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for Students
Susan Allison: Head Librarian, Lewiston High versity of Detroit, 1967 (magna cum laude);
School, Lewiston, Maine. Standards Com- M.L.S., University of MissouriColumbia,
mittee Chairperson for Maine School l974. Volunteer Project Leader for a school in
Library (MASL) Programs. Board member, rural Jamaica; volunteer with Adult Literacy
Julia Adams Morse Memorial Library, programs.
Greene, Maine. Advisor to Lewiston Public
Laurie St. Laurent: Head of Adult and Childrens
Library Planning Process.
Services, East Lansing Public Library, East
Jennifer Hood: Young Adult/Reference Librar- Lansing, Michigan, 1994. M.L.S. from West-
ian, Cumberland Public Library, Cumber-
ern Michigan University. Chair of Michigan
land, Rhode Island. Certified teacher, Rhode
Library Associations 1998 Michigan Summer
Island. Member of the New England Library
Reading Program; Chair of the Childrens
Association, Rhode Island Library Associa-
Services Division in 20002001; and Vice-Pres-
tion, and the Rhode Island Educational
Media Association. ident of the Association in 20022003. Board
member of several regional early childhood
Ann Kearney: Head Librarian and Media Special- literacy organizations and member of the
ist, Christopher Columbus High School,
Library of Michigan Youth Services Advisory
Miami, Florida, 19822002. Thirty-two years
as Librarian in various educational institutions
ranging from grade schools through graduate Heidi Stohs: Instructor in Language Arts, grades
programs. Library positions at Miami-Dade 1012, Solomon High School, Solomon,
Community College, the University of Miamis Kansas. Received B.S. from Kansas State
Medical School Library, and Carrollton School University; M.A. from Fort Hays State
in Coconut Grove, Florida. B.A. from Uni- University.
for Students
Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on
Commonly Studied Dramas
Drama for Students, Volume 25 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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Table of Contents
ADVISORS . . . . . . . . . . . . ii

THE STUDY OF DRAMA . . . . . . . . ix

(by Carole L. Hamilton)

INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . xi

LITERARY CHRONOLOGY . . . . . . . xv

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . . . xvii

CONTRIBUTORS . . . . . . . . . xix


(by Edward Albee) . . . . . . . . . . 1
Author Biography . . . . . . . . 2
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . . 3
Characters . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Historical Context . . . . . . . . 10
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . . 12
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Further Reading . . . . . . . . . 21


(by Harold Pinter) . .
. . . . . . . . 23
Author Biography . . . . . . . . 24
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . . 25
Characters . . . . . . . . . . . 29

T a b l e o f C o n t e n t s

Themes . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 115

Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32 Historical Context . . . . . . . 116
Historical Context . . . . . . . . 33 Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 119
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . . 35 Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 120
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . 36 Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 128
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 Further Reading . . . . . . . . 128
Further Reading . . . . . . . . . 41
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (by Bryony Lavery) . . . . . . . . . 129
(by Henrik Ibsen). . . . . . . . . . . 43 Author Biography . . . . . . . 130
Author Biography . . . . . . . . 44 Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 130
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . . 45 Characters . . . . . . . . . . 133
Characters . . . . . . . . . . . 50 Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 134
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . . 52 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53 Historical Context . . . . . . . 136
Historical Context . . . . . . . . 54 Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 138
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . . 55 Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 138
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . 56 Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 146
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . 64 Further Reading . . . . . . . . 146
Further Reading . . . . . . . . . 64
FABULATION; OR, THE RE-EDUCATION (by Euripides) . . . . . . . . . . 147
OF UNDINE Author Biography . . . . . . . 148
(by Lynn Nottage) . . . . . . . . . . 66 Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 148
Author Biography . . . . . . . . 66 Characters . . . . . . . . . . 150
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . . 67 Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 151
Characters . . . . . . . . . . . 70 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 154
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . . 71 Historical Context . . . . . . . 154
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73 Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 156
Historical Context . . . . . . . . 74 Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 156
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . . 76 Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 164
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . 76 Further Reading . . . . . . . . 164
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
Further Reading . . . . . . . . . 80 INTO THE WOODS
(by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine). . . 165
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS Author Biography . . . . . . . 166
(by Maria Irene Fornes). . . . . . . . . 81 Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 167
Author Biography . . . . . . . . 81 Characters . . . . . . . . . . 169
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . . 82 Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 172
Characters . . . . . . . . . . . 84 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 173
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . . 86 Historical Context . . . . . . . 174
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88 Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 176
Historical Context . . . . . . . . 88 Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 177
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . . 90 Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 193
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . 90 Further Reading . . . . . . . . 193
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 104
Further Reading . . . . . . . . 105 RHINOCEROS
` Ionesco) .
(by Eugene . . . . . . . . 194
THE FIREBUGS Author Biography . . . . . . . 194
(by Max Frisch) .
. . . . . . . . . 106 Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 195
Author Biography . . . . . . . 107 Characters . . . . . . . . . . 198
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 108 Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 200
Characters . . . . . . . . . . 110 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 203
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 112 Historical Context . . . . . . . 203

v i D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T a b l e o f C o n t e n t s

Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 204 Historical Context . . . . . . . 250

Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 205 Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 253
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 218 Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 253
Further Reading . . . . . . . . 219 Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 272
Further Reading . . . . . . . . 272
(by Anonymous) . . . . . . . . . . 220 STANLEY
Author Biography . . . . . . . 221 (by Pam Gems) . . . . . . . . . . 274
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 221 Author Biography . . . . . . . 274
Characters . . . . . . . . . . 223 Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 275
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 224 Characters . . . . . . . . . . 278
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 227 Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 279
Historical Context . . . . . . . 228 Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 230
Historical Context . . . . . . . 281
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 231
Critical Overview . . . . . . . . 284
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 240
Criticism. . . . . . . . . . . 285
Further Reading . . . . . . . . 240
Sources . . . . . . . . . . . 290
Further Reading . . . . . . . . 291
(by Caryl Churchill) . . . . . . . . . 241
Author Biography . . . . . . . 242 Glossary of Literary Terms . . . . 293
Plot Summary . . . . . . . . . 243 Cumulative Author/Title Index . . . 331
Characters . . . . . . . . . . 246 Cumulative Nationality/
Themes . . . . . . . . . . . 248 Ethnicity Index. . . . . . . . . 339
Style . . . . . . . . . . . . 249 Subject/Theme Index . . . . . . 345

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 v i i
The Study of Drama
We study drama in order to learn what meaning moments portrayed. Dramas (tragedies as well as
others have made of life, to comprehend what it comedies) may serve strictly to ease the anguish of
takes to produce a work of art, and to glean a torturing hour (as stated in William Shake-
some understanding of ourselves. Drama produ- speares A Midsummer Nights Dream)to divert
ces in a separate, aesthetic world, a moment of and entertainor aspire to move the viewer to
being for the audience to experience, while main- action with social issues. Whether to entertain or
taining the detachment of a reflective observer. to instruct, affirm or influence, pacify or shock,
dramatic art wraps us in the spell of its imaginary
Drama is a representational art, a visible and world for the length of the work and then dispenses
audible narrative presenting virtual, fictional us back to the real world, entertained, purged, as
characters within a virtual, fictional universe. Aristotle said, of pity and fear, and edifiedor at
Dramatic realizations may pretend to approxi- least weary enough to sleep peacefully.
mate reality or else stubbornly defy, distort, and
deform reality into an artistic statement. From It is commonly thought that theater, being
this separate universe that is obviously not real an art of performance, must be experienced
life we expect a valid reflection upon reality, yet seenin order to be appreciated fully. However,
drama never is mistaken for realitythe methods to view a production of a dramatic text is to be
of theater are integral to its form and meaning. limited to a single interpretation of that textall
Theater is art, and arts appeal lies in its ability other interpretations are for the moment closed
both to approximate life and to depart from it. off, inaccessible. In the process of producing a
For in intruding its distorted version of life into play, the director, stage designer, and performers
our consciousness, art gives us a new perspective interpret and transform the script into a work of
and appreciation of life and reality. Although all art that always departs in some measure from the
aesthetic experiences perform this service, theater authors original conception. Novelist and critic
does it most effectively by creating a separate, Umberto Eco, in his The Role of the Reader:
Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Indiana
cohesive universe that freely acknowledges its
University Press, 1979), explained, In short, we
status as an art form.
can say that every performance offers us a com-
And what is the purpose of the aesthetic uni- plete and satisfying version of the work, but at
verse of drama? The potential answers to such a the same time makes it incomplete for us,
question are nearly as many and varied as there are because it cannot simultaneously give all the
plays written, performed, and enjoyed. Dramatic other artistic solutions which the work may
texts can be problems posed, answers asserted, or admit.

i x
T h e S t u d y o f D r a m a

Thus Laurence Oliviers coldly formal and structure, and events at their own pace. Yet
neurotic film presentation of Shakespeares studied alone, the authors blueprint for artistic
Hamlet (in which he played the title character production does not tell the whole story of a
as well as directed) shows marked differences plays life and significance. One also needs to
from subsequent adaptations. While Oliviers assess the plays critical reviews to discover how
Hamlet is clearly entangled in a Freudian rela- it resonated to cultural themes at the time of its
tionship with his mother Gertrude, he would be debut and how the shifting tides of cultural inter-
incapable of shushing her with the impassioned est have revised its interpretation and impact on
kiss that Mel Gibsons mercurial Hamlet (in audiences. And to do this, one needs to know a
director Franco Zeffirellis 1990 film) does. little about the culture of the times which pro-
Although each of performances rings true to duced the play as well as the author who penned it.
Shakespeares text, each is also a mutually exclu-
Drama for Students supplies this material in
sive work of art. Also important to consider are
a useful compendium for the student of dramatic
the time periods in which each of these films was
theater. Covering a range of dramatic works that
produced: Olivier made his film in 1948, a time in
span from 442 BC to the 1990s, this book focuses
which overt references to sexuality (especially
on significant theatrical works whose themes
incest) were frowned upon. Gibson and Zeffirelli
and form transcend the uncertainty of dramatic
made their film in a culture more relaxed and
fads. These are plays that have proven to be both
comfortable with these issues. Just as actors and
memorable and teachable. Drama for Students
directors can influence the presentation of
seeks to enhance appreciation of these dramatic
drama, so too can the time period of the produc-
texts by providing scholarly materials written
tion affect what the audience will see.
with the secondary and college/university stu-
A play script is an open text from which an dent in mind. It provides for each play a concise
infinity of specific realizations may be derived. summary of the plot and characters as well as a
Dramatic scripts that are more open to interpre- detailed explanation of its themes. In addition,
tive creativity (such as those of Ntozake Shange background material on the historical context of
and Tomson Highway) actually require the cre- the play, its critical reception, and the authors
ative improvisation of the production troupe in life help the student to understand the works
order to complete the text. Even the most pre- position in the chronicle of dramatic history.
scriptive scripts (those of Neil Simon, Lillian For each play entry a new work of scholarly
Hellman, and Robert Bolt, for example), can criticism is also included, as well as segments of
never fully control the actualization of live per- other significant critical works for handy refer-
formance, and circumstantial events, including ence. A thorough bibliography provides a start-
the attitude and receptivity of the audience, ing point for further research.
make every performance a unique event. Thus,
while it is important to view a production of a This series offers comprehensive educational
dramatic piece, if one wants to understand a resources for students of drama. Drama for Stu-
drama fully it is equally important to read the dents is a vital book for dramatic interpretation
original dramatic text. and a valuable addition to any reference library.
The reader of a dramatic text or script is not
limited by either the specific interpretation of a Sources
given production or by the unstoppable action of Eco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader: Explora-
a moving spectacle. The reader of a dramatic text tions in the Semiotics of Texts, Indiana Uni-
may discover the nuances of the plays language, versity Press, 1979.

Carole L. Hamilton
Author and Instructor of English at Cary
Academy, Cary, North Carolina

x D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
Purpose of the Book literary and historical background informing
The purpose of Drama for Students (DfS) is each work. This includes a historical context
to provide readers with a guide to understanding, essay, a box comparing the time or place the
enjoying, and studying dramas by giving them drama was written to modern Western culture,
easy access to information about the work. Part a critical essay, and excerpts from critical essays
of Gales For Students literature line, DfS is on the play. A unique feature of DfS is a specially
specifically designed to meet the curricular needs commissioned critical essay on each drama, tar-
of high school and undergraduate college stu- geted toward the student reader.
dents and their teachers, as well as the interests To further aid the student in studying and
of general readers and researchers considering enjoying each play, information on media adapta-
specific plays. While each volume contains entries tions is provided (if available), as well as reading
on classic dramas frequently studied in class- suggestions for works of fiction and nonfiction on
rooms, there are also entries containing hard-to- similar themes and topics. Classroom aids include
find information on contemporary plays, includ- ideas for research papers and lists of critical sources
ing works by multicultural, international, and that provide additional material on each drama.
women playwrights.
The information covered in each entry Selection Criteria
includes an introduction to the play and the The titles for each volume of DfS were
works author; a plot summary, to help readers selected by surveying numerous sources on teach-
unravel and understand the events in a drama; ing literature and analyzing course curricula for
descriptions of important characters, including various school districts. Some of the sources sur-
explanation of a given characters role in the veyed included: literature anthologies; Reading
drama as well as discussion about that charac- Lists for College-Bound Students: The Books
ters relationship to other characters in the play; Most Recommended by Americas Top Colleges;
textbooks on teaching dramas; a College Board
analysis of important themes in the drama; and
survey of plays commonly studied in high
an explanation of important literary techniques
schools; a National Council of Teachers of Eng-
and movements as they are demonstrated in
lish (NCTE) survey of plays commonly studied in
the play.
high schools; St. James Presss International Dic-
In addition to this material, which helps the tionary of Theatre; and Arthur Applebees 1993
readers analyze the play itself, students are also study Literature in the Secondary School: Studies
provided with important information on the of Curriculum and Instruction in the United States.

x i
I n t r o d u c t i o n

Input was also solicited from our advisory the play. Each theme discussed appears in a
board, as well as from educators from various separate subhead, and is easily accessed
areas. From these discussions, it was determined through the boldface entries in the Subject/
that each volume should have a mix of classic Theme Index.
dramas (those works commonly taught in
Style: this section addresses important style ele-
literature classes) and contemporary dramas
ments of the drama, such as setting, point of
for which information is often hard to find.
Because of the interest in expanding the view, and narration; important literary devices
canon of literature, an emphasis was also placed used, such as imagery, foreshadowing, sym-
on including works by international, multicul- bolism; and, if applicable, genres to which
tural, and women playwrights. Our advisory the work might have belonged, such as Goth-
board memberseducational professionals icism or Romanticism. Literary terms are
helped pare down the list for each volume. If a explained within the entry, but can also be
work was not selected for the present volume, it found in the Glossary.
was often noted as a possibility for a future vol- Historical Context: this section outlines the social,
ume. As always, the editor welcomes suggestions political, and cultural climate in which the
for titles to be included in future volumes. author lived and the play was created. This
section may include descriptions of related
How Each Entry Is Organized historical events, pertinent aspects of daily
Each entry, or chapter, in DfS focuses on life in the culture, and the artistic and literary
one play. Each entry heading lists the full name sensibilities of the time in which the work was
of the play, the authors name, and the date of written. If the play is a historical work, infor-
the plays publication. The following elements mation regarding the time in which the play is
are contained in each entry: set is also included. Each section is broken
Introduction: a brief overview of the drama down with helpful subheads.
which provides information about its first Critical Overview: this section provides back-
appearance, its literary standing, any con- ground on the critical reputation of the
troversies surrounding the work, and major play, including bannings or any other public
conflicts or themes within the work. controversies surrounding the work. For
Author Biography: this section includes basic older plays, this section includes a history
facts about the authors life, and focuses on of how the drama was first received and how
events and times in the authors life that perceptions of it may have changed over the
inspired the drama in question. years; for more recent plays, direct quotes
Plot Summary: a description of the major events from early reviews may also be included.
in the play. Subheads demarcate the plays Criticism: an essay commissioned by DfS which
various acts or scenes. specifically deals with the play and is written
Characters: an alphabetical listing of major char- specifically for the student audience, as well
acters in the play. Each character name is as excerpts from previously published
followed by a brief to an extensive descrip- criticism on the work (if available).
tion of the characters role in the play, as well Sources: an alphabetical list of critical material
as discussion of the characters actions, rela- used in compiling the entry, with full biblio-
tionships, and possible motivation. graphical information.
Characters are listed alphabetically by last name.
Further Reading: an alphabetical list of other
If a character is unnamedfor instance, the Stage
Manager in Our Townthe character is listed as
critical sources which may prove useful for
The Stage Manager and alphabetized as Stage the student. It includes full bibliographical
Manager. If a characters first name is the only information and a brief annotation.
one given, the name will appear alphabetically by In addition, each entry contains the following
the name. Variant names are also included for
highlighted sections, set apart from the main
each character. Thus, the nickname Babe
would head the listing for a character in Crimes text as sidebars:
of the Heart, but below that listing would be her Media Adaptations: if available, a list of impor-
less-mentioned married name Rebecca Botrelle. tant film and television adaptations of the
Themes: a thorough overview of how the major play, including source information. The list
topics, themes, and issues are addressed within may also include such variations on the

x i i D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
I n t r o d u c t i o n

work as audio recordings, musical adapta- Citing Drama for Students

tions, and other stage interpretations. When writing papers, students who quote
Topics for Further Study: a list of potential study directly from any volume of Drama for Students
questions or research topics dealing with the may use the following general forms. These exam-
play. This section includes questions related ples are based on MLA style; teachers may request
to other disciplines the student may be study- that students adhere to a different style, so the
ing, such as American history, world history, following examples may be adapted as needed.
science, math, government, business, geogra- When citing text from DfS that is not attrib-
phy, economics, psychology, etc. uted to a particular author (i.e., the Themes,
Compare and Contrast: an at-a-glance compar- Style, Historical Context sections, etc.), the fol-
ison of the cultural and historical differences lowing format should be used in the bibliogra-
between the authors time and culture and phy section:
late twentieth century or early twenty-first Our Town. Drama for Students. Eds. David
century Western culture. This box includes Galens and Lynn Spampinato. Vol. 1. Detroit:
pertinent parallels between the major scien- Gale, 1998. 22730.
tific, political, and cultural movements of the When quoting the specially commissioned
time or place the drama was written, the time essay from DfS (usually the first piece under
or place the play was set (if a historical the Criticism subhead), the following format
work), and modern Western culture. Works should be used:
written after 1990 may not have this box.
Fiero, John. Critical Essay on Twilight: Los
What Do I Read Next?: a list of works that might Angeles, 1992. Drama for Students. Eds. David
complement the featured play or serve as a Galens and Lynn Spampinato. Vol. 2. Detroit:
contrast to it. This includes works by the Gale, 1998. 24749.
same author and others, works of fiction and When quoting a journal or newspaper essay
nonfiction, and works from various genres, that is reprinted in a volume of DfS, the follow-
cultures, and eras. ing form may be used:
Rich, Frank. Theatre: A Mamet Play, Glengarry
Other Features Glen Ross. New York Theatre Critics Review
DfS includes The Study of Drama, a fore- Vol. 45, No. 4 (March 5, 1984), 57; excerpted
word by Carole Hamilton, an educator and author and reprinted in Drama for Students, Vol. 2, eds.
who specializes in dramatic works. This essay David Galens and Lynn Spampinato (Detroit:
examines the basis for drama in societies and Gale, 1998), pp. 5153.
what drives people to study such work. The essay When quoting material reprinted from a
also discusses how Drama for Students can help book that appears in a volume of DfS, the fol-
teachers show students how to enrich their own lowing form may be used:
reading/viewing experiences. Kerr, Walter. The Miracle Worker, in The The-
A Cumulative Author/Title Index lists the atre in Spite of Itself. Simon & Schuster, 1963.
authors and titles covered in each volume of the 25557; excerpted and reprinted in Drama for
DfS series. Students, Vol. 2, eds. David Galens and Lynn
Spampinato (Detroit: Gale, 1998), pp. 12324.
A Cumulative Nationality/Ethnicity Index
breaks down the authors and titles covered in
each volume of the DfS series by nationality and We Welcome Your Suggestions
ethnicity. The editorial staff of Drama for Students
A Subject/Theme Index, specific to each vol- welcomes your comments and ideas. Readers
ume, provides easy reference for users who may who wish to suggest dramas to appear in future
be studying a particular subject or theme rather volumes, or who have other suggestions, are
than a single work. Significant subjects from cordially invited to contact the editor. You may
events to broad themes are included, and the contact the editor via e-mail at: ForStudents
entries pointing to the specific theme discussions Editors@cengage.com. Or write to the editor at:
in each entry are indicated in boldface. Editor, Drama for Students
Each entry may include illustrations, includ- Gale
ing photo of the author, stills from stage produc- 27500 Drake Road
tions, and stills from film adaptations, if available. Farmington Hills, MI 48331-3535

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 x i i i
Literary Chronology
480 B . C .: Euripides is born in Salamis, Greece. 1938: Caryl Churchill is born on September 3 in
London, England.
428 B . C .: The version of Euripidess Hippolytus
that is still performed today is first staged. 1947: Bryony Lavery is born on December 21, in
Wakefield, Yorkshire, England.
406 B . C .: Euripides reportedly dies in Macedonia.
1957: Harold Pinters The Dumb Waiter is writ-
1450: The Second Shepherds Play is written
ten and performed.
around this time.
1958: Max Frischs The Firebugs is first performed.
1828: Henrik Ibsen is born on March 20 in Skien,
Norway. ` Ionescos Rhinoceros is first staged
1959: Eugene
in Dusseldorf, Germany.
1882: Henrik Ibsens play An Enemy of the Peo-
ple is written and published. 1961: Edward Albees The American Dream is
staged for the first time in New York City.
1906: Henrik Ibsen dies after several strokes on
1964: Lynn Nottage is born in New York City.
May 23 in Christiana (now called Oslo),
Norway. 1967: Edward Albee wins the Pulitzer Prize for
` Ionesco is born on November 26 in
1909: Eugene
Slatine, Romania. 1975: Edward Albee wins the Pulitzer Prize for
1911: Max Frisch is born on May 15 in Zurich,
Switzerland. 1977: Maria Irene Forness Fefu and Her Friends
is produced in New York City.
1925: Pam Gems is born on August 1 in Brans-
gore, Hampshire, England. 1985: Stephen Sondheims Sunday in the Park
with George, written with James Lapine, is
1928: Edward Albee is born on March 12 in awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Washington, DC.
1986: Stephen Sondheims Into the Woods, writ-
1930: Stephen Sondheim is born on March 22 in ten with James Lapine, is first produced in
New York City. San Diego, California.
1930: Maria Irene Fornes is born on May 14 in 1987: Caryl Churchills Serious Money premiers
Havana, Cuba. in London.
1930: Harold Pinter is born on October 10 in 1991: Max Frisch dies of cancer on April 4 in
London, England. Zurich, Switzerland.

x v
L i t e r a r y C h r o n o l o g y

1994: Edward Albee wins the Pulitzer Prize for 1998: Bryony Laverys Frozen is first produced
Drama. in Birmingham, England.
2002: Harold Pinter is awarded the Nobel Prize
` Ionesco dies on March 28 in Paris.
1994: Eugene
for literature.
1996: Pam Gemss Stanley is first produced in 2005: Lynn Nottages Fabulation; or, The Re-Edu-
London, England. cation of Undine premiers in New York City.

x v i D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
The editors wish to thank the copyright holders DC 20036-1802.German Quarterly, v. 25, Novem-
of the excerpted criticism included in this volume ber 1952. Copyright 1952 by the American Asso-
and the permissions managers of many book and ciation of Teachers of German. Reproduced by
magazine publishing companies for assisting us permission.Guardian, April 6, 2006. Copyright
in securing reproduction rights. We are also 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited. Reproduced
grateful to the staffs of the Detroit Public by permission of author.Journal of American
Library, the Library of Congress, the University Drama and Theatre, v. 3, spring 1991. Reproduced
of Detroit Mercy Library, Wayne State Univer- by permission.Modern Drama, v. 33, September
sity Purdy/Kresge Library Complex, and the 1990; v. 40, winter 1997; v. 44, winter 2001 Copy-
University of Michigan Libraries for making right 1990, 1997, 2001 by the University of Tor-
their resources available to us. Following is a onto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama. All
list of the copyright holders who have granted reproduced by permission.New Republic, v. 198,
us permission to reproduce material in this vol- January 18, 1988. Copyright 1988 by The New
ume of DFS. Every effort has been made to trace
Republic, Inc. Reproduced by permission of The
copyright, but if omissions have been made,
New Republic.The New Yorker, v. 80, March 29,
please let us know.
2004. Copyright 2004 by Hilton Als. All rights
COPYRIGHTED EXCERPTS IN DFS, VOL- reserved. Reprinted with permission of The Wylie
UME 25, WERE REPRODUCED FROM THE Agency.Proceedings of the PMR Conference:
FOLLOWING PERIODICALS: Annual Publication of the International Patristic,
America, v. 175, November 16, 1996. All rights Mediaeval and Renaissance Conference, vol. 8,
reserved. Reproduced by permission of America 1983. Copyright 1983 by Villanova Univer-
Press.American Drama, v. 8, spring 1999. Copy- sity. Reproduced by permission.San Fran-
right 1999 American Drama Institute. Repro- cisco Chronicle, January 18, 2007 for A Serial
duced by permission.Early Theatre: A Journal Killer Strikes, and Now a Mother Must Wrestle
Associated with the Records of Early Drama, v. 8, with Forgiveness, by Robert Hurwitt. Repro-
2005. Reproduced by permission.Explicator, duced by permission of the author.South
v. 55, summer 1997. Copyright 1997 by Helen Central Bulletin, v. 26, winter, 1966. Copyright
Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Repro- 1966 The Johns Hopkins University Press.
duced with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Reproduced by permission.Theatre Journal,
Educational Foundation, published by Heldref v. 32, May 1980. The Johns Hopkins University
Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, Press. Reproduced by permission.

x v i i
A c k n o w l e d g m e n t s

COPYRIGHTED EXCERPTS IN DFS, VOL- Albee, in Critical Essays on Edward Albee.

