killers have the buffet dinner served on top of the chest that contains the corpse. The purpose of Brandon and Granillo’s actions is to enhance the thrill of having committed the perfect murder! They plan to leave for Oxford once their guests have departed. The major themes of the play are murder, homosexuality, punishment, and the English class system.

Alfred Hitchcock famously brought the play to the big screen in the 1948 classic, Rope, which starred James Stewart. Hamilton’s other famous works include the play, Gaslight, and the novel, Hangover Square.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening/watching

The play is available via the Open Library, Internet Archive, and is also on Scribd for members. The text of Rope is quite reader friendly and may be enjoyed like a thriller.

Multiple audiobook versions of the play are available on YouTube.

One may watch the movie version of Rope directed by Hitchcock but please note that the text has been adapted for the screen.

Why read/watch/listen to Rope?

The perfect murder.

Brandon and Granillo believe that they have committed the perfect crime. Its perfection is explained by the clinically uncomplicated nature of the murder: passionless, motive-less, faultless, clueless, bloodless, and noiseless (Hamilton 10). The trail is apparently cold, even for the most persistent sleuth. Ronald Kentley has been killed only so his killers may experience the immense thrill of taking another’s life. The plan is that the body will never be found, guaranteeing the killers’ immunity from the British justice system. However, the killers’ plan is enormously ambitious to the point of hubris. Despite their best efforts, some faults have been made and Hamilton brings one on a familiar journey of clue detection in his elegantly constructed plot.

The relevance of real-life inspiration.

Patrick Hamilton is often credited with basing Rope on the famous, American case of Leopold and Loeb. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were students at the University of Chicago when they kidnapped and killed a twelve-year-old boy in 1924. However, Hamilton dismissed speculation that his drama was based on the notorious, criminal couple. The denial, though probably sincere, makes the similarities between the two crimes no less fascinating. Leopold and Loeb, like Brandon and Granillo, had a penchant for the philosophy of Nietzsche, and believed that their intellectual superiority to the common man gave them a degree of natural immunity from society’s prosaic rules. Most interestingly, neither of the real-life killers was sentenced to death, but instead to life imprisonment. The ending of Rope presents the destiny of Brandon and Granillo (freedom/death) as a fait accompli, but the real-life example raises an important question mark over one’s confidence that things will play out as expected!

Post reading discussion/interpretation.

The Hidden Marriage Ritual in Hamilton’s Tale of Murder.

Introduction.

In the introduction to the first publication of Rope (1929), Patrick Hamilton wrote, “I have gone out to write a horror play and make your flesh creep” (viii-ix). Not only did the author succeed in creating a gripping, suspenseful work due to a finely crafted plot, but the subject matter is indeed so horrifically perverse as to be utterly unsettling. The central allure, as with many such works, is with the character of the murderer(s). Numerous writers before Hamilton had been fascinated by murderers and their handiwork. For example, in Intentions, Oscar Wilde wrote an essay entitled, “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” about Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a suspected, English serial-killer who had “an extremely artistic temperament … being not merely a poet and a painter, an art-critic, an antiquarian, and a writer of prose, an amateur of beautiful things … but also a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age” (32). Of even more renown in literary terms is Thomas De Quincey’s famous satirical essay, “Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” De Quincey comically positions himself as one who seeks to expose “The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder” (188) which is a group of “Murder-Fanciers [for whom] Every fresh atrocity of that class, which the police annals of Europe bring up, they meet and criticise as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art” (188). Wilde and De Quincey focus on murderers, both historical and imagined, whose crimes are considered to have great, artistic merit. Hamilton’s famous play is perfectly positioned amid such works because he creates fictional, dandyish murderers in the London of the late 1920’s, yet they bear an astonishing resemblance to the infamous, real-life Leopold and Loeb who were a couple of handsome, Chicago killers whose own exploits had dominated news headlines just a few years earlier in 1924. Since Rope straddles the realms of fiction and reality, one may assess the work without moralistic dourness, and enjoy it as Hamilton evidently intended.

In Rope, the protagonist, Wyndham Brandon, professes to have committed, “An immaculate murder. … I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing” (10-11). However, under some scrutiny, the murder of Ronald Kentley appears to hold a tangible motive after all, even if it is expertly secreted within the text. Much like the missing evidence in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” which was concealed, paradoxically, by being left in plain sight, Hamilton similarly hides a motive in the chest that is positioned centre stage in his play. An audience knows from the outset that the chest contains a corpse, so what else is there? In an essay about Ira Levin’s play, Deathtrap, Jordan Schildcrout gives a synopsis of that particular play which may enlighten one about Rope. He describes a “thriller about two men who must remain in the closet with two secrets: they are lovers – and murderers” (Schildcrout 44). Brandon and Granillo are self-confessed killers but are they lovers too? Or is this to overread Hamilton’s gay subtext and erroneously conflate the play with Leopold and Loeb’s story? The first major clue lies, quite literally, in the chest. In an essay by Brucia Witthoft, named “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence,” she explains that “The chests, or forzieri, were used to transport the material part of a bride’s dowry from her father’s house to her husband’s. Subsequently they became part of the bedroom furniture, serving as storage and seating” (43). The chest in which Ronald’s body is hidden is identified as a “cassone” (26) by Sir Johnstone Kentley. To clear up any possible confusion over different terms for the chest, one may refer to DuBon and Diskant who explain, “The Italian word “cassone” – from the Latin capsa – now accepted into the English language, is the name by which the Italian Renaissance chest is generally known … Other terms, known from contemporary inventories and documents, are forziere and cofano, sometimes used interchangeably with “cassone”’ (19). Therefore, the chest in Hamilton’s play is a marriage chest. In light of this information, can one assert that the body of Ronald now hidden in the cassone represents a marriage dowry? Just like Wilde and De Quincey, one must delve into the artistry of murder to discover the full significance of the chest. The thesis of this essay is that Hamilton indeed presents us with a marriage ritual at the centre of his horror play.

Since Rope is now nearing its centenary, it has been subjected to rigorous literary analysis many times. The current reading requires some considerable groundwork before the thesis may be proven. The killers must be established as queer (read homosexual), the significance of the chest must be outlined, the idea of a motiveless murder must be challenged, the dinner party (feast) must be scrutinised, Rupert as the sleuth must be critiqued, and finally, one may look at the denouement of the play.

Queer characters.

It is not possible to have a marriage ritual if the central characters are not first in love. If Brandon and Granillo are gay men and also in a relationship, then what evidence of this appears in the text? The gay subtext of Hamilton’s play has long been noted but what substantiates this observation?

One may begin rather superficially with Brandon’s and Granillo’s attire and manners – but by viewing these as marks of deception. In “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde explains that “A mask tells us more than a face” (34) and he then proceeds to describe the killer, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who “determined to startle the town as a dandy, … [with] his beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale lemon-coloured kid gloves” (34). One may compare this description with Hamilton’s stage directions which describe Granillo as “expensively and rather ornately dressed in a dark blue suit. He wears a diamond ring. He is enormously courteous” (15) and Brandon, who “is quietly and expensively dressed, with a double-breasted waistcoat … and perfectly creased trousers … [he has] and air of vague priggishness and self-approbation” (15). The men’s sophistication of dress and refined, even moralistic manners expertly hide the fact that they have just committed a gruesome crime by strangling a young man. The masks they wear hint at homosexuality while simultaneously hiding so much. Schildcrout points out that, “The exploitation of queer duplicity has a long and well-documented history in the theatrical thriller” (45). Hamilton presents his audience with two privileged, Oxford students who are hiding a horrible secret and their masks alert us to this potentiality. Schildcrout explains that “The sinister threat of the traditional thriller is based on the duplicity of the killer who deceptively tries to conceal her/his identity thereby creating a crisis of identity” (45). Establishing Brandon and Granillo as duplicitous characters because their polished, refined facades hide their true characters is the first step in labelling them as queer, if only in the sense that they are oddities due to the stark disjunction between impression and reality. Of course, Hamilton goes on to depict his characters in a way that allows one more assuredly to link this queerness directly to sexual practice which interconnects with the ‘queer duplicity’ to which Schildcrout refers.

The word queer is used by various characters, commencing with uses in the traditional sense of something being odd or strange, but progressing to uses that imply sexual identity and practice. For example, Leila politely challenges Brandon by observing that “this is a most mysterious and weird meal … Such a queer time, to begin with” (24). The not-quite-right feeling that the evening induces will lead Leila to suggest later, “I think they’ve committed murder, and it’s [the chest’s] simply chock-full of rotting bones” (33-34). Rupert is also attuned to the strange atmosphere of the evening and unexpectedly tells Brandon, “I have just thought of something rather queer” (43) and he reminds Brandon of his childhood obsession with telling stories which always ended with “a bloody chest containing corpses” (45). Rupert describes the coincidental overlap of Leila’s amusing hypothesis and Brandon’s childhood mania as “Oh, nothing. Just queer, that’s all. You were a morbid child” (45). However, the queerness of the stories threatens to taint Brandon’s very identity. The final step occurs when Rupert walks in on Brandon and Granillo arguing (over the Coliseum ticket). Brandon says, “You didn’t know that Granno and I behaved like that, did you, Rupert? But we often have outbursts, like this – and always about trifles … We do quarrel about queer things nowadays, don’t we, Granno?” (52; emphasis added). Brandon’s obfuscation of the real reason for the quarrel immediately and inadvertently reveals to Rupert the truth of the domestic situation of the two men. After all, Brandon and Granillo live together and have jointly hosted a dinner party, and here they are, in a moment of privacy from their guests, engaged in a blazing row, so it should not be shocking that they are indeed a romantic couple. The odd behaviour, the dramatic outburst over trifles, the queer things they fight over, are all coded references to the men’s homosexuality.

There are other incidental clues that emphasize the gay subtext of the play. For example, Sabot, who is the waiter occasionally hired by Brandon and Granillo is described as “not, perhaps, completely impersonal – his employers being in the habit of making occasional advances to him” (17). This may suggest sexual advances aka offers of work of a different nature, an argument bolstered by the fact that Rupert asks Sabot if he “had been getting into any trouble” (41) with his employers. Rupert asks due to the “hysterical noises” (41) he heard over the telephone, which incidentally are repeated later by Granillo when he “Gives a terrible, piercing, falsetto scream” (77). Even though the play is in the genre of horror/thriller, there are these elements of high camp as well as broad, sexual innuendo. Take for example, Brandon’s opening question to a distraught Granillo – “Feeling yourself, Granno? Feeling yourself again, Granno?” (10). In the context, the wording denotes the hoped for return of Granillo to a relaxed composure, but the phrase is also highly suggestive of masturbation. After all, the murder is committed for the ephemeral thrill it will induce and one should not discount a sexual element to this feeling. Also, of note here, Kenneth Raglan is later introduced as the boy who fagged for Brandon at school, and fagging refers to an English public schools’ tradition where younger boys acted as personal servants to older boys, which often led to sexual abuse. Therefore, when Rupert tells Granillo, “You look rather fagged out … What have you been doing with yourself?” (37), then the question echoes the initial question and holds the same sexual connotations, as if Granillo, as Brandon’s current servant, has been up to something that he ought not, like feeling himself! One only becomes alert to such double meanings when one is already alert to the presence of queer duplicity.

Of great importance to a reading of the play is the fact that Rupert is also a coded, gay character. There are quite subtle hints at first, for instance the fact that Brandon describes him as “fastidious” (14). In Hamilton’s stage directions one finds the following description of Rupert – “He is enormously affected in speech and carriage…His affectation almost verges on effeminacy, and can be very irritating” (27). Such a description is an old-style stereotype of the homosexual male. Confirmation of Rupert’s sexuality may be seen in his response to Brandon’s question, if he had broken the 7th commandment (You shall not commit adultery). Rupert responds, “Committed. Since infancy” (62). All forms of sexual activity done outside of marriage, including homosexuality, are seen as breaking the 7th commandment. Since homosexuality is not a choice but a sexual orientation from birth then Rupert’s response seems to confirm his homosexuality. However, the 7th commandment for Catholics is – Thou shalt not steal – and Rupert goes on, after an interesting pause, to refer to stealing property, yet it is far more likely the true reference is to the 7th commandment as observed by the Church of England, namely adultery. Hamilton’s sleight of hand here may be interpreted as further obfuscation. Rupert’s sexuality becomes a crucial factor in how he eventually deals with Brandon and Granillo.

The fact that Hamilton depicts three of his characters as homosexual does not of course automatically make them killers. On the other hand, as Schildcrout has outlined, queer duplicity is a popular motif in dramas, even if it is derogatory and prejudicial. The apparent link between the characters’ sexuality and the crime may be inferred from the case of Leopold and Loeb. One may compare the fictional Brandon to the real-life Leopold who Edward J. Larson describes – “Leopold was bookish, scholarly, easily offended and attracted to virile young men” (127). Ronald Kentley was an athlete and thereby matches the victim profile. Larson goes on to describe how the real-life killers were “Psychopathically dependent on each other, they had entered into a secret pact in which Leopold assisted Loeb to commit crimes in return for sexual favours” (141). While Brandon and Granillo are clearly not identical to Leopold and Loeb, the comparison allows one to begin to contemplate what motive, sexual or otherwise, may have been behind the murder of Ronald Kentley.

The marriage chest (cassone).

The chest that holds the corpse, situated at the centre of Hamilton’s play, is normally seen as a mere receptacle rather than a vital clue. This peculiar item of furniture is the focal point of the stage play and yet has received so little attention in critical terms. By choosing a marriage chest, surely Hamilton wanted to arouse our interest and impart some clever, hidden message. The chest is first identified by Sir Johnstone Kentley as follows:

“Sir Johnstone (peering at chest). That’s not a Cassone, is it?

Brandon. No, sir. It’s not genuine, it’s a reproduction. But it’s rather a nice piece. I got it in Italy.”

(Hamilton 26)

Brandon explains that it is not an original cassone, but an imitation. An imitation can be read as a sign that this is part of a mock marriage ritual or in other words, a gay marriage since homosexual practices were still illegal in Britain in 1929. Therefore, the fake nature of the item does not rob it of relevance but rather adds to its meaning. Since Brandon purchased the chest in Italy then it is far more likely he is aware of how the item was used traditionally.

Extracting meaning from the chest require some insights into how they were used in the marriage ritual. Witthoft explains that “Florentine Renaissance wedding chests were usually bought by the groom’s family” (43). As previously outlined, the chest would have held the new bride’s dowry. The macabre dowry now concealed in the chest is Ronald’s dead body and one may still interpret it as an offering from bride to groom, or in this case, groom to groom. Furthermore, there is a tantalizing hint that Brandon as the purchaser of the chest (groom’s side) receives the dead body as Granillo’s dowry which makes Granillo the true murder! This helps to explain Brandon’s almost perfect composure versus Granillo’s flustered, defensive state and subsequent over-reliance on alcohol to calm his nerves. Additionally, it shows that Granillo needs to bring an offering to secure the mock marriage, a proof of his merit.

The chests were usually quite elaborate, “Their shape (large, narrow, coffin-like boxes) was appropriate for keeping linens; their flat tops made them easy to sit on; but the iconography of their painted side panels was determined by the nature of the marriage procession” (43). The eerie, coffin-like shape of the chest makes Brandon’s words more arresting – “And here is a chest, from which we’re going to feed” (26), especially if one interprets the dinner buffet as a wedding feast. There is no indication that Brandon or Granillo held any prior grudge against Ronald Kentley so the feasting at his symbolic grave indicates a grievance by the couple against society in general. This hidden hatred, possibly the hatred of men whose lives are constantly restricted due to their sexuality, explains the drive required to commit such a heinous act.

There is also a link between the chest and Brandon and Granillo’s Nietzschean leanings. Witthoft writes that, “Marriage chests became classical in inspiration because they were chosen by men whose humanist education stressed ancient writings as moral guides” (54). Despite the fact that we receive no information on the chest’s decoration, the denigration of Ronald’s body as a party-piece reflects Brandon’s reading of Nietzsche because some gifted individuals are understood to be above the general masses and therefore not subject to the same laws. A modern text becomes the moral guide for killers to seal their mock marriage.

The planning of a perfect murder, as Brandon labels it, takes expert planning. The logistics of a marriage and murder are quite similar in this regard. When cassone were in use in Italy, “Examples drawn from ricordi and from published sources show that three to six months commonly elapse between the giuramento [legal agreement to marry] and the consummation of the marriage” (Witthoft 44). Leopold and Loeb put meticulous planning into their infamous murder and Brandon and Granillo evidently planned Ronald’s death well in advance given that they sent prior dinner invitations and have arranged to leave for Oxford on the night of the murder. There is nothing haphazard about the scene.

Dismantling a motiveless murder.

Brandon recounts the day’s events to Granillo, saying, “That is the complete story, and the perfection of criminality – the complete story of the perfect crime” (13). On the surface, Brandon and Granillo’s crime quite strangely lacks a motive. However, murder is generally motivated by some gnawing need or uncontrollable passion; it is rarely carried out in a dispassionate manner. Oscar Wilde once wrote that, “Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation” (47). Of these two options, Hamilton’s killers are clearly sinful rather than needy, and sin implies free will and therefore a conscious choice to do a certain thing. Due to their claim of perfection, the sin is not simply that of murder but of pride too (the seven deadly sins). The concept of perfection is equally suggestive of artistry, and De Quincey explains how, “People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature” (191). Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who considered himself an artist and certainly no common criminal, murdered his wife’s mother, a Mrs. Abercrombie, but “Why he murdered Mrs. Abercrombie is not ascertained. It may have been for a caprice, or to quicken some hideous sense of power that was in him, or because she suspected something, or for no reason” (Wilde 44). The motivation for Brandon and Granillo’s killing of Ronald Kentley is similarly undetermined, explainable only as the pursuit of a thrilling sense of power and the result of excessive pride. However, is this answer sufficient for an audience? Pride usually comes before a fall. For example, is this a very human murder i.e., a flawed one? The real motive may become clear after the mirage of perfection has been removed.

The perfect crime does not exist. Brandon realises the couple’s weakness when he exclaims to Granillo – “Look at this! The boy’s Coliseum ticket. It was on the floor. We could hang on that!” (16). Similar to the Leopold and Loeb case, a simple error threatens to disqualify the murder from the claim that it is perfect. Larson recounts that, “The first major lead in the investigation came from the eyeglasses found near Franks’ [the victim’s] body” (126). These glasses belonged to Leopold and soon led the investigators directly to the murderous pair. In Rope, Rupert’s suspicion is aroused by the Coliseum ticket and Granillo’s generally defensive responses. While both couples were first time murderers and therefore mistakes would likely occur, their crimes still tentatively claim the title of perfection due to the disinterested manner in which the victims were chosen. We know from the trial of Leopold and Loeb that, “They had decided to murder someone, it did not matter who” (Larson 128). During their trial, a psychiatrist testified that, “It was a desire on the part of Richard Loeb to commit a perfect crime, a desire on [Leopold’s] part to do whatever Richard Loeb wanted him to do” (143). If one superimposes this scenario onto Brandon and Granillo’s case, then the murder is indeed a strengthening of the relationship bond between the men. The “motiveless murder” (63) is chiefly an “engrossing adventure” (63) that the men enter into to impress one another. Does this mean the motive is love?

The dark and macabre gift that lies inside the wedding chest is Ronald’s dead body. How can love be interpreted as a motivation for such an act? Rather than a random victim, Ronald was chosen as the victim for a specific reason. Brandon’s boastful claim that the murder is motiveless is a sham. In fact, the murder of Ronald is motivated by the marriage ritual. The first clue rests in Kenneth Raglan’s uncanny resemblance to Ronald Kentley. Brandon tells Kenneth, “he is the living image of yourself … Same age. Same height. Same colour. Same sweet and refreshing innocence” (21). At a later point in the evening, Sir Johnstone confirms the likeness, prompting Kenneth to say, “I’ve a double apparently” (31). The only significant difference is that Brandon tells Kenneth that he is “getting positively fat … Nothing like the little boy who used to fag for me at school” (21). This history between Brandon and Kenneth is important since fagging in school often led to sexual exploitation of a younger boy under the command of an older boy. There are definite hints of Kenneth’s old adoration and possible infatuation with Brandon when he remembers how he thought Brandon an “absolute hero in those days” (22). When Kenneth tremulously tries to get the key to the chest from Brandon on Leila’s request (59), one witnesses the sort of homoerotic, rough and tumble of boys’ games, but Brandon is still by far the stronger of the two men. The crux of the matter is that Kenneth Raglan is a classic doppelgänger of Ronald Kentley with even their initials reversing like in a mirror image (K.R – R.K). The killing of Ronald is symbolic because he is a substitute for the now chubby Kenneth, who was likely Brandon’s first sexual experience. The murder represents the sacrifice of a former love who is now stashed in a marriage chest, signalling the consecration of a new, homosexual relationship. The corpse becomes the dowry that Granillo presents to Brandon to prove his love, or vice versa.

Rupert also asserts that a motiveless murder does not exist. He says, “Vanity. it would be a murder of vanity … the criminal would be quite unable to keep from talking about it, or showing it off – in some fantastic way or another” (63). Rupert only partially recognises the killers’ motivation since he does not appreciate the true significance of the chest and the dinner.

The wedding feast.

Is the dinner party truly the wedding feast of a duplicitous, queer couple? One is tempted to accept Rupert’s claim that a murderer would wish to expose his horrible deed due to vanity. The truth is quite the contrary, because when Brandon explains that “the entire beauty and piquancy of the evening will reside in the party itself” (12-13), he is referring to the thrilling experience only he and Granillo will share. Yes, his guests will come “for regalement” (12) but the joke will be on them. For instance, Sir Johnstone Kentley who is a kindly, harmless old man is viewed quite differently by Brandon, who says – “It is he, as the father, who gives the entire macabre quality of the evening” (13). One understands why Kenneth has been invited since he is a doppelgänger. Additionally, on account of his awkward flirtations with Leila, Kenneth represents the silly, unintellectual world of heterosexuals! Rupert sarcastically refers to the pair as “Love’s Young Dream.” (68). The assorted guests are merely puppets in a twisted game created chiefly by Brandon.

The chest is both a coffin and a banquet table. Prompted by Leila’s fanciful suggestion that it is a murder chest, the following exchange occurs which is rich in dramatic irony.

“Sir Johnstone: But surely your murderer, having chopped up and concealed his victim in a chest – wouldn’t ask all his friends round to come and eat off it.

Rupert (slowly): Not unless he was a very stupid, and very conceited murderer.”  

(Hamilton 34)

It is correct to assume that Brandon and Granillo wish to keep the murder a secret, otherwise they will face the law. As intelligent men, they wish for a thrill but not to the point of risking their safety. What is more, the privilege of viewing the contents of the chest is solely the preserve of Brandon and Granillo. The chest holds many secrets because, as Witthoft explains, “About half of those chests surviving whole are decorated on the inside of the lid with a more intimate kind of marital symbolism” (52). This included male and female nudes and “The nuptial significance is meant to be concealed, and to show itself only to the betrothed pair. This contrasts with the public nature of the outside of the chests” (Witthoft 52). The corpse corresponds with the idea of intimate material for several reasons. First, Ronald is Kenneth’s double and therefore his body constitutes a taboo offering from one lover to another. Second, since Ronald died by strangulation, the corpse may display priapism and may also be naked, much like a traditional painting on the inside of a cassone. The eventual reopening of the chest will be done by the couple on their own and signifies the commencement of their marriage.

The couple plan to take the chest with them when they drive to Oxford that same night. Their beds have already been dismantled in the Mayfair house so there is nowhere to sleep (53). As the last act in their marriage ritual, they will leave to begin their mock honeymoon with a very symbolic and important piece of furniture that will likely adorn a new bedroom. The utter thrill of the evening was constituted by the fear of being exposed as murderers. Like a newly married couple on their wedding day, the men felt like the centre of attention except that the reason was quite secret. Granillo says of Rupert, “I thought he got on to it” (69) and Brandon responds, – “But that’s what gave piquancy to the evening” (69) followed by an assurance that they were safe. Rupert turns out to be a more competent investigator than Brandon expects.

The sleuth.

Rupert is the sleuth who will finally expose the killers’ secrets. Brandon describes his dinner guests in advance of their arrival, saying that Rupert is “intellect’s representative” (14) at the party and “is about the one man alive who might have seen this thing from our angle, that is, the artistic one” (14). The killers perceive an alliance with Rupert because they are socially bonded through their elite, educational backgrounds but also their homosexuality. The amateur detective will be forced to take a side when he challenges his friends. Hamilton constructs the plot so that one fully comprehends what dirty secrets Rupert is potentially going to expose. As per one’s expectations of a character with a superior intellect, Rupert says, “I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s some ulterior motive about this chest picnic” (33). However, Brandon’s meticulous planning means that the killers never perceive Rupert as a major threat. Brandon knows Rupert and having assessed his character, has decided not to include him in the murder because, “He could have invented and admired, but he could not have acted” (14). Rupert is evidently brilliant but impotent too. This calculation of Brandon’s comes fully to light at the close of the drama when he tells Rupert, “You can’t give us up. Two lives can’t recall one. It’d just be triple murder … You’re not a murderer, Rupert” (84). Hamilton exposes Brandon’s grievous miscalculation by making Rupert the hero who indeed acts against the two men and decisively so too.

There is a quite significant message of homophobia embedded in the justice achieved at the close of the play. As a gay man, Rupert is alert to the minefield of living a double life, the complications of living differently in public and private realms, façade versus truth. Therefore, when Brandon is threatened by Rupert’s persistent questioning, he cunningly attempts to side-line Rupert’s suspicions about murder by offering a proxy confession of homosexuality which was a crime in 1920’s England. Brandon is relying on the expectation that Rupert is unlikely to pursue the issue due to his own compromised position. Brandon appears to expose a major vulnerability to his friend, but it is little more than a Trojan horse to disarm Rupert. Brandon is playing on the stark reality that, “Marginalized minorities are more easily intimidated as long as they are stigmatized, ashamed, and afraid of public exposure – in short, in the closet” (Schildcrout 43). It is as though Brandon is letting a trusted friend in on a secret. Surprisingly, Rupert is not dissuaded by, nor sympathetic to Brandon’s pleas of a domestic issue, a “certain trouble” (77) between him and Granillo, which does not concern others.

“Rupert: No, Brandon, it may not be anything to do with me. But it may possibly be something to do with – with the public in general – and I’m its only representative in this room. Won’t you tell me?”

(Hamilton 78)

The confrontation is cleverly structured by the playwright so that the crimes of murder and homosexuality are totally conflated. It is true that Rupert suspects murder, but he has only a gut feeling and Brandon’s defensive tactics mean the secret could just be a homosexual relationship. Rupert is shown to reject either reason as a private matter. Rupert is suddenly depicted as a representative of proper masculinity with his swordstick (78) and a representative of moralistic society with the whistle he got from a police officer (79). Brandon persists in hinting that he and Granillo are a couple, telling Rupert, “I imagined you’d got on to the real truth – which’d have been devilish awkward” (80). When Rupert nonetheless insists on seeing inside the chest then it represents a revelation of the couple’s bedroom secrets, the piquant scene. The contents of the marriage chest are for the newlyweds alone, but Hamilton exposes it to a third party and Rupert is “contemptuous and horror-struck” (82). It may be viewed as poetic justice from conventional society’s point of view that the queer couple are betrayed by a fellow gay man. However, there is an unmistakable cost to Rupert too.  

As a fictional tale, one may appreciate the art of the scene with the red curtains and upholstery of the room (9), and an ornate marriage chest at the centre. The dead body is just one aspect of a much more complex, perfectly arranged plan which constitutes the killers’/lovers’ dark art. De Quincey writes about how, “Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated æsthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste” (192). Rupert grasps murder exclusively by the moral handle and even makes a distinction between “being brought to the Old Bailey … [and] being brought to justice” (60). The main reason that Brandon and Granillo are exposed, their Achilles heel, is the contrived ritual of the entire evening which is solely and secretly a means of solidifying their homosexual relationship. The marriage chest, the victim who resembles an old love, the feast; these make up the artistry of the murder. Rupert is the homosexual insider who rejects all this to cleanse himself of any possible association. The cost of his heroism is sexual repression. He becomes the somewhat soured, closet homosexual who sneers at heterosexual couples like Kenneth and Leila and holds equal condemnation for those like him.

Conclusion.

Hamilton’s horror play is literally about murder, but implicitly a tale of gay marriage sealed with an elaborate, ritualistic killing. Just like in Levin’s Deathtrap, an audience is presented with a male couple with two key secrets. The action of the play, most notably Rupert’s moralistic stance against Brandon and Granillo, shows how conventional society will win out in the end. The gay subtext of the play then becomes an afterthought, even though it is central to one’s understanding of what motivated the murder. In the Chicago case of Leopold and Loeb, Larson explains that “Although the Hulbert-Bowman report detailed the sexual practices and preferences of both defendants, including their mutual masturbation and Leopold being exclusively attracted to men, at the time even writers with access to it did not mention these matters in their published articles and books” (147). Reminiscent of such censorship, Hamilton relies on an audience’s covert understanding that the men who commit the murder are also morally corrupt aka homosexual without ever saying it outright. It is now an outdated, dramatic tactic but had long been effective in associating crime with so-called sexual deviance.

