The Playboy of the Western World

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

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


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

Ways to access the text: Reading/listening.

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

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

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

Constructing a story.

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


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

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The Great Taboo.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Mahon.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ideal man.

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual attraction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christy and Shawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The act of murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christy’s transformation.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited.

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Out There

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


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

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

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

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

Why read Hello Out There?

A story about outsiders.

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

No way out.

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

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The angry mob versus the lone man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newspapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Daughter-in-Law

Coal miners’ wives, England, circa 1912.

  • Play title: The Daughter-in-Law.  
  • Author: D. H. Lawrence.
  • Written: 1913
  • Page count: 111.


The Daughter-in-Law is one of D. H. Lawrence’s early plays and one which was never published or performed in his lifetime. The play’s setting is a mining community in the English East Midlands. Lawrence depicts the lives of Mrs. Gascoigne and her two adult sons with the only other major character being Minnie Hetherington who marries into the family. The focus of the play is the relationship between Luther Gascoigne and his domineering mother and how this overshadows his marriage to Minnie. The major events of the play cover both the public and private spheres, like a miners’ strike as well as a pregnancy out of wedlock. All the scenes are played out in kitchens, either Mrs. Gascoigne’s or Minnie’s. Indeed, Lawrence’s play fits the definition of a British kitchen-sink drama, but his work predates the movement by approximately 40 years. The play is written in the style of naturalism and several characters speak in midlands dialect. In a letter to his literary adviser, Lawrence described The Daughter-in-Law as “neither a comedy nor a tragedy – just ordinary.” Lawrence is best known as a novelist and this play bears a strong thematic resemblance to his famous work, Sons and Lovers.

Ways to access the text: reading.

The full text of The Daughter-in-Law is available to read online via Project Gutenberg Australia. A second possibility is the Open Library which holds several copies but most are part of anthologies so one should search under – D. H. Lawrence plays.

There is no audiobook version of the play to my knowledge.

If you would like help in conjuring up the atmosphere of the play then please watch the short theatre promo for the play on YouTube, entitled, “D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-In-Law – Library Theatre Company.”

Why read The Daughter-in-Law?

English regional dialect.

Lawrence writes the dialogue of several of the main characters in the Nottinghamshire dialect. This was originally an obstacle to staging the play and also serves to frustrate a reader unfamiliar with English texts written mostly in dialect. While difficult, the language quickly becomes familiar to a persistent reader. But why should a reader initially trudge through a text that many people would consider obscure in any case? The primary answer is that Mrs. Gascoigne’s use of Nottinghamshire dialect is an essential part of her character, it reveals a woman whose rhetoric is richly expressive, full of wonderful turns of phrase and witticisms. Her speech, and also that of her sons, obviously represents their working-class roots and Lawrence refused to simplify or sanitize such speech for the middle-class theatre audiences of his time. The use of dialect versus standard English also serves to differentiate Mrs. Gascoigne from the younger, more educated woman, Minnie. However, standard versus regional speech does not automatically correspond to a hierarchy of power, or intelligence, or success. Lawrence depicts several formidable women whose speech signals their backgrounds and individual characters. Without dialectical speech, this play would seem inauthentic but that is a realization that one makes only after reading it. Though unfamiliar territory, a reader who comes to grips with the written dialect in the play will be rewarded by what he/she discovers in the play.

Family dynamics.

The title of Lawrence’s play lays focus on the inevitable changes in a closely knit family caused by marriage. A key question in the work is if the young man involved is ready for marriage. Just like in his novel Sons and Lovers, Lawrence takes a close look at the lasting consequences on men’s lives when they have been raised by strong and charismatic yet domineering woman. Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died in a mining accident leaving her sole parent to six sons, with just Luther and Joe still living at home at the play’s opening. When Luther marries Minnie then the family is forced to adapt to the changes. Lawrence excels in depicting a complex set of family relationships: mother with son/s, newlyweds with one another, mother-in-law with daughter-in-law, and single brother with sister-in-law. The playwright explores how a son may ostensibly rebel against his mother yet remain securely under her thumb, and why a newlywed woman must not become subservient to her husband’s mother especially when that woman is used to exercising her influence. Crucially, Lawrence shows instances where compromise is vital and the consequences when there is no such compromise. The ending of Lawrence’s play is somewhat ambiguous, and one is left wondering if a domineering mother has simply been replaced by a domineering wife, or have the central characters demonstrably evolved and matured? At the core of the play is Lawrence’s contemplation of the theme of power, who gets to wield power and who must alternately resign power in the context of a family dynamic.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Independence from Mother.


The Daughter-in-Law is a naturalistic play which gives a detailed account of the Gascoignes, a mining family in Nottinghamshire, England. Many readers have noticed that the theme of a mother and son relationship in this particular play echoes Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, which was in fact written just before the play. D. H. Lawrence also wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious which were originally published in 1921 and 1922, respectively. These non-fiction works tackle such topics as human consciousness, childhood development, and parental love. Lawrence dismisses many of Sigmund Freud’s theories on the unconscious yet largely agrees with the famous psychologist on the significance of sex and parental influence. What is relevant to readers of Lawrence’s novels and plays, is the obvious interest the author had in the human mind and how, as he wrote, “the goal of life is the coming to perfection of each single individual” (55). In The Daughter-in-Law, the crux of the problem is how a son is to gain independence from his mother. As Lawrence tackled the topic of motherly love in both fiction and non-fiction works, these combined perspectives may be used as an obvious access point for any reader to gain a true grasp of authorial intent. The Daughter-in-Law shows how a family dynamic can somehow go wrong and it is the unravelling of the origin of the flaw that is both fascinating and arduous. With the aid of Lawrence’s non-fiction writings along with insights garnered from other writers of the time on psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, one may pinpoint the cause of the problem. It is interesting that Lawrence’s own ponderings on psychology came ten years after the play. As he states:

“The novels and poems come unwatched out of one’s pen. And then the absolute need which one has for some sort of satisfactory mental attitude towards oneself and things in general makes one try to abstract some definite conclusions from one’s experiences as a writer and as a man” (Lawrence 71).

It is significant that Lawrence looked back at his own works as the raw material from which one could later draw conclusions, much like a psychologist would discuss a patient’s life to discover key experiences and their meanings. Lawrence was clearly preoccupied by the theme of motherly love and gave shape to his ideas in dramatic form. He approached the topic of motherly love with the aim of portraying its effects within a real-life situation. It is relevant to note that Lawrence had a particularly close relationship with his own mother, Lydia, who incidentally was an educated woman who married a miner. In Lawrence’s non-fiction works on the unconscious, he comes to conclusions on why particular familial relationships have specific outcomes. This essay will utilize quotes from the play, The Daughter-in-Law, and additional material from Lawrence and other writers to clearly set out the core points and interpretative conclusions one can credibly make about the Gascoigne family dynamic. It is hoped that the interpretation will not stray from the message Lawrence was aiming to communicate in his depiction of the poor mining family. The structure of the essay is that the main characters of Mrs. Gascoigne, Luther, Minnie, and Joe will be discussed individually at some length, before concluding with a brief general overview of the play’s key points. 

Mrs. Gascoigne.

D.H. Lawrence depicts Mrs. Gascoigne as a powerful figure at the centre of the play. In his work, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence goes into some detail about the relationships between mothers and sons. He quotes a line from the poet William Ross Wallace that epitomizes a mother’s power, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” (170). Given Lawrence’s obvious interest in psychology, we may approach the play from the aspect of mother and son interactions and influences. An analysis of Mrs. Gascoigne may be supported by Lawrence’s own writings on psychology, as well as references to works by Carl Jung. At the outset, it must be admitted that the analysis will look at Mrs. Gascoigne’s influence solely in her role as a mother, as the one who shapes her sons and ultimately impedes on their adult relationships with women. Yet, this is how Mrs. Gascoigne’s character is highlighted in the play, as the woman who is blamed for Luther’s faults by Minnie and indeed by Joe too for his own problems. A key question is what lies at the root of Mrs. Gascoigne’s personality, why she acts as she does? She is clearly an assertive and domineering woman, but she exhibits these traits most clearly in her primary role as a mother. If one refers to Carl Jung who wrote on the “mother archetype” (82) then one finds a description of women who suffer from “hypertrophy of the maternal instinct” (87). Jung explains this term as follows:

“The exaggeration of the feminine side means an intensification of all female instincts, above all the maternal instinct. The negative aspect is seen in the woman whose only goal is childbirth. To her the husband is obviously of secondary importance; he is first and foremost the instrument of procreation, and she regards him merely as an object to be looked after, along with children, poor relations, cats, dogs, and household furniture. Even her own personality is of secondary importance; she often remains entirely unconscious of it, for her life is lived in and through others, in more or less complete identification with all the objects of her care. First she gives birth to the children, and from then on she clings to them, for without them she has no existence whatsoever” (87).

This description clearly matches one’s impression of Mrs. Gascoigne. She is the mother of six sons and prides herself on how she has provided a stable home for them even after her husband died in a mining accident many years ago. She is apparently selfless, kept busy with household chores and guiding as best she can her two sons who still live at home. When this older woman gives advice to Minnie about men, she makes an observation that corresponds with Jung’s classification of such women as obsessive carers who treat adult men in much the same manner as children. Mrs. Gascoigne advises Minnie that:

“Children they are, these men, but, my word, they’re revengeful children. Children men is a’ the days o’ their lives. But they’re master of us women when their dander’s up, an’ they pay us back double an’ treble — they do — an’ you mun allers expect it.” 

This quote from Mrs. Gascoigne proves complex when investigated fully. She presents herself as one in eternal servitude to her menfolk, which crucially means that she is also the eventual target of their tantrums. Indeed, it is as if her life has no purpose outside of caring for her menfolk which requires her to play a supporting role rather than the person at the forefront. However, Mrs. Gascoigne is also clearly infantilizing the men, viewing them as eternal, unruly children. As such, her advice to Minnie rings false because it comes from such an assertive, controlling woman. Jung reveals the emotional price attached to such intense mother and son relationships, explaining that the bond is almost poisonous.

“Women of this type, though continually ‘living for others,’ are, as a matter of fact, unable to make any real sacrifice. Driven by ruthless will to power and a fanatical insistence on their own maternal rights, they often succeed in annihilating not only their own personality but also the personal lives of their children” (Jung 88).

It may seem strange that Lawrence, a man who had an unusually strong bond with his own mother and also came from a working-class coal mining district, should so blatantly critique a character like Mrs. Gascoigne. The playwright’s depiction of Mrs. Gascoigne strongly resembles Jung’s psychological profile of such women who have a “ruthless will to power.” It seems clear that Lawrence wishes to dismantle a seemingly invincible woman through an exposition of her faults and thus reveal to the audience the problems of such women’s influence over their sons. The writer is critiquing mother-love, and he shows that it is not always benign. In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence looks at the initial causes of distortions in mother and son relationships. He argues that a woman who is unhappy or unsatisfied in her marriage, “throws herself into a last great love for her son, a final and fatal devotion, that which would have been the richness and strength of her husband and is poison to her boy” (201). In this way, Lawrence is confronting the toxic side of motherly devotion which Jung, focusing on the archetypes of the unconscious mind, describes as follows:

“On the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (82).

Fortunately, Lawrence does not make Mrs. Gascoigne into a caricature of the old, domineering crone. Instead, he reveals the hundred and one ways that her influence, manifestations of her core personality type, have injured her two sons who still live with her at the play’s opening. In this way, the play is a valuable insight into a common family dynamic clearly based on the Oedipal complex. The play is at once a realistic portrayal of an individual coal mining family and also a crucial insight into the psychology of the situation. What Lawrence does is reveal a more objective view of mother love, showing that it is not always a wholly positive influence. Jung summarizes the stereotype of mother love which indeed forms an almost god given truth in our minds which must be tackled.

“The positive aspect of the first type of complex, namely the overdevelopment of the maternal instinct, is identical with that well-known image of the mother which has been glorified in all ages and all tongues. This is the mother-love which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends” (Jung 92).

In The Daughter-in-Law, the playwright gives free reign to dissenting voices, most obviously Minnie’s but also Joe’s, to slowly challenge the ideal of mother love. While such a challenge may seem outdated to present day readers, Lawrence was tackling this issue in 1913 and also within the context of a working-class family where many would view other issues as more significant. Mrs. Gascoigne lies at the heart of a cause-and-effect dilemma and one which makes readers slightly uncomfortable because the primary carer is also the person excoriated as the source of all problems! It is initially through her oldest son’s perceived faults that we begin to view Mrs. Gascoigne in a different light.

Luther Gascoigne.

One of Luther Gascoigne’s most prominent traits is his lack of expressiveness. A reader relies heavily on the descriptions, often harsh critiques, that others apply to Luther. It is of interest that Lawrence chooses to portray the miner in such a way, emphasizing his character’s submissive nature. Luther’s lack of assertiveness is one of his core weaknesses and his taciturn and passive character make him difficult to assess because he reveals so little. Like with Mrs. Gascoigne, it is best to investigate what possible reasons lie behind Luther’s character traits. Lawrence, Jung, and Freud all write about the topic of mother and son relationships, and each has a distinctive approach, but all three tend to agree that when a parent forms too close a bond with their child before puberty then it often leads to lifelong problems. We know that Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died leaving her as sole parent, and we also know how Minnie criticizes Mrs. Gascoigne for all of Luther’s faults, but is it legitimate to lay the blame on the elderly mother? One may take quotes from all three writers, Lawrence, Jung, and Freud, to discern the problems of what Lawrence himself calls “the bond of adult love” (196) that sometimes forms between mother and son.

  1. “It is a sort of incest. It is a dynamic spiritual incest, more dangerous than sensual incest, because it is more intangible and less instinctively repugnant” (Lawrence 196).
  2. “For the son, the anima is hidden in the dominating power of the mother, and sometimes she leaves him with a sentimental attachment that lasts throughout life and seriously impairs the fate of the adult” (Jung 29).
  3. “Of course, too much parental tenderness becomes harmful because it accelerates the sexual maturity, and also because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes it unfit to temporarily renounce love or be satisfied with a smaller amount of love in later life” (Freud 97).

A summation of these views leaves one with the figure of a domineering mother who engages in a form of bonding with her son/s that may be classified as “spiritual incest,” and which potentially leads to relationship problems in adult life. Luther does exhibit the character traits of a boy who has an indulgent mother and as Lawrence writes, “then the child will be all gentle, all tender and tender-radiant, always enfolded with gentleness and forbearance, always shielded from grossness or pain or roughness” (112). It is evident that Luther has not learned to assert himself, to defend himself, or to express himself in an adult fashion. It is obviously difficult to objectively critique the mother love exhibited in a family setting, but we do witness Luther’s problems as an adult. Through a series of observations, we may come to view Luther’s problems as indeed sourced in his childhood and caused by his overbearing mother.

It is possible to classify Luther’s shortcomings under three headings: career, assertiveness, and marriage. Luther is a 31-year-old miner but as his mother tells Joe, “there’s Luther nowt b’r a day man yet” signifying his lack of career progress. Minnie similarly criticizes her husband when he says he is going on strike by adding her sarcastic question, “and will this strike make a butty of you?” Minnie says that other men progress because they have some “go in them” but that he’s satisfied with a low-level job because, “that’s what your mother did for you — mardin’ you up till you were all mard-soft.” This criticism links to Luther’s lack of assertiveness in all areas of his life as assessed by those closest to him. For example, Joe comments derogatorily on Luther’s lack of enthusiasm when courting Minnie, saying “I reckon he niver showed the spunk of a sprat-herring to ‘er [Minnie].” Later, when Minnie sees her husband covered in coal dust, black-face, she says, “you don’t look nearly such a tame rabbit, in your pit-dirt.” Luther’s brother and wife have unflattering perceptions of him as a man with no drive and tame like a pet. It is true that Luther is always the docile party, both in his marriage and with his mother. Not only does Luther take his mother’s advice that he is too young for marriage at 22, but he leaves it to his fiancé, Minnie, to propose to him in the end. When Luther tries to defend himself to Minnie saying that he proposed twice previously, she retorts, “axed me! It was like asking me to pull out a tooth for you.” It is noteworthy that once Luther is married to Minnie, he complains about his marriage to Joe and to Mrs. Purdy, and he even expresses regret at marrying Minnie, but he never admits this to his mother. With his wife, Luther always adopts a passive or passive-aggressive attitude even when she threatens to leave him over the Bertha affair when he just responds, “I non care what ter does. If ter leaves me.” His marriage is not a success, and he cannot confess this to the one person who warned him against marrying Minnie, namely his mother, the most important influence in his life. It is ironic that the woman responsible for many of Luther’s faults and by extension, for his marriage problems, seems to have been right about his misguided choice of partner. However, one must appreciate that for Mrs. Gascoigne, losing her sons to marriage is the equivalent of losing a part of herself and for that reason she devalues such a union, advising that, “marriage is like a mouse-trap, for either man or woman. You’ve soon come to th’ end o’ th’ cheese.” It is difficult not to view Luther’s shortcomings as the result of a mother who never wishes to see her son gain independence, who metaphorically clipped his wings so that he would be unable to ever leave her.

The crux of Luther’s difficulties falls under the heading of manhood. Ideas of manhood and masculinity have changed significantly since Lawrence wrote the play in 1913. However, in terms of Lawrence’s own writings, Luther is an unusually passive character and seems to have adopted the passive role in his marriage formerly seen as the female role. Lawrence had clear views that men should be masculine, and women feminine, and he stated that, “a child is born with one sex only, and remains always single in his sex. There is no intermingling, only a great change of roles is possible. But man in the female role is still male” (174). Therefore, in Lawrence’s portrayal of Luther, he is signalling a fault as he would have understood it. The clearest indications that Luther is not acting in an assertive, manly fashion are his passive acceptance of Minnie’s marriage proposal and later, his equally passive acceptance that she may leave the marriage if she wishes. Marriage signifies a new stage in a person’s adult life so entering or leaving such a union as a disempowered figure, almost a bystander, is clearly a sign of a problem. Minnie also constantly chastises and belittles Luther in the marriage, telling him that he “talk[s] like a fool,” is “lazy” and is a “coward.” However, the main insult is when Minnie tells Luther that, “no, you’re not a man” and this derogatory remark is explained by the comment, “it’s your mother’s doing. She mollycoddled and marded you till you weren’t a man — and now — I have to pay for it.” When Minnie learns that Luther has impregnated Bertha Purdy, she dismisses the girl as a mere simpleton and asserts that it is probably not even his child, that Bertha just chose him to accept the responsibility because he is “so soft” and that he would be flattered by the idea of his male prowess. Yet, Luther never retaliates in word or action even though he does clearly get angry at times. When Luther complains to Joe about Minnie, we glimpse how another man would deal with the situation because Joe says, “by the Lord, she’d cop it if I had ‘er.” The marriage is lopsided in regard to who has power and control. Lawrence warns that, “with wife or husband, you should never swallow your bile. It makes you go all wrong inside” (280). Overall, Lawrence depicts a man who has not matured sufficiently to cope with the challenges of adult life. In traditional terms, he has not become a man. Yet, if Luther is indeed such a weak, unambitious character, then why does someone like Minnie choose to marry him?

Minnie Hetherington.

Minnie is the daughter-in-law referred to in the play’s title. Her importance may be gauged by the level of imposition felt by her new family, the Gascoignes. Minnie has obvious advantages like education and a career, but she also has a strong personality. She comes from the same town as the Gascoignes, but she is considered supercilious by locals. Mrs. Purdy describes Minnie as “haughty” and in somewhat more colourful language adds that she’s “a stuck-up piece o’ goods as ever trod.” A more objective assessment might be that Minnie is a proud young woman. She has worked as a nursery governess for several years in Manchester prior to marrying Luther and she noticeably speaks standard English rather than local dialect. More importantly, Minnie is an independent woman not only due to her career but also due to a small inheritance of one hundred pounds from her late uncle and some other savings of her own. When she is first introduced in the play, the description of her is, “a tall, good-looking young woman.” While Minnie’s poise and refined speech may seem arrogant to those in the mining town, she is clearly an intelligent and attractive young woman. This contrasts sharply with the assertion first made by Mrs. Gascoigne that Minnie settled for Luther because she could not find a better man, saying, “an’ when she fun as nob’dy was for sale but our Luther, she says, “Well, I’ll take it.” The key question of why Minnie married the unambitious and taciturn Luther becomes almost a refrain in the play.

The young couple’s courting history is long and complicated. Mrs. Gascoigne reveals that Luther proposed to Minnie when he was twenty-two years old, but Minnie declined his offer, pursuing her career instead. Mrs. Gascoigne has been consistently against the match, initially because Luther was too young, and later paradoxically because Minnie had waited too long and apparently just could not get herself “a town johnny, a Bertie-Willie an’ a yard o’ cuffs.” When Luther reveals the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to Minnie, she angrily responds, “so — this was what I waited for you for!” The statement indicates that Minnie was always the pursuer in the relationship and the proof is that her final marriage proposal made via letter to Luther was the successful one. The doubts about Minnie’s true motivation for getting married are not only based on Mrs. Gascoigne’s scurrilous assertions that Minnie settled for Luther. Indeed, during a previous argument with Luther, Minnie criticizes Luther’s work ethic along with his half-hearted marriage proposals until an exasperated Luther legitimately asks why she did marry him, and her sharp response is – “because I could get nobody better.” However, one must ask if such a statement is credible? Admittedly, one suspects that Minnie must in fact have subdued her pride, not only to marry a man who showed little enthusiasm for the match, but because she also had to propose to him to finalize the match. Then when Luther reveals he got Bertha Purdy pregnant, Minnie does not automatically threaten to leave him as one might expect, but only broaches the topic of separation due to Luther’s total apathy. Minnie wanted the marriage and intends to stay in the marriage, but Luther’s passivity is a constant problem. Minnie’s assertions that she could do no better than him seem little more than antagonistic remarks to hurl against her docile husband. Yet, one must question the marriage further to reveal its allure for Minnie or if indeed she had not better option.

While Minnie and Luther’s marriage is strained, there is certainly mutual sexual attraction. This partially explains Minnie’s bond with Luther. Let us not forget that Minnie has worked in Manchester and is friends with educated men like her former employer, Mr. Westlake, the man who assists her in choosing the three art prints she later buys. She has her own occupation as a governess and may return to her work if she chooses. She is noticeably different because she speaks in standard English rather than the dialect of her hometown and region. One would suspect that such a woman would gravitate towards a more refined man than a manual labourer. Luther is certainly not an obvious match for her because he is an uneducated coal miner with little or no ambition. Minnie obviously chooses Luther, and their sexual chemistry is key to this choice. In Act One, scene two, we witness how the couple exchange compliments at home and how Minnie is fascinated by Luther in all his dirt and coal dust when he returns from the mine. She notes how red his lips are in his blackened face, and then Luther adds a description of himself as though he inhabits Minnie’s thoughts – “it ma’es you look like a nigger, i’ your pit-dirt — th’ whites o’ your eyes!” Luther’s description conjures up the old stereotype of black men and sexual prowess, clearly prompted by Minnie’s focus on the redness of Luther’s lips and whiteness of his teeth, “it’s your mouth — it looks so red and bright, in your black face.” Minnie is seemingly aroused by her husband’s appearance as she adds the piquant remark that “it’s almost like having a stranger.” Luther’s identity as a hard-working coal miner is read by Minnie as a sign of true masculinity, and for a moment, he is not the “tame rabbit” she has begun to label him. Many writers of the era, Lawrence included, noted the physical beauty of miner’s bodies which was a result of their hard physical work. It is important to note that sexual attraction plays a key role in the bond between the newlyweds especially since they are not an obvious match in other respects. One could view Minnie’s constant haranguing of Luther as an attempt to ignite a more obvious masculine response in him, to arouse a more formidable character with whom she can spar.

Minnie knows Luther for at least nine years before marrying him. One presumes that she could have married a middle-class gentleman, or even a different coal miner, given that she is young, intelligent, and good looking. Mrs. Gascoigne’s speculation that Minnie settled for Luther does not withstand much scrutiny. However, sexual attraction alone does not seem a sufficient reason for waiting so long for Luther, especially given his lacklustre responses during courtship. Then, once the couple are married, Minnie’s expectations of Luther contrast sharply with her knowledge of him over the many years. This begs the question – what does Minnie want of Luther? When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over Luther’s shortcomings, Minnie states, “I’ll have a man, or nothing, I will.” Minnie holds Mrs. Gascoigne responsible for Luther’s faults, saying:

“It was your fault. You held him, and persuaded him that what he wanted was you. You kept him, like a child, you even gave him what money he wanted, like a child. He never roughed it — he never faced out anything. You did all that for him.”

To understand such a charge, we may return to what Lawrence wrote about parents who establish too close a bond with their children, “you have got your child as sure as if you had woven its flesh again with your own. You have done what it is vicious for any parent to do: you have established between your child and yourself the bond of adult love” (196). Lawrence goes on to explain the detrimental consequences for such children’s later adult relationships, writing that, “you will not easily get a man to believe that his carnal love for the woman he has made his wife is as high a love as that he felt for his mother or sister. The cream is licked off from life before the boy or the girl is twenty” (205). Minnie recognizes the ill effects of Luther’s over intoxication with mother love. Minnie tells of how Mrs. Gascoigne bossed Luther, made decisions for him, and made him overly dependent on her. Of course, Mrs. Gascoigne defends her son out of love but also because by defending him she also defends herself. Mrs. Gascoigne tells Minnie that, “I canna see as you’re so badly off. You’ve got a husband as doesn’t drink, as waits on you hand and foot, as gives you a free hand in everything. It’s you as doesn’t know when you’re well off, madam.” In fact, both women know Luther’s character quite well and what Mrs. Gascoigne says is not contradicted by Minnie. The issue here is fundamentally about control because Minnie complains, “how is a woman ever to have a husband, when the men all belong to their mothers? It’s wrong.” At the conclusion of the play, Minnie is in conversation again with Mrs. Gascoigne, and she says “don’t keep him [Luther] from me. It leaves me so — with nothing — not even trouble.” Minnie seeks to break the incredibly strong bond between Mrs. Gascoigne and her son, but she makes the request of the person she understands holds the power, the power over Luther that Minnie herself desires. Lawrence writes very insightfully on the crucial difference between the submissive love a mother may give within a family versus the love a married woman expects in her marriage.