UME 25, WERE REPRODUCED FROM THE Edited by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison
FOLLOWING BOOKS: Davis. G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Copyright
Bahr, Ehrhard. From Max Frisch, in Dic- 1986 by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis.
tionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 124, Twentieth- All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of
Century German Dramatists, 19191992. Edited by the author.Trussler, Simon. From The Plays of
Wolfgang D. Elfe and James Hardin, Gale Harold Pinter. Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1973. Copy-
Research, 1992. Reproduced by permission of right 1973 Simon Trussler. Reproduced by
Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.Gray, Fran- permission.Worthen, W. B. From Modern
ces. From Caryl Churchill, in Dictionary of Lit- Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater. University
erary Biography, Vol. 310, British and Irish of California Press, 1992. Copyright 1992 by
Dramatists Since World War II, Fourth Series. The Regents of the University of California.
Edited by John Bull, Gale, 2005. Reproduced by Reproduced by permission.
permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. COPYRIGHTED EXCERPTS IN DFS, VOL-
Lamont, Rosette C. From Ionescos Imperatives: UME 25, WERE REPRODUCED FROM THE
The Politics of Culture. University of Michigan FOLLOWING WEB SITES OR ONLINE
Press, 1993. Copyright 1993 by the University SOURCES:
of Michigan. All rights reserved. Reproduced by From Contemporary Authors Online. Bryony
permission.Lane, Nancy. From Understanding
Lavery, www.gale.com, Gale, 2007. Reproduced by
Eugene Ionesco. University of South Carolina
Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 University of permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
South Carolina. Reproduced by permission. From Contemporary Authors Online. Eugene Ion-
Lucas, F. L. From The Drama of Ibsen and Strind- esco, www.gale.com, Gale, 2007. Reproduced by
berg. Cassell, 1962. Copyright 1962 F. L. Lucas. permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
Reproduced by permission of the author.Mael, From Contemporary Authors Online. Henrik
Phyllis. From Maria Irene Fornes, in Dictionary Ibsen, www.gale.com, Gale, 2007. Reproduced by
of Literary Biography, Vol. 7, Twentieth-Century permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
American Dramatists. Edited by John MacNicho- From Contemporary Authors Online. (Iris) Pam(ela)
las, Gale Research, 1981. Reproduced by per- Gems, www.gale.com, Gale, 2002. Reproduced by
mission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
Morwood, James. From Hippolytus, in The
From Contemporary Authors Online. Lynn Not-
Plays of Euripides. Edited by general: John H.
Betts; series: Michael Gunningham. Bristol tage, www.gale.com, Gale, 2006. Reproduced by
Classical Press, 2002. Copyright 2002 by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
James Morwood. All rights reserved. Repro- From Contemporary Authors Online. Stephen
duced by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Sondheim, www.gale.com, Gale, 2007. Repro-
Co. Ltd.Roudane, Matthew C. From A duced by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage
Playwright Speaks: An Interview with Edward Learning.

x v i i i D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
Bryan Aubrey: Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. author. Entries on The Firebugs and Serious
Entries on Frozen and Stanley. Original Money. Original essays on The Firebugs and
essays on Frozen and Stanley. Serious Money.
Jennifer A. Bussey: Bussey is an independent Neil Heims: Heims is a writer and teacher living
writer specializing in literature. Entries on in Paris. Entries on An Enemy of the People
Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine and The Dumb Waiter. Original essays on An
and Into the Woods. Original essays on Fab- Enemy of the People and The Dumb Waiter.
ulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine and Sheri Metzger Karmiol: Karmiol has a doctorate
Into the Woods. in English Renaissance literature. She teaches
Klay Dyer: Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English liter- literature and drama at the University of New
ature and has published extensively on fic- Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the Univer-
tion, poetry, film, and television. He is also a sitys Honors Program. Karmiol is also a pro-
freelance university teacher, writer, and edu- fessional writer and the author of several
cational consultant. Entries on The Ameri- reference texts on poetry and drama. Entry on
can Dream, Hippolytus, and Rhinoceros. The Second Shepherds Play. Original essay on
Original essays on The American Dream, The Second Shepherds Play.
Hippolytus, and Rhinoceros. Carol Ullmann: Ullmann is a freelance writer
Joyce M. Hart: Hart has degrees in English and and editor. Entry on Fefu and Her Friends.
creative and is a freelance writer and published Original essay on Fefu and Her Friends.

x i x
The American Dream
First produced in late January 1961 at the York EDWARD ALBEE
Playhouse in New York City, The American
Dream was conceived by Edward Albee as a 1961
critique of the culture and social ideals of
America in the aftermath of World War II. The
world of the play is one of bourgeois (affluent
middle class) sensibilities and a seemingly point-
less veneer of small talk and dull conversation.
On the surface, it is a play about a generation
dedicated to getting satisfaction (an important
word in Albees play) without doing any of the
hard work necessary to build a satisfying life.
More deeply, as Albee himself has stated, The
American Dream is a play about the substitu-
tion of artificial for real values in this society of
Lingering barely below the seemingly trivial
surface of The American Dream, moreover, is a
destructive and often sadistic world. It is a world
in which language is used to bludgeon, to manip-
ulate, and to hide rather than illuminate the
emotions that come to define a caring and cul-
tured world. As the audience is drawn deeper
and deeper into the world of the play, Albee
pulls back layers of the veneer as a chef might
peel an onion. With each exchange, the Dreams
that accumulate during the course of the play (of
prosperity, of love, and of family, to name but a
few) fall away, revealing a world that is on the
cusp of slipping forever into a nightmarish cycle
of mutilation and destruction.

T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

Edward Albee (AP Images)

Two Plays by Edward Albee: The American in 1947 for not attending classes and not attend-
Dream and The Zoo Story, Signet, 1961, was ing compulsory chapel.
released more recently by Plume in 1997.
Moving to New Yorks Greenwich Village,
Albee spent ten years trying to establish himself as
a playwright. In a pattern that continues to define
the careers of many young writers, he held a variety
of odd jobs during this period, including office boy,
salesman in a record store, and messenger for West-
Edward Albee was born on March 12, 1928 in ern Union. His break came in September 1959
Washington, DC. He was adopted in infancy by when his play The Zoo Story was produced for
the millionaire Reed Albee, the son of a famous the first time at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in
vaudeville producer, who moved the family back West Berlin. (Albee jokes often that he got his start
to Larchmont, New York. Brought into a family as far off Broadway as any writer could.) Part of a
of great affluence, Albee was never comfortable, double bill with Samuel Becketts Krapps Last
clashing frequently with his stepmother, who Tape, The Zoo Story is often seen as the beginning
attempted to keep him away from the theater of a new wave of American theater, the work of a
life and to shape him into what she considered writer who clearly respected, but also moved
a respectable man of elevated social standing. He
forward from, the influences of such prede-
attended Rye Country Day School before mov-
cessors as Eugene ONeill (18881953), Tennessee
ing to the Lawrenceville School, from which
Williams (19111983), and Arthur Miller (1915
he was expelled. He entered the Valley Forge
Military Academy (Wayne, Pennsylvania) in 2005). In a sense responsible for marking American
1943, graduating in 1945. His education contin- drama as part of a more cosmopolitan exercise,
ued at Choate Rosemary Hall (Wallingford, Albee is more often seen as part of the family of
Connecticut) and then at Trinity College (Hart- the Theater of the Absurd that includes the Irish-
ford, Connecticut). He was expelled from Trinity man Samuel Beckett (19061989), the Romanian

2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

` Ionesco (19091994), and the Frenchman

Eugene she thought was beige but that was actually the
Jean Genet (19101986). color of wheat when she walked out of the store.
In a writing career that has spanned deca- She is made aware of this difference only when
des, Albee has written dozens of plays, beginning she meets the chairman of her womens club on
with The Zoo Story (1958), which was first pro- the street just outside the store. Mommy returns
duced in West Berlin on September 28, 1959. to the store, making what she calls a terrible
scene in order to get the color that she wants.
(The first American production of the play was
She laughs, but is satisfied, as she tells Daddy
on January 14, 1960 at the Provincetown Play-
how the clerk talked her into buying the same hat
house.) The American Dream (1961) was Albees
again by promising her that a lovely beige hat
fifth play, and was followed immediately by
will remain beige, and not become a new color
what is arguably his most well-known work, like wheat. At this point, the word satisfaction
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). In enters the play.
2005, a collection of his non-dramatic writings
was published under the title Stretching My After complaining once again about the
Mind: Essays 19602005. tardiness of their expected visitors, Daddy
observes that he has not been satisfied in his
Albee has received three Pulitzer Prizes for attempts to get the leak in their toilet fixed.
Drama: for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape Mommy notes that the fixed toilet is not for
(1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). He has also her satisfaction but for Grandmas sake, since
been recognized with a Gold Medal in Drama from she cries every time she visits the bathroom
the American Academy and Institute of Arts and anyway. Mommy and Daddy complain once
Letters (1980) as well as both the Kennedy Center again about the lateness of the visitors, and
Honors (1996) and the National Medal of Arts agree that Grandma is getting feeble-minded.
(1996). His plays have won or been nominated for
Grandma enters the scene, loaded down
numerous Tony Awards, and Albee himself was with boxes of all sizes neatly wrapped. Following
honored with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Mommys instructions, Grandma dumps the
Achievement in the Theater in 2005. boxes at Daddys feet, complaining as she does
Edward Albee still lives near Greenwich Vil- that he has not yet gotten the toilet repaired. As
lage in New York City. she turns to get the rest of the boxes that she
claims to have piled off stage, Grandma laments
how being old means that people talk to her
disrespectfully, which leaves her without a
sense of dignity. You got to have a sense of
PLOT SUMMARY dignity, Grandma notes, concluding that if
people let attention to dignity slip then civiliza-
Act 1
tions doomed.
The American Dream is a play that is written and
designed to be staged in one, uninterrupted Changing the subject suddenly, Mommy
scene. It opens with the characters of Mommy accuses Grandma of reading her book club selec-
and Daddy sitting in their armchairs, which are tions. Grandma replies angrily that she does
facing each other across the stage and are because she is old and no one will talk to her
arranged diagonally to the audience. Their first anymore with dignity and respect. She exits the
words are complaints about the lateness of some room, with the promise of returning with more
expected visitors. Who these visitors are and the boxes.
exact nature of their visit remains unclear. Mommy and Daddy are momentarily sorry
Before mentioning that she headed out to buy a for their tone when speaking with Grandma, but
new hat that day, Mommy concludes that peo- their talk soon turns to how nicely she wrapped
ple think they can get away with anything these the boxes scattered around Daddys chair.
days . . . and, of course they can. Mommy begins a story about her Grandma,
Before she begins her story about hat shop- poor and struggling after Grandpa died, would
ping, Mommy playfully chides Daddy to pay wrap up lunches on pretty little boxes for
attention to her. He promises to listen, and the Mommy, who was also poor, to take to school.
story tests his promise very strongly. Mommy Although Mommy knew that Grandma would
recounts the story about purchasing a hat that sacrifice her own food for those lunches, she

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 3
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

pretended that the box was actually empty. The Mrs. Barker offers to smoke, an option that
other school children, raised with a concern for Mommy opposes with some force. Mommy then
others, would offer her food every day, never begins to walk through the boxes scattered on
knowing that the pretty little boxes contained the floor, stepping on a number of them despite
wonderful lunches. Grandmas admonitions not to. Mrs. Barker
Daddy responds to the lunch story by call- asks if they can assume that that the boxes
ing Mommy a very deceitful little girl. She are for us, using the plural despite the fact
explains that she only did it because she was that she had come to the apartment alone.
poor, but since she married Daddy she has When asked if they are accustomed to receiving
been very rich. Mommy then reveals that she boxes, Mrs. Barker replies elliptically that it
wants to put Grandma in a nursing home often depends on why they have come to a
(Daddy refuses to do so) and that she has no specific place.
qualms about living off of Daddys money or Daddy interrupts, saying that he has mis-
having him look after Grandma as part of the givings and definite qualms which, it turns
marriage contract. Dadddy declares his love for out, are about an operation he had some time
Mommy, as Grandma reenters the scene, carry- earlier during which something was taken out
ing more boxes. and something else put in. Mommy remarks
As though she has heard the conversation that Daddy had always wanted to be a Senator,
that has been unfolding, Grandma continues but has recently changed his focus to wanting to
her treatise on old age by way of expanding her be Governor. Mrs. Barker responds with an
discussion to attack Mommy, calling the younger enthusiastic story about ambition, speaking pas-
woman a tramp and a trollop and a trull. sionately about her brother who runs a little
(Trull is slang for a woman of very bad repu- newspaper called The Village Idiot. He is also,
tation, as in a harlot or prostitute.) Grandma she continues, a man who wants everyone to
continues her attack, pointing out to Mommy know that he is married and loves his wife
that Daddy is no longer interested sexually in intensely.
his wife. When Grandma tries to reenter the con-
Daddy responds quietly by saying that he is versation, she is silenced rudely and abruptly
very sick, and does not even really want to live by Mommy, who mimics the older woman.
anymore. Mommy changes the topic abruptly, Grandma responds with a brief commentary on
returning to her complaints over the late visitors. the limitations of middle age (meaning Mommy)
The doorbell rings suddenly, triggering a quick before acknowledging that the imitation had a
exchange between the three characters that good rhythm but really lacked in content.
marks Daddys inability to make decisions Grandma then sets out to try to explain the
recently. Mommy ties this indecisiveness to a mystery of the boxes, but Mommy silences her
decline in what she calls his masculin[ity]. once again.
Daddy finally moves to open the door, The exchange becomes increasingly mean
allowing Mrs. Barker to step into the room. spirited as Mommy pushes Daddy to have
After the usual pleasantries, Daddy makes an Grandma taken away in the van. The apartment
odd request: Now that youre here, I dont is too crowded, Mommy claims, and Grandma
suppose you could go away and maybe come adds too much clutter. The two women bicker
back some other time. Mrs. Barker takes the back and forth about language and upbringing
odd question in perfect stride, responding Oh, as Daddy and Mrs. Barker watch with interest.
no; were much too efficient for that. Returning the discussion to the reason for
After inviting Mrs. Barker to sit down and Mrs. Barkers visit, Daddy admits that he had
cross her legs, Daddy asks what exactly she called for the visit. Mrs. Barker responds with a
does. She is, in fact, the chairman of Mommys list of committees and activities that she is part
womans club, whom Mommy has not recog- of, including the Ladies Auxiliary Air Raid
nized. Blaming the artificial light for her confu- Committee. She then moves directly to question
sion, Mommy suddenly asks Mrs. Barker if she the family about their opinions on air raids.
would like to take off her dress in order to be Mommy and Daddy respond adamantly that
more comfortable. Mrs. Barker does, and settles they are hostile, to which Mrs. Barker responds
back into her chair wearing only her slip. that they would be no help to her since theres

4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

too much hostility in the world these days as it Barker to come into the kitchen with her, which
is. Grandma leaps in, announcing that accord- the visitor does hesitantly. Before she leaves the
ing to a recent government study there are too living room, though, Grandma makes her prom-
many old people in the world as well. Mommy ise not to tell her story to anyone.
calls her a liar, orders Daddy to break the older As Mrs. Barker leaves the stage, the doorbell
womans television, and then celebrates her good
rings. Grandma yells for the visitor to come in,
fortune in finding such a fine man for a husband.
which he does. Grandma asks if he is the van
She could, she says, have married a poor man or
man come to take her away, but he is not. She
a man confined to a wheelchair.
compliments his looks and his physique, com-
Mommy feels badly after remembering that menting that he should try for the movies. He
Mrs. Barkers husband is physically handicapped. agrees with her, then goes on to describe himself:
Feeling faint, Mrs. Barker asks for some water, Clean-cut, midwest farm boy type, almost insult-
which, after more squabbling, Mommy leaves the ingly good-looking in a typically American way.
room to get. Mrs. Barker immediately begs She congratulates him on knowing what and who
Grandma to explain to her why she has been
he is, then pronounces him the American dream.
invited to the apartment, and what Mommy and
Daddy hope to accomplish with this meeting. The Young Man goes on to explain that he is
Grandma, reveling in the power of the moment, looking for work, and wonders to himself if there
toys with Mrs. Barker before offering her a was money enough in the house to hire a handy-
cryptic hint. man. Grandma tells him how she had just won
25,000 dollars in a baking contest, using the
The hint takes the form of a story about a
pseudonym Uncle Henry. (Her winning recipe
couple (very much like Mommy and Daddy)
was for something called Day-Old Cake.)
who had lived in an apartment (very similar to
the one in which they now stood) some twenty Grandma suddenly says that the Young
years earlier. The couple, so the story goes, was Man looks familiar. He replies that he is incom-
looking to adopt a baby, and had contacted a plete, which he explains by way of telling the
woman (very much like Mrs. Barker) to help story of his birth and his life as an identical
them satisfy their desire for a child. Problems twin separated in childhood from his brother.
accumulated once the baby arrived: it did not Since that moment, he tries to explain, he has
look like either of its parents, it cried incessantly, always been incomplete, searching for a connec-
and it had eyes only for the adoptive Daddy. tion that will let him feel whole again. Grandma
Mrs. Barker responds that, given this last feels deep pity for him, but their conversation is
item, any self-respecting woman would have cut short when Mrs. Barker returns from the
gouged [the babys] eyes right out of its head. kitchen.
This is exactly what happened, Grandma
acknowledges. Shocked by the new arrival, Mrs. Barker
wonders aloud what the Young Man is doing
When the baby begins to play with its geni- there. Grandma explains that he is the van man
tals, the couple cuts off its penis and then its who has come to haul her things away. She
hands. Mrs. Barker agrees totally with the deci- instructs him to begin carrying her boxes off
sions. The baby then calls its adoptive Mommy a stage, which he does.
bad name, which led to the couple cutting out its
tongue. Again, Mrs. Barker is in full agreement. Turning her attention to Mrs. Barker,
Still the baby grew, until one day the couple Grandma explains that there is a dilemma with
realized that it didnt have a head on its should- Mommy and Daddy that must be resolved soon.
ers, it had no guts, it was spineless, [and] its feet Grandma whispers a possible solution to Mrs.
were made of clay. When the baby finally died, Barker, who appears slightly shocked but agrees
the adoptive parents called the agency and to go along with the plan. As the Young Man
demanded their money back. As Grandma con- finishes clearing away all the boxes, Grandma
cludes, in an line that echoes those from earlier in says goodbye and exits the stage.
the play: They wanted satisfaction. Mommy and Daddy return to the stage to
Off stage, Mommy and Daddy struggle; he find Grandma gone. Beginning to panic, Mommy
cannot find Grandmas room and she cannot asks Mrs. Barker where she went, only to be told
find water in the kitchen. Mommy asks Mrs. that the van man came to take her away. Mommy

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 5
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

falls into tears, saying that the van man was an stage, she (like the audience) is responsible for
invention that had been used to keep Grandma her own role in the drama that is unfolding as
under control. Grandma, off stage, turns to the well as for the meanness and inhumanity that has
audience, admitting that she, too, is interested in taken hold of the world on the stage.
watching the events unfold onstage. The Young Mrs. Barkers unwillingness to acknowl-
Man is reintroduced into the scene, with Mrs. edge the clear parallels between herself and the
Barker making the introductions. He is given character in Grandmas story of the Bye Bye
over to the family as a kind of replacement for Adoption Service is one of the most prominently
what is referred to only as the other one. absurd moments in the play. Her role in the
As the conversation on stage begins, placement of the bumble cannot be denied,
Grandma turns to the audience, suggesting that despite her attempts to do so, just as the role of
this is the point at which it is the best time to the audience in holding on to the American
leave. She bids the audience good night, and the dream despite its obvious limitations in the
curtain closes. world of the play and beyond, cannot be ignored.