The ending of Rope foresees a tragic, albeit just fate for Brandon and Granillo, yet, it remains unwritten, unconfirmed, a blank last page. The couple who sought the ultimate, depraved thrill now receive their just desserts since their fears mount anew on account of their undetermined punishment. Rupert states, “It is not what I am doing Brandon. It is what society is going to do. And what will happen to you at the hands of society” (85). De Quincey explains that in a case of murder, “old women, and the mob of newspaper readers … are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough” (222). The obscener the crime then the more draconian the court’s likely response. Rupert, as the voice of the masses, tells the two men – “You are going to hang, you swine! Hang! – both of you! – hang!” (86). The immense threat is that the two privileged, upper-class, secretly queer men will be exposed to mob justice, the crowd baying for blood. However, we never see the men hang. If one looks to Leopold and Loeb, the prosecutor trying their case, Mr. Crowe, boasted – “I have a hanging case and would be willing to submit it to a jury tomorrow” (128). Yet, neither man was hanged! As per Hamilton’s own protestations, this is not a biographical play, but a work of pure fiction and one may therefore admire the art of murderers just like Wilde and De Quincey. The revelation of a marriage ritual at the spotlighted centre of Hamilton’s play is as unexpected and thrilling addition to the traditional murder plot. One’s flesh creeps just a little to think that it may all have happened on account of love.  

Works Cited.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey. Pergamon Media, 2015.

DuBon, David, and Eda Diskant. “A Medici Cassone.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 317, 1977, pp. 18–24.

Hamilton, Patrick. Rope. Constable and Company Ltd., 1957.

Larson, Edward J. “An American Tragedy: Retelling the Leopold-Loeb Story in Popular Culture.” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 50, No. 2, 2008, pp. 119–56.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Purloined Letter and Other Works. Halcyon Press, 2013.

Schildcrout, Jordan. “The Closet Is a Deathtrap: Bisexuality, Duplicity, and the Dangers of the Closet in the Postmodern Thriller.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1, 2011, pp. 43–59.

Wilde, Oscar. Intentions. Rowland Classics, 2009

Witthoft, Brucia. “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 3, No. 5, 1982, pp. 43–59.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fowler, Robert. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. c.1900.

  • Play title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • First published: 1600 (quarto format)
  • Page count: 47

Summary.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies. The play has entertained audiences for centuries with its imaginative content and convoluted plot.

Theseus, who is the King of Athens is soon to marry Hippolyta, formerly Queen of the Amazons. Prior to their grand nuptials, a nobleman named Egeus calls on the king to enforce Athenian law and thereby compel his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius (whom she does not love) instead of Lysander (whom she does love). As a consequence, Hermia and Lysander flee to the wood of Athens as part of their romantic plan to elope. Helena, who is Hermia’s closest friend but also Demetrius’s former love, cynically tells him of the secret plan and soon all four young people are in the wood. The wood represents a parallel, magical world, inhabited as it is by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies, along with Robin Goodfellow (Puck). Due to a fairyland dispute, Oberon is unhappy with Titania. Therefore, Oberon plans to put “love juice” (3.2.39) on Titania’s eyes which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, “Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, /Pard, or boar with bristled hair” (2.2.36-37), thereby precipitating an embarrassing situation for her! The Fairy King tasks Robin with placing the same concoction on the eyes of one of the young men but for the benevolent reason of fixing a broken love. Unfortunately, Robin chooses the wrong young man, thus changing the course of love and causing much consternation. Within the space of one eventful night, all the lovers find harmony anew and the play concludes with three, happy marriages. The major themes of this work are dreams, imagination, love, betrayal, and theatre.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening/watching

If you would like to read the play online, then The Folger Shakespeare website is an excellent option. The play is also available via Project Gutenberg and the Open Library.

There are several audiobook versions, for example a radio play from BBC Radio 3 entitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1999” which is available on the Internet Archive. An alternative version from the same website is a Caedmon Records recording from 1964 starring Paul Scofield, simply entitled, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Film adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream include the 1968 version starring Helen Mirren and directed by Peter Hall, and the 1999 version starring Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Michael Hoffman. There is also a National Theatre Live production of the play from 2019 with a runtime of 3 hours. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, this version stars Gwendoline Christie.

Why read/watch/listen to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Dominant or resistant reading.  

Shakespeare’s famous play with its tangled love affairs and meddling fairies may be read in quite contrasting ways. The play is a comedy in the traditional sense which means it ends with marriage and contains many light-hearted, humorous scenes. One may accordingly classify the play as undemanding, frivolous entertainment, albeit it of Shakespeare’s high standards. Alternatively, the events of the story, most especially the happenings in the wood of Athens may be interpreted as menacing and shadowy. In The Norton Shakespeare, Brett Gambo makes the observation that, “Productions face a challenge in exploring the play’s darker aspects, particularly the dissension and sexual aggression underlying its principal relationships, without destroying the comedy” (1047). In the written text, Shakespeare effortlessly combines the light and dark tones of the story but it is more difficult for a reader to find a correspondingly balanced interpretation so most people will fall into one of two reading approaches– reading the play as a magical tale of gossamer winged fairies and true love, or a more sinister tale of sordid happenings in a dark wood on a strange night. The second reading approach falls into the category of resistant reading since it diverges from Shakespeare’s comedic aims. An awareness of both possibilities makes the play more intriguing.

Fairies.

Shakespeare accomplishes an imaginative feat in his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom. One is presented with a tempestuous, royal couple and various fairy attendants. Then, adding to the fantastical scene is Robin Goodfellow who is not a fairy at all, but a trickster of English myth. Though all familiar figures, Shakespeare makes considerable alterations to the traditional folklore he is referencing. The fairies were formerly malevolent beings whom one would assiduously avoid, especially if met at night time, but Shakespeare transforms them into playful and kindly, supernatural imps. Even so, the transformation is somehow flawed and maybe deliberately so, since the fairies stubbornly retain the old aura of danger and continue to unsettle us at times. For example, Bottom who is a workman, loses his human head and is given an ass’s upon the Fairy King’s orders. One may surmise that the fairies are still up to considerable mischief!  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Correcting Love’s Sometimes Wayward Path.

“OBERON, [to Robin]

What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite

And laid the love juice on some true-love’s sight.

Of thy misprision [mistake] must perforce ensue

Some true-love turned, and not a false turned true.”

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.88-91)

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a self-proclaimed dream sequence. The theme of dreaming is initiated with Hippolyta’s words on her upcoming nuptials, “Four nights will quickly dream away the time” (1.1.8) and concludes with Robin Goodfellow’s suggestion that the audience have indeed slumbered and that all was merely “An idle theme, no more yielding but a dream” (5.1.413). Due to the fantastical nature of the events depicted, it is plausible that all events which take place in the wood may be categorized as dream material. King Theseus certainly gives no credence to the young lovers’ stories after they emerge from the wood, saying, “More strange than true. I never may believe / These antique fables nor these fairy toys. /Lovers and madmen have such seething brains” (5.1.2-4). Framing the events in the wood as dream, or even reverie, allows for a broader, looser interpretation of the work.

The opening quote is King Oberon’s chastisement of Robin regarding the latter’s misapplication of the fairies’ magical concoction of “love juice” (3.2.39). Demetrius and Lysander are evidently so alike as to make little difference to the feckless Robin. Oberon is upset because he wished to reignite Demetrius’s old love for Helena having seen the couple squabbling in the wood. Had Robin performed the task correctly then it would also have solved the associated problem of Hermia’s enforced marriage to Demetrius now demanded by her father. The Fairy King’s reference to ‘some true love turned’ suggests that the fairies and their ‘love juice,’ like Cupid and his arrow, have total agency over the lovers’ romantic choices. Under the cover of darkness in a strange wood, the lovers first lose but then miraculously rediscover their fated partners, all as in a dream and all in one night. The fairies are credited with the happy resolution. This essay will delve into what lies behind the veil of magic that Shakespeare weaves in the wood of Athens. The playwright’s success rests not solely with his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom and its magical powers but also in how he presents us with a complex web of dream material.

When an audience is watching a play then a suspension of disbelief is a normal reaction since it facilitates unhindered enjoyment of the performance. Therefore, one does not pick holes in an outrageous plot, one becomes fully invested in the story. Midsummer Night (abbrev.) presents us with a fantastical and engrossing tale but there are additional reasons, beyond a desire for entertainment, which trick us into our easy acceptance and subsequent transportation into the dramatic dreamscape. For instance, the Bard incorporated both English folklore and Ovidian mythology into this celebrated comedy. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes folklore specialist Ruth Bottigheimer who described fairy tales as having, “the deepest and most enduring childhood impressions” (304). These impressions are subsequently woven into our own dreams whose textures are thereby enriched with familiar figures and latent meanings. When presented with a story rich in fairy tale, folklore, or mythological associations then we connect more intuitively with the experience. In the case of Midsummer Night, one quickly appreciates that there is much hidden within the dream. Sigmund Freud mused over the raw material of dreams and concluded that, “dream interpretation must seek a closer union with the rich material of poetry, myth, and popular idiom” (2). The central mystery of Shakespeare’s play, shrouded by a night of dreams, is how the four young lovers return to their fated loves. The answer rests in the overlapping dreams of the young lovers which constitute the main action of the play. Though one is loath to disrupt something as ephemeral as a dream, it is the only manner by which to extract the dream’s secrets.

Freud wrote that the people of ancient times “took it for granted that dreams were related to the world of the supernatural beings in whom they believed, and that they brought inspirations from the gods and demons” (1). This concept of guidance/knowledge/influence being cloaked in a dream is tacitly explored in Midsummer Night. For example, Queen Titania claims her tempestuous row with Oberon has brought a “progeny of evils” (2.1.115) into the mortal world. This intrusion of influence from the land of the fairies may broadly be explained in the words of Ronald F. Miller who proposes, “It is not so much the fairies per se as the mystery of the fairies – the very aura of evanescence and ambiguity surrounding their life on stage – that points to a mysteriousness in our own existence, and specifically in such ambivalent earthly matters as love, luck, imagination, and even fate” (255). In the context of the play, we need not doubt that Titania’s Kingdom has more than metaphysical power given that the lovers’ lives transform in the wood and remain altered even when normal life resumes. While Miller presents an analogy between the mystery of the fairies and the mysteries of life, Freud allows one to see the figures in one’s dreams as actual messengers and this proves more fruitful for an analysis of Midsummer Night. When one focuses on the workings of dreams then the influences of mythology and folklore may be detected behind the projected dream images and therefore linked to the salient messages for the young lovers.

Dreams are such an unforgiving medium to intruders because dreams are often peculiar, haunting, broken rather than free-flowing, and frequently illogical. A method of translation is required because dreams rarely carry their meaning at the easily understandable, surface level. There is also an intrinsic complication, a safety-mechanism so to speak, which Freud explained when he wrote that we should, “assume that in every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion” (51). To reverse the distortion and discover the hidden meanings of the young lovers’ dreams, one needs to delve into and interrogate several different aspects of the play. As architect of the dreamscape, Shakespeare litters the scene with clues. The setting is an appropriate starting point, given that the wood of Athens represents a parallel world, the ‘green world,’ where problems fortuitously evaporate like a mist in the morning sun.

The young lovers’ daring move from city to woodland is quite symbolic. Theseus’s total dominance in Athens communicates a society of traditions, conventions, and restrictions, firmly held in place by the rule of law. Hermia seeks the freedom to marry her true love and therefore she needs to escape from her authoritarian father Egeus who just secured the support of Theseus. In eloping to the wood of Athens, the lovers’ tale mirrors that of Pyramus and Thisbe who are the rebellious and tragic young lovers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tale holds great prominence in Midsummer Night. Robin speaks of how the “rude mechanical” (3.2.9) aka unsophisticated, amateur actors will perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’s wedding. However, the play within a play is allocated no particular significance beyond its unintentionally comedic presentation, thanks to the unskilled acting. One may recognize this as the first ‘distortion’ (to use Freud’s term) of dream content. Pyramus and Thisbe’s story is dark and emotive. As seems fitting, Shakespeare never depicts the wood of Athens as a safe refuge, instead, the forest setting at night is a visually distorted world of shadows and wild beasts. This is similar to the scene Ovid portrays when Thisbe encounters, “a lioness, fresh from the kill, her slavering jaws dripping with the blood of her victims” (96). The wood of Athens holds the promise of freedom, yet it is undeniably a place of danger too. Once the youths tread into the wilderness, beyond the safety of the city, what is real is sometimes undecipherable from the unreal on account of the youths’ fired-up imaginations. Theseus insightfully remarks, “How easy is a bush supposed a bear” (5.1.22). Nevertheless, a real bear may still lurk nearby! One senses a fine line in the play between the humour of the woodland scenes and hints at darker happenings. To seek love in the way these various lovers do, is simultaneously to court danger. The remote, wooded setting and reference to Pyramus and Thisbe alert one to physical danger and also the dangers of unstable meanings. An understanding that the setting doubles as a dreamscape renders the intense experiences and confused messages more accessible.

The forest is also the realm of Oberon and Titania, the “fairies, that do run / By the triple Hecate’s team / From the presence of the sun, / Following darkness like a dream” (5.1.400-403). It is here that the fairies dance in circles, while their queen sleeps with a mortal man. It is apparent that the rules of convention have faded away upon entering the forest. When Oberon and Titania argue then there are revelations of numerous torrid, loves affairs. It is in this new atmosphere of freedom that the burgeoning, sexual appetites of the young men are alluded to in several exchanges, for example when Helena tests Demetrius’s patience and he retaliates by threatening, “I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (2.1.237). Lysander is similarly prompted by the opportunity the forest offers, suggesting to Hermia, “One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth” (2.2.42). All concerned begin to undergo metamorphoses, their imaginations now reshaped by potential freedoms, which their good names and sense of duty would deny in Athens. These licentious thoughts may be detected in the dreams of the young lovers, yet much remains censored and therefore appears opaque. Sex may be interpreted as the chief danger in the wood. Oberon’s spell is the promised, final seal that will safely lock away the wicked dreams and events of the night – “When they next awake, all this derision, shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (3.2.370). The Fairy Kingdom allows the young lovers to unfasten the moral bonds of society but only for a brief space of time.  

In an interesting move, Shakespeare transformed the fairies of English folklore from malevolent, fear-inspiring spirits who reputedly stole babies, to benevolent, eloquent beings. In the reverse of a funhouse mirror’s effect, the playwright prettifies the supernatural entities thus creating an eerie subtext that holds much meaning. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Latham when addressing this point, she writes, “Shakespeare’s fairies bore little resemblance to traditional fairies, who were “tyrannical and dangerous beings, even in their jokes”’ (308). This break with tradition fails to hide old associations. In fact, the fairies’ original connotations help to unravel significant clues in the play. Lamb explains how, “Fairies and Robin Goodfellow import some of their subversive potential into the play as A Midsummer Night’s Dream literalizes the ongoing use of fairy practices in order to allude to understandings, especially sexual understandings, shared within a discursive community” (280). She continues by stating that in Shakespeare’s time, “the euphemism ‘going to see the fairies’ to indicate illicit sexual activities may have been widespread enough to be readily understood by a contemporary audience” (286). The alteration of the fairies is especially conspicuous in a dream setting since their distinctive aura, and all associated with them, are lost in a kind of character sanitation. In revealing the true nature of the fairies, one exposes a more honest account of the lovers’ intentions during their excursion to the woods. There is certainly hidden meaning in the meeting point suggested by Lysander to Hermia for their elopement, he suggests, “In the wood … where I did meet thee once with Helena, to do observance to a morn in May” (1.1.165). When Theseus finds the lovers after their eventful night, he suspects they had indeed come to observe the rite of May. The ancient, Pagan rituals of May Day are also alluded to in Hermia’s humorous slander of Helena, referring to her as, “Thou painted maypole” (3.2.296). Helena becomes the centre of attention for two men who literally circle her as youths would a real maypole in olden times. The original, Pagan practices of May Day would have included carousing and licentiousness. Do Shakespeare’s youths plan marriage, or mischief under the cover of the woods?

The residents of the Fairy Kingdom supply ample allusions to fertility and babies. This interlinks with why Robin Goodfellow, not usually associated with the fairies, is likely depicted as the Fairy King’s helper. Mary Ellen Lamb elaborates on the folk history of Robin Goodfellow, writing that Robin’s mother was reputedly visited at night by a “hee Fairy who ‘forced’ her to dance with him, resulting in her pregnancy” (286). However, it is Queen Titania who first broaches the topics of illegitimate children and changelings (mortal children replaced by fairies). The “changeling” (2.1.23) child now in Titania’s care is “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian King” (2.1.22) whose mother was formerly a “vot’ress” (2.1.127) of Titania’s order. The child’s mother died in childbirth, prompting Titania to seize it. Titania is shown to celebrate fertility when recalling how she and this friend, “laughed to see the sails conceive, and grow big-bellied with the wanton wind” (2.1.128). In a sharp break with the conventions of Shakespeare’s time, the dream world offers a caring, loving home for the children of illicit sexual trysts, and shrouds former shame in proclamations of sisterly love. Robin falls into this category of children and it may explain his reliance on the fairies. The mortal child stolen by Titania would have been replaced by a fairy (a changeling), showing that the fairies retain their old, sinister proclivities. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Susan Schoon Eberly when describing the barbaric practices regarding children associated with the fairies in the English early modern period.  

“It was popularly believed that if parents treated their changelings cruelly then the fairies would take the changelings back and return the mortal infants. Traditional methods – such a bathing them in foxglove (an herbal form of digitalis), starving them on a dunghill, or throwing them onto hot coals – were “little more than socially countenanced forms of infanticide.”

(Lamb 292)

The harshness of the mortal world is inverted by Titania’s apparent love for her changeling child. When the overall scene is understood as a dreamscape where the youths have ‘gone to see the fairies’ then one may detect an underlying fear of Hermia’s and Helena’s that one of them could fall pregnant in the current situation. Such fears are conveniently offset when the queen of the realm is shown to profusely shower love over a changeling. This represents another distortion in the dreamscape, allowing for true fears to be hidden. The sense of detachment from the quotidian world is both obvious and conspicuous.

The play opens with two authoritarian males wishing to force Hermia into a loveless marriage. The groom-to-be, Demetrius, is covertly promised the prize of Hermia’s virginity, the one thing she is deemed unworthy to control. Hermia’s maidenhead is referenced repeatedly in the discussions between her and her father and King Theseus. In Athens, Theseus says she must marry Demetrius as per her father’s demands and failing that her stark choices are “Either to die the death or to abjure / Forever the society of men” (1.1.65). Theseus’s foresees Hermia’s life in the nunnery as one where the rose “Withering on the virgin thorn / Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness” (1.1.77-78). Hermia seizes her opportunity to flee such oppressive power, simultaneously seizing power over her sexual agency, however, there are obvious risks to her reputation and future due to her current location and company. By diligently safeguarding her virginal status, Hermia would ironically remain a prisoner of her father and king’s power, despite her newfound freedom. This potential undercurrent of sexual rebellion must be acknowledged in Hermia’s character and dreams. Intricately linked with a fear of pregnancy is Hermia and Helena’s shared fear that the men will prove false and abandon them.

At the opening of the play, Egeus thunders that Lysander, “Hath bewitched the bosom of my child … [and] Stolen the impression of her fantasy” (1.1.27,33). Influenced no doubt by her father’s protests, Hermia’s insecurity surfaces in her promise to meet Lysander in the forest when she swears by, among other things, “That fire that burned the Carthage Queen” (1.1.173). Dido, the Carthage Queen, was abandoned by Aeneas and then, “on the pretext of making a sacrifice, she built a pyre, and there fell on a sword, deceiving all in her intention, as she had been herself deceived” (Ovid 313). The Ovidian image of the abandoned woman sacrificing herself belies Hermia’s faith in her lover. One may also be struck by the fact that Thisbe ends her life by falling on a sword, just like Dido. It is as though, even before Hermia enters the dreamland, the subconscious warnings visible in her references link to myth and folklore. The young woman speaks of “all the vows that ever men have broke / (In number more than ever women spoke)” (1.1.175-176) and this is a fear not easily overcome.

In the wood, Hermia’s fears will come to pass. Having slept for a time in the wild, she awakes from a nightmare, saying, “Methought a serpent ate my heart away / And you [Lysander] sat smiling at his cruel prey” (3.1.149-150). This occurs after she had denied Lysander permission to sleep with her and she awakes alone having had a premonition of the worst. Lamb explains the scene as follows, “The fairy ointment Puck rubs on Lysander’s eyelids alludes to what need not be directly stated; that his love for Hermia cooled as she denied him the illicit sexual pleasure he desired” (303). The eating of her heart, a grotesque and arresting image, is a dream within a dream since it is an actual dream within a dreamscape. The image of the serpent, a classic symbol of deceit, reappears when Lysander is believed to have been murdered and Hermia accuses Demetrius, saying, “With doubler tongue than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung” (3.2.71). As an emblem of Satan and forbidden knowledge, the serpent is highly suggestive in the context. The two men are like the serpent in that they hold in their power the knowledge of sex which they may share with the women but are also untrustworthy due to their serpentine worded proclamations of love. Unsurprisingly, there is constant doubt as to the true events of the night. Disturbing dreams seem to obscure as much as they reveal and certainly appear far from dreams denoting wish fulfilment.

However, Freud wrote of how, “disagreeable content serves only to disguise the thing wished for” (51). The disturbing dreamland experiences of Hermia and Helena are the richest in the imagery of myth and fable and therefore deserve further analysis. Hermia’s central fear is that Lysander is false, in which we hear echoes of her father’s appraisal of him. She is afraid he will abandon her after sexual relations, yet she presumably desires such relations too. When refusing him her bed, she protests at his cunning words, saying, “Lysander riddles very prettily” (2.2.53). The subsequent events in the forest are a crystallization of her worst fears.

Hermia’s greatest fear is betrayal by Lysander. Having denied Lysander’s request that they sleep together, she expresses her wish that, “Thy [Lysander’s] love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!” (2.2.66-67). As the couple sleep separately, Robin makes his first error by applying the love juice to Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius.’ Upon waking, Hermia finds Lysander gone and soon she accuses Demetrius of murdering her love, saying, “Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep, and kill me too” (3.2.48). Like Thisbe, she imagines her own death as the solution to the loss of her only love. However, this wished-for death, worthy of a tragic maiden, is not her fate. Upon seeing Lysander again, Hermia questions, “What love could press Lysander from my side?” (3.2.189). Her last words to him had envisaged that their love would last unto death to which he had replied, “Amen, amen” to that fair prayer, say I, /And then end life when I end loyalty!” (2.2.68-69). However, the Lysander who now stands before Hermia is in love with Helena, and callously asks his former love, “Why seek’st thou me? Could not this make thee know /The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” (3.2.193-195). The ‘disagreeable content’ of Hermia’s dream is that Lysander has proven himself to be spectacularly false. She rejected Lysander’s sexual advance and he has abandoned her as a consequence. Yet, what is the thing wished for that the disagreeable content hides?

Herma’s wish fulfilment is both to know the true Lysander and to somehow retain his love. Prior to sleeping in the wood again, after which she will awake to find Lysander loves her anew, she exhaustedly says, “Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briars, I can no further crawl no further go” (3.2.443). This seemingly innocent description is reminiscent of Lamb’s story of a blueberry picker in 1930’s Newfoundland who said she had been lured away by the fairies when she was found in a dishevelled state the following day (288). Lamb writes, “One Mary Charles, … who strayed while picking berries, was found the next day “only in her bloomers,” her ribs broken, and terrified, claiming “the fairies had beckoned to her”’ (288). Though not harmed like Mary, Hermia’s condition as a result of getting lost in the woods, amid the fairies, raises questions. Lysander hates her – only to wholeheartedly love her again upon awakening the following day. Is the wish fulfilment that Lysander and Hermia have sexual relations? Does the dishevelled appearance of Hermia communicate illicit acts, and instead of Robin’s love juice, she is bedabbled with sweat or other bodily fluids? The potential loss of Lysander, which is the manifestation of her worst nightmare is ironically an approval for actions which would normally be denied to her, namely premarital sex. Hermia’s father and king both profess to be in control of her sex life, and therefore sex becomes not just tantalizingly taboo but also the pinnacle of freedom. One may also consider how abandoned and unloved Hermia feels on account of her father’s callous actions, so losing Lysander’s love holds more significance now than ever. In the dream one sees both the disagreeable result of denying Lysander, and the less explainable method by which his love is secured again. The young lovers sleep intermittently throughout the night, and much like in a dream the true sequence of events is not entirely reliable. When Lysander awakes in the morning, he says, “I cannot truly say how I came here” (4.1.154). The details are shrouded in secrecy.

In Helena’s case, the events that occur in the forest miraculously invert a situation that she abhors, namely her unrequited love. Demetrius had once been in love with Helena but now rejects her. Yet, she cannot hide her love for him and thereby exposes herself to continued humiliation by pursuing an uninterested man. She gives expression to the unedifying spectacle using a reference to Ovid’s tales where she reverses the original scene, “Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.231). In this myth, Cupid uses two different arrows for Daphne and Apollo – “the one puts love to flight, the other kindles it” (Ovid 41). Thus, Apollo chases Daphne (original order) until she pleads to her father, Peneus, to “work some transformation, and destroy this beauty which makes me please all too well!” (Ovid 43). Daphne is turned into a tree to save her to save her from Apollo’s lust. Interestingly, Helena’s story resembles Daphne’s but is then inverted. For example, when Demetrius is initially scornful of Helena, she says, “I am as ugly as a bear, / For beasts that meet me run away for fear. / Therefore no marvel though Demetrius / Do as a monster, fly my presence thus” (2.2.94-97). However, Robin’s successive errors in the application of love juice result in both Demetrius and Lysander falling in love with Helena and abandoning Hermia. Helena’s previously professed desire to be “translated” (1.1.195) into Hermia’s image comes true now, as in a dream, in so far as she takes Hermia’s prized place as the object of affection of both men. Daphne turned from a beauty into a tree while Helena turns from a ‘beast’ into a beautiful maiden. Helena is now in a position of power and consequently may express her long-held doubts about the validity of both men loving one woman which arose when the woman concerned was Hermia! Her dream allows her to reject such a scenario as unrealistic. For instance, Helena denigrates Demetrius for being unmanly and inconsistent in his love, “Demetrius, who even but now did spurn me with his foot, to call be goddess, nymph, divine” (3.2.225). The disagreeable content of the dream is that she perceives that she is being mocked by the men who both cannot possibly love her, but this doubles as a confirmation that Demetrius’s prior transfer of his love from her to Hermia was also false. Helena may purge her old feelings of humiliation by rejecting both suitors so that the story is corrected and Apollo pursues Daphne in vain. Upon waking, Helena finds that Demetrius has indeed returned to her, and he explains his former disloyalty as “like a sickness” (4.1.180).

In an essay by Michael Taylor on Midsummer Night, he writes, “in comedy the ‘happy ending’ is inevitable” (3). Rather than destroying the effect of the play, dream analysis allows one to see a clear connection between imagination coloured by myth and folklore, and the related processing of fears and wishes. The vulnerabilities of the female characters are revealed in their dreams. With some prying, it is possible to decode hidden meanings. The ‘correction’ of love as promised by Oberon, involves the characters facing uncomfortable scenarios in dreamland to better understand the waking day. The happiness of the conclusion comes with the genre of comedy but one may still appreciate the working out of repressed thoughts which glimmer in the characters’ dreams.

In performing a resistant reading on a classic text, one will always encounter obstacles. The text cooperates with a reader who easily suspends disbelief whereas a dark reading of a comedy will inevitably appear fragmented and that is why one must adopt less stringent standards. On the other hand, it is telling that the Queen of Fairyland is sung to sleep by her fairy attendants who call on Philomel for aid, “Philomel, with melody / Sing in our sweet lullaby” (2.2.12-13). Philomel is one of the most wronged women in Ovid’s tales, a tragic figure who is raped and later has her tongue cut out to ensure her silence. For such a figure to sing a fairy lullaby, advancing a sleepy queen into dreamland is proof enough that dreams are loomed over by figures from myth and folklore in Shakespeare’s creation.

Works Cited.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A. A. Brill, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 277–312.

Miller, Ronald F., “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1975, pp. 254-268

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Mary M. Innes, Penguin Books, 1973

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 1037-1095.

Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1969, pp. 259-273.

No Exit

Torture rack.

  • Play title: No Exit (Huis Clos)
  • Author: Jean-Paul Sartre 
  • First performed: 1944  
  • Page count: 27

Summary.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, is a philosophical drama of just one act in length. The setting is a drawing-room that is decorated in Second Empire style. There are a total of four characters: Garcin, Estelle, Inez, and an unnamed valet. The valet ushers each character in turn into the mysterious room. We learn that each of the named characters are already dead, and the room represents what they themselves come to refer to as Hell. Garcin was a journalist in life, Inez a post-office worker, and Estelle had no career but married into an elite social circle. As the story progresses, each person slowly reveals more and more information about their past including their own perceived faults and weaknesses. Even though ‘Hell’ is not as they had previously imagined, they soon come to realise what form of torture exists in their new environment.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

There are several copies of No Exit available to read online via the Open Library. One may also access a copy of the text through the Vanderbilt University website.

If you would prefer an audiobook version then there are at least two free, online options. Go to YouTube and search for the title “No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre” and you will find a version with a running time of 1hr and 26mins. Alternatively, the Internet Archive has a different audiobook version entitled, “No Exit (Huis Clos) by Jean Paul Sartre” and the duration is 1hr and1min.

Please note that there are multiple English translations of No Exit, but they differ significantly in some sections of the dialogue. I have used the Stuart Gilbert translation, but you may choose one of the other well-known ones, for example the translation by Margery Gerbain and Joan Swinstead, or Paul Bowles’ version.

Why read/listen to No Exit?

“Hell is – other people” (Sartre 26).