“No woman will give to a stranger that which she gives to her son, her father, or her brother: that beautiful and glamorous submission which is truly the wife- submission. To a stranger, a husband, a woman insists on being queen, goddess, mistress, the positive, the adored, the first and foremost and the one and only. This she will not ask from her near blood-kin. Of her blood-kin, there is always one she will love devotedly” (Lawrence 205).

This interpretation of the potency of mother love as understood in the context of Lawrence’s play leads one to a grave conclusion. It appears that Minnie enters verbal combat with Mrs. Gascoigne with the chief aim of gaining full control of Luther. This does not discount the sexual chemistry between Minnie and Luther, and one must indeed acknowledge their long courtship. However, it is implausible that Minnie does not know what kind of man Luther is, and therefore she has indeed chosen him precisely for the good points that his mother makes about his character. The thorn in Minnie’s side is Luther’s attachment to his mother and therefore the resulting split in his loyalties, namely between family and marriage. It is evident that Luther’s character will not change now regardless of his adult relationship with his mother so one suspects that many of Minnie’s major criticisms of her husband will be repeated to infinity. Through Minnie’s negotiations with Mrs. Gascoigne, she is signalling that she is indeed replacing the older woman in Luther’s affections and thus one domineering woman is replaced by her younger rival. What Minnie sees in Luther is someone who will abdicate his power to her, just as he did with his mother, and so the cycle continues. This is a somewhat unromantic reading of the situation but seems to follow the message of Lawrence’s play which is a caution against close family relationships of the mother and son variety. Why Luther chooses a woman with Minnie’s personality is not a puzzle – she is an image of his own mother to which he is unconsciously drawn.

Joe Gascoigne.

Joe Gascoigne is one of the most compelling figures in Lawrence’s play. Joe is Mrs. Gascoigne’s youngest son, aged approximately 26 years old and of handsome appearance. In comparison to the passive, even apathetic Luther, the younger brother Joe is assertive, ambitious, and seems unaffected by the negative aspects of motherly love. This young miner has plans to emigrate to Australia and is considered somewhat of a ladies’ man. However, Lawrence shows that even though families may contain individuals of contrasting character, an overbearing mother will still unavoidably shape her children. Carl Jung writes that, “the effects of the mother-complex differ according to whether it appears in a son or a daughter” (85) and he notes that one of the effects on sons is the emergence of what he labels “Don Juanism” (85) where the son “unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets” (85). Freud asserts a similar theory that sons seek replacements for their mothers in romantic relationships, writing that, “it is not without good reason that the suckling of the child at its mother’s breast has become a model for every amour. The object-finding is really a re-finding” (95). Luther confirms that Joe is promiscuous when he recalls his own lack of sexual activity but says, “our Joe wor more that way than me.” Even though Joe may be quite sexually active, he is also apparently discerning in his choice of women. The evidence of this comes when Minnie berates Luther about Bertha Purdy, the so called “sawney” or simpleton. Minnie observes that Joe would never settle for such a woman. This statement of Minnie’s confirms that Joe prefers intelligent and articulate women, women like his own mother who are redoubtable. However, “Don Juanism” is not the only indication of Joe’s bond with his mother. In the opening scene of the play, we witness Mrs. Gascoigne cutting Joe’s dinner meat and spoon feeding her adult son. One could feebly excuse this act given that Joe’s right arm is in a sling, but it is noteworthy that Mrs. Gascoigne initiates the role play and it is not the result of a request from Joe. Lawrence is depicting a case of infantilization and the playwright underscores the relevance of the scene with Mrs. Gascoigne’s joke that, “it’s a rum un as I should start ha’in’ babies again, an’ feedin’ ’em wi’ spoon-meat.” The scene perfectly encapsulates the relationship between mother and son, especially when Mrs. Gascoigne proceeds to quiz Joe on his attempts to secure accident pay and then critiques, albeit jokingly, his actions and negotiating skills. There is clearly an unusually close bond between Joe and his mother.

Lawrence makes Joe a distinctive character in several respects, but one key point is that Joe is painfully aware of his unhealthy link with his own mother. This is not revealed until Minnie is arguing with Mrs. Gascoigne, and remarks that, “your elder sons you let go, and they are husbands. But your young sons you’ve kept.” As the topic is Mrs. Gascoigne’s control over her sons then Joe is naturally brought into the discussion with Minnie commenting that he is not fit to get married. Surprisingly, Joe agrees with Minnie’s criticism of him. Joe exhibits true insight into his predicament as he understands it, addressing his mother as follows:

“Tha knows I couldna leave thee, Mother — tha knows I couldna. An’ me, a young man, belongs to thy owd age. An’ there’s nowheer for me to go, Mother. For tha’rt gettin’ nearer to death an’ yet I canna leave thee to go my own road. An’ I wish, yi, often, as I wor dead.”

It is a striking confession from a man who seems a well-rounded adult. One may comfortably presume for much of the play that Joe is a quite capable and soon to be independent young man. However, by finally stripping away Joe’s façade of confidence, Lawrence is drawing attention to the ill effects of what is most easily classified as the Oedipal complex. Additionally, Lawrence makes Joe the truth-teller of the play and the fact that the young man has a good insight into his own flaws means that he may be treated by the reader as an objective voice in the play.

Joe is instrumental in bringing the plot of The Daughter-in-Law to its resolution. One may view this young man’s influence under three key headings, namely, information, argumentation, and confrontation. Information becomes a weapon in the play as proven by Mrs. Gascoigne’s desire to use the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to punish Minnie. Mrs. Gascoigne commands that, “Mrs. Purdy, give it her [Minnie]. It’ll take her down a peg or two, and, my sirs, she wants it, my sirs, she needs it!” Yet, Mrs. Gascoigne is regularly deprived of information by her secretive sons signalling their fear of her. Only Joe has an overview of all that is truly happening in the family. He holds three crucial pieces of information which he shares with his mother but only at a strategic moment when revelations are necessary for his own aims. These revelations are, firstly, that Luther and Minnie already have marital problems prior to Bertha’s news, secondly, the contents of Luther’s letter in reply to Minnie’s marriage proposal, and thirdly, the confirmation by Joe of Mrs. Purdy’s story about Luther and Bertha’s affair. The information is not provided to win favour with his mother but instead to create a solid and convincing counterargument to Mrs. Gascoigne’s. It is Mrs. Gascoigne’s intent to orchestrate a scene where Minnie is confronted with the news of Luther’s unfaithfulness based on her sole argument that Minnie deserves this fate because she made Luther wait too long before marrying him. Mrs. Gascoigne’s attempts to use Mrs. Purdy’s daughter’s misfortune to punish Minnie is clearly unjust in Joe’s view.

Mrs. Gascoigne’s chief argument relies on timelines, primarily the inordinate waiting period before the young couple’s marriage. Luther’s mother cleverly absolves herself of responsibility for her son’s errors, saying, “my son’s my son till he takes him a wife,” an’ no longer.” But the timeline tells a different truth because the couple are married just six weeks, Minnie’s proposal was three months ago, but Bertha is four months pregnant. Luther was still a single man and living with his mother when he had a tryst with Bertha Purdy. Since Joe disagrees with his mother’s argument, he uses information, including some comments derogatory to Luther, as a means of convincing Mrs. Purdy not to follow his mother’s advice. He criticizes Luther instead of Minnie for the slow marriage because his brother “slormed” meaning that his courtship lacked vigour. Joe goes on to name the gang of friends who frequented “Th’ Ram” bar and says, “Jim Horrocks is ter blame fer couplin’ ‘er [Bertha] onter our Luther, an’ him an’ her’s ter blame for the rest. I dunno how you can lay it on Minnie.” Joe also quite reasonably asserts that Luther had no way of knowing that Bertha would actually fall pregnant. In short, Joe tries to avert disaster by convincing Mrs. Purdy that the whole sorry affair is the result of Luther’s lackadaisical character, a bad crowd, and bad luck. Minnie is the innocent party in Joe’s presentation. It is a robust argument which tackles each aspect of his mother’s rhetoric. Additionally, Joe actively seeks a solution to the problem by suggesting a payment to Mrs. Purdy’s daughter, negotiating the appropriate sum, offering to pay it himself, and always emphasizing the importance of secrecy to Mrs. Purdy. In fact, Joe solves the problem except for one major obstacle – Mrs. Gascoigne controls both her sons’ savings and refuses to release the money to Joe, even though it is his own money.

Even though Joe appears beholden to his mother, he is not afraid to contradict and even confront her at times. Mrs. Gascoigne becomes increasingly exasperated with Joe’s contradictory stance to hers in regard to Minnie’s responsibility and she attempts to silence her son using her power as matriarch, saying – “what has thee ter say, I should like to know? Fed an’ clothed an’ coddled, tha art, an’ not a thing tha lacks.” It is manipulative for a mother to use her son’s dependency as a coercive tool especially when the last thing she wishes is for him to become independent. Despite Joe’s best efforts, Mrs. Purdy does finally agree to Mrs. Gascoigne’s plan, but Joe never gives up arguing his point that Minnie should not be told of Bertha’s pregnancy. Mrs. Gascoigne’s annoyance is obvious, and she chides Joe, saying, “I could fetch thee a wipe ower th’ face, I could!” As Joe’s initial plan has failed, he cleverly goes to Luther’s house the following day with the intention of making Minnie so angry, by breaking her crockery, that she exits the house before Mrs. Purdy arrives. In this scene, Joe is shown to outmanoeuvre Minnie for her own good, then he breaks the news of Bertha to Luther as well as school his brother on the agreement to make with Mrs. Purdy. In short, Joe succeeds in dismantling his mother’s plan. It is only because of Luther’s drunken revelation that Minnie finds out about Bertha’s pregnancy, not because of any flaw in Joe’s meticulous planning. The key turning point of the play involves a final confrontation that eventually secures a lasting peace in the family. The scene is set when Joe acts upon Luther’s suggestion that a woman may be hired to do the housework instead of Minnie who has apparently abandoned her husband. Joe’s departure from the house to arrange the services of “Lizzie Charley” infuriates not only his mother but Minnie too. In a clever comparison, Joe says Luther may hire someone to do his housework just as the mine bosses hire “blacklegs” to do the miners’ work. The metaphor of a strike breaker works well in the domestic debacle. Mrs. Gascoigne is advised by Joe not to play the role of blackleg i.e. not interfere in the young couple’s marriage, and also, Minnie’s home labour is covertly given a monetary value. In regard to Mrs. Gascoigne, Joe is effectively telling her that she needs to stop interfering in Luther’s married life which is a long overdue rebuke. For Minnie, the effect of the insult is quite different because by placing a monetary value on the household duties of a wife, Joe cleverly deflates Minnie’s exaggerated sense of her own importance by coldly showing her that she can be replaced easily and at a meagre cost. As soon as Lizzie Charley has been advised that her services are not needed, Minnie instantly re-assumes her domestic role, suggesting, “we’ll have some tea, should we?” and unusually refers to Mrs. Gascoigne as “mother” while engaging her in polite conversation. Joe, who is just an ordinary miner, is shown to be exceptionally cunning because he manipulates the situation to force a result that finally sets everything in its proper place.


Lawrence’s play provides an engaging critique of mother love in the context of a poor, mining family. The playwright portrays two quite different men who have one thing in common, an unhealthy attachment to their mother. The story that Lawrence presents to his readers is a variation on an old theme of mother and son relationships. Carl Jung writes of the potency of the mother and son relationship as follows:

It is very telling that Mrs. Gascoigne compares her role as carer of her sons with that of a new wife who will replace her. She says of Minnie’s relationship with Luther, “let her make him as good a wife as I made him a mother! The comment seems innocuous until later when Luther is drunkenly arguing with Minnie and he says, “‘er wor nice wi’ me, which is a thing tha’s niver bin” which Minnie misinterprets as a reference to his mother and responds, “you only want your mother to rock you to sleep.” However, the woman Luther is referring to is the woman he got pregnant, Bertha Purdy. In the context of the play, Minnie’s presumption that Luther is speaking of his mother when he is actually speaking of his lover helps emphasize the incestuous nature of the too close mother and son bond. As already discussed, it is common for sons of domineering women to seek a partner who reflects their mother. As Lawrence himself states, one is not referring to sexual relations between mother and son but an unusually close sympathetic bond which is gravely harmful. Also, Mrs. Gascoigne’s view that she is being replaced leads to a heightened defensiveness of the bond she has with her adult sons, a bond that is even more insidious since it has existed since their births. When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over her control of Luther, the older woman retorts to Minnie, “you talk like a jealous woman” which also signals that both women are vying for Luther’s love.

While Luther turns out to be a taciturn, introverted character who leaves his mother only to live with a woman who is equally assertive and domineering, Joe is quite different. In Joe, Lawrence presents us with a handsome, intelligent, resourceful, masculine figure but one whose life ambitions are spanceled by his bond with his mother. While one may more easily dismiss Luther as a failure, Joe’s example demands that a reader look more closely at the influence of the often-unquestioned love of the mother figure. If the play has a single message, then it is how a man’s whole life may be overshadowed by a type of motherly love that acts as a poison rather than nourishment.

The ending of the play is sometimes read as a depiction of a family at peace, bought at the price of compromise. Mrs. Gascoigne and Minnie certainly appear to have reached a truce but both women have accepted certain realities as opposed to any show of generous compromise. In fact, there is little true evidence of characters compromising or transforming. One possible exception is the men’s action against the mine bosses in the closing scenes. Joe is the instigator of the attack, saying, “but we non goin’ ter ha’e it, are we, Luther, these ‘ere blacklegs goin’ down interferin’.” Then, both men go out at night to thwart the blacklegs in the mining district and as Luther says when he returns home, all bloodied, “we stopped them blacklegs — leastways.” As such, Joe, and more surprisingly, Luther, give an eventual show of traditional masculine bravery. This may indeed be interpreted as a transformation of Luther given that he has been repeatedly accused by his wife of not being a real man. Lawrence had very traditional views on male and female roles in marriage and he believed a good marriage was only possible if the man has a clear goal in life outside of the home. As Luther and Joe go out to stop strike breakers with the ultimate goal of improving miners’ wages and conditions then they are enacting their political beliefs as normal working men. Lawrence believed that a man should not look to his wife as the major interest in life, writing that:

“No man ever had a wife unless he served a great predominant purpose. Otherwise, he has a lover, a mistress. No matter how much she may be married to him, unless his days have a living purpose, constructive or destructive, but a purpose beyond her and all she stands for; unless his days have this purpose, and his soul is really committed to his purpose, she will not be a wife, she will be only a mistress and he will be her lover” (283).

As Mrs. Gascoigne is the one who originally unmanned her sons then she is not the one to rectify the problem. Luther’s “predominant purpose” as Lawrence calls it becomes the welfare of the mining workers for whom he fights. Yet, this awakening of masculinity is clearly prompted by his younger brother Joe who suggests the action. We also witness Minnie’s actions where she seeks to force a change in Luther’s character. Minnie deliberately transforms her cash savings into material objects, an engagement ring and three art prints, on the pretence that it puts her in “the same boat as other men’s wives now.” Her goal is to make a man of Luther, to force him to provide for her and her ultimatum is professed in front of all the family – “if he can provide, he must, and if he can’t, he must tell me so, and I’ll go back into service, and not be a burden to him.” Mrs. Gascoigne astutely reads Minnie’s act as being “high and mighty” and chastises Minnie regarding Luther’s feelings, “tha doesna care how he takes it.” There is clearly a demand being made of Luther to change.

The play closes with an image of Luther, wounded after the attack on the blacklegs, and in tears due to the emotional strain of the previous days. He is held in his wife’s arms and she has just said, “trust yourself to me. Let me have you now for my own.” In the other household, Joe goes home and his mother follows him to take care of him, knowing that he will never leave her. In both houses, a man’s life is ruled by a more assertive, domineering individual, be it wife or mother. In regard to characters transforming or compromising, the only character who is really asked to change is Luther, the most docile and accommodating of all the characters in the play. As such, Lawrence’s depiction of mother love is of something quite malign and oppressive but also practically invisible until one looks at the long-term repercussions as evidenced by Luther’s marriage. The price to be paid by both sons, as evidenced in The Daughter-in-Law, is freedom.

Works Cited.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.

Jung, C. J. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The Collected Works of C. J. Jung Volume 9, Part 1, edited by Sir Herbert Read, Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lawrence, D. H. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, Dover Publications, 2005.

Lawrence, D. H. The Daughter-in-Law. Complete Works of D. H. Lawrence, Delphi Classics, 2015, pp. 8653-8764.


Chart of concentration camp ID badges.

  • Play title: Bent 
  • Author: Martin Sherman
  • Published: 1978
  • Page count: 98


Martin Sherman’s play Bent is set in 1930’s Germany. The protagonist is a gay man named Maximilian Berber whose story begins in a bacchanalian Berlin and ends in the concentration camp of Dachau. Even though the play is fictional, it references true historical events. The two main historical events that underpin the play are, firstly, the murder of Ernst Roehm who was chief of the SA but also openly homosexual, and secondly, the Nazi party’s subsequent extension of paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (anti-homosexual law). These events transformed a largely uncensored gay scene in Berlin into a decidedly cold climate for gay men. Sherman dramatizes the Nazi persecution of homosexual men within the timeframe of the play which is 1934 to ’36. We follow Maximilian’s (Max’s) relationships with two men, Rudy and then Horst. One controversial aspect of Sherman’s work is the implication that gay men suffered more than Jews in Dachau. Sherman’s play was one of the first to focus on the Nazi Party’s or more specifically Heinrich Himmler’s preoccupation with ridding Germany of its gay male population.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

An online copy of Sherman’s play, Bent, is available via the Open Library. Also, if you are already a member of Scribd then you will be able to access the text.

I do not normally reference the film adaptations of plays but Sherman did write the screenplay for the film Bent which was released in 1997 and it is a good substitute if you do not wish to read the text.

Why read Bent?

History lesson.

Sherman’s play provides a history lesson embedded within a dramatic work. The Nazi persecution of minority groups did not receive much attention after WWII, but this was especially so for gay men. One important reason for the lack of attention was that homosexual acts remained a crime in both East and West Germany until the late 1960’s. Therefore, gay camp detainees, those who survived, were still regarded as criminals even after liberation. Heinz Heger was one of the first gay men to write an autobiographical account of surviving the concentration camps. His book, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was released in 1972 and is said to have been a key inspiration for Sherman’s play. In 1986, Richard Plant released The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Regarding these two books, Heger provides an invaluable first-hand account while Plant provides academic research into the history of gay men’s plight in Nazi Germany. Sherman combines an albeit fictional first-hand account with historically accurate details to create a play that is provocative and clearly political but also rich in pathos. In this way, Sherman provides readers with an emotionally charged history lesson.

Identity and survival.

Bent focuses on the themes of identity and a man’s means of survival under extreme persecution. These two themes are shown to be in constant conflict in the play. Max, the play’s protagonist wears a yellow star ostensibly signifying that he is imprisoned due to his Jewish identity/faith. Horst wears a pink triangle because as he explains, he “signed a petition … for Magnus Hirschfield” the man who wanted to “make queers legal.” Both men’s prison identities rely on what can be proven by the Nazis, for example, by membership of a community, church, political movement etc. Sherman looks at how a specific identity becomes a burden when it leads directly to persecution or indeed a greater level of persecution. When Horst initially explains the colour coding of prisoners’ badges to Max, he warns that, “pink’s the lowest.” This aspect of the play is controversial yet it is important to understand Sherman’s core argument that pride in one’s identity should ideally transcend other concerns. The setting of a concentration camp serves to pit each man’s identity against his best chances of survival. Sherman’s play was first performed in 1978 when gay liberation was still relatively new. Homosexual acts had only been decriminalized in 1967 in England and were decriminalized in the United States on a state by state process between 1962 and 2003. The playwright’s depiction of gay men in Nazi Germany must be understood within the political context of an evolving gay liberation movement in the 1970’s.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

An absurd situation.

Bent was first performed in 1978 in an era when gay pride was being embraced as a remedy for centuries of repression and shame. The story that Sherman presents is fundamentally one where a gay man needs to survive, somehow, in an absurd situation. One may call it absurd for several reasons but the primary one is that the Nazis were persecuting men, mostly German nationals,  solely because of their sexuality. In this essay, I will focus on Sherman’s play as a tale of survival. In doing so, it will be necessary to delve into the key issues discussed in the play such as the perceived hierarchy of suffering in the concentration camps, the links between gay identity and pride, and most importantly, the concept of the absurd. It will ultimately be shown that Horst, not Max, is the hero of the play. This reading appears to diverge from Sherman’s authorial intent and therefore requires a solid explanation.

It is best to begin by tackling the most controversial aspect of the play, namely that homosexuals were treated more brutally than Jews in Dachau. This topic serves to open up the play to a fruitful analysis. When Sherman did an interview with The Advocate in 1980 and was asked about this issue of a hierarchy of maltreatment, he replied that “some people are reluctant to share the suffering, particularly with a group that they have problems with, that they think denigrates the experience.” The playwright himself is both Jewish and gay and thus has an insight into both communities. Even though Sherman’s statement is quite provocative and political, it also has serious merit. It is significant that Sherman used the phrase “share the suffering” which indicates that gay men’s suffering was indeed ignored, and the second important point it that this was a post-war discussion. For context, one may refer to Dr. Klaus Muller who wrote the introduction for Heinz Heger’s 1972 book, The Men with the Pink Triangle. Muller wrote the following about gay men’s lives in the years after the war:

“We know of several cases where, after the war, concentration camp survivors were charged for violations of Paragraph 175 and committed suicide either before the trial or afterwards in prison. Still more escaped into marriage or into complete isolation. While other Holocaust survivors were recognized as survivors by the outside world, the men who wore the pink triangle never received that recognition. They were ignored in the memorials and in the museums. Still seen as criminals and perverts, they never had an opportunity to regain their dignity in post-war society. They survived but they were denied their place in the community of survivors” (Heger 13-14).

Sherman’s play was released more than thirty years after WWII ended and therefore, like Muller, he had a clear perspective of how gay men’s lives remained in many cases almost unliveable, hidden, and ostracized. Sherman’s provocative point about camp maltreatment seems logical because if the gay population were still not considered Nazi victims in the post-war years but instead as criminals then how can one imagine that they held anything other than the lowest rank in the concentration camps? Though I will discuss the hierarchy of abuse in more detail in this essay, Sherman is clearly using a provocative point to draw attention to a minority group that had been deliberately ignored. It is with this in mind that one may begin to look at the theme of survival as explored by Sherman. We may view the plight of the gay men in the camps but with the added advantage of a modern reader’s broader historical view.

In Bent, it is shown how prisoners endure concentration camp life, mainly through mental strength but also through strategic actions. Even after cruel treatment including poor food rations, verbal abuse, and backbreaking labour, Horst is shown to be unbroken and rebellious when faced with death. He is murdered by the Nazis. Max, on the other hand, finally commits suicide which from a traditional viewpoint is the sign of ultimate defeat. However, this is complicated by Max’s heroic proclamation of personal identity by wearing the pink triangle. The play may be looked at solely from the angles of sexuality or historical fact as many academics have done, but these topics may also form part of a larger discussion of man’s endurance and survival. It is with the themes of endurance and survival in mind that one may refer to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays. This text offers many important insight into the significant differences between someone like Horst versus someone like Max. As Camus writes, “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore, it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face” (1). Suicide is about giving up; therefore, one may interrogate Sherman’s core message in a play where his protagonist destroys himself at the conclusion.

In The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, Camus looks at the relationship between suicide and the absurd. The justification for choosing Camus’ text is that our understanding of Max’s suicide is central to understanding the play. It is somewhat too easy to affirm that Max proudly embraces his identity as a gay man and, in a final act of defiance, disempowers the Nazis by taking his own life. What Max does is indeed heroic and the final scene is one of the most affecting in the play. Yet, Sherman’s play relies on the existence of gay survivor testimonies, on men who endured and survived. It was men like Heinz Heger that made narratives such as Sherman’s possible in the first place. One may legitimately ask why one camp prisoner decides that suicide is his only option while another man, treated much worse and over a longer imprisonment, may actually endure the situation undefeated. This question indeed presumes that there is more to Sherman’s narrative, and the more is ultimately explained under the heading of the absurd.

In chronological order, one may first look at the upheaval that occurred in German gay men’s lives due to the Nazi accession to power. Max and Rudy’s story begins in an accommodating world where Wolf can say, “you people are strange, keeping places like this in town. I don’t meet people like you too much. But you interest me, your kind.” Then quite suddenly the world of the gay couple and all their kind in Germany is turned upside down and swiftly obliterated. The abruptness of the change can be seen in several ways, for example, the gay nightclub closes, Max’s one night stand is murdered before his eyes, and not only must the couple flee Berlin but as Greta advises Rudy, “you can’t go anyplace.” The words of Greta’s nightclub song suddenly become quite pertinent, “streets of Berlin / will you cry out / if I vanish / into thin air” because that transformation into thin air is a chilling reminder of the crematoria of the concentration camps. The play depicts a total divorce between two worlds, liberality versus oppression, divided by a single day. It is the lightning fast transformation of the world from one thing to another that prompts one to describe it as absurd. Camus sums up this feeling of one’s environment becoming unfamiliar in an instant:

“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (6).