Daddy is a kind of negative presence in The
CHARACTERS American Dream. Once a rich man and a model
of the masculine world, Daddy has been reduced
Mrs. Barker both physically (through his operations), sexu-
A simplified exaggeration of the typical American
ally (he no longer sleeps with Mommy), and even
housewife, with her sense of social responsibility,
intellectually (he giggles like a child and cannot
Mrs. Barker is representative of a society that
make a decision) during the course of his life.
would place a child (known as the bumble) in a
home where it could be mutilated and brutalized. During the absurdist moment of social theater
Hiding behind her complicity in the decline of when Mrs. Barker is invited to undress, for ins-
American culture (that is, the death of the tance, Daddy giggles childishly as a kind of sexual-
Dream), Mrs. Barker remains willfully blinded ized infant or, conversely, sexually mature adult
to the game that unfolds around her despite the reduced to an infantile response. More signifi-
fact that, at times, she is transparent in marking cantly, Daddy has been reduced verbally to a man
her history with the family. who simply follows the lead that is set by Mommy.
As the back story or history of Mommy and His words echo those spoken by her; she sets the
Daddy is pieced together during the play, the tone and subject of each conversation; and inevita-
connection between Mrs. Barker and the family bly she closes the conversations down through her
becomes one of increasingly complex specula- attacks on either Daddy or Grandma.
tion. There are various moments early in the Whereas Mommy emerges as a tyrannical
play when family members suggest that they sadist within the family structure of the play,
know Mrs. Barker, but are not quite sure about Daddy is infantilized, turned into a child-like
the context of their previous connections. At figure in need of discipline and punishment for
times, these lapses in memory seem innocent his actions. Uncomfortably for the audience,
enough, but as the layers of language and story Daddy almost seems to invite and at times
accumulate this innocence gives way to much almost enjoy the rituals of public humiliation.
darker suspicions. Mrs. Barker has been a guest In this sense, Daddy is a masochistic figure who
in this household many years earlier, and was takes pleasure from the pain and humiliation
instrumental in delivering the original child to that defines his relationship with Mommy.
the sadistic couple and was, therefore, complicit
in the abuse that followed. Grandma
Just as Grandma comes to represent the role Stepping outside the scene in the final moments
of the creative artist in the play, Mrs. Barker of the play to function as the ironic commentator
comes to represent the audience watching The on the events unfolding, Grandma becomes the
American Dream unfold, and disintegrate, on director of the play as it moves inexorably to its
stage before them. An outsider, not always capa- close. She is also the character in the play most
ble of following the verbal barrages that fill the obviously aware of the games that are unfolding

6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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and her role in them. She defines her role other questions are left unanswered as Grandma
through a series of typically absurdist strategies, bids the audience good night.
from her feigned deafness and memory lapses to
her epigrammatic wordplay and occasional Mommy
obscenity. These strategies of feigned deafness The stereotypical bad mother, Mommy is the
and ignorance effectively disconnect Grandma most verbally vicious of the characters. She is a
from the fatal conversations and debilitating woman who hides her attacks on Grandma and
word games that have come to define the house- her diminishment of Daddy under the guise of
hold in which she lives. It is this distance that family disciplinarian. Her tongue is persistently
allows her the freedom to escape the walls of the sharp, her sarcasm dull edged and exaggerated,
play as the introduction of the Young Man sets and her tone defined by scorn and derision.
in motion a cycle of violence that seems deter- More disturbing still is the pervasiveness of her
mined to repeat itself. Significantly, Grandmas sadism. She emasculates Daddy at every chance,
crossing back and forth from the world of the and, if one believes Grandmas story of the
play to the world of the audience underscores bumble of joy to be truthful, she mutilates the
Albees sense that the two worlds do speak to couples adopted child as a part of his disciplined
each other in profound and often disturbing upbringing. As part of the dynamic of Albees
ways. play, Mommys sadism controls the stage,
expressing itself in a pattern of physical and
Grandma is also the character who intro- verbal violence that is almost entirely unchecked
duces the finely wrapped gift boxes that come and unchallenged. One of the more disturbing
to litter the stage for most of the play. Symbolic aspects for an audience watching this pattern
of the empty, though alluring, promise of the unfold itself is the discomfort that attaches itself
American dream itself, Grandmas boxes prove to the experience of bearing witness to the
evocative reminders of the history connecting violence and to the final recognition that the
Grandma and the much younger Mommy. world of the play remains firmly under control
Their history is one defined in youth, as in of Mommy as the stage fades to black.
older age, by deprivation and deceit. Depriving As one of the more lucid commentaries of
herself of food in order to send her daughter with Grandma makes clear, Mommy is a manipula-
a gloriously wrapped lunch, Grandma unwit- tive, vicious woman who married Daddy for his
tingly provides her daughter with a prop that money and power, and who cares little (if at all)
allows her to present herself in the image of a for the people around her. As the story of the
terribly deprived child. bumble underscores, Mommy is representative
Seeing herself as a marginalized figure of the potential brutality and selfishness lingering
within the household, Grandma speaks often barely below the surface of modern American
about the plight of old people in the modern society.
world, a feeling that can be related, too, to the
role of the innovative artist within a society Young Man
increasingly driven toward a celebration of the A blond with a Midwestern look to him, the
mediocre and the mass produced. Stepping out- Young Man describes himself as a type, a char-
side the frame of the play as it nears its final acter that is built around a single idea or quality
scene, Grandma reveals the true power of her and is presented without a sense of individuality.
vision, directing the play towards a resolution This self-definition is significant given that
for the various dilemmas facing the remaining Grandma labels him the American dream, the
characters. She then interrupts the play to ideal that all other Americans strive to achieve.
conclude its action, offering the staged reunion But as the Young Mans story underscores,
as an open-ended moment for the audience to the Dream itself is an illusion, a veneer to cover
reflect upon. Is this the beginning or the ending the hollowness of his own existence. The product
of the American dream? Has the Dream itself of the murder of his lost identical twin (known in
withered in modern culture or is it still a viable Grandmas story as the bumble), he is a Dream
source of inspiration and motivation? How do that is defined by a progressive loss of all emotion
we reconcile the sadism of Mommy with the and desire. He carries the emotional scars that
promise of a Dream future? These and many parallel the physical mutilations weighed upon

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the bumble by Mommy some twenty years ear-

lier. As the play ends, the Young Man is brought
together with a Mommy and Daddy, forming a
family that is left at the end of the play in a kind
of limbo. As Grandma offers in her final state-
ment, this is a play in which everybodys got FURTHER
what he wants . . . or everybodys got what he
thinks he wants.
 Playbills (posters advertising a theatrical
performance) are unique works of art in
themselves. Playbills are also designed to
THEMES give the potential audience member a sense
The American Dream of the themes or focal points of the play.
For the generation of characters that populate Design an original playbill that you feel
Albees The American Dream, the decades captures the themes and ideas explored in
following World War II were seen initially as a Albees The American Dream.
revitalization of the promise of the American  In her closing statement to the audience,
dream. Coined in the early 1930s, the term Grandma observes that The American
marked a significant break with the imaginative, Dream is a comedy. Research the history of
political, and economic models of the Old World comedy, and write an essay in which you
(Europe). Fueled by the emergence of American argue in support of Grandmas statement
big business, the completion of a transcontinental or raise a challenge to it.
railway, and the promise that came with an ener-  One of the more interesting aspects of The
gized natural resource industry, the celebration of American Dream is the moment near the end
the rags to riches story familiar in American of the play when Grandma steps out of the
lore led to a pervasive belief that any American play to become the writer-director of the
citizen who had a modicum of talent and worked closing scene. In a thoughtful essay, discuss
extremely hard could accumulate financial wealth some of the more important implications of
and political power. Writers have always been this scenario.
drawn to the promise of this Dream ideal, most  Research the shifting definitions of family
notably in F. Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby
and family life in American culture since the
(1925), John Steinbecks Of Mice and Men (1937),
1950s, both of which are important concepts
and more tragically, Arthur Millers Death of a in many of Albees plays. Keep a journal in
Salesman (1949).
which you note your thoughts about the
In the early decades of the twentieth century, changing face of families in American cul-
the American dream faced some of its stiffest ture. How have ideas about family structure
tests. The Great Depression, the growing pres- changed in the decades since 1950? Is there
sures of racial discrimination, and the hangover such a thing as a typical American family? Do
of two World Wars left many Americans feeling you feel that film and television represent
disenfranchised, cut off from the promise of families in an honest or truthful way? Write
the Dream. But with the economic prosperity an essay addressing these questions.
of the postwar period, and with it the rise of
suburban America, the Dream regained its
energy. Improvements to home comfort and
employment stability, combined with a dramatic and a source of deeply felt frustration. In Albees
rise in personal income levels and an expansion The American Dream, this fading ideal is repre-
of educational options, became the hallmark of sented most obviously by the Young Man, a
the modern version of the Dream. clean-cut American beauty who appears physi-
Although the counterculture politics of the cally attractive but who is emotionally empty
1960s and subsequent decades saw a waning of and deeply scarred from the memories of his
the prominence of the American dream as a tragic detachment from his identical twin brother.
wholly positive ideal, it has remained prominent Without meaning in his life, the Young Man
in American culture as both a touchstone of hope reduces himself to a man who will do anything

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for money, making him, ironically, the perfect

embodiment of the American dream.
In the end, the Young Man as the ideal
physical manifestation of the American dream
is a mask that hides both the emptiness and the
dark undercurrents that have come to redefine
the Dream in the modern world.

Language and Violence

As in most of Albees plays, there is a powerful
relationship in The American Dream between
language and violence, both as language is
directed between individuals in the play and
how these same individuals do violence to lan-
guage itself. Grandmas frequent comments
about the way that old people are talked to
(dismissively and disrespectfully) illustrate that
language has a strong impact on the power
that the verbally aggressive characters wield
Sneakers from the From Home Series by
upon those characters who are less articulate.
Although Grandma can and does hold her own
Christina Richards ( Christina Richards / Corbis)
in the battles with Mommy that flare up during
the course of the play, she is adamant in her
argument that the elderly are disempowered by
the language that is attached to them. Similarly, STYLE
Mommy emasculates Daddy with her mocking
words and tone, depriving him of his masculine Objects as Symbols
spirit and making fun of his effectiveness as Although The American Dream is not a play that
both a decision maker and sexual partner. relies heavily on symbols, the boxes that
Her frequent references to sex take on a mean- Grandma brings to the stage early in the play
spirited and destructive force in this new do acquire a symbolic presence as the scenes
context. unfold. Enigmatic in that they serve no real
function in the play, the colorfully wrapped
In this sense, language becomes an active boxes are complimented by Mommy and
and aggressive component of the play. The Daddy for their beauty without any concern
word mutilation, for instance, is acted out physi- for their content. Ironically, when Grandma
cally and violently in the play, most obviously in gets close to revealing the contents of the boxes
the murder of the bumble joy but also in the (and by extension, their meaning), she is silenced
mutilation of the American dream of prosperity by Mommy. As they do with the other important
and of the ideals of family. Such words as love issues in their lives (including their faith in the
and truth are pushed to the point of deformity as power of the American dream), Mommy and
each successive layer of the sadistic games of Daddy find satisfaction in attending to surface
Mommy and Daddy are exposed. appearances rather than to exploring the more
At other times, Albee turns language into a complex depths. The boxes, in this sense, are a
literal tool of the sadistic Mommy. When she diversion, a jumble of pretty distractions that
sees that the bumble joy only has eyes for allow Mommy and Daddy to remain emotion-
Daddy, for instance, she removes both the ally and intellectually distant from the harsh
childs eyes and the possibility of that phrase realities of the world that they have created.
ever appearing in such a sentence ever again. It But as the audience comes to understand
is impossible, Mommy knows, for the child later in the play, the boxes do contain things.
to have eyes only for Daddy if the child has no More specifically, they contain the seemingly
eyes at all. haphazard collection of items that Grandma

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has accumulated during her life, including American Dream, Grandma often speaks in
enema bottles and a blind Pekinese. Seen in this epigrams, particularly through her epigram-
light, the boxes become symbolic of Grandmas matic commentaries on the treatment of the
version of the American dream, the detritus and elderly. The brevity of her powerful statements
clutter that mark the failings of her body and the underscores neatly the power of language to
limitations that have pressed in upon her shape the reality of those to whom it is applied.
throughout her life. Fueled by her contest win, To Grandma, what defines age is not her bio-
Grandma packs up her Dreams and moves on in logical condition or emotional state, but the way
search of a new play and a new stage. people talk down to her. More specifically, it is
the way that Mommy uses language to bludgeon
her into submission.
Satire is a technique that uses irony to undercut These epigrammatic commentaries position
misguided behaviors or to censure social and Grandma as an observer of the world at large
political attitudes. From its origins in the writing and, more specifically, of the household in which
and culture of the ancient Greeks, satire has she lives. Such a position anticipates nicely
remained a powerful tool of writers, like Albee, her transformation at the end of the play from
determined to engage their art as provocation epigrammatic observer to director of the final
and social critique. The tone of satiric literature scene, which allows her, too, to move beyond
ranges from a kind of detached commentary on the world of the play and to relocate herself
proceedings (such as Grandmas comments at and her boxes elsewhere. As Nicholas Canaday,
the end of the play) to fully expressed anger Jr. argued most elegantly, it is in this final shift of
and vehement contempt for the human condi- Grandma from player to director that generates
tions (Grandmas brief but pointed comments whatever hope the play might have: In the char-
on the treatment of the elderly). Given that acter of Grandma the play suggests that what-
most satire relies heavily on balancing word ever meaning is possible is achieved through an
play with criticism, it is appropriate that irony attitude of courageous realism that can enable
is one of its chief tools. man to conduct himself with dignity, through
the simple enjoyment of whatever experience
The satiric voice in The American Dream is
can be enjoyed, and through the creative act of
put in place through a series of linguistic and
the artist.
performance-based juxtapositions. Mommy
attacks Daddy viciously through her use of
sarcasm (the dullest form of irony) when mock-
ing his diminished masculinity, while her cele-
bration of her love for him is undercut even more HISTORICAL CONTEXT
when the audience realizes that she only married
Theater of the Absurd
him for his money. These juxtapositions take on
Theater of the Absurd is a loose name given to a
a much darker tone when the audience hears the
dramatic movement that originated in France
story of Mommys sadistic treatment of the
during the 1940s and 1950s. Originally coined by
bumble of joy. An earlier joke about Daddy
the critic Martin Esslin in a book on European-
being all ears loses its humor when recontextual-
theater from these decades, the term has been
ized by the blinding of a child because he only
linked most often with the works of four major
has eyes for Daddy.
playwrights who rose to prominence during this
At its best, satire reveals a sophisticated ver- period: Eugene` Ionesco (19091994), Samuel
satility of speech, a strong moral center through Beckett (19061989), Jean Genet (19101986),
which one might speak to social and cultural and Arthur Adamov (19081970). Albee is often
improprieties. Put simply, satire is defined, in cited as the playwright who brought Absurdist
large part, by many of the same traits that read- theater to the United States.
ers can attribute to The American Dream.
Although very distinct in terms of their
styles and dramatic philosophies, each of these
Epigrams men used his work to explore the absurdity of the
An epigram is a statement, whether in verse or human condition in the contemporary world.
prose, that is concise, carrying an unmistakable Influenced variously by such thinkers as Sren
message (often criticism), and witty. In The Kierkegaard (18131855) and Jean-Paul Sartre

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 1960s: Albee and other playwrights from systematic cultural discrimination against
this period are drawn to explorations of the the elderly.
dynamics of marriage, which are changing
Today: A number of national and interna-
dramatically at this time. As divorce rates
tional programs are in place to advocate for
begin to increase and feminism begins to
the civil and human rights of the elderly,
find a footing in mainstream American
making ageism an important political issue.
culture, the ideas that form traditional
understandings of marriage are increasingly  1960s: Belief in the truthfulness of words
brought into question. and their meanings is still prevalent, carry-
Today: Plays, films, and television shows ing over from the modernist traditions of the
continue to focus on the dynamics of mar- earlier decades of the century.
riage, despite the fact that divorce is more Today: Language as the foundation of real-
common today than it was in the 1960s. ity and truthfulness has increasingly been
 1960s: Ageism, a term referring to stereo- questioned by theorists and writers. This
typing and prejudice against individuals or questioning has come to be known as post-
groups because of their age, is still a rela- modernism. A key tenet of the postmodern-
tively new concept when Albees play is first ist shift is that language is a powerful
produced. The term itself is not formally tool that can be used to the benefit or the
recognized until 1969, when the geronto- detriment of individuals, institutions, and
logist Robert N. Butler uses it to describe a cultures.

(19051980), these Absurdist writers believed on such issues as alienation, the haunting inevi-
that life is without meaning or purpose and tability of death, and the pressures to conform in
that it is only through a conscious and willed an increasingly mediocre world. At risk, accord-
commitment to a cause that a life gains meaning. ing to many of these plays, were the powers of
Without this commitment, a life remains defined love to hold the world together, the bracing
by purposelessness, by apathy, and, as in the strength of the humanities, and the politics of
case of The American Dream, by an emptiness human rights and dignity.
that turns even the greatest of Dreams into
To most of the writers associated with this
The Nuclear Family
The term nuclear family was developed in the
movement it was important to note that this
absurdity could not be explained by logic or late 1940s to distinguish the family group con-
any rational structure. In practice, this trans- sisting of parents (usually a father and mother)
lated to a break from many longstanding stage and their children from what is known as the
conventions. Realistic characters were no longer extended family group, which expands in defini-
the focal point of the plays, and consistencies in tion to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and
time and place gave way to openness and fluid- the full deployment of cousins. Although the
ity. Meaningless plot shifts, repetitive or even nuclear family structure has been around for
nonsensical dialogue, and dream-like sequences decades, it underwent a radical rise in promi-
are commonplace in these plays. Not surpris- nence during the post-War boom of the 1950s
ingly, Absurdist plays often focus thematically and 1960s.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 1
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Urban Paris Landscape with Tree by Kevin Cruff ( Kevin Cruff / Corbis)

But, as Albee explores often in such plays as CRITICAL OVERVIEW

The American Dream and Whos Afraid of Vir-
ginia Woolf?, the nuclear family found itself From its opening performances in Berlin
threatened by both external pressures (the sexual through its various stagings and restagings
revolution, for instance, and the pressures of across North America, The American Dream
transition from an extended family structure) as has been simultaneously praised and criticized
well as a particularly powerful constellation of by reviewers. Writing in the New York Times in
assumptions and expectations of the ideal family. January of 1961, Howard Taubman is a repre-
With a sadistic Mommy and an emasculated and sentative case in point. It is agreed that Edward
infant-like Daddy, the family of The American Albee has talent, he begins. The Zoo Story,
Dream becomes a tragic parody of the traditional still running, established that point. The Ameri-
nuclear family, defined as the plays family is by can Dream . . . reinforces it. And while Albees
mutilation, manipulation, and verbal savagery. style remains elliptical and his absurdist

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technique is handled with a disarmingly child-

like and sardonic freshness there is a brittleness
to the play, Taubman argues, that leaves the
darkened story burdened by a kind of bitter
comic current of free association. Despite its
brilliance, Taubman concludes, The American DO I READ
Dream grows tiresome and leaves an audience
glad to be quit of it[s] darkening spirit.
Not surprisingly, this debate carried on  Dealing with a body of work as important
in the years following the plays initial appear- and diverse as that produced by Edward
ance in the United States. Writing in the English Albee often makes for difficult choices, but
Journal in 1966, Herbert R. Adams, for instance, no reading of his work would be complete
argues about whether Albee is writing in the without time spent exploring what is prob-
Absurdist tradition at all. His conclusion is ably his best-known play, Whos Afraid of
stated openly: despite the obvious similarities Virginia Woolf? (1962).
in theme and technique, Albee doesnt belong  Insightful for fans and students alike is
in the same ballpark with [the absurdist play- Albees collection of essays from 1960
wrights] [Eugene] ` Ionesco, [Jean] Genet, through 2005, Stretching My Mind (2005),
[Samuel] Beckett, or [Harold] Pinter. Writing which collects for the first time ever Albees
the same year in the South Central Bulletin, writings on theater, literature, and the polit-
Nicholas Canaday, Jr., calls The American ical and cultural battlegrounds that have
Dream a textbook case of the response of the defined his career. Many of the selections
American drama to this existential vacuum included in this volume have been drawn
[affecting modern life], and at the same time from Albees private papers, and many are
this play of 1961 is perhaps our best example of published here for the first time.
what has come to be known as the theater of the
 Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot (1952)
absurd. Revisiting the debate in 1978, Foster
is a defining play to understand the provo-
Hirsch, writing in Whos Afraid of Edward
cative and groundbreaking work that is
Albee?, recognizes The American Dream as
most often attributed to the Theater of the
Albees most purely absurdist piece, while
C. W. E. Bigsby, writing in Modern American
Drama, 19452000, dismisses the play as deriv-  Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman (1949)
ative and slight. provides a profound pairing with The
American Dream. In the tragic tale of Willy
Loman, Miller adds his own satiric voice to
the legion of writers determined to show that
CRITICISM the drive to achieve the much-celebrated
American dream through a single-minded
Klay Dyer emphasis on material gain leads inevitably
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has to disaster.
published extensively on fiction, poetry, film,  Elaine Tyler Mays Homeward Bound:
and television. He is also a freelance university American Families in the Cold War Era
teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In (1990) explores the shifting dynamics of the
this essay, he discusses Albees play as a kind of American family in the wake of two World
requiem for the death of the ideals and the hope- Wars combined with the cultural pressures
fulness surrounding the American dream. that accompanied the 1960s.
Edward Albees The American Dream is
specifically about the contours of the American
dream as it came to be imagined and reimagined
as the United States entered into the second half
of the twentieth century. The Dream that Albee and culture, America would emerge into a new
alludes to in the title of his fifth play is built on environment of sustainable prosperity, social
the unquestioned assumption that with the advancement, and cultural maturity. Paradoxi-
maturation of a post-World War II economy cally, and despite the achievement of a higher

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and an entire generation. The image of the

American dream, youthful and physically per-
fect, becomes for Mommy and Daddy a redefin-
UNSATISFIED, GRANDMA TURNS AWAY FROM ing moment of their lives, a symbol of the
opportunity to try again to build a family in
such a way that might allow both parents and
DISTURBING SLIDE INTO REDUNDANCY, SHE MARKS the Young Man an opportunity for salvation.
CLEARLY THAT THERE IS NO NEED TO VENTURE ANY Trapped in a post-war world that is, accord-
ing to the Dream, supposed to nurture and
protect them, Albees characters find themselves
imprisoned by the savagery of their shared past.
For Mommy and Daddy, it is a past defined by
the mutilation and death of their adopted
standard of living in the post-war era, the much- bumble joy, while for the iconic Young Man,
anticipated better life remained an ever-elusive the memories are of the tragic loss of his identical
goal for a generation driven forward increas- twin. Unable and unwilling to move forward
ingly by the pressures of what the characters of into a world that acknowledges the emptiness
Mommy and Daddy describe as a deeply held of his life and the superficiality of his beauty,
belief in their right to have satisfaction in all the Young Man lives in a perpetual state of
aspects of their lives. incompleteness. I can feel nothing, he repeats
over and over, I can feel nothing. And so . . .
Defining itself increasingly by the ebb and here I am . . . as you see me. He is, as he admits
flow of the Dream itself, post-war American openly, only a body and a face without a spirit or
culture became a kind of absurdist desert a soul.
marked by conformity, emptiness of intellect
and spirit, and perceptible disfiguring of lan- As the final scene of the play unfolds, guided
guage. Ironically, however, the residents of this by Grandma (who has transformed herself from
world rarely, if ever, see their lifestyle as spiritu- character to director), Albees characters are
ally vacant or overtly homogenous and manu- offered an opportunity to correct the course of
factured. As Albees enquiry into the shifting the Dream, allowing the Young Man to become
counters of the Dream underscores, the modern a part of the family he so deeply longs to find and
American lifestyle has come to be increasingly for Mommy and Daddy to undo the memory of
defined by the mass-marketed ideas of middle- the savagery of twenty years earlier. Despite the
class family values and carefully packaged profundity of this opportunity, however, the
nostalgia. Emerging as the iconic symbol of this characters remain static, unchanging. Mommy
spiritually and creatively vacant culture is the turns to Mrs. Barker, for instance, and remarks
Young Man, a physically superior man whose that this Young Man is much better than the
family history has left him vacant, scarred, and other one, marking this Young Man not as a
unable to see the emptiness of the world into new beginning but as a continuation of the
which he so deeply desires to enter. previously established (and brutally sadistic)
pattern. As Grandma (and the audience) look
Having gained recognition in his life due
on with growing awareness of what is actually
to his Dream-like appearance, the Young Man
occurring, Mrs. Barker underscores this contin-
is, he admits openly, an idealized type, the
uance with her response to Mommys enquiry as
clean-cut, midwest farm boy type, almost
to the name of the Young Man. Call him what-
insultingly good-looking in a typically American
ever you like, Mrs. Barker begins. Hes yours.
way. To the residents of the small apartment,
however, he is quickly reimagined as an iconic With two words (Hes yours) Mrs. Barker
symbol of the youthful hopefulness of an era marks a transfer of ownership that reimagines
gone-by. He is a symbol of a time before the the American dream from an autonomous indi-
Dream was forced to confront the realities of a vidual to a newly purchased commodity, much
failed marriage, declining health, open hypoc- like the beige hat that Mommy buys as the play
risy, and brutal savagery. Partially hidden from opens. Indeed, when Mommy tells Mrs. Barker
view and partially an open secret, these condi- that she does not know how to thank the woman
tions leave a bloody stain across both the play for delivering the Young Man to them, the