Jonathan Webber describes the above quote as follows, “This miserable-sounding soundbite, the moment of revelation in Jean-Paul Sartre’s shortest play, must be the most quoted line of twentieth century philosophy” (45). The trickiness of the quote is that it is too easy to misinterpret, and decidedly difficult to interpret fully given the weight of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy that lies behind it. What is clear is that the meaning goes far beyond the everyday irritations one experiences as a result of often unavoidable clashes with difficult people or even just people with an opposing opinion. Garcin’s words need to be appreciated in the context of his unique environment where, for example, there are no mirrors so Inez and Estelle act as his mirrors. Additionally, there seems to be no way of exiting the room so the atmosphere becomes quite oppressive and therefore intensely claustrophobic. Finally, the three characters are dead so when each is assessing their former lives then their retrospective views are subject to critique by the other two inhabitants of the room. Overall, the artificial environment of this room situated in the afterlife is Sartre’s device to open up a philosophical discussion for his audience. Other people are …

This life, not the afterlife.

Jean-Paul Sartre was an avowed atheist. Therefore, it is ironic that he places his characters in Hell where they proceed to obsess neurotically about their past lives, hoping to find meaning and/or redemption. Of course, the characters just presume that it is Hell since there is no actual confirmation, not even from the mysterious valet. Sartre’s philosophy entails no such life-review from the perspective of an afterlife since he is focused on how one lives one’s life in the here and now, among the living. Religious belief was for Sartre an example of what he called ‘bad faith’ which means that a person fails to be authentic and grasps instead toward beliefs that help ameliorate/explain life’s frequently cruel vicissitudes. No Exit may be seen as a guide to avoid the mental tortures that his characters experience as a result of their individual failures to lead worthy lives (not to be confused with moral lives). The play, while set in some form of afterlife, is assuredly about the living.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Looking at Hell Through a Living Mirror.

Introduction.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is a relatively well-known yet rarely read play. Part of the problem is that an intimidating tome, no less than Sartre’s 1943 philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, underpins the ideas held in the theatrical play. However, readers do not need to do arduous, philosophical homework before reading or watching No Exit since the play is self-contained. Furthermore, despite the age of the work, it remains a thought provoking and enlightening piece of theatre mainly due to how it explores our relationships with others. In this essay, some of the existing critical views on Sartre’s play will be outlined, including explanations of his key philosophical terms, but the main focus will be on the theme of antagonism. There is instant and palpable friction between the three lead characters in Sartre’s play and this warrants an investigation that draws upon, yet also adds to, much of the existing critiques of the work. The aim here is to inform a first-time reader about the standard readings of Sartre’s work while also delving into a specific aspect of the play that promises to make it even more accessible and comprehensible.

Even though Being and Nothingness is not prerequisite reading for No Exit, it is nonetheless important to understand the basic connection between the two works. As Gary Cox writes, “The main aim of Sartre’s fictional writing is, after all, to give real substance to his abstract philosophical ideas, to explore, develop and explain those ideas in real-life, existential situations” (11). This generally accepted analysis of the link is echoed by Sister M. Blitgen who explains that “In any Sartrean play, the character and plot are sublimated to the thought. The characters are important only is so far as they project Sartre’s thought” (59). The genre of philosophical thought in question is of course existentialism. Robert C. Solomon asserts that “Sartre’s philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy” (761) which involves the “Sartrean themes [of] —extreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives” (761). Focusing specifically on the play, Konstantin Kolenda summaries the main topic of No Exit as follows – “Sartre’s play demonstrates that human predicaments arise from the two faces of freedom: its radical independence of any external forces and its awareness of the equal freedom of others” (263). In this essay, the terminology of Sartre’s philosophical work will be explained as it applies to No Exit so that one can appreciate the link, but the aim will never be to explicate Sartre’s philosophical ideas in full. After all, Sartre deliberately wrote a play that would be accessible to a much wider audience than his more academic works.

Now that the play has been situated in relation to Sartre’s philosophy, one may also place it historically. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes, “Huis clos—a drama by thirty-eight-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre first produced in occupied Paris at Le Vieux Colombier in May 1944, only a few days before the Allies landed in Normandy—staged the impossibility of leaving a particular space and a basic existential situation” (41). Jonathan Webber addresses the politics of the play along with its initial reception, writing, “The play opened in 1944, shortly before the liberation of Paris, under the title Les Autres (The Others), … Its mixed reception may partly have been due to its claustrophobic atmosphere under the perpetual gaze of ‘the others’ being taken as an allegory of the occupation. Sartre does seem to have intended the play to have this political dimension as well as illustrating his ethical theory” (48). The events of WWII certainly help to inform one’s reading of No Exit especially on the topic of antagonism, whether it be state-led antagonism or that of private individuals like in the play. The fact that the play was written against the backdrop of war is something that one should hold in mind since it undoubtedly sets the tone of the piece.

A final obstacle to be overcome is that many believe No Exit is just too sombre a play to incite broad public interest. Gary Cox writes that No Exit “is Sartre’s best-known and most iconic play. Simple in structure (one act, once scene) and intellectually accessible, it epitomizes the absurdity, anxiety and hopelessness that are synonymous with existentialism in the popular consciousness” (132). Apart from the promise of intellectual accessibility, Cox hardly sells the play to a general audience. Sister M. Blitgen is also uninclined to add sugar to the medicine when she states, “Generally the Sartrean hero feels challenged to heroic existence; man can be saved if he strives with all his heart, if he represents an affirmation to the world, if his human consciousness reveals its essence which is being. But heroic existence for Garcin, Estelle and Florence is impossible. They are frozen in a posture by death” (61). If the characters are doomed to eternal stasis, then one finds little incentive to engage with the piece. However, Cox tackles the topic of existentialism and highlights a core redeeming factor – “Sartre is often characterized in shallow, flippant accounts as a nihilist, as a man advocating despair in face of a cruel and meaningless universe. Although he certainly explores this attitude, particularly in his 1938 novel, Nausea, his philosophy is in fact ultimately positive and constructive” (12). There are two approaches to No Exit that offer an incentive for a prospective reader, one is to view it as a classic, cautionary tale based on Sartre’s philosophy of life, and second, one may read the characters as actually progressing and growing by the end of the story, albeit in a tortuous environment! With a focus on such plus points, the play may be avidly tackled.

Critiques of No Exit.

One cannot unequivocally state that there is one dominant interpretation of No Exit. However, most critics do tend to merge their understanding of Sartre’s brand of existentialism with an analysis of the characters’ actions to come to a final reading. The interpretative conclusions of many such critics are remarkably similar. Jonathan Webber provides a summation of how the play is usually read. He writes as follows:

Discussions of the play … generally describe each of the three main characters as frustrated by their inability to control the thoughts and actions of the other two, especially where these threaten their preferred images of themselves. They usually point out that the characters have died and so are incapable of adding to their life stories. From which they generally conclude that Sartre’s message is simply that we should not be too concerned with the views others have of us at the moment, but should concentrate on developing ourselves through our future actions. We are not dead yet” (47).

In truth, such a reading is not a bad basis for understanding the play. There are certainly key points that most critics adhere to, before adding their own interpretative twists. In Webber’s own essay, he does not believe that the dead characters are ‘incapable of adding to their stories’ but this is certainly how Sister M. Blitgen reads the play and therefore she falls into the category of predictable reader/critic. Her insights are as follows:

“In uttering such a definitive phrase as ‘Hell is – other people,’ Garcin, the journalist-deserter, opens up to the reader of No Exit the potential to understand or to completely misunderstand Sartre’s conception of hell. Before one is in hell, one must die. What is death for Sartre? Paradoxically, it is just this: that alive man is not, and dead, he is. ‘Death changes life into destiny’ says Malraux in his novel Espoir. ‘One always dies too soon or too late,’ is the cry of Inez” (60).

For Blitgen, the power of others is intensified by one’s death because, “As soon as man dies he is frozen, posed, petrified. His being is no longer his but is left in the hands of others; death gives the final victory to the point of other people” (61). To avoid such a horrid end, she proposes a religiously tinted cry of carpe diem because – “Hell is the failure to recognize the value of free personal choice and to live those choices out, day by day” (63). This clearly matches Webber’s observation that many critics see Sartre’s message as pedagogical – concentrate on self-development while you are still living.

But what if we try to dismantle the core assumption present in most readings of No Exit? Gary Cox dares to rattle one’s faith by questioning, “is it really true that hell is other people? … In that place [the room] hell is not only other people, hell is no windows, no mirrors, no darkness, no sleep, no books, no tears, no exit. An eternity in one miserable room with a handful of people and no distractions would be hell, but would it not be the circumstances rather than the company that made it so?” (138).

An adequate response to Cox’s query would be to state that the physical environment is an intensifier of the unease the characters feel due to their combative interactions, but the room is never the true focal point of our attention, nor should it be. In contrast, Sister M. Blitgen allocates the room a larger role, namely as part of the punishment, when she writes, “Because Sartre abhorred their lack of authenticity and their failure to commit themselves to life, he placed his characters in a stuffy, realistic drawing room of the Second Empire which reads hell” (59). If the room itself symbolizes Hell, then maybe we need to consider the characters as devils! As should be apparent by now, even though many critics focus on the same issues in the play, namely Sartre’s philosophy of life and his characters’ actions, the resulting readings are often quite nuanced, even at variance.

Most readers hope to reach a conclusive reading. Jonathan Webber helpfully gives an account of Sartre’s own view on No Exit’s famous line about other people being hell, followed by an intriguing rebuttal of the author’s stance. Webber writes as follows:

“The standard reception of the slogan misunderstands it. Which is indeed something Sartre pointed out some twenty years after the play was first published. ‘It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned,’ he said ‘But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell.’ But this standard reading does not seem to fit with Sartre’s philosophy or with what he said about the play. For it is central to Sartrean existentialism that we cannot help but see ourselves through the eyes of other people.” (46-47)

Webber gets to the crux of the matter because one does indeed have to evaluate what role ‘other people’ play in No Exit. Other people are either a ubiquitous problem, or the problem is solely with difficult other people. The friction that Webber exposes is the friction between a stand-alone play when one sets it against the philosophical writings of Sartre. Should these two entities align perfectly? Since this essay will go on to focus on the theme of antagonism, it should correspond with Sartre’s own view but in fact, the findings are complex. However, before launching into a detailed new reading, one may familiarize oneself with Sartre’s main philosophical terms since they are the tools one requires to grasp the relevance of the character’s relationships in the play.

Sartre’s terminology.

Sartre’s No Exit is an excellent, dramatic work in its own right and should not be considered an accompaniment to his philosophical writings. To read No Exit without any reference to Sartre’s existentialist ideas just means that one would appreciate the play in a different way. However, the consequent disadvantage for anyone studying the text is that one is constantly faced with unfamiliar terms in the existing criticism. Beyond this niche readership, and with a general reader in mind, a basic understanding of Sartre’s ideas as they relate to the play simply enhance one’s appreciation of the complexity of the work. If the terminology is required or not depends on one’s reading aims. The vital Sartrean terms covered here are ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself,’ along with ‘bad faith,’ and Sartre’s ideas on consciousness.

Sartre’s depiction of conscious characters in the afterlife is both an artificial and thought-provoking scenario. For one, Sartre himself had no expectation that such a place as Hell existed. The hot, stuffy room in which the characters find themselves is simply a device employed by the playwright to expose the inner workings of their minds. How should one react in such extreme circumstances, especially when one’s companions are prickly, selfish individuals? The answer lies in Sartre’s ideas on the power of the human mind. Robert C. Solomon explains that “as a Cartesian, he [Sartre] never deviated from Descartes’s classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one’s “situation,” Sartre tells us, but one is always free to “negate” that situation and to try to change it” (763). Therefore, we can assert that the momentous challenge for Garcin, Estelle, and Inez, is to transcend the ever-nettling company of each other, and the oppressiveness of the room too. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht sums up the situation quite succinctly – “What makes the space a hell for them is the fact that they must live forever in the presence of others and their gazes” (41). Through an understanding of Sartre’s Cartesian standpoint along with his implicit expectations of how each character may find mental relief, one gains huge insight into his characters.

The difference between ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself’ is essential knowledge when discussing works by Sartre. In The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, the following definition is supplied.

“Being in-itself/for-itself.

A contrast heralded in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, and central to Sartre’s work Being and Nothingness. Being for-itself (pour-soi) is the mode of existence of consciousness, consisting in its own activity and purposive nature; being in-itself (en-soi) is the self-sufficient, lumpy, contingent being of ordinary things. The contrast bears some affinity to Kant’s distinction between the perspective of agency or freedom and that of awareness of the ordinary phenomenal world.”

While the above definition is certainly helpful, one may also refer to definitions which are more easily applied to the situation depicted in No Exit. For example, Solomon writes, “Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself,” which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosen—our “facticity”—and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and choose—our transcendence” (763). For even more insight, one may seek to understand these terms as they relate to time. Gary Cox explains how, “Being-for-itself is always not what it is (past) and what it is not (future). We all know what this means if we think about it because we all live this paradox all the time. I am my past which is no longer, and all my actions in a world which is the result of the past aim at a future which is not yet. As for the present, there is no such moment as the present, for when being-for-itself reaches the future at which it aims that future does not become the present but rather immediately becomes the past” (16). Cox goes on to link one of the philosophical ideas with everyday terms more familiar to readers, he writes, “being-for-itself refers to the essential nature or way of being of consciousness or personhood. Every consciousness or person is essentially a being-for-itself. So, in many contexts, the terms ‘consciousness,’ ‘person’ and ‘being-for-itself’ can be used interchangeably” (15). Armed with such comprehensive explanations, a reader may feel more secure in addressing these issues in Sartre’s play.

The last essential term to be addressed here is ‘bad faith.’ Solomon explains this term, writing that “When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in “bad faith.” It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). It is evident that Garcin is in bad faith since he sees himself as identical to his role as a journalist, just as Inez sees herself as fixed in her belligerence as if this aspect of her personality is utterly unalterable. Cox makes an interesting observation on bad faith as it applies to an afterlife – “The person in bad faith may act as though he is immortal, believing that he will always be as he is now or that he will live on in an afterlife cleansed of all inconveniences and acrimony” (12). Sartre robs his characters of the illusion of a peaceful afterlife, forcing them to confront what they patently failed to face in life.

Building on current criticism.            

There are surely innovative approaches to Sartre’s play, yet the hellish room and hellish characters are always obligatory focal points for any comprehensive appraisal of the work. Sartre contemplates the impossibility of existing with other people, making solitude appear heavenly by comparison. The question, already touched upon, is if this discomfort arises only from broken relationships or from the unavoidable nature of human interaction? Solomon explains a term not yet addressed which helps to frame human relationships.

“Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls “being-for-others.” Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone “catches us in the act,” and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear “for others.” We “pin down” one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves” (Solomon 764).

The idea that others act as the mirrors to our hidden selves, revealing our core identities, is certainly disconcerting. Gary Cox explains further that “In being subject to the judgement of the Other, a person is at the mercy of the freedom of the Other, he is, as Sartre puts it, ‘enslaved’ (BN, p. 291) by the freedom of the Other. The freedom of the Other transcends his freedom, transcends his transcendence, reducing him to what he is for the Other” (137). The question that No Exit prompts readers to pose is whether this torment is ever escapable, because if not then existentialism delivers quite a nihilistic message.

Critics are divided on this question, and like all unresolved questions, it signals a gap for a new reading of the play. Konstantin Kolenda argues that “It is evident from Sartre’s play that not everybody’s thoughts matter to us; we are interested only in opinions of people whose judgement we respect” (264). Jonathan Webber makes a somewhat similar claim, writing that, “The problem is not our reliance on other people, but the combination of this with our relationships being ‘poisoned’” (47). While such interpretations echo Sartre’s own comments on the play, they still clash with existentialist theory when one considers the nature of being-for-others. A new answer may rest in an analysis of interpersonal antagonism as depicted in Sartre’s play.

Antagonism.

Antagonism is a personality trait not shared equally among all individuals, and some people express hardly any antagonism. To interpret the scenario depicted in No Exit as solely due to interpersonal antagonism would therefore be incomplete. However, there is a second and complementary reading of antagonism which does not refer to the personality trait but instead to a perceived attack one feels when assessed through the eyes of another, what Sartre refers to as ‘being-for-others.’ A reading of No Exit which focuses on the theme of antagonism in these two formats is a reader-friendly way of deciphering the play. It is salient to state that antagonism is on the opposite end of the scale from agreeableness. In The Handbook of Antagonism, edited by Joshua D. Miller and Donald R. Lynam, one reads that “Antagonism/Agreeableness appears in all major models of personality. It has its most explicit representation in the Five-Factor Model of personality (FFM)” (42). The full list of key personality traits in this model are extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In short, one may be classified as a particular personality type based on the presence/absence of such traits. When one looks at the antagonistic individuals in Sartre’s play then one sees people almost completely devoid of a highly determinant personality trait, agreeableness, and this allows one to predict and analyse their behaviour in an academic as opposed to informal manner. What one can expect from someone high in antagonism, like Inez for example, is as follows.

“Antagonism, defined here as the low pole of trait Agreeableness, references traits related to immorality, combativeness, grandiosity, callousness, and distrustfulness. It is a robust correlate of externalizing behaviors such as antisocial behavior, aggression, and substance use; in many cases, it is by far the strongest correlate of these behaviors among the traits that make up the five-factor model of personality” (Miller & Lyman 38).

The second aspect of antagonism relates to how others may oppress us with their judgments. How does this link, if at all, with Sartre’s decision to use the setting of Hell for the play? Sister M. Blitgen finds Sartre’s tactic quite perplexing, and writes, “For one who makes the denial of God the very essence of his system and who asserts that God is merely a projection of the psyche, it is paradoxical that Sartre must employ Christian values and a Christian ethical system in presenting his thought. Even his use of the term ‘hell’ is a referent to the Christian tradition” (60-61). Yes, the word ‘Hell’ has great significance in many major religions and obvious connotations for a reader: eternity, punishment/torture, afterlife, sin, devils, and fire! By activating such thoughts, Sartre also alerts us to the manner in which the ‘Other’ becomes one’s personal hell since they prick our conscience, expose our inner truth, excite shame, and evoke despondency, and furthermore nothing ever changes in Hell, it is eternal stagnation in sin. Jonathan Webber draws attention to the fact that Inez first names the location – “Describing their situation as hell is useful for getting the other two to focus on their sins” (52). The two readings of antagonism merge seamlessly here when one understands that Inez would like the others to unburden themselves of their sins because these personal divulgences of past indiscretions and sins are a veritable invite for an antagonist like Inez to mercilessly punish the sinners. Sartre constructs a perfect storm of emotional turmoil, and antagonism of various sorts is what powers this storm.

In simple terms, Sartre depicts the stark contrast between people working with, or against one another. Miller and Lyman cite how, “Antagonistic individuals place less value on interpersonal harmony, being more likely to sacrifice interpersonal harmony for other goals. Agreeable individuals, on the other hand, are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Even though none of the characters is high in agreeableness, Garcin does endeavour to find agreement given the characters’ joint predicament. First, he proposes silence, “the solution’s easy enough; each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others … And that way we – we’ll work out our salvation. Looking into ourselves, never raising our heads” (10). The intention is to avoid Inez’s predicted nightmare scenario where each character morphs into the other’s personal torturer! Keeping with the religious tone set by the word salvation, Garcin goes on to explain why, failing silence, each character should make a full confession. He says, “I want to know whom I have to deal with …so long as each of us hasn’t made a clean breast of it – why they’ve damned him or her – we know nothing … if we bring our specters into the open, it may save us from disaster” (14). Garcin fixates on his presumption that there is an external enemy of as yet unseen devils who are their prison guards and who will eventually enact a punishment. As readers, we understand that the enemy is already in the room. The styles of interpersonal behaviour exhibited by Inez and Garcin may be formally classified as agency and communion. Miller and Lynam explain these terms, writing, “Agency is primarily concerned with becoming individuated and involves behaviors/traits such as dominance, status, control, and power (Gurtman, 2009). Communion is concerned with connecting with others and involves behaviors/traits such as love, friendliness, and affiliation” (47). An understanding of the characters’ traits helps one appreciate the dynamic of their ongoing and seemingly irresolvable conflict.

The hell that Sartre presents to his audience is missing one key figure – a devil. Webber singles out the character of Inez as having privileged levels of knowledge and therefore she is conspicuously unlike her companions. He writes, “Focusing on Inez in this way brings out the possibility that she is not in the same position as the other two and that perhaps she is a demon in disguise. If this is right, then she genuinely is, as she herself says, cruel right to the core, and her role is simply to torture the other two” (51). Webber’s reading is quite convincing, up to a point. For instance, Inez seems disingenuous when she first identifies Garcin as “the torturer” (5) because she counterintuitively bases this on her perception that he is frightened. She then proceeds to be very curt with him and this is not a tactic one would risk with a real torturer. It is also suspicious how quickly Inez foresees their dilemma, grasping the fact that “each of us will act as torturer of the two others” (10). As an aside, one may imagine that Inez is grooming a fellow demoness when she tells Estelle that her reapplied lipstick is “far better. Crueler … quite diabolical” (12). Webber’s assessment of Inez as the cruel torturer aka demon, seems fully assured when Inez states – “I’m rather cruel, really … I mean I can’t get on without making people suffer” (15). She even recruits Garcin’s help in persecuting Estelle when they both chant – “He shot himself because of you” (16) in reference to Estelle’s lover. However, to characterize Inez as a demon is eventually shown to be erroneous because she suffers her own torture inflicted by Estelle, the object of her affection. When Inez prohibits Garcin and Estelle from making love by her incessant insults, Estelle correctly identifies Inez’s weak point, telling Garcin to “Revenge yourself … Kiss me, darling – Then you’ll hear her squeal” (25). Just as Inez was disgusted by the heterosexual couple making love in her old bed, she is equally upset by her loss of Estelle as a potential partner especially when it is to a male rival. Even if Inez is no literal devil, no consort of Satan in this strange hell, she does underline how the ‘other’ is always the unseen enemy, displacing Garcin’s idea of devils lurking outside the room. Estelle initially ponders the mix of people in the room, saying, “Really I can’t imagine why they put us three together. It doesn’t make sense” (8). However, the precise mix of personalities is crucial to excite the worst antagonism and therefore the worst torture.

Garcin contemplates the exact nature of the tortures on several occasions. At first, he sums up the situation to the valet, saying, “Shall I tell you what it feels like? A man’s drowning, choking, sinking by inches, till only his eyes are just above water” (3), and finally he is mocked by the sight of a Barbedienne sculpture in the room. The room is formally furnished and decorated with sofas and art, so the innocuous conventionality mocks the horrors Garcin expects to suffer. Garcin contemplates the enduring, unbroken nature of the upcoming torture since one can never sleep, but the true punishment will be psychological – “How shall I endure my own company? … I’m used to teasing myself. Plaguing myself” (5). Garcin’s distress caused by his habit of bombarding himself with negative thoughts makes him more liable to seek comfort from others, the salve of another’s kind words. As an antagonist, Inez would wholeheartedly welcome such revelations and indeed she pre-empts Garcin’s later suggestion when she suggests that each person confess the true reason for their damnation, saying, “If only each of us had the guts to tell” (9). The call to courage seems specifically directed to Garcin’s weakness and he and Estelle do give sanitized accounts of their lives. Inez promptly eviscerates her companions, calling Estelle “my little plaster saint” (10) and Garcin is mocked as “the noble pacifist” (10). Inez’s deceitful nature and inclination to contrariness is quickly revealed when she denigrates what was originally her own suggestion, saying tauntingly – “Well, Mr. Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?” (17). The nudity referenced is emotional vulnerability and it is not a desired state in the presence of someone like Inez who says, “I’m a pitfall” (18). The characters begin to view each other like physical traps which may be triggered by a mere look. By the end of the play, Garcin is no longer preoccupied by the rankling of his own thoughts, but by the thoughts generated through his contact with his horrible companions whom he must endure for eternity. He would welcome any physical torture rather than his allocated fate, and says, “Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough” (24).

It is virtually impossible to untangle the effects of ‘being-for-others’ from the effects of high levels of antagonism. Nonetheless, characters high in agreeableness would interact differently, but would fall prey occasionally to the discomfort caused by other’s judgements. Antagonism is undoubtedly an accelerant to the fiery Hell Sartre depicts, lending credence to the reading where hell is only especially difficult people, like Inez. Be that as it may, No Exit does not relinquish its secrets quite so easily.

Mirroring in No Exit.

Garcin’s predicament is identical to that of his fellow prisoners in the room. Sartre shows how each character has the potential to wear down the other psychologically. In such circumstances, they must pay attention to the personalities and personality traits of each character. Miller and Lyman explain how the set of “antagonism traits include manipulation and arrogance – both representing strategies for deceiving and dominating others. Antagonistic manipulation involves a duplicitous interpersonal style that utilizes flattery or deception to control others” (218). This is an apt explanation of the interplay between the characters, especially between Inez and her companions. Much of the interpersonal dynamic seen in the play is linked to traits of antagonism and Sartre communicates many interactions with direct and oblique references to mirroring.

First, one may consider the significance of mirroring. In a book entitled Mirroring People, Marco Iacoboni explains how mirror neurons function to activate certain responses in the brain, and he gives the everyday example of watching a movie. He writes, “because mirror neurons in our brains recreate for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters – we know how they’re feeling – because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves” (9). In No Exit, the three people have no access to mirrors or even a basic, reflective surface, and consequently each becomes the other’s mirror. If one uses the analogy of watching a movie, then the scene is tortuous because the characters have no eyelids and therefore, they are effectively forced to continuously watch and react to each other. For instance, Garcin immediately feels great discomfort when he notices how piercing the valet’s look is – “there’s something so beastly, so damn bad-mannered, in the way you stare at me” (3). The irritation that Garcin feels is not generated solely by the valet’s stare, but also by his inability to shut his own eyes, to short-circuit his response. Garcin’s distress is visible and therefore the valet’s nonchalance exaggerates the discomfort, communicating that they have quite separate fates. Iacoboni explains that “By helping us recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals” (11). In light of such an explanation, one conceives how Sartre’s strange room in the afterlife may become a haven of empathic interconnectedness, or conversely a savage arena where individuals will suffer mental disintegration. The major deciding factor is the personality types involved. Iacoboni ponders our existential condition when he writes that mirror neurons, “show that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another” (284). Sartre portrays how this can become the stuff of nightmares.

There are many examples of characters mirroring and thereby ‘reading’ one another in No Exit. One example occurs quite early when Inez perceives that Garcin is frightened and tells him so. Garcin scoffs but Inez explains, “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve often watched my face in the glass” (5). Inez soon capitalizes on the room’s lack of mirrors, obviously understanding the potential power they hold, when she says to Estelle, “suppose I try to be your glass” (10). Though this game starts with Inez honestly fulfilling the role of reflecting back what she sees, namely Garcin’s fearful facial expression and the accuracy of Estelle’s reapplication of lipstick, it soon devolves into a mind-game where the ‘mirror’ becomes unreliable. Estelle confides in her new, human mirror – “You scare me rather. My reflection in the glass never did that” (12). Estelle rejects Inez’s help which results in Inez’s quick retaliation, “Suppose the mirror started telling lies?” (12). Whoever performs the role of mirror wields great power and this threat is first exposed by Inez. Miller and Lynam provide information that allows one to understand the role of personality in the situation just explained, they write “Antagonistic people are competitive and they often view others as tools to be used for their own ends” (341). Inez is the most antagonistic of the three and therefore this tendency to manipulate others is most obvious in her. Her competence to act as a dispassionate mirror is impossible due to her overtly antagonistic personality.

Inez employs a game of divide and conquer based on prior, successful experience. Mirroring plays a role here since Inez has already detected a particular vulnerability in Garcin (3). When she tells her story of the “affair with Florence. A dead men’s tale. With three corpses to it” (15) then Garcin understands the covert threat as it applies to the current ménage à trois. Inez poisoned Florence’s mind against a male lover so that she could win (in the romantic sense) and control Florence – “I crept inside her skin, she saw the world through my eyes” (15). Interestingly, all three characters were involved in love triangles of various sorts when they were alive. Inez makes a direct threat to Garcin, saying, “I’ll catch her [Estelle], she’ll see you through my eyes, as Florence saw that other man” (18). This confrontation occurs due to Inez’s reading of the situation as a win/lose scenario, which also explains her refusal to cooperate with Garcin. True to Sartre’s calculated mix of personalities, Inez is fated to fail with Estelle. At first, Inez predictably tries to manipulate and deceive Estelle, hoping to replace Peter who was an admirer and dance partner – “Come to me, Estelle. You shall be whatever you like: a glancing stream, a muddy stream. And deep down in my eyes you’ll see yourself just as you want to be” (20). Estelle is a narcissist and relies upon the good opinions of others to sustain her own fragile self-approval. There is a clever allusion to the myth of Narcissus in the reference to the ‘glancing stream’ since Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and eventually died when he could not turn away from it. Inez dreams of being just such a malignant mirror. However, Inez has lost her potential dupe because previously she recklessly encouraged the revelation of sordid secrets from each of them. Consequently, Inez’s approval is worthless because, as Estelle says, “You know too much about me, you know I’m rotten through and through” (19). True to her dogged competitiveness, Inez persists and is also quite open about her sexual desire until Estelle finally spits in her face to make her desist! We witness how the hellish game is programmed to continually restart, allowing no player a lasting advantage.