However, this feeling of the absurd is not seen by Camus as leading inevitably to suicide. Camus’ philosophical stance is that “even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate” (1). This is not meant from the perspective of sin but simply that God and religion offer hope that otherwise would not be present. Thus, even from the perspective of hopelessness, suicide is still not the answer. Camus writes about how, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” (5). As such, he begins an argument on how man may indeed live with the absurdities of life. This is the precise distinction that one needs to make between men like Horst and Max, men who can or cannot confront the absurdity of a situation. While Camus would argue that life itself is absurd from the viewpoint of existential philosophy, not everyone will becomes conscious of this stark viewpoint and therefore the extreme conditions of the concentration camp act as a catalyst – forcing men into a consciousness of the absurd. Sherman indeed lays emphasis on how each man confronts his new life in the concentration camp and therefore there is an appreciation of the quite subjective responses of individuals to the factual realities of their environment. An explanation for this is, as Camus states, “there can be no absurd outside the human mind” (22). For instance, Horst explains the term “moslem” to Max as “a dead person who walks” and these are the men who stop eating, stop talking, and wait for death in total apathy. As this describes one of the unfortunates in Horst’s separate barracks of pink triangle prisoners, the example serves as a foil for Horst’s own exceptional endurance. It is exactly in this light that one may reassess Horst’s statement that pink triangle prisoners were treated the worst of all. This is Horst’s subjective experience of Dachau and even though controversial and historically unproven, it is nonetheless a true account in its own right. Horst faces the ugliness of the situation and endures it which is a critical point when looking at the overall camp situation and the men’s individual stories.

Sherman pays particular attention to the onerous tasks of concentration camp detainees. It is crucially through prisoners’ reactions to their predicament, including the exhausting labour, that we judge their potential survival. In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Camus summarizes that, “the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” (75). This ancient myth is central to Camus’ contemplation of the absurd and suicide. One may begin to compare Max and Horst with Sisyphus because they indeed share the laborious task of moving rocks. More importantly, Camus’ contemplation of the task leads one to the psychology of endurance. In Bent, when Horst has just begun moving rocks, Max counsels him, “it’s supposed to drive us crazy” because “it makes no sense. It serves no purpose.” Unlike Sisyphus, Max has the opportunity of gaining a helper for the arduous task. In Max’s view, companionship is the antidote to the otherwise unhinging situation. As Max says, “this is the best work in the camp, if you keep your head, if you have someone to talk to.” These two ‘ifs’ are significant qualifiers to the statement indicating that Max essentially lives on hope.

Camus writes that, “the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality” (21). In somewhat more accessible terms, he writes, “the absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation” (21). The prisoners’ tasks, so central to Sherman’s narrative, are a good example of the absurd with which to begin. Pointless tasks were not uncommon in concentration camps and Heinz Heger recounts performing such work. He writes that, “in the morning we had to cart the snow outside our block from the left side of the road to the right side. In the afternoon we had to cart the same snow back from the right side to the left” (35). Heger notes the irony of the Nazi slogan written over the camp gate, “Freedom through work” (36). The slogan was originally understood to mean prisoner re-education i.e., rehabilitation but as Heger correctly understands, the work is just psychological torture which exaggerates the feeling of imprisonment, negating any sense of hope. Horst likewise makes an intuitive observation of his task on his first day, saying, “we move the rocks from there to there, and then back from there to there.” He does not use the phrase ‘here to there,’ but uses a word that communicates the constant gap between where something now rests but needs to be – there. It suggests the endless physical movement required to close a gap that cannot be closed. Additionally, the gap in the logic of the situation, the ludicrous nature of the tasks sets the human mind to whirling. As Camus writes, there is a ‘confrontation,’ and in this case it is between exhausting labour and no eventual outcome, or product, or result. Richard Plant offers significant insights into the pointless tasks assigned to prisoners by SS officers and how such tasks fundamentally contrasted with essential work.

“However wearying these tasks [essential work] proved to be, they were resented less than those designed primarily to punish the detainees—senseless exertions, such as building a wall in the morning and tearing it down in the afternoon. These cruel practices not only gave pleasure to the overseers—it gave them an opportunity to mock their charges—but they emphasized the limitless power held by the SS” (185).

Plant focuses on the exercise of power by the SS guards to cruelly mock their charges. Interestingly, Max does not focus on the guards but simply understands that his task is devoid of meaning except to mentally crush the one who is assigned the task. He understands it as a mind game but one he holds to key to, one that he can neutralize by having a companion. Max believes he has beaten the system yet his grasp of the truth is only partial because he does not appreciate the bigger picture.

The absurdity of the individual’s rock moving task is encased within even greater absurdities. Beside the explanation of Nazi cruelty, there was also a surprisingly practical explanation for pointless work tasks. Richard Plant explains that the Nazi official, Theodor Eicke, created an operational manual for concentration camps. Plant writes that, “Eicke legalized various procedures through which the inmates were humiliated and broken, a process vitally necessary if a small – albeit well-armed – group of SS troopers was to reign over much larger numbers of prisoners” (169). Once again, in Camus’ terms, we have a confrontation of two elements that lead to the absurd, namely thousands of prisoners compared with a quite limited number of SS guards. A prison population of that size could probably, if correctly mobilized, defeat the guards. Max understands his task is meant to drive him mad but in fact, it is to break his spirit as per Eicke’s overall strategy. Each time one scrutinizes the tasks then something new and more mind boggling arises. For example, the broader picture of prisoner tasks includes the irony that prisoner labour was of huge importance. Plant explains as follows:

“Only slave labor in the Nazi camps kept the German economy afloat. But this expanding labor force exacerbated the never-ending tug-of-war between what one might call the “pragmatists” and the “fundamentalists.” One group, made up of planners and industrialists such as Albert Speer, needed captive workers to produce planes, tanks, guns, chemicals, and so forth, and tried to prevent the other group, the fundamentalists, from exterminating these workers” (173).

The SS’s desire to exterminate prisoners whose work was crucial to the success of the Nazi war machine is certainly baffling. Plant explains that, “to the public, Himmler touted the camps as ‘beneficial reeducation centers’ but by 1942 nobody believed this any longer” (173). Himmler was clearly one of the “fundamentalists” and the camps were clearly just a means of exterminating those considered enemies of the state. Max performs his own little individual task but in an illogical environment. Sherman depicts a true maze of contradictions and one which put huge mental strain on those trapped within it, even if they only grasped the first layer of absurdity, namely their own individual tasks.

The absurd does not end with the pointless tasks but instead imbues almost every aspect of prisoners’ lives. Regarding sexuality, Bent crucially exposes the contradictions, indeed absurdities, between the perceptions of gay men and the realities. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, considered homosexuals to be sexual degenerates who had an adverse effect on the German birth rate. It was based on such a characterization of homosexuals that he constantly urged the imprisonment, persecution, and extermination of gay men. Furthermore, Himmler characterized gay men as being cowardly and effeminate. However, as Plant points out, “that [Ernst] Roehm had been a first-rate soldier and an efficient military organizer should have puzzled Himmler; it contradicted his thesis of gays as sissies” (109). The main characters in Sherman’s play also contradict stereotypical expectations of homosexuals. For instance, Sherman depicts Rudy as resisting the train guards, noting that he “fights them,” and Horst when faced with certain death, valiantly attacks the Nazi officer and “screams in fury.” These are not the actions of cowardly men. Sherman is not afraid to tackle the thornier issue of homosexual Nazis thereby exposing an uneasy symbiosis between oppressor and oppressed. For example, Max meets Wolf at a club in Berlin and the following morning Rudy reminds Max that “you called him your own little stormtrooper.” Richard Plant addresses the issue of gay SS officers at the concentration camps, writing that, “there were additional factors complicating the lives of gay prisoners. First, a few SS guards were homosexual. Although they risked everything, they made some younger inmates, usually Poles or Russians, their ‘dolly boys’ (Pielpel)”(177). It must be remembered that Himmler scoured the SS for homosexuals and wanted from 1941 the death penalty for any offenders. Sherman dramatizes a compromising situation where Max must perform fellatio on the SS captain in order to secure medicine for Horst. It is an unsettling thought for any gay prisoner that his SS oppressor may be just the same as him, but Horst grudgingly admits that “there are queer Nazis. But what the hell. And queer saints. And queer mediocrities. Just people.” In this way, Sherman confronts the apparent contradiction that oppressor and victim alike may be homosexual even though the very crime being punished is homosexual identity denoted by the pink triangle. In such a context, the Nazi ideal of cleansing German society of gay men is truly risible.

The stigmatization of gay identity is a core issue in Bent. Based on Horst’s advice, Max wishes for a yellow star used to identity Jewish prisoners in an effort to avoid the worst punishments of the concentration camp. Once captured by the Nazis, Max is arguably in an impossible situation but it is worth studying the plot line. One key point is the reason for his and Rudy’s initial arrest and this is presumably on charges of offences covered by paragraph 175 i.e., homosexual acts. As a German man, not involved in politics or general criminality and not religious, there were few other possible reasons for the arrest. Camus writes that the statement,  “‘It’s absurd’ means ‘It’s impossible’ but also ‘It’s contradictory’” (21) and this certainly applies to Max’s predicament. The incomprehensibility of the situation begins on the train when Max must deny his ‘friendship’ with Rudy because as Horst advises, “if you try to help him, they will kill you.” Max is even forced to participate in Rudy’s beating which leads to his death. However, the Nazi officer remains unsatisfied, presumably believing that the two men were indeed a couple, and he devises a new test for Max to prove that he is not homosexual. Max is then forced to perform necrophilia in order to prove that he is not “queer.” The absurd situation becomes apparent once Max has proven to the officer’s satisfaction that he is not homosexual because Max then immediately requests his yellow star. The Nazis laughingly reply, “sure make him a Jew. He’s not bent.” As the only probable reason for Max’s initial arrest was his suspected homosexuality, any proof that dispelled that idea should have meant his freedom. Sherman uses this incident to show how a gay man, who believes that his own true identity is stigmatized and toxic, will foolishly accept to be labelled with a false identity. This is also a clear indication of Max’s shame over his own sexual orientation. Accepting the yellow star is, of course, a guarantee of a death sentence. Therefore, the situation becomes utterly absurd. In the eyes of the SS officers, homosexual or Jewish identity were on an equally disdained level, neither offering any advantage over the other in real terms.

Camus writes that, “a man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future” (22). In contrast, Max never fully confronts the illogical nature of his situation, never faces the absurdity of his reality. This may be emphatically stated because Sherman depicts a protagonist who utilizes several coping mechanisms to shield himself from various challenging situations. In this manner, Max differs from both Rudy and Horst. It is not that Max never becomes fleetingly conscious of the absurd, but that he just as quickly tries to escape confronting such a bleak reality. One recurring example is his tactic of counting to ten in moments of extreme anxiety. We notice this first when Max is simply hungover in his Berlin apartment and cannot remember either making a deal about a shipment of cocaine, or the identity of the naked stranger. Counting is shown to be Max’s rescue tactic, a means of separating himself from an awful reality, for instance, after Rudy’s murder, then after recounting the ‘test’ on the train, and finally after Horst’s murder. One may briefly contrast this with Horst’s demeanour on the train when Rudy is dragged away by the guards and Max says, “this isn’t happening,” but Horst calmly responds, “it’s happening.” Men like Rudy and Horst are shown to engage fully with their predicaments, for example, Horst is actually being returned to Dachau, but he does not mentally disengage, still shows humanity, still fights at the end.

Max lives on an eternal dream of doing deals that will fix everything, he loses himself in a mirage of the future. The deals start with selling cocaine but later include the deal with Freddie to comply with the family’s expectations in exchange for two tickets to Amsterdam. Once imprisoned, Max makes multiple ‘deals’ with the Nazi officers in exchange for his prison identity, a work partner, and medicine. Interestingly, all the deals whose results should bear fruit in the future are the ones that invariably fail. Only gaining Horst as a work partner and then spending time with him each day is beneficial to Max. In the philosophical view of the absurd, there is no future, but instead as Camus writes, “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man” (42). This is how Rudy lived, working as a dancer in a crummy club, endlessly tidying up a pitiful apartment, digging ditches to buy food when they were on the run. In contrast, Max constantly projects himself into a better future, including the illusion that his arrest is just “protective custody,” that the Nazis may release the camp prisoners for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and finally, the plan that he and Horst will return to Berlin together once released from the camp. Max cannot face his present existence. He lives on hope as already exemplified by the rock moving tasks where a succession of ‘ifs’ secure his future. This eventually proves deadly when he can no longer employ an effective evasive technique, like counting to ten, and must confront his fate.

Max is a somewhat strange character to be the hero of the play. Sherman does however show a noticeable evolution from selfish, party-animal to the vulnerable yet proud man at the end. Indeed, Max is full of contradictions because even though his uncle Freddie accuses him of “throwing it in everyone’s face” meaning his openly gay life, Max denies being in love with Rudy, referring instead to his partner as just his responsibility. It is also noticeable that Max never responds to Rudy’s declarations of love. Against this background, it is evident that Max’s fear of being labelled as gay goes beyond the fact that Horst said gay men suffer more in the camp. Max’s life is contradictory because he lives with a man, engages in an active sex life with other men too, but cannot express love nor fully embrace his identity. Sherman depicts a man who represses his feelings because he has been emotionally wounded. When Horst admits his love for Max then the reply he gets is that “queers aren’t meant to love.” In explanation, Max refers to the gay man at his father’s factory who was paid to go away, leaving Max, denoting the shallowness of gay love. Max feels that his own capacity for love has died, noting that, “I can’t love anybody back” as well as his self-hatred expressed in the idea that he’s a “rotten person.”

Sherman uses Max as a testament to the suffering of gay men in society. The pink triangle reflects not only Max’s internalized self-hatred but also Horst’s warning that pink is the lowest “but only because the other prisoners hate us so much.” In this environment, Max is shown to defend his yellow star to Horst, saying “it’s a smart lie” and “my yellow star got your medicine.” When Max finally embraces his identity as a gay man and wears Horst’s coat, it is because he must face the absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, the contradiction is too great, between the sacrifices needed to attain the yellow star in the first place, and the final but too late admission of his own gay identity. As Camus states, it is the contradiction that leads to a realization of the absurd. It is only now that Max can accept/admit that he truly loved the man from his father’s factory, and Rudy, and Horst. Sherman creates a cautionary tale because all the effort Max has put into surviving, especially the awful incidents on the train, are all undone by the eventual and overwhelming consciousness that it was all meaningless. The stupendous effort to be something else has eventually failed. Camus writes that, “war cannot be negated. One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd” (60) and Max is crushed by the total lack of meaning and purpose in his predicament. He counts to ten just after Horst is shot in an attempt to shield himself from the nausea that comes of the realization, but it fails. As an audience, we are supposed to interpret Max’s suicide as heroic because of Horst’s prior story about the man in his barracks who killed himself. Horst described the suicide as follows, “it’s a kind of defiance, isn’t it? They [Nazis] hate that – it’s an act of free will.” However, as previously quoted from Camus, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much” (5). Max is only a hero if we don’t consider him a victim of the total hopelessness and absurdity of the situation which he cannot overcome, and only if we see his suicide as a revolt. Yet, in a concentration camp environment with a pit of dead bodies behind him, Max’s death is arguably denied any true nobility. A critical reader would declare that the sacrifice asked of Max in order to proudly declare his sexuality i.e., his suicide, is evidence that Sherman forces the narrative to meet the needs of the 1970’s politics of sexual revolution. Sherman depicts Max as ‘coming out’ but at the maximum cost to the character. With Camus’ aid, one may read Max in a totally different light. So, who is the hero of the tale and why?

It is Horst who most closely resembles Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus. Horst does not speak of an all-powerful God, he does not make any predictions for his future, he seems to live in each moment as it comes. It is difficult to discuss a man’s relationship with the absurd without some easy foothold on such an abstract topic. Edward Albee provides such a foothold with his wry definition of the absurd as, “man’s attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense” (Killinger, 2–3). To this, one may add Camus’ thoughts on how consciousness of the absurd impacts on a man’s daily life, “it was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully” (36). Is this how Horst lives? Camus proposes that hope or suicide are man’s two key escape routes from the absurd. Horst certainly does not appear to embrace either one of these solutions. In explanation, one may say that he has surely lost all reasonable hope of survival having been taken from Dachau once, only to be returned. Additionally, as proven by his final act of revolt, he does not submit to thoughts of resignation or suicide.

Yet, one may reasonably ask for further proof of Horst’s consciousness of the absurd and simultaneous total acceptance. Camus writes that, “I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (42). As Horst’s final revolt is not in question, one may cite examples of his freedom and passion. Horst displays his freedom even within the concentration camp in two distinct ways, namely humour and sexuality. Only a resilient man could make such a wonderful quip about the SS guard’s tedious instructions on rock moving – “we had a kid like that in school. Used to lead us in Simon Says.” Later, when Horst and Max reminisce about Berlin, Horst jokes that he indeed once saw Max by the river, “and I said someday, I’ll be in Dachau with that man moving rocks.” The other major example of freedom is when Horst initiates sex with Max, albeit verbal stimulation, which is an important scene in the play. When Horst says, “they’re not going to kill us. We made love,” then it may be understood less as hope for the future, and more as a celebration of the moment, of being triumphant in the moment. Horst’s passion may be viewed in two of his actions, his love of Max and his political zeal apparent in his jibes at Max about not accepting his own gay identity. It is love that is Horst’s daily motivation, he says, “it’s a reason to live.” It is important to note that Max never reciprocates the declaration of love and therefore Horst’s love is unrequited and in a pessimistic view, hopeless. Regarding political zeal, Horst was imprisoned due to his signature on a petition supporting the work of Magnus Hirschfield. As such, he is an open advocate of gay rights. The most pointed jibe by Horst at Max is when the former recounts the kindness of a Rabbi in his barracks of pink triangles and says to Max, “maybe if you knew him you could be proud of your star. You should be proud of something.” As readers, we witness that Horst receives worse treatment than Max but he continues to show freedom of action and thought while imprisoned. Horst is scornful of Max’s lie about his identity which is the clearest indication in the text that Horst’s path, though much tougher, is the correct one.

When Camus writes about Sisyphus, it is of someone who has an endless, tortuous fate. Camus goes on to say, “if this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (76). Max is never a tragic figure until the final moments when his hopes are extinguished and he solves the problem of the absurd through the only alternative option from hope – suicide. However, Horst is indeed like Sisyphus in his endurance and he plays just such a role in Bent. Horst is the one who faces the awful absurdity of his situation but by active revolt and the exercise of passion and freedom, and all without any true hope of a future, he stands out as the hero. It is Horst who unashamedly wears his pink triangle and knows the cost of wearing it too. He is the prisoner who struggles from day to day, relying on love to sustain him when his hands are frostbitten and his body is weak. It is men like Horst, who battled against the absurdity of paragraph 175 and imprisonment in concentration camps. Sherman depicts a heroic person who does indeed reflect Camus’ idea of Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (77).

Works Cited.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage International, 1991.  

Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle. Translated by David Fernbach, Alyson Publications, 1995.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Holt Paperbacks, 1988.

Sherman, Martin. Bent. Avon Books, 1980.

Murder in the Cathedral

Pacher, Michael. Legend of St. Thomas Becket. 1470/80.

  • Play title: Murder in the Cathedral.   
  • Author: T. S. Eliot.  
  • Published: 1935  
  • Page count: 86 


T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral specifically for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935. The play is written almost entirely in verse and is Eliot’s dramatic rendering of the real-life events that led to the death of Thomas Becket in 1170. The key historical facts are that King Henry II of England appointed Becket as his Lord Chancellor. Becket was later elected Archbishop of Canterbury and unexpectedly resigned his secular role as chancellor to the King’s disappointment. Thereafter, a conflict between church and state led Becket to flee to France. The timeframe of Eliot’s play is from December 2nd to 29th 1170 when Becket had returned to England from exile. Unfortunately, the archbishop again fell into grave disfavour with King Henry II over the coronation of his son, Henry the Young King. The play charts Becket’s career from king’s loyal servant to devout clergyman, focusing especially on the archbishop’s unfaltering faith during dangerous times. The play is structured as Parts I and II with a mid-section interlude which is a church sermon by the archbishop. The main characters are the all-female Chorus, three priests of Canterbury, four tempters who represent worldly and spiritual concerns, and the four knights who enact the most dramatic events of the play. Eliot’s work may be classified under the genre of miracle play due to the theme of martyrdom but there are also elements of Greek drama, most evident in the role of the Chorus.  

Ways to access the text: listening/reading.  

As Eliot’s play is written mostly in verse, it is quite pleasant to listen to an audiobook version. One is available on YouTube under the title of, “T. S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral.” There are eleven chapters in the audiobook, and it has a running time of 1hr and 37mins.  

If you would prefer to read the text, then please go to the Open Library which has several copies available for online reading.  

Why listen to/read Murder in the Cathedral? 


One of the age-old debates about Thomas Becket, also discussed at length in Eliot’s play, is his unusual road to martyrdom. Becket’s most notorious move was when he excommunicated the bishops who crowned King Henry II’s son. In response, the King spoke angry words recorded as, “have I none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will relieve me from the insults of one low-born and turbulent priest?” Four of the King’s knights interpreted the words as a direct threat to Becket. The knights went to Canterbury, confronted the archbishop over his alleged treacherous acts and demanded he surrender himself for arrest, but Becket resisted them and was brutally murdered by the knights within the cathedral building. Henry Hart Milman, who penned a biography of Becket, writes of how Hugh of Horsea, one of the Knights’ followers, “set his heel upon his [Becket’s] neck, and crushed out the blood and brains” (119). As Becket died defending the church’s position, he was quickly considered a candidate for canonization. Becket’s route to sainthood was strongly bolstered by the infamy of the murder, by the throngs of pilgrims who soon visited the archbishop’s tomb, and by the attribution of several miracles to Becket after his death. Eliot peruses the historical facts to create an imaginative depiction of the archbishop’s frame of mind prior to his death. It is significant that Becket held steadfast to a particular course of action on his final day when either escape or capitulation to the knights’ demands were both real and credible options.  

Contrasting perspectives.  

The play’s selection of characters who are grouped by profession, class, and allegiance, offer interesting and often contrasting perspectives. The language used by each group is distinctive as it reflects their backgrounds and interests. The Chorus is made up of the women of Canterbury and represents the concerns of ordinary folk predominantly from a rural background whose language reflects an affinity with nature and indeed hardship too. Then the priests give voice to clerical concerns. They offer different views on the archbishop focusing on his flaws as well as his leadership powers against the backdrop of a complex political climate. The three tempters expose the perceived weaknesses of Becket to the good life, to power, to treachery. The Fourth Tempter seems to know the secrets of Becket’s own mind. In part II, the four knights who represent the king’s interests, come with accusations against the archbishop, both old and new, and they alone speak in plain prose. Even though the play focuses on a religious theme, Eliot manages to give voice to a wide selection of character’s views, from pauper to king’s representative. Each figure focuses on Becket but only as far as the archbishop impacts on their own lives. The church when led by such a controversial man as Becket is shown to influence all levels of English life from lowly labourers to barons and Kings. The contrasting perspectives reflect the society of the time.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Martyrdom & the wheel of Fortune.  

T. S. Eliot does not present Thomas Becket’s route to martyrdom in the style of a standard hagiographer. That is to say that the play neither idealizes Becket nor does it leave out the paradoxes of the saint’s story. From a strictly historical perspective, many academics grapple with the question of Becket’s transformation from highly ambitious statesman to holy man and their cynicism is not without valid cause. Eliot accordingly presents the protagonist of Murder in the Cathedral as an archbishop with a long history in politics and therefore the writer does not disregard the uneasy overlap of politician turned clergyman. However, the playwright chooses not to approach the difficult issue of Becket’s holiness from an historian’s perspective alone. Eliot introduces the idea of fate into the play, specifically in the form of the wheel of Fortune. This links to the writings of the philosopher, Boethius, which were popular in medieval times, especially his famous text entitled, The Consolation of Philosophy. In this work, Boethius scrutinizes how one may understand the erratic twists of man’s good and bad fortune versus God’s divine plan. Even though Eliot does not make an explicit reference to Boethius, the philosopher’s text is one of the most famous works on the wheel of Fortune. As such, a reader may use The Consolation of Philosophy to begin to understand the nuances in Eliot’s play especially since the wheel of Fortune is a key motif in Murder in the Cathedral. There is also an important ideological alignment between a Christian philosopher like Boethius and Eliot’s careful portrayal of a saint’s life. While somewhat superfluous information – Boethius wrote his famous text while in prison in Pavia, accused of treason for which he was later bludgeoned to death leading eventually to his recognition as a martyr and saint by the Christian church. Indeed, there is an uncanny resemblance at times between Boethius’ philosophy and Becket’s words in the play. Therefore, it seems quite apt to refer to Boethius’s work, not least because a scholar like Becket may indeed have read the work during his life. The comparison of Boethius’ philosophy with Eliot’s play will serve to answer the central question of whether Becket plans his own martyrdom of if God is in control of the plan? To phrase the question in this way may seem stark but it is in fact one of the central issues with which Eliot’s play grapples. It is, incidentally, a fascinating question for a dramatic work to tackle.     

In order to put Becket’s thoughts and arguments as explored in the play into some perspective, one may first make recourse to Boethius’s main ideas on fate. The Consolation of Philosophy addresses our understanding of the wheel of Fortune and also God’s level of power over, and intervention in, our individual lives. The book presents its arguments in the form of an extended dialogue between Boethius himself as a character and Philosophy personified as a woman. At one point Philosophy assumes the voice of Fortune to explain: 

“Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever-changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require” (Boethius 51).  

Boethius makes the compelling argument that we voluntarily participate in Fortune’s game, for example, when we give into the alternate feelings of hope and grief. This is summed up in the line, “once you have bowed your neck beneath her yoke, you ought to bear with equanimity whatever happens on Fortune’s playground” (49). In short, the message is that when we pursue and hope for good fortune then our minds are clouded by earthly success and we abandon the Christina path, namely what is true in life. Fortune presides over the fleeting things of mortal life and anything that is so fragile and temporary cannot be true. In quite religious terms, Boethius states that we should pursue the “supreme good” (97) which means lives directed by virtue and not by desire, and thus lives not founded on material possessions or temporal success. Boethius importantly differentiates between “Nature’s fixed order” (90) like the cycle of the seasons or stars’ trajectories which are totally under God’s control, and on the other hand, man, who has free will. The play teems with references to the ever changing yet balanced cycles of nature in contrast to the path of man, which is governed by motivations, both pure and impure. The central paradox explored by the philosopher is that God has providence over all men’s lives and therefore God has foreknowledge of all that will happen in the future, but this does not actually determine men’s lives as they still retain free will. The explanation given by Boethius for this paradox rests primarily on the difference between God who is an eternal being versus man who is mortal and subject to existence within time. As such, God’s knowledge “embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present” (131). In accordance with this view, man may exert his free will and alter his own life course, but God always sees what happens as it is happening, as an eternal present. Boethius supplies a complex argument, but this brief overview aids a reader to better understand Eliot’s play and its many references to the wheel of Fortune in conjunction with God’s plan. Eliot explores in great depth the plan of God and Becket’s plan and whether these separate plans are actually identical or at odds. 