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response is clear and chilling: Oh, dont worry dreams that is taking place on the stage. With
about that, Mrs. Barker responds almost the integration of the Young Man comes the
casually, Ill send you a bill in the mail. collapse of the Dream; the play threatens to
spiral out of control, losing itself once again in
Reduced to something that can be bought
a morass of delusion and pain. In the final
and sold on the open market, the American
moments, it is Grandma who reveals the deepest
dream is neither a marker of individual freedom
truth of the play: that being free and clear of this
nor of a hopeful new beginning. He is, as
stage, and of the language and the silences that
Mrs. Barker further underscores when asked
defined her for so long, is her only hope of
what his name is, simply a continuation of
survival. Ultimately, she reveals to those willing
what has come before. Call him what you called
to listen, there are horizons that extend farther
the other one, Mrs. Barker answers. It is an
than those imagined in the nightmarish world of
answer that is met, tellingly, with puzzled glances
the American dream.
and an admission that neither Mommy nor
Daddy can remember what the other one was Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on The American
called. Dream, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning,
In this moment, Albees characters turn
away from the underlying truths about their
shared pasts. In the end, even mutilation and Matthew C. Roudane
sadism fails to illuminate the layering of horrors In the following interview, given by Roudane,
that has shaped these lives: savagery, erasure of Albee discusses his views on both the artistic and
identity, disfigurement of language, and the the social role of theatre.
end of hope. The culture of Albees play has . . . Albee, like Arthur Miller, is a much-
devolved into a nightmare, fracturing from the interviewed playwright. And although Lawrences
moral and humane ideals of the moment and reminderthat we should never trust the artist
slipping into a much darker ethos of alienation, but the taleis important, scholars nonetheless
anomie, and anger. Sequestering themselves in may gain useful insight into a writers vision by
the private spaces of their apartment, and listening to his conversations. Albees interviews
encountering their world only through their allow scholars to trace parallel developments
visions and revisions of their own sense of between his plays and dramatic theories. Albees
power and status, Mommy and Daddy withdraw once scathing attacks on critics he considered
themselves from the intricacies and questions of myopic appear less frequently. Albee no longer
their own time, a withdrawal that leads ulti- defends his transition from Off-Broadway to
mately to decay and to mutilation. Their lives, the Great White Way; his more experimental
to be continued now with the training of yet pieces; his willingness to take aesthetic risks.
another Young Man, are defined by their own This is not to imply, of course, that Albees
refusal to understand the world around them, a rage and anger have diminished. Albees protests
denial that stems from an inability to accept their against various crimes of the heart appear as
complicity in the death of the American dream intense as the days when he was labeled the
and to see a new path, or imagine a new way. new Angry Young Playwright. But recent inter-
Raising their glasses in celebration, Mommy and views reveal a more mature, thoughtful Albee.
Daddy fall back on the ideals that they have been Now he simply tries to explain, precisely, his
raised to value more than all others: well drink convictions . . .
to celebrate, Mommy says as she begins the Q: Why is it so vital for you to break down the
toast that will seal the fate of the play and of actor / audience barrier during the performance?
the American dream. To satisfaction! Who says And on what levels do you wish to engage your
you cant get satisfaction these days! audience?
Unsatisfied, Grandma turns away from the A: First of all, you have to discover what
play. Interrupting its obvious and disturbing audience youre talking about. The ideal audience
slide into redundancy, she marks clearly that Id like to reach is the audience that brings to the
there is no need to venture any further into this theater some of the same attention and work that I
now-familiar future. Moving herself into conver- do when I write a play. The willingness to experi-
sation with the audience, she rejects the celebra- ence the play, if the play is successful, on its own
tion of past glories and the resurrection of past terms, without predetermining the nature of the

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 5
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And then assume there will be enough people

who are willing to let it happen on its own
terms. Thats about all one can do.
Many people at the colleges I visit ask me
CONSCIOUSNESS SHOULD BE PARTICIPATED IN AS over and over again, Why do you ask such
FULLY AS POSSIBLE BY THE INDIVIDUAL, NO MATTER tough questions and why do your plays seem so
difficult or depressing? Or Why dont you
HOW DANGEROUS OR CRUEL OR TERROR-FILLED write happy plays? About what, happy prob-
THAT EXPERIENCE MAY BE. lems? But I keep reminding them that drama is
an attempt to make things better. Drama is a
mirror held up to them to show the way they do
behave and how they dont behave that way any
longer. If people are willing to be aided in the
search for total consciousness by not only drama
theatrical experience. Someone whos seeing a play but all of the artsmusic and painting and
should be seeing the first play he has ever seen. I am
all the other arts give a unique sense of order
referring to a state of innocence in which our the-
then art is life-giving. Art gives shape to life; it
ater is most ideally approached; the key is for one
increases consciousness.
to have no preconceptions, as if its the first theat-
rical experience that person has ever had. If people Q: Death pervades your theater. Why your
approach the theater that way, viewing the specta- preoccupation with death?
cle becomes an experience of wonder for them A: As opposed to the slaughter in Shake-
rather than saying that, oh, I cant relate to this speare, the tuberculosis and consumption in
or the play is difficult and therefore I cant take Chekhov, the death-in-life in Beckett? Is that
it! If one approaches the theater in a state of what you mean? There are only a few significant
innocence, sober, without preconceptions, and will- things to write about: life and death. I am very
ing to participate; if they are willing to have the interested in the cleansing consciousness of
status quo assaulted; if theyre willing to have their death; and the fact that people avoid thinking
consciousness raised, their values questionedor about deathand about living. I think we
reaffirmed; if they are willing to understand that should always live with the consciousness of
the theater is a live and dangerous experienceand death. How else can we possibly participate in
therefore a life-giving forcethen perhaps they are living life fully? . . .
approaching the theater in an ideal state and thats
the audience I wish I were writing for. Q: Such playwrights as Arthur Miller or
David Mamet explore the myth of the American
However, that is not the way everybody Dream, the myth embracing the work ethic as a
approaches theater. Its not even the way I means to material success and so on. Could you
approach the theater all the time, although I comment on this?
wish I did. But we should all approach the the-
ater in this state of innocence. But the one thing a A: Im quite in favor of hard work, some-
playwright cant do is write for an audience at thing I do a lot of myself! Theres nothing wrong
all successfully. If youre writing for a group of with the notion of making your own way. What
intellectuals, then youre leaving other people is wrong with the myth of the American Dream
out, proving only how smart you are. If youre is the notion that this is all that there is to exis-
trying to reach a larger audience than your work tence! The myth is merely a part of other things.
would normally reach, youre probably telling Becoming wealthy is O.K. I suppose, but it is not
half-truths rather than total Truth; youre prob- a be all to end all. People who think that the
ably oversimplifying that which by its very acquisition of wealth or property or material
nature is incredibly complex! There are some things or power; that these are the things in
plays I write that are difficult, some that are life; the conspicuous consumption of material
easy, some that will reach more people than things is the answer; this creates a problem.
others, even in that ideal audience. But the The fact that we set arbitrary and artificial
basic, the essential thing is to let the play happen goals for ourselves is a problem, not the hard
on its own terms the way it wants to happen. work ethic per se . . .

1 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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Q: As a playwright, do you see yourself as a Nicholas Canaday Jr.

social critic? In the following essay, Canaday explores Albees
A: Directly or indirectly any playwright is a The American Dream as a dramatic catalogue of
kind of demonic social critic. I am concerned typical responses to the basic assumption that
with altering peoples perceptions, altering the modern life has no meaning. Unlike traditional
status quo. All serious art interests itself in this. interpretations of this play, however, Canaday
The self, the society should be altered by a good argues that it offers some positive responses to
play. All plays in their essence are indirectly this anxiety.
political in that they make people question the The many varieties of probings in and around
values that move them to make various paro- the center of life in our timewhether socio-
chial, social, and political decisions. Our politi- logical, philosophical, religious, or literary
cal decisions are really a result of how we view are so well known by now that terms like
consciousness. Plays should be relentless; the anguish and estrangement and nothing-
playwright shouldnt let people off the hook. ness have become, if not household words,
He should examine their lives and keep hammer- at least basic to the jargon of the academy.
ing away at the fact that some people are not Edward Albees The American Dream is what
fully participating in their lives and therefore might be called a textbook case of the response
theyre not participating with great intelligence of the American drama to this existential
in politics, in social intercourse, in aesthetics. Its vacuum, and at the same time this play of 1961
something that I dearly hope runs through all of is perhaps our best example of what has come to
my plays . . . be known as the theatre of the absurd. Thus
Q: Your vision seems to deal with certain The American Dream is appearing with increas-
profound crimes of the heart: the individuals ing frequency in the drama anthologies and the
inability to deal honestly, or what the existential- American literature survey texts. By means of
ists would call authentically, with the self and the caricature and the comic irrelevancy of its
other. Is this accurate? language the play mirrors the meaninglessness
A: Yes, I suppose it is. After all, what else is of American life. The Young Man, who appears
there to deal with? The single journey through on stage near the end of the play, is the symbol
consciousness should be participated in as fully of the American Dream, beautiful in appear-
as possible by the individual, no matter how ance but without real substance. He embodies
dangerous or cruel or terror-filled that experi- Albees view of the present extension of this
ence may be. We only go through it once, unless familiar myth. The general critical view that
the agnostics are proved wrong, and so we must Edward Albees plays are ferocious attacks
do it fully conscious. One of the things that art on lethargy and complacency in American
does is to not let people sleep their way through society and a savage denial that everything
their lives. If the universe makes no sense, well is just dandy is supported by Albees own
perhaps we, the individual can make sense of remarks in his introduction to the Coward-
the cosmos. We must go on, we must not add McCann Contemporary Drama Edition of the
to the chaos but deal honestly with the idea of play. Thus the void at the center of modern life
order, whether it is arbitrary or not. As all of is the basic assumption upon which this play
my plays suggest, so many people prefer to go rests; the action is primarily concerned with
through their lives semiconscious and they typical responses to this existential situation.
end up in a terrible panic because theyve wasted It is the purpose of this essay to categorize
so much. But being as self-aware, as awake, these responses and then to offer the suggestion
as open to various experience will produce a that in this play there are certain positive
better society and a more intelligent self- values that have thus far been overlooked by
government . . . critics. It seems to me that such values are
implied in the absurd world of The American
Source: Matthew C. Roudane, A Playwright Speaks: An
Interview with Edward Albee, in Critical Essays on Dream, even though the center has gone out
Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison of life, all forms are smashed, andto coin a
Davis, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 19399. clicheGod is dead.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 7
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fanatic, who seeks to manipulate and dominate

people in order to get her own satisfaction.
Heedless of the opinions or feelings of others,
THUS ALBEES THE AMERICAN DREAM MAKES she is capable of casual cruelty (as when she tells
Daddy she has the right to live off him because
she married him and is entitled to his money
SHOWS THE CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS OF A SICK when he dies) or nauseating flattery (as when
she praises Daddys firm masculinity in an
attempt to make him get rid of Grandma)
capable of any means to attain her own ends.
When she tells of her shopping expedition to
purchase a hat, she makes it clear that her
The first type of response is represented in method of dealing with people is to create such
the play by Daddy. His attitude is fatalistic. In an unpleasant scene that she finally has her way.
his opening speech, as he and Mommy are By throwing hats around and screaming as
vaguely awaiting the arrival of themwhether loudly as she can she finally manages to get
Mrs. Barker, the Van Man, or just for something satisfaction. The rest of the play demonstrates
to happenhe answers Mommys remark that how she practices this method.
they are late: Thats the way things are today, Mommys treatment of everyone is imperi-
and theres nothing you can do about it. From ous and demanding. Her attacks on Daddy show
the very beginning Daddys tone is resigned, a ruthless disregard for his personality, and her
particularly in contrast to the whining, griping relationship with Grandma is one long terrible
qualities in the complaints of Mommy. Even scene of cruel bullying insult. She rages at
when Daddy goes on to list the needed repairs Grandma, alternately telling her that she has
to icebox, doorbell, and toilet, it is clear that he nothing to say or that she is a liar. She threatens
really does not expect to get anything done to hide Grandmas teeth, break her television,
about them. Thats the way things are today, and send her away. This last embarrasses
he says, You just cant get satisfaction. Daddy, who would rather not think about it.
Both ineffectualness and resignation have so But Grandma refuses to be bullied by the
reinforced each other in Daddys character that woman that Grandma herself had warned
Oh dear; oh dear becomes his typical reaction Daddy not to marry because she was a tramp
to whatever happens. The past is meaningless to and a trollop and a trull to boot. Grandma
him; he cannot even recall the name of the son regards her as not having improved any with
age. Mommy responds angrily that Grandma is
they had adopted some years before. After Mrs.
Barker has been present for some time on stage her mother, not Daddys, but Mommy fails to
break up whatever relationship there is between
and then leaves, Daddy cannot recall her name;
Grandma and Daddy.
and when Mommy sends him off to break
Grandmas television set, he cannot even find At the end of the play Mommy is quite
her room. His resignation seems to be due to pleased to have the Young Man waiting on her
the meaninglessness of his life and to his subjec- as a servant might. She sends him to fetch
tion to the dominating presence of Mommy. His sauterne to celebrate their new family relation-
response to this domination, like everything else ship, and he certainly will provide no resistance
he does, is characterized by a typical lack of to her aggressiveness. She orders everyone to
resolution: I do wish I werent surrounded by take a glass and drink to satisfaction, which
women; Id like some men around here. His they all do as the play ends.
only defense against Mommy is to withdraw
Mrs. Barker represents a third response to
into his own empty world, pretending to listen
the existential vacuum. Her thoughts and
to her and responding just enough to keep her
actions are based not upon any principle or
satisfied, which of course is all that she requires.
principles she holds within herself, for she has
There is nothing in life he wants anymore: I just
none. Instead she is a sensitive weather vane
want to get it over with.
constantly seeking to align herself with the
Mommy represents a second characteristic opinions of others and especially sensitive to
response to the void of modern life. She is a the ideas (insofar as she knows what they are)

1 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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of the various groups with which she is associ- Mommy to persuade her of her good will, but as
ated. Mrs. Barker represents a collectivistic soon as Mommy leaves the room she agrees with
response to absurdity, although not in the polit- Grandma that Mommy is mistreating her as a
ical sense. She is rather a kind of caricature of guest in the house. Finally, when confronted
the other-directed person. From the beginning of with the Young Man, who may be about to
the play Mrs. Barker is identified as a represen- take Grandma away. Mrs. Barker says indig-
tative of organizations. She participates in nantly: How dare you cart this poor old
Responsible Citiziens Activities, Good Works, woman away! But when he answers that he is
the Ladies Auxiliary Air Raid Committee, the paid to do it, Mrs. Barker says: Well, youre
Womans Club, and of course the Bye-Bye quite right, of course, and I shouldnt meddle.
Adoption Service, which explains her presence Such confrontations show Mrs. Barkers shal-
on stage. She announces when she first appears lowness and within her an element of fear that
that she is a professional womanthat is to makes her so quick to please.
say an organization womanand then reveals
When she is asked a direct question, even
that she has been listening outside the door
before coming in. This bit of eavesdropping about a simple matter, Mrs. Barker becomes
allows her to blend into the conversation as pathetic. After Grandma has arranged for Mrs.
soon as she enters, because she knows who is in Barker to introduce the Young Man into the
the room and the tone of their remarks. In this family, Grandma asks Mrs. Barker if this has
way she avoids offending anyone. As it happens, helped her accomplish her mission. It has helped,
Daddy has had a change of heart about sending of course, because she has had no idea of what to
Grandma away just before Mrs. Barker enters, do or even why she is there. When she accepts the
and since she may be the person coming to get credit for the happy ending from Mommy, she
Grandma, he wishes aloud that Mrs. Barker does it in the name of professional women, so
might now just go away. Mrs. Barkers answer in a sense she does not claim to have solved the
is characteristic: Oh no; were much too effi- problem herself. About the usefulness of Grand-
cient for that. She represents an efficient organ- mas assistance, however, she says: I cant tell, yet.
ization and carefully chooses to have no view on Ill have to . . . what is the word I want? . . . Ill have
the matter for herself. to relate it . . . thats it . . . Ill have to relate it to
Mrs. Barker is a caricature of amiability, certain things that I know, and . . . draw . . . con-
ignoring the inconsistencies that arise when she clusions. What Mrs. Barker knows, when she
agrees with everyone in turn. She talks enthusi- knows anything at all, is the opinion of others,
astically about this jolly family, as she calls it, the rules of the various organizations, the collec-
finds their stories engrossing or gripping, tive mind of any group, however small, with
and exclaims several times about the good which she comes in contact.Without such knowl-
idea or the nice idea that someone had. In edge she is completely unable to respond even on
the end she remarks how glad she is that they are a trivial subject. It is no wonder that at one point
all pleased with the solution to their problem, a in the play she remarks pathetically: But . . . I
solution which has actually been engineered by feel so lost . . . not knowing why Im here. Is it
Grandma. On three separate occasions in the possible that her name characterizes her? Could
dialogue Mrs. Barker takes contradictory she be a barker for a cheap show, an amiable
positions on both sides of an argument. In effect, front woman who represents those inside the
her method is to agree with the last speaker.
seductive but shaky tent of consensus?
When she and Mommy are talking about
Woman Love in the country, the chief exponent It is to Grandmathe most appealing char-
of the movement seems to be Mrs. Barkers dear acter in Albees playthat we must look for a
brother with his dear little wife, and Mrs. Barker positive response to the existential vacuum.
agrees that the national tendency to hate women Although there seems to be no solution in the
is deplorable. Just after that Daddy makes his cosmic sense to the absurdity of our world, there
complaint about being surrounded by women is at least a way to make this world bearable.
and wanting the companionship of men, and Among the commentators on the play there is
Mrs. Barker enthusiastically agrees with him. general critical agreement that Grandma stands
Later the question arises whether Mommy is apart from the other characters. One critic
being polite enough to Mrs. Barker. She allows writes: The characters are dehumanized types,

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 9
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

played in a mannered, marionette styleexcept old woman, but the fact is that she sees more
Grandma, who is honest and therefore a real clearly than anyone else in the play. Through her
person. Another critic relates her to the the audience learns why Mommy married
American Dream motif: Grandma is an anach- Daddy and much about their present relation-
ronism: she represents the solid pioneer stock ship. Through Grandma we learn about
out of which the American Dream might have Daddys disillusionment with Mommy and
come had it not been corrupted instead. Having with marriage, and of course the whole story
said these things, however, few critics see in of their adoption of a son years before is told
Grandma or in the play generally any positive by Grandma to Mrs. Barker. In three separate
values applicable to the present. According to speeches Grandma gives a realistic picture of old
one writer, Albee imparts no sense of a cure, age, yet manages at the same time to retain her
the knowledge of paths toward enlargement, not own dignity. She knows about the threat of the
the diminution of life. The observation has also Van Man who may take her awaywhether he
been made that Albee attempts to satirize a is the keeper of an old folks home or Death
situation which he sees as both painful and itselfand when Mommy begins to talk about
irremediable, and thus his work is largely a his arrival, Grandma says contemptuously, Im
negation of the possibility of meaningful way ahead of you. The fact is that she is far
human action. Such lack of hope for the future ahead of all the other characters in the play.
is also reflected in this comment: Sadly, how-
Still another value is in Grandmas enjoy-
ever, we cannot say that Albees outlook produ-
ment of living. She apparently has lived a full
ces any . . . hope. As he perceives the future, he
and pleasant life, although we are given few
can see only annihiliation, performed by a
details. But the good is enjoying the experience
devouring world. One critic demurs by observ-
of life, which she has done. The things she has
ing that Albees harshly satirical stance presup-
collected in her boxes, a few images, a little
poses positive sense and meaning. This critic
garbled by now, do provide comedy, but the
does not spell out precisely what the meaning
old letters, the blind Pekinese, the television
is, but perhaps there are positive values implicit
seteven the Sunday teethall of which she
in this play, and, if so, we must turn to an anal-
thinks of sadly, indicate that she did enjoy life
ysis of the character of Grandma to find them.
in the past. This cannot be said of any of the
The first positive value that Grandma others. Some of Grandmas old spirit is revealed
represents is one of attitude. She is realistic; she as she greets with appreciation the Young Man.
has a sense of her own freedom and especially She is the only one who knows the essential
of her own dignity. Amid all the whining and vacuity of the Young Man, but she can still
sighing her most characteristic speech is cheerful: enjoy his handsome, muscular appearance with
How do you like them apples? Her attitude is an honest pleasure unlike that of the simperingly
tinged with cynicism in her present situation, but coy Mommy. My, my, arent you something!
this is a necessary antidote to the more than Grandma says to the Young Man. And later she
slight nausea we feel about the relationship adds with a characteristic view of herself: You
between Mommy and Daddy. Even in her first know, if I were about a hundred and fifty years
comic entrance Grandma maintains her dignity. younger I could go for you.
To Mommys question about the boxes she is
Most important, however, Grandma is the
carrying Grandma replies: Thats nobodys
only one in the play who shows a creative
damn business. One of her early speeches
response to life. It is not merely that she makes
concerns the sense of dignity that is so impor-
plans, sees them carried out, and thus signifi-
tant: . . . thats all thats important . . . a sense of
cantly exercises a freedom that the others do
dignity. You got to have a sense of dignity, even
not. The baking contest represents Grandmas
if you dont care, cause if you dont have that,
plan by which she intends to escape her depend-
civilizations doomed. We see dignity in
ence on Mommy and Daddy, and its $25,000
Grandma when she responds to Mommys
prize enables her to do just that at the end of
threats. You dont frighten me, she says, Im
the play. This in itself is significant enough com-
too old to be frightened.
pared to the aimless activities of Mommy,
There is value also in Grandmas realistic Daddy, and Mrs. Barker. But Grandma also is
attitude. She says that she is a muddleheaded a kind of creative artist in her own way. Mommy

2 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e A m e r i c a n D r e a m

tells how Grandma used to wrap the lunch boxes SOURCES

that Mommy took to school as a little girl, wrap
them so nicely, as she puts it, that it would break Adams, Herbert R., Albee, the Absurdists, and High
her heart to open them. Grandma did this in spite School English? in the English Journal, Vol. 55, No. 8,
of the poverty of the family. There is much comic November 1966, pp.104548.
nonsense in this story as Mommy tells it, but it Albee, Edward, The American Dream, in Two Plays by
also points to a creativity only partly suppressed. Edward Albee: The American Dream and The Zoo Story,
Signet, 1961, pp. 57127.
Certainly Grandmas use of language and her
comments about language reveal another creative Bigsby, C. W. E., Modern American Drama, 19452000,
Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 12829.
response to life. In general the comic irrelevance of
the language mirrors the meaninglessness of life Bloom, Harold, ed., Edward Albee, Chelsea House
Publishers, 1987.
and demonstrates especially that language as ges-
ture has replaced language as communication. Canaday, Nicholas, Jr., Albees The American Dream
For Grandma, however, language does serve to and the Existential Vacuum, in the South Central Bulle-
tin, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1966, pp. 2834.
communicate, and her comments on style are
both amusing and significant. Mommy tries to Edemariam, Aida, Whistling in the Dark, in the Guard-
ian, January 10, 2004, p. 2.
imitate her, but Grandma scornfully points out
Mommys failure to achieve harmony of rhythm Gussow, Mel, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, Simon
& Schuster, 1999.
and content.
Hirsch, Foster, Whos Afraid of Edward Albee? Creative
Finally, another kind of creativity is shown Arts, 1978, p. 18.
in the way Grandma provides the resolution of Kolin, Philip C., ed., Conversations with Edward Albee,
the play by suggesting to Mrs. Barker what to do University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
about the Young Man and by prompting the Mayberry, Bob, Theatre of Discord: Dissonance in Beckett,
Young Man about taking a place in the family. Albee, and Pinter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,
Having arranged all this, Grandma steps outside 1989.
of the set, addresses herself to the audience, and Stenz, Anita Maria, Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss,
as a kind of stage manager observes the happy Mouton, 1978.
ending she has created. It is happy because, as Taubman, Howard, The Theatre: Albees The American
she says, everybodys got what he thinks he Dream, in the New York Times, January 25, 1961, p. 28.
wants. She is satisfied: Well, I guess that just
about wraps it up. I mean, for better or worse,
this is a comedy, and I dont think wed better go
any further. Life may have a void at its center,
but perhaps how you wrap it upone recalls the
lunch boxeshas in itself a value. Bottoms, Stephen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to
Edward Albee, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Thus Albees The American Dream makes
An overwhelmingly valuable resource, this
the assumption that the dream is hollow and volume of scholarly essays and interviews is
shows the causes and symptoms of a sick society. meticulously researched, comprehensive in its
Through comic caricature it reveals three des- scope, and wide reaching in its grasp of the
perate responses to the existential vacuum, and subtleties and significances of this body of
then it goes on to do one thing more. In the complex work.
character of Grandma the play suggests that Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Vintage, 2004.
whatever meaning is possible is achieved Even four decades after its original publication,
Esslins groundbreaking study still reads as
through an attitude of courageous realism that
insightfully and provocatively as ever. In
can enable man to conduct himself with dignity, many ways this is the book that marked the
through the simple enjoyment of whatever expe- emergence of a new type of theater whose
rience can be enjoyed, and through the creative major figures shattered dramatic conventions
act of the artist. and paid little if any attention to psychological
realism. In 1961, Esslin coined the phrase
Source: Nicholas Canaday Jr., Albees The American Theatre of the Absurd, giving a name to the
Dream and the Existential Vacuum, in South Central phenomenon of plays that dramatize the
Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1966, pp. 2834. absurdity at the core of the human condition.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 2 1
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Gottdiener, Mark, The Theming of America: American the profusion of recognizable symbols and
Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments, signs attached to virtually all aspects of their
Westview Press, 2001. culture.
The Theming of America takes Albees thesis
from The American Dream and extends it into a Mann, Bruce, Edward Albee: A Casebook, Routledge,
readable and engaging exploration of the 2002.
nature of social and cultural change in America A relatively short collection of scholarly and
since the 1960s. Moving from discussions of critical essays, this volume is remarkable for
Graceland and Dollywood to commentaries the consistently high level of writing and the
on Las Vegas and the local mall, Gottdiener determined innovation that it brings to the dis-
shows how modern Americans cannot escape cussion of Albees plays.