Estelle’s narcissism is not just an impediment to Inez’s plan, but also affects Garcin. At an early point in the play, Estelle remarks, “There are some faces that tell me everything at once. Yours [Garcin’s and Inez’s] don’t convey anything” (9). Estelle’s inability to read faces results from her own self-obsession and tendency to see others only when they are useful to her. The traits of antagonism, including deceiving and dominating others, have many commonalities with “the interpersonal manipulation seen in psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder” (Miller & Lynam 218). In short, Estelle is comparably manipulative to Inez but as a consequence of narcissism. Garcin is also narcissistic and thus inwardly insecure, so he needs approval to validate his views. Estelle wishes to take Garcin as her lover, but she fails to act as the kind of mirror he desperately requires, a flattering one. Estelle flippantly says, “Coward or hero, it’s all one—provided he kisses well” (22). This disgusts Garcin who says, “You’re [Estelle] even fouler than she [Inez]. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh!” (24). Once again, the focus is on how the opinion of others has such a tremendous effect on one’s morale. The human mirror is nightmarish because one may sink into those eyes, or as Inez did with Florence, one may end up seeing the world through another’s eyes.

The relevance of mirroring goes beyond the already touched upon topic of mirror neurons in the brain which are responsible for empathy and ‘reading’ others. In an essay called “The Uncanny Mirror” by Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, the issue of mirroring is explored with reference to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. A key point from the essay that assists our understanding of Sartre’s play is as follows, “one can only become self-conscious (in the sense of becoming an object to oneself) in an indirect manner, namely by adopting the attitudes of others on oneself, and this is something that can only happen within a social environment” (3). This explains why Garcin longs for a trustworthy assessment of him by one of the women in the room because that would constitute an objective view. Garcin’s own view of himself is always insufficient since he cannot trust its objectivity, he needs other people. The significance of the mirror/other may be traced back to early childhood development – “the mirror permits the child to see itself as it is seen by others, and might also bring about the explicit realization that it is given to others with the same visual appearance that it is being confronted with in the mirror” (Rochat & Zahavi 6). Estelle gives an example of this occurring in adulthood when she says “I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself [in the mirror] as the others saw me” (11). The interchangeability of a mirror with a person acting as a mirror is quite fascinating.

Garcin will later decline the opportunity to escape the room because he needs someone to mirror him. He singles out Inez as his only hope since she shares his characteristic of cowardliness, he says, “SO it’s you whom I have to convince; you are of my kind” (25). Garcin is in a perverse situation since he must rely on someone who will clearly relish the power it affords her, yet without her, he remains in crisis. Inez sums up her complete dominion over Garcin as follows.

“Now then! Don’t lose heart. It shouldn’t be so hard, convincing me. Pull yourself together, man, rake up some arguments. [GARCIN shrugs his shoulders.] Ah, wasn’t I. right when I said you were vulnerable? Now you’re going to pay the price, and what a price! You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it—do you hear? —I wish it. And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you. [He walks towards her, opening his hands.] Ah, they’re open now, those big hands, those coarse, man’s hands! But what do you hope to do? You can’t throttle thoughts with hands. So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25).

Sartre exhibits a perfect understanding of a trait we all share, the need for another’s approval. This is something that is first in evidence in childhood, as already noted, and the following quote additionally explains the root link to self-consciousness.

“In his essay, Merleau-Ponty remarks that the other’s look starts to be felt as an annoyance when the child reaches the age of around 3, and that the reason for this is that the other’s look displaces the child’s attention from whatever tasks it is concerned and preoccupied with to a concern for the way in which it is presented to others” (Rochat & Zahavi 6).

Mirroring is foundational to how we function in the world, from the mirror neurons firing in our brains to the responses we learn as part of our normal, psychological developments. An appreciation of how personality traits influence these normal brain functions and psychological responses brings one closer to understanding the fantastic environment constructed in No Exit. So far, we have looked at characters who are seemingly defined by their past lives. The unspoken premise is that the characters have no prospect of redoing, correcting, or erasing, so acceptance is the final option. As a consequence, the opinion of the other person holds more sway now than ever before given the unusual circumstances. However, Sartre’s philosophy is broader and still requires one to look at other aspects of the play.

Hell and ‘bad faith.’

In the traditional, Christian interpretation of Hell, one is damned for all eternity. This contrasts with the idea of Purgatory where sinners may do penance and gain eventual salvation i.e., the soul is cleansed. This is a line of thought which Webber pursues, writing that “Part of the reason why the characters are often assumed to be in hell might be the common view that there is no change, no progression, no quest or discovery during the play” (49). Webber challenges this view. As a reader, one also needs to decide if the characters have any potential to progress and thereby resolve their past faults. Sartre depicts Garcin as someone who attempts to find unanimous agreement on how to thwart the unseen devils whom he imagines are his real enemies. This means he has hope, something normally impossible for someone in Hell. The potential of the characters to progress lies solely in their hands but we must be alert to what may obstruct them. The primary obstruction to personal progress in Sartre’s philosophy is ‘bad faith.’ This interlinks with personality type in several interesting ways.

Are Sartre’s three main characters in bad faith? Webber explains that “Although we always need the eyes of other people in order to see ourselves, bad faith condemns us to be being reliant on seeing ourselves as this or that and therefore reliant on other people in a way we would not otherwise be” (54). The inflexibility of one’s self-image is the core flaw and as previously quoted from Solomon, but worth repeating here, – “It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). Whitaker provides insightful classifications of each character’s personality type, writing that, “Estelle, a narcissist … depends on the mirroring gaze of others to make her seem a valued object. Inez, a self-declared sadist, needs the suffering of others in order to maintain that of herself … And Garcin, who is narcissist and sadist by turns, a confused idealist with a self-deceiving will to self-sufficiency, finally sees that one who identifies consciousness with any role or ideal must submit to the unpredictable validating judgement of others” (170-171).

To begin with Garcin, it is true that he has a firm sense of self-identity. For example, he rather pompously asks the valet, “Do you know who I was?” (2), and later introduces himself to Inez as, “I’m Joseph Garcin, journalist and man of letters by profession” (5). The problem for Garcin is that he cannot relinquish the idealized image of himself as a journalist who was guided by his ethical convictions. When Inez labels him a deserter, he defensively replies – “Let that be. It’s only a side-issue. I’m here because I treated my wife abominably” (14). For Garcin, it is the ultimate blow for another to taint his professional life with the slur of deserter, a journalist who ran away rather than stick to his convictions. On the other hand, his wife never concerned him much and still does not. Identifying her as the reason for his current punishment is merely a deflection. He clings to an image of himself that is fragile and maintained only via self-deception and as a consequence, the image of heroic journalist is especially vulnerable to others’ comments. In contrast, Inez takes no particular pride in her old job as a post-office clerk, but instead sees her personality as fixed and unchangeable. Her identity doubles as a defence mechanism, she says, “I was what some people down there called “a damned bitch”’ (15), and she goes on to define herself using a negative, saying, “I’m rotten to the core” (17). Like Garcin, Inez holds to her image as if it were set in stone, saying, “My life’s in perfect order. It tidied itself up nicely of its own accord. So I needn’t bother about it now” (8). Estelle is also trapped in the past, and as a narcissist she forever relies on the good opinion of others. The revelation that she is a “baby-killer” (26) irrevocably shatters her pristine self-image, leaving her as a “hollow dummy” (20). Rather than reform, she desperately searches for a new source of flattery.

Bad faith is clearly what makes each character vulnerable, so why don’t they choose to abandon what hinders their potential progress? The answer is power, but more specifically it relates to cachet for Garcin and Estelle, and simply the dark side of cachet for Inez, namely being hated and feared. Each character has connected their personal worth with a fixed idea of self which they fear losing. Antagonism interrelates with bad faith. For instance, one learns from Miller and Lyman that, “Broadly, in romantic relationships, antagonistic individuals are more likely to behave in ways that are hurtful and upsetting to their partner” (605) and “antagonistic individuals are more likely to be unfaithful to their romantic partner” (609). All three characters behave abominably to their romantic partners and though they would vehemently deny it, each ultimately fears the consequences. Although Garcin denigrates his wife and her “martyred look” (8), he must accept that if his perfect self-deception of being a great journalist should finally crumble then he is indeed left as just a worthless man, a cad who mistreated his wife before being shot as a deserter. Inez deceived and dominated her lover Florence, true to the traits of an antagonist, but Florence disempowered Inez when she gassed them both. A sleeping Inez is rendered impotent when her life is ended by the lover she treated as a puppet, yet Florence turns out to be the real puppeteer. Inez fails to accept this truth, and the evidence is her continued affectation of dominance now with her fellow prisoners. Estelle, who is manipulative and selfish as a consequence of her narcissism, murders the child she conceived with her lover but shows no concern for his feelings. Yet, she pays the price when her latest admirer Peter learns of the horrid tale. Estelle initially gloats about “how he was terribly in love with me” (18) but soon begins to squirm when Olga tarnishes her formerly, perfect image. Estelle pleads from afar – “no, no. Don’t tell him. Please, please don’t tell him” (19). As Miller and Lyman write, “Some patterns of antagonistic behavior in romantic relationships are more likely when certain conditions are met” (605) and these conditions are quite simple – “low agreeable people engaged in transgressions because they thought they would get away with it, not because it was the right thing to do” (605). Sartre constructs a scene where each of his characters clings to a specific self-image, but their individual sins of antagonism serve to undermine those perfect images. The personal, iconographic images for the respective characters are great journalist, bitch, and flawless beauty. Should these iconic images shatter then what is left except horrible, deceitful, antagonists?

Inez and Estelle do not abandon, nor do they demonstrably seek to escape their respective self-images as established in life. They remain steadfastly in bad faith. Garcin is different and thus he presents a considerable problem for readers since he simultaneously gestures towards two opposing goals. First, one may reasonably read him as being in bad faith like the others. One may confidently assert this because he is offered an opportunity to escape the room but chooses to remain, and his reason for remaining is the hope that he will eventually convince Inez that he is the courageous journalist and manly man he professes to be, and no coward. Inez, true to her old self, says, “So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25). To digress briefly, this reconfirms her unwillingness to change, and Inez in turn exposes Estelle’s bad faith when she correctly interprets Estelle’s romantic interest in Garcin, saying, “She’d assure you you were God Almighty if she thought it would give you pleasure” (23). In this first reading, Garcin is a prisoner to the idea of himself as a heroic journalist and that alone holds him prisoner in the room.

The contrasting second reading sees Garcin as capable of real progress. This requires one to look at Garcin temporally and to comprehend his desire for a specific goal in the current predicament. At the beginning of the play, Garcin tells the valet about the horror of the situation, but he quickly adds, “I won’t make a scene, I shan’t be sorry for myself, I’ll face the situation, as I said just now. Face it fairly and squarely” (3). Despite his antagonistic traits, he does exactly as promised and tries repeatedly to form a peaceful alliance with Inez and Estelle in the hope of thwarting an external enemy. One is struck by how different this Garcin is from the man who fled to Mexico, the man who had an embarrassing “physical lapse” (22) when standing before the firing squad. It is also significant that he resigns himself to the fact that his earthly reputation is ruined since his fellow newspaper men think, “Garcin’s a coward” (22). Yet, Garcin clearly backtracks when he transfers his hopes from his old colleagues to Estelle as follows:

“If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I’m not the sort who runs away, that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it—well, that one person’s faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me? Then I shall love you and cherish you forever. Estelle—will you?” (23).

When Estelle proves to be a false hope, Garcin turns to Inez seeking the precise same validation. In this respect, he continues to be in bad faith. The counter-reading relies on an appreciation of the continuous effort Garcin makes to forge a better future for all three of them. When Inez tells Garcin that he has been defined by his life, she also says, “It’s what one does, and nothing else, that shows the stuff one’s made of” (25). What Garcin does in the room is seek solutions, solidify bonds, instil hope and all of these are signs that he has abandoned his former self. Miller and Lyman explain that “Agreeable individuals [unlike antagonists] are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Garcin has arguably evolved from the antagonistic man who allowed his wife serve morning coffee to him and his mistress (14). His decision to stay in the room rather than accept his freedom is explained by his perceived need for Inez’s approval, but it is also an act of courage. At the close of the scene, the characters burst into laughter due to their acknowledgement that hell is forever, and Garcin has the last words – “Well, well, let’s get on with it. . ..” (27). Webber asserts that Garcin’s line is significant since, “the play then ends with his expressing an unambiguously courageous attitude to their situation” (50). Is Garcin courageous despite his doubts, does he really need someone to confirm his courage, isn’t courage reliant on doing rather than thinking? Garcin faces the current moment with resolve knowing that Inez may never accede to his wishes. Are his false mirrors making him believe that he is still trapped in his past when in fact he has evolved into a different man? While Inez holds significant power in the trio of characters, the power is always negative. Garcin may transcend his doubts if he only continues on his present course. He is the only character of the three who may be read as breaking away from the habit of bad faith. This represents the only true freedom.

Conclusion.

Sartre’s No Exit presents an engaging story while additionally raising serious, philosophical questions. In this essay, I have endeavoured to present a new reading of the play by focusing on the personality trait of antagonism while also addressing long standing interpretative battles about this work. A few key observations and questions have been raised herein which may be more fully addressed now. First, one may reread an important quote from the play and in light of the information from this essay, show how philosophically weighted it now appears.

Garcin eloquently surmises the predicament that he shares with Inez and Estelle:

“They’ve laid their snare damned cunningly—like a cobweb. If you make any movement, if you raise your hand to fan yourself, Estelle and I feel a little tug. Alone, none of us can save himself or herself; we’re linked together inextricably. So you can take your choice” (Sartre 17).

Garcin imagines the snare has been set by devils, but the trap is really just elements of human nature and human psychology with which we all must contend. For instance, the ‘little tug’ that is referenced is an apt metaphor for the workings of one’s mirror neurons. As previously outlined, these brain neurons allow us to understand at an empathic level the motivations behind the actions of others. The ‘cobweb’ is a wonderful image but there is no satanic spider at the center, it is just a series of almost invisible human connections. The reference to being ‘linked together inextricably’ is arguably an encapsulation of Sartre’s idea of being-for-others. Of note is how Garcin envisages no way of succeeding alone so there is no true escape from others, except involving an even greater sacrifice to oneself, for example, social isolation. The ‘choice’ to be made refers to failing alone or succeeding together, but at a more philosophical level it communicates the necessity to abandon ‘bad faith’ so that one may indeed work in conjunction with others, without intolerable friction. This new reading is only possible when one has a basic grasp of Sartre’s philosophy.

The pressing question that exercises most people is how one should interpret the line, ‘hell is other people,’ which is taken to be the thesis statement of the play. The exploration of the theme of antagonism offers a nuance on existing readings. Like most nuanced readings, it requires some explanation. In No Exit, one views a distinctive space that Sartre carefully designed and constructed. Regarding the physical set, it is a brutal environment of bright light and excessive heat, and there is no way of exiting the room. The characters have also been designed, proven by their not-quite-normal features such as the absence of eyelids. Maybe Sartre was being ironic when he decided that his small cast of the talking-dead also needed no sleep. Garcin, Estelle, and Inez have long been classified by various critics as an assortment of two narcissists and one sadist. It is insufficient to call such people difficult because, in truth, they suffer from recognizable personality disorders. In addition to this mix of elements, the playwright depicts his characters as expressing high levels of antagonism which is a key personality trait from which we can reliably predict various outcomes. The overall effect of such a theatrical presentation on an audience is best described as an alienation effect. M H Abrams quotes the playwright Bertolt Brecht when providing an explanation of the aim of employing an alienation effect. He writes as follows:

“This effect, Brecht said, is used to make familiar aspects of the present social reality seem strange, so as to prevent the emotional identification or involvement of the audience with the characters and their actions in a play. His aim was instead to evoke a critical distance and attitude in the spectators, in order to arouse them to take action against, rather than simply to accept, the state of society and behavior represented on the stage.” (5)

Sartre employs an alienation effect because it facilitates his pedagogical aims. His play is essentially a cautionary tale, and the core message is that each of us needs to avoid ‘bad faith.’ The characters are monstrous enough for us to stop and think. An analysis of the theme of antagonism in the work has shown why the series of interpersonal interactions always turn sour. The participants are simply too high in the personality trait of antagonism. In this light, Sartre has deliberately fixed the game so that the characters will return again and again to an excruciating state of deadlock. It may be called Hell because it is a conspicuously, unnatural scene and meant to be so. Therefore, Sartre’s assertion that Hell is only other people when one’s relationship with such people has already been vitiated, is entirely correct in the context of the work. If the characters were high in the trait of agreeableness, then the scene would play out quite differently. Sartre employs an extreme example so that he may more effectively communicate the essence of his philosophical ideas. There is no contradiction between Sartre’s concept of being-for-others and the above reading since he also teaches that one is not vulnerable to the other when one abandons the state of bad faith. He proclaims the ever-present facility of one’s mind to transcend any current predicament.

Dante finally emerges from Hell in the famous work of literature, Inferno, but Sartre’s Garcin only gets to the exit before it becomes apparent that he has not done sufficient work to merit escape. Hell is only other people when one is a prisoner to a fixed, false idea of oneself, an idea that makes one eternally vulnerable to the gaze of the other. Antagonism simply debars Sartre’s characters from making any progress because they are also already in bad faith. It turns out that through an exploration of the theme of antagonism in No Exit, one comes to a far better understanding of the ingenious mechanics of Sartre’s Hell.

Cited Works.

                                      

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

“Being in-itself/for-itself.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. 2008.

Blitgen, Sister M. “No Exit: The Sartrean Idea of Hell.” Renascence, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1967, pp. 59-63.

Cox, Gary. Sartre and Fiction. Continuum, 2009.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. “Chapter 3. No Exit and No Entry.” After 1945, Stanford University Press, 2013.

Iacoboni, Marco. Mirroring People. Picador, 2009.

Kolenda, Konstantin. “The Impasse of No Exit.” Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1984, pp. 261-265.

Miller, Joshua D., and Donald R. Lynam, editors. The Handbook of Antagonism. Academic Press, 2019.

Rochat, Philippe, and Dan Zahavi. “The Uncanny Mirror: A Re-framing of Mirror Self-experience.” Consciousness and Cognition, 2010, pp. 1-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays, Vintage Books, 1955.

Solomon, Robert C. “Existentialism.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, pp. 761-765.

Webber, Jonathan. “There is something about Inez.” Think, Vol 10, No. 27, 201i, pp. 45-56.

Whitaker, Thomas R. “Playing Hell.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 9, 1979, pp. 167-187.

Macbeth, Othello, Edward III

  • Play titles: Macbeth, Othello, Richard III (comparative study).
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Respective publication dates: 1623 (First Folio), 1622 Quarto, 1597 Quarto edition.
  • Respective page counts: 52, 74, 81

Summaries.

The Tragedy of Macbeth depicts the ruthless pursuit of power, and the consequential price to be paid. All commences when Macbeth, who is a loyal subject of Scotland’s King Duncan, meets a band of witches who prophesize his ascension to greatness. Buoyed up by this good omen, Lady Macbeth endeavours to transform the mumblings of these three, weird sisters into a golden-crowned reality for her husband. Only King Duncan stands in the way, so he is bloodily dispatched in his sleep while lodging with his treacherous hosts. However, the evil deed will haunt Macbeth and his wife and lead to their separate dooms. Having begun the quest, this husband and wife soon realise that they have set in motion a horrible cascade of bloodshed. Macbeth, fearing even his closest allies, orders the execution of his friend Banquo, and of Banquo’s young son too. Lady Macbeth begins to imagine that her hands are still wet with blood, and she descends into madness prior to her suspected suicide. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shorter works, but it proves an intense theatrical experience due to the mix of political treachery and supernatural influences. Key themes in this work are ambition, conscience, the supernatural, and fate.

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is about a Black, military hero who lives in the Venetian Republic of the Middle Ages. Othello’s adoptive city desperately needs his leadership skills when the Turks invade Cyprus, which at that time was an outpost of Venetian territory. By virtue of Othello’s military service and fine standing in the community, he gains the hand of the beautiful Desdemona who is the daughter of Brabanzio, a nobleman. However, Othello’s racial background is constantly viewed as an impediment to his full acceptance by the Venetian community. It is Othello’s friend Iago, either prompted by suspicions of his own wife’s unfaithfulness or possibly due to Othello’s recent military promotion, who seeks to utterly destroy Othello. In fact, there is never a clearly stated motivation for the cruel acts performed by Iago. The play charts how Iago sets doubts in the mind of Othello about Desdemona’s faithfulness, hinting that she may be having an affair with Cassio. These suspicions grow and churn in Othello’s mind until finally, in a fit of rage, he murders his wife and then kills himself out of guilt. Shakespeare has Iago, the villain of the story, expertly expose and contribute to a world of racial prejudice, sexual jealousy, and career competitiveness. A malign rumour poisons the mind of an otherwise great man and tragedy ensues. Core themes of this play include sexuality, friendship, jealousy, revenge, and race.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Third tells the tale of one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters, the physically deformed and menacing Richard III. In the wake of the War of the Roses, Richard’s brother Edward has been anointed king, but Richard covets the crown for himself. First, Richard plots so that his other brother George is imprisoned in the Tower of London on false charges and later executed, and this precipitates the death of Edward who was already in poor health. The way is now fortuitously clear for Richard to rule, except for Edward’s young sons and heirs, Prince Edward and Richard, Duke of York. On Richard’s command, a man named James Tyrrel is given the gruesome task of executing the children. In the meantime, Richard ‘romances’ Lady Anne whom he soon marries, but hastily has her killed when he sets his sights elsewhere. Edward then tries to woo his cousin, Princess Elizabeth, in his final push to solidify his power. However, Henry Earl of Richmond raises an army in France and returns to England to challenge Richard who has become highly unpopular with the people of the kingdom. At the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is finally killed. This play is a fascinating study of the psychology of a true villain, made more engrossing with supernatural elements like the ghosts of Richard’s many victims as well as the potent curses of old Queen Margaret. Themes central to the play are physical deformity, Machiavellianism, the supernatural, ambition, and power.

Ways to access the texts: reading/listening/watching.

If you would like to read multiple Shakespearean text on one creditable website, then The Folger Shakespeare is an excellent choice. Needless to say, these texts can be sourced via countless other websites.

Audiobook versions of the plays are also widely available. For example, there are professional audiobook versions of all three plays available on the Internet Archive.

If you find Shakespearean English a trudge, as many modern readers do, and you prefer films then luckily there are good options. For example, the 1971 film version of Macbeth, also named Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis is an excellent adaptation. There have been at least two other major films of the play in recent years. The selection and quality of film versions of the other two plays are not quite as stellar. Laurence Olivier directed and starred in the 1955 movie named Richard III and it is a competent, loyal portrayal. Lastly, Othello directed by Oliver Parker and starring Laurence Fishburne is one of the best-known, cinematic versions of that play.

Why read/watch/listen to the plays?

Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III are all fine examples of Shakespeare’s dramatic skills. A one-line summation of each play is provided here in order to differentiate the works for as yet undecided readers.

Macbeth – A young, blood-thirsty, power couple achieve their wildest dreams by seizing the throne of Scotland only to find that victory quickly sours when gained by false means.

Othello – A dark-skinned hero wins the love of a fair beauty but falls prey to the machinations of his best friend who is finally unmasked as the worst of foes.

Richard III – A deformed, bitter, megalomaniac, sets about butchering anyone who stands between him and the English Crown, only to be rattled by ghostly visitations the night before he dies in dishonour on the battlefield.

However, since this post is not the usual single-play analysis but a comparative study, one should look to the interesting links between the plays. The essay which follows is on the subject of Shakespeare’s use of metaphor and how even the same metaphor may be used to different effect in all three works.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Shared Metaphors in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth.

Through the use of metaphor, Shakespeare largely designed his characters both physically and psychologically. In defence of such a bold statement, one may assert that a plain literal description often lacks nuance and depth whereas figurative language offers a complex set of connotations. M. H. Abrams writes that figurative language “is a conspicuous departure from what users of a language apprehend as the standard meaning of words, or else the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect” (96). Indeed, Shakespeare manages to enfeeble or empower characters in unexpected ways through descriptive techniques. The physical bodies and the complex minds of the central characters in a play are often the keys to one’s understanding of why the stories unfold as they do. The use of figurative language, especially metaphor, allows attention to the guided onto specific aspects of characters. In this essay, I will look at some shared metaphors in three of Shakespeare’s well known plays, namely Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. By analysing the same metaphor in different contexts, one gains insight into Shakespeare’s genius but also the core role of figurative language in bringing a character to life. A standard definition of metaphor is provided by Abrams – “In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison” (97). For the dramatic personas of Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, Shakespeare highlights through metaphor the respective issues of the female body, deformity, and skin colour. Furthermore, we learn a great deal of the mental workings of these powerful, fictional figures from the descriptions they incur from Shakespeare’s pen.

In his famous 1955 essay entitled “Metaphor”, Max Black gives a comprehensive explanation of how, in his view, metaphor works. He asserts that metaphor is not merely artistic decoration, but that it is a case of creative interaction between two ideas. This breaks with several traditional schools of thought, for example, Black writes that “Any view which holds that a metaphorical expression is used in place of some equivalent literal expression, I shall call a substitution view of metaphor” (279). He goes on to state that “If a writer holds that a metaphor consists in the presentation of the underlying analogy or similarity, he will be taking what I shall call a comparison view of metaphor” (283). He wholly rejects both of these theories of metaphor. Instead, Black follows the ideas of I. A. Richards whom he quotes as follows, “In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction” (285). However, Black did not simply reuse the ideas from Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but as Abrams writes, “the philosopher Max Black refined and greatly expanded Richard’s treatment [of metaphor]” (155). If one applies Black’s theory of metaphor to Shakespeare’s characters, where the exact same metaphorical terms are often repeated, one begins to understand why they nonetheless remain impressively creative.

It is helpful to cover the mechanics of Black’s ideas on metaphor since, as already stated, there are different theories of this particular trope. For example, if one makes up a metaphor like ‘that little boy is a monkey” then it is possible to classify the most important parts of the sentence. Abrams gives us the typically accepted language, like “the name tenor for the subject” (97) which is the ‘little boy’ from my example, and “the name vehicle for the metaphorical term itself” (97) which is ‘monkey’ here. Black alters these terms since he calls the metaphorical term/vehicle the “subsidiary subject” (287) and that which is being described as the “principal subject” (286), rather than the tenor. Black writes that, “we can say that the principal subject is ‘seen through’ the metaphorical expression” (288). Furthermore, Black argues that the interaction between the principal subject and the subsidiary subject is a two-way street so both are changed in the concoction rather than the traditional view of the metaphor being applied unilaterally to something.

Three quite distinct Shakespearean characters, Richard III, Othello, and Lady Macbeth wield great power through their aesthetic presentations. The metaphorical language used to describe them overlaps in many respects, yet without diluting the force of their individual portrayals. To use the words of Max Black, “the metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject” (292). It is important to reiterate that the interaction of the subsidiary subject (the metaphorical term) with the principal subject is what creates the distinctive meaning. For example, the made to measure, almost organic potential of metaphorical description can be witnessed in Shakespeare’s application of the word ‘devil’ to these three characters. The ‘principal subject’ in each of the following cases will be the character, while the subsidiary subject is the devil, who brings certain connotations to bear on the character, dependent largely on the context. The results, despite one’s normal expectations, are never commonplace.

First, let us take the shocking scene depicting Richard the Third’s interaction with Lady Anne as he begins to woo her – over the body of her dead husband. Anne immediately protests, saying, “foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not” (1.2.50) and in the context we understand that Richard’s identity as the dead man’s murderer makes his presence as unholy as the devil’s. Anne further chastises Richard as “thou lump of foul deformity” (1.2.55) making clear that he is also as ugly and misshapen as any devil from Hell. Now, in order to appreciate the flexibility of this single metaphor, one may contrast the above scene with the words of the maid Emilia to Othello on her mistress’s death, “oh, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” (5.2.128). The maid’s words express not only the evident mismatch of the lovers in life, but the prospective separate dwellings of each in the afterlife. The emphasis is not so much on Desdemona’s murder but the sense that Othello is even more the black devil than Emilia already believed him to be. Emilia is establishing a link between race and inevitable evil deeds by using the black devil as the encapsulating metaphor. In yet another formulation, Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to, “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / of direst cruelty!” (1.5.40-41). She retains her own outwardly serene, feminine appearance but implores the forces of darkness to make her as cruel as the devil himself on the inside. Lady Macbeth’s transformation is complete when Macbeth says that he will boldly look upon that, “which might appall the devil!” (3.4.61), however, he grows pale at the sight of Banquo’s ghost but he notes that his wife can, “keep the natural ruby of your cheeks” (3.4.117). Her transformation to devil is already complete in her husband’s eyes. This is the most complex of the three examples since Shakespeare never directly calls Lady Macbeth a devil but more interestingly allows her to be seen as such by the man who loves her. It is Macbeth’s own overwhelming guilt that reveals to him his wife’s horrible metamorphose to devil. In each instance the metaphor foregrounds specific devilish traits, acting as a form of filter upon the full panoply of possible, devilish connotations. Lady Macbeth remains fair of face, but she adopts a metallic brashness and is revealed as foul of soul, Richard the Third’s deformity and matching unholy character is foregrounded, and Othello’s colour is emphasized as a mark of ever-potential evil and a sign of his proper abode in death. What’s more, the devil that one used to imagine as the standard, evil one, is altered by the comparisons too!