If Becket’s actions are not interpreted as leading to martyrdom but instead simply to self-destruction then we have the plainest dichotomy between God’s divine plan and a man’s erroneous path. Eliot explores the idea that Becket’s death may not be the result of his spiritual enlightenment. This hypothesis is important in the play as it gives a valid counterview of an historical event that is viewed only, or too often, as the making of a saint. The old saying, ‘forewarned is forearmed,’ is particularly relevant to Becket’s story. Eliot makes clear that Thomas Becket was fully aware of the real and present danger brought about by his return to England. In evidence of this, Becket recalls that upon arriving in England he met, “those who had sworn to have my head from me,” but escaped only because of the intervention of the Dean of Salisbury. In this light, Becket’s death was arguably imminent, and his enemies needed just the slightest opportunity for it to become a reality. Becket was not alone in this knowledge because the Chorus, First Priest and First Tempter all shared similar forebodings and sentiments. The Chorus warn that “Death has a hundred hands and walks by a thousand ways.” What is in question here is Becket’s lack of due caution, his neglect of the most basic instinct toward self-preservation. As Boethius writes, “the chief concern of mortal men is to keep their hold on life” (55). Therefore, the question that must arise for the reader is if Becket wills his own death? Or, to cautiously rephrase, does he allow his enemies an opportunity when he is sure that his life will be the price? As the Fourth Knight later states, when defending his own actions and those of his fellow knights, “there can be no inference except that he [Becket] had determined upon a death by martyrdom.” The knight argues that based on the facts of the case, an onlooker would “unhesitatingly render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” Admittedly, the words of a cold-blooded murderer lack credibility except that the slander is echoed in other parts of the text. For Becket to have put himself in harm’s way, fully conscious of the most probable outcome, would indeed constitute suicide. Naturally, Becket pronounces his fate as the will of God and his submission to that greater power and preordained plan. Yet, Becket also recognizes the inherent difficulty in being profoundly sure of his path. For instance, when the Fourth Tempter advises Thomas to “seek the way of martyrdom” then he responds, “you offer only dreams of damnation.” This is in line with the Catholic teaching that suicide, regardless of the disguise one seeks to put on it, even trying to name it martyrdom, will not stop it being a mortal sin that guarantees damnation.

The Fourth Knight’s accusation that Becket committed suicide is covertly echoed by the Chorus. Indeed, the Chorus make two separate allusions to suicide, firstly, just after the archbishop has taken refuge in the cathedral and then again immediately after his death. In the first instance, the women prophesy the coming of Death, judgement, and then the “Void” which means “separation from God.” The women’s speech is quite mysterious until they say, “dead upon the tree, my Saviour / let not be in vain Thy labour.” Although “my Saviour” would traditionally refer to Christ, the reference to a tree discounts that association as Christ died on the cross. Earlier, the women had pleaded to Thomas, “save us, save us, save yourself / that we may be saved” and therefore he is the women’s saviour as their religious leader for which he must continue to live. “Dead upon the tree” in a religious context is an allusion to Judas Iscariot who hanged himself after betraying Jesus. Thus, the women fear Becket’s death by suicide which like Judas’ death would signal not only a betrayal of Jesus but also an eternal separation from God in Hell, the “Void.” This interpretation is supported by the women’s words just after Becket’s death when they say, “I wander in a land of barren boughs: / if I break them, they bleed” which is an allusion to ‘the forest of the suicides’ from canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. In this circle of Hell, the souls of suicides are encased in trees and if one breaks off a branch then blood pours out. Furthermore, these tortured souls are never allowed regain their bodies, even at the Last Judgement, and must instead drag their bodies to their individual trees and hang the bodies upon them. This is quite an emotive passage in Dante’s Inferno, but it captures the disdain of God for those who commit suicide. In Eliot’s play, in the aftermath of Becket’s death, the Chorus speak of the need to purify the land after the awful deed, noting specifically the blood, “a curtain of falling blood,” which refers to the bloody murder. However, the blood may also refer to the story of “Akeldama” (potter’s field) which literally means ‘field of blood’ where Judas reputedly committed suicide. The purification needed after Becket’s death is ambiguous and while it certainly refers to some sin, the sin may be murder or suicide. The murder was indeed the bloody deed of the inflamed knights but the references to blood may also be a shrouded reference to Judas. Yet, the earlier allusions by themselves are sufficient to declare that suicide is a solid implication in the text. However, it must be noted that the final interpretation of Becket’s death is made by the church and not the Canterbury women or the knight. The true significance and meaning of his death only begin to solidify in the hours and days afterwards. What the Chorus do is provide the reader with an instinctual response to what has happened, the view of ordinary folk, revealing the possible spectre of death by suicide.

The thoughts and heartfelt beliefs of Archbishop Becket at the point of his death shall remain a mystery. He may have believed that he was submitting to God’s plan or he may have been sadly tainted by blasphemous desires for glory in death. However, this lack of certainty does not preclude a reader from making educated deductions from the evidence of the play about his true motivations. One may begin with the wheel of Fortune and chart which points on the wheel Thomas Becket has already experienced. As Boethius states, man is enticed to take part in Fortune’s game by earthly, temporal lures. It is the Four Tempters who provide us with a history of Becket’s brushes with Fortune. When the Fourth Tempter visits Becket, he says, “hooks have been baited with morsels of the past,” and such morsels are worth recalling as they represent points on the wheel through which Becket has already passed in time. The First Tempter suggests that now the king and archbishop are reconciled that all may return to “mirth and sportfulness” or as the Fourth Tempter later rephrases it, “wantonness.” Boethius warns about “bodily pleasure” because “its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse” (78). Thomas therefore correctly rebuffs the First Tempter explaining that the stages of a man’s life may not be repeated, adding, “only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think / he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” As a man of God, Becket shuns the bodily pleasures he once enjoyed. The Second Tempter tries to lure Thomas back to his former role as Lord Chancellor. This tempter’s bid is couched in the claim that the chancellor’s job may be used “to set down the great, protect the poor” and the only price for Thomas is his “pretence of priestly power.” The real lure is finally revealed to be “the power and the glory” of the position, but Thomas rejects temporal power, saying “those who put their faith in worldly order / not controlled by the order of God, / in confident ignorance but arrest disorder.” Boethius similarly rejects the pursuit of power when it is wielded for the sake of glory, as is suggested by the Second Tempter, but also because, “if you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks” (79). The Third Tempter seeks an alliance of the church with the English barons in rebellion against King Henry II. The Third Tempter’s argument is that Thomas’ renewed friendship with the king is unstable because, “real friendship, once ended, cannot be mended.” This reflects Boethius’ sentiments, “there is no evil more able to do you injury than a friend turned Foe” (76). Thomas rejects the baron’s treachery, preferring to trust in God. However, the first three Tempters reveal to the audience the lures of Fortune that did successfully entice Thomas in the past, namely bodily pleasures in the form of the good life, political power wielded in service of the King and not for the general good, and even treachery, because while Thomas does not agree to the baron’s plan, he has excommunicated the bishops who anointed the king’s successor and this is the ‘treachery’ for which Thomas is eventually executed. Yet, the final ‘treachery’ is done by Becket in service of the church and Pope. There is a solid argument to be made that Becket, by rejecting the lures of Fortune, has now freed himself from the wheel. If the archbishop is indeed following a virtuous path, then his plan will align with God’s. However, Becket’s relationship to church power is complex because it has been used more than once to thwart and oppose King Henry II. As Boethius points out, all power is fickle and moreover, the question is if Becket has merely renounced secular power for a power that he believes is more formidable.

In order to truly judge Thomas Becket’s actions, we should assess his character. For this reason, we must heed the many references in the play to Becket’s pride. In the Catholic church, pride is one of the seven deadly sins and a sin best exemplified by Satan in his rebellion against God. In the Book of Proverbs, one may read that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). The First Priest in particular lists Becket’s faults of pride – pride prompted by his early career prosperity but later sustained by the archbishop’s view of his own superior character traits. The First Tempter labels the archbishop as “too proud” and in regard to Becket’s chosen course of action, the tempter cautions, “leave well alone, / or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.” Later, the Four Knights demean the archbishop referring to him as “a louse” who “crawled upon the King; swollen with blood and swollen with pride.” When Becket appears to proudly revel in church power, the Second Tempter warns him that his “sin soars sunward, covering King’s falcons.” Thus, those around Becket recognize his character flaw of excess pride and warn him of coming disaster, just as written in the bible. Yet, Becket shields himself using his clerical position. However, we may look to the 19th century preacher and author, Ichabod Spencer, for a warning to clerics, he writes, “spiritual pride is the worst kind of pride, if not worst snare of the devil. The heart is particularly deceitful on this one thing.” There is evidence of such pride in Becket, for example when he rejects the Second Tempter’s suggestion to return to the role of Lord Chancellor, saying:

“No! shall I, who keep the keys

Of heaven and hell, supreme alone in England,

Who bind and loose, with power from the Pope,

Descend to desire a punier power?

Delegate to deal the doom of damnation.

To condemn kings, not serve among their servants

Is my open office. No! Go.”

The idea that temporal power may be inferior to church power is not the issue here, but that Becket proclaims to hold such power in his own hands, and indeed to swell with pride by the very assertion as evidenced by the haughty language. From the above example, one would correctly conclude that Becket lacks humility which is the only accepted counterweight to the sin of pride. His actions, whatever they may be, will inescapably be tainted by his sin and therefore we are left with Becket’s own testimony alone to convince us that he has found the true path, God’s path.  

In Becket’s opening speech in the play, he makes an erudite reference to the workings of the wheel of Fortune. He speaks of how “acting is suffering / and suffering is action” which refers not only to the pattern of fate designed by God but also men’s use of their free will to make themselves submissive to that plan. He states, “for the pattern is the action and the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still be forever still.” The paradox of the wheel both turning and remaining perfectly still apparently refers to two forces, firstly the role of Fortune in the lives of mortal men and, secondly, the role of God who exists outside time, an eternal unchanging presence. Boethius describes God as:

“O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,

Creator of the planets and the sky, who time

From timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover” (83).

As previously explained, Boethius believed that by playing Fortune’s game, man indulges in alternate feelings of hope and grief and thus becomes a victim of Fortune. In contrast, by following God’s virtuous path, the way is straight, and one is free(r) of the tortuous wheel. The paradox of the moving and unmoving wheel metaphor used by Becket may be explained by God at the wheel’s centre point, the fixed point, around which the wheel of Fortune spins. This explains the characteristic stillness of being timeless in connection with the moving/temporal aspect of human life. Boethius uses a similar metaphor, referring to “a set of revolving concentric circles” (112) with the godhead at the centre point and therefore “whatever moves any distance from the primary intelligence [godhead] becomes enmeshed in ever stronger chains of Fate, and everything is the freer from Fate the closer it seeks the centre of things” (112). The core of Becket’s argument is that his actions are virtuous and his suffering submissive to God and this means he consents with his free will to God’s divine plan. This is stated in Becket’s Christmas morning sermon in the cathedral when he says, “a martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God” and that “a martyrdom is never the design of man.” Becket speaks of finding freedom in submission to God. In philosophical terms, Becket’s reasoning matches Boethius’ who writes that “you who are set on the path of increasing virtue … you are engaged in a bitter but spirited struggle against fortune of every kind” (118). However, this is an abstract argument based entirely on Christian faith and clearly contrasts with our impression of Becket who is highly political and may be accused of not just pride but outright hubris. The archbishop’s apparent foreboding or indeed foreknowledge of his martyrdom is also a contentious point because his eventual murder seems little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boethius argues that God’s foreknowledge of events does not mean predestination when one considers man’s free will, but the inverse of that argument is that Becket’s free will, his desire, may indeed predestine his end.

The fact that Becket is aware of the flaws in his own argument, forcing him to defend it to himself and others, is a crucial aspect of Eliot’s play. There are two salient moments when the archbishop critiques his own argument, and these happen during his interactions with the Fourth Tempter and then with the Priests just before his execution. Becket is perturbed by the Fourth Tempter to whom he says, “who are you, tempting with my own desires?” It is noteworthy that this Tempter repeats Becket’s own words back to him, for example, the archbishop’s boast of holding “the keys of heaven and hell” which was Becket’s reproof to the Second Tempter. Then there is the speech on how “acting is suffering” which was part of Becket’s opening speech in the play. Eliot cleverly makes the Fourth Tempter the mouthpiece for Becket’s own personal thoughts. The efficacy of this dramatic technique is that Becket begins to doubt his own logic since it now comes from not only a somewhat ominous figure but also because it is spoken as a temptation. However, if Becket believes the Fourth Tempter to be evil or even an emissary of Satan then the logic would be that Becket’s path to martyrdom is indeed the correct path because only an evil adversary would wish to thwart the creation of a saint! Yet, the scenario is not just a simple case of the tempter using reverse psychology. The elements of the Fourth Tempter’s proposal which would immediately alert a cleric to danger are the focus on the power of saints, for instance, “to bind king and bishop under your [Becket’s] heel.” Then, more blasphemous is the idea of controlling fate itself, “you hold the skein: wind, Thomas, wind / the thread of eternal life and death.” In this way, Thomas would decide his own martyrdom, meaning the time of his own death and the result thereafter. These ‘flawed’ elements of the argument reflect Becket’s own mind and should alert him to the impure desires that may lead him to martyrdom. Thus, Becket becomes acutely aware of the risks of “sinful pride” and says, “can I neither act nor suffer / without perdition?” and the Tempter offers no advice about how the archbishop may avoid damnation but simply restates the logic of fate in a description of the wheel of Fortune. Becket says, “the last temptation is the greatest treason: / to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Despite the flurry of confusion, Becket concludes this particular monologue with the pronouncement that he will submit to God’s will even though others will inescapably view his demise as self-slaughter or fanaticism.

The dramatic moments before Becket’s murder do in fact prove his uncommon bravery and steadfast faith. One may still take the cynic’s view of Becket like William de Traci who says, “you must have noticed what a good show he put up at the end.” However, an archbishop would surely be unable to face his death in such a brave manner if he believed it was a form of suicide given the eternal punishment for such a sin, especially as understood in medieval times. Eliot’s play depicts the events of Becket’s death in a similar vein to historical records which is also a relevant point. As a test of Becket’s sincerity, a reader may focus on two issues, namely Becket’s defence of his course of action and his stated motivation. The archbishop defends his command to unbar the cathedral doors to his fellow priests who oppose him and “argue by results, as this world does, / to settle if an act be good or bad.” Becket echoes Boethius’ philosophy, that “the world does not judge actions on their merit, but on their chance results, and they consider that only those things which are blessed with a happy outcome have been undertaken with sound advice” (41). The merit of Becket’s action is to defend the church by refusing to bow to Kingly oppression, but the result is bloody indeed, and it is that catastrophic result which is the eventual focus of those who would brand him suicidal or fanatical. The archbishop’s stated motivation for allowing fate to run its course is, somewhat ironically, that he has already won. He says, “we have fought the beast and have conquered. We have only to conquer now, by suffering.” Becket recognizes a higher calling, saying, “I give my life to the Law of God above the Law of Man” and this links to Boethius’ claim that “all things are desired for the sake of the good in them” (86) because God represents the supreme good. As such, the archbishop concurs with God’s divine plan for him, offers no resistance, in the secure knowledge that he stands on God’s side. As Boethius writes, God “looks out from the watch-tower of Providence, sees what suits each person, and applies to him whatever He knows is suitable. This, then, is the outstanding wonder of the order of fate; a knowing God acts and ignorant men look on with wonder at his actions” (112). That Becket never falters in his belief, right to the end, is the strongest indication that at least in his own mind, he is right.

As the final piece of the puzzle, one may confidently state that the chance sequence of events surrounding Becket’s death were beyond the power of any mortal man to orchestrate. The First Priest’s immediate reaction to the murder is to interpret it as a tragedy, saying, “the church lies bereft, / alone, desecrated, desolated, and the heathen shall / build on the ruins,” Boethius writes that “tragedy commemorates with its tears and tumult – the overthrow of happy realms by the random strokes of Fortune.” However, the martyrdom of one who will become a saint surely cannot be a random tragedy. A tragedy would occur to a man fastened to the wheel of Fortune. It is the Third Priest who sees God’s plan in the mayhem, “let our thanks ascend To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.” Therefore, if Thomas Becket was chosen by God to be a saint, then the intricate web of seemingly chance happenings on the archbishop’s last day are not chance at all. The day’s events represent a pattern; a combination of God’s providence intertwined with the free will of the Four Knights. In fact, one may interpret the knights as mere pawns in the bigger plan. It is helpful here to refer to how Boethius outlines the idea of predestination for great men:

“Some men at the price of a glorious death have won a fame that generations will venerate; some indomitable in the face of punishment have given others an example that evil cannot defeat virtue. There is no doubt that it is right that these things happen, that they are planned and that they are suited to those to whom they actually happen” (114).

The Third Priest does indeed declare that the church is “triumphant in adversity” and in the context of Becket’s death, this means that the evil acts of the knights cannot defeat the virtuous church. This reflects Becket’s earlier sentiment that the church had won and all that was left was for him to suffer God’s plan. Rather than foolishly attempt to explain God’s plan, one may simply remove the burden of responsibility from Becket’s shoulders regarding his death. This may be done by enumerating the events of the day to definitively show that neither Becket nor indeed the knights alone could have foreseen the final outcome. Firstly, the four knights were not under direct orders from the king, this is an historical fact and echoed by an admission of William de Traci in the play. Thus, they arrived in Canterbury having only interpreted the king’s words in a certain manner. This becomes clear when they make ever-changing requests of Becket and his fellow clerics. These may be listed as follows:

  • (1) That Becket answer the charges against him “in the King’s presence,” which means to accompany the knights to the King’s court.
  • (2) To “depart from this land,” which means a new term of self-exile. 
  • (3) That Becket’s staff should “take, hold, detain, restrain this man” until the knights return meaning house arrest.
  • (4) That Becket commit to “absolve… resign… restore… renew” i.e., the knights’ list of demands that require compliance.   

Eliot depicts a tempestuous, volatile situation. When the armed knights return, it is the priests who physically drag Thomas into the cathedral building and barricade the main doors. Then, even though Becket orders his priests to “unbar the door,” he could not have known that the knights would return “slightly tipsy.” The knights make new requests of him and when he does not cooperate then they promptly and brutally kill him. The haphazard nature of the events is clear and involve not one but two separate altercations, the consumption of alcohol, and refusals by Becket to comply with demands. The location of the attack itself is of supreme historical importance and yet Becket was manhandled into that sacred location and therefore had no choice in the matter. In the end, the forces of the king murder the Catholic Primate of England in his own cathedral thus securing his martyrdom.

Eliot presents his audience with a highly sophisticated overview of Becket’s fate, but it is a fate that Becket could never have hoped to control regardless of self-delusion or pride or mad desire. The play is full of strange forebodings of a momentous and terrible act, as if all in Becket’s circle can feel the coming doom. The spectacular murder that occurs on holy ground is the consummation of a divine plan, at least as understood by those of faith. Through the comparative analysis made to Boethius’ philosophy in this essay, it is clear that Eliot based his play on a solid philosophical foundation. The playwright assiduously examines every aspect of Becket’s road to martyrdom, but it is crucially the references to the wheel of Fortune and God’s providence that give needed shape to what may otherwise look like random events. If one word could sum up a miracle play then it would indeed be – faith.

Works Cited.

Boethius, Anicius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts, Penguin Classics, 1999.

Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. Translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002.

Eliot, T. S. Murder in the Cathedral. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936.

Milman, Henry Hart. Life of Thomas à Becket. Sheldon and Company, 1860. Project Gutenberg, 2013.

The Pillowman

Rat-Catching Greetings from Hamelin (c.1930) by postaletrice.

  • Play title: The Pillowman   
  • Author: Martin McDonagh  
  • First performed: 2003 
  • Page count: 70 


The Pillowman is a black comedy by Martin McDonagh. The central character named Katurian, an abattoir worker, is arrested for reasons initially unknown to him. The core setting for the events of the play is a police interrogation room in an unidentified totalitarian state. The police engage in unorthodox and often brutal methods to extract detainees’ confessions. Katurian, who is also a writer, quickly realizes that he is being interrogated about the recent murders of several children. The police investigators attempt to establish a link between the short stories written by Katurian and the gruesome murders. The plot itself unfolds through a series of fairy-tale style stories, many of which have quite adult themes including child abuse and violence. These stories are a mixture of original works written by Katurian with “The Pillowman” being a primary example but there are also his reworkings of traditional fairy tales, for example, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. McDonagh combines macabre tales with tension breaking black humour resulting in a play that was a great theatrical success. The work poses key questions such as the value of art, and if art imitates life or if the truth is the reverse.  

Ways to access the text: reading.  

An online source of The Pillowman may be found at 

The play is also available via the Open Library website.  

There is no audiobook version of this play. As McDonagh is a contemporary writer, I would recommend purchasing one of his other works if you enjoy this play.  

Why read The Pillowman? 

A horrible writer.  

Katurian K. Katurian is a bad person and a bad writer too. Or is he more than that? McDonagh’s presentation of the lead character is loaded with unexpected twists and is also quite ironic. Katurian has a menial job at a local abattoir but considers his true profession to be writing. Yet, of his approximately four hundred stories, exactly one has been published and this is Katurian’s eccentric twist on the tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. He has mundanely renamed the classic as “The Tale of the Town on the River” and the ingenuity of this new tale relies on a reader’s familiarity with the original. Even though success has eluded Katurian in real life, he has written a semi-autobiographical story embellished with the fiction that he already published a book when just a teenager. Katurian believes assuredly in his art to the degree that his own life and even the lives of others are of less value than his collected stories! As Katurian lives in a totalitarian state, one may presume that his writings are serious political allegories or openly seditious works. On the contrary, when Katurian is questioned by the police about his stories he is adamant that they have no political content or social commentary whatsoever and that he will gladly edit/censor his work to remove any hint of offending material. In short, McDonagh presents a possibly delusional egotist with limited or at best undiscovered literary abilities who seems to serve as a mockery of certain writerly types. However, Katurian as a character, horrible and all as he may be, is possibly representative of a bigger debate in the world of art.   

Once upon a time …  

In The Pillowman, McDonagh utilizes the narrative frame of a police interrogation but the dialogue is interspersed with fairy tales. “Once upon a time” is an unmistakable opening line hook that ultimately leads the reader to the crimes at the centre of the play, namely, horrendous child murders. McDonagh’s technique of inserting little stories serves a varied selection of purposes within the play. For instance, the proud writer, Katurian, narrates many of his tales to the police officers who serve as his newfound audience. However, in the context of a criminal investigation, one’s attention is more keenly focused on the power of storytelling, the responsibilities of an author, the blurry line between fiction and fact, and the problem of interpretation. While “The Pillowman” is indeed one of the most striking tales, there are seven other tales told within the play. McDonagh is known for his confronting style of drama which has ample amounts of violence and expletives and these little fairy tales are fittingly adult themed and gruesome. Fortunately for the reader, the hyperbole of some scenes deliberately tips the play into wonderfully comic moments, an alchemy that few other writers could achieve.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.   

An allegorical play.  

The question of whether McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, is an allegory is probably the most important question one can ask about this work. As most readers are aware, an allegorical work has two layers of meaning beginning with the surface, literal meaning and then the secondary level or less obvious message that the story represents, for example, a typical kind of character, situation, or idea. The classification of McDonagh’s work is vital as it goes to the heart of a play which asks if Katurian’s seemingly harmless short stories are responsible for a series of child murders. If one classifies The Pillowman as an allegory, then it is accordingly a didactic work. This contrasts with a purely imaginative work, something written solely to please or amuse at an artistic level. If McDonagh’s play is an allegorical work, then this indicates authorial intent because such works are purposely constructed to be readable on two distinct levels. As Gary Johnson writes in, The Vitality of Allegory, “the author’s rhetorical purpose is the governing force behind allegory.” However, for an author to state openly that a work is allegorical and that the ‘true’ meaning is x, y, or z is to somewhat miss the point. A reader’s interest in the text helps reveal the second level of meaning, which for example in a work like George Orwell’s Animal Farm is ruined for modern readers as they expect allegory. As Johnson writes about allegory, “the author’s intention becomes knowable through the details of the text and its construction.” In fact, Johnson outlines three criteria that one may use to assess if a work is allegorical, and these are “;1) the author, his or her intention, and the context of composition; 2) the text itself; and 3) readerly concerns.” In the absence of McDonagh’s stated meaning of his text, we may rely more heavily on textual evidence and the readerly concerns noted by Johnson. “Readerly concerns” include the problematic topic of allegoresis which effectively means that a reader may choose to interpret a work allegorically, based on a plausible argument, even if the author did not intend it as such. A play, if actually allegorical, works well at both levels of communication, the literal and the representative. Also, as Johnson states, “allegory, unlike metaphor, is a concept that we can apply only within the context of a narrative” indicating that one does not look for just individual comparisons but a sustained approach where an idea is transformed in the narrative. For instance, the most well-known example comes from John Bunyan who takes the idea of Christian salvation and transforms it into a story of a man’s extraordinary journey in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It must be noted that to treat McDonagh’s play as allegorical is not without its complications, yet such an interpretative approach offers one of the most satisfying resolutions to the play’s meaning. The argument for the play as an allegorical work rests on two key pillars, namely, how Katurian is represented in the work and the use of numerous fairy tales within the play.  

Even though this essay will focus on Katurian and the fairy tales, it would be a flawed exercise if it lacked any indication of McDonagh’s personal view since authorial intent is so important to allegory. As previously noted, the playwright has not stated that The Pillowman means a particular thing or should be interpreted in a certain way. However, in an interview with Patrick Pacheco of the Los Angeles Times in 2005, McDonagh expressed his views on creativity, responsibility and culpability as follows.  