2 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
The Dumb Waiter
Harold Pinters The Dumb Waiter (1957) is a two HAROLD PINTER
character, one-act play. Set in a claustrophobic
basement furnished like a cheap hotel for transi-
ents or even a prison cell, it is a study not so much
of the two hit men temporarily staying there as
they wait for their orders, but of the character of
their interaction and of the nature of their con-
dition, and by extension, the nature of the con-
text defining the human condition.
Like cogs in a machine, subject to mysterious
directives, bound together but alienated from
each other, the hit men follow the orders they
are given. They themselves seem to determine
nothing. Their entire being is defined by their
obedience to invisible, all-powerful, and quietly
menacing forces. While the title of the play seems
to refer to a small elevator built into the wall,
usually used to transport food and trash from
one floor in a building to another, Pinter is not
referring only to the dumb waiter as a contrap-
tion, but to each one of the men as well. Both are
waiting; both are dumb; one waits dumbly for the
time to carry out an assassination; the other,
unknowingly, for his own execution. Indeed,
each man is a dumb waiter.
The paramount literary influence on Pinters
play is Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, first
published in French in 1952 and in Becketts own
English translation in 1954. Essentially, the play
is an obscure rendition of two tramps waiting for
the arrival of the mysterious Godot, the play

2 3
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

that performed extensively throughout England

and Ireland. At the same time, he was writing
poetry, short stories, and a novel. In 1956, Pinter
married Vivien Merchant, an actress, and began
writing plays, which sometimes were vehicles for
her. Merchant filed for divorce from Pinter in
1975, after he had begun what became a long-
standing relationship with the historian Antonia
Fraser. Pinter married Fraser after both their
divorces were ratified in 1980. With Merchant,
Pinter had a son, Daniel, who broke ties with his
father after his parents divorce.
Pinters first play, The Room, was performed
in 1957. It flopped. His next play, The Dumb
Waiter, also written in 1957, was the first in a
series of plays, including The Caretaker (1959),
The Birthday Party (1957), and The Homecom-
ing (1964). It was this group of plays that
brought Pinter to international prominence and
placed him in the same league as dramatists like
Samuel Beckett and Eugene ` Ionesco. In the mid-
1950s, these playwrights had begun to produce
Harold Pinter (The Library of Congress) difficult and disturbing dramas that seemed alien
to conventional ideas of theater, focusing partic-
ularly on the use of language as a dramatic and a
seems to be a series of grim vaudeville turns by symbolic element. Their plays, moreover, pre-
the two. Nothing really seems to happen except sented worlds that were bleak and fearsome,
for the meaningless passage of time in a world but also ridiculously meaningless or absurd.
emptied of meaning in which people live devoid This type of drama came to be known as the
of purpose or power. Waiting for Godot was a Theater of the Absurd.
radically influential and transformative play.
In all, Pinter has written twenty-nine plays.
Indeed, the influence of Waiting for Godot on
In addition to writing for the theater, Pinter
The Dumb Waiter is obvious.
began, in the 1960s, to write original screenplays
A more recent text of The Dumb Waiter can and adaptations of other writerss work for the
be found in The Bedford Introduction to Drama, movies. He wrote a number of them for the
published in 1989 and edited by Lee A. Jacobus. London-based, blacklisted American director,
Joseph Losey, and Pinter himself acted in a num-
ber of films and on stage.
Although Pinter had refused to serve in the
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY British military in 1948, his plays were seen as
bleak representations of reality and not recog-
Harold Pinter was born to Jewish parents in a nized as political statements. In the 1980s, how-
working-class neighborhood of East London on ever, Pinter began to be publicly outspoken
October 10, 1930. His father was a tailor. As a about political issues. He was ejected from the
child he underwent the terror of being bombed American embassy in Turkey at a reception in
during the Nazi blitzkrieg. The effect was to make his honor, after he confronted the ambassador
an enduring pacifist of him and to embue him from Turkey regarding the torture of prisoners.
with a strong sense of the evil of power and its Pinter has been a resolute critic of the American
pervasive menace in human interactions. These invasions of Iraq and of the Israeli occupation of
issues became the primary concerns of his plays. Palestinian territories. In his 2005 speech accept-
In 1948, Pinter entered the Royal Academy ing the Nobel Prize, he condemned the United
of Dramatic Art. But he found the school stulti- States and the Bush administration for the inva-
fying and left to join a touring repertory theater sion of Iraq and for its imperial and military

2 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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activities in general. Pinter did not himself attend

the ceremonies in Oslo because of the cancer
with which he was diagnosed in 2002; he spoke
instead by closed-circuit television. Like so many
people living with cancer, Pinter has continued
to live a productive life. MEDIA
 The Dumb Waiter, a 1987 film adaptation of
the play, was directed by Robert Altman
PLOT SUMMARY and stars John Travolta as Ben and Tom
First Encounter Conti as Gus. It was broadcast on television
Although The Dumb Waiter is a one-act play in 1989, and was released on VHS by Prism
with no scene divisions, it is unobtrusively div- Entertainment.
ided into a series of encounters between Ben and
Gus in what seems to be a dormitory room in the
basement of what apparently is or was a restau-
rant. They seem to be rising from sleep. Gus is
tying his shoelaces and Ben, sitting on his bed, is the tea? Gus explains he is about to make it.
reading the newspaper. Gus walks a few steps Ben fires back Well, go on, make it. Instead
and then unties his laces, and takes off his shoes. Gus sits. He begins to describe the crockery. He
From within one shoe Gus takes out a flattened, alludes to someone called he. He has pro-
apparently empty box of matches and from the vided some very nice crockery this time. There
other a flattened pack of cigarettes. Then he puts is the suggestion of a mysterious superior and
his shoes back on. As Gus goes through these that this is not their first job for him. What
maneuvers, Ben looks up from his paper and that job is has not been made explicit and never is
regards him, apparently with disapproval, indi- until the end of the play. Ben asks Gus why he
cated by a rattling of his newspaper. Once he has cares about the crockery, ominously adding that
he is not going to eat. Gus responds that he has
put his shoes back on, Gus wanders off the set.
brought a few biscuits. Adding to the sense of
Ben follows him with his eyes. Then the sound of
foreboding, Ben tells him that he ought to make
a toilet chain being pulled is heard, but it is not
tea and eat them quickly since there is not much
followed by the sound of a toilet flushing. When
time left.
Gus returns, Ben slams down the paper and
begins talking about a story he has just read in
the paper.
Third Encounter
An old man who tried to cross a street con- Gus does not go to make tea. He takes out his
gested with traffic by crawling under a truck was flattened empty cigarette pack and asks Ben if he
run over when the truck started to move. The has any cigarettes. Ben does not look up from his
two condemn the inappropriateness of a man of paper or answer and Gus continues, saying he
eighty-seven crawling under a truck. When Gus hope[s] it wont be a long job, this one, indicat-
expresses disbelief at the story, twice Ben points ing that what they are doing is a routine oper-
out that it must be so because it is written in the ation. Ben still makes no response and Gus again
paper. The encounter ends when Gus again exits says, this time as if remembering he has not yet
to the lavatory. There is the sound of the chain done so: Oh, I wanted to ask you something.
being pulled but no subsequent sound of the Instead of responding, or possibly as a response
toilet flushing. Gus returns to prevent Guss question, Ben slams down his
paper and tells Gus another story from the
Second Encounter paper, as if distracting him, about an eight-
Gus tells Ben he wants to ask him a question. year-old girl who has been accused of killing a
Before he can, Ben asks him What are you cat. They earnestly speculate if it might have
doing out there? Before Gus can answer, Ben been her brother who did it and blamed her.
shoots another question at him: What about Ben goes back to his paper and Gus rises.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 2 5
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Fourth Encounter tells him to make the tea already and that they
Gus asks: What time is he getting in touch? will not have to wait much longer.
He is presumably their boss. Ben says nothing.
Gus repeats the question. Ben responds irritably:
Whats the matter with you? It could be any Ninth Encounter
time. Gus takes out a packet of tea and says that he
has been meaning to ask Ben something. Ben
says What the hell is it now? Gus asks Ben
Fifth Encounter why he stopped the car that morning, in the
Gus says I was going to ask you something.
middle of a road. Ben answers evasively. We
Ben says What? Gus then asks Ben why the
were too early, he says. The answer does not
toilet takes so long to flush. The ballcock in the
satisfy Gus. He does not understand how they
toilet is broken, Ben explains. Gus says he had
could be too early since they left after they got a
not thought of that. The banality of what they
call telling them to start right away. Who
are saying suggests that there is something they
took the call, me or you? Ben snaps. Gus admits
are not saying, although what that is remains
it was Ben and Ben repeats We were too early.
But Gus can not let it go; Too early for what?
he says. Ben does not answer. Finally, Gus
Sixth Encounter breaks the silence by supposing the answer that
Gus says he has not slept well and complains Ben withholds. You mean someone had to get
about the quality of the bed and the lack of a out before we got in? Ben remains silent and
second blanket. His attention is diverted by a Gus continues trying to figure things out. He
picture on the wall of a cricket team. He points says the sheets on the bed did not look fresh
it out to Ben, who does not know what he is and smelled a little. He complains that he does
talking about and asks again: What about that not want to share his sheets with someone else
tea. Gus responds that the members of the team and remarks that the fact that the sheets are not
look a bit old to him. fresh shows that things [are] going down the
drain because weve always had clean sheets
Seventh Encounter laid on up till now. Ben points out that Gus has
Gus remarks that he would not like to live in the slept in those sheets all day. Gus concedes that it
room they are in. He wishes there were a window might be his smell on the sheets and perhaps he
to see outside. Ben asks him what he wants a does not know what he himself smells like.
window for. Gus says that hed like a view, that it
helps pass the time. He complains about his job,
that he spends the day enclosed in a room and Tenth Encounter
when he leaves at night, it is dark outside. You Ben looks at the newspaper. Finally, he inter-
get your holidays, dont you? Ben retorts. Gus rupts his silence, exclaiming Kaw! about
complains that they are only for two weeks. Ben something he has just read. Gus asks what
chides him for not appreciating how infrequently town they are in? He says he has forgotten. Ben
they have to work. Ben explains his problem is tells him Birmingham. Gus suggests that they
Gus has no interests. Gus says he does so, but can go to watch the citys soccer team play. Ben
when pressed, cannot name any. Ben mentions tells him that they are playing away, that there is
several of his and how he is always ready for no time, anyhow. Gus points out that in the
work. Gus responds by asking Ben if he does past, they stayed over to watch a game. Bens
not ever get a bit fed up? Ben does not know response is ominous: Things have tightened up,
what he is talking about. mate. Gus says that they have never been to
Tottenham or done a job there, Ben contra-
Eighth Encounter dicts him. Gus says that he would remember
Gus is out of cigarettes. The toilet finally flushes. Tottenham. Ben says Dont make me laugh,
Gus complains some more about working condi- will you? Gus wonders when he is going to
tions. Remembering their last job, he complains get in touch with them. Ben does not respond.
that He doesnt seem to bother about our com- Gus shifts the subject back to soccer. They argue
fort much these days. Ben rebukes Gus, telling about which team is playing where, Ben contra-
him to stop jabbering, but Gus goes on. Ben dicting whatever Gus says.

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Eleventh Encounter Thirteenth Encounter

A new force enters the play. An envelope slides The question Gus has been trying to ask Ben
under the door. Gus notices it and points it out to begins to emerge when Gus muses I wonder
Ben. Ben asks what it is. Gus says he does not who itll be tonight. He clears his throat and
know. Ben tells him to pick it up. Gus approaches says Ive been wanting to ask you something.
it slowly and picks it up. Ben continues to direct Ben expresses annoyance that Gus is always
him. Gus opens it. There are matches inside. He asking [him] questions. Ben then asks Gus
hands Ben the envelope. There is no note included. why he is sitting on his [Bens] bed. He says
Ben orders Gus to open the door to see if he can Gus never used to ask so many damn ques-
catch whoever slipped the envelope under it. Gus tions. He asks him whats the matter with
gets his gun, opens the door, but no one is there. you? Gus tries to defend himself by saying
Gus puts his gun back under his pillow. before he even gets to ask the questionNo, I
was just wondering. Ben tells him to stop won-
dering, to do his job and shut up. But Gus is
Twelfth Encounter not thwarted. He says that was what he was
Gus looks at the matches, comments that they wondering about. Ben responds as if he does
will come in handy, and he and Ben go back and not know what Gus is talking about. Gus asks
forth about how useful the matches are, how Gus hesitantly who its going to be tonight? Ben
is always running out of matches, and finally, refuses to answer, seeming not to know what
Gus says I can light the kettle now. He does Gus is talking about, throwing questions like
not move to do that, however, and they talk a Who whats going to be? and Are you feeling
little more about the matches until Ben slaps alright? back at him. And Ben tells him again,
Guss hand as Gus cleans his ear with one of the Go and make the tea. Nothing is said, but
matches, telling him not to waste them but to go something sinister is evident.
and light it. Gus has just said he can light the
kettle now, but he does not know what Ben is
referring to. They bandy words back and forth Fourteenth Encounter
until it is clear that Ben is telling him to make tea. Ben is alone as Gus is offstage making tea. He
Before he begins to, Gus and Ben argue whether takes his revolver out from under his pillow and
properly speaking one says light the kettle or makes sure it is loaded. Inspecting the weapon
light the gas. Ben says Light the Kettle. Gus while Gus is off-stage, suggests that he knows
says, You mean the gas, even though he himself something Gus does not about how the gun will
had just used the expression light the kettle. Ben be used.
responds What do you mean, I mean the gas, Gus reenters, not yet having made tea
ominously as his eyes, according to the stage because there is no gas and he does not have a
directions, narrow. The inane but sinister argu- shilling to drop in the gas meter, nor does Ben.
ment continues for a good twenty lines with Ben Ben says they will have to wait for Wilson for the
attacking and Gus defending himself until a shilling. But he might not come; he might just
moment of real and senseless violence erupts send a message. Wilson never does appear.
when Ben grabs Gus with two hands by the Waiting for Wilson satirizes the main conceit of
throat, at arms length, and yells THE KET- Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot. Ben tells
TLE, YOU FOOL! Gus capitulates, saying All Gus he just might have to wait for his tea until
right, all right, but does nothing. Ben asks him afterwards. As Gus complains that he likes to
what he is waiting for. Gus says he wants to see if have his tea beforehand, Ben holds the revolver
the matches light. He strikes one on the box; it up to the light and polishes it, telling Gus
does not. He tosses the matches under the bed youd better get ready.
and retrieves them as Ben stares at him. He strikes Gus is becoming irritable. He grumbles about
a match on his shoe and it lights. Fed up, Ben says the fact that Wilson has not provided gas. When he
Put on the bloody kettle, for Christs sake, real- says that the room they are staying in is Wilsons
izing it is an expression he had derided in the place, Ben challenges him, but Gus insists it is. As
foregoing argument. Gus goes out and then he speaks he begins to wonder about the other jobs
returns, saying Its going. When Ben says they have done for Wilson, how nobody ever
What? Gus says The stove, using the word hears a thing, how Wilson does not always show
stove instead of kettle or gas. up at all, how difficult he finds it to talk to him. Ben

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 2 7
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

tells him to be quiet, but Gus persists, wondering up the dumb waiter, Ben stops him. They go
about the last one. Ben acts as if he does not to through a bag of food Gus has with him, noting
know what Gus is talking about, and Gus says it is the items. Ben suggests they send the packet of
about that girl. tea; Gus objects, pointing out it is all the tea they
have. Ben reminds him it is useless since they can
Fifteenth Encounter not turn on the gas. Gus says Maybe they can
Ben ignores what Gus has just said and angrily send us down a coin for the gas meter. Ben
goes back to reading the newspaper. Gus, who ignores him and asks what else Gus has in his
had been rather compliant, has become frus- bag and Gus takes out a sugared pastry called an
trated and impatient. He has not had his tea, Eccles cake. Ben scolds Gus for never having told
after all. He asks How many times have you him he had brought one and he scolds him as well
read that paper? In anger Ben slams the paper for only bringing one and none for him. He adds
down, asks Gus what he means, threatens to that they can not send up just one Eccles cake
box him in the ear if he does not watch out, but does not answer when Gus asks Why not?
accuses him of taking liberties, and warns him, Instead he tells Gus to get a plate. Gus asks if he
when Gus tries to explain, to get on with it, cannot keep the cake since they dont know
thats all. But Gus has begun to wonder about weve got it. But Ben tells him he can not keep
his past jobs and cannot stop talking. He reverts it. Then Ben finds a bag of potato chips in Guss
to the subject of the girl. From what he says, it bag and the same routine is repeated as Ben
appears that they killed her. Gus is disturbed, scolds Gus, telling him he is playing a dirty
not because they killed her, but because of the game, and Ill remember this, presumably
messiness involved and wonders who cleans up not just for failing to declare all his food, but
after them. Ben calls him a fool. for the insubordination that this reflects. Once
they have piled up the food they have gathered on
a plate and are about to put it in the dumb waiter,
Sixteenth Encounter
before they can, the dumb waiter goes up empty.
They hear a noise inside the wall between the
Ben tells Gus it is his fault for playing about,
beds and notice that a dumb waiter is built into
that they will have to wait until it comes down
the wall. Inside the dumb waiter is a note appear-
again. Ben puts the plate on the bed, puts on his
ing to be an order for food. It reads Two braised
shoulder holster and begins to knot his tie. He
steak and chips. Two sago puddings. Two teas
tells Gus he ought to get ready.
without sugar. Gus comments on the tea, not
having been able to have any himself and now
apparently being directed to make some for Seventeenth Encounter
others. Gus is puzzled at the order, but Ben says Gus puts on his tie and shoulder holster. He
that the place must have been a cafe, that it has wonders how their room can be a cafe since the
change[d] hands, and that where they are had gas stove has only three rings, not allowing for
been a kitchen. Gus wonders who owns the place much cooking. Ben answers dryly: Thats why
now. Well, that all depends, Ben says. He is the service is slow. Gus keeps up his inconse-
interrupted by the clatter of the dumb waiter. quential chatter and Ben does not answer him.
This time the piece of paper reads Soup of the The dumb waiter returns. Gus retrieves a note
day. Liver and onions. Jam tart. Do these words demanding more dishes, the redundantly named
signify actual food items as they usually do, or Macaroni Pastitsio and the exotic Ormitha
are they codes, perhaps informing Ben about a Macarounada. He puts the plate of their snacks
decision higher-ups have made with regard to the on the dumb waiter and shouts its contents into
job? The interpretative limits for this text seem to the shaft. The dumb waiter goes up and Ben
be flexible. Some silent business follows. Ben reprimands Gus for having yelled because it
looks into the dumb waiter but not up the shaft. isnt done. He then tells him to get dressed
Gus, behind him, puts his hand on Bens because Itll be any minute now.
shoulder and Ben throws it off. Gus then looks
into the dumb waiter and up the shaft. This ges-
ture alarms Ben who pushes Gus away from the Eighteenth Encounter
dumb waiter, tosses his gun onto the bed and tells Gus continues complaining about the place,
Gus that they had better send something up. especially about the lack of tea and biscuits. Ben
Gus agrees and when he goes to shout something tells him that eating makes you lazy and that

2 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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Gus is getting lazy. He asks Gus if he has Twentieth Encounter

checked his gun and notes that he never polishes Gus reenters; he is troubled and thoughtful.
it. Gus rubs his revolver on the sheet. Ben fixes Why, he asks Ben, did he send them matches
his tie in preparation for the job. Gus continues when he knew there was no gas. Ben does not
his chatter. He wonders about the cook and if answer. Gus repeats the question twice. Ben
there is another kitchen and if there are more gas answers he does not know what Gus is talking
stoves. Ben assures him, with dry condescension, about. Gus continues: Who is it upstairs? Ben
that there are. He asks Gus if he knows what it evades the question, commanding Gus to be
takes to make an Ormitha Macarounada. Gus silent. Gus persists. Ben commands him to
does not. Ben begins to tell him, but cuts himself Shut up! Ben hits him twice on the shoulder
short before he says anything and tells Gus to be viciously. That does not stop Gus. Nearly hys-
quiet. terical, he cries out Whats he doing it for?
Weve been through our tests. . . . Whats he
Gus puts his revolver in its holster and con-
playing these games for? As he is ranting, the
tinues to complain. He wants to get out of the
dumb waiter returns. Gus seizes the note,
place. He wonders why he has not gotten in
which is an order for Scampi. He crumples
touch with them yet. He says that he and Ben the note and frantically yells through the tube:
have always done reliable work. He hopes their WEVE GOT NOTHING LEFT! NOTHING!
job is easy. He has a bad headache. The dumb DO YOU UNDERSTAND? Ben pushes him
waiter descends again with more food orders and away, calls him a maniac, screams Thats
the packet of tea they had sent up. They can not enough, and replaces the speaking tube.
fill the orders and Ben says urgently that they The dumb waiter ascends, Gus and Ben look
better tell them so. As he is about to write a each other in the eye. Gus sits on his bed. Ben
note, he discovers a speaking tube he had not starts to read the paper, throws it down, exclaims
seen, in the wall, beside the dumb waiter. Gus Kaw! as he had earlier when other stories
first speaks into the tube after they figure out caught his attention, and says Have you ever
how it works and says The larders bare! Ben heard such a thing? without saying what he is
takes the tube from him and politely repeats that reading. The two of them comment incredu-
there is no more food. Someone on the other end lously about the unrecounted story.
seems to be complaining about the inadequacy of Gus leaves, he says, to get a glass of water.
each of the items they have sent up. The conver- The whistle of the speaking tube blows. Ben
sation ends as Ben reports that the voice answers and is told it is time and that the mark
instructed him to light the kettle! suggesting will be coming in right away. Ben hangs up the
the earlier argument about the correct idiom, tube, calls to Gus twice, combs his hair, and is
but Gus points out theres no gas. He is ready. The toilet is heard to flush. Gus stumbles
annoyed at being instructed to make tea for in through the door stripped of his jacket, vest,
others when there is none for him. Ben says tie, holster, and revolver. He looks at Ben. In
nothing. Noticing how bad Ben looks, Gus says silence, they stare at each other.
that he could use an Alka-Seltzer himself. Ben
says that the time is near.