On the other hand, one may protest that the final meaning of each metaphorical use of devil is quite arbitrary. For example, my reading of the devilish characteristics highlighted by the metaphor may be challenged by another reader. To decipher this, one first needs to look at how metaphors’ meanings are selected. Black writes that “Imagine some layman required to say, without taking special thought, those things he held to be true about wolves; the set of statements resulting would approximate to what I am here calling the system of commonplaces associated with the word ‘wolf’” (287). We are dealing with the metaphor of ‘devil’ rather than ‘wolf’ but the same idea applies. Black writes that “the important thing for the metaphor’s effectiveness is not that the commonplaces shall be true, but that they should be readily and freely evoked” (287). So, when we see the word devil used as a metaphor, there are immediate devilish characteristics to choose from (the system of commonplaces) and we each apply those deemed appropriate to the subject. In the given examples, Lady Macbeth is unlikely to be considered as ugly as the devil, nor Othello as cut-throat as the devil, nor Richard as subtle as the devil. The reader’s role is clearly pivotal in the final selection and correctly so, but the devilish attributes also need to fit, like puzzle pieces. However, an author may certainly influence our choices, as Black relates below.

“Reference to “associated commonplaces” will fit the commonest cases where the author simply plays upon the stock of common knowledge (and common misinformation) presumably shared by the reader and himself. But in a poem, or a piece of sustained prose, the writer can establish a novel pattern of implications for the literal uses of the key expressions, prior to using them as vehicles for his metaphors.” (290).

An author can, in effect, prime a reader to choose certain associated commonplaces for a particular metaphor. The metaphor of devil is indeed used by Shakespeare multiple times in each of the plays being discussed, and crucially prior to the examples already discussed. For example, the first time Lady Anne refers to Richard as a devil is as follows – “mortal eyes cannot endure the devil. — / Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell” (1.2.46-47). The focus is on Richard’s ugliness which offends the eyes and as a ‘minister of hell’ he is seen as a member of Hell’s government who is on a diplomatic mission, away from his natural, horrid abode. This indeed establishes our thoughts, and guides how we interpret Anne’s later uses of devil as a metaphor. In Othello, Iago tells Brabanzio – “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise! / … Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.97-100). The prurient emphasis here is on the copulation of the dark-skinned Othello with the fair Desdemona and the presumed evil thereby initiated. Emilia’s later use of the devil metaphor acts as a confirmation that all warnings were correct. In Macbeth, when Banquo realises that the witches’ prophecy is coming to pass, he says “What, can the devil speak true?” (1.3.108). This example needs to be understood tangentially, since one has to first appreciate the close alignment of Lady Macbeth with the sexless witches whose grotesque depictions embody their moral ugliness, something that Lady Macbeth hides. Banquo’s focus is on the devil’s deceptive nature, the father of all lies, and this is also how one needs to understand Lady Macbeth when she graciously welcomes King Duncan to her home because she already knows that she plans to murder him. In each case, the multiple uses of the same metaphor in the same play does indeed strongly influences how we interpret that metaphor and thereby we fall upon a sustained meaning.

While the devil metaphor is fascinating in its malleability, there is also a distinctive richness and allure to the other figurative descriptions of each character. Richard III is variously labelled a “foul toad,” “bottled spider,” “hell-hound,” and “bloody boar.” Othello’s monikers are predominantly linked to his colour, race, and supposed nature, such as “thick lips” “old black ram,” “Barbary horse,” and “sooty bosom.” Lady Macbeth’s deceitful, feminine façade is communicated in the “innocent flower …serpent” metaphor. One could reasonably argue that these various descriptions also influence the devil metaphor. When Shakespeare uses terms like hell-hound, old black ram, and serpent, then he is consciously using terms which all have satanic connotations, but this is more of an interesting aside than a core focus here. Of central interest is that the resulting physical imagery of each character has an inherent power. It is helpful to consider some academic writings interpreting how the imagery operates within the aforementioned plays since such analyses also shed additional light on Shakespeare’s metaphors.

Joel Elliot Slotkin asserts that in Richard III, there is the use of “sinister aesthetics” (5) which he describes as the valorising of “the dark and hideous as admirable poetic subjects” (5). Slotkin explores our attraction to evil depictions and especially the allure of Richard’s “narcissistic pride in his ugliness” (5). When Richard has won the hand of Lady Anne in marriage, he admits his own powers to have been little more than, “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (1.2.223). The importance of Richard’s depiction is summarized in the statement “his ugliness is an aesthetic attribute that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, Richard artfully crafts false appearances of goodness” (Slotkin 10). Richard’s character remains tantalizingly seductive because his aesthetic qualities, mostly achieved through metaphor, extract an admiring reaction from the reader that sharply contradicts a proper moralistic reaction. The artistry of his physical representation brings pleasure, and this is heightened by witnessing how the character uses his physicality as part of his diabolical power.

In Othello’s case, his skin colour proves to be a distraction from his qualities, and therefore a loss of power. Phyllis Natalie Braxton writes about the typical Elizabethan’s idea of a Black African or Moor, stating that contemporary “pernicious notions about blacks were assigned to Iago’s character in the play. This is evident in Iago’s skill to prey on underlying fears, like when he tells Desdemona’s father, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”’ While Braxton contemplates the idea that Shakespeare is highlighting the problems of a Black man in white society, or the plight of the ‘Other’, she ultimately rejects that either of these is a core message of the play. As Othello achieves both high office and the respect of many of his peers, it seems to Braxton that such an interpretation is ultimately not supportable. She focuses instead on the metaphor of Othello becoming a fly in Iago’s web. While intricate in its justification, Braxton’s essay discounts much textual proof of the constant suppositions about Othello’s character which are based chiefly on his race and colour. It is doubtless that the depiction of Othello preys on and manipulates ideas about the Black man, revealing him to be powerless to the constant attrition of prejudice enacted by Iago.

Lady Macbeth, though she receives hardly any physical description, maintains our imaginative attention through a few key metaphors. Stephanie Chamberlain writes about the importance of patrilineage and the power of maternal agency in Macbeth. She homes in on the imagery of Lady Macbeth nursing and also the theme of infanticide. Chamberlain asserts that Lady Macbeth “attempts to seize a masculine power to further Macbeth’s political goals” (72). The author also quotes Dympna Callaghan who wrote, “in Macbeth, the Kingdom of Darkness is unequivocally female, unequivocally matriarchal” (79). Lady Macbeth would hypothetically sacrifice her own child, ending Macbeth’s possibility of patrilineage, to expediently seize an obviously temporary power that was at hand. The predominant and obviously distorted image of motherhood is provided when Lady Macbeth says, “come to my woman’s breasts, / and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (1.5.45-46). This is very much in keeping with the image of the devil we take her to be in reality.

It is evident that Shakespeare uses a diverse system of metaphor to reflect the true characters of his key players. As Max Black writes of the contrast between plain literal description and metaphor, “the literal paraphrase inevitably says too much – and with the wrong emphasis” (293). Metaphor works differently because the ultimate meaning is reliant on the guidance of the text, and the mind of the reader. According to Black, “Metaphorical statement is not a substitute for a formal comparison or any other kind of literal statement, but has its own distinctive capacities and achievements” (284) and he ventures to assert that “It would be more illuminating in some of these cases to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing” (284-285). This latter statement is not appropriate for the devil metaphor since Richard III and Lady Macbeth are easily associated with evil and Othello’s skin colour means that he easily falls prey to prejudicial comparisons to a devil. However, the following metaphors can indeed be seen to ‘create the similarity’ as Black phrases it.

The second intriguing metaphor that Shakespeare uses is that of flowers. Probably the most striking and memorable example is Lady Macbeth’s use of such a metaphor when giving Machiavellian advice to her husband – “look like th’innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t” (1.6.63-64). The advice forms a character portrait of Lady Macbeth herself thereby exposing her duplicitous nature. When King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle he says, “fair and noble hostess, / we are your guests tonight” (1.6.23-24). It is under the cover of darkness, when the nocturnal serpent awakens, that Duncan’s assessment of his fair and noble hostess is shattered. Lady Macbeth’s famous quote incorporates simile (look like) and metaphor (but be) in a way that highlights the contrast between mere comparison versus the power of metaphor which is figurative language that transforms. Richard the Third’s own use of a floral metaphor is in keeping with the constant reshaping of his image through rhetoric. He snidely remarks to his nephew, “small herbs have grace, great weeds grow apace” (2.4.13) which is an ironic compliment to his own stunted stature. One should note that this is “an implicit metaphor, [because] the tenor is not itself specified, but only implied” (Abrams 97). Richard’s mother, The Duchess of York interjects with a pointed remark, saying, “if this were a true rule, then he should be gracious” (2.4.20). Richard employs a flattering, floral metaphor to shape how he is perceived by others in spite of the reality of his ugliness, whereas Lady Macbeth relies on her fair appearance to hide her hellish motives and sums this up in potent advice. In each instance, the natural physical attributes of the character are worked superbly to their advantage. In Othello’s case, his dark skin is considered by others a partial negation of his good qualities. It is his race and supposed temperament that are hinted at by the use of figurative language consisting of fruit and flowers. For example, the handkerchief embroidered with strawberries which Othello gives to Desdemona, is seemingly enchanted. Othello explains, “there’s magic in the web of it” (3.4.66) because a sibyl sewed it, and as a consequence, it is purported to have the power to preserve love. It is this air of the mysterious and the sensual that is played upon by Iago who suggests, “the food that to him [Othello] now is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida” (1.3.336). The coloquintida is a family of flower used as a purgative and therefore suggests that Othello will become bored with Desdemona as soon as his sexual appetite is satiated. In this case, the fruit of the handkerchief communicates Othello’s exoticism and his necessity to charm love on account of his perceived racial impediment, whereas the purgative flowers communicate his supposed sexual temperament.

In considering the body’s power, it is helpful to delve into the preoccupation of Shakespearean characters, or those around them, with creating and protecting a hereditary line. It is through their progeny that these characters may create new images of themselves who will inherit a crown or title. In the context of the chosen plays, progeny and motherhood take on an increased relevance. Once again, metaphorical descriptions give tremendous insight into the characters and their families.  

Othello is depicted as a fine and noble warrior, yet his colour detracts from his value in the eyes of his adopted community. It is both the Moor’s supposed sexual appetite along with traditional connotations of mohammedanism and slavery that inform his reception. Iago preys on the visceral fears of Brabanzio, when he shouts from the street, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (1.1.108). The metaphor of Barbary horse suggests Berber/Barbarian along with the crude reduction of Othello’s love to an animalistic instinct to copulate. Iago is seeking to sabotage Othello’s marriage and therefore any chance of him gaining a secure foothold in Venetian society. The power of Othello materializes in other peoples’ fears of his mixed-race children. Iago reveals a potent taboo with a tactless but effective metaphor. In the end, the family line of Othello ends tragically with Othello!

Richard III’s mother, the Duchess of York, rejects her son by describing the result of her childbirth with Richard as an abomination. She says, “O my accursed womb, the bed of death, a Cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world” (4.1.48). Similar to how Iago imagines Othello’s future children as tainted and animalistic, Richard’s mother employs a metaphor that transforms her child to a cockatrice – a beast of legend that is both snake and cock. It is therefore unsurprising that the duchess sees nothing of herself in her murderous offspring, proven by her disparaging comparison of Richard with her two lost sons, “And I for comfort have but one false glass” (2.2.52). The natural delight of a mother in her child is distorted, undermined, and turned into a grotesque parody. The metaphor of a womb being the ‘bed of death’ is repeated in Richard’s perverse attempts to court Elizabeth’s daughter, having already killed her other children. He says, “but in your daughter’s womb I bury them, where in the nest of spicery, they shall breed selves of themselves to your recomforture” (4.4.340). Richard is offering Elizabeth and her daughter a chance to live, rather than die by refusing him! This strategic marriage will further secure Richard’s position as king and lead to a potential heir to the throne. The diabolical terms in which he phrases this marriage proposal can only be matched by Lady Macbeth’s depiction of parenthood and its subservience to political ambition.

Lady Macbeth is rarely associated with motherhood, yet her status as a mother seems most likely given her utterance, “I have given suck and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.54-55). One may assume that the child died and thereby died Macbeth’s only heir. In the absence of any living progeny, Lady Macbeth is willing to resort to the basest tactics to secure whatever power is within reach. In an inversion of stereotypical gender roles, Lady Macbeth worries about her husband’s lack of steely ambition – “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (1.5.14-16). She suffers from no such compunction and shatters any illusion that she has compassion or physical warmth when she professes that, rather than go back on a promise to seize power, a promise her husband indeed made to her, she would have preferred to murder her own child.

“I would, while it was smiling in my face,

 Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums  

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this” (1.7.56-58).

Lady Macbeth evokes the body of a nursing mother only to transform it into a nightmarish image of infanticide. There is a strange but effective clash of the maternal body with monstrosity in the selected quotes. Most readers would consider ‘the milk of human kindness’ to be as dead a metaphor as ‘the leg of a table’, however, Lady Macbeth’s emphasis on breast milk revives the metaphorical phrase. The boy who died (his boneless gums) signals the end of Macbeth’s hopes of patrilineage and this prompts his wife to dispense with moralistic concerns given the apparent lack of a succeeding generation. The death of the real child, most likely from natural causes, may be linked to the warped immorality of Lady Macbeth’s later, wild ambitions.

In this exploration of the contemplation of progeny through metaphor, one witnesses the wide scope of connotation possible. Shakespeare’s depiction of bodies informs the reader in numerous ways about the key traits of his characters. Max Black states that “Aristotle ascribes the use of metaphor to delight in learning” (281). The metaphor not only draws our attention to a particular aspect of the character, but one gains enjoyment in creating the meaning from the stock of connotations/system of associations that the metaphorical term can bring to the principal subject. Richard the Third’s deformed body is a source of power and he is presented in such grotesque yet poetic terms that one cannot doubt but that he wields this power. Othello is doomed by his skin colour, with Iago acting as the two-faced figure who orchestrates his downfall. However, Othello’s body delivers such a potent message of male sexuality that one cannot ignore it for a moment. Lady Macbeth seizes a power which is ultimately beyond her control, as if her departure from the accepted norms of womanhood is too much of an aberration and so she must pay a price. But it is only through the power of metaphor that we learn to appreciate the depth of these characters.

To conclude this exploration of metaphors from a selection of Shakespeare’s plays, one needs to pose and then answer just a few questions. First, what is the relevance, if any, of a shared metaphor in multiple plays? The answer is primarily creativity, namely how Shakespeare brings different shades of meaning to precisely the same metaphorical word or phrase in different contexts. This is the ultimate proof that backs up the key points of Black, and I. A. Richards before him. The devil is not just the king of Hell, but becomes something quite different when Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, all respectively try on his mask. Additionally, not only does the metaphor illuminate the characters portrayal but we never really think of the devil in the same way again since he is now tainted by murderous mothers, racism, and physical deformity. Black’s interpretation goes as follows; “I take Richards to be saying that for the metaphor to work the reader must remain aware of the extension of meaning – must attend to both the old and the new meanings together” (286). In short, metaphor creates something uniquely meaningful in most situations. Of course, repeated metaphors are a special case where comparisons are somewhat easier, but one-off metaphors are also invaluable. Shakespeare uses a specific type of figurative language, namely metaphor, to express things that cannot be expressed in other ways or at least not in such a concentrated manner.

This brings one naturally to a second question – isn’t metaphorical language just a florid alternative to plain, literal description? Black gives a defence against such a view, writing that “Metaphor plugs the gaps in the literal vocabulary (or, at least, supplies the want of convenient abbreviations). So viewed, metaphor is a species of catachresis … the use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary” (280). He then sums up the general view (which he disagrees with) as – “Except in cases where a metaphor is a catachresis that remedies some temporary imperfection of literal language, the purpose of metaphor is to entertain and divert” (282). This harks back to the similarity view of metaphor where “a metaphor serves mainly to enhance the rhetorical force and stylistic vividness and pleasantness of a discourse” (Abrams 155). Black mostly rejects any consideration of a reader’s response, most especially any attention to eliciting pleasure from really ‘getting’ a metaphor. This, I believe is a mistake, since the pleasure of deciphering metaphors is indeed like “unravelling a riddle” (Black 280). Shakespeare’s plays are finely constructed, especially the metaphorical language, and one’s joy in listening to that language is what helps bring each character and story to life. In this essay I have attempted to scrutinize a few of the metaphors used by Shakespeare under the lens of Black’s ‘interaction view’ simply to show how special metaphor is, and how one may savour Shakespeare’s use of it.

Works Cited.

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

Black, Max. “Metaphor.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 55, 1955, pp. 273-294. 

Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, 1990, pp.1-17. 

Chamberlain, Stephanie. “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England.” College Literature, Vol. 32, No.3, 2005, pp.72-91. 

Slotkin, Joel Elliot. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007, pp. 5-32. 

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 2721-2773. 

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 2084-2158.

Shakespeare, William. “Richard the Third.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp.566-647.

Richard II

Hamilton, William. The Landing of Richard II at Milford Haven. circa 1793-1800.

  • Play title: The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.
  • Author: William Shakespeare 
  • Published: 1597 (quarto edition)  
  • Page count: 61

Summary.

The play tells the story of England’s King Richard II who succeeded to the throne aged just ten years old and who was deposed in 1399. Histrionic, effeminate, extravagant, and Christ-like are just a few of the familiar descriptions of Shakespeare’s King Richard and the king’s depiction is certainly vivid and poetic. Much of Shakespeare’s historical information comes from Raphael Holinshed’s book named Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. However, the Bard deviates somewhat from the historical facts. Shakespeare’s Richard is half historical, half invented, and wholly engaging.

The play opens on a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV). The source of the dispute is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester for which Bolingbroke holds Mowbray responsible (and by extension, Richard II). The king chooses to exile both men to France to avoid civil unrest. Then, to help fund a war in Ireland, Richard seizes the lands of Bolingbroke’s recently deceased father (John of Gaunt) and this leads to unrest and eventually Henry’s return, accompanied by an army, to claim his rightful inheritance. Bolingbroke seizes not just his father’s former lands but all of England when Richard quickly understands his weak position and abdicates.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching/listening

The text of Richard II is freely available online, for example, one may go to The Folger Shakespeare website to read the full text. Alternatively, Project Gutenberg or The Open Library also carry the text.

If you choose to watch a film version, then there is The Hollow Crown (2012) TV series with the first episode covering Richard II’s story. This version stars Ben Wishaw and is directed by Rupert Goold. It has a running time of 2hrs 22mins.

Audio versions of the play are available via YouTube, for instance, “Richard II by William Shakespeare – Starring John Gielgud – 1960” which has a running time of 2hrs 33mins.

Why read/watch/listen to Richard II?

The role of advisors

The downfall of King Richard II is often attributed to Bushy, Baggot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire, who were the king’s advisors. As Northumberland says, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). When Henry Bolingbroke later sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he justifies the sentence by saying “You have misled a Prince, a royal King” (3.1.8). However, Shakespeare does not supply any evidence of the king being misled, indeed, there is nothing in the text to substantiate the claims of Richard’s enemies. The king’s flawed decisions may be either solely his own work, or like Bolingbroke and others contend, they may be the fault of his advisors. It is historically true that Richard led an extravagant and expensive lifestyle and that the was implicated in the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester – ample reasons for many to hate him. However, the play presents us with an interpretative choice about who is really at fault and why exactly Richard fails as king and is forced to abdicate.

The queer king

Richard II is often read as a queer character. This will be unsurprising to many readers since, as Charles R. Forker notes, “Among twentieth-century actors, … the tradition of playing Richard as homosexual has steadily evolved” (16). In a similar vein but less flattering, Madhavi Menon writes of how “Laurence Olivier allegedly identified King Richard ‘as an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match’” (667). It is true that Shakespeare depicts Richard as theatrical and verbose, but how the character is played on stage often enhances the queer dimension. While Richard is queer in several respects from his effeminacy to his histrionics, he still evades an easy classification when it comes specifically to sexual orientation. The king’s sexuality remains a contentious subject for academics. To identify one of Shakespeare’s leading characters as queer, and to pinpoint the exact elements of queerness he exhibits is certainly thought provoking, and this adds to the pleasure of the play.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

King Richard II and cousin Aumerle.

Introduction.

Richard II is not the best known of Shakespeare’s plays but has nonetheless received considerable critical attention. There are myriad interpretative approaches to this work. For example, Madhavi Menon writes that “Richard II is usually read either as a metaphor for kingship, Christianity, poetry, and the like – or else through its metaphors of garden, mirror, and clock, among others” (653). Menon delves into the interlinked topics of rhetoric and sexuality as they apply to the play and his emphasis is on metonymy. Another popular approach to the play is to look at the historical aspect since Richard is not just a play character but an historical one too. Jeremy Lopez summarizes Shakespeare’s approach to the historical story, writing that, “The plot of Richard II in no way depends upon the, or any, historical record, though the playwright’s assessment of the importance of the historical record was certainly instrumental in the play’s conception” (222). Sylvia Federico also looks to history and how the story of Richard has solidified as somewhat one-sided over the centuries, writing,  “For those authors charged with explaining the Lancastrian usurpation of the throne in 1399, Richard II deserved to be deposed. He was said by these writers to be tyrannical, extravagant, mercurial, foppish, and alternatingly wilful or spineless – characteristics that have largely persisted in the historical and popular imagination ever since” (25). Since the play contains many fine and poetic speeches as well as interesting characterizations, there are a slew of fine essays on the work with sometimes complementary and sometimes contrasting interpretations.

Richard II is a tragedy (in all but name), and many academics focus on the king’s coterie of advisors when allocating blame for his fall. This is a well-established approach to the play. The king’s chief advisors are named Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Paul Gaudet writes of how historical records, which were often biased as Federico has already noted above, would have shaped Shakespeare’s play. Gaudet explains that “Bolingbroke’s harsh and summary justice is certainly vindicated by the historical judgment that Shakespeare inherited. Shakespeare’s written sources consistently associate Richard’s downfall with the injustices and prodigality urged upon him by his lubricious favorites” (142). In a similar vein, Stanley R. Maveety writes that, “In Richard II flattery and bad advice are cited as a principal cause of Richard’s failure, and his favorites, Bushy, Bagot, and Green, who are responsible for that bad advice, are often characterized by serpent imagery” (185). These various essays on Richard II are well grounded and often scintillating, however, they rarely engage with the figure of Aumerle, Richard’s cousin and also a close advisor. It is arguable that Aumerle holds the most sway over the king and therefore he is more deserving of close analysis than the advisors previously mentioned. In this essay, I will establish an argument for Aumerle’s primacy as the king’s advisor, an argument that requires one to critique the more accepted, traditional stance that Bushy, Bagot, Greene and the Earl of Wiltshire lie behind the king’s downfall.

Before gauging the persuasive strength of any individual advisor to King Richard, it is first necessary to look to the text to discover how amenable the king was to advice in general, be it good or bad. The fact that Richard is politically astute and skeptical of sugared words is apparent from the opening lines of the play. When Bolingbroke and Mowbray are brought before the king to settle their dispute, both men express their good wishes to the monarch to which he replies – “We thank you both – yet one but flatters us” (1.1.25). Flattery is exposed immediately as a potential lie. Much later, Richard is at Flint Castle and in a defeatist mood having just heard that York has sided with Bolingbroke. Aumerle attempts to soothe Richard but, once again, the response shows the king’s alertness to untruths wrapped in flattery – “He does me double wrong / That wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue” (3.2.209-210). At this point in the play, the king has expressed the command that his followers be discharged from their duties and he intends, it seems, to abdicate. The resoluteness of the king is clear from his words, “Let no man speak again / To alter this, for counsel is but vain” (3.2.206-207). This character does not correspond with the easily-swayed dupe that his enemies frequently portray in the text. With this insight in mind, plus the lack of any proof of detrimental advice being provided to the king, one is forced to look more closely at why the king would react favourably to particular advice, or to a particular advisor.

As will be discussed, the king’s advisors prove to be excellent, political scapegoats but only because they lead to the king’s downfall at the hands of his enemies. When Northumberland speaks with his comrades, Willoughby and Ross, he makes the initial claim that, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). Such words frighten Northumberland’s comrades since malign advisors are dangerous. When Bolingbroke finally sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he vindicates the sentence with the allegation – “You have misled a prince, a royal king (3.1.8). There is, however, no straightforward evidence of bad advice in the play. What is apparent is that the decisions Richard makes have detrimental consequences. York notes on two occasions that the king will reap what he has sown. Firstly, York comprehends the gross error of the king in seizing Bolingbroke’s rightful inheritance, saying, “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head; You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts” (2.1.205-206). When Bolingbroke does predictably return to England to claim his estate, York makes the following ominous remark about Richard, “Now comes the sick hour that his surfeit made; Now shall he try his friends that flattered him” (2.2.83-84). Richard’s chief mistake is clearly his seizure of John of Gaunt’s lands since this precipitates the circumstances of his own downfall. Did someone convince Richard to take this crucial decision? What is evident from Shakespeare’s text is that the king is a strong and cautions character not easily led into decisions he has not first amply considered. This leaves the question of Aumerle’s influence as one of many flatterers and advisors surrounding the monarch. If the king is not susceptible to sycophantic, self-interested minions then what is distinctive about Aumerle’s friendship and advice that sustains a reading of this character as eminently important? We shall endeavor to understand in this essay but to do so, one must first dissect the older argument about who is to blame for Richard’s downfall.

The advisors/flatterers.

There is a dichotomy between viewpoints on the king’s advisors – Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. They are considered either chiefly responsible for the king’s downfall, or they are absolved of all blame. These four characters, normally grouped together,  have received much attention in academic writings and a reader is amply supplied with interpretative angles. For instance, Madhavi Menon looks at the metaphor of weeds in the play, writing, “Both Bullingbrook and the gardener spell out their metaphorical intent and tell us, in no uncertain terms, the identity of the caterpillars and weeds. Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (665). Menon interprets the advisors as significantly influential, maybe even sexual partners of Richard’s, and thereby lays much blame on them. Derrick Higginbotham also focuses on the garden scene and writes, “Wiltshire, Bushy and Green are among those who consume the king, eating him insofar as he represents the kingdom as the whole. From this angle, these favourites of the king instigate the dissolution of the kingdom, just as much as Richard’s own desires do” (63). Sylvia Federico summarizes the role of the advisors as follows, “Rejecting the older, wiser men who were said to constitute the inner circle of Edward III, Richard II instead — according to the major chroniclers — surrounded himself with young and frivolous men. These advisers were considered dangerous to the king and to the realm, and were discussed with language that underscored the particularly sexual type of danger that they represented” (28). There are other academics who have given an opposing view of the advisors, for instance Paul Gaudet, who writes, “There is a conspicuous lack of any action or speech by the favorites that might depict their guilt and substantiate the charges leveled against them” (144). In fact, Gaudet believes that Shakespeare meant us to interpret the advisors as minor figures – “By dramatizing the favorites as passive attendants to the King, Shakespeare isolates Richard’s willfulness: he listens to no counsel, good or bad” (145). Charles R. Forker tackles a common interpretive approach to the advisors, writing “Although no tendency to sexual misconduct is ever staged in the play (Richard is portrayed throughout as passionately devoted and faithful to his consort), supporters of the homosexual interpretation have seized upon Bolingbroke’s charge, when he condemns them to death, that Bushy and Greene have been erotically involved with the king” (16-17). Forker goes on to explain that “In context, this allegation [sexual misconduct] must be taken as an act of political scapegoating on Bolingbroke’s part, a device introduced to turn audience sympathy away from the usurper” (17). These various interpretations highlight how much of a focal point the advisors hold in the play when seeking the root cause of Richard’s downfall. Unfortunately, critics rarely look further than the classic options of blaming either the king alone or his flattering advisors, so no third way of viewing the dynamic is presented. If Aumerle holds a stronger position of influence over Richard than the four men mentioned then recognizing a differentiating factor between the advisors, namely between Aumerle and the four, is salient.

The favourites versus Aumerle.

Shakespeare portrays a conspicuous split between Bagot and Aumerle. This split emerges quite dramatically when Bagot is brought before Bolingbroke to answer the new king’s interrogations. Bagot is the equivalent of a modern day ‘star witness’ who will provide vital information to Bolingbroke who needs to solidify his regal position. The mystery to be solved is still Gloucester’s death and this is the same crime that opened the drama and which Richard is suspected of commanding. In the following quote, Bolingbroke uses the phrase ‘wrought it’ which in modern English means persuaded/collaborated with:

Bolingbroke: “Now, Bagot, freely speak thy mind

What thou dost know of noble Gloucester’s death 

Who wrought it with the king, and who performed

The bloody office of this timeless end”

Bagot: “Then set before my face the Lord Aumerle” (4.1.2-6)

In Bagot’s subsequent speech, he makes not one but two major charges against Aumerle. The first is the accusation that Aumerle is behind the death of Gloucester – “I heard you [Aumerle] say ‘Is not my arm of length, / That reacheth from the restful English Court /As far as Calais, to mine uncle’s head?’ ” (4.1.11-13). The second charge relates to the new king, Bagot says – “I heard you [Aumerle] say that you had rather refuse / The offer of an hundred thousand crowns / Than Bolingbroke’s return to England” (4.1.15-17). Fitzwater and others support Bagot’s claim relating to Gloucester’s death but Surrey defends Aumerle and therefore Aumerle suffers no immediate punishment since the disagreement will be settled later by man to man combat. Bolingbroke states that “Your differences shall all rest under gage / Till we assign you to your days of trial” (4.1.10-111). The significance of these accusations is that Aumerle is revealed to be behind the biggest decision of King Richard’s, namely the execution of Gloucester, a death that ultimately costs Richard his crown. It was Bolingbroke’s charge against Mowbray concerning the same murder that first implicated the king, led to Bolingbroke’s banishment, and finally to the clash between Bolingbroke and Richard. Additionally, one learns that Bolingbroke is anathema to Aumerle. From the split that emerges between the different camps of advisors, thought previously to be one unified group, one discovers the primary source of Richard’s advice and it is Aumerle.