“In terms of the larger issues he [Martin McDonagh] raises about creativity and the writer’s moral responsibilities, he says, there are no easy answers. ‘I think it does say that creativity is beautiful and worthwhile for its own sake,’ he says, ‘But in terms of responsibility? I don’t think that Martin Scorsese can be held responsible because John Hinckley saw ‘Taxi Driver’ many times and became obsessed with Jodie Foster. If something happened to a child after a person saw ‘Pillowman,’ I’d definitely feel guilty about it, but I wouldn’t be culpable.’” 

McDonagh’s views seem clear, he makes plain that an artist does not have responsibility for how his/her work is interpreted. He also states that a work of art may be “beautiful and worthwhile for its own sake” which would eschew an expectation that art should instruct in some way. Yet, he is acutely aware of the predicament that artists are placed in regarding a kind of enforced responsibility for their art. This does not prove that The Pillowman is allegorical, but it shows that McDonagh was sensitive to the situation someone like Katurian finds himself in.  

To be explicit, this essay is working from the assumption that McDonagh allegorizes the predicament of a writer unreasonably being held responsible for his/her work. There is compelling evidence that Katurian is not only a writer within this particular story but also allegorizes the archetypal figure of the writer, albeit an unflattering example. The evidence for this view is extensive. Firstly, the play is set in a totalitarian state, unnamed, and therefore representative of any such oppressive regime and consequently, any writer in said state is a representative of free speech in the form of artistic freedom. Even detective Tupolski defines Katurian by his profession alone, saying “we like executing writers … you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y’know?” As Katurian is being interrogated and tortured on account of his own stories, art itself is being put on trial in the play. The main questions being asked of art are, what does it mean? (i.e., the true/hidden meaning), what does it cause? (in this case, possibly murder!) and what is its worth? (human life according to Katurian). The artist as the original source of the work is considered to have ultimate responsibility.  

One complication in how Katurian is represented in the play is that McDonagh makes it decidedly ironic and as such, comedic. For instance, Katurian is clearly representative of the figure of the writer, an almost hallowed figure in the context of oppressive regimes, yet he denies his work has any message at all and pre-emptively agrees to any censorship that may be requested of him. Additionally, Katurian is glad to abide by the obviously quite restrictive “guidelines” within which artists would work in a country under dictatorship. In regard to him possibly having a “political axe to grind” he responds that he has “no axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever.” Katurian goes to the extreme of saying that if parts of his work seem even remotely political that, “I’ll take it straight out. Fucking burn it.” McDonagh’s presentation of Katurian in this manner serves to amuse a reader and deflate the heroic status of writers but the irony needs further analysis. One solid interpretation is that Katurian’s ironic presentation, his utter inability to imagine his work has hidden meaning, actually shields him, and it accentuates our impression of him as the wronged party. In broad overview, if one accepts that Katurian allegorizes the archetypal writer then the salient point is that despite his total innocence, he is condemned for his work and can say nothing to absolve himself. It is a depiction of the writer being put in an absurd situation. In this light, McDonagh is sympathetic to a writer’s plight and Katurian does indeed represent a dilemma beyond or outside his own story, the second level of signification in allegory.  

McDonagh places a quite noticeable emphasis on allegory in the play. For instance, Tupolski asks Katurian specifically about his story, “The Little Apple Men,” remarking that the father in the tale, “he represents something, does he?” This begins a discussion about how one may interpret a work versus what the author intended. Tupolski, who as a police detective in a totalitarian state has an unusual level of power to conclusively interpret things, tries to pin Katurian down regarding his stories’ core message. According to Tupolski, the stories have a common theme, namely, “some poor little kid gets fucked up” and they all have “murdered children in [them].” Katurian counters with the rhetorical statement, “do you think I’m trying to say, ‘Go out and murder children’?” Yet, in the context of a police investigation, the stories are indeed seen as allegorical, as hiding a clue. On a formal level, one may say that stories are either mimetic/representative or didactic/instructive and this point comes to the fore in Katurian’s interrogation. As the writer is professing his innocence, he asks Tupolski, “are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child killings in because in the real world there are child killings?” As such, Katurian is simply stating that his stories are mimetic in contrast to stories that instruct their readers in some way. When Katurian and Tupolski discuss the story, “The Three Gibbet Crossroads,” the detective observes, “it is saying to me, on the surface I am saying this, but underneath the surface I am saying this other thing” which is clearly a definition of allegory. As the interrogation progresses, Tupolski manages to establish not only Katurian’s main theme which is seemingly child murder but also to ascertain that he chose the topics for his own stories because The Libertad did not request them. There is of course a differentiation to be made between Katurian’s stories being allegorical and the stories being the actual cause of murders. Yet, in the most exhilarating twist of the play, allegory is suddenly transformed into a horrific recipe for murders when Katurian’s brother, Michal, says, “all the things I did to all the kids I got from stories you wrote and read out to me.” It is not the stories’ content alone but Katurian’s parental style of reading aloud to his brother that solidifies the idea that the message they impart is pedagogical. Tupolski also sees Katurian’s stories as the cause of the crimes, a sort of manual, “a hundred and one ways to skewer a fucking five-year-old.” By literally acting out the stories, Michal creates manifold problems for Katurian but also highlights certain issue for the reader. For example, Katurian’s tales are indeed in the genre of fairy tales which are, generally speaking, moralistic tales told as instruction to children, and yes, Michal is childlike in many respects. Thus, McDonagh creates the writer’s nightmare scenario where not only do the police link his artistic tales to murder but a child-like figure interprets them as murder manuals and acts them out!  

We see many judgments imposed on Katurian’s art such as interpretation and causation. However, Katurian alone largely decides on the estimation of his art’s value. If McDonagh is allegorizing the predicament of the writer then a major question is if the artist’s sacrifices, especially the ones listed in this play, are worth it for the particular piece of art in question. The value of Katurian’s mostly unpublished stories becomes a major topic for contemplation in the play. At the start, we are told of Katurian’s evolution as a writer being largely dependent on his parent’s “artistic experiment.” He heard the “muffled screams of a small, gagged child” etc. which resulted in his nightmares and consequently, “his stories got darker and darker and darker.” As a sidebar, one could argue that if Katurian’s new, darker tales are the result of nightmares then McDonagh is giving a nod to the well-known allegorical trope of the dream vision (nightmare in this case) which results in an allegorical story. In regard to Katurian’s artistic skills, it is notable that it was specifically his parent’s “love and encouragement” that helped improve his writing and not the distress caused by the experiment which simply changed the subject matter. Ultimately, it is only Katurian who believes that his stories have true, artistic value. After all, they are unpublished bar one and even though his brother is a fan, it is important to remember that this brother is not only mentally retarded but also a killer. Katurian’s own amorality comes to the fore when he states that he would prefer to see his brother and then himself sacrificed “and I’d have it be the stories they saved.” As Katurian declares, “it isn’t about being of not being dead. It’s about what you leave behind.” McDonagh is exposing the dark underbelly of the ruthless artist and this is made more explicit when, in a second major twist in the play, Katurian agrees to confess to all the murders, to secure the survival of his story collection. It is paradoxically the inclusion of the stories with the file of a serial murderer which will guarantee their fame. As such, stories that have no discernible current value except to the egotistical writer, Katurian, are invested with an artificial value because they become, in criminal terms, the guidebook for a killer. McDonagh is obviously mocking many writer’s misplaced belief in their own work’s value but he is also describing how a story may forcibly become an allegory, after the fact. Katurian deliberately but falsely merges the identities of the killer with the writer thus transforming his tales into a prelude to murder. As the dark tales existed before the murders then they cannot be representative of real-life events but in contrast, they cause the actions they depict, copy-cat style. Earlier, when Michal confessed then Katurian’s stories were metamorphosed before the writer’s eyes, totally outside of his control, but now he manipulates the bad situation to falsify authorial intent – as if it were always hidden inside the stories like a horrible worm within the fairy-tale apple.  

The decision by McDonagh to present the play as a collage of strange fairy tales makes the work highly distinctive, instructive, and complex. In general terms, fairy tales are told by parents to their children for entertainment, to impart a lesson or moral (allegorical nature), and to send them to sleep. As such, an authority figure imparts a life lesson to a child, to the next generation. The original author of such tales obviously holds ultimate authority to craft the specific message. One may assuredly name the stories in McDonagh’s play as fairy tales because they invariably begin with the classic line, “once upon a time.” Additionally, not only are some of the tales already known to readers and therefore are established as having allegorical meanings but some of the new tales are interpreted by characters as also being allegorical. Therefore, Katurian tells a selection of fairy tales, some plagiarized and some original, but all with clear messages. An analysis of the individual stories represents a change of focus in this essay from the allegorical representation of the writer, which is the overarching idea behind the play, to looking at the clues contained in the stories themselves. The list of tales told in the play are as follows: 

Act One, Scene 1.  

“The Little Apple Men.” 

“The Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads.” 

“The Tale of the Town on the River” (aka The Pied Piper of Hamelin). 

Act One, Scene 2.  

“The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” (semi-autobiographical tale of Katurian’s childhood).  

Postscript to above story where Katurian tells, “more self-incriminating details of the truer story.” 

Act Two, Scene 1.  

“The Little Green Pig” (Michal’s failed attempt to tell this tale). 

“The Pillowman.” 

“The Little Green Pig” (Katurian’s full version). 

Act Two, Scene 2. 

“The Little Jesus.” 

Act Three.  

“The Story of the Little Deaf Boy on the Big Long Railroad Tracks. In China” (Tupolski’s story). 

“Footnote to a story” (Katurian’s 7 and ¾ seconds story of the “Pillowman” and Michal).  

This selection of stories may be used to address, though from a slightly different angle, the now familiar questions about the interpretation, causality, and value of art. To begin, one may focus on two of Katurian’s ‘borrowed’ and highly allegorical tales which are “The Little Jesus” and “The Tale of the Town on the River.” In a quite similar fashion to the desired effect of a biblical parable, “The Little Jesus” depicts a child who takes Christ as a literal example of how to live one’s life, which is indeed the core of Christian teachings. This tale is instrumental in the play as it illustrates how children may too literally and therefore erroneously interpret a story. The second story is based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the moral of the original tale is simply that any bargain made in good faith should be honoured. If the Pied Piper was paid his dues, then the people of Hamelin would have had nothing to fear. However, Katurian distorts the moral lessons of both the life of Jesus and the Pied Piper’s predicament to create new, quite adult tales for entertainment. The story of Jesus’s blood-sacrifice for all humanity becomes a literal guide for the stages of torture to punish a misguided child, while the Pied Piper is transformed from an aggrieved rat-catcher into a deliberate child snatcher. Of course, if one seeks allegorical meanings in the new stories then it is certainly not that Katurian intends them as torture manuals. To understand the new tales, one may look instead to the “artistic experiment” that Katurian’s own parents conducted on him resulting in “darker and darker” tales. It is a writer who has been psychologically programmed in this manner who distorts moral allegories into twisted, gratuitous tales of horror. In another example, Katurian’s tale of “The Little Apple Men,” the story initially appears to be one of poetic justice where a cruel father inadvertently dies due to his own greed, but the twist at the end makes it into a blood fest. When one looks at the issue of causality then Katurian’s parent’s experiment of exposing him to a nightly soundscape of horror serves to transform good into bad in moralistic terms. For instance, one of Katurian’s first stories, “The Little Green Pig,” where a little piglet “liked being a little bit different, a little bit peculiar” becomes in many ways the template for the darker tales where children are made distinctly ‘peculiar,’ one copies the example of Jesus a little too ardently and the other has his toes cut off, and both tales share the theme of suffering. Therefore, we cease to look for the stories’ representational merits and begin to consider why they are shaped or reshaped by Katurian in his specific style with the theme of child murder, as Tupolski points out. The cause behind reshaping perfectly moral, child-appropriate tales into malign tales of horror is apparently Katurian’s own childhood where suffering was normalized. Jesus’s example becomes devoid of any meaning while the already disabled child of the original Pied Piper tale suffers a new cruel injury to make him so. As such, the second layer of meaning below the literal meaning of Katurian’s stories is the quite hopeless message that suffering is inevitable. In these examples it is not that he creates allegories but more that he destroys or dismantles some of them and forces us to look not at art’s causality, but the causality of Katurian’s art.  

One of Katurian’s tales deals implicitly with the role of the writer. “The Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads,” which Katurian describes as “a puzzle without a solution” is arguably an allegory of the writer’s predicament in society. Like Katurian, the man in the gibbet has been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. The crime is evidently not murder or rape like the other prisoners because the man’s gibbet placard elicits a quite different reaction from passing people. Whatever the crime, it is equally abhorred by both good and bad citizens, nuns and highwayman alike. An important clue to the allegorical meaning is that Katurian says “because there is nothing worse, is there? Than the two things it [the story] says.” We are told that the gibbet prisoner, “knows he was guilty of the crime they put him in there for, but he cannot remember what the crime was.” The prisoner cries out at the end of the story to be told his crime but receives no answer. By deduction, it is clear that not remembering/not being told the crime is one of the two bad things. If the second bad thing is being murdered, for example, then the obvious objection is that he will die a slow death anyway in the gibbet. Therefore, the second awful thing that Katurian refers to is the prisoner’s previously acknowledged guilt. As such, the tale allegorizes the writer’s predicament. The man in the gibbet shows us the surface level of meaning, visible and clear, but the placard is the hidden meaning, what Tupolski calls “a pointer” which is essentially how all others, everyone except the writer (gibbet prisoner), interpret his life’s work. Any writer is inescapably guilty of producing the work that bears his name but has no control over how others interpret it. For example, if Katurian was indeed the man in the gibbet then “child murderer” would be written on his placard. Katurian himself comments on his story, saying “that’s a good story. That’s something-esque” which is comically vague as it means the story is ‘in the style’ of something. One possibly fitting term would be Kafkaesque as it would describe the illogical and nightmarish predicament of both the man in the gibbet and the writer he represents. McDonagh continuously portrays Katurian as naïve or possibly obtuse to the import of his own stories, a case of structural irony in the play, forcing the reader to interpret the situation more fully. In regard to the allegorical meaning of stories, Tupolski’s own tale, “The Story of the Little Deaf Boy on the Big Long Railroad Tracks. In China” is one where the detective shoehorns an allegorical meaning into the text to the bemusement of Katurian. The contrast between the two tales is that the Gibbet prisoner tale works well on both levels of signification whereas Tupolski’s tale requires that he laboriously explain the correlation between himself and the old man in the tower proving the tale an allegorical failure.  

In conclusion of the analysis of the fairy tales, two of them reveal the value of Katurian’s story collection, to him. As previously noted, Katurian believes steadfastly in his stories’ significance as artistic works. Much like a Russian doll effect, we find references to stories within stories like hidden treasures. Indeed, one observes that almost all aspects of the play exhibit elements of doubling, outer and inner layers, mirroring effects, and these add to the interpretative possibilities of the work. Katurian’s story, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” is an interesting example because it contains a reference to a story by Michal, “a story that was better than any of my [Katurian’s] stories.” When Michal finds and reads this ‘outer shell’ story, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” then he is unhappy about having been depicted as dead but Katurian protests that it has a “happy ending” because Michal had left behind an artistic legacy in the form of a story. However, earlier in the play, it was revealed that Katurian “burnt the story [Michal’s], and covered his brother back up.” Even in this tale, Katurian is a ruthlessly ambitious writer who imagines burning the work of a better writer and covering over the dead body even when it is his own brother. The placement of stories within stories, mixing fact and fiction, serves to blur the lines of reality. The existence of Michal’s story, described by Katurian as “the sweetest, gentlest thing” raises the possibility that “The Little Green Pig” is not actually Katurian’s work but a story stolen from his previously gifted brother despite the assertion that it was burned. We witness a scene where Michal attempts to recite this story but gets confused due to his brain damage. Even if Katurian’s own work is actually derivative, the fact remains that he will take any step necessary to preserve his story collection. Firstly, Katurian agrees to confess to all the murders in exchange for the police’s promise to save his stories. However, the police discover the flaws in his confession proving that he did not kill any children. Then, police officer Ariel advises Katurian that they can only prove he killed his own brother and that, “in light of the extenuating circumstances, I doubt it highly that you would be executed for it.” Rather than accept this obvious escape route, Katurian perversely insists that he killed his parents, thus tilting the scales against his chance of living, only so that his stories will be saved. Then, in the last 7 and ¾ seconds of Katurian’s life, he concocts a story where the previously mentioned “Pillowman” visits Michal as a child, offering him a way out of his future miserable life. Michal, now a puppet-like figure in Katurian’s “footnote to a story,” decides emphatically to suffer the coming cruelties just so his brother will ultimately create his stories. Katurian not only sacrifices his own life for his story collection but he embeds within his own tales the idea that his brother also willingly sacrificed himself, saying, “’cos I think I’m going to really like my brother’s stories.” It is no longer art for art’s sake, but life for art’s sake.  

As has been explored in this essay, McDonagh clearly deals in allegory. The naïve narrator, Katurian, is in many respects a monstrous creation. Yet, his obtuseness, his utter inability to see hidden meanings in his own work acts as the perfect foil because others indulgently invest his work with any meaning that suits their purpose, and in the case of the police, the hidden meaning becomes child murder. The playwright also creates an exceptionally clever twist in the story by first exhibiting how the writer loses control over how his work is interpreted, denying any of the suggested meanings asserted by police, to later forcibly reshaping his work into allegory by merging author and murderer. Although a shocking work in some respects, it is a commendable play.  

The “Pillowman.” 

One of the most striking stories within the play is that of “The Pillowman.” The role of this character is to convince little children who are fated to have “horrific” lives to commit suicide. However, the Pillowman first meets these unfortunates as adults.  He is intuitively summoned to their sides when they are on the point of committing suicide. This detail serves as proof that such individuals will assuredly reach this crisis point in their lives. It is then through fairy-tale magic that the Pillowman reverses time to just before their life problems begin, and at this crucial and fleeting moment, he must convince the child that death is the better option. The Pillowman story is consoling to detective Tupolski who remarks, “there was something gentle about it.” Tupolski describes his own family’s loss in the briefest manner, “son drowned. (Pause.) Fishing on his own. (Pause.) Silly.” The detective highlights the three comforting aspects of the fairy tale, namely that the child didn’t die alone, that it was “the child’s choice, somehow” and consequently this stopped the death being “just a stupid waste.” Yet the Pillowman is an exceptionally ambiguous figure who serves mainly to signify that some lives are indeed totally irredeemable, not actually worth living.  

McDonagh creates an eerie doppelganger effect in the tale. The Pillowman is a fairy-tale figure yet in frank terms, he is a child murderer, in a story depicting the capture of a child murderer. The implicit comparisons between true-life child killer and storybook figure are aplenty. For example, just as Michal somehow wins the confidence of little Andrea Jovacovic and Aaron Goldberg whom he then murders, the Pillowman also has “to look soft and safe, because of his job.” The indistinguishability of fictional and real killer is also enhanced by Katurian’s particularly unsettling introduction to the Pillowman tale, “once upon a time … there was a man who did not look like normal men. He was about nine feet tall.” Naturally, adult men may look scarily tall to little kids and then there is the problem of a costume worn deliberately to trick kiddies. As Michal has brain damage, he may also act somewhat strangely in the eyes of an unknowing child. Michal even says that the Pillowman reminds him of himself because, “you know, getting little children to die.” In fact, Michal and the man made of “pink pillows” have a shared pessimistic belief that “all children are going to lead horrible lives.” Furthermore, a pillow is the preferred murder weapon in the play as evidenced by the smothering dead of Katurian’s parents, Ariel’s father, and eventually Michal himself. In this way, the kindly Pillowman’s costume takes on quite morbid connotations. The doubling effect constructed by the playwright tends to rob the soft, kindly Pillowman of our trust and enhance instead the idea of a horrible, malignant figure moving from the page into real life.  

Despite the elaborate costume of the Pillowman, he is clearly a traditional allegory of death. The distinction is that he is the Grim Reaper for children, a specialized and peculiarly dark occupation. One cannot submit to the illusion that this character is saving children from horrific lives because his sole task is to extinguish life. As a comparison, one may refer to Edgar Allan Poe’s depiction of the figure of death in his story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” 

“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat.”   

This classic figure of death as described by Poe is one with which we are more familiar. One may also look to Hans Holbein’s famous woodcuts of The Dance of Death, especially “The Child” which depicts a skeletal figure who pulls a small child by the hand from his parent’s peasant hut. In the case of the Pillowman, it is for the reader to look behind the deceptive mask and reveal the ghastly figure. What belies the Pillowman’s compassionate representation are the chilling descriptions of common causes of child deaths, like road accidents, suffocation, and accidental poisonings which become in the context of the story, quite deliberate means of disguising child suicides. These methods which are decidedly violent, slow, and distressing betray the true teleological aim of any figure who allegorizes death and that is to snuff out life dispassionately. McDonagh’s macabre, artistic creation has a clear warning for children– don’t talk to strange men even if they’re wearing a cute costume!   

Allegories of death are quite traditional and certainly out of vogue so surely McDonagh is aiming for more in such an innovative play? In a work that incorporates dark fairy tales, the playwright confronts the reader with a fairy tale of extraordinary potency. In the context of recounting fairy tales, where the child’s pillow would ideally cushion their sleeping head in peaceful dreams after listening to a story, it is the Pillowman who comes with horrific tales of twisted and cruel fates. All effective fairy tales teach an important lesson to children about the future, about the slings and arrows of the adult world to come. However, this dark figure must impart a horrific tale so mesmerizing to a child that it not only sends them to sleep but makes them choose eternal sleep.  What the Pillowman proves is that he can spin a story of such rhetorical force that it has almost universal appeal, much like the Brothers Grimm, yet always seems crafted specifically for the one little child that hears it. The twist in the fairy tale is that the child who listens to the Pillowman almost invariably dies. In conclusion, it is the ‘ultimate’ story in the realm of dark fairy tales.  

Works Cited.  

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Bantam, 1988. 

Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory. The Ohio State University Press, 2012.  

McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. Faber and Faber, 2003. 

Pacheco, Patrick. “Laughing Matters.” Los Angeles Times, 22 May 2005.  

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Masque of the Red Death. Project Gutenberg, 2010. 


  • Play title: Machinal     
  • Author: Sophie Treadwell  
  • Published: 1928  
  • Page count: 83 


Machinal is a play by American writer, Sophie Treadwell. The play is based largely on the trial and execution of murderess, Ruth Snyder, who was the first woman to be sentenced to death by electric chair in New York state. Treadwell’s work is not divided into acts like traditional plays but is told instead in nine episodes. Each episode shows how the central character of Helen, simply referred to as “Young Woman,” struggles with the progressively changing and challenging roles that society seems to impose upon her. Treadwell’s own words from the play’s introduction offer the best summation of the story, she writes, “the plot is the story of a woman who murders her husband – an ordinary young woman, any woman.” The protagonist, Helen, is a sensitive, anxious woman who grapples with life until she finally commits the horrible crime. A defining feature of the work is Treadwell’s use of expressionist techniques, for example, onstage and offstage sounds of various machines from office equipment to a riveting tool on a construction site. Treadwell explained the title Machinal as “machine like” and it may also be rendered as mechanical or automatic.  

Ways to access the text: reading.  

There are at least two online sources for the play. Firstly, the website has a scanned copy of the full play text. As the website does not appear to have a search box, you may simply enter “ Machinal” as an internet search term. The second option is the webpage, which shows the same edition of the text but with a better quality scan.  

Advice to readers: the first episode of the play, 12 pages long, is not reader-friendly due to short exchanges of highly repetitive dialogue but this is only in the first episode. A persevering reader will later appreciate the relevance of the artistic effect in this first scene. The rest of the play is indeed reader friendly.  

There is no audiobook version of the text.  

Why read Machinal? 

Reasons to murder a husband.  

It is not a spoiler to reveal that the play’s female protagonist murders her husband. Even if a reader skips the play’s introductory notes, it can be guessed from the parallel with Ruth Snyder’s story. The pressing question is why the character of Helen Jones murders her husband? Treadwell presents Mr. George H. Jones as a successful businessman who provides his wife with a lovely home and even financially supports her elderly mother. Mr. Jones is not depicted as any of the stereotypical types that would account for a wife’s revenge, he is not a drunk, nor a wife beater, nor an adulterer. The one thing that disgusts Helen Jones are her husband’s “fat hands,” but this is surely no justification for murder! Treadwell’s depiction of Mr. Jones is captivating as he is in some respects a nobody, yet his murder is obviously the pivotal point of Helen’s life. If the playwright depicts a responsible, benign husband then surely the motive for murder rests elsewhere. The presence of a motive that is not linked to the victim, but may be found elsewhere, is the abiding message of this play. Does a reader discover that Helen is a monstrously selfish and cold-blooded killer like the media depiction of Ruth Snyder, or that there is some broader societal problem that drives Helen to her crime?  

9 defining episodes.  

Treadwell constructed nine individual, self-contained scenes to communicate the play’s full story. In the playwright’s own words, “the plan is to tell this story by showing the different phases of life that the woman comes in contact with, and in none of which she finds any place, any peace.” The phases of Helen’s life that Treadwell is referring to include both the ‘normal’ and unusual and may be listed respectively as follows: single working woman, daughter, wife, mother, adulteress, lover, obedient wife, defendant, condemned woman. The striking element of Treadwell’s words is that Helen never has a sense of place or peace, that she is always somehow alienated or feels alienated even from the first four phases/roles which most women would experience. One may also focus on Treadwell’s decision to use “episode” to name the scenes. “Episode,” for example in the context of a woman ‘having an episode’ has the connotation of someone acting out or misbehaving, often due to feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, in all nine episodes of the play, Helen does not conform to societal expectations and often displays high levels of anxiety. Therefore, one should look at each scene as encapsulating a role, for example the role of daughter in “At Home” but also as a description of the emotional experience of Helen in that situation. In this way, one comes to understand why Helen reaches the crisis that she does at the play’s conclusion.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.   