Nineteenth Encounter
Gus complains that he does not like having to do
Ben is one of the two men waiting in a basement
the job while he is hungry. Ben silences him, to carry out what appears to be a hired killing. He
saying he must give him his instructions. Gus is the one in charge of the operation. He is rather
does not know why since they always do the quiet and does not question his assignments or
same thing. Ben repeats Let me give you your complain about his working conditions. He
instructions. He states them; Gus repeats them. spends the time waiting reading the newspaper
They never mention the actual deed of killing, and is fascinated by odd human interest stories
only all their moves preceding that. When they usually involving strange twists of violence, like
finish, Gus shivers, exits, and the sound of the an old man being killed ducking under a truck or
toilet chain pulled in the lavatory is heard. some youngsters killing a cat. He is often evasive

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 2 9
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

when he speaks. He tells his partner as little as nature, his chief concern is to have his tea. When
possible about their assignment and often he is unable to have tea, it frustrates him greatly.
responds to his questions by saying he does not Gus also tries to withhold some of his food when
know what he is talking about. His attitude Ben suggests they send it upstairs in an attempt
towards his superiors is deferential. He believes to meet the demands of the person or people
in their authority and, in a limited way, has sending down orders. His food becomes a sacri-
authority himself. After his partner, Gus, shouts ficial object to send up, foreshadowing Gus him-
into a speaking tube, Ben apologizes to whoever self as a sacrificial object. But the sacrifice seems
is on the other end. He is capable of violence and meaningless. Gus complains about how he and
lunges at Gus when he cannot contain his rage at Ben are treated by the man they are working for.
Guss undisciplined behavior. He gives orders to He is bored, objects to the smell of their bed
Gus without feeling the need to explain himself. sheets or the lack of a window in the room.
He often demeans Gus and treats him with con- Whereas Ben is an executioner, Gus is a victim.
descension and disdain. Ben insists that his way At the end of the play, it appears that he is the
of speaking or doing things is the correct way. If person they have been assigned to kill. Unlike
the play is seen as the symbolic representation of Ben, Gus has doubts about what they are doing
mankinds powerlessness in the face of a cruel and is full of troubled questions about their sit-
God or cruel fate, Ben can be seen as the agent uation. He is inefficient and slow in obedience.
of that cruelty. If viewed from a psychological He is not really tough but rather desperately
standpoint, Ben is tormented by his very role as childlike and confused. He displays a rebellious
an agent of torment. nature, raging against an authority that is
incomprehensible to him. If the play is read as
The Dumb Waiter a symbolic representation of mankinds predica-
The dumb waitercommonly found in a house ment in relation to God or fate, Gus represents
built for servantsis a small elevator to carry the desperation people can feel who sense them-
things between floors. Although conventionally selves abandoned in a world without meaning or
a prop, the dumb waiter can be seen as a kind of a loving God. In terms of the plays structure, it
mechanical character in the play. It is used to is Gus who propels the action by his questions,
convey orders to the two men in the basement complaints and outbursts.
from an unidentified character upstairs. The
orders it carries seem to be orders for food, but The Room
the mysterious context in which they arrive can The room Ben and Gus wait in is entirely non-
make them seem like codes or representations of descript except for its two beds and two doors,
demands made on mankind by higher forces, one on the left, one on the right. It has no win-
demands that seem unreasonable or impossible dows but it can communicate to a limited world
to fulfill either because of mankinds inadequacy outside, to a bathroom through the doors, and
or the exotic quality of the demand. Although to the upstairs through the dumb waiter and a
only a mechanical object, in the play the dumb speaking tube. It is possible to think of the room
waiter is given almost metaphysical power. It can as signifying a place of testing for both Ben and
signify the confusion in communication that peo- Gus. Indeed, Gus cries out that they have
ple often experience in their interactions. It can already been tested and demands to know why
also be seen as the imperfect channel of commu- they are being tested again. In Jean-Paul Sartres
nication between mankind and an unseen deity one-act play, No Exit (1944), hell is represented
or incomprehensible fate. by three people confined to a single room for
eternity. In The Dumb Waiter, the room Ben
Gus and Gus occupy can be thought of as a kind of
Gus is talkative, inquisitive, and even resentful purgatory through which they are passing, but a
of his superiors. Whereas Ben spends much of purgatory that leads them not to Heaven but to a
the time they are waiting sitting on his bed read- Hell of coldly uncaring meaninglessness.
ing the newspaper, Gus is often in motion, tak-
ing off and putting on his shoes, going to the Wilson
toilet, fooling with matches, or looking at the Wilson is not an on-stage character in The Dumb
crockery. He knows nothing about the job they Waiter but is mentioned by Ben and Gus as the
are going to do, and, despite its apparently grim man they are working for and who may or may

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not appear. He is often only referred to as he, passionately in discussions and arguments about
reinforcing his shadowy nature and mysterious the most trivial things from weird news items such
presence. Nothing is really known about him. as which soccer team was playing where. Mean-
Perhaps he is the person upstairs sending orders while, Ben particularly avoids any real contact or
down on the dumb waiter. Perhaps it is someone conversation with Gus, who does strive for it.
else. It is not clear if Ben and Gus work for one Bens evasion is necessary considering what
man or for an amorphous organization. Perhaps seems to be the underlying plot of the play, that
they, as well as the audience, do not know. As a he is about to kill Gus at a moment that will be
character who never appears, Wilson is similar to determined for him.
Godot, in Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, a
play in which two characters interact in a barren Betrayal
landscape as they wait for the mysterious Godot The suggestion of betrayal is implicit in The
to appear. Why they are waiting and what he will Dumb Waiter. No overt reason for the tension
bring them are not revealed. Wilson, like Godot, between Ben and Gus is ever presented, but there
can be thought of as representing a God who is are suggestions that Ben, who is Guss partner
himself hidden and whose purposes are hidden, a and superior, seems to know something that he is
god who makes all of us into dumb waiters withholding from Gus. What was he thinking
people waiting stupidly or quietly for something about when he stopped their car as he was driv-
and ultimately only finding death. ing to the job while Gus was asleep in the seat
next to him? Gus wants to know, but Ben does
not say. Similarly, Ben warns Gus several times
throughout the play that he is getting lazy and
THEMES that his attitude towards his work and his supe-
riors is poor. In their last confrontation, as Gus
Alienation stumbles disarmed into the room and Ben faces
While the word alienation is never mentioned in him with a gun, while ambiguity still lingers
The Dumb Waiter, the atmosphere of the play regarding Bens previous knowledge that it is
reeks of it. Ben and Gus, long-time partners Gus whom he was hired to kill, it seems likely
who have worked closely together, are isolated that Ben did know it. The ambiguity of the last
from each other. Their overt conversation is moments leaves open the question of whether he
composed of empty exchanges about articles in will complete his betrayal of his partner or, as it
the newspaper. The conversation that goes on were, betray his superiors. Ironically, from the
beneath the surface, which is expressed through point of view of those superiors who have
their attitude towards each other, shows distance ordered Guss extermination, Gus himself is the
and evasion governing their intercourse. The one having betrayed them by his questioning,
work they do is also representative of a funda- resentful, and rebellious attitude. By ordering
mental alienation in their world. They have no Ben to kill Gus they are, in addition, forcing
say in where they go or what they do. They seem him to betray himself, hence his irritability
unsure about the forces for whom they work or towards Gus. Ben must purge himself of any
exactly what is wanted of them by their superiors, fellow feeling for Gus.
as all the business with the orders coming on the
dumb waiter suggests. In addition the work they
do, killing people, is a pure example of alienation.
Obedience and Resistance
The work that Ben and Gus do requires unques-
Avoidance tioning obedience to the to forces that direct
Pinter is often discussed as a playwright whose them but of which they are only peripherally
concern is to show the difficulties or the failures aware. As hired killers, they are expected to
in communication that people experience. More surrender moral judgment, human compassion,
pointedly, in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter seems to awareness of the humanity of the Other and
be showing how people use words to avoid com- replace those traits with unstinting, unquestion-
municating. In The Dumb Waiter he seems to be ing obedience. Their obedience is demanded in
exploring the rhetoric of evasion. Ben repeatedly seemingly lesser matters, too, as their anxiety to
uses the newspaper to give him things to talk to fulfill the food orders that come via the dumb
Gus about, and the two of them become entangled waiter show. The apparent fault that puts Gus in

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T h e D u m b W a i t e r

 Pinters early plays, like The Dumb Waiter, move on stage. Then explain why you have
often called comedies of menace, reflect made those choices.
the spirit of the 1950s, a decade character-
 The characters in The Dumb Waiter use
ized by a number of generalized anxieties
about nuclear war, gang violence, economic speech as a way of avoiding communication.
repression, political witch hunts, and nerv- Write a story in which the characters speak
ous breakdowns. Choose any one of these with each other, interact, and do things
areas to research. Write an essay on your together but never really say what is on
findings, introducing and exploring the their minds. Or, describe a situation in
issue, and setting it in historical, political, which you avoided saying what you wanted
economic, and cultural contexts. Using to say and another situation where you
your paper as a basis, introduce and explain spoke to cover up what you meant. How is
the issue to your class. such speech different (or not different) from
 In addition to The Dumb Waiter, read lying?
Pinters plays The Room, The Caretaker,
 Write a sequel to The Dumb Waiter. What
and The Homecoming. Write an essay
can happen next? If you think that there is
exploring the ways these plays resemble
not a possible sequel to The Dumb Waiter,
and differ from each other in terms of plot,
despite its open ending, write an essay dis-
characters, themes, dramatic construction,
and tone. cussing why you feel this way. Be sure to cite
examples from the play in support of your
 With one other member of your class, per-
form The Dumb Waiter or a selection from it
for your class. Prepare a working script of  Lead a class debate based on this question:
the play in which you note the interpretive Is there a hero and a villain in The Dumb
choices you have made, such as the way you Waiter? If so, who is the hero, and who is the
choose to deliver the lines or the way you villain? Why? If not, why not?

danger is the beginning of curiosity, questioning, STYLE

and self-assertion, feeble as it is, that he displays.
Obedience always faces a threat from the oppo- Interactions Presented as Encounters
site that it generates, which is resistance. The The Dumb Waiter is a one-act play performed
traits Gus shows are threats to obedience. Ben, without interruption. Pinter achieves a sense of
on the other hand, shows himself, until the end structure by setting up a series of encounters
of the play, to be perfectly obedient. It is not between the two characters. These encounters
flow one into the next but each one is also com-
clear whether his obedience will continue or if
plete in itself within the context of the play, the
something else in him will prevail. It is reason-
way a scene is. The encounters establish a pattern
able to assume that Bens extreme irritation with in the relationship between Ben and Gus and they
Gus throughout the play is a result of a conflict serve to define the characteristics of each. The
within himself between his obedience to his mas- encounters have the shape of old vaudeville rou-
ters and some sort of fellow-feeling towards his tines and they mix the comic interaction and tim-
partner, a feeling he must stifle. ing of those kinds of routines with an underlying

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quality of menace that is conveyed by the inten- was a conflict between the United States and the
sity of each characters participation in those Soviet Union, now Russia, and a group of
routines. The climax of the play, when Ben smaller countries, for political, military, and eco-
repeatedly punches Gus in the shoulder, trans- nomic control of the globe. In its most menacing
forms slapstick into anxious rage. The final form, the Cold War consisted of an arms race
moments of the play, a second climax, is only a between the two super powers, as they were
nonverbal encounter in which the ambiguity of called, to build the most daunting weaponry,
the relationship between Ben and Gus hovers particularly in the form of nuclear bombs. The
unresolved over the play and over the audience, Soviet Union and the United States had been
as if removed from the play and given to the allies against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and
audience as a choice. The choice is between the Imperial Japan during World War II from 1939
kind of alienated, evasive relationships presented in
1945. After the war, they slowly became foes,
the play, the kind that must terminate in betrayals
partly because of different political structures.
of both oneself and other people, or relationships
that begin to realize a shared essential something The war against Japan ended when Harry
that can connect people to each other. The final Truman, then President of the United States,
encounter in The Dumb Waiter, then, is not the ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on the
climactic encounter between Ben and Gus but an Japanese cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945,
encounter between the play itself and its audience. and Nagasaki, on August 9, 1945. In addition to
destroying these two Japanese cities, the drop-
Pauses ping of the atomic bombs announced to the
The word pause appears nearly two dozen world, and especially to the Soviet Unions dic-
times as a stage direction in The Dumb Waiter, tator, Joseph Stalin, that the United States was a
the word silence some half a dozen times, and power to fear. Stalin, after the war, had imperial
a notation that the two characters stare at each designs on many of the countries of Europe and
other without saying anything appears fre- indeed managed to subordinate many Eastern
quently, too. The play ends, in fact, with the European countries to the Soviet Union. In
direction that there is a long silence in which response to the American bombs, the Russians
the characters stare at each other. If the spoken also built nuclear weapons, and each country estab-
words in The Dumb Waiter are essential tools of lished bases from which they pointed their weapons
evasion and signify alienation, the pauses, silen- at the other countrys major cities. This policy of
ces, and moments when Ben and Gus stare at Mutually Assured Destruction both kept the bal-
each other signify, without being conveyed by ance of power between the two super states and
verbal props, the essential but buried matter of caused a general malaise among most of the people,
the playthe mysterious connection and the as well as resistance in some. There were general,
incipient betrayal that constitutes the relation- compulsory shelter drills that people, including
ship between the two characters and the action school children, were forced to participate in.
of the drama. What is hidden by talk is revealed, Some, like the philosopher/mathematician Bertram
even if only darkly, by silences. The anxiety, Russell in Britain, protested the building, testing,
confusion, conflict, and tension governing the and deploying of nuclear weapons. The menacing
interactions between Ben and Gus provoke a sense of looming danger pervasive in The Dumb
sense of some indefinably menacing danger hov- Waiter reflects this cultural condition.
ering about and defining the texture of the world
they inhabit.
Gangster Movies
The models for the two hit men, Ben and Gus, are
the gangsters in the films Hollywood turned out
HISTORICAL CONTEXT in the 1940s and 1950s where gangsters were
played as suave and debonair, yet disturbing and
The Cold War menacing, characters by actors like Humphrey
The sense of indefinable menace and of insecur- Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Farley Granger,
ity that permeates The Dumb Waiter reflects the George Raft, Yul Brynner, Dan Duryea, and
Zeitgeist, or spirit of the time, that pervaded the James Cagney. They were often odd mixtures of
1950s because of the Cold War. The Cold War brutality and delicacy, of charm and cruelty, of

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 3 3
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

 1950s: An air of fear and menace taints many Today: In the global economy, workers are
human interactions and ways of thinking treated like interchangeable parts of a great
because of the Cold War, which pits countries machine. Rather than becoming integral
like Great Britain and the United States on one parts of a corporation which they serve and
side against the Soviet Union on the other. which offers them a secure, lifelong career,
Each side has a cause for anxiety because
people experience uncertainty in their jobs
each has the capability to engage in nuclear
and face the possibility of layoffs and cor-
porate downsizing.
Today: An air of fear and menace taints many
human interactions and ways of thinking  1950s: People are distracted from their anxi-
because of the War on Terror, which pits eties and from independent and organized
western governments like the United States opposition, in Western Europe and the
and Great Britain against several Middle East- United States, by public relations, entertain-
ern governments and religious factions who ment, sports, and advertising.
believe themselves to be waging a holy war and
who stage terrorist attacks around the world. Today: People are distracted from their
 1950s: Organization men working for anxieties and from independent and organ-
large corporations shape their lives to con- ized opposition, in Western Europe and the
form to the rules set down by their employ- United States by public relations, entertain-
ers. They seem to be cogs in a great machine ment, sports, advertising, and technological
rather than spontaneous individuals. gadgetry.

bravado and cowardice. They were suave and The Organization Man
crude, attractive and repellent, narcissistic pos- The idea of the organization man, a man who
eurs without a strong center. Ben tries to maintain worked for, and conformed to, the dictates of a
an air of cool detachment, reading the paper, large corporationwhich became the source not
stoically doing his job. He makes sure to fix his only of his income but the arbiter of everything
tie and comb his hair before he goes into action. about the way he lived his life, raised his family,
Not only does Pinter model his thugs on the hero- and comported himselfstrongly influenced the
gangsters of these movies, but the characters mainstream culture of the 1950s. The critical
themselves, especially Ben, seem to be deliberately response to that culture by writers and artists
modeling themselves on the movie images. trying to make sense of or reform, reshape, and,
from their point of view, reinvigorate that culture,
The Holocaust became a powerful counter-cultural movement in
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi German gov- this decade and the decade that followed. Ben and
ernment rounded up some ten million people, Gus can be seen as serious parodies of those men
among them Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and and the organization they work for is a shadowy
communists, and incarcerated and systemati- representation of those corporate entities.
cally exterminated them. Without warning, a
knock could come at the door and a whole fam-
ily, or whole towns, could be taken, in minutes, The Theater of the Absurd
to places known as death camps. The sense of Theater of the Absurd refers to a kind of play
dread this introduced into the worlds psyche is written during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, primar-
reflected in The Dumb Waiter. ily in Europe, and especially in France. Playwrights

3 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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the confusion that existed between the two

because each had a different frame of reference
from his partner when he spoke. By the 1950s,
vaudeville in theaters was pretty much a thing of
the past, replaced by movies and, especially, by
television. But television, in the 1950s, did not
destroy vaudeville. It simply caused it to relo-
cate, leaving the grand movie palaces and lodg-
ing on the small home screen. The routines in
The Dumb Waiter often are reminiscent of the
kind of routines performed by the great vaude-
ville acts like (George) Burns and (Gracie) Allen
or Jack Bennya master of the frozen pause and
silent, sidelong glanceand one of his several
straightmen, or especially of (Bud) Abbott and
(Lou) Costello. All these were popular television
performers in the 1950s. One of Abbott and
Costellos most famous routines, Whos on
First, seems particularly relevant to The Dumb
Waiter because of the rhythm of its banter and
because of the way it highlights the frustrations
of non-communication, especially when words
become devoid of meaning.

Scene from the 2007 Trafalgar Studios 1 production CRITICAL OVERVIEW

of The Dumb Waiter, starring Jason Isaacs as Ben
The drama of Harold Pinter, Katherine H.
and Lee Evans as Gus ( Donald Cooper / Photostage)
Burkman wrote in The Dramatic World of Harold
Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual, evolves in an atmos-
phere of mystery. Burkman continues: While
the surfaces of life are realistically detailed, the
like Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre,
patterns below the surface are as obscure as the
Samuel Beckett, Fernando Arabal, Edward Albee,
motives of the characters. The mysterious quality
Harold Pinter, and Eugene ` Ionesco wrote dramas
that informs The Dumb Waiter is specifically a
that reflected their vision of a world that had lost
function of Pinters strategy of removing any
meaning and purpose. Camus, in The Myth of
information that can set the action of the play or
Sysiphus used the term the absurd to characterize
the attitudes of its characters in context. The audi-
a philosophy of existence that saw no meaning in
ence knows nothing about them but what they say
the universe and made each individual responsible
in the course of their conversations with each
for the creation of meaning and purpose despite the
other, which is little indeed. This scarcity of infor-
emptiness of existence. The term Theater of the
mation has been the focus of much critical discus-
Absurd was invented by the theater critic Martin
sion. R. A. Buck, writing in the Explicator, cites
Esslin in 1962 when he wrote a book of that name
Thomas F. Van Laans observation that readers
exploring the work of these playwrights.
and critics often fill in what [Pinter] has suppos-
edly neglected to record. Buck then states that
by filling in an absurdist play, we risk losing
Vaudeville sight of the precise language of the text and thus
Pinters dialogue is often reminiscent of the kind its performing function. Buck proceeds to argue
of routines that were perfected in vaudeville by that this has happened to such an extent in Pinter
teams of comedians, one being a straight man criticism that discussions of the ending of The
and the other bouncing off him to deliver the Dumb Waiter have neglected to emphasize the
laugh lines. The routines usually worked due to power of the linguistic ambiguity in the last lines

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 3 5
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

of the play. While he attempts to avoid what he

considers an interpretive error by conducting a
close reading of the closing stage directions of
the play, Buck, too, fills in what might be happen- WHAT KEEPS THE DUMB WAITER GOING FOR
ing but is not textually indicated, suggesting the A READER OR VIEWER IS THE SENSE THAT
possibility that Gus enters through the door on
the left and someone else, unspecified, enters as SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN. BUT, UNTIL THE
the door on the right is thrown open. Indeed, it is, LAST MOMENT OF THE PLAY, NOTHING REALLY DOES
according to Van Laan, inevitable that readers
help construct the events of the play, just because
so much is omitted and much of what is included
in The Dumb Waiter seems to be functioning to
avoid rather than to reveal what has happened,
what is happening, and what will happen.
Despite the room for filling in that exists in
The Dumb Waiter, most critics actually do agree Neil Heims
on the essentials of the play. Two men . . . are on Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In
assignment and wait for the specific details in a this essay, he discusses the nature of the relation-
basement room, James R. Hollis comments in ship between Ben and Gus.
Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence. After a I asked you a question, Gus insists
straightforward summary of what occurs on the towards the end of The Dumb Waiter, after Ben
surface, Hollis suggests that it is possible to alle- has studiously ignored not one, but a series of
gorize The Dumb Waiter, to read the play sym- questions from Gus throughout the play. Ben
bolically. The very bareness of the play invites ignores Guss questions either by keeping silent,
this; the play is, after all, an attempt to find by giving evasive answers, or by refusing to
meaning where meaning as it is generally experi- understand what Gus is talking about. But it is
enced is absent. Hollis suggests that the hier- not only Guss questions that Ben ignores. The
archical power upstairs could be identified as a action of The Dumb Waiter is fashioned to
deity. . . . The little creatures scurry about on their present the strategies that one man uses to ignore
terrestrial plane and try to guess what [he] and discredit another completely. Readers and
wants. But Hollis rejects this sort of reading as viewers may surmise that he is, in consequence,
unnecessary, as do most of Pinters critics. significantly ignoring and, in some way, dehu-
Rather than theological readings, most critics manizing himself, as well.
take a more down to earth tack. Hollis considers The first moment of contact between Ben
that what is represented in The Dumb Waiter is and Gus in the opening of The Dumb Waiter is
mans suspicion that there is a power that is not immediately subverted before it can impress
so much malevolent as detached and uncon- itself on them as an experience of contact. It
cerned. This interpretation stands without iden- becomes, rather, an instance of evasion. Nothing
tifying that power as supernatural or, for example, is spoken.
corporate or governmental. Hollis sees Gus and
When The Dumb Waiter begins, Ben and
Ben as alternative possible responses to the mys-
Gus are together in a basement room with twin
tery of such a dominant power: one submits and
beds and two doorways. Ben is lying on one of
one rebels. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, writing in Harold the beds, reading the newspaper. Gus, unlike
Pinter, presents a more sociological reading, quot- Ben, is fidgety. First, sitting on his bed, Gus
ing the Yugoslavian critic Istvan Sinko: When ties his shoelaces with difficulty. Then he
the functionary begins to reflect on the meaning of stands, yawns, walks to the door on the left,
his job, he must die. Hinchliffe himself refuses to stops, shakes his foot, kneels, unties the shoelace
be as specific, concluding a survey of critical he has just tied, takes off the shoe slowly, and
responses to The Dumb Waiter by observing that extracts a flattened matchbox from inside the
Pinters exploration of the lower depths has an shoe. Ben has lowered his newspaper and
unmistakable, if indefinable, relevance to life as watches him. Gus shakes the match box and
we live it. examines it. At that moment, their eyes meet.

3 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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 Pinters play Betrayal (1978) was made into seemingly everyday situation and trans-
a film with Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons forms it into a life and death confrontation.
in 1983. It portrays the story of a long adul-
 Our Lady of the Flowers, by the French poet,
terous affair in reverse chronological order.
novelist, homosexual, and thief, Jean Genet,
As in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter works with
was written in prison and first appeared in
themes of trust and betrayal in a situation
where one character knows of anothers dis- French in 1943. It was published in an English
advantage while the other does not. translation by Bernard Fretchman in 1963. It
tells the story of a French drag queen and his
 Dutchman (1964) is a one-act play by Amiri
pimp lover, who betrays him as an act of love.
Baraka, who was then writing under his
As Pinter does in The Dumb Waiter, Genet
birth name of LeRoi Jones. The play was
explores the ambiguity of a relationship
made into a film in 1967. The play concerns
between two men, one of whom seems to be
the menacing and finally violent encounter
dominant and the other submissive. Genets
between a young black man and a young
language, unlike Pinters minimalism, is
white woman who are alone together in a
richly ornate.
subway car. As in The Dumb Waiter, the
play is set in a confined space and the char-  Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot was first
acters have no means of escape. performed in its original French in 1952 in
 Israel Horovitzs play The Indian Wants the Paris and in 1955 in London in an English
Bronx opened in 1968 with Al Pacino in the translation made by Beckett himself. It con-
leading role of a street punk who terrorizes cerns two tramps waiting, for some unspeci-
an East Indian visitor to New York City fied reason, in a kind of no mans land for
who has stopped to ask him for directions. someone, or something, named Godot. It is
As in The Dumb Waiter, the play uses a a true precursor to The Dumb Waiter.