In addition to Bagot heaping blame upon Aumerle, the confession also illuminates the fact that Bolingbroke’s earlier charges against Bushy, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire (all executed now) represents contradictory information. On that occasion, Bolingbroke’s charge against them was that they “did make him [King Richard] misinterpret me” (3.1.18) which he explains as the cause of his banishment and the loss of his rightful inheritance. Yet, Bagot has just revealed that Aumerle is Bolingbroke’s true enemy and therefore more deserving of responsibility for Bolingbroke’s fall from grace than the lesser nobles who were executed. Aumerle has the ear of the king and Bagot’s revelations unveil the power the king’s cousin wields.

The above reading which lays all blame at Aumerle’s feet is not the conventional approach to the play. Some critics, lacking evidence of Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire’s influence, focus instead on Richard’s dramatic response to their deaths as tangential evidence of their power. The particular scene is in Act 3,Scene 2 when Richard returns from Ireland and Salisbury advises him that his return is one day too late and he has lost the support of twelve thousand men because of a rumour of his death. Richard enquires after his advisors and pessimistically considers – “I warrant they have made peace with Bolingbroke” (3.2.122). Scroop’s response leads Richard to misinterpret the situation, believing the men have indeed betrayed him, leading to the following, memorable outburst.

“O villains, vipers, damned without redemption!

Dogs easily won to fawn on any man;

Snakes in my heart blood warmed, that sting my heart;

Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas –

Would they make peace? Terrible hell make war

Upon their spotted souls for this offense! (3.2.124-129).

Scroop, realizing that the king has misinterpreted his response, adds the following:

“Sweet love, I see, changing his property,

Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.

Again uncurse their souls. Their peace is made

With heads and not with hands. (3.2.130.133).

It is not unusual for readers to attach great significance to Scroop’s use of the term ‘sweet love’ to denote the king’s affection for the men. The basic analysis of Scroop’s words is that only great love can undergo the reverse alchemical change to pure hate. The king immediately proceeds to give his famous ‘hollow crown’ speech which is quite melancholy and forebodes his final defeat. Madhavi Menon reads the scene as follows , “As in Holinshed, the death of King Richard’s friends is the straw that breaks the camel’s back; Scroop aptly describes King Richard’s condition when he says: ‘Sweet love, I see, changing his property, / Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.’ The extremities of King Richard’s emotions are reserved for Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (669). However, an alternative viewpoint is that Richard has little faith in the men to begin with, presuming all too quickly that they betrayed him, like fawning  dogs with a new owner. This corroborates the idea that Richard is always cautious of flattery and understands the fickle nature of advisors. If one looks to the actual content of the ‘hollow crown’ soliloquy then it does not concern the dead men but focuses instead on Richard’s own imminent death – “Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s, / And nothing can we call our own but death” (3.2.156-157). This is not the speech of a man lamenting the loss of his royal advisors but a king fearing the loss of his own throne and life. The responsibility of the advisors’ rests upon demonstrable bad advice and the king’s love, but these twin pillars crumble when one looks closely for evidence. Only Richard’s enemies heap blame on the advisors, and we have little beyond these accusations to support the claim.

Aumerle

Aumerle, the king’s cousin, generally receives little attention and yet is a figure of great power and influence. The play’s character Aumerle also echoes the real-life historical figure. In Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, we learn who were the influential advisors to the king – “cheefe of his councell, were estéemed of the commons to be the woorst creatures that might be, as the dukes of Aumarle, Norfolke and Excester, the earle of Wiltshire, sir Iohn Bushie, sir William Bagot, and sir Thomas Gréene” (844). Whereas these seven characters may not have been deemed wholesome in the eyes of their peers, it is salient to know which of them wielded the greatest power. Holinshed informs us that “The king had little trust in any of the nobilitie, except in his brother the earle of Huntington, and the earle of Rutland sonne to the duke of Yorke, and in the earle of Salisburie: in these onelie he reposed a confidence, and not in any other, except in certeine knights and gentlemen of his priuie chamber” (839). The Rutland spoken of here is the Aumerle of Shakespeare’s play who is referred to as Rutland at the end of the play due to his changed circumstances. The historical record which Shakespeare relied upon for the foundation of his play and the resulting fictional characterization of Aumerle, both indicate a power figure in the royal household. Having established Aumerle’s influence, one must still ask how his role differs significantly, if at all, from the other royal advisors? One important difference is that Aumerle’s continuous loyalty to the king costs him dearly, indicating that he is not simply one who proffers empty, flattering words. We learn of the change in Aumerle’s circumstances when the Duchess of York addresses her son by his old title and York corrects her as follows – “Aumerle that was; / But that is lost for being Richard’s friend, / And, madam, you must call him Rutland now” (5.2.41-43). Not only does Aumerle pay a considerable price for his loyalty to Richard II, namely a title and lands, but he professes to not care. This is revealed when his mother questions him on who the new group of favourites are, now that Bolingbroke is in power –

Duchess: “Welcome, my son. Who are

the violets now

That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?

Aumerle: Madam, I know not, nor I greatly care not.

God knows I had as lief be none as one” (5.2.46-49).

Aumerle’s rejection of the role of favourite displays the depth of character he possesses. There is additional evidence to support this reading since Aumerle is the man who urges the plan to unseat Bolingbroke who is Richard’s illegitimate successor. One first witnesses this when Aumerle, upon hearing of Bolingbroke’s plans for a coronation, addresses the Abbot of Westminster, saying – “You holy clergymen, is there no plot / To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” (4.1.317-318). The plot that emerges comes almost to fruition but Aumerle’s father, York, intercepts his son’s machinations and denounces his offspring as follows – “Treason, foul treason! Villain! traitor! slave!” (5.2.72). York informs his wife, and later Bolingbroke, that Aumerle and the other plotters, “set down their hands [signed a treasonous plan] / To kill the King at Oxford” (5.2.98-99). York’s plea for the new king to be cautious encapsulates the risks of political life – “Forget to pity him, lest thy pity prove / A serpent that will sting thee to the heart” (5.3.57-58). This plea is not remiss if one looks back to Aumerle’s covertly ruthless advice to King Richard to dispatch with his enemy, saying, “Bolingbroke, through our security, / Grows strong and great in substance and in power” (2.1). The king’s cousin, Aumerle, is a key power-broker. Even though he rejects the role of favourite, he offers the most germane advice in the play, namely for the king to rid himself of the threat of Bolingbroke. When this advice is not followed and Bolingbroke comes to power, it is Aumerle who again comes to the king’s aid with a plan to murder Bolingbroke.

It is difficult for an audience to appreciate the full scope of the role that Aumerle plays since his influence is obscured by two key decisions by Bolingbroke. Firstly, he does not suffer an immediate punishment for his alleged role in Gloucester’s death and secondly, despite his treachery, he is fully pardoned by Henry IV (Bolingbroke). It is therefore too easy to read Aumerle as a cunning survivor aka a shallow flatterer when one should recognise instead a loyal subject of Richard’s. We have pinpointed Aumerle’s influence on the major decisions of Richard’s late reign, along with an argument to de-prioritize the traditional flatters (Bushy &co), but one is left with the question – why does this single figure hold such influence? To answer this, one must look to the only other significant relationship in Richard’s life, with his wife, and compare it with his relationship with Aumerle.

The fictional queen.

Shakespeare’s Queen Isabella, Richard’s wife, is not a figure whom historians would immediately recognize. She is partly a fabrication. As Robyn Bolam writes, “The historical Richard married his second queen when she was seven years old … Yet, like Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare gave her the voice of an adult woman” (154). Richard II had two wives but neither bore him an heir to the throne. He first married Anne of Bohemia and they were married for twelve years before she died of suspected plague, after which the king married Isabella of Valois. His second queen was not only a child when they married but was still a child at the time of Richard’s death a few years later. By transforming Isabella into an adult in the play, Shakespeare creates a consort who could advise her husband, support him, and importantly, join him in the marriage bed. The absence of such a character in real life meant that Richard would have relied on those closest to him, often men, for support, advice, and comfort. With this information in mind, one may look to two quite remarkably similar scenes in the play where Richard’s interacts with his cousin Aumerle, a true historical figure, and later with his wife, a fabricated figure. What is in question here is the precise nature of the relationship the King has with each character. The fictional queen occupies a phantom space since no such figure existed, and thereby she detracts our attention from the king’s reliance on his closest advisors in real life. One may reject this reading as an imposition of historical fact into a largely fictional play but the characterizations of Aumerle and Isabella also shed light on how Shakespeare intended us to read these figures.

The first scene for analysis is from Act 3, Scene 3, when Richard and Aumerle converse at Flint Castle, North Wales. The second scene is from Act 5, Scene 1, when Richard is a prisoner being brought to the Tower of London and he meets his queen en route. The key points of both conversations touch on subjects like future expectations, advice, death, and love.

Good advice is a key theme of the play and may be assessed in Richard’s interactions with those closest to him. For example, Richard is ashamed of having capitulated so quickly to Bolingbroke’s demands at Flint Castle and asks Aumerle if it would be better to – “send defiance to the traitor, and so die?” (3.3.129-130) to which his friend replies, “No, good my Lord. Let’s fight with gentle words till time lend friends, and friends their helpful swords” (3.3.131-132). There is a marked difference between Aumerle’s strategic advice and the queen’s advice in the later scene when a similarly despondent Richard is scolded when she says, “The lion dying, thrusteth forth his paw / And wounds the earth , if nothing else, with rage” (5.1.29-30). The contrast is that Aumerle is comforting and non-judgmental, while remaining politically savvy in his advice, whereas the queen is primarily concerned with Richard’s unmasculine response to defeat. As Higginbotham writes, “From the start, the play delineates a manhood proper to noblemen and that manhood includes violence as revenge” (65). Isabella spurs Richard to action that would meet one’s stereotypical expectations of a courageous king but Aumerle responds sensitively to the earlier, analogous situation and manages still to offer hope of future victory. Knowing Richard’s nature, both the queen and Aumerle would have come to expect dramatic, solipsistic speeches yet only one of them knows how to respond appropriately. Richard tells Aumerle, “I talk but idly [foolishly], and you mock at me” (3.3.171). In other words, Aumerle does not take the king’s words as meaning defeat but simply as a typical soliloquy from a verbose monarch. The king’s situation has deteriorated significantly between the two scenes and Isabella’s expectation is that her husband should die with honour at this late point rather than accept defeat by Bolingbroke. In contrast, Aumerle is shown to attempt to save Richard right to the end with a new treacherous plan to kill Bolingbroke. In this light, the queen becomes a conventional mouthpiece, voicing standard expectations of warrior-like masculinity, while Aumerle is shown to be a more astute, resourceful, and altogether a more loyal figure.

Richard’s melancholic thoughts on a tragic end shed light on his separate relationships with the queen and Aumerle. When the king contemplates his uncertain future in Aumerle’s presence, he imagines that he will become a poor clergyman whose life will finally be recorded in “a little, little grave, an obscure grave” (3.3.154) or, more sombre, that he will take his own life as suggested by “Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway” (3.3.155). Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads. In the second scene, when Richard and his queen must separate, he imagines a religious life for her in the future, “Hie thee to France / And cloister thee in some religious house” (5.1.22-23). Yet, the foreseen inevitability of his separation from the tearful Isabella contrasts with how Richard responds to Aumerle’s tears. The king’s words about his own downfall provide a projection of both men’s joint doom.

“Aumerle, thou weep’st, my tender-hearted cousin.

We’ll make foul weather with despised tears;

Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn

And make a dearth in this revolting land.

Or shall we play the wantons with our woes

And make some pretty match with shedding tears,

As thus, to drop them still upon one place

Till they have fretted us a pair of graves

Within the earth; and therein laid, there lies

Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes?

Would not this ill do well? (3.3.160-170).

It is clear that Aumerle’s emotional response to the king’s plight is met with a reciprocal, loving response. Unlike Richard’s response to Isabella – “We make woe wanton with this fond delay. Once more, adieu; the rest let sorrow say” (5.2.101-102), Richard does not envision being separated from Aumerle but, instead, of “play[ing] the wantons with our woes” and of being encased in the earth side by side in death. Derrick Higginbotham comments on this scene, writing that, “Within this image of Richard sharing woes with Aumerle, the king portrays them as unruly and unchaste since they “play the wantons” together, with “wanton” redolent of sexual disorder. Combined with the suggestiveness of Bolingbroke’s accusations against Richard’s favourites, this moment in the text enables a reading of the signs of male friendship as possibly sodomitical, as queer” (68-69). One may reject this reading by referring to Richard’s affecting parting from his queen when he says, “One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part; / Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart” (5.2.95-96). Nevertheless, Isabella remains an anachronistic construction since the historical figure was a mere child at the time of Richard’s downfall. More importantly, Richard envisages sharing his doom with Aumerle but his queen plays no such role. Thus, one learns to appreciate the bond between Aumerle and Richard and the dark, homoerotic tones to Richard’s speech as outlined by Higginbotham.

Emotion is a marker of love, and worthy of attention in the play. All those closest to Richard shed tears at his downfall. For instance, the queen on seeing Richard being led through the streets as a prisoner, says the following words to herself.

“That you in pity may dissolve to dew

And wash him fresh again with true-love tears.

Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand,

Thou map of honour, thou King Richard’s tomb,

And not King Richard.” (5.1.9-13).

Richard’s response to the tears of others reveals much. One key example is when Richard says to his uncle, York, “nay – dry your eyes. Tears show their love but want their remedies” (3.3.201-202) meaning that they do no good. York sheds his tears just before Richard admits defeat and tells Bolingbroke, “What you will have, I’ll give, and willing, too” (3.3.205). Much like the words of Isabella, it is the downfall of a king that chiefly prompts such a show of emotion by York. It is only with Aumerle that Richard shares his tears, so to speak, because he is glad to indulge his sorrow in the company of his friend. There is a subtle but noticeable difference between these scenes but the tears of those like York and the queen are tainted by royal expectations. One comes slowly to appreciate that the bond between Richard II and Aumerle is the reason that the latter holds such enormous sway over the former in regard to advice.

Conclusion.

Is Richard’s relationship with Aumerle therefore more than just King and cousin? The nature of the relationship remains shrouded since the text gives hints but no evidence of a homosexual bond. Joseph Pequigney summarizes the generally cautious attitude to using the term homosexuality when referring to figures from early modern times – “The concept is inapplicable because considered anachronistic, not only for its origin in nineteenth-century medical and social science, but also for always denoting historically distorted sexual orientation or identity” (124). However, he quickly dismantles this argument by showing that many of the terms we use, even heterosexual, date from a much later period than the early modern one (126). It is not my wish to open Pandora’s box by trying to label Aumerle as gay but rather to tentatively fly the kite on this topic merely to underline the depth of feeling between the men that allowed total trust. It is probably more appropriate to label their relationship as same-sex love which may be platonic, or indeed romantic. Since an adult Queen Isabella is a distortion of the historical story then one is freer to speculate on the king’s romantic partners, as many critics have done. The goal of this essay is to determine who is Richard’s most influential advisor and why, and the essay has provided sufficient grounds to move away from the traditional reliance on Bushy and Co. as the scapegoats for Richard’s fall and to focus instead on Aumerle. The main contrast is that Aumerle is not a liability to the king.

Reading Aumerle as the one who provides Richard with various key stratagems totally changes the meaning of the play. Aumerle survives and thrives, even under the new rule of Bolingbroke,  and therefore he can be read as a classic, Machiavellian figure. In the traditional interpretations, the advisors are fickle, flawed figures who are responsible for the King’s demise and who pay for their greed and bad advice with their own lives. In contrast, to read Aumerle as the power figure is to see the king on the cusp of victory – had he only listened to Aumerle’s advice to eradicate the threat of Bolingbroke. It is the brand of expedience that Aumerle promotes that would have altered everything for the king. Menon similarly ponders if “King Richard’s shortcoming is that he did not have Bullingbrook killed, an act of mercy that has now come back to haunt the king” (664) but he dismisses this idea given the list of executions that Richard had already commanded. However, it is the correct line of thought. Richard need no longer be seen as a dupe of bad advice but as one who did not overreach enough, did not push his power to its very limit. This reading also bolsters one’s view of the king’s intuition in regard to advice since he was within reach of victory. Aumerle is the perfect shadow figure behind the crown who watches as lesser advisors are executed, while he continues to silently scheme to save Richard. His longevity in the cut-throat political sphere of the times exhibits a man of substance, a lynchpin in Shakespeare’s tale.

Works Cited.

Bolam, Robyn. “Richard II: Shakespeare and the Languages of the Stage.” The Cambridge  Companion  to  Shakespeare’s  History  Plays,  edited  by  Michael  Hattaway, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.141-157.

Federico, Sylvia. “Queer Times: Richard II in the Poems and Chronicles of Late Fourteenth-Century England.” Medium Ævum, Vol. 79, No. 1, 2010, pp. 25-46.

Forker, Charles R. “Unstable Identity in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Renascence, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2001, pp. 3-22.

Gaudet, Paul. “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare’s Richard II: A Problem in Dramatic Interpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1982, pp. 142-154.

Higginbotham, Derrick. “The Construction of a King: Waste, Effeminacy, and Queerness in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa, Vol. 26, 2014, pp. 59-73.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland – Vol. II of VI; Part 12 of 12; Richard II. Project Gutenberg, 2016.

Lopez, Jeremy. “Eating Richard II.” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 36, 2008, pp. 207-228.

Maveety, Stanley R. “A Second Fall of Cursed Man: The Bold Metaphor in ‘Richard II.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 72, No. 2, 1973, pp. 175-193.

Menon, Madhavi. “Richard II and the Taint of Metonymy.” ELH, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2003, pp. 653-675.

Pequigney, Joseph. “The (In)significance: ‘What the age might call sodomy’ and Homosexuality in Certain Studies of Shakespeare’s Plays.” Intertexts, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2004, pp. 117-134.

Shakespeare, William. “The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016. Pp.896-956.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

  • Play title:The Beauty Queen of Leenane  
  • Author: Martin McDonagh  
  • Published: 1996  
  • Page count: 66  

Summary. 

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, released in 1996, was Martin McDonagh’s first play. The setting for the work is a cottage nestled in the mountains of Connemara in County Galway, Ireland. In this remote spot live Maggie (Mag) Folan and her middle-aged, single daughter Maureen. Their relationship is acrimonious. Maureen is her mother’s carer and the two women eke out an existence. There is an upheaval in both women’s lives when Pato Dooley returns from England and begins romancing Maureen. Mag resents the development as she fears being left alone by her daughter or worse, being sent to a retirement home. In contrast, Maureen fantasizes about her prospects of starting a new life with Pato in England or the United States. Soon, reality and fantasy blur in McDonagh’s black comedy and we witness a shocking act of violence. The play deals with themes such as emigration, Irish nationalism, madness, dependency, hatred, and escape.

Ways to access the text: reading

The play is quite easy to source online. One free source is the Open Library. If you are already a member of Scribd then you will also be able to read the play via their website. The work is reader-friendly and relatively short.

To my knowledge, there is no audiobook version or full recorded performance of this play available online.

Why read The Beauty Queen of Leenane?

Cruelty, Irish style.

Mag and Maureen are equally difficult women, but only one of them is capable of truly monstrous acts. Both characters are poised to be cruel but for wholly different reasons. Mag is effectively trapped in the house and her most basic needs like a decent, edible meal or an occasional day trip are entirely dependent on her daughter’s temperamental nature. In counterbalance, Maureen resents the situation she finds herself in as carer and says that she is just a “skivvy” (7) for her aged mother. The exceptional cruelty and violence that occurs in McDonagh’s play gives expression to years of bitterness and feelings of entrapment. There is a well-known precedent for such depictions of cruelty in Irish theatre, namely J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. However, Synge’s character of Christy Mahon who claims to have murdered his authoritarian father is really a teller of tall tales whereas McDonagh’s scorned woman takes real and terrible action. The echoes of Playboy (abbrev.) which are numerous in Beauty Queen (abbrev.) help to frame the abundance of familial violence as something distinctly Irish, as if only families on this wind-swept and rainy island in the North Atlantic can explode with such flinty hatred.

Fairy tales.

An audience familiar with McDonagh’s later plays will know that fairy tales often influence his writings. This is most apparent in The Pillowman, however Beauty Queen also bears the mark of fairy tale influence, specifically in its multiple allusions to the tale of Cinderella. The similarities can be seen quite readily: Maureen has two sisters whom she hates and a cruel mother who treats her like a parlour maid and who repeatedly attempts to stop Maureen going to meet the man of her dreams at the party. Maureen is certainly an unconventional Cinderella and as the play progresses, she appears to be starring in a macabre tale rather than a Disney classic. Through the incorporation of a classic fairy tale into his play, McDonagh manages to combine and balance a fascinating mix of realism and fantasy and the result is quite modern. Like many fairy tales, McDonagh gives us a story that is captivating and timeless.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The Fairy Tale Escape of a Middle-Aged Cinderella.

Introduction.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane was McDonagh’s first big success and actually his first foray into the theatre world and it assuredly sets his tone and style of writing. If one is not already familiar with any of McDonagh’s work, then deciding on how to react to Beauty Queen is probably the biggest challenge. The play opens on what appears a realistic scene depicting a mother and daughter relationship set in rural Ireland, but events quickly take us into surreal territory. The play is humorous but also unsettlingly violent at times, and one must come to grips with the provocative action on display before fully appreciating the story. The violence is not wholly gratuitous since it propels the storyline forward and aids our interpretation of events. Many theatre critics and academics have provided authoritative, well-argued interpretations of Beauty Queen often with an emphasis on the grotesque and I will refer to some key points from their interpretations when providing a new reading of the play. In this essay, Beauty Queen will be viewed primarily from the standpoint that it is a loose adaptation of the classic tale of Cinderella. Therefore, I will look at the themes of Cinderella, namely servitude, dreams, romance, marriage, and escape. It is escape that will hold the most prominent position since Cinderella is a young woman who escapes her evil stepmother and heartless stepsisters to a new life, just as Maureen in Beauty Queen hopes to escape her dreary existence of caring for an antagonistic, elderly mother, having already been abandoned by her unsupportive sisters who fled the family home years previously.

The nature of the violence in fairy tales is distinctive. The violence depicted in Beauty Queen is quite reminiscent of the shocking events depicted in the Grimm’s original version of Cinderella. For example, the notably macabre twist where two women’s eyes are plucked out by birds. In The Juniper Tree, one more of the Grimm’s unsettling tales, we meet yet another evil stepmother who decapitates a little boy – “his head flew off and fell among the red apples” (257). Grotesque is the word that best describes such acts of violence, and this label is an essential interpretative inroad to McDonagh’s work. Furthermore, the origin of the anger behind the violence is usually the clue to understanding fairy tales and this also proves to be the case in Beauty Queen. Maureen’s rage is what propels her to escape, but the rage comes from deep psychological trauma.

The grotesque is a shared characteristic of Beauty Queen and fairy tales. Several writers and critics have recognized the presence of the grotesque in McDonagh’s various plays and its significance, but they have not yet established a link with fairy tales which will be explored here. In an essay entitled “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner,” Ondřej Pilný looks in detail at what exactly qualifies McDonagh’s work as an exemplar of the grotesque, and he outlines his perspective as follows:

“I have suggested elsewhere that the aesthetic of Martin McDonagh’s work may be summed up by the term grotesque entertainment, and it will perhaps be useful to repeat its chief characteristics here. These include the staging of graphic, often gratuitous violence, offensive language, ubiquitous black humour and the provision of crude – but hardly resistible – laughs. What is typical is the lack of depth of character psychology, and in accordance with the traditional notion of the grotesque, the mixing of disparate generic and thematic elements.”

(Pilný 162)

In Beauty Queen, one finds all the elements of the grotesque listed by Pilný. For example, Maureen delivers the gratuitous violence when she uses a poker to break a piece off her dying/dead mother’s skull. Such an act mimics the often-fantastical violence of fairy tales. Mag is similar to a fairy-tale villain because we never gain even the slightest glimpse into her psychology. She presents an impenetrable, malign surface just like the evil stepmother of Cinderella. There is an abundance of black humour in the play, for instance, Mag’s promise to Ray not to open Maureen’s letter when she says, “may God strike me dead if I do open it” (47) and later her broken promise leads to her death. One also finds an extensive range of thematic elements in Maureen’s circuitous story. A crucial element of the argument of this essay is that McDonagh embeds a fairy tale (intentionally or otherwise) within the structure of a traditional Irish play and this implant facilitates the delivery of the characteristically grotesque elements referred to by Pilný. Gayanne Ramsden writes of how “The English nineteenth century art critique, John Ruskin, in his Stones of Venice, said that the grotesque had two elements: the ludicrous and the terrifying” (1). This sums up one’s experience of Beauty Queen since it is indeed a mix of humour and violence. The broader significance of the grotesque in Beauty Queen as outlined by critics and academics will be assessed further in the body of the discussion.

The last point to address in this introduction is that some readers will be sceptical of the idea that it was McDonagh’s intention to retell Cinderella in play format or even to make a sustained allusion to Cinderella. While McDonagh’s intentions would be enlightening, they do not preclude one from interpreting the play based on what it strongly resembles. Therefore, authorial intention will not be addressed in this essay. The story of Maureen Folan bears an undeniable and uncanny resemblance to the classic fairy tale of Cinderella. In fact, the fairy tale and play form a palimpsest effect. The points of correspondence as well as the differences between the works are pregnant with significances. The Cinderella story is generally understood to be a fixed text; however, the original story is quite old and has been adapted by several famous writers through the centuries such as Charles Perrault in 1697 and then again by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812. McDonagh’s play is not a strict retelling of one specific version of Cinderella but an addition to a long history of rewrites. The proven malleability of the fairy tale allows scope to create a collage of existing story points with some modern additions. There are three elements in Beauty Queen that perfectly match Cinderella’s story and they are that a young woman is placed in degrading servitude to a mother/mother figure, that she is obstructed from attending the party/ball, and finally, that she embraces the prospect of marriage (as an escape route).

Cinderella – a tale of escape.

The core theme of the Cinderella story is escape and not romance as many erroneously believe. This is a more sombre reading of the classic but a defensible one. It is true that the beautiful, young woman is enchanted by the prince at the ball but equally true is that she spends just a few hours in his company before accepting his marriage proposal. The romance blossoms prematurely and this may be explained by the backdrop of Cinderella’s home life where her father disregards her and allows her to be treated abominably by his new wife and stepdaughters. It is also of relevance that Cinderella is still mourning the death of her mother. In short, an emotionally vulnerable and ill-treated young woman manages to elude her tyrannical stepmother to go to the ball and upon meeting the charming prince her gold-plated destiny is secured in the most serendipitous manner – cue the fairy tale ending! In Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions of the tale, there is an often-overlooked acknowledgement that Cinderella must still forgive or avenge her prior mistreatment. In modern parlance, closure is needed, and Perrault depicts a reconciliation between Cinderella and her family, but the Grimm’s depict an alternative, dark, gruesome fate for the stepsisters. In comparison, Maureen in Beauty Queen has long sought to escape her dire domestic situation and suddenly a prospective marriage conveniently serves as an exit route. In contrast to Cinderella’s tale, Mag thwarts Maureen’s romance by denying her the chance to attend the ‘ball’ on the second night. It is Maureen’s need to expel her anger over her mistreatment that leads to extreme violence, and this is her form of closure. Marriage is ostensibly the primary goal of both Cinderella and Maureen, but marriage also doubles as a protective shield against the travails of life and crucially offers an escape from an old life. The pain of the old life exerts a force on both women’s decisions. Neither woman knows her prospective husband sufficiently to marry him and if one removes the rose-tinted glasses of fairy-tale-land then the desire to marry is unmasked to be a coldly practical choice.

In keeping with the fairy-tale story, Maureen has two sisters just like Cinderella. These sisters contribute significantly to the horrible conditions of Cinderella’s life. The Grimms detail how Cinderella’s stepmother “had brought two daughters into the house with her, who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” (140). They subsequently treat Cinderella as little more than a “kitchen-wench” (140). Maureen similarly resents her idle siblings who offer no assistance in caring for their mother. Maureen taunts Mag, saying, “Do you see Annette or Margo coming pouring your Complan or buying our oul cod in butter sauce for the week?” (6). Mag nonetheless appreciates and possibly values her lost daughters above Maureen since she keeps them in mind – “The dedication Annette and Margo sent we still haven’t heard. I wonder what’s keeping it?” (7). A simple radio request overshadows Maureen’s daily graft and sacrifice. When one looks to the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, one reads of quite different fates for the cruel sisters. Perrault writes that Cinderella forgives their unkindness and, in the end, they become friends. In a quite different and grotesque ending, the Grimm’s recount how pigeons pecked out the eyes of both sisters on Cinderella wedding day, “And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived” (148). In Beauty Queen, it is the day of a funeral rather than a wedding that offers the chance for Maureen to reconcile with or avenge herself on her sisters. The fact that Maureen does not engage with her sisters on the day of their mother’s funeral is testament to the deep-seated wound. A hypothesis for Maureen’s grudge is that neither sister came to her aid in the immediate aftermath of her mental breakdown in England thus leaving her to the mercy of her mother. Being abandoned by her sisters results in her loss of freedom as well as feeling emotionally hurt. Escape is the antidote to the poisonous predicament Maureen finds herself in. Maureen first seeks escape in marriage but later finds it via murder.