Machinal is a much-lauded example of expressionist drama. M. H. Abrams describes how “the expressionistic artist or writer undertakes to express a personal vision – of human life and human society. This is done by exaggerating and distorting what, according to the norms of artistic realism, are objective features of the world, and by embodying violent extremes of mood and feeling.” As an impressionistic style is therefore quite distinctive, it is worth analysing how it may contribute to a reader’s better understanding of a playwright’s chosen topics. It is noteworthy that expressionism does not have prescriptive rules, and this is also evident in Treadwell’s play as she addresses the story of Ruth Snyder which suggests a realistic approach, something that expressionistic artists rejected. However, there are two other topics which Treadwell addresses in a clearly expressionistic style, namely, an ever more modernized and technological society, plus the role of women in that society. One may view the Snyder story as a necessary but complex anchor to the real world in a play that is predominantly expressionistic. Indeed, Treadwell prepares the reader for a decidedly subjective depiction of the world in the introduction when she describes her main character as “essentially soft, tender and the life around her is essentially hard, mechanized.” As a result, we witness a protagonist who experiences great difficulty manoeuvring the normal phases of life because they seem to her quite, “mechanical, nerve nagging.” This essay will explore how Treadwell communicates the life experiences of such a character through an impactful, impressionistic style. Another quote from Abrams supplies a guideline for which aspects of the play deserve one’s focus, he writes, “expressionist dramatists tended to represent anonymous human types instead of individualized characters, to replace plot by episodic renderings of intense and rapidly oscillating states, [and] often to fragment the dialogue into exclamatory and seemingly incoherent sentences or phrases.” As such, characterization, emotional states, and dialogue are key factors to understanding expressionistic drama.  

The play opens with “Episode One – To Business” and this is arguably the most impactful scene due to its impressionistic style. In regard to characterization, Treadwell gives the office staff no names, so they are identified only by their tasks, like “adding clerk” and “stenographer.” This technique universalizes the scene, making it represent any typical office environment. Yet, the playwright significantly lets the boss, Jones, retain his proper name, and Helen is called “young woman” and “Miss. A.” which equally distinguishes her from a mere worker. In this way, Treadwell instantly establishes a hierarchy of importance from anonymous staff, to a woman identified by youth and sex, and finally the boss, Jones, at the apex of power. Then, when one considers the depiction of an emotional state, Helen becomes the obvious focus. Helen’s thoughts are expressed at the end of the first scene where a stream of consciousness is given in telegraphic style, mostly just individual words, part sentences, and names, all separated by dashes. This closing ‘monologue of thoughts’ expresses Helen’s intense doubts about marriage. She craves freedom from the office and from her mother as well, yet thoughts of marriage trigger her feelings of disgust towards Jones. Her closing words, “something – somebody” will be repeated throughout the play at crucial moments to express her desperate search. The third distinctive feature of expressionistic drama is dialogue and in this first scene the dialogue is staccato and also highly repetitive. The key repetitions range from the obsequious “good morning” said to Mr. Jones to the accusatory “you’re late” said to Helen followed by the almost chanted, expectant cries for her to provide an “excuse.” As Helen is Mr. Jones’ object of desire, she has inadvertently raised her head above the parapet and is now open to criticism. When one looks at the content of the dialogue, it is a tangled mix of mundane office talk and gossip about Miss. A. (Helen) possibly marrying Jones. For example, the filing clerk asks, “what’s the matter with Q?” which refers to a filing task but also to Jones’ possible marriage proposal to Helen. This double meaning is highlighted by the other staff responses to the problem of Q with replies like, “has it personality? … has it halitosis? … has it got it?” Similarly, the adding clerk guesses Jones’ income aloud and the stenographer simultaneously types a business letter while considering the possible marriage, “will she have him? This agreement entered into – party of the first part.” The jumbled dialogue alerts a reader to the only topic of interest in the office, but also alerts a reader to how business and romance are being unnaturally melded together. In this first scene, Treadwell has already distanced Helen from the others and shown her story’s importance.  

The special value of the impressionistic techniques used by Treadwell links primarily to the tone of the scene. By anonymizing the office staff, the playwright depicts practically every office imaginable and presents people as replaceable worker bees. For instance, the stenographer is the epitome of the conscientious employee because she is punctual and productive however she is described as a “faded, efficient woman office worker. Drying, dried” denoting a wasted life. The sounds of the office, as per the stage directions, are bells, buzzers, and typewriters – all metallic, mechanical sounds which are harsh on the ear. Thus, the environment is unnatural, even soul-destroying. The only conversation apart from discussing office duties is about Helen, notably the sole person who may eventually escape office life and forever have “breakfast in bed” if she marries Jones. The repetitive nature of the conversation, like the background noise, gives the impression of a grey, unimaginative office environment in all respects. However, Helen is different, the adding clerk says, “she doesn’t belong in an office” and that “she’s artistic.” Treadwell allows Helen a semi-identity as “Miss. A.” who is also referred to as “young woman,” but such titles also highlight her dilemma. She is only special because of Jones’ romantic interest in her. Yet, Treadwell shows Helen’s emerging personal identity while also capturing the emotional state of the young woman. The playwright does this by showing Helen take two important actions, firstly she steps out of the crowded subway carriage, and then later in the office she flinches when Mr. Jones touches her shoulder. As such, she steps out of the unthinking flow of society, she pardons herself from the rat-race meaning not only the nameless thousands in subway carriages going to work but also all the “young, cheap and amorous” women like the “telephone girl” who would readily marry a boss like Jones to get ahead in the world. Helen’s closing thoughts succinctly convey her anxiety over wanting to gain freedom from the drudge of office life, yet she has only one escape route, namely marriage to George H. Jones. Her angst-ridden message delivered in efficient, telegraphic style text reflects how her life is inescapably shaped by the technology of the era, the electric telegraph. Therefore, in some respects Helen’s escape seems quite illusory. Treadwell’s strategy is to win over the spectator/reader as an ally of Helen’s by artistically presenting the world the young woman inhabits. Therefore, the tone achieved by Treadwell in the first scene has two dimensions, the winning of the reader’s alliance and the communication of how the world feels to Helen.  

As a whole, Machinal addresses three separate yet overlapping topics: a real-life murder case, the modern world, and feminism. The verisimilitude of the drama is most evident in the fact that Ruth Snyder was indeed tried and convicted of murder in New York in 1927. For this reason, it is unnecessary to outline in detail the overall facts of Snyder’s case with the obvious exception of noting any major alterations to the real story by Treadwell. However, the other two aspects, namely a depiction of the modern world and a feminist’s view of women’s role in that world, are dependent on the techniques of expressionistic art to gain true communicative force in the drama. Even though the opening scene is exemplary of impressionistic techniques, the play has nine episodes in total, so it is necessary to provide a broader overview.  

Treadwell named her drama, Machinal, which means “machine like” and this refers to her view of modern life. One prominent expressionistic feature of the work is that the playwright relies heavily on sound to communicate the oppressive, emotionally draining reality of the modern world. When considering the play’s sounds, one must first differentiate those that are actually consoling to Helen from the other, stressful, cacophonous sounds. For example, Helen welcomes the sound of the Negro spiritual song when she is in her prison room because as she says, “I understand him. He is condemned.” She is also pleased by the sound of “Cielito Lindo” (Little Heaven) played on the hand organ which she hears with her lover, Dick Roe. There is even a reference to the sound of the sea that Helen remembers hearing when holding a “pink sea shell” to her ear as a child. Treadwell demonstrates via these pleasant, consoling sounds that Helen can indeed experience true calm and thereby lessens and maybe challenges any impression that Helen is “crazy” as her mother labels her, or “neurotic” like her doctor says. The soundscape of the play is crucial in particular scenes to capture Helen’s intense negative feelings. In “Episode Two – At Home,” Helen tries to ask her mother’s advice on marriage, but the scene is characterized by noisy interruptions of all kinds. There’s the radio, neighbours’ voices, the buzzer, her mother’s nagging/complaining and the clatter of dishes. Helen’s tension is first apparent when the garbage man buzzes and she jumps up from the table (like every night) causing her mother to comment, “you act like you’re crazy.” In this scene, Treadwell cleverly intertwines the overheard neighbours’ conversations with Helen’s questions to her mother. The topics of those neighbours’ conversations are respectively: parental control – teenage lovers’ trysts – a husband who does not account for his nights out – a husband’s kiss that is a prelude to unwanted sex. Thus, Helen’s own story, her past and foreshadowed future come in echoes through an open window while her mother sits dumbly opposite her, unable to answer the most basic of questions. The neighbours’ overheard conversations are the acoustic detritus of daily life but contain essential common knowledge, yet Helen’s frustration builds due to her mother’s silence on such everyday issues. Then in “Episode Five – Maternal” the sound of a riveting machine grates on Helen’s nerves. The explanation for the sound is a new hospital wing being built which makes it the “biggest Maternity Hospital in the world” with the obvious connotation of a baby production-line. A doctor orders Helen’s nurse to “put the child to breast” while Helen shouts “no” and the riveting machine sounds in the background. The analogy is that a mother who fails to bond with her child will have it forcibly fixed to her breast just like someone may rivet two pieces of metal together. As the scene suggests that Helen suffers from postnatal depression, the analogy of mechanical bonding gives full expression to the cruelty of the doctor. The message of the scene is dependent on the sound effect. To conclude the analysis of Treadwell’s critique of modern, mechanical life using sounds, one may look to episodes eight and nine, “The Law” and “A Machine.” In the courtroom, Helen’s personal story is beginning to be appropriated by journalists and this is communicated by the incessant “clicking of telegraph instruments offstage.” Then in the final scene, the convicted woman’s speech is cut short on no less than two occasions, initially when she tries to impart a message for her own daughter, “tell her –” but cannot finish as “it’s time” (execution time) and then when she is actually being executed in the electric chair, she tries to say two final words but cannot finish, “somebody! Somebod-.” The gradual depletion of Helen’s power of self-expression is paralleled by the burst of activity from journalists and the associated telegraphic messages. The electric chair itself is the ultimate machine of the modern world and it shows how Helen may be totally silenced.  

One may classify Machinal as a feminist work due to Treadwell’s apparent sympathy for the female protagonist in various life phases/roles, from daughter, wife, mother, to condemned woman. Treadwell makes clear that women’s choices in 1920’s America were highly restricted. Helen’s despairing plea for “something – somebody” at the close of episode one is never answered, proven by her last word, “somebod-.” While Treadwell uses sounds to great effect to communicate a dehumanized, technological, oppressive force, it is language itself that is the main tool used to communicate Helen’s predicament as a woman. Impressionistic dialogue is stylistically fragmented or incoherent, yet it is not the typography that holds the key but how it reflects the failures of communication in any given scene. One needs to look not only as Helen’s fragmented sentences, her telegraphic style of delivery, but also at miscommunication between the sexes and even between different generations. In short, Helen’s language fails but not in the conventional sense. The first major example is Helen’s crucial discussion with her mother about marriage. Helen’s overall question may be broken down into three segments:  

“All women get married, don’t they?”  

“Oh Ma, tell me! … About all that – love!” 

“Your skin oughtn’t to curl – ought it – when he just comes near you”?  

These questions are somewhat pathetic as they expose Helen’s lack of experience and vulnerability. Helen’s mother has already decided based on Jones’ position as company Vice-President and moreover his agreement to financially support an aging mother, that marriage is the best option. While Helen flails about trying to express her thoughts in quite an emotional state, her questions are still surprisingly clear, for example “when he puts a hand on me, my blood turns cold. But your blood oughtn’t to run cold, ought it?” Helen’s mother treats her daughter’s pleas for advice as if they were truly incoherent, illogical, and crazy. The responses that Helen receives display the older woman’s unwillingness to assist in any way, replying, “tell you what? … Do you what? … See what?” The mother has already concluded that a company Vice-President must be a “decent” man and that love does not “pay the bills.” Treadwell highlights that the women are not just separated by a generation gap, but more importantly by their world views. Helen’s frustration at her mother increases when having open heartedly explained her own anxieties, her mother replies with, “nonsense … you’re crazy” which finally leads to Helen’s emotional outburst, “Ma – if you tell me that again I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” This is a defining moment in the play as Treadwell depicts the anger that comes from powerlessness when even normal language fails Helen. It is the contrast of a young woman with expectations of life versus the practical, decidedly anti-feminist views of an older woman. The scene may also be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Helen’s eventual crime of murder. Treadwell’s message is that Helen who is just “an ordinary young woman” faces immense challenges due primarily to the position of women in society. Helen’s language fails because women have no real power in society. The implicit feminist warning is that Helen is an ‘Everywoman’ and therefore any normal woman could end up in the same position.  

The failures of language between the sexes are depicted in multiple scenes. “Episode Three – Honeymoon” is an unusual example because Helen says “no” a considerable number of times but never to the question we anticipate hearing. For instance, when she is undressing in the bathroom and her husband says that he is coming in, she replies, “No! Please! Please don’t.” The most important statement in the scene is evidently when Mr. Jones declares, “I’m your husband, you know” because this implies specific marital rights and therefore the lack of any necessity for certain requests. As such, Helen’s multiple “no” responses are in vain as she will never be asked permission for what her husband now sees as a right, namely conjugal rights to sexual relations. Therefore, the woman who starts to weep and cries out for her mother is in fact utterly powerless. Later, when Helen tells her daughter’s age in court as being, “she’s five – past five,” then in the context of a six-year marriage it seems the child was conceived on their honeymoon. The honeymoon scene requires a reader to understand the failure of language as going beyond the spoken word and to include Helen’s obvious signs of distress and anxiety. Treadwell depicts a more overt example of miscommunication in the hospital. When the nurse makes a note on Mrs. Jones’ medical chart that the patient was “gagging” then the doctor interprets it quite literally, “gagging – you mean nausea” but the nurse’s attempt to explain fully is rejected. The gagging was Helen’s anxious response to her husband’s visit, a strong emotional response later given full expression in Helen’s thoughts about the breeding dog, Vixen, and her own seemingly comparable situation, impregnated with a child she did not want. At the close of the scene, Helen finally says, “I’ll not submit any more” and this is apparently referring to non-consensual sexual submission. Treadwell is often testing readers to look with a more intuitive and less literal eye to each episode. For example, there is wonderful use of irony in “Episode Seven – Domestic” where Mr. Jones reads a serious newspaper article aloud to his wife, quoting, “all men are born free and entitled to the pursuit of happiness.” The meaning of the quote in the context of the play is excruciatingly literal, in that men and only men have freedom. Helen’s reality is different and is reflected in the tabloid headlines she reads silently to herself, “girl turns on gas … woman leaves all for love … young wife disappears” and these are the solutions she sees. Finally, in the male environment of the courtroom (male judge and all-male jury), language is also distorted as it begins to conform to legal requirements for example, a six-year marriage without a quarrel is unquestionably evidence of a “happy marriage.” In all, Treadwell displays how language fails due to the selfish concerns of an interlocuter (Helen’s mother), due to too literal an interpretation (Helen’s doctor), due to the environment (marriage), and in the final scene, Helen’s speech is fragmented, unfinished because she is executed.  

Treadwell achieves a remarkable success by taking as her topic the media sensation that was the trial and execution of Ruth Snyder and presenting the story in an expressionistic drama. One could say that the playwright takes advantage of the notoriety of the murder as a hook to catch the public’s attention before bringing them on a new journey by retelling the story. As explored, the specific style of expressionism especially as it relates to characterization, emotional states, and dialogue, elevates Treadwell’s work. The playwright manages to communicate in a unique way by placing before the audience a vivid impression of how Helen sees the world.  

Sympathy for a murderess.  

Treadwell’s play challenges a reader to have sympathy for the character of Helen Jones. The playwright effectively reframes the Snyder story and presents it to an audience to adjudicate anew on the crime. While one may indeed sympathize with Helen’s plight, the rhetoric of the presentation asks that one accept, maybe just tentatively, Helen’s motive for murdering her husband and this aspect of the play bears further discussion. The public came to know the real-life murderer, Ruth Snyder, only through the intense media attention to the court proceedings but Treadwell depicts Helen through all her most important life phases creating a comprehensive background story. The playwright obviously controls the narrative and as Abrams writes, “the expressionist artist or writer undertakes to express a personal vision – usually a troubled or tensely emotional vision – of human life and human society.” As such, the character of Helen serves a communicative purpose and that is to disseminate Treadwell’s particular perspective on the real-life murder case. In the play, Treadwell depicts how the media take over Helen’s story once it becomes public (as happened Snyder) and therefore the playwright is regaining control of the narrative in Machinal. This new presentation of the story means each reader must decide if Helen’s punishment is deserved or unfair.  

It is a salient point that Helen is depicted as having no power over her own story or her direction in life. In the first scene, we are told that Helen’s “machine’s out of order” and because she is a stenographer, this means her typewriter. Treadwell, as a real-life journalist, would have understood the power of the typewriter for a woman as it allows one to author one’s own story. Yet, Helen only takes down letters dictated by Jones. This lack of control over her own narrative is most evident later in the court case when her defense lawyer defines Helen as “a devoted daughter, gentlemen of the jury! As well as a devoted wife and a devoted mother!” While a strong defense strategy, it precludes Helen from ever admitting to an unhappy marriage. The definition not only misrepresents Helen’s life but crucially removes any burden of fault from her late husband and forces one to seek a motive elsewhere. In this example, Helen’s trajectory is determined by her lawyer, but this has been Helen’s plight all along as she has constantly sought “something – somebody” to save her. Helen constantly seeks an external saviour indicating her own perceived or actual powerlessness. In an interesting twist, Treadwell depicts Helen as the dupe even in the one scene where she appears to gain her freedom, namely, “Episode Five – Prohibited.” What is enlightening about this scene, beside the fact that Helen meets her future lover, Richard Roe, is that each of the four men depicted in this scene manipulates another person. This ranges from a married man, Harry Smith, arranging to have sex with the telephone girl, to the “middle-aged fairy” seducing a boy, to the man who convinces his girlfriend to have an abortion, to Roe seducing Helen with the cliched line about her being “an angel.” The remark that the gay man makes, “Poe was a lover of amontillado,” is not just about a favourite drink but also an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” where a man entombs his friend in a cellar and leaves him to die. Treadwell’s scene “Prohibited” is certainly about entrapment and links to the true motive for murder in the play.  

Helen’s motive for murdering her husband is certainly the conundrum of the play and depending on how one interprets the text; the answer may be different. Deciphering the true motive has an enormous impact on one’s sympathy or lack thereof for Helen. There are two main avenues of possible speculation and they are that Helen’s motive is either her affair with Roe, the motive accepted as true in court, or one may look to her marital circumstances, an argument obviously highlighted by Treadwell’s sympathetic depiction of Helen.  

If life itself feels mechanical to Helen then the ominous clicking shut of the mechanism, the ultimate entrapment, may indeed be marriage. Like a business deal, marriage is a legal contract. It is clear that Helen makes two major mistakes entering a marriage with Jones because firstly as she tells her mother, “I don’t love him” and secondly, she does not know if her disgust toward him will fade away, “you don’t get over that, do you – ever, do you, or do you?” The challenges of Helen’s marriage are not stated outright, but marital rape is strongly inferred by her “helpless, animal terror” on her honeymoon night and by the fact that she later bears Jones’ child. However, any mention of marital rape is problematic as it is anachronistic in the context of 1920’s America, a crime that does not yet exist in law and possibly not broadly in social consciousness. Trauma is also suggested in the hospital scene by Helen’s rejection of her newborn child and the fact that her “milk hasn’t come yet” which is sometimes a result of stress hormones. Helen is eventually shown to capitulate to the role of obedient wife in episode seven, “Domestic,” when she provides “rote” responses to her husband’s questions. The problem of dissolving her marriage, of divorcing her husband, is a problem of financial dependence and a lack of options. Helen married Jones to escape the oppressive office routine and with the marriage came not only her own financial security but also a monthly allowance for her mother. In 1920’s America, a marriage could only be ended in divorce by proving fault by either party and the accepted reasons were abandonment, mental illness, cruelty, or adultery. Therefore, Helen would not only have to admit fault to escape her marriage but would automatically lose not only her own financial security but her mother’s too. Even though, as stated in court, divorce was indeed the obvious solution and not murder, Helen’s hyper-sensitivity and resulting life difficulties made her unsuited to the workplace and highly dependent. Helen obviously makes a decision at some point not to pursue a divorce but to plan a murder. Helen gets the idea for her murder weapon from her lover, but the story told by Richard Roe is also significant. He describes how he was taken hostage by “a bunch of bandidos” and goes on to justify their murder by stating, “I had to get free, didn’t I?” The comparison is that Helen feels trapped in her own marriage and the situation is complicated further by her mother’s dependence on Jones’ monthly payments. When Roe speaks of freedom in Mexico, Helen replies, “I’ll never get out of here.” Yet, for all these stated reasons, it is difficult to excuse Helen’s desperate resort to murder.  

In court, Helen’s affair is clearly accepted as her motive for murdering her husband. The prosecution lawyer introduces Richard Roe’s signed affidavit which he says supplies “a motive for this murder – this brutal and cold-blooded murder of a sleeping man.” Roe’s affidavit forces Helen to confess to the crime and thereby the document seals her fate. To digress a moment, Treadwell has changed the original story in a quite conspicuous way here because both Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray were tried, sentenced, and executed. In the play, Roe not only lives free in Mexico but betrays Helen by providing the only evidence capable of convicting her. Thus, the hint of betrayal intimated in the bar scene, “Prohibited,” actually happens but it serves the purpose of arousing our sympathy for Helen. Her ideal man, the ‘somebody’ she had waited for, turns out to be a cad. Furthermore, the general unreliability of Roe displays that the affair as a motive for murder is flawed for three separate reasons. Firstly, Helen visited Roe’s apartment almost daily while still married to Jones but remained undetected and therefore unrestricted. Secondly, Roe was a self-confessed womanizer who on their first meeting rejected Helen’s talk of a shared future by replying “quien sabe” (who knows) so evidently, he was not marriage material. Finally, while the timeline of events is somewhat vague, Roe clearly ended the relationship at some point as he now lives in Mexico. While the affair proves Helen’s adultery, it is not automatically a motive for murder since Roe offered her no future. To accept the affair as a motive for murder is only credible if one believes that Helen is exceptionally naive.  

The actual, or at least most probable, motive for Helen murdering her husband is the trauma of forced submission. This is not limited to what Helen endures in her marriage but may be understood to also include the context of women’s limited rights in that era. In expressionistic drama, a distorted representation of the world is used to communicate the character’s emotional state, but the emotional state is true, lived, and has consequences. Helen’s repeated plea for “something – somebody” is a plea for help, for salvation, which is never satisfied. Rather than receive help, the protagonist is met with increasingly humiliating demands to submit, for example, to her mother’s selfish advice, to her boss’s “fat hands [that] are never weary,” to non-consensual marital sex, to bearing a child, to public betrayal by her lover, Roe, and finally to the prison barbers who shave her hair – Helen cries, “submit! Submit! Is nothing mine?” Treadwell depicts how an unhappy woman who loses all hope of escaping a dire situation may indeed become a killer. Helen explains to the priest that when she murdered her husband – “when I did what I did I was free! Free and not afraid!” Helen clearly distinguishes between the murder and “that other sin – that sin of love” which is important regarding motive. Killing Mr. Jones makes Helen free and it is a crime she does not repent. Richard Roe is never a true prospect for Helen, but he proves that she is capable of love and that love is indeed possible in life. In the real case, Ruth Snyder, upon hearing that the trial jury would be all men, said, “I’m sorry. I believe that women would understand this case better than men, and then women have a better sense of justice.” Treadwell echoes this sentiment because she places the reader, as best she can, in Helen’s shoes. It is not the cold logic of the situation that determines how Helen acts in this pitiful saga but instead what she feels are her options.  

It is not possible to be sympathetic to a murderess whose only excuse is an unhappy marriage. Many women would have endured much worse situations than Helen. Similarly, it is not possible to be sympathetic to a woman who kills her husband because she seeks freedom to have an affair. Yet, it is possible to empathize and indeed sympathize with a woman who cannot deal with a situation anymore, who feels utterly trapped and chooses the wrong escape plan. Treadwell’s retelling of the Snyder story presents an ‘Everywoman’ who becomes a killer. The housewife who washes the dishes with gloved hands, under the wrong circumstances, may become the perfect gloved killer who leaves no fingerprints. Helen’s refrain of “something – somebody,” used in court to describe the fictional killers, is proof that when there were no outside saviours – she resorted to saving herself. It is a cautionary tale about the risks of making someone constantly submit, leaving them powerless, especially if that someone can be seen as representative of the entire female sex. 

Works Cited.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Earl McPeek, 1999.

“Gray to Seek Trial Outside of Queens.” New York Times, 26 March 1927.

Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. Nick Hern Books, 2003.

The Vortex

Lilian Braithwaite & Noel Coward, stars of The Vortex.

  • Play title: The Vortex     
  • Author: Noel Coward  
  • Published: 1924  
  • Page count: 106  


Noel Coward’s, The Vortex, is a period melodrama that was first published in 1924. Many of Coward’s later plays are more famous but this first major hit was decidedly risqué in its day. The play tells the story of the Lancaster household, with Florence, the narcissistic matriarch, and Nicky, her musically talented but confused son. Florence Lancaster dates a string of young, male admirers and that causes scandal due to her married status. In this work, Coward captures the lifestyles of rich, selfish, vain people who attend the theatre and opera, have multiple residences, drink cocktails in the afternoon and are driven in chauffeured cars. The dramatic events of the play revolve around Nicky’s recent engagement to a girl called Bunty and how this clashes with his mother’s current relationship with her beau named Tom. The themes of the play include drug abuse, parental responsibility, and homosexuality.   

Ways to access the text: reading/listening. 

Coward’s play is available online via the Internet Archive under the title “The Vortex : Noel Coward.” 

However, if you would prefer to listen to an audiobook version then one is available on YouTube. The title of the audiobook is “Vortex – Noel Coward – BBC Saturday Night Theatre” and the running time is 1hr and 29mins. 