Immediately Ben rattles his paper and reads. of something that such an encounter crystallizes
Gus proceeds with more of the same kind of is felt as undesirable. The connection is avoided
stage business as before, putting back the shoe and immediately repudiated. This happens twice
and undoing the other one similarly and extract- during the first moments of The Dumb Waiter
ing a flattened pack of cigarettes to complement for Ben and Gus. Something that is conveyed
the flattened matchbox. Again Ben has lowered must not be conveyed, nor can it be acknowl-
his paper and watches Gus until their eyes meet. edged as known. There can be no connection
As before, at that instant, Ben turns away; he between them. Their eyes turn away from each
rattles his paper and reads. Gus continues his other; the moment of contact is denied. Ben and
routine, this time exiting through the door on the Gus momentarily share something they cannot
left. Alone Ben slams the paper down on the bed share. What it is, is unstated. That is the essence
and glares after him. of the play; Ben and Gus share something they
When eyes meet, in general, something sig- cannot share. The story The Dumb Waiter tells is
nificant is happening between the two people the anatomy of the pattern of their relationship
whose eyes they are. Often such meeting signifies and not really the murky story of hired killers
an understanding and a connection. As their cooped in a room, tormented by unseen superi-
eyes meet, so do the people. Eyes meeting can ors through the mechanism of a dumbwaiter.
also cause embarrassment. Then the revelation That story is only a vehicle for this one.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 3 7
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

Consequently, the apparent surprise ending of with him regarding a story he has just seen in the
The Dumb Waiter is not at all surprising. It is not paper. Dramatically, Ben and Gus use the news-
an OHenry-twist of the plot but the inevitable paper story to avoid talking about something
conclusion or even essence of the plot, which is while letting off steam. Theatrically, Ben and
constituted by an exploration of Ben and Guss Gus are performing the first of many vaude-
paralyzed relationship with each other. ville-type routines. It is a comic dialogue. One
There is something like contempt for Gus performer gets the gag lines and one acts as a
that Ben is showing, something like irritation, straight man, feeding him questions which allow
something like a feeling of superiority. Some- the comic to build the routine. Throughout The
thing like, because nothing is sure and definite Dumb Waiter Pinter uses and deepens this old
in The Dumb Waiter. The murky surface that the music hall technique in order to show that there
play presents is the inevitable result of a contin- is some unstated conflict between the two that is
uous practice of or dedication to avoidance or expressed in falsely comic exchanges that make it
evasion. With avoidance and evasion as the gov- appear they are in tune. Gus looks interested in
erning principles of speech and action, nothing Bens account and even his cries of Go on!, Get
can be known for sure. When nothing can be away, and Incredible, show that his response
known for sure, the consequence for the human to the story is the same as Bens. But in this skit
psyche must be anxiety and a sense of the and in the following ones, the content of their
absurd. If meaning is deliberately avoided, mean- exchanges is less important than the tone of the
ing, certainty and clarity become impossible. conversations, the mood they create, and what is
Everything seems, consequently, meaningless. revealed about the personalities of the speakers
The Dumb Waiter is a drama of schematic by the power dynamics that shape the exchanges.
relationship. It presents two varieties of response In this trivial instance, Ben is overwhelming Gus.
in a situation of powerlessness and uncertainty.
After this bit of social cementing and rees-
Its focus is the interplay of those responses
tablishing the order of authority, after they have,
rather than a psychological study of character.
perhaps, made a connection with each other,
It is not a play intended by its content to reflect or
Gus says, I want to ask you something. It is a
comment on the actual world in which the play is
humble request. It is the first of many times he
being performed or read. Because it is schematic,
will announce this desire. Many of their encoun-
it does not need direct referents. Its drama is as if
ters start this way. In this first one, Ben does not
distilled from the tone of anxiety, menace, uncer-
give Gus the time to ask. He answers, instead,
tainty, and alienation that characterized the
1950s in Britain as well as the United States. It with a question and a touch of irritation: What
is not necessary to construct equivalents between are you doing out there? This does not allow
the text of the play and the actual world to see Gus either to repeat his question or to answer
how the play reflects the spirit of its time. Just by Bens. Ben expresses impatience that Gus has
using the cliched scenario of a B-grade Holly- not yet made tea for them. Gus says he is about
wood movie for the mise en scene ` and the style of to make the tea, but does not move. This device
a vaudeville comedy team as the paradigm for is repeated throughout the play. Its dramatic
his characters conversations, Pinter liberates effect on viewers and readers is to contribute
himself from plot and dialogue and in their unobtrusively to the climate of anxiety that
place reflects the eras mood. defines the play: making tea presents an ongoing
unfinished situation.
When Gus returns from the toilet, after the
plays opening pantomime, Ben begins a series of The unasked question and the undelivered
maneuvers designed to avoid contact with him, answer even more forcefully represent the anxiety-
designed, in a sense, to deny the existence of his provoking unfinished situation in the play. Some
presence even while coping with the fact that he twenty lines later, after Ben has sidetracked the
is present. Bens actions constitute a series of conversation from Guss question with the demand
feints designed to avoid and evade contact he make tea, and a discussion of the crockery in the
while appearing to make contact. The newspa- kitchen, the interlude ends when Gus notes that he
per, which had been used in the pantomime as hopes the job wont be long. Gus then remembers
the means of turning his eyes away from Gus, what he had begun earlier and says Oh, I wanted
now becomes the vehicle for spurious contact. to ask you something. Again Ben dodges, not even
When Gus returns, Ben begins a conversation acknowledging that Gus has spoken. Once again,

3 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

Ben slams down the newspaper, apparently not in

irritation, but in response to a disturbing story in
the paper, and tells Gus about an eight-year-old girl
who apparently killed a cat. EACH OF PINTERS EARLIEST PLAYS

For a third time, after they toss the cat story BECOMES MORE TERRIFYING THE MORE ONE IS
back and forth and Gus again shows impatience,
Gus tells Ben he wants to ask a question. This
time Ben says, What? Gus asks him if has ONLY BECAUSE THE ELEMENT OF FREE-WILL IS
noticed how long it takes for the tank in the
lavatory to fill. Undoubtedly, this question is
the prelude to another or a way to repress some
other question. Viewers or readers may wonder:
All that time just to ask a plumbing question?
After some back and forth, Ben answers the has imbued with the power to represent a funda-
question: Its got a deficient ballcock, thats mental expression of the human situation, which
all, and this is apparently to Guss satisfaction. is the ambiguous relationship between people
That is not, however, enough really to satisfy who are always on the verge of destroying one
Gus. Immediately after accepting the answer, another or being destroyed.
he begins to complain about not having slept
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on The Dumb Waiter,
well, about not having enough blankets. He
in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
stops abruptly when he notices the picture of a
soccer team on the wall. The presence of the
picture leads to quite a bit of conversation
Simon Trussler
about soccer, soccer players, and whether Ben
In the following excerpt, Trussler describes the
and Gus did or did not see a particular game in a
personality traits particular to Ben as well as
particular city, all done in their usual argumen-
those that are particular to Gus.
tative mode. Interlaced inside this conversation
are Guss complaints about how the work is . . . The Dumb Waiter, the last of the three
getting more constricting and Bens assortment plays Pinter wrote during 1957, had to wait
of advice and reproaches. another three years for its first performance, in
a double-bill with The Room. The service-lift of
Most of the conversation throughout the this one-acters title is a sort of machina ex deis,
play is trivial. In addition, nothing much really [a machine from God] which operates to and
happens, at least not until the dumbwaiter starts from a basement that was onceperhaps still
acting up. Even then, there really is little on the isthe kitchen of a cafe. Here, Ben and Gus,
surface that would catch a viewers or readers the plays only characters, are awaiting instruc-
attention. What keeps The Dumb Waiter going tions from the boss of some vague but evidently
for a reader or viewer is the sense that something well-organised underworld gang. And so Pinters
is going to happen. But, until the last moment of storey-by-storey exploration finally descends
the play, nothing really does happen. Ben and Gus from that upper-floor Room, by way of the
are waiting, killing time, and there is something ground-floor lounge of The Birthday Party, into
continually suggested, continually approached, the windowless and no doubt damp basement so
that is not being dealt with. At the last minute, feared by Rose Hudd.
when Gus stumbles in and, as in the opening
Goldberg and McCann were reduced to
moment of the play, he looks at Ben, both
homelier proportions in The Birthday Party
now keep their gazes fixed. Yet, whatever is
when caught off the job, and thus off their
going to happen, does not happen. The play
guardindeed, the very reference to the terroris-
ends as they stare at each other.
ing of Stanley Webber as a job [31] added its
It is reasonable to conclude, consequently, touch of reality. Ben and Gus might almost be
that just as the speech and action leading up to instruments of the same anonymous organisa-
this moment are not important in the overall tion as Goldberg and McCannbut, less bright
story line, so what happens the moment after and ready-tongued, and therefore a few rungs
the end of the play does not matter, either. down the salary scale, they are only entrusted
What is important is the closing scene that Pinter with the simpler tasks which dont need much

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 3 9
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

initiative. Indeed, the pair dont even know why to an old cricketing photograph on the wall. Gus
theyve been sent to Birmingham, and dont waste wouldnt like to live in this dump.
time in surmise. The orders will come in good time. I wouldnt mind if you had a window, you
The play is thus the sum total of the desultory could see what it looked like outside . . . I
conversational ploys and pauses with which the mean, you come into a place when its still
dark, you come into a room youve never seen
pair while away the intervening hours, until the before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and
sudden, unnerving descent of the dumb waiter then you go away in the night again . . . I like to
into their basement. This makes a beautiful look at the scenery. You never get the chance in
moment in the theatre, poised teetering between this job.
terror and bathos, disturbing, as it does, their A place, and the purpose of its mysterious
disputes about whether Gus saw Aston Villa visitors: here is a re-statement of that dominant
beaten in a cup-tie here years ago, or whether theme of each of Pinters first three plays. True,
one should properly say light the kettle or his touch is here of the lightestand faults of
light the gas. The orders sent down in the over-explicitness, such as Bens prolonged repe-
dumb waiter, although they are for meals rather tition of the speaking tubes complaints to the
than murders, are treated with great seriousness management, are few and far between. But
by Ben and Gusbut with increasing despair as behind the chatter about the quality of the
their ad hoc offerings of eccles cakes, potato crisps china, beyond the search for substitutes for
and bars of chocolate prompt the powers upstairs scampi, there is a vein of seriousness that touches
to make demands for ever more exotic dishes. and tempers The Dumb Waiter at several points.
At last, the pair having gone over their There are two dumb waiters in the play: the
instructions one last time, the speaking-tube non-speaking service lift, and the bovine Gus,
informs Ben that the nights victim is about to whose business, as Ben has to remind him, is
enter: he tries to call Gus, who has gone to the also, unquestioningly, to wait.
lavatory off leftbut it is Gus himself who stum-
Gus: What for?
bles in from the right-hand entrance stripped of
Ben: For Wilson.
his jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster and revolver . . .
Gus: He might not come. He might just send
body stooping, his arms at his sides. Bens
a message.
revolver is levelled at him, according to his
He doesnt always come.
orders: there is a long silence as the two stare at
each other, and the curtain falls. This verbal echo of Godot is no doubt a
deliberate parody, and not to be taken too seri-
Without a doubt this is Pinters least com- ously. What becomes much more serious, for
plicatedly comic play. Bens credulous belief in Gus, is his insistence on fnding such niggling
what he reads in his newspaper, his occasional fault with the order of things as he finds them.
stabs at textbook phraseology, and, most hilar- Somewhere there is a boss, who issues orders,
ious of all, the pairs frantic theorising about the which it is Guss duty to carry out: that is all he
upstairs cafe, and their attempts to match the knows in Birmingham, and all he needs to know.
variety of its menuall these ingredients keep
Yet he remains dissatisfiedcomplaining
the menace well below surface most of the
about the bed and the basement itself, wonder-
time. The plays opening is more assured, as if
Pinter were more certain of his power to compel ing who clears up after the jobs been done, and,
increasingly, bothered about the job itself.
attention without an immediate plunge into dia-
Dont you ever get a bit fed up? he asks Ben.
logue, than in either of the earlier plays. Gus is
Ben doesnt: he even takes the injunctions of the
simply tying up his shoelaces, while Ben, lying
dumb waiter in his stride. Not so his companion:
reading his paper, becomes increasingly engrossed
in his colleagues activities as Gus removes one Whats he doing it for? Weve been through our
shoe after the otherto extract first a flattened tests, havent we? We got right through our
tests, years ago, didnt we? Weve proved our-
matchbox, then a flattened cigarette-packet. He
selves before now, havent we? Weve always
shakes the packet and examines it, Pinter directs, done our job. Whats he doing all this for?
and stamps off to the lavatory. Whats the idea? Whats he playing these
Considerable attention is paid to the where- games for?
abouts of this lavatory, as it is also to the layout The methodology behind this speech is typical
of the basement and its decorationright down of Pinter. The pervasive mystery becomes more

4 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

mysterious by being reduced to commonplace have given himself over as completely as his com-
terms of tests and qualifications, whilst the partic- panion to the organisation.
ular mystery is also heightened because Gus him- The racial implications of The Birthday
self shares the mystification. And it is because Gus Party make it reasonable to think of the organ-
expresses his doubts so freely that he is being put isation Goldberg and McCann as a quasi-fas-
to the test. He even dares to be inquisitive about cist one: and maybe, just as irony is added to
who the evenings victim is going to be. The form such an interpretation by that plays reversal of
of the dramatic irony is, as ever, a precise predi- racial roles, its also impossibleindeed, para-
cate to its content. digmatically, helpfulto think of the crooks of
Without the hindsight of a first acquaintance The Dumb Waiter as the tools of some civil or
with the play Guss imminent death at the fall of religious establishment that demands absolute
the curtain is pointlessindeed, it amounts to a obedience. Certainly, the oracular nature of the
vulgarisation of the whole action, a cheap device dumb waiters injunctions makes a religious
to twist the tail for the sake of twisting the tail. interpretation tempting. But The Dumb Waiter
Once again, it is only when one has got the mes- is much less explicit in this respect than The
sage in its entirety that one can look at it properly Birthday Partynot in its physical and personal
line by lineand realise, for example, why Ben details, which are as rich yet down-to-earth as
and Gus are so very different in character. It is ever, but in the greater opacity of its theme . . .
always Gus who asks the probing questions, Source: Simon Trussler, Domestic Interiors, in The
always Ben who by-passes them, or tells Gus, Plays of Harold Pinter, Victor Golancz, 1973, 6 pp.
more or less vehemently, to shut up. Because of
this, one gets the feeling that he knows some-
thingthat he has been entrusted with more
information than Gus, precisely because he SOURCES
accepts it, as he accepts everything he is asked to
do, without question. (Such an interpretation illu- Buck, R. A., Pinters The Dumb Waiter, in the Expli-
minates Bens unnaturally quick reassurance of cator, Vol. 56, No.1, Fall 1997, p. 45.
Gus when the dumb waiter first makes its appear- Burkman, Katherine H., The Dramatic World of Harold
ance, as it does his roadside halt for no good Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual, Ohio State University Press,
reason while Gus was asleep on the way: so that 1971, p. 3.
whilst Ben doesnt know that Gus is to be his Hinchliffe, Arnold P., Harold Pinter, Twayne Publishers,
victim until the last moment, he knows that he 1967, pp. 63, 68.
knows more than Gus.) Hollis, James R., Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence,
I wouldnt be so insistent about the differ- Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 43, 50.
ence between the two men, had not most critics Pinter, Harold, The Dumb Waiter, in The Bedford Intro-
talked of Ben and Gus as more or less inter- duction to Drama, edited by Lee A. Jacobus, St. Martins
changeable. They are not: if one really looks at Press, 1989, pp. 84254.
what Gus does and says, one could not be at all
sure that, if he found himself in Bens situation as
the curtain fell, he would really duly kill his
comrade-in-arms. One is in no doubt at all that FURTHER READING
this is precisely what Ben means to do: and he
must do it because, in Bens position, Gus might Billington, Michael, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter,
have disobeyed his orders. Faber and Faber, 1996.
Billington combines biography and an exami-
Each of Pinters earliest plays becomes more nation of Pinters works in the context of the
terrifying the more one is aware that, if any events of his life.
action is inexorable, this is only because the
Goodman, Paul, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth
element of free-will is there but is being ignored.
in the Organized System, Random House, 1960.
Petey could have stopped Goldberg and McCann
This book is a classic study of the effects of
from abducting Stanley. Gus could have taken what Goodman calls the organized society
his dissatisfaction one step further, and opted that began to dominate the working and social
out: or, alternatively, he might have passed his lives of young people in the 1950s. Growing Up
last-chance test and, by accepting the dumb Absurd examines problems of powerlessness,
waiter and its orders as readily as Ben, thus meaninglessness, and capricious authority.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 4 1
T h e D u m b W a i t e r

Kerr, Walter, Harold Pinter, Columbia University Press, companies playing everything from classic Greek
1967. and Shakespearean dramas to Agatha Christie
A drama critic for the New York Herald Trib- melodramas and his later career as a playwright.
une and, after its collapse, for the New York
Times, Kerr explores Pinters plays as examples Whyte, William H., The Organization Man, University of
of existential suspense dramas. Pennsylvania Press, 2002
Thompson, David T., Pinter: The Players Playwright, Whytes anatomy of 1950s corporate culture
Macmillan, 1985. and its pervasive and coercive influence became
Thompson examines the influence of Pinters a classic sociological study that defined much
early and extensive career as an actor in repertory of the phenomena of that decade.

4 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
An Enemy of the People
An Enemy of the People, published in 1882, is HENRIK IBSEN
Henrik Ibsens response to the public reception
of, and the critical assault upon, his preceding
play, Ghosts (1881)a play about sexual vice,
moral corruption, and syphilis. Indeed, Ghosts
turned Ibsen into a kind of enemy of the people.
In Norway, the published edition of the play sold
poorly and could find no theater to produce it.
Ghosts was first performed by a touring com-
pany in Chicago and, when Ghosts opened in
London, according to Peter Watts, writing in
the Introduction to the Penguin edition of the
play, reviewers called it putrid and an open
sewer. A reviewer in the Daily Telegraph is cited
by George Bernard Shaw in The Quintessence
of Ibsenism as calling Ibsen an egotist and
a bungler . . . A crazy cranky being. Thus,
Dr. Stockmann, the protagonist of An Enemy
of the People is a version of Ibsen himself. The
playwright who uncovers social disease and
corruption is represented as a physician who
uncovers diseased water and social corruption,
is vilified and yet persists in his mission to expose
lies and corruption just as Ibsen continued to
write probing dramas.
Although its plot so perfectly parallels
Ibsens own experience as the author of Ghosts,
the plot of An Enemy of the People was actually
based on several real and similar events. A
Dr. Meissner was the Medical Officer at a health
spa at Teplitz in Bohemia, now part of the Czech
Republic, in the 1830s. When cholera broke out

4 3
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen was
born on March 20, 1828, in the small port town
of Skien, Norway. His father, Knud Ibsen, was a
prosperous merchant, his mother, Marichen
Altenburg, a painter. The fortunes of the family
took a downturn when Ibsen was around eight
years old. Thus, Ibsens childhood was marked
by their poverty and the social ostracism they
endured. When he was fifteen, Ibsen became a
pharmacists apprentice and began to write
plays. At eighteen he fathered a child but aban-
doned both the woman, ten years his senior, and
the child, and moved to Christiania, (now called
Oslo) Norways capitol city, in order to attend
the university there. Instead, however, he dedi-
cated himself to playwriting. His first plays
appeared in 1850. Catiline was published under
the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme but was not per-
formed. The Burial Mound, which also appeared
in 1850, was staged unsuccessfully.
Henrik Ibsen (AP Images) Between 1850 and 1865, when his play Brandt
brought him to prominence, Ibsen wrote a num-
ber of plays, but gained no recognition. Of equal,
there, he issued a public warning and the guests, if not more, importance for the education of the
of course, all left. Rather than drawing praise, playwright, however, was the period of some
his action aroused the wrath of the townspeople. dozen years beginning in 1851 that Ibsen served
As in An Enemy of the People, they threw stones as a stage poet and stage manager at several of
at his house. Meissner left the town. In 1880, a Norways theaters. He wrote verse plays, not the
chemist in Norways capitol, Oslo, then called realistic prose dramas he has become famous
Christiania, challenged the sanitary conditions for, and he staged over 100 plays by other
of a steam kitchen, causing a public uproar and dramatists.
a meeting like the one in the fourth act of An In 1858, Ibsen married Susannah Thoresen.
Enemy of the People. Their only child, a son, Sigurd, was born in
Ironically, unlike Ghosts, An Enemy of the 1859. In 1864, Ibsen received a grant from the
People was a popular and critical success. An Norwegian government to travel and, with sup-
Enemy of the People is concerned not only with plemental aid from the Norwegian writer, editor,
the problems of corruption and pollution but and theater director Bjrnstjerne Bjrnson
also with the problem of the relation between (18321910), Ibsen left for Italy and remained
the individual and society; the tendency of a abroad, living in Rome, Munich, and Dresden
democracy to deteriorate into a mobocracy; over the next twenty-seven years, returning to
and the likelihood for moral ideals to be pushed Norway sporadically.
aside by the pressures of self-interest. Ibsens most significant decision regarding
While there are several accurate standard his work occurred when he stopped writing
translations of An Enemy of the People, many are psychological, philosophical, mythological and
somewhat stilted. In the edition referred to here, historical verse plays and began, with Pillars of
the play in a translation by Peter Watts is called A Society (1877), writing prose dramas concerned
Public Enemy. It appears in Ibsen: Ghosts and with contemporary social issues, filled with
Other Plays, published by Penguin Books in gender, political and psychological conflicts. A
1964. An adaptation by Arthur Miller can be Dolls House, a drama about a woman who
found in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944 becomes aware of the self-denial demanded
1961, published by the Library of America in 2006. of herand all womenin the conventional