Servitude – The beginning of a contract.

A significant aspect of Cinderella’s story is how she came under the guardianship of an evil stepmother. The Grimms and Perrault hold to the familiar tale of how a young woman’s natural mother dies, and her father subsequently remarries. Perrault describes this second wife as “the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen” (79). McDonagh captures the same aura of narcissism in his description of Mag when she sits alone in her kitchen “staring at her reflection in [a] hand mirror. She pats her hair a couple of times” (12). Mag is just as selfish and self-absorbed as the fairy-tale stepmother and just as willing to take advantage of someone in her care. Cinderella is mistreated while still grieving her dead mother and Maureen who has just returned from England after a mental breakdown is mistreated by Mag. Less apparent to readers are the legal contracts that make possible the subjugation of these young women. The remarriage of Cinderella’s father means that she is under the legal guardianship of her stepmother who subsequently treats the young woman as a chattel. In Maureen’s case, it is mental illness that necessitates a guardianship contract for an adult, explained by Mag to Pato as follows – “I did have to sign her [Maureen] out of [Difford Hall] and promise to keep her in me care” (35). The initial depiction of Mag as a harmless, old woman is quite deceptive. In fact, Mag callously takes advantage of Maureen’s weakness i.e., her breakdown, to ensure that she remains in a subordinate situation, slaving away in the house. The psychological blows endured by Cinderella and Maureen are clear and therefore the actions of their evil guardians appear even more malignant when exposed. Maureen’s bondage is prolonged, and this serves to illuminate why she eventually resorts to such abhorrent measures to gain freedom.

Maureen’s incarceration in Difford Hall is her first loss of freedom. The young woman’s breakdown signaled her inability to cope with her new life including the discrimination she encountered at her cleaning job. Mag’s power to have her adult daughter discharged into her care is Maureen’s second, catastrophic loss of freedom. Just like in the fairy tale where Cinderella is demeaned by the tasks she must carry out and by the dirty clothes she is forced to wear, Maureen is also degraded by her new and involuntary role as carer/cleaner. She already worked as a cleaner in Leeds, cleaning toilets, and then later in her mother’s house she is left to wash the kitchen sink that smells of her mother’s urine. The war of attrition that Mag wages against her daughter is an echo of the discrimination that Maureen experienced in England. The venom that is stored in Mag’s personality is given voice when Maureen suddenly and unexpectedly gets a chance to restart her life in middle age. Mag quite cruelly links Maureen’s state of undress the morning after her romantic tryst with Pato to the attire available to patients in Difford Hall mental institution, saying, “None of your own clothes they let you wear in there either, did they? …Only long oul gowns and buckle-down jackets” (34). This reminds one of what Cinderella’s family did, “They took her pretty clothes away from her, put an old grey bedgown on her, and gave her wooden shoes” (140). The “little black dress” (54) that Maureen buys to go to the party is much like the gown Cinderella is gifted in the story and has the same transformational properties – from skivvy to potential bride. Mag’s humiliation of her daughter is not simply a show of power, but it also serves to actively sabotage Maureen’s chances of romance with Pato. Difford Hall is the invisible chain that binds Maureen to her mother’s house in the form of a written agreement even though it is some twenty years old. Mag re-enslaved her daughter on a premise that sadly is still valid for Maureen as it involves her shameful past.

Servitude – Her mother’s skivvy.

The resentment grown of long servitude is an important aspect of the Cinderella story that McDonagh brings to a violent crescendo in his retelling. Maureen is in perpetual servitude to her mother’s needs, is unable to have a normal social life, and is demeaned by her mother’s critical comments. These story points reflect the tale of Cinderella but slight nuances in the retelling are also informative. For example, Mag fulfils the role of the evil stepmother despite the fact that she is Maureen’s biological mother. The true biological tie casts Mag in a darker light since her lack of maternal love is more blatant. Mag mistreats her daughter and as a result, Maureen feels that she is little more than a “skivvy” (7) who is at Mag’s “beck and call” (19). This matches the fairy tale where Perrault writes that Cinderella was made do “the meanest work of the house” (79), while the Brothers Grimm recount how Cinderella’s stepmother and half-sisters, “led her into the kitchen. [And] There she had to do hard work from morning till night” (140). One may view Mag’s habit of emptying her potty of urine in the kitchen sink as humorous, yet Maureen invariably cleans up afterwards. The other principal factors in Maureen’s story are how she is continually thwarted from having a normal social life and is subject to critical comments. Mag fails to communicate Ray’s invite to the party and when Maureen finds out then she accuses Mag of “Arsing me around, eh? Interfering with my life again? … Is it one evening out you begrudge me? (19). In the Brothers Grimm version, the stepmother first sets Cinderella several virtually impossible tasks to complete before the possibility of permission to attend the ball is considered, but finally denies the girl the opportunity anyway, saying “Thou art dusty and dirty and wouldst go to the festival?” (142). It is noteworthy that the refusal is accompanied by hurtful and undermining comments about Cinderella. Perrault similarly writes of how the stepmother and sisters made fun of Cinderella, “it would make the people laugh to see a Cinder-breech at a ball” (83). In Beauty Queen, Mag likewise berates her daughter, first branding her a “whore” (20) for desiring to go out and meet a man. Then later, Mag paradoxically belittles Maureen due to her obvious lack of sexual experience, saying – “You still do have the look of a virgin about you you always have had. You always will” (51). McDonagh repeats an element that we view in the various versions of the fairy tale, namely how Mag as the evil guardian capitalizes on Maureen’s inexperience so that the maximum pain may be inflicted. A sexually naïve, middle-aged woman caught in the trap of domestic servitude must feel such barbed comments quite deeply. Whereas Cinderella may sublimate her anger once she is safely married to the prince, Maureen cannot avail of this nobler outlet since her mother appears to have successfully sabotaged her chances of finding a husband. Maureen’s anger bubbles and foreshadows the violence that is to come.

The grotesque in Beauty Queen.

Mag resembles Cinderella’s stepmother in malignancy but only via references to the grotesque may one fully appreciate the exaggerated characterization of this crone. In the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Hagan wrote that McDonagh’s “two key signatures: [are] an exaggerated-to-the-point-of-grotesque cast of characters who skate dangerously close to caricature, and a humour that emerges from an almost casual, but never less than vicious, cruelty.” McDonagh explained his tactic of pushing conventional boundaries to O’Hagan, saying, “I think you can see things more clearly through exaggeration than through reality.” What audiences eventually see is summed up in O’Hagan’s quote that McDonagh’s “work has been primarily concerned with taking a scalpel to the remarkably enduring myth of an Arcadian Ireland that he, like Synge before him, has laid bare to reveal a dark, insular place of suppurating spite, internecine family feuding and simmering violence.” What one garners from these assorted quotes is how a monstrous character like Mag, who indeed verges on a caricature of a fairy-tale witch, simultaneously manages to communicate a realistic message to an audience. Through his use of the grotesque, McDonagh is signalling that this is not the frequently romanticized Ireland of the céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes) but a much darker, grim place where selfish mothers sometimes deliberately destroy the lives of their children. The strange cruelties that we witness in the play are familiar because they are borrowed from over-the-top storyline twists in fairy tales. What is more, the ending of the play where Mag’s head is split open is a form of homage to Synge’s Playboy who ‘splits’ his father’s skull, but the punishment is arguably deserved in Mag’s case. McDonagh dismantles the old cliché of the sainted, Irish mother-figure by placing her firmly in her grave.

Beauty Queen is an amalgam of diverse elements which finally produces an immoral message. In The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama, Ondřej Pilný writes that “Generally speaking, the grotesque is defined by the blending of radically incongruous elements, together with the simultaneous repulsion and fascination it triggers” (3). The incongruous elements included in Beauty Queen are a traditional Irish play format reminiscent of Synge’s work, shocking violence, and a story lifted straight from the classic tale of Cinderella. Pilný comments that, “The unhinging of the familiar world that is communicated by the grotesque has a tendency to inspire insecurity and terror in the audience” (6). In Beauty Queen the grotesque is not merely a label for the style of writing, namely the mixing of elements that Pilný lists, but it is equally about the grotesque characters previously referenced by O’Hagan who live within the four walls of the Folan family home. On account of these multiple facets of the grotesque, we certainly become ill at ease when watching the unfolding action. The action of the play flits unpredictably between realism and cruel fantasy. For example, homely conversations about Complan or the weather merge uneasily into threats signalled by things as simple as turning on an electric kettle or a lingering look from a daughter to a mother in a silent house. We empathize with Maureen because escape from Mag is her only hope, but her extreme methods quickly repel and disgust us. Pilný writes of how “the grotesque may be seen to solicit engagement with vital present-day issues” (21). McDonagh achieves this when he opens a modernly framed conversation on why a daughter would act so abominably towards her own mother. In truth, Maureen’s hopes are not extravagant, she merely wants independence, marriage, and a future. Is this why the playwright abstains from passing moral judgement on Maureen and allows her to eventually walk free? It is the grotesque elements of McDonagh’s play that facilitate the delivery of an underlying immoral message to the audience.

McDonagh’s play is a black comedy but one which incorporates several genres, and each is inscribed with a clue to a final interpretation. On the topic of genre, Pilný warns that we should not regard “any incongruous mixing of genres in a play as grotesque” (3). Beauty Queen has already been shown to qualify for the label of grotesque, but it is of note that Pilný does not list fairy-tale as a genre that Beauty Queen incorporates, hence the current analysis. However, he does make important observations about, for example, McDonagh’s use of the traditional Irish play format. Many critics have noted McDonagh’s indebtedness to J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World because Beauty Queen seems to take many self-conscious cues and borrowings from the older work. Both plays deal with a disgruntled, adult child who commits parricide to escape an authoritarian parent and the common setting for the plays is rural Ireland. Still on the topic of genre, Pilný asserts that Beauty Queen “offers a sitcom reiteration of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and the innumerable narratives of the Irish exile” (157). This point on narratives of Irish exile deserves emphasis since exile and escape are merely two interpretations of the same physical act, namely leaving. Since McDonagh must have been conscious of his use of a traditional format then its covert message would also have been apparent to him. This brings one to the crux of what McDonagh achieves with his modern, Irish play in contrast to the tradition he consciously works within. Pilný notes that “the overall approach in Irish drama criticism tends to be determined by the notion of Irish drama essentially holding a “mirror up to nature/nation” (163). It is true that much of Beauty Queen is realistic, but this realism is constantly undercut by scenes that are close to fantasy. Pilný explains this twist by writing, “there is another sense in which McDonagh clearly operates as a satirist, his plays in fact ironise the very notion of Irish dramatic realism” (166). One example of such satire in Beauty Queen is that the Irish have traditionally viewed imperialist England as the fairy-tale big-bad-wolf who robbed a nation of its true potential thus leading to generations of exiles whereas McDonagh’s play shows us that unadulterated escape is the true underlying wish of many young Irish people. Maureen repeats an anti-English platitude to her mother, saying, “If it wasn’t for the English stealing our language, and our land, and our God-knows-what …” (9), but she still desperately seeks to flee her homeland for England or the United States despite her nationalistic protestations. If escape is there in the DNA of Beauty Queen, namely its make-up of various genres and their hidden messages then escape is surely the most important message of the play.

Escape via emigration.

In Beauty Queen, emigration is posited as the ultimate escape. In the case of Ireland, notable decades of mass emigration included the 1950’s and 1980’s. However, as signaled in McDonagh’s play, emigrants did not always succeed in their new lives. Those like Maureen who failed were destined to return home in shame, whereas others like Pato continued to live and work in England but without any success or accomplishment. In the tale of Cinderella, the young woman does not travel to a distant land but finds a lifestyle of such luxury by marrying the prince that she no longer has any material worries. In effect, she is transported to the land of milk and honey. In Beauty Queen, the fantasy land is always located outside the island or Ireland. For instance, Ray Dooley hopes to get a job in London or Manchester and his brother Pato will soon be relocating to Boston where their successful uncle has already lived for many years. Home is not a place in which to become a success but rather a place to remain only if one is an abject failure. It is the transformative quality invested in emigration by consecutive generations of Irish people which holds the fairy-tale element. Not only that, but the further away the destination then apparently the greater the prospect of success. This belies the reality of re-location as sadly shown by Maureen’s return home. The play explores the magic invested in the idea of leaving Ireland, but the covert message is that there is nothing to stay for in the first place.

Romance – The Prince.

In the play, Pato Dooley represents the prince of the Cinderella tale. Just as Maureen is an odd Cinderella figure, Pato is equally miscast as the prince who invites her to the ball. In Perrault’s text, “the King’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it” (81) whereas the Grimms write that “the King appointed a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride” (142). One immediately senses the deflating and mocking adaptation of this story in Beauty Queen since Ray is the gormless messenger instructed by Pato to invite Maureen and her mother to his “uncle’s going-away do” (14). Nevertheless, Pato indeed renews his connection with Maureen but the aura of success that surrounds him soon dissipates. In Scene Five, the letter from Pato to Maureen reveals much, chiefly that Pato’s story is not that of a successful Irishman in England. Instead, he lives in a bedsit with a shared telephone in the hallway and at his work he endures poor wages, unsafe working conditions, and racial abuse. He has no friends and usually drinks alone, and we learn that his sexual encounters with women have sometimes been marred by impotence. Though the play is set in the 1990’s, Pato’s story bears a strong resemblance to the fate of many Irish, economic migrants to Britain in the 1950’s. These migrants, especially men, often led lonely, unsuccessful lives in England and were often too ashamed to return home. Such stories have been recorded in a documentary entitled The Forgotten Irish, directed by Maurice Sweeney. There is also a salient link to McDonagh’s own background because as O’Toole writes in The New Yorker, “McDonagh’s father, a construction worker, and his mother, a cleaner and part-time housekeeper, met and married in the nineteen-sixties, in London, where they had moved from Ireland in search of better wages.” Therefore, the playwright is depicting his knowledge of real-life migrant stories including all the failure and heartbreak. It is as a consequence of Pato’s failed dreams in England that he decides to take up his uncle’s offer and accept a job in Boston. Apart from Pato’s good looks, he is not a princely marriage prospect but simply a lifeline for a desperate woman. Both he and his middle-aged ‘Cinderella’ are seeking their fairy-tale endings via escape routes of various kinds from emigration to marriage.

The illusion of true romance is viciously undercut in Beauty Queen. The classic tale of Cinderella is romantic chiefly because the prince will accept no bride other than the ravishing girl he danced with at the ball and whose glass slipper he retained as a future test to identify her. Maureen holds no such exclusive spot in Pato’s heart since she faces competition from Dolores Hooley/Healey who is younger and prettier. After Maureen’s first night at the ‘ball,’ she comments on Pato’s “stray oul hands” (25) that “were straying over that Yank girl earlier on in the evening” (25). Pato even recycles his seductive move on Dolores when later fondling Maureen breasts. This scenario is far removed from the idyllic picture presented by the Grimm’s who wrote that “The prince went to meet her [Cinderella], took her by the hand and danced with her. He would dance with no other maiden, and never left loose of her hand, and if any one else came to invite her, he said, ‘This is my partner’” (144). Pato finally betrays his connection with Maureen when he gets engaged to Dolores and moves to Boston. The prince turns out to be a cad!

Romance – dreams.

Beauty Queen is concerned with fairy-tale escapes and such escapes materialize in Maureen’s waking and sleeping dreams. Ever before Pato returns from England, Maureen fanaticizes about her mother’s murder as a literal release from servitude. This occurs when Mag recalls a story from the news where “The fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin” (10) and Maureen relishes being able to antagonize her mother by saying, “If he clobbered you with a big axe or something and took your oul head off and spat in your neck, I wouldn’t mind at all” (11). The humour of the scene mixes uncomfortably with the underlying hatred that makes such comments freely expressible. Later, when Mag angers Maureen by trying to stop her meeting Pato, we learn of Maureen’s secret dreams too.

“I have a dream sometimes there of you, dressed all nice and white, in your coffin there, and me all in black looking in on you, and a fella beside me there, comforting me, the smell of aftershave off him, his arm round me waist. And the fella asks me then if I’ll be going for a drink with him at his place after.”

(McDonagh 20)

Maureen’s rescuer in both her waking and sleeping dreams is “the fella.” This mythical stranger is a combination of killer and lover. He is a figure who is sexually attractive and violent. Maureen eventually superimposes a version of this dark stranger onto Pato. It is Pato who is Maureen’s long-awaited chance to lose her virginity, to rid herself of her mother, and to start a new life. Pato also eases any secret guilt Maureen may be harbouring when he advises that a care home is indeed good enough for Mag based on his own mother’s experience. Unfortunately, Pato fades in comparison with the potent sexuality of ‘the fella’ since Pato suffers from impotence and is furthermore a tragic figure since he also needs rescuing proven by his reliance on his uncle’s job offer. Only via emigration for a second time and to a different continent does Pato hope for eventual success in life. When Maureen’s dreams of a rescuer finally crumble then she must find a method to free herself.

Fantasy tinged with reality.

If an audience treated Beauty Queen as pure fantasy like a fairy tale, then the play would have minor impact. The story must consistently tilt towards believability for it to be so unsettling. Pure fantasy is easily dismissed in a way that reflections of real life cannot be. In an article entitled “Murderous Laughter” in the Irish Times newspaper, Fintan O’Toole assesses this complex aspect of the play. Commenting on McDonagh’s plays, O’Toole writes that “The family, from The Beauty Queen of Leenane onwards, is a site for psychological and even biological warfare.” He goes on to write that “This is a world where the difference between the real and the unreal is increasingly hard to grasp.” This unsettling imbalance is achieved in Beauty Queen by the realism of the traditional, Irish-play format melded conspicuously to the exaggeration typical of fairy tale. In O’Toole’s article, his key point is that within the playwright’s style is the key to unlocking the truth of the depicted situation.

“At one level, then, the [Leenane] trilogy maps a very real and immediate Ireland. However grotesque the exaggerations, they inflate a recognisable truth so that it can be seen more clearly. But at another level, the world that is imagined in this way is also a version of one of the great mythic landscapes – the world before morality.” 

Once again, elements of the grotesque in McDonagh’s play are essential to discovering the truth of the work. O’Toole makes the salient observation that within the Leenane trilogy is an Ireland free of morality, an amoral place. One may ponder if the story of an amoral place can still deliver a moral message for readers just as classic fairy tales usually impart a moral lesson despite, or thanks to, their sometimes-grotesque events. It is more plausible that McDonagh looks to highlight a stark reality rather than provide a take-away, moralistic lesson for his audience. One may readily appreciate the injustice of Maureen’s life at home with her mother yet withhold approval for her terrible actions. However, the playwright allows Maureen her eventual freedom without the repercussions for the vicious murder she committed. He creates the anti-Cinderella text where a mentally ill, middle-aged, virgin loses her mind and her man, kills her evil mother, and walks scot-free!

There is an obvious duality to Maureen’s character, the dark and the light sides. As the devoted daughter, she fulfils the role of Cinderella. Perrault writes of “a young daughter … of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper” (79) and in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s dying mother instructs her to be “good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee” (140). Maureen is neither sweet nor pious, yet she is undeniably her mother’s only carer and has carried out this role unwaveringly for twenty years. It is only when we discover Maureen’s past in a mental institution, her unsavoury daydreams, and finally, her violent streak, that we understand the opposite, darker side of Maureen. The grind of Maureen’s life is much like Cinderella’s, but she summons up the fantasy through shocking violence rather than romance.

Conclusion.

In this essay, it has been my endeavour to highlight how Beauty Queen is a reworking of the Cinderella story. The secondary material quoted, mainly reviews and essays on the play, has established the importance of McDonagh’s uses of the grotesque. It has been a small but crucial step to link the play to the genre of fairy-tale and credit the latter as a Trojan Horse that carries a secret cargo of the grotesque. The intricacies of why Beauty Queen manages to entice us in, while alternately repelling us is commendable to the grotesque.

McDonagh achieves much with his unusual story of Maureen and her mother. He dismantles the myth of the Irish family held together by sacrifice and blood bonds and he has additionally put the figure of ‘Mother Machree’ (the selfless Irish mother) in a mortuary. The play mocks the conventions of romantic love and reveals instead the coarse and often funny un-happily-ever-after stories of life. Maureen becomes an anti-hero due to her obscene attack on her mother and yet there is obvious meaning to her madness, namely that she carries a deep hurt in her heart that must be excised. The playwright delivers a humorous and violent depiction of Ireland that is modern and clever as well as being a refreshing re-working of a classic tale.

Cited Works.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Cinderella.” Grimm’s Fairy Tales, translated by Margaret Hunt, Seltzer Books, 2017, pp. 140-148.

McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Methuen Drama, 1996.

O’Hagan, Sean. “The Wild West.” The Guardian, 24 March 2001.

O’Toole, Fintan. “A Mind In Connemara.” The New Yorker, 26 February 2006.

O’Toole, Fintan. “Murderous Laughter.” The Irish Times, 24 June 1997.

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper.” The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Translated by J. E. Mansion and Robert Samber, Dodge Publishing Co. 1922, pp. 79-93. 

Pilný, Ondřej. “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner: Martin McDonagh.” Irony and Identity in Modern Irish Drama. Litteraria Pragensia, 2006, pp. 154-170.

Pilný, Ondřej. The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Saved

Image by Lloyd Davis, Visualhunt.com
  • Play title: Saved
  • Author: Edward Bond
  • Published: 1966
  • Page count: 120

Summary.

Saved by Edward Bond is a play about young, working-class people in 1960’s London. The chief characters are Len, his girlfriend Pam, her parents, and a man named Fred. Bond describes a section of London society that is poor, but he approaches his subject without favouritism. For example, he shows the scarcity of good careers and the abundance of dead-end jobs for London’s young, but he simultaneously highlights parenting skills in this specific community which are often sub-standard to the point of being dangerous. All characters in the play are 25 years old or younger, apart from Pam’s parents. The chief character, Len, is a pacifist and one witnesses how Pam and others mercilessly abuse his patience and kindness. The shocking event of the play involves Pam’s baby who may be Len’s child, or Fred’s, or possibly someone else’s. In the wake of the baby’s death, the value systems of various characters are exposed, and the depictions are grim. Only Len is shown to be humane, but aspects of his own behaviour nonetheless raise question marks. Bond’s play depicts an unsavoury, sometimes repulsive side of modern life. Key themes in the work include parenthood, poverty, violence, and endurance.

Ways to access the text: reading.

There are several free online sources of Bond’s play such as the study resource website named FDocuments.in. One may also use the Open Library, Scribd (membership needed) or Perlego (free trial available).

Please note that the play script is not reader-friendly since much of the dialogue involves short, often mundane exchanges. Nonetheless, Bond’s play communicates a valuable social message and is recognized as a ground-breaking work and is therefore worth the effort.

There is no audiobook or filmed version of this play.

Why read Saved?

Poverty

Saved deals with aspects of poverty including and beyond the all-important meaning of being without adequate financial means to subsist. The play’s characters work menial jobs or are unemployed, they live in council or poor-quality housing, and they have few or no luxuries in life apart from cigarettes and the occasional night out. However, the really crushing poverty depicted in the play is the poverty of ethics as evidenced by exceptionally poor parenting skills. We also witness individuals who are incapable or uncomprehending of their responsibilities even in the aftermath of atrocious, violent deeds. Bond shows us people who have no moral compasses or are psychologically warped to the point of depravity. The London scene is also one of unrelenting cultural poverty where only the blandness of scheduled television or tabloid magazines feed the characters’ need for entertainment and escapism. Nobody speaks of a spiritual life, of intellectual stimulation, of future ambitions, they speak mostly of nothing except meagre survival.

Murdering a baby.

Part of the fame and notoriety of Bond’s play is due to the fact that the work depicts the murder of a baby. We are pre-warned in Scene 3 that at least one of the play’s characters is capable of violence against children and, at the time, his friends treat this as joke material. When Pam’s baby is murdered, it is done by this same group of men who seem detached from any sense of right and wrong. The shock of the moment when the child is killed is imbued with the adrenalin of the perpetrators, but later, the cold responses from central characters indicate an eerie moral deficiency. Pam exhibits a strange response to her child’s death and Len’s response is also unpredicted. Bond confronts his audience with not only a crime but a study of the repercussions of that crime in a flawed societal milieu. The significance of the child’s death only becomes apparent in the latter stages of the play.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

 Len: Hero, Coward, or Bystander.

Introduction.

In the author’s note to Saved, Bond writes the following, “Len, the chief character, is good in spite of his upbringing and environment.” This opening comment is contentious for anyone who has seen the entire play. The playwright initially frames Len in a way that will soon challenge his audience. Is being good ‘in spite of’ something quite different to being good? If Len is a good person, then surely, we may admire him or view his characterization as a paragon of the model citizen! However, maybe the author’s comment is ironic – Len is uneducated and from a working-class background so we should expect a lower-than-average standard of conduct from him. Yet, such an interpretation is a mismatch with the playwright’s frequently shown sympathy for the working classes. What then is Bond’s point? The playwright describes his lead character in a particularly flattering manner but one’s instinctive responses to Len’s actions and inactions are frequently negative. A man who witnesses a child’s murder but does nothing is hardly a good person but rather a bystander at best, or coward at worst. One is reminded of Pam’s taunt to Len – “Yer wouldn’t ‘elp a cryin’ baby” (Bond 84). How does Len end up being the good guy aka the hero of Bond’s unsettling play?

The bystander effect.

In the play, Len stands by, literally, while a baby is tortured and eventually stoned to death. Len’s presence and lack of any action allows us to categorize him, with all the authoritative backing of a dictionary definition, as a bystander. The word itself is powerful but also just the first step to understanding Len. His behaviour may be more thoroughly interrogated with the aid of bystander effect studies which fall within the realm of psychological research. By first tackling the motivation behind Len’s inaction on the infamous night of a baby’s murder may one then more confidently proceed to assessing Len as either a coward or a hero, or yes, just a bystander.

Catherine Sanderson is the author of a book called The Bystander Effect in which she offers the following definition:

“As numerous studies have shown, we are less likely to intervene when other people are present. We assume that others will do something and we don’t have to. Ironically, this tendency, which psychologists refer to as “diffusion of responsibility,” means that the chance that a victim will receive help is inversely related to the number of people present. Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘bystander effect.’”

(Sanderson 39)

In line with this definition, one can say that Len did not act to save the baby since it was possible that Fred, Mike, Pete, Colin, or Barry could have intervened at any time to stop the attack. For instance, Fred takes no part in the attack until the very last moments and then only because Barry goaded him, saying “I noticed ‘e ain’ touched it [the baby]” (Bond 69). All the named men finally choose to participate, leaving Len as the only ‘neutral’ spectator. Len’s hypothetical defence is the “diffusion of responsibility” and the fact that Fred, the last attacker, does appear to deliver the killer blow to the baby. It is a weak defence because Bond’s lead character suddenly appears emblematic of all that is wrong with an apathetic society. The weight of responsibility on Len drastically increases once the child’s other possible father figure and saviour turns into an attacker. Len fails to make the morally courageous choice and he is left as an impotent bystander. In the dramatic presentation of the play, Len is ironically spotlighted not because of barbaric acts but because of inaction. The ‘good guy’ then becomes the fall guy since we need someone to blame, someone who could have helped. The use of bystander effect theory shows, to begin, that Len is our focal point rather than the gang of barbaric men.

In the aftermath of the child’s murder, Len experiences a sense of guilt. He makes a disclosure to Fred, saying, “I saw the lot … I didn’t know what t’do. Well I should a stopped yer” (Bond 76). The acknowledgement that stopping the attack was the right action is salient and Len wants to confess his sin of inaction even if it is directly to the killer. Sanderson points out that there are common traits to situations where people fail to act, namely, “confusion about what was happening, a lack of a sense of personal responsibility, misperception of social norms, and fear of consequences” (8). Of these four, we may dismiss numbers one (confusion) and three (social norms) without hesitation as they do not apply to Len’s situation. The remaining matching criteria are that Len surely felt a sense of personal responsibility since it was his child (disputed point) and lastly, there is a possibility that Len’s intervention would have caused consequences that he feared. Sanderson explains that “it’s easier to overcome our natural human tendency toward inaction in a group setting if we feel some connection to the person in need of help” (57). So why didn’t Len help his own child? The answer appears to be the consequences to the intervention (Sanderson’s last point), whatever Len imagined them to be, outweighed the benefits of saving his own flesh and blood. This interpretation presents Len as a monster who cautiously deliberates while a child is tortured and finally murdered. Bystander effect research reveals that Len’s lack of reaction is potentially quite complex.

Witnesses to horrific incidents do make mental calculations on whether to intervene because as Sanderson writes, “before deciding to act, we conduct a subconscious cost-benefit analysis. If the benefits outweigh the costs, we help. But if the costs outweigh the benefits, we don’t” (81). Subconscious is a key word in that quote and Sanderson explains of the bystander effect – “many of the processes that drive inaction occur not through a careful deliberative process, but at an automatic level in the brain” (9). This observation leads to a more profound finding by Sanderson, namely that “The question of why some people act badly and others don’t is not really about good and bad people. Situational factors and questions of self-identification are far more important than we might imagine” (28). Situational factors cannot be accurately applied to Saved because Sanderson only gives the examples of doing something because one is ‘following orders’ or one believes that something is done for a ‘worthy purpose.’ As a sidenote, Sanderson does not refer to the fight or flight responses linked to one’s sympathetic nervous system, nor the freeze response activated by the autonomic nervous system. In Len’s case, we cannot readily propose that a situational factor or a nervous system response played roles in his inaction since we have no evidence for either factor. ‘Self-identification’ holds the answer since Sanderson finds a link between a person’s type of response with how that person self-identifies. In summary: we have established that Len’s reaction was most likely automatic (though not of the fight, flight, or freeze variety), that his reaction does not make him a bad person, but also that a calculation did happen within his brain that led to him remaining as a bystander. This leaves Len’s character as the key to explain his behaviour on the night of the attack. His character type was the major influence over his subconscious decision not to intervene, not to save the baby.