Why read/listen to The Vortex? 

1920’s melodrama.  

While melodrama is a term that may be used derogatorily, it also captures the sensational pop of champagne corks and the zing of catty one-liners! Coward’s play evokes a bygone era of upper-class, English privilege, and the author fills each scene with exaggerated characters and thinly veiled taboo subjects. If you like cut-glass accents and witty repartee, then this is the play for you. Admittedly, the play has aged but this may be viewed in a positive light because the world that Coward describes is almost alien to a modern reader and therefore more entrancing. As an example of Coward’s wit, the character “Pawnie” is introduced with the innuendo laden title of “an elderly maiden gentleman.” Pawnie gives embodiment to the overweening vanity and male effeminacy that are core topics in the play. It is possible to encapsulate the overall tone of the play in Pawnie’s succinct description of Nicky – “he’s divinely selfish; all amusing people are.” Coward explores a world of artifice that is shown to be unsustainable because in the end the truth shatters everything in a most dramatic manner.   

A neglectful mother.  

Florence Lancaster is not the maternal type. She is almost fifty but still feels quite young and is considered attractive by men half her age whom she often dates. In modern terms, one would say that she is a liberated woman. However, in the era of 1920’s England her behaviour is considered scandalous and invites gossip. Coward depicts a woman who is unfaithful to her husband but more importantly in terms of the play’s plot, neglectful of her son Nicky. Coward lays the blame for everything that goes wrong on Florence, as explored in the final scene. It is made clear to the reader that Florence does not conform to the socially approved gender role of caring, affectionate mother and she also fails morally. What is interesting for a reader is the masterful way that Coward constructs the entire final scene, which depicts a confrontation between mother and son, without naming the one thing that is the core of the problem. This was probably due to censorship issues and/or the moral sensitivities of the time. However, the constant side-stepping and refusal to name what Florence is really being accused of due to her neglect is quite fascinating.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.  

A young man’s habit.  

Nicky Lancaster is a drug addict. We first receive hints that something is amiss from his jittery manner and later there is an actual admission. However, Coward gives the character, Nicky, several masks in the play and the identity that is revealed is often not exactly what we expect. To begin, one may look at two of Nicky’s overlapping masks, the neurotic and the drug addict. As Nicky is depicted from the start as slightly neurotic in temperament, the idea of him using cocaine or any other hard drug is not immediately evident. For example, the introductory description of Nicky to the reader is as a man who “is tall and pale, with thin, nervous hands.” Then later in the same scene just after Nicky describes himself as “hectic and nervy” he overreacts to a comment made by Bunty with an unexpected, angry outburst, saying, “shut up – shut up.” Also, when he plays the wind-up gramophone for his family and friends, he invariably “plays the records too fast.” Even though these are substantial hints at a subtext, it is not until his friend, Helen, takes a “divine little box” from his pocket when searching for a match that the secret is outed, at least to her. Although not named, the drug is most likely cocaine. In a later private discussion, Helen confronts Nicky by saying, “I should give up drugs if I were you.” Apparently, Nicky’s habit had not gone unnoticed because Helen had suspected for some time. Yet, the salient point here is that the signs need to be read correctly in order to identify the underlying issue. Nicky defends himself against Helen’s warnings, saying, “I only take just the tiniest little bit, once in a blue moon.” The topic is effectively dropped until the final scene when Nicky confesses to this mother by way of showing her the “small gold box” which Florence first understands as drugs, and then she promptly throws it out of the window. By proving that not even a mother may know, Coward shows how one problem can easily camouflage another and this is a motif in the play. 

In terms of a sensational twist to the story, then yes, the idea of a young musician returning from Paris with a cocaine habit, especially in the 1920’s, is indeed shocking. Yet, the revelation does not contribute to the plot in any significant manner except to explain the young man’s pallid looks and generally overwrought demeanor. Drug addiction does not explain why Nicky’s engagement ends abruptly nor does it explain his confrontation with his mother. One need only look to the specific dialogues in the play to confirm these points. An astute reader may indeed have guessed that Nicky uses drugs from the early clues in the text but then how should one address the more frequent clues that indicate that Nicky is gay. After all, this is a topic that is never broached. Therefore, one needs to consider what taboos Noel Coward could discuss in his work and which needed to remain unspoken. Coward is obviously substituting the taboo that he could tentatively speak of, namely drugs, and leaves Nicky’s homosexuality as an inferred truth. This strange substitution of one taboo for another within the plot leads to an imbalance, an incongruity in the story unless one deciphers Coward’s full meaning. It is also necessary to digress here and state that what is blatantly clear to a modern audience may have been much more obscure for a 1920’s audience. It is crucial for Nicky to make some big revelation in the story, to be truthful about himself, if he is to expect his mother to confess her mistakes. It was probably impossible for Coward, both from a censorship aspect and a commercial viewpoint, to have a play’s central character out himself as homosexual in the 1920’s. Therefore, drug addiction is used to mimic the shocking confession that is indeed required to bring the narrative to its crisis moment. It is one theatrical mask that obscures another, the confessed drug addict versus the hidden homosexual. The commonality between drug users and homosexuals, in the moralistic terms of the early 20th century, would have been licentiousness, selfishness, and eventual ruin.  As such, it is a fitting ruse employed by the playwright.

The evidence of Nicky’s homosexuality, like his drug use, is based on shrewd observation. There are numerous early clues such as Nicky’s good friend, John Bagot, to whom he reads his mother’s letters. This act of sharing displays a level of intimacy between the men. The surname Bagot is also strongly indicative of a derogatory term for gay men which was indeed spelled with one g in America in the 1920’s, a time when Coward himself had visited New York. Noel Coward was a gay man so is more likely to have been familiar with slang terms for the gay community. Though it may seem strange to think that Coward would slyly allude to such a term, it would have been a clever in-joke for fellow gay men in the audience. However, it is the dialogue between Tom and Bunty that is the strongest indication that people perceive Nicky as gay. For example, Tom is not aware of the romantic relationship between Nicky and Bunty when he first arrives at the Lancaster household. Therefore, when Bunty monopolizes Tom in conversation and Nicky unexpectedly storms out, which Bunty explains as jealousy, then Tom misconstrues the situation, saying, “why … is he …?” The inference here is that Nicky is attracted to Tom and therefore a homosexual, confirmed by Tom’s further innuendo by referring to Nicky as “that type” and “that sort of chap” with the closing comment of “you know – up in the air – effeminate.” It is precisely at this moment that Bunty laughs and says, “I’ve just realized something” which is apparently that her fiancé is a gay man. When Bunty finally breaks off the relationship with Nicky she says, “you’re not in love with me, really – you couldn’t be!” Nicky admits that he is not facing up to things properly, but homosexuality is never actually named.  

Noel Coward, as playwright and gay man, had an unenviable challenge in writing The Vortex. In this play he must commit a form of subterfuge using language in order to explain the problems of gay life. For example, he cannot use any explicit term to denote Nicky’s homosexuality and yet the playwright’s aim is clearly to convey to readers the kind of entrapment that gay men felt. Nicky is unable to face the truth of his sexuality when confronted by his fiancé, and he is even unable to fully admit it to himself because one presumes that he would have married Bunty had she not ended the relationship. If one accepts that Coward uses subterfuge then one example of how he does get the message out is via psychological projection. For example, when Nicky is arguing with his mother about her lovers and he says, “it was something you couldn’t help, wasn’t it – something that’s always been the same in you since you were quite, quite young -?” Nicky is evidently referring to himself here and his own sexuality. In the next line, Nicky says, “I’m nothing – I’ve grown up all wrong.” Such an admission from Nicky underscores that Coward’s play is more than just melodrama, it is a play that struggles to express something that could not legitimately be said publicly at that time. The play depicts Nicky’s utter confusion and self-hatred yet the playwright himself was barred from expressing a plain truth in 1920’s England, the truth that Nicky is gay.  

When the play was written, drug taking and homosexual practices were both seen as habitual acts. As such, Nicky’s ruination in either case would have been perceived as his own choice. Yet, there is a distinct difference in how these two ‘habits’ would have been penalized. The English law covering drugs was the “Dangerous Drugs Act 1920” which continued to treat addiction as a medical problem. On the other hand, the law that covered homosexual practices, namely the “Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885,” meant gay men could face imprisonment for up to two years. This law became known as the “Blackmailer’s Charter” because it put gay men in such a vulnerable position. In the context of the play, Nicky is supported by Helen and later by his mother when he reveals his drug habit. It is not clear how either of these women would react if he had said he was a homosexual. This does not mean they do not suspect or even know it – the problem is the public admission and the unavoidable repercussions. Also, drug use is a habit that is curable in medical terms, homosexuality is evidently not. Coward masks Nicky’s homosexuality and depicts him instead as a drug addict yet the truth of the play is reached by paying attention to the playwright’s constant use of ellipses and the language of innuendo. These literal gaps and constant hints are what the truth must be constructed from given the restrictions of the era. Ultimately, it is an admission that actually counts, and Nicky can only safely admit to using drugs but never to the bigger taboo. Coward will not and possibly cannot name the young man’s true habit because it is sexual and therefore guarantees ruin. One can reasonably assert that the playwright’s own career would also have been seriously tainted or ended had his play been more explicit. Few plays deliver a message so clearly yet simultaneously say nothing at all.   

Hamlet’s mother.  

Noel Coward’s play has a climactic final scene where an angry son confronts his mother about her sexual conduct. For many readers, this scene will appear oddly familiar and that is due to the remarkable similarity to a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the young prince confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude. Both scenes are defined by anger that tilts towards outright rage. Nicky says to his mother, “I’m straining every nerve to keep myself under control … if you lie to me and try to evade me any more – I won’t be answerable for what might happen.” Similarly, Hamlet tells Queen Gertrude, “Sit you down; you shall not budge; / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” and the vehemence of his orders make her fear that he will murder her. What is striking about both scenes is the moral disgust of a son at his mother’s sexual liaisons. In both cases the sons look for and finally gain promises regarding future behaviour from their respective mothers. Queen Gertrude is made to feel shame over her hasty marriage to old King Hamlet’s inferior brother, Claudius, and she promises to keep Hamlet’s secret (that he is not mad but very sane and cunning). In Coward’s play, Nicky commands that his mother will not “have any more lovers … you’re going to be my mother for once” and Florence finally submits, saying, “yes, yes – I’ll try.” While the two scenes are quite similar, an added connection may be made with reference to Sigmund Freud. It was Freud who diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which reveals the young prince’s desire to sleep with his mother. When one considers Coward’s play, it is also a young man’s sexual urges that are in question, in this case, Nicky’s. The allusion that Coward makes by recreating the scene from Hamlet has the purpose of exposing what Florence is really being accused of, and that it relates directly to her son’s sexuality.  

One may quibble about Coward’s use of such an iconic scene from a great play to make a point in a melodramatic work. Yet, the playwright does bring the scene securely into the 20th century. There is a cocaine addicted son, apparently homosexual, threatening his mother in her bedroom late at night on the same day that his fiancé breaks up with him. In the case of Hamlet, Freud explains the prince’s prurient thoughts, for example how his mother lays “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as evidence of his sexual desire for his mother, and his jealousy of her current lover, King Claudius. However, we have yet to explain Nicky’s sexual dilemma from clues in the similarities between the two scenes. The crucial question in The Vortex, comes when Florence asks Nicky, “what are you accusing me of having done?” and his strange answer is “can’t you see yet! … look at me.” The implication is that Nicky’s ‘problem’ is clear for all to see. This suggests that Nicky cannot hide his sexuality and there is evidence to support this as Tom and then Bunty seem to conclude that he is not the marrying type as well as accusations of being effeminate. The scene between Nicky and his mother is well crafted by Coward because it is rich in content. For example, if Nicky’s sexuality can be ‘read’ then surely his mother would have noticed. After all, she is close friends with Pawnie who is depicted as an elderly homosexual. It seems that Florence has indeed noticed because when Nicky declares that he has “a slight confession to make” then her response is firstly to gauge the gravity of it by repeating “confession?” but then swiftly says, “go away – go away.” Florence may not want to hear what she already knows. Nicky’s problem, as has already been established, cannot be named so drug use suffices as the confession. The informative parallel with the Shakespearean scene may be understood as follows – Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is sexually attracted to his mother whereas Nicky obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is homosexual and seeks the very reason for his sexuality. In both Shakespeare’s and Coward’s separate scenes, a young man is being forced to confront a quite taboo element of his own sexuality and in each case his mother somehow holds the key to the problem.  

As Sigmund Freud diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex then it seems apt to consult the psychologist’s writings once again regarding Nicky. It is true that Freud’s work is outdated to some degree, especially regarding homosexuality, however, it offers an important guide to academic discussions on sexuality around the time Coward wrote The Vortex. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905), Freud makes some helpful observations, for example, he clearly links neuroticism with homosexual feelings. The link between Nicky’s neurotic personality and drugs has already been explored, so it is of interest that Nicky’s neuroticism also hints at his sexuality. Therefore, a characteristic of Nicky’s that is discussed in the play, and is most evident in the climactic scene, is a clue to the sexual subtext. Freud also notes that, “inverts [homosexuals] go through in their childhood a phase of very intense but short-lived fixation on the woman (usually on the mother) and after overcoming it they identify themselves with the woman and take themselves as the sexual object.” If one looks at Nicky’s idealization of his mother then it can indeed be traced back to childhood, like the memory he recounts to Bunty, “I can remember her when I was quite small, coming up to say goodnight to me, looking too perfectly radiant for words.” The intense argument between Nicky and his mother shows that he no longer idealizes her but he once did and Freud’s theory refers to the important formative years and the crystallization of a sexual orientation. The fight between mother and son highlights one particular aspect of Nicky’s sexuality. We are told how Nicky finally realizes that the gossip about his mother has always been true and he even witnesses her make a “vulgar disgusting scene” when Tom breaks off the relationship. Nicky, like Hamlet, has been obsessing about his mother’s sexual relations. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Coward depicts Tom and Nicky as the same age because consequently Florence becomes Nicky’s rival in love when it comes to the attentions of another male. This links back to Tom’s initial impression of Nicky and the suggestion of sexual jealousy. Just as Hamlet is envious of Claudius’s sexual relations with his mother, Nicky seems to be jealous of his mother’s sexual relations with the “athletic” and masculine Tom.  

To explain Nicky’s impulses, one may look to Freud’s book, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Freud writes of homosexuals, “the typical process … is that a few years after the termination of puberty the young man, who until this time has been strongly fixated to his mother, turns in his course, identifies himself with his mother, and looks about for love-objects in whom he can re-discover himself and whom he wishes to love as his mother loved him.” This point about identification with the mother is peculiar to Coward’s scene between Nicky and Florence so is missing from Hamlet and Gertrude’s scene. Nicky truly seems to feel that he and his mother are exceptionally alike, and not only does he supply excuses for some of her behaviours, like saying, “you’ve wanted love always – passionate love, because you were made like that – it’s not our fault” but these words obviously reflect his own character too. The key quote in the play is when Nicky says of himself and his mother, “we swirl about in a vortex of beastliness,” and that their only chance is to accept the truth. However, the truth that Nicky seeks is not a truth that he can express himself and the closest we get to naming his sexual ‘problem’ is by way of its apparent causes, namely his mother’s neglect of her parental duties, her shallow vanity, and her endless string of affairs. In the coded speak of 1920’s England, Nicky is blaming his mother for his homosexuality which at the time meant his ruin. Indeed, there is an air of impending doom and disgrace when Nicky references his own father and says, “I’m nothing for him to look forward to – but I might have been if it hadn’t been for you [Florence].” Looking forward suggests a career, marriage, and children, but old Mr. Lancaster will not see any of these because his son is gay. 

The play ends at the conclusion of the dramatic bedroom scene. The resolution that has been agreed is that Florence will try to fulfil her, up until now neglected, role of mother. Like Hamlet who was furious at his mother because of his own unspeakable sexual urges, Nicky’s fight with his mother is equally characterized by obvious sexual repression, the inability to accept or even name the true source of the anger. One may draw another parallel and say that like Queen Gertrude who promises to keep Hamlet’s secret, Florence also understands her son’s secret and co-operates for that reason. Coward’s play is an early example of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on same-sex attraction and the playwright’s emphasis on ‘nurture’ is clear and indeed supported at that time by such an eminent psychologist as Freud. The play is a snapshot of English society in a quite different era and is interesting for that very reason. The parallels between Hamlet and The Vortex have been explored to reveal the fascinating subtext that Coward creates.  

Works Cited.  

Coward, Noel. The Vortex. Ernest Benn Limited, 1924.  

Freud, Sigmund. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Collier Books, 1963.  

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 3rd ed., Seven Treasures Publications, 2008. 

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.  

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Books, 2005. 

Teff, H. “Drugs and the Law: The Development of Control.” The Modern Law Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 1972, pp. 225-241. 


  • Play title: John   
  • Author: Annie Baker  
  • Published: 2016  
  • Page count: 114 


Annie Baker’s play, John, is an unusual mix of realism and the seemingly supernatural. The setting for the events that occur is a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The characters Elias and Jenny stay at this guest house owned by a woman named Mertis, where they also meet her elderly, blind, friend Genevieve. As the play progresses, we learn that Elias and Jenny have relationship problems, that Genevieve has a fascinating story to tell, and that Mertis is a more complex character than she at first seems. At surface level, the play charts the course of a tumultuous, romantic relationship, but Baker adds many complications, most obviously the suggestion of supernatural, possibly ghostly forces. The final line of the play conclusively answers at least one major question for readers.  

Ways to access the text: reading. 

As John is a recently published play, it is difficult to source for free online. However, the play is available on Scribd which offers a 30 day free trial. 

Baker is a contemporary playwright and the text is relatively inexpensive so purchasing the work is also recommended.   

Why read John? 

Fantastic dialogue.  

Not all plays are reader friendly, but this play reads so smoothly that it is an absolute pleasure. It is relevant to note here that Annie Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2014 for her play, The Flick. It is indeed because Baker is so skilled a writer of dialogue that she manages to insert so many strange events and revelations without disrupting the play’s flow or alienating the reader. For much of the work, our attention is drawn to the disagreements of the young couple where many of the tetchy exchanges are minor but serve to fully outline the characters of Elias and Jenny. However, there are other episodes like Genevieve’s gripping revelation of bizarre experiences from her past that serve to change the mood. Also, Mertis has a knack of asking probing questions that turn ordinary conversations into something fantastic, often not fully intelligible. However, even if one cannot find easy answers to all the mysterious events, Baker’s expertly crafted dialogue keeps one glued to the text. 

Mysteries without answers.  

This play offers the reader a challenge of sorts, but the challenge is not obligatory. By challenge, I mean the selection of unexplained events that occur during the play along with eclectic references, for example, to literary works, composers, and philosophies. One may suggest that the play demands an erudite reader but that is not correct because the play offers full satisfaction at various levels of understanding. Another point that is quite relevant for the reader – it seems that it would be impossible to find a comprehensive explanation for all the mysterious events of the play. Therefore, one may approach the work without any fear of misinterpreting it. The story of the young couple is interesting in itself and one finds out a major secret at the end. There are other aspects of the play that will make one ponder the meaning for days afterwards. In summary, the play offers a core story that all readers will appreciate but then goes on to complicate that story. It is certainly not a play for the type of reader who must have all loose threads neatly tied up by the conclusion.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.  

Elias and Jenny’s relationship.  

Jenny or Elias – to which of these two characters should a reader be sympathetic? This becomes an unavoidable question when reading the play. Elias is a Jewish man who seems, at times, to be domineering and demanding. Jenny has an Asian background based on her surname, Chung, and seems a more empathetic and politer person. Their relationship is obviously in trouble and they have broken up at least once in the past. While Baker presents Elias as lacking in affection and being quite defensive, Jenny is the one who is ultimately depicted as a false person. A reader may retrospectively consider all the times that Jenny has been busy texting her “sister” while she simultaneously declares her love for her boyfriend, says that he is beautiful, and expresses deep regret over her previous affair with John. In this regard, it seems clear who deserves the reader’s sympathy. Yet, on the other hand, Elias admits to Mertis that he eventually begins to think of all his girlfriends as “insects”. Such a disturbing admission from Elias makes it difficult, maybe even impossible for readers to take his side. At the end of the story, it is made clear that Jenny is still in contact with John but who is most to blame for the failure of the relationship between Jenny and Elias? Baker resists giving the reader an easy answer.    

An interpretation of the couple’s relationship is prompted by various references to statues in the play. These references are suggestive of the myth of Pygmalion, an ancient story that may help resolve the mystery of who is to blame. In Ovid’s tale, Pygmalion shunned mortal women because he was revolted by their shameless sexual behaviour and so he carved a statue of a beautiful woman, and then fell in love with it. Later, the goddess Venus granted Pygmalion’s wish and the statue came to life and became his perfect bride (Ovid 232). In Baker’s play, Jenny may be seen as the statue since she is indeed described at one point as “stiff as a statue” along with the numerous references to her icy cold hands and feet. There is even a scene in the play where Elias carries Jenny, “he picks her up and carries her, stiffly, like a mannequin, down to the couch and drops her there” which copies the scene where Pygmalion “placed the statue on a couch … and called it his bedfellow” (Ovid 232). Another strong connection to Ovid’s tale is Elias’s own made-up story of the man who falls in love with the statue of a beautiful woman. One may find additional references to Ovid’s myth in Mertis’ own tale of meeting her 2nd husband, George, where she describes how it was like “emerging from the cold and into the sun.” This description is analogous to a cold statue coming to life. Yet, all these likely allusions to the myth of Pygmalion may be interpreted in conflicting ways. The first interpretation is that Elias does not love Jenny sufficiently to bring her to life in the relationship, so she remains like a cold statue. From this perspective, Elias’s love is inferior to the effusive love that Jenny gets from John. The second interpretation is that Elias is a man who has already lost faith in women just like Pygmalion and Jenny’s earlier affair simply reinforces such despair. Elias’s own reference to the “green insects” (praying mantis) clearly links to sexual matters, suggesting that the male mate will be coldly sacrificed once his duty is done. In an earlier argument between Jenny and Elias, Jenny apparently revealed that John is well endowed, sparking possibly unfavourable comparisons and sexual jealousy. Ultimately, it is difficult to say if Elias is indeed looking for a perfect partner like Pygmalion or simply one who is faithful and truthful. The play’s ending pushes a reader slightly more to Elias’s camp because even if he is insensitive, he does appear to be faithful.  

Baker’s text is never simplistic. For example, when one reads Genevieve’s story of a domineering, controlling husband named John who took command of her mind, then it is hard to determine if that relationship from the past reflects a current relationship in the play. For instance, is there a hinted parallel between Genevieve’s ex-husband and the controlling Elias, or instead, with the more affectionate but overly needy John who had/is having an affair with Jenny? When Genevieve says, “everyone knows someone named John,” it suggests not just a common name, but a type of man. Elias and John both control Jenny in separate ways. John’s incessant texting is certainly a form of control especially since he knows the couple are on holiday. If one draws the conclusion that Elias and John are equally bad influences on Jenny based on Genevieve’s ominous example, then one changes sides again. Maybe Jenny would be far better off cutting her ties with both men. Additionally, maybe we can make a link between the unhappy marriage that Mertis had with her ex-husband, a man who was fatally electrocuted, and the “mind zaps” that Elias is suffering which feel like he is being electrocuted. Elias’ depression is a spectre in the background which threatens his own stability and the happiness of any relationship he enters. These are the sorts of random, loose threads that may fascinate or frustrate readers. Baker creates tantalizing clues, but they may just be lures to trick us into overreading some of the situations. The playwright pulls us into the familiar loop of he said/she said and this denies the reader the satisfaction of a clean-cut exit in the form of a definitive answer. The final line of the play only resolves the problem if monogamy alone is the deciding factor in a reader’s opinion.

The supernatural elements of the story.  

How should one interpret the supernatural elements of the story? To begin, one may validly ask how reliable are the narrators? Our overall judgement of any character will normally determine our levels of scepticism or trust in the information they provide us. For instance, Jenny is an adult woman who is so afraid of her old dolls that she cut little windows in their storage box so that they could peep out! Her doll obsession is so strong that Elias thinks she has OCD. However, when Mertis asks Jenny if she ever considered selling “Samantha,” the American Girl doll, Jenny’s reply is an emphatic no, “I saved up two years’ worth of babysitting money to buy her.” For a reader, how are Jenny’s two vastly contrasting positions of fear versus material value compatible or even credible? If an object deeply disturbs someone then surely the logical solution is to dump it, give it away, or sell it. Furthermore, how can we give any credence to Jenny’s belief that the doll gets angry? Genevieve’s support of Jenny’s irrational beliefs about dolls is hardly vindication because Genevieve is a self-confessed former psychiatric patient and more importantly, her total recovery of sanity is questionable. The unreliability of several key characters in the play is an important point. However, Baker constructs such a complex intermingling of supernatural elements in the play, presented to us by various characters, that one cannot merely dismiss them all as they must contain some meaning.    

It is helpful to list the apparently supernatural elements of the play to get a better overview. Firstly, the Bed & Breakfast is a former Union soldiers’ hospital where amputated limbs were reputedly tossed out of the windows and the bedrooms seem haunted to this very day. Then there is the fantastical tale of how Genevieve’s former husband took possession of her soul and spirit. Also, Jenny tells her own strange but amusing story of how the universe made love to her when she was high on drugs. Elias takes a picture of a ghost, or maybe it is just a blur. Then add to the mix, Christmas tree lights that flicker on and off a bit too sporadically, a piano that plays by itself or perhaps it’s a trick-piano, and a doll that may get angry and take her revenge! Finally, there is talk of “watchers” who are other-worldly and must not be annoyed. This is certainly quite a list for any reader to contend with, and many of these elements may be in the play for their entertainment value rather than on account of their meaningfulness.