An analysis of Len reveals a man who is, at his core, afraid of losing a sense of kinship with his social peers. Sanderson explains that “We are actively motivated both to learn and to adhere to the norms of our group, and we tend to fear the consequences of calling out bad behavior, especially when it is perpetrated by members of our own social group” (99). Len witnesses a horrible crime but chooses, albeit subconsciously, to abstain from action due to a sense of loyalty to the attackers, his social peers. Sanderson identifies just one group of individuals who break this trend, and these are “moral rebels … those who show moral courage generally feel good about themselves. They tend to have high self-esteem and to feel confident about their own judgment, values, and ability” (211). Len is negatively defined by his lack of the moral rebel’s qualities made clear by his frequent appeasement of people like Fred, even after the murder. Len also endures Pam’s insults rather than take a firm stand, for example, when she berates him about looking after a child that she claims isn’t his – “I don’t understan’ yer. Yer ain’ got no self respect … The ‘ole street’s laughin’ be’ind yer back” (Bond 39). On the other hand, it is Len’s loyalty and his sense of community that the play emphasizes as his strengths. He is the good guy who frequently reminds Pam – “I’m tryin’ t’ ‘elp” (Bond 84). Len does help and this is shown most clearly and paradoxically in his concern for Pam’s baby. When Pam suggests that Len take the baby and leave, Len is unable to act as he has no house of his own, but he does say – “Wish t’God I could take that kid out a this … No life growin’ up ‘ere” (Bond 42). Len envisions how he could save this child, but he is simply not in a position to enact it. In this light, the death of the child could be a mercy killing from Len’s perspective since the child has no apparent future. On the night of the attack, Pam drugged the baby to sleep using Anadins (UK brand of painkiller) and we also learn that the child already had pneumonia. Under such circumstances, it is possible that Len’s subconscious deliberations on whether to intervene and stop the men are tilted firmly towards inaction, not exclusively out of loyalty to his peers but as the best for all concerned!

Having assessed Len as a bystander, we gain important insights into his character. Yes, he fully meets the criteria of a bystander but in addition we learn that this does not make him a bad person, that subconscious factors influence his decision not to intervene during the attack, and ultimately, that a normally altruistic person may fail to help at the most crucial moment even with the most vulnerable of victims. Furthermore, Len evidently sees no future for the child and this points to Bond’s broader political message of the hopelessness of working-class areas. Though Len is clearly not a moral rebel, he is equally not a coward. Len understands the grimness of his own life and that of his community and he faces this with endurance. The complexity of Len’s response to the attack helps shift one’s focus to the prospects of the next generation.

A child’s future potential.

Pam’s baby is murdered in a public park and there are only minor repercussions. Does this indicate that the child’s life was without value or that the child’s future was so barren in outlook that the death is insignificant? In 2011, Maddy Costa wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper entitled, “Edward Bond’s Saved: We didn’t set out to shock.” Costa spoke with Tony Selby who played the role of Fred in the original production of Saved and who gave the following interpretation of the play – “Saved is about ignoring young life. The baby is a sacrifice. In actual fact, the baby is saved. It’s saved from a non-existent life.” This reading of the play corresponds with how Len reacts to the child’s death, for instance when Mary says, “I feel sorry for ‘er about the kid” (Bond 88) and Len responds, “One a them things. Yer can’t make too much a it” (88). There is no evidence of mourning by any of the adults and the lack of any emotional response is unusual – unless the baby’s life really did have no significance and then it makes perverse sense.

In the author’s note to the play, Bond provides a slightly different nuance on the death of the baby by writing –

“Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London park is a typical English understatement. Compared to the ‘strategic’ bombing of cities it is a negligible atrocity. Compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most children its consequences are insignificant.”

Bond emphasizes the insignificance of a single infant’s death. On the surface the comparison used by Bond seems odd until one understands that governments’ ‘strategic’ actions shape lives not just during wartime but also in peace time. Deprivation in working-class areas is a direct result of the strategies of successive governments and lives are lost to hopelessness, addiction, and violence. The common denominator to Bond’s and Selby’s perspectives is that most working-class children growing up in early 1960’s London were doomed to lead sad lives of deprivation and experience an unending lack of opportunities.

Len focuses on the emotive issue of bad parenting and how the right type of home can benefit a child. Pam’s baby cries incessantly during Scene 4 but is ignored by all present, prompting Len to say, “Wish t’ God I ‘ad some place” (42). Pam’s negative attitude to motherhood is that of a burdened, single woman who is “stuck with a kid” (39). Len intuitively suspected the worst for the child once Pam got pregnant. He cast a judgemental eye over Pam’s parents, Mary and Harry, and over his girlfriend’s potential to be a good parent given her background.

Len says, “Livin’ like that [Mary and Harry] …

They ought to be shot …

Supposed you turned out like that?”.

(Bond 24)

It is soon clear that Pam perfectly reflects her own mother’s poor parenting skills, especially when we hear the older woman’s plea to Pam “Why don’t yer shut that kid up” (37). Even Fred recognises Pam’s inability to parent correctly because good mothers don’t bring their babies to the park in the dark – “Never know why yer ‘ad the little bleeder in the first place! Yer don’t know what yer doin’ ! Yer’re a bloody menace!” (73). Pam abandons her child in the middle of the park after her fight with Fred, signalling that the child has zero value even to its own mother. When Pam returns, she simply says “No one else wants yer” (72) without realizing that her child is already dead. The tragic scene highlights the level of neglect and how the ills of society fall hard upon a defenceless child without their natural protector of a loving parent. Len stands by, doing nothing, and it is as though the child’s life had already been lost and therefore no hope remained to save it. He is not in a position to rescue the child by becoming the guardian himself, so a tragic fate takes its course.

Bond as playwright, Selby as actor, and Len as character, all focus on distinct aspects of the doomed child. A deprived society offers no future and bad parenting offers no protection and bad governments don’t care. In answer to the initial questions – neither the child’s life nor future have any value in such circumstances. Debra A. Castillo gives the opinion that Saved “offers Bond’s metaphor of present urban society” (2). If so, then it is a depressing and nihilistic outlook. Even though the child’s life has no significant meaning to those around it, the act of killing the child is the most meaningful event in the play.

The child’s death as a sacrifice.

According to Tony Selby, the child is sacrificed, but for what reason? One finds a convincing answer in Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where he writes that “It is always possible to unite considerable numbers of men in love towards one another, so long as there are still some remaining as objects for aggressive manifestations” (26). He goes on to give the prime example of the persecution of the Jews throughout many centuries. Freud’s key point in the section entitled “Man is to man a wolf” (25) is as follows:

“The existence of this tendency to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and rightly presume to be present in others is the factor that disturbs our relations with our neighbours and makes it necessary for culture to institute its high demands.”

(Freud 25).

The sacrifice of a human being, be it a member of a maligned, religious community or an abandoned child in a park, simply becomes the release-valve for man’s natural aggression. Someone must act as the scapegoat so that the pent-up anger finds a release and the group of aggressors maintain a cohesive relationship. Man’s natural aggression is referenced in Saved, for example when Barry tells his mates of his experiences “In the jungle. Shootin’ up the yeller-niggers. An’ cut ’em up after with the ol’ pig-sticker” (Bond 29). At a later point, Pete suggests physically harming the child, saying, “Give it a punch” (Bond 67). The child is soon being compared to individuals and communities deemed appropriate targets/sacrifices, like when Colin and Barry respectively refer to the child as “Looks like a yeller-nigger … *Onk like a yid” (68). Additionally, the attack on the child is deemed acceptable since the men have already concluded that babies cannot be hurt at that age since they have “no feelin’s … like animals” (67). Therefore, the child is devalued in three separate respects by comparison with a downtrodden racial group, a demonized religious group, and even with animals. The sacrifice is thus prepared, and the attack proceeds more easily once the child embodies the imagined enemy in multiple ways. While the child is certainly made into a sacrifice, the men are not gratifying some god or other. The sacrifice is not an offering but simply the means by which an unusual, perverted level of aggression is dissipated. Len could easily substitute for the child as victim and one wonders if his abstinence from the public sacrifice is also partly self-protection which would indeed reveal him in a cowardly light.

Violence in society.                                           

The focal point of Bond’s play comes in Scene 6 when the baby is murdered. In total, Saved has 13 scenes and therefore we are provided with an extensive epilogue to the vicious crime. It is tempting to say that Bond’s play is a stark condemnation of the working/lower classes of English society except that Len contradicts this interpretation through his exceptionalism. What is certain is that Bond is fascinated by violence. In Maddy Costa’s article about Saved in the Guardian, she gives her interpretation of the play and includes a quote from the playwright.

“[Bond] believes people were most disturbed by an accusation that lay beneath the surface of the play: that the violence of Auschwitz and Hiroshima was not locked in the past but embedded in the fabric of British society, ready to erupt from a frustrated underclass. “I wanted to show that we are destructive of human values,” he says. “The people who are killing the baby are doing it to gain their self-respect, because they want to assert human values.”

Bond’s words are somewhat paradoxical since to assert human values involves the destruction of the same values! The clue seems to rest in the ‘we’ of the first section of the quote, interpretable as the conformist force of society which is then set against the individual who obeys or rebels. Rebellion equals a statement of personal value, namely, freedom of choice. This simplification of Bond’s quote is problematic since one discovers that violence is crucially the method of asserting individuality. Also, why does Bond speak of a ‘frustrated underclass’ if this does not imply sympathy for rebellious acts, like the dramatic one he depicts in the play. Even if one interprets the killing of the baby as a metaphor, which seems likely to have been Bond’s intention, we are still left with the issue of violence in society as part of its very fabric. Additionally, Len whose behaviour is exceptional due to the absence of any violence is the lead character whose passivity is deemed praiseworthy, yet, we have just learned that resorting to violence asserts freedom.

In an interview with Giles Gordon, Bond says the following about the violence depicted in Saved.

“The whole point about the violence in the play is that it was, or, at least I tried to place it, in a context. So it wasn’t the act of violence that was important but the context it was put into, the consequences that came from this violence and the sort of society which the violence indicated. Just talking about the act of violence, I shouldn’t think, would be much use”

This quote directs us to bypass the dead baby and look at the broader societal issues. The playwright seeks to understand the context, consequences, and type of society. To begin with society, it is shown to be obscenely defined by the class system. For example, Maddy Costa provides a quote from Irving Wardle of the Times’ who said of the characters in the play – “these people spoke like urban cavemen.” Such remarks show how great the divide was between the English classes even in the 1960’s and the disdain with which the upper classes regarded the poor. In an essay by Debra A. Castillo, there is an engaging analysis of the animal imagery in Saved which links to the previous remark on cavemen. Castillo writes as follows:

“In Bond’s society, the polished veneer of society is in unremittent tension with the raging beast, a tension which is intensified by images and metaphors that call up man’s relationship to the repressed animal in both its positive and negative associations” (2).

If one returns to the previous quote from Bond with Castillo’s analysis in mind, then one sees the overall situation more clearly. The context of the violence is a drugged, unwanted child abandoned in a park by its neglectful mother. The judicial consequences of the violence for Fred are meagre since his prison sentence is short and the other men are never even held accountable for the crime. Within Pam’s family, there is no appreciable emotional consequence since we witness no mourning or sense of loss. Finally, the society indicated by the violence is an inhumane one made up of disenfranchised youths and a disgruntled older generation. It is apt that the raging beast that Castillo writes about is set free in a lush, green suburban park. The flip from civilized man to frantic beast is a classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde scenario. Bond directs us to look to his play as a comment on a whole society where violence is a litmus test for dysfunction.

One manner of interpreting Bond’s assertion that an attack on human values is a show of human value, is to look at the violence of the play. One can do this at the level of the individual attack but also at the macro-level of the society in which the attack occurs. In Civilization and Its Discontents, one finds an apposite explanation for the events of Saved. Freud asserts that one vital component of culture is “the ways in which social relations, the relations of one man to another, are regulated, all that has to do with him as a neighbour, a source of help, a sexual object to others, a member of a family or of a state” (17). In the context of Saved, we witness how these conventional regulations fail to apply. Bond depicts dysregulation: neighbour attacks neighbour when no one is looking, Len fails to provide help to a child in need, Mary and Harry fail to properly raise Pam, and Pam serves as a sexual object for multiple men. While only the attack on the baby constitutes a crime, the other instances of non-abidance to the understood rules of civilized behaviour are failings of culture. Freud directs his readers to the core reason culture fails to operate ideally; he writes as follows:

“The liberty of the individual is not a benefit of culture. It was greatest before any culture, though indeed it had little value at that time, because the individual was hardly in a position to defend it. Liberty has undergone restrictions through the evolution of civilization, and justice demands that these restrictions shall apply to all. The desire for freedom that makes itself felt in a human community may be a revolt against some existing injustice and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilization and remain compatible with it. But it may also have its origin in the primitive roots of the personality, still unfettered by civilizing influences, and so become a source of antagonism to culture. Thus the cry for freedom is directed either against particular forms or demands of culture or else against culture itself”.

(Freud 17)

Bond depicts Fred as a man who indulges his primitive side, just like Pete when he also participates in a child’s death in the incident with the bus (Bond 28). These violent acts can be seen, without contradiction, as displaying the primitive side of man while also acting as a war cry against the injustice of how the lower classes are treated. Motivation for man’s disaffection can be seen in the fact that all the jobs described in the play, from Harry’s night-work to Fred hiring out boats, are menial, unsatisfying jobs. The lives of the characters do not have potential to flourish via education or prosperity. Poverty also plays a key role in people’s lives with Mary and Harry taking in a lodger to help pay their basic, household bills. Unsettling as it sounds, Fred and his friends may be alternately seen as villains or heroes who destabilize society, depending on how you view their motivation for violence. Thus, civilization is destabilised from two distinct and quite opposing forces, the villain and the hero. Just like Bond, Freud draws our attention away from the act of violence but then focuses on discovering the root cause and potential effects of the violence.

Freud considers “The irresistibility of perverted impulses” (9) under which we may categorize the child murder depicted in Saved. In explanation, Freud writes that the “indulgence of a wild, untamed craving is incomparably more intense than is the satisfying of a curbed desire” (9). This helps to explain the increasing depravity of the acts performed on the child before it is killed. The men begin by pulling the baby’s hair, then they pull off its underwear, they spit on it, punch it, urinate on the baby, and finally stone it to death. One may return here to the topic of the bystander effect since Sanderson explains how, “Groups may also facilitate bad behavior because they create what is called “deindividuation”—the loss of sense of oneself as an individual” (17). Fred initially resists abusing the baby, setting him apart from the others which leads to their discomfort, prompting Barry to involve Fred by suggesting “Why don’t you clout it?” (Bond 67). Sanderson also explains what occurs during the phenomenon known as “gradual escalation” (30), writing that, “Another reason we often go along when we are being urged to do something that we know to be wrong is because the situation gets more extreme little by little. Sometimes each small step will feel wrong, but relatively minor” (30). This gradual escalation is evident in the play, beginning with Pete’s suggestion to “Pull their ‘air” (Bond 65) which goes through a series of transformations until a stone is produced and Pete suggests “Less see yer chuck that” (69). Bond combines an understanding of Freud’s idea of perverted impulses and Sanderson’s explanation of deindividuation in just a few short lines from the play:

“Colin. No one around …

Pete. They don’t know it’s us …

Barry. Might as well enjoy ourselves”.

(Bond 69)

Only Len stands aloof from this violence, and this is his distinction. Violence may be used to change society for the better or simply as a pointless release of anger, but it normally solidifies identities like hero or villain. One often defines Len by what he is not rather than what he is, and this is continually frustrating to an audience. Violence is apparently the key to understanding Saved yet the lead character is incapable of aggression.

Turning the other cheek.

Len’s passivity is a point of interest and it makes him unusual in the cast of characters in Saved. Bond’s note which prefaces the play explores Len’s distinctiveness:

“The gesture of turning the other cheek is often a way of refusing to look facts in the face. This is not true of Len. He lives with people at their most hopeless (that is the point of the final scene) and does not turn away from them. I cannot imagine an optimism more tenacious or honest than this.”

The Bible is the source of the phrase ‘turn the other cheek,’ specifically Jesus’s words during the Sermon on the Mount. Bond employs the phrase in a strange manner because it is robbed of its original meaning. Yes, Len looks steadfastly at the hopeless lives around him without flinching, but he also turns the other cheek on many occasions in the classic sense of not retaliating to provocation or insult. One may cite several key examples, starting with Fred’s sexual innuendo to Pam when she is on a day out with Len who laughs off Fred’s comments, saying, “Yer’ll be in the splash in a minute” (Bond 27). Later, the group of men spout sexual innuendos about Mary and Len, thinking that she is his new girlfriend, to which Len responds, “put a sock in it” (33) contrasting with Mary’s assessment of the men as a “lot of roughs” (33). However, the best example comes when Harry explains to Len how killing can be seen in a positive light – “Yer never killed yer man. Yer missed that. Gives yer a sense a perspective. I was one a the lucky ones” (118). Since Harry has just been talking about Fred, ‘yer man’ refers to Fred and Len’s missed opportunity of killing him. Why would Harry believe that Fred deserved death at the hands of Len? The most convincing answer is that the child was Len’s. However, Len simply dismisses Fred as a tragic individual, saying, “’E’s like a kid. ‘E’ll finished up like some ol’ lag, or an’ ol’ soak. Bound to. An’ soon. Yer’ll see.” (116). This is a true example of turning the other cheek since Len believes fate, maybe even God, will deal with Fred, however, it certainly will not be Len.

One might also interpret Bond’s quote as meaning that Len does not look away from the ugliness of his community whilst he nonetheless continues to turn the other cheek meaning that he shuns violence and does not seek retribution of any kind. If this gives Len a heroic disposition is debatable since it does not match the traditional image of a hero. 

Religion.

The topic of religion comes up in Bond’s authorial note and in the play itself. In the note, Bond writes that:

“Almost all morality taught to children is grounded in religion. This in itself bewilders them -religion has nothing to do with their parents’ personal lives, or our economic, industrial and political life, and is contrary to the science and reason they are taught at other times.”

It is this quote that signals Len ‘turning the other cheek’ as a religious question. The dichotomy between what is expected of people and what happens in real life is a concern of Bond’s since the writes that “Morals cannot be slapped on as a social lubricant. They must share a common basis with social organisation and be consistent with accepted knowledge.” In Saved, we see no evidence of moral behaviour with the lone exception of Len who is constantly trying to help. He aids people who have abused and hurt him and therefore lives a life true to bible teachings even though he professes no faith. Len is the good guy with a value system that appears Christian but is, in fact, just humanistic and empathic.

Religion is derided for much of the play and even though the characters are aware of religious teachings and churches within the community, there is no sign of religious influences having had an effect on the community. Examples of how religion is devalued come from various sections of the play’s storyline. The most obvious is Fred’s humorous tale of being visited by a zealous cleric and Fred shows his appreciation by urinating in the man’s tea. Fred’s description of how this cleric – “Wants t’ chat me up” (Bond 100) shows disrespect because of the allusion to seduction. On another occasion, Mike refers to the local church club as “Best place out for ‘n easy pick up” (61). Once again, religious ideals are mocked through a reference to sexual opportunities. On a more serious note, two children are killed in the story which goes directly against the 6th commandment of ‘thou shalt not kill.’ Fred and Pete subsequently tell blatant lies about their parts in the deaths of the children concerned exposing their total disrespect for life. Bond underlines the disconnect between community and church which shows the latter as irrelevant in modern society.

Freud’s view of religion is similarly derogatory since he writes that “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life” (7). Yet, Freud finds key links between religion, civilization, and violence which help us to better understand Saved. He explains that “Civilization is built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications, the degree to which the existence of civilization presupposes the non-gratification (suppression, repression, or something else?) of powerful instinctual urgencies” (18). The two instinctual urges that are shown prominently in Saved are the propensities for man to be violent and to desire sex. For instance, when Mary talks to Len about getting a new girlfriend, and by extension, having sex, she says “It’s in every man. It ‘as t’ come out” (Bond 89). Violence may be viewed similarly to Mary’s comments on sex because as Freud informs us, “men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment” (24). We learn how this links back to religion when Freud explains that “one of the so-called ideal standards of civilized society. It runs: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (23) but he spots a flaw in this moral advice, and says, “Why should we do this? What good is it to us? Above all, how can we do such a thing? How could it possibly be done?” (23). Even though Freud gives an atheistic view, his insights into how religion holds man in the bonds of conformity leads one to interpret Len as just such an ‘ideal,’ a man who really does try to love his neighbour and turn the other cheek too but such actions disadvantage him!

Len as the Hero.

Freud and Bond hold opposing positions regarding moral teachings. Neither of them allots much value to religion but their divergent attitudes towards moralistic teachings are thought provoking. Bond says that Len does not turn the other cheek but instead stares into a dark abyss of hopelessness without flinching. Yet, Len does indeed turn the other cheek on many and some important occasions as already explored. If Len is a living example of turning the other cheek, then this is relevant to his position as the hero of the play. Len holds the peace with Pam, Harry, and even with Fred, because he never acts out his anger. Bond presents Len as an agent of change, of progression, and this matches the biblical instruction to leave grievances in the past and move forward (turn the other cheek). However, Len’s personality type is also indicative of the invisible yoke that Freud sees on all men’s shoulders, imposed upon them by civilization’s rules. Freud writes that:

“The existence of this tendency to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and rightly presume to be present in others is the factor that disturbs our relations with our neighbours and makes it necessary for culture to institute its high demands. Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another”.

(Freud 25)

Freud goes on to write about how culture uses various tools to hold man’s natural aggression under control, and he singles out the “ideal command to love one’s neighbour as oneself, which is really justified by the fact that nothing is so completely at variance with original human nature as this” (25). In this light, Len is the glue holding together the working-class society in which he lives since he is the model citizen who does not utilize violence to settle grievances but offers instead help and support. He is assuredly a man to turn the other cheek and this attitude is supportive of civilized ideals like peace and harmony. Freud is signalling a cautionary note about such control since it goes against human nature. This leaves one with a dilemma because if Bond’s interpretation of working-class lives is that they are disadvantaged then surely the answer is not Len’s acquiescence but rather a rebellion. This ties back to the discussion on the bystander effect and how the moral rebel counterbalances the bystander. We may not classify Len as a rebel since we have no evidence to support such a characterization. Even Len’s potential for violence, which Freud posits exists within all men, is also unproven. He may be exceptionally docile, and the threshold required for him to retaliate may be unusually high, for example, only in self-defence.

The crux of Freud’s argument focuses on the emergence of human conscience, and this is pivotal to understanding Bond’s play. People like Pam and Fred show no qualms when transgressing the rules of society and they, just like Len, are products of working-class backgrounds. In contrast, Len suffers the invisible chains of conscience that bind his hands and make violence impossible. Freud discusses how such an individual is formed.

“What means does civilization make use of to hold in check the aggressiveness that opposes it, to make it harmless, perhaps to get rid of it? … The aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; in fact, it is sent back where it came from, i. e., directed against the ego. It is there taken over by a part of the ego that distinguishes itself from the rest as a super-ego, and now, in the form of conscience, exercises the same propensity to harsh aggressiveness against the ego that the ego would have liked to enjoy against others”.

(Freud 30)

Is this truly what happens with Len? Every time he finds himself in a situation that could lead to aggressiveness, he simply subdues or represses this impulse. Interestingly, he may not even be aware of how this mechanism of the super-ego keeps his actions so restricted. Freud explains that “it is very likely that the sense of guilt produced by culture is not perceived as such and remains to a great extent unconscious, or comes to expression as a sort of uneasiness or discontent for which other motivations are sought. The different religions, at any rate, have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization” (35).

Len is a hero if one values the stability of society over the freedom of the individual. It is true that one can admire his fortitude, but his is a complex characterization. The gift of restraint guided by conscience lacks the flair and daring that one expects from a hero.

Len’s fascination with violence.

As discussed, Freud and Bond explore man’s aggressiveness to man in their works. Bond places much attention on violence and he focuses on the breakdown of civilization’s rules, and this notably happens in a working-class area of London. The problem remains that Len is difficult to classify since he is an anomaly. Castillo offers a clever and convincing interpretation that Len “appears in Saved split into his passive (Len) and active (Fred) poles” (4). Unfortunately, this reading does not treat Len as a whole, single character. A way of discerning the independent psychology of Len is to look at his attitude towards violence. Bond explores the perspective of the passive man, namely Len, when surrounded by different generations of more masculine and aggressive men like Fred and Harry who have both murdered another person. I include the word masculine since Len questions these same men on their sexual performances and thereby connects aggression with sex. Len is exposed as prurient but also a man unusually interested in the feeling attached to acts of violence. Why does Bond present a good man who is entranced by violent acts? The answer leads us back to Freud and the allure of the forbidden. When Len meets Fred after the latter has been released from prison, Len’s chief question is as follows.

“What was it like? …

Wass it feel like? …

When yer was killin’ it …

Wass it feel like when yer killed it?”.

(Bond 103)

In this scene, Fred’s discomfort is palpable and despite his bravado for his friends, he is clearly unsettled when recalling the gruesome killing. Fred even attempts to share the blame, saying, “I were’n the only one” (104). Len’s interest and his continual references to the child as ‘it’ impel us to reconsider his character. He acted as a bystander during the attack but rather than imagine himself later as the moral rebel who intervened, he fanaticizes instead on how the killer felt in the moment. Is this Bond’s way of communicating that violence equals masculinity, at least for those who do not participate themselves? Take for example what Harry says of his training in the army – “Makes a man a yer” (77). Later, Len questions Harry about his wartime experiences, “What was it like? … kill anyone?” (117-118). Harry explains that killing “Gives yer a sense a perspective. I was one a the lucky ones” (118). This idea of perspective reminds one of the Author’s Note on the significance of a single killing versus the atrocity of a whole war. Bond’s point is that an individual instance of violence may be shocking but ultimately not worthy of the attention it attracts. The greater evil is the rot in society for which there is no easy solution. For Bond, the next generation need to understand that “teaching understanding not faith” is the solution. And with all that, Len is still enraptured to his day-dream of violence created second-hand from other men’s experiences. This ironically does not reveal Len as weaker but actually strong as it shows that he, like all men, is just as capable of violence but holds this urge in check.

Conclusion.

According to Freud, one of the key principles that holds civilization from falling apart is the moral imperative to love thy neighbour. In the following, extensive quote, he explains the situation.

“The command to love our neighbours as ourselves is the strongest defence there is against human aggressiveness and it is a superlative example of the unpsychological attitude of the cultural super-ego. The command is impossible to fulfil; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value and not remedy the evil. Civilization pays no heed to all this; it merely prates that the harder it is to obey the more laudable the obedience. The fact remains that anyone who follows such preaching in the present state of civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage beside all those who set it at naught”.

(Freud 39)

Surely Freud’s assessment allows us to classify Len not as a hero, villain, or bystander but finally as a loser. What is a man’s power if he is mercilessly bound to impossible standards set by society? ‘Love thy neighbour’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ are sayings most easily attributable to the Bible but modern man is neutered by their observation rather than empowered. What is it about Len that will allow us to view him as much more than just a bystander to life and subsequently find what Bond recognises in the character? The answer comes from the most important of all groups – the next generation. This is the generation that Pam’s baby represents and therefore a generation that faces destruction. Sanderson’s explanation of “moral courage in action” (229) allows one to reassess Len because as she writes, “people learn how to behave by watching others in their environment, including their parents, teachers, and other role models. Watching people we look up to show moral courage can inspire us to do the same” (229). Len’s courage is not visible during the park incident but surfaces instead in his daily persistence to make things better, – “I’m tryin’ t’ ‘elp! ‘Oo else’ll ‘elp?” (86). Sanderson explains how “moral rebels … have relatively little concern about fitting in with the crowd and are not afraid to speak up in support of their beliefs and values” (217). However, moral rebels will always be in the minority whereas Len represents the ordinary man. Len leads by example, mainly the example of persistence. Is this the ultimate working-class hero? The playwright explains that he “cannot imagine an optimism more tenacious or honest than [Len’s].” In conclusion, it is optimism and the eternally open hand of friendship, rather than the closed fist of violence, which Len extends that makes him symbolic of a better future. He is a soft-spoken hero whose ordinariness is the key to his power to change society.  

Works Cited.

Bond, Edward. Saved. Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2000.

Castillo, Debra A. “Dehumanized or Inhuman: Doubles in Edward Bond.” South Central Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 78-89.

Costa, Maddy. “Edward Bond’s Saved: We didn’t set out to shock.” The Guardian, 9 Oct 2011.

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1962.

Gordon, Giles. “Edward Bond: An Interview by Giles Gordon.” The Transatlantic Review, No. 22 (Autumn 1966), pp. 7-15.

Sanderson, Catherine. The Bystander Effect. William Collins, 2020.

Cock

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

Summary.

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.

Archetypes.

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’

Introduction.

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.

Conclusion.

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

Summary.

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’

Introduction.

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.

Conclusion.  

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 

Summary.

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.

Introduction.

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.

Inspiration.

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.

Theatricality.

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.

Fame.

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.

Marriage.

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.

Conclusion.

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.