Yet, a fascinating aspect of the play is how Baker occasionally underpins whimsy with something more meaningful. One prime example is when Mertis declares that she is a Neo-Platonist. A cursory introduction to Neo-Platonism is that it is a pagan, Greek philosophy in which the highest level of being is called ‘the One’ which may correlate approximately with the idea of the “watcher” that is discussed in Baker’s play. In Neo-Platonism, there is a strict hierarchy of beings with ‘the One’ at the apex, from which emanates all things that exist and to which all things eventually return. When Genevieve went blind and no longer had any pressing concerns about her body or the opinions of others then she began to lead a more thoughtful life. This is an example of a life that is in line with Neo-Platonist philosophy because Genevieve turned away from the sensual world and began to focus more on her inner self. There also appear to be connections between the teachings of Neo-Platonists and other aspects of the play such as Genevieve’s “disturbing connection with the soul of every person and every object that had ever existed.” Neo-Platonism is pantheist so there is indeed a belief that God is present in all things. One should also pay attention to Mertis’ comments on her “matter” which denotes her decorative dolls and figurines on one level but in philosophical terms the word “matter” refers to the universe. The idea that an inanimate object like a doll may be imbued with some essence of its godly creator is a salient point in the play. Neo-Platonism is a difficult philosophical field with a long and complex history, but some basic background information is certainly helpful to understanding the play. The main point is that Baker constructs a solid base for some of the strange events by referencing a whole philosophy of life.  

The American Girl doll, Samantha, is an unusual but dominant focal point in the play. It is possible to use the doll to help explain some of the mysteries of the story. To begin, one may look at the two quotes which introduce the play. The first substantial quote is from a short story by Heinrich von Kleist and the second quote is a short Latin phrase from Marcus Tullius Cicero who was a Roman statesman and scholar. Von Kleist’s short story is called “On the Marionette Theatre” and it considers the elegance of movement of puppets and then observes that in comparison, human dancers are often too self-conscious to achieve equally graceful movements. Interpretations of von Kleist’s story suggest that it explains how humans become more isolated from one another the more conscious they become of their own separate identities. If the quite mismatched Jenny and Elias are performing a dance of love then their extreme efforts to make it work actually prove to be the dance’s downfall. One may begin to see further links with the doll, Samantha, when one notes that von Kleist writes that “grace … appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all – or has infinite consciousness – that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God” (von Kleist 26). The fact that the puppet and the God are equal in regard to grace is important to interpreting Baker’s play. The introductory quote from Cicero translates as “never less alone than when alone.” The Cicero quote is quite relevant because Jenny never feels truly alone because Samantha always seems to be watching her. While both quotes direct a reader to focus on the doll, Samantha, they still require considerable unpacking.

An interpretation of the play may be constructed as follows. The doll, Samantha, symbolizes the God-like presence of the “Watcher” of whom Mertis often speaks. The “Watcher” is a seemingly unavoidable presence, just like when Jenny first sees Samantha in the B&B and she concernedly remarks, “it’s really freaking me out … I feel like she found me.” When Mertis later asks Jenny, “do you ever feel watched?” then Jenny responds with a yes and explains that as a child she used to lock Samantha in a cupboard, “so I wouldn’t feel her watching me.” This feeling of being watched has persisted into Jenny’s adult life. The most obvious explanation for Jenny’s current self-consciousness is a feeling of guilt, especially since we know of her previous affair. She suffers mental turmoil even when alone due to a history of telling lies and then living in fear of being found out. In different terminology, Jenny is constantly being pricked by her own guilty conscience. However, we must expand on this idea because Jenny has always felt watched since childhood. It is possible that a young Jenny was also accused of telling lies, maybe in relation to her dolls and their special powers. If one returns to the von Kleist quote on puppets and gods then the doll symbolizes a higher force (Pagan or Christian) whom one should pacify by leading a good life, a life that will gain one grace when grace is understood in a semi-religious sense. If Jenny led such a life then she would not be trapped in her own solipsism and feelings of guilt but would have a sense of existing in the community of man. In this light, the play is thoroughly rooted in the teachings of Neo-Platonism, yet one cannot help feeling that the “Watcher” when understood in this way is very moralistic since it is Jenny’s guilt, in childhood and adulthood, which prompts the squirming, uncomfortable feeling of being watched.  

The next part of this interpretation concerns Cicero’s quote, “never less alone than when alone.” One can see how this reflects the previously explored idea of Jenny being watched by a puppet/god. When Mertis uses the quote over the phone to Genevieve, she links it to Cardinal John Henry Newman, a theologian and saint of the Catholic Church. This puts a decidedly Christian spin on the quote. Later, Jenny uses almost the exact same phrasing as Cicero, “less alone in my alone-ness” when describing how the universe made love to her when she was stoned. In response to Jenny’s story, the phrase that immediately comes to Mertis’ mind is “Deep Calling Unto Deep” which though left unexplained in the play, is a quote from the Bible, psalm 42:7. It is a reference to the mental turmoil experienced by David when he is caught in a storm. One explanation for the links between these various quotes is that Jenny finally feels less alone in the world and more at peace with herself, but only when high on drugs. This means that there is, temporarily, no judgmental “Watcher.” Yet, Mertis’ somewhat strange reply to Jenny is to quote a biblical passage that uses the metaphor of a storm to describe just how overwhelming an experience mental turmoil can be for someone. Therefore, one senses that mental turmoil of some sort is Jenny’s normal, non-stoned, everyday existence. Cicero’s quote when used in a Christian context refers to a connection with one’s god, for example when one is all alone in quiet contemplation or prayer. The difference between Jenny’s normal state of anxiety and a peaceful state is apparently due to life choices. The anxiety that Jenny feels in relation to the doll reveals something that is rooted in psychology rather than the supernatural. In summation, the message is about living a good life. 

The above interpretation is somewhat long and convoluted but has attempted to decipher some of the trickier elements of the play. As previously noted, Neo-Platonism is a large area of study and has been treated superficially here. Baker tends to avoid moral judgments in the play, so it is best to focus on how the doll symbolizes a god-like presence who wants Jenny to live a good life for the sake of her own inner peace rather than traditional, Christian morals. One positive aspect of the interpretation is that the doll, Samantha, begins to look less like a horror-movie prop and more like the key to the story.  

Works Cited.

Baker, Annie. John. Theatre Communications Group, 2016.

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

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Von Kleist, Heinrich. “On the Marionette Theatre.” The Drama Review: TDR, Translated by Thomas G. Neumiller, vol. 16, no. 3, 1972, pp. 22-26.

The Glass Menagerie

  • Play title: The Glass Menagerie  
  • Author: Tennessee Williams   
  • First performed: 1944     
  • Page count: 116 


The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’ first big theatrical success. It is a play centered on the Wingfield family who live in a small apartment in St. Louis during the 1930’s. The family consists of an abandoned, middle-aged mother, Amanda, and her two adult children, Tom, a budding writer, and Laura, a mildly disabled and ultra-shy girl. Williams gives this play a solid historical context with references to hardship and poverty in the American, lower-middle classes in the 1930’s as well as noting specific international events like the bombing of Guernica in Spain. However, this is not a work of realism but is described instead as a “memory play.” Tom is the main narrator, and the events described are his recollections of his family. While Tom is headstrong and independent, Laura is socially awkward and does not thrive. The central story is about how Amanda, an old-fashioned Southerner, becomes increasingly desperate to find a suitable “gentleman caller” for Laura in the hope of an eventual marriage. The glass menagerie of the title is a collection of delicate, glass figurines owned by Laura. 

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.  

There are multiple online sources for this text. For example, there is a PDF file of the play text on the educational website, Alternatively, you may source the text via the Open Library (registration needed). The Open Library version is more reader friendly due to the page format. 

On YouTube, there is a full audiobook version of the play. The recording is divided into two files with a total running time of 1hr and 46mins. However, please note that these have been recorded from an original vinyl record and there is, at times, a distinct scratching sound on the 2nd file. The file names are listed below.

“Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie (Act One)”  

“Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie (Act Two)”   

Why read/listen to The Glass Menagerie? 

A dependent daughter.  

Amanda Wingfield’s daughter, Laura, is quite a distinctive character but primarily for what may be seen as negative characteristics. She is mildly disabled, namely with a permanent limp, but it is actually shyness that is her true or overriding disability. Tennessee Williams is said to have based Laura on his own sister, Rose, and it may explain why this character holds such a significant role in the play. Williams explores the problem of having a dependent, reclusive daughter chiefly through the eyes of a mother. While Laura does sometimes go out in public, her social ineptitude means that she is known by very few people. This makes her vulnerable to the influences within her family especially since she is accommodating and generally passive. The main question that arises in the play is about Laura’s uncertain future, and the socio-economic backdrop of 1930’s America serves to exaggerate the pressures on this already struggling family. Williams’ play explores how someone who is loved, like Laura, may still be subjected to a certain degree of cruelty by the people who are most protective of them. In the opinion of Mrs. Wingfield, a dependent daughter has only two choices, a career or marriage. Laura is shown to be pushed towards both of these ‘solutions’ in the order in which they are deemed viable.

A play made of memory.  

In the opening scene, the play is presented to us as a memory of Tom’s. We are told that Tom is the narrator of, and indeed a character in, his own story. This frames the play in a most self-conscious manner as the theatrical staging of the personal and obviously subjective memory of one single character. This is interesting for multiple reasons, for instance, Tom functions as a mouthpiece for the playwright Williams, also, it serves to locate the play’s action in the past even though it happens before our eyes/ears, and finally, it calls into question the truth of the work. Indeed, Williams highlights many of these issues in the play’s introduction. When one thinks of the play as a replaying of a personal memory of Tom’s, then it serves to attune one’s focus to the difference between scenes that show typical, household events like family meals or repeated family arguments, versus standout scenes with unique life changing events and decisions. Thus, we have the difference between generic memories of home life versus the times when specific memories are branded onto the mind because of high emotions, or anger, or shock. Also, one notices if Tom is actually present in certain scenes which in turn draws attention to his level of artistic license. Finally, one begins to question why this overall memory is so important to Tom, why does this particular sequence of events remain so vivid in his memory?

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

A pawn in a game.  

Laura’s story is central to the play but in many respects, she is just a pawn in a game. The game is a battle for dominance between Amanda and Tom, each in pursuit of quite contrasting individual wishes. In the absence of Mr. Wingfield senior, Amanda expects Tom to continue to financially support the family and Laura complicates things due to her dependence. It is significant that Tom and Amanda have quite different views on Laura because her prospects will directly impact the lives of her mother and brother. Tom describes Laura in a pessimistic manner as “terribly shy” and a girl who “seem[s] a little peculiar to people” whereas Amanda says optimistically that her daughter is “lovely and sweet and pretty.” While both mother and brother are generally protective of Laura, there are also significant levels of cruelty in their behaviours. Laura is so shy and reserved that she offers no open contradiction to the choices constantly being made on her behalf. Therefore, the reader needs to heed Tennessee Williams’ subtle hints concerning Laura’s predicament. The explanations for why and how Laura gets hurt will be explored in this essay and they include: societal conditions, comparisons between mother and daughter, growing family resentments, and Laura’s exclusion from decision making. As Tom is the story’s narrator, we get only his perspective, but Laura’s story is clearly one of disempowerment. Indeed, the strongest evidence that Laura is wronged during the events depicted is Tom’s unquenched guilt. The play is a merging of his memories, and he is apparently unable to leave these hurtful episodes in the past. 

The Wingfield family are entangled in the societal conditions of 1930’s America. The family are impoverished and have few if any prospects. Even though The Glass Menagerie is not a work of realism, Williams makes significant references to the social and economic conditions of the times for reasons that become apparent. Williams describes the Wingfield’s family apartment as typical of the “vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units” in the “overcrowded urban centres” of America, describing the inhabitants of such neighbourhoods as “fundamentally enslaved.” The theme of slavery is interesting because it can be understood in two distinct ways in the play. Firstly, there are the black servants that Amanda refers to in a derogatory manner who are a memory from her youth in Mississippi. Even now in their little apartment, Amanda tells Laura, who wishes to serve table, “no, sister, no, sister – you be the lady this time and I’ll be the darkey.” However, the era of slaves is long gone, as is the era of black servants for the Southern belle, Amanda, who must now contend with her impoverished conditions. While Williams refers to Amanda’s current social position in America’s lower middle class as “enslaved,” it is arguably the burden of a disabled, socially awkward child that truly enslaves Amanda and by extension, Tom. Enslavement indicates the loss of hope, or at best, a false and always unfulfilled hope and this is also true of the Wingfield family. Amanda lectures Tom, saying “life’s not easy, it calls for – Spartan endurance!” It is this mindset that fuels a covert resentment towards the fragile Laura, the only one in the family who does not strive for independence. For Amanda, hope lives only in her Mississippi past when everything was possible, even marriage to the “Fitzhugh boy” who had the “Midas touch.” For Tom, the future alone offers hope in the guises of freedom and success. Laura holds both figures in a depressing present tense of hardship that they cannot escape.

Yet, the pressures are not just societal, there are also household frictions that serve to hurt Laura. One of the most evident and indeed harshest examples of Amanda’s cruelty toward Laura is the implicit comparison continually made between mother and daughter. Amanda’s worn-out story of the seventeen gentleman callers in one day back in “Blue Mountain” is certainly evidence that she seeks refuge and solace in her once-promising past. However, the story also leads Amanda to repeatedly pose the question to Laura of where are her own “gentleman callers” and an embarrassed Laura dutifully replies on one occasion, “I’m just not popular like you were in Blue Mountain.” Apart from being an ego boost to an ageing beauty, it is clearly hurtful to Laura. It would be possible to consider Amanda’s question as just mild teasing except for her conscious insistence that no one in the house refer openly to Laura’s disability, not even Laura herself. By ignoring an obvious disability, Amanda puts significant, additional pressure on Laura to achieve the goals set for her, for example regarding admirers and romance. Also, according to Amanda, a girl’s two chief prospects in life are through securing a husband or becoming a career woman. Since Amanda encouraged her 23-year-old daughter to enrol at Rubicam’s Business School, it is clear that marriage was not the first choice for attaining Laura’s independence. Only when Laura’s debilitating self-consciousness, most evident in pressurized situations, causes her to drop out of education (again), does her mother decide on marriage as an alternative solution. In fact, when Amanda happens upon the idea, it is like a eureka moment, saying “sister, that’s what you’ll do!” (meaning marriage). Amanda apparently deemed marriage as the less logical option in earlier times but will resort to it as a desperate last attempt. It is Amanda’s consciousness of her daughter’s predicament that reveals the cruelty of a mother and daughter comparison.

It is relatively easy to find sources for Tom’s and Amanda’s thinly veiled resentment toward Laura. It is Tom who is now the family wage earner, replacing his father who abandoned them many years previously. Amanda unashamedly uses Laura’s situation to force Tom to stay in a work environment which he hates and, in this way, suspend or even destroy his own future dreams. Once Amanda discovers that Tom secretly plans to join the Merchant Marine, she strikes a deal with him that he can leave home, “but not till there’s somebody to take your place” which means a gainfully employed husband for Laura. Thus, opens the conversation on the topic of securing a “gentleman caller” for Laura, something that becomes “an obsession” for Amanda. One can understand why Tom, a budding writer who works in a shoe factory, may come to resent the burden of his sister’s dependency being placed on him. On Tom’s drunken night out, he sees the “coffin trick” performed by “Malvolio the Magician” and later says to Laura, “there is a trick that would come in handy for me – get me out of this 2 by 4 situation.” Tom clearly feels trapped in the current situation. Williams gives the apartment’s fire escape added symbolism by referring to the “implacable fires of human desperation” and Tom does exit by the fire escape in the end. On the other hand, what possibly could be Amanda’s reason to resent her daughter? The answer lies in her envisioned shared future with her daughter. Amanda speaks of unmarried women as “barely tolerated spinsters” and “little bird-like women without any nest – eating the crust of humility all their life!” to which she quite importantly adds – “is that the future we’ve mapped out for ourselves?” As Laura’s likely destiny is continued poverty then it is a destiny that she condemns her mother to as well. The power struggle between Amanda and Tom becomes a high-stakes game as both risk their futures. Laura is the anchor that binds both of them to an unsatisfactory current living situation.

The continual exclusion of Laura from decision making by her family is conspicuous in the story. It seems clear that Laura was cajoled or coerced into joining business school because subsequently she wanted desperately to hide the fact that she had dropped out. If it had been her own original decision, then surely failure would not prompt Amanda’s “awful suffering look … like the picture of Jesus’ mother.” It appears that Laura dashes her mother’s dreams rather than her own, or as Amanda puts it “all of our plans – my hopes and ambition for you – just gone up the spout.” In regard to organizing a gentleman caller, Laura is again infantilized by her mother because she is excluded from Amanda’s “plans and provisions.” In fact, Amanda sends Laura to the shops for butter when discussing Laura’s future and the possibility of a gentleman caller with Tom. Just like Amanda’s and Tom’s opposing characters, they have polar opposite views on Laura. Tom loves his sister but sees her obvious limitations while Amanda persists in ignoring the obvious, courting disaster. When Tom finally arranges for Jim O’Connor to visit then the proceedings become a mockery of romance. For example, Jim does not know the “ulterior motives” for the dinner invitation, with no knowledge at all of Laura’s existence. Laura, likewise, does not know the identity of the visitor until just before he arrives, and it is unclear if she even suspects her mother’s masterplan. Amanda is shown to be quite insensitive to her daughter when Laura learns the identity of the caller is none other than her high school crush. Laura asks persistently yet unsuccessfully to be excused from the event. Amanda’s plan does not accommodate her daughter’s obvious social limitations and she dismisses the girl’s growing anxiety by saying “I don’t intend to humour your silliness” and “I’m sick, too – of your nonsense!” Laura is finally excused from the charade when she stumbles and almost faints at the dinner table, practically sick with anxiety. However, Amanda still persists, sending Jim to sit with Laura after dinner and she even tries desperately to arrange further dates until the news of Jim’s fiancé, Betty, shatters all prospects. The whole evening is an exposition of Laura’s powerlessness.

Laura is at the centre of the family drama yet strangely disconnected from any sense of power over her future. Two strong characters, Amanda and Tom, battle over issues of money, freedom, and future – with Laura as the burden holding them both back in separate ways. Laura is not like her mother, “possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure … a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions” but a young woman who lives in her mother’s shadow, never living up to unrealistic expectations. For Tom, his sister is used by their mother as an obstacle between him and his future potential, a tie to the family home until he finds someone to replace him as the wage earner, and marry his sister. Laura’s predicament seems impossible to solve to the satisfaction of her mother, or brother. Tom’s eventual departure expresses his own frustration at the situation. As Laura was apparently based on Tennessee Williams’ own sister, Rose, one may assume that the depiction, though laden with symbolism, resonates the life of a tragic figure. Laura never complains so it is for the reader alone to take her perspective into account when judging each scene.

The closing episode of The Glass Menagerie exposes the truth of the family situation. In a fit of despair, Amanda chastises Tom, saying, “don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job!” The description of Laura is for once unadorned by euphemisms, revealing the harsh yet always present reality. Amanda’s twin hopes of marriage or career for Laura are shown to be equally unattainable. For Amanda to describe her daughter as “crippled” reveals the potent anger of someone who cannot fix the situation and who relies on her son to burden a responsibility that is not rightly his. Amanda tells the truth for once but only when she feels it will weigh Tom down with enough guilt to make him stay – it does not. The Wingfield daughter, Laura, stands at the centre of this family storm and we are never quite sure how much she understands or how much she hurts, but if she is indeed as fragile as her little glass figurines then the hurt is substantial. The Wingfield daughter is a pawn in a game best described as a power struggle for survival between mother and son, against the backdrop of a depressed, hopeless economy. 

“Shakespeare’s sister.”  

There are several notable references to Shakespeare in The Glass Menagerie. Jim O’Connor who is Tom’s friend and fellow worker at the shoe factory is the man who gives Tom the amusing moniker of “Shakespeare.” The nickname was originally prompted by Tom’s habit of going to the washroom to write poems during slack work periods. To call an aspiring writer who works in a dead-end job by the name of the most famous writer in history can be interpreted in many ways. As a nickname, it is mildly disparaging but also somehow hopeful. Williams wrote of his own long struggle before he attained success, namely with The Glass Menagerie, in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success.” The character of Tom is most representative of Williams as a young, struggling writer and this struggle has artistic dividends in Williams’ view. In this light, Tom’s nickname is a mark of honour because it symbolizes the preparatory work, hard and very valuable, that normally comes before any breakthrough. The references to William Shakespeare in the play are, however, more extensive. For example, Laura is referred to as “Shakespeare’s sister” by Jim and this is clearly an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” which proposes the hypothetical existence of a sister of Shakespeare’s. Thus, Tom and Laura become Shakespeare and his unknown sister. Furthermore, Jim refers to the Shakespearean character, Romeo, when talking of his love life and Jim also quotes a few famous lines of Ophelia’s from Hamlet. Lastly, the distinctly named “Malvolio the Magician” who Tom sees perform, may be a reference to the character Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The task for a reader is to make sense of these various references to Shakespeare within The Glass Menagerie.

To begin, one may take a broad overview when seeking links between The Glass Menagerie and Shakespeare. One quickly finds a clear connection between Williams’ “memory play” and Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, where the ghost of old King Hamlet, the ghost of the past, implores his son to, “remember me” (1.5.91). Old King Hamlet wants his son to correct an injustice. Therefore, in both cases the plays’ chief protagonists, Tom and Hamlet, are forced to look back at events that evoke a sense of responsibility and ultimately guilt. Another parallel between these two plays is that the characters of Laura and Ophelia are both mentally fragile women who are spurned by the men they love. We must now hop to a separate Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, because Jim aligns very well with the figure of Romeo (with whom he identifies) since he is charismatic and very much idealized in Laura’s eyes. Laura’s heartbreak is sealed by Jim’s kiss because this man she adores then goes on to announce his engagement to Betty and declare it impossible to see Laura again. When Jim leaves the Wingfield household in the climactic scene of the play, he says, “so long, Shakespeare! Thanks again, ladies – Good night” which echoes Ophelia’s lines, “Good night, ladies, good night. Sweet ladies” (Hamlet 4.5.73). This quote returns us to Hamlet. The link between the scenes is that Ophelia has suffered a mental breakdown due to the death of her father, Polonius, and her earlier cruel rejection by her lover, Hamlet, and now we have Laura, who also ‘lost’ her father and has been rejected by the one man she loves, Jim. The parallels between The Glass Menagerie and Hamlet are quite strong, yet it is strange that Jim speaks Ophelia’s lines and not Laura herself. One explanation is that Laura is repeatedly depicted as virtually voiceless in the story, so we constantly learn of her predicament through others. The focus is clearly on a heartbroken Laura with Tom as the Shakespeare-like figure who must construct the entire play from a painful memory. It is also a painful remembrance that is the thorn at the centre of the play Hamlet, forcing the young Prince into mental anguish and indecision.

The specific reference to “Shakespeare’s sister” is quite interesting in its own right. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s key point regarding this fictional sister is that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (58). Woolf then goes on to construct such a woman, writing, “imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith” (58). The imagined biography of Judith is that she is just as talented as her brother William but is barred from educational opportunities on account of the era, she is burdened by the expectations of her sex (marriage and domesticity), she runs away from home and tries to succeed as an actress, and finally, she gets pregnant and tragically commits suicide! This synopsis does an injustice to Woolf’s story, but it makes explicit the kind of comparison being used by Williams for the character of Laura. It is clear that even in 1930’s America, Laura is restricted to just two life choices, and these are marriage or a gender-appropriate career. Yet, much like a solitary writer/artist who has no real outlet for her talents, this girl “lives in a world of her own.” It is not clear if Laura is in fact talented, but she certainly has a well-developed imagination as proven by her obsession with the glass menagerie. Unfortunately, Laura, like Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, is obstructed from expressing herself in any way that does not conform to societal expectations. Jim’s throwaway joke of calling Laura “Shakespeare’s sister” is Williams’ ingenious manner of giving us a glimpse of Laura’s potential, a girl otherwise walled in by suffocating expectations, living in a world which is only a shadow of the life possible for Tom.  

As Tom is the Shakespeare figure in this play, one must not forget that he artistically shapes the presentation of his own memories. In such case, is this modern-day poet in fact moulding his memories to ameliorate his guilt? Laura’s story does not end as tragically as Judith’s, but we sense a bleak, unfulfilling future for her. When reading the play, it is of particular note that Tom is conspicuously absent in the scene between Jim and Laura, so it is most definitely a work of poetic imagination on Tom’s behalf. Isn’t it strange that such a fragile girl as Laura not only receives a kiss from the boy she loves in a fantasy scene but also forgives him when he breaks her prized glass unicorn! After all, the glass unicorn is symbolic of Laura’s own delicate character and breaking it surely means a crushing, psychological blow. When Tom previously breaks one of her other glass figurines, Laura is inconsolable, screeching “my glass! – menagerie.” This is also the girl who cannot join the dinner table group due to overwhelming anxiety when Jim is present. Yet, Tom as Shakespeare, crafts a scene where she forgives a clumsy young man and even gives him her prized possession as a “souvenir.” Also of note, is that Laura has no lines at the play’s ending, in fact, no lines after Jim leaves with her good wishes ringing in his ears. As Williams cautions at the play’s opening, “memory takes a lot of poetic license.” One may even go as far as interpreting the reference to Laura as “Shakespeare’s sister” as containing the opposing voices of the sympathetic playwright Williams (on account of his sister, Rose) and the bristling, overburdened character, Tom. In modern America, a frustrated brother would expect Laura to work just as hard as others to succeed and not allow a “little defect” to determine her life. Maybe Tom not only envies “Malvolio the Magician’s” escape trick but is also like the Malvolio character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, i.e., a man duped to perform a certain role due to his love of a woman but who eventually realizes that “there was never a man so notoriously abused” (4.2.78). It may seem ironic to debate if Tom seeks to lessen his feelings of guilt in a play defined by guilt. Yet, the shaping of memory is complex work. However, in the end, even this modern “Shakespeare” seems unable to quench a memory that haunts him every time he looks in a shop window and sees “pieces of coloured glass.”

Works Cited.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by T. J. B. Spencer, Penguin Books, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, edited by Horace Howard Furness, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1913.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.

Williams, Tennessee. “The Catastrophe of Success.” New York Times, 30 November 1947.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Signet, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Read Books Ltd, 2012.