4 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

several strokes. The first impaired his ability

to walk. The second, a year later, affected his
ability to remember words. Watts recounts that
Ibsen said to his son one day Look what Im
doing, as he struggled with pencil and paper to
MEDIA write letters. Im sitting here trying to learn the
alphabetand I was once an author. Ibsen died
ADAPTATIONS in Christiania, Norway on May 23, 1906.
 A 2005 screen adaptation of An Enemy of the
People was produced in Norway by Aage
Aaberge and Kaare Storemyr and directed
by Erik Skjoldbjrg, with a screenplay by PLOT SUMMARY
Nikolaj Frobenius. It was distributed by
Columbia TriStar Nordisk Film. Act 1
Within the comfort of a prosperous bourgeois
 An Enemy of the People was adapted by
household, dinner has been eaten and Dr. Stock-
Arthur Miller, directed by Jack OBrien,
mann and his two boys are out for an after-
and produced by David Griffiths for tele-
dinner walk. The table has not yet been cleared.
vision in 1990.
Mrs. Stockmann is serving some cold roast beef
 Ganashatru (1989) is a film adaptation of An to Billing, a reporter for the Peoples Herald who
Enemy of the People that was written and has stopped by. Peter Stockmann, her husbands
directed by the Indian filmmaker Satyajit brother and the mayor of the town, enters. Peter
Ray and released by the National Film refuses Mrs. Stockmanns invitation to have
Development Corporation of India. something to eat. Mr. Hovstad, the editor of
 An Enemy of the People was adapted as a the Peoples Herald enters, hoping to discuss an
film in 1978, with a screenplay by Alexander article Dr. Stockmann had written for the paper,
Jacobs and Arthur Miller, directed by George concerning the health spa that has just been built
Schaefer, and starring Steve McQueen and and the prosperity it is expected to bring to the
Bibi Andersson. It was produced by Steve town.
McQueen, distributed by First Artists, and Dr. Stockmann returns from his walk with
released on video by Warner Brothers. his sons Eylif and Morten, bringing Horster, a
 An Enemy of the People was adapted for good-natured young ships captain, with him.
television by Arthur Miller and aired in He greets his brother warmly and invites him to
1966. Directed by Paul Bogart, this version stay for a toddy. The mayor declines, saying he
includes James Daly in the starring role. must go. Doctor Stockmann remains impervious
to his brothers sourness and talks of the excite-
ment of living in the bustle of a big city, espe-
cially after spending so many years in poverty in
a small, out-of-the way town in the north. He
marriages of the nineteenth century, followed in asks his wife if the mailman has come yet. She
1879. Ghosts and An Enemy of the People were says no.
written shortly thereafter in 1881 and 1882, Peter turns the conversation to the Baths,
respectively. In 1884, Ibsen wrote The Wild remarking that Hovstad mentioned he was
Duck. After writing plays calling for dedication going to print Dr. Stockmanns piece on them.
to honesty and truth, in The Wild Duck, Ibsen Dr. Stockmann recalls the essay and says that he
explored the problem of too obsessive a dedica- would prefer that the piece not be printed yet.
tion to truth and honesty. Ibsen wrote seven Peter accuses Dr. Stockmann of showing insuf-
more plays after The Wild Duck. They include ficient regard for Society and of stubbornly refus-
The Master Builder (1892), John Gabriel Bork- ing to subordinate himself to Society. They argue
man (1896), and one of the classic modern psy- and Peter leaves in anger. Mrs. Stockmann mildly
chological dramas, Hedda Gabler (1890). After rebukes her husband for angering his brother, but
his last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), a the doctor says he did not do anything to him to
non-realistic meditation on the sacrifices an cause his temper to flare, adding that the mayor-
artist makes for the sake of his art, Ibsen suffered should not expect Dr. Stockmann to give him

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 4 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

an account of things before they happen. the water from the Baths that he sent to the uni-
Mrs. Stockmann asks what there is to give an versity laboratory to be tested, just as he expected,
account of. Dr. Stockmann does not answer but shows the water is contaminated. That accounts
wonders why the postman has not come yet. for the several cases of illness that broke out
Hovstad, Billing, and Captain Horster emerge among visitors to the baths last year. Polluted
from the dining room, having finished their waste water from the tannery just above the
meal, and join Dr. Stockmann for conversation, Baths seeps into the stream that provides the
cigars, and toddies. Captain Horster tells them water for the spa. Mrs. Stockmann says, What
he is sailing to America. Billing remarks that, a blessing youve found it out in time! Stock-
consequently, he wont be able to vote in the mann points out that the conduits will have to be
local elections. Horster says he does not follow re-laid to channel the water to avoid the tannery.
politics and knows nothing about them. Billing He had been silent until he had sure evidence, he
says he ought to vote anyhow because Societys explains, because he did not want to cause a
like a shipevery man must put his hand to panic. Now he feels vindicated by the report
the helm. Horster, the seafarer, retorts, That because he had argued, against his brother, that
might be all right on land, but it wouldnt work the conduits originally ought to have been laid as
at sea. he now sees they must be. Hovstad promises to
print an article in the paper about the discovery.
Dr. Stockmann turns the conversation to Dr. Stockmann gives his paper arguing that dan-
tomorrows edition of the Peoples Herald and gerous infusoria contaminate the springs to
Hovstad remarks that he intends to print the Petra to have their maid deliver it to his brother.
doctors piece praising the baths. Stockmann Stockmann is heady with the excitement of being
surprises him by telling him hell have to delay the savior of the town and imagines all the glory
printing it without explaining why. Their conver- that will be his because of his discovery.
sation is interrupted when Stockmanns grown-
up daughter, Petra, enters. Amid greetings and
Act 2
offers of a toddy, Petra hands Dr. Stockmann
The next morning Mrs. Stockmann hands her
the letter he is waiting for that she got from
husband a letter from his brother. The mayor
the postman as she was leaving that morning.
writes that he is returning the article and that
Stockmann takes the letter and goes into his
he is coming over. Mrs. Stockmann is worried
study to read it.
about how Peter will take the news of the dis-
Petra is a teacher who dedicates her life to covery, fearing he will be jealous that it was
her work. Her younger brother Morten says that Dr. Stockmann and not himself who found out
he has no intention of working when he grows that the water is contaminated. She advises her
up. Rather he will be a Viking. When his brother, husband to share the honor of the discovery
Eylif, objects that he would have to be a heathen publicly with his brother. Dr. Stockmann agrees,
in that case, Morten agrees and Billing approves, saying that it does not matter to him, as long as
much to Mrs. Stockmanns chagrin. Petra uses I can get things put right.
the contretemps to argue that their world is full Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmanns father-in-
of hypocrisy. At home you have to hold your law, having heard the news about the baths
tongue, and at school you have to stand up and from Petra, stops by. He does not believe that
tell lies. When she says she wishes she had the what Dr. Stockmann says about the baths is
money to start her own school, Captain Horster true, but is delighted, nevertheless, believing
offers her the large empty dining room in his that Dr. Stockmann is playing a trick on his
house for a school. Hovstad, remarks that she brother and the other leading citizens of the
is more likely to be a journalist than a teacher town. As Morten Kiil is leaving, Hovstad enters,
and asks her if she has yet translated the English and Kiil is even more delighted. He thinks that
novel he intends to serialize in the paper. She Hovstad is in league with Dr. Stockmann and
says she has not, but will. that Stockmann has the power of the press
Emerging from his study Dr. Stockmann behind him. For Hovstad, the corruption of the
waves the letter excitedly and proclaims that he purity of the water is a metaphor for the corrupt
has news thatll surprise the town. His hunch politics of the towns governing clique. Hovstad
has turned out to be true. He wishes Peter were hopes to bring the clique down through the scan-
there to hear what he has learned. A sample of dal that will ensue regarding the mismanagement

4 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

of the construction of the baths and help put his the appearance of his authority is necessary for
own party, the Liberals, in power. Dr. Stockmann the good of the town, as is opening the new spa.
defends the governing circle, arguing that the The mayor accuses his brother of not being moti-
town owes them a lot. Hovstad concedes that, vated by devotion to the truth but by a warped
and assures Dr. Stockmann that when he writes personality. He says that Dr. Stockmann is not
against the bureaucrats, he will acknowledge able to respect authority, that he is constitution-
that, but that he is motivated in his campaign ally rebellious. He warns his brother that pursu-
by his belief in democracy. Hovstad wishes to ing his course will have damaging effects on his
help emancipat[e] the humble, down-trodden wife and children, that he will be dismissed from
Masses! the board of directors of the Baths and that his
reputation as a doctor will be tarnished. He
Aslaksen, the papers printer, enters. He has
orders Dr. Stockmann not to release his report
come to offer Dr. Stockmann his support. It will
and demands, since he has already released it to
be a good thing, he says, for Dr. Stockmann to
the newspaper, that he write another report stat-
have a solid majority behind him. Stockmann
ing that after further and deeper investigation,
is grateful but also a little puzzled. He says that
he has reached the conclusion that his earlier
redoing the Baths ought to be a routine matter.
report was mistaken and that he has full confi-
Aslaksen advises him that the authorities may
dence in the board of directors of the Baths to
bristle at taking suggestions from outsiders
take any steps necessary to deal with whatever
and offers to arrange a little demonstration.
minor problems might exist. Dr. Stockmann
Aslaksen says the small tradesmen support
refuses. The mayor reiterates that there will
Dr. Stockmann because the Baths are impor-
be terrible consequences for Dr. Stockmann
tant to the town as the source of its economic
and his family if he continues in his opposition.
But the mayors assertions only harden the doc-
When Aslaksen leaves, Hovstad expresses tors resolve. Petra supports her father whole-
contempt for his moderation and promises that heartedly. Mrs. Stockmann, although she knows
his support will be defined more sharply than her husband is right, is frightened, reminds him
Aslaksens. Hovstad promises to use the paper in that the world is full of injustice, that they will
case the mayor resists Dr. Stockmanns attempt to again have to live in poverty. But the doctor,
re-engineer the baths. Under those conditions, citing responsibility to his two boys, says he
should he face opposition, Dr. Stockmann agrees will not back down.
to let Hovstad print his report about the danger of
the baths. Hovstad leaves. Act 3
Dr. Stockmann is feeling a sense of security In the newspaper office Billing and Hovstad
and pleasure at being in complete agreement agree that Dr. Stockmanns report on the danger
with ones fellow-townsmen and of doing some- of the water strengthens their campaign against
thing of such great practical value. In this spirit the mayor and they will keep at it until the
he greets Peter. The mayor is not in the same whole of this privileged class comes crashing
high spirits as his brother. He talks of the down. Dr. Stockmann enters and tells them to
expense of reengineering the Baths. The project go ahead and print his report on the danger of
will take two years. Surrounding towns will use the baths. Since his argument with his brother
the bad publicity to establish themselves as that morning, the issue, although still centered
tourist attractions for those who seek curative on the baths, has taken on greater scope for him.
waters. Above all, the mayor declares, he is not It has become a matter of overturning corrupt
convinced by Dr. Stockmanns report. The practices and replacing entrenched power with
doctor, as usual, Peter asserts, is exaggerating. fresh ideas.
Rather than painting Dr. Stockmann as a hero, The newspaper mens motives in supporting
Peter warns his brother that he will be respon- Dr. Stokmann are tainted with self-interest.
sible for the ruin of the town. Dr. Stockmann Aslaksen is afraid of offending the authorities.
counters that Peter is upset because he is respon- He limits his criticism to cautious banalities.
sible for where the conduits for the baths were Billing, despite his rebellious stance, is trying to
laid, having ignored Dr. Stockmanns advice. get a political position for himself. Hovstad is
The mayor concedes there is some truth in that, willing to compromise his ideals for the sake of
but quickly reverts to arguing that maintaining the papers circulation and to make the papers

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 4 7
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

politics acceptable to its readers by serializing an He understands that Peter has come to sabotage
English novel with the simplistic attitude that him and win their support. He puts on the hat,
God rewards those who do good and makes and opening the door to the room where Peter is
the works of evildoers end badly. When Petra hiding, exposes him. Peter reenters, enraged at
returns the book, refusing to translate it because being discovered and mocked by his brother.
it is reactionary, he defends his duplicity. His The doctors triumphant moment is short-lived.
support for her father, moreover, is largely moti- Aslaksen and Hovstad explain they will not print
vated by his attraction to her. Petra leaves the his report in the paper, that they do not dare
newspaper office in anger. Aslaksen comes into to, no matter what, because it would offend
Hovstads office to inform him that the mayor public opinion if they did. Seeing the injustice,
has entered the offices by the back door so as not Mrs. Stockmann overcomes her anxiety about
to be seen and wishes to speak to him. the consequences to her family and voices sup-
port for her husband. He pledges that he is not
As it did the last time the mayor appeared, defeated, that if the paper will not print his essay,
the direction of the play changes. The mayors he will issue it as a pamphlet, or, better, he will
confrontation with his brother redefined and rent a hall in town and read his paper publicly.
sharpened the conflict between them. Now, he
will subvert the wills of Dr. Stockmanns allies.
He will get them in his power and make an
Act 4
The setting is a room in Captain Horsters house.
alliance against Dr. Stockmann in order to coun-
Dr. Stockmann is to give a public reading of
ter the idea that the baths are contaminated. He
his report. A group of townspeople have arrived
explains that it will be expensive to re-engineer
early and gossip, revealing that they already
the baths, that in order to do it, as mayor, he will
believe Dr. Stockmann is in the wrong, particu-
raise a municipal loan and tax the working
larly because no one in town except Horster
people, the shopkeepers, and the small home-
would make a room available to him for the meet-
owners since the shareholders of the baths refuse
ing. Slowly the room fills. Billing comes from the
to give any more money for the baths. To support
paper to cover the meeting, and Dr. Stockmanns
Dr. Stockmanns report under those circumstan-
whole family is there, too, to support him. The
ces, the newspaper would have to support raising
mayor is also present. As Dr. Stockmann begins
of taxes. Realizing that reporting that the baths
to mount the platform to begin his reading,
are unhealthy will hurt the town and themselves
Aslaksen interrupts him saying that before they
financially, the three agree that Dr. Stockmanns
proceed they ought to elect a chairman for the
report may be incorrect and that Dr. Stockmann
meeting. Dr. Stockmann says there is no need,
himself is in the wrong for promoting it. They but Peter says there ought to be a chair, and the
agree to print the mayors statement about the consensus is with him. Dr. Stockmann objects,
safety of the baths rather than Dr. Stockmanns pointing out that he has called the meeting only
scientific report explaining their toxicity. As the to read his paper. But the mayor argues that
mayor is fishing in his pockets for his statement, reading the paper might possibly give rise to
Dr. Stockmann returns to the newspaper office differences of opinion. Dr. Stockmann, not yet
as he said he would to read the proofs of his aware of the extent of the sabotage, capitulates.
Aslaksen is elected chair and then prevents
Peter hides in another room, leaving his cer- Dr. Stockmann from reading his paper, calling
emonial mayors hat and cane in plain sight in on the mayor, instead, to address the assembly.
the office. Dr. Stockmann finds that Aslaksen Peter inflames the crowd, arguing that no one
and Hovstad, who had previously been cordial would consider it desirable that unreliable or
to him, are cold and dismissive. They say they are exaggerated statements as to the hygienic con-
busy and havent had the time to set his article dition of the Baths and of the town should be
yet. He volunteers to come back later, still believ- spread abroad. He concludes, consequently,
ing he will be seen as a popular hero when his that Dr. Stockmann should not be allowed to
essay is printed. Before he can leave the office, read the report. He is followed by Hovstad, who
his wife enters, having come to prevent his article repudiates his support for Dr. Stockmann.
from being printed for fear of the repercussions, When Stockmann is finally permitted to speak,
but Dr. Stockmann dismisses her concern. About it is with the proviso that he say nothing about
to leave, he notices Peters mayoral hat and cane. the condition of the Baths.

4 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

In his address, Stockmann does refer to the As Captain Horster is telling the Stockmanns
pollution of the Baths, but only in passing, as a that he has an idea where they may go should
way to move on to what he says he considers they wish to leave the town, Peter Stockmann
a worse problem, namely the opinion of the knocks at the door and is invited in. The doctor
majority. Dr. Stockmann argues that the majority points out with bitter humor that it is chilly in the
is never right. The minority of people, those who house and the mayor disingenuously apologizes
can see beyond what the mob can see are, in fact, that it was not in my power to prevent the
in the right. Public opinion, Dr. Stockmann excesses of last night when he was, after all,
argues, is a coercive, ignorant, and destructive their architect. As if to prove his insincerity the
force. People, he argues, must be educated, must mayor presents his brother with a notice of
cultivate their reason and intelligence in order termination from the Board of Directors of the
Baths and informs him, furthermore, that the
for valid democracy to exist. His fundamental
Householderss Association has drawn up a man-
condemnation is that his townsmen are willing
ifesto which they are circulating from door to
to build their fortune on the fraud that the baths
door, urging all reputable citizens to refuse to
are safe when they are not. This position angers
employ you. The mayor advises his brother
the crowd and they condemn Dr. Stockmann to leave town for six months and then return
and censure him as a public enemy or enemy of and tell the townspeople that he has taken time
the people. He is reviled by all, by those like to weigh the matter carefully and wishes to apol-
Billing who have enjoyed his hospitality and ogize for his error regarding the Baths. Peter
those like his father-in-law, Morten Kiil, who admits that would serve him and his cronies
utters a vague threat to the doctor because Stock- well and that he would be able to manipulate
mann has revealed that Kiils tannery is one of the fickle public opinion in his brothers favor under
worst sources of pollution. The members of the those circumstances. Dr. Stockmann refuses to
audience on stage have become a mob and the act cooperate. The mayor says he has no right to
ends as they talk about storming Dr. Stockmanns jeopardize his family, but Dr. Stockmann coun-
house and breaking his windows. ters that he has no right to participate in dirty
and deceitful dealings.
Peter mentions that Mrs. Stockmanns father,
Act 5
Morten Kiil, is a very wealthy man and will be
It is the next morning in Dr. Stockmanns study.
leaving a considerable amount of money to his
The windows are smashed. Dr. Stockmann is
daughter and grandchildren. Dr. Stockmann
gathering the stones the mob has lobbed into
says he did not know his father-in-law was that
the house. He will keep the stones and bequeath
rich but he is glad that his family will be provided
them to his sons, he tells his wife. The glazier will
for despite his own impoverished circumstances.
not come to repair the windows; the landlord
The mayor tells his brother not to count on
sends a notice that the family is being evicted.
Kiils fortune because he can change his will.
Stockmann and his wife talk about moving but
Stockmann retorts that that is unlikely to hap-
he says that mobs determine policies everywhere.
pen since Kiil is delighted that Stockmann has
Unexpectedly Petra returns home from school.
given the directors of the Baths so much trouble.
She has been fired because the head of her school
This remark affects Peter more profoundly than
received three letters of complaint about her and
Stockmann would have expected. Something
her advanced opinions. The only person not
makes sense to Peter and he leaves, entirely
cutting the family is Captain Horster, who stops
severing his ties with the doctor. Morten Kiil
by to see how they are and to tell them that
enters, and it becomes clear what had incensed
because he let Dr. Stockmann use his house for
the mayor.
the meeting and saw him safely home after-
wards, he has been removed from his position Since the Baths are said to be dangerous
as a ships captain. One thing common to all the to health rather than curative, their value has
rebuffs that have been suffered is that glazier, collapsed. Morten Kiil has spent the morning
landlord, headmistress, and ship owner all said buying up the shares in the Baths cheap with
they regretted acting as they did but that they the money intended for his daughter and grand-
dared not act otherwise because of public opin- children. Everyone else has put pressure on
ion or their party affiliation. Stockmann to recant, and he has resisted. Now

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 4 9
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

it is his father-in-laws turn. Since the polluted CHARACTERS

water comes mainly from his tannery, Kiil hopes
to force the doctor to recant so that his (Morten Aslaksen
Kiils) name will be cleared. If Stockmann per- Aslaksen prints the local newspaper, Peoples Her-
sists in his insistence that the Baths are unheal- ald. He considers himself to be progressive politi-
thy, the shares will have no value. If, on the other cally but believes that radicalism must be tempered
hand, he recants, the shares will become valuable. by moderation in all his opinions and actions.
Thus the financial future of Dr. Stockmanns wife Aslaksen views the matter of the baths as a polit-
and children hinge on his decision. Kiil gives ical issue rather than as a matter of public health,
Stockmann until two oclock to decide. and he frames it as one needing his sober backing
against the authorities, whom he believes must be
Hovstad and Aslaksen enter. Seeing Kiil, moved to cooperate but must not be offended. He
they assume that Dr. Stockmanns condemnation is, above all, however, entirely self-interested; he
of the Baths was merely part of Kiils scheme to abandons Dr. Stockmann and supports opening
lower the value of the shares in the Baths. They the Baths, and suppressing the evidence of their
want a piece of the action. If Dr. Stockmann bacterial infestation, when his self-interest is
comes to terms with them and promotes the threatened. He serves as the chairman of the
Baths, they promise to put the newspaper at his meeting at which Dr. Stockmann is vilified.
disposal and turn public opinion in his favor.
Stockmann asks them what is in it for them Billing
and they tell him that the papers financial health Billing is a reporter for the Peoples Herald. He is
is shaky. They want him to subsidize the paper. first a supporter of Dr. Stockmann but, like his
If he refuses they will continue to vilify him. colleagues on the newspaper, turns against
Enraged, Dr. Stockmann takes up his umbrella Stockmann when his own self-interest is threat-
and brandishes it at them. His wife comes in, ened. Billing presents himself as a disinterested
subdues him, and Aslaksen and Hovstad man- outsider politically but he is actually positioning
age to make their escape from the house. himself to secure a place on the town council.
Dr. Stockmann sends a note to Morten Kiil
refusing to participate in his scheme. He tells his Captain Horster
wife that they will not leave the town, that he will Horster is fired from his job as the captain of a
write, using his pen against the corruption he has ship after he provides Dr. Stockmann with his
uncovered. Captain Horster offers to let the house to use as a meeting hall. Although he
claims to be an unpolitical man, Horster is inde-
Stockmanns live in his house. As for his medical
pendent and is guided by a sense of right and
practice, Stockmann points out that he will still
wrong. After the Stockmann family is left home-
have his poor patients, the ones who do not pay
less, he offers to let them live in his house and
and who most need his care. Vigorous with after Petra is fired as a teacher, he offers to let her
the righteousness of his cause, when his sons use his house as a school.
are sent home from school because other
boys fought with them because of their father,
Dr. Stockmann proclaims that they shall not go Hovstad
Hovstad is the editor of the Peoples Herald. At
back, that he will teach them himself. He will
first, he supports Dr. Stockmann, but out of self-
grow them into decent, independent men. He
interest Hovstad later turns against him. Like
will open a school with Petra in Captain Hor-
the other newspapermen, Hovstad is a hypocrite.
sters dining room where the meeting took place, Hovstad reveals that he is willing to compromise
and he will get other students, not from the mid- his ideals for the sake of the papers circulation
dle class but from the poor, the street urchins. and to make the papers politics acceptable to
His wife, although she supports him, is nervous its readers by serializing an English novel with
about the future. His daughter, Petra, has noth- the simplistic attitude that God rewards those
ing but admiration for him. He himself feels who do good with success and makes the works
unbeatably strong because he is standing alone, of evildoers end badly. When Petra Stockmann
true to right principles, not swayed by corrupt returns the book, refusing to translate it and
self-interest or public pressure. showing him its faults, he defends his duplicity.

5 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Hovstads support for her father is largely moti- Peter Stockmann

vated by his desire for her. Dr. Stockmanns brother, Peter Stockmann is the
mayor of the town and the police chief. He is one
of the major supporters of the baths despite their
Morten Kiil hazard to the patrons health. He argues that
Morten Kiil is Dr. Stockmanns father-in-law.
there is no hazard, that his brother is just a crank.
He is the owner of the tannery responsible for
Peter is unscrupulous in his actions. He seems to
polluting the waters. He is a spiteful man who
be jealous of his brother. He is puritanical and
buys up shares in the Baths at discount rates,
miserly. Nevertheless, he has given the doctor
after Dr. Stockmanns report of their unhealthi-
financial help, but rather than out of the good-
ness has deflated the value of the Bathss stock.
ness of his heart, it was to keep up the familys
Kiil uses the money that was to be his daughters
appearance. He himself follows a frugal regimen
inheritance to purchase the shares, and he hopes
and disapproves of his brothers generosity and
to force Dr. Stockmann into recanting his oppo-
the hospitality he provides to others. Although
sition in order to clear Kiils own name and
Peter actually sets himself above the good of
reputation for having been the source of the
society and manipulates others in order to
pollution. His initial delight in Dr. Stockmanns
achieve his will, he accuses his brother of being
discovery of the pollution was the result of his
unable to subordinate himself to the social good.
desire to be revenged on the members of the
town council for excluding him from sitting on
it. The extent of his depravity is evident from the
Petra Stockmann
fact that he initially believes that Stockmann was Doctor Stockmanns daughter, Petra, is a school
simply inventing a hoax. Kiil projects his own teacher. She strongly believes in her fathers prin-
ciples and stands up for him. She is fired from her
disreputable character onto others.
teaching job for her loyalty to her father. She
refuses to translate an English novel she considers
The Mayor reactionary. She seems to have been named after
See Peter Stockmann her uncle Peter, but she is unlike him; in contrast,
she is steadfast, principled, and virtuous.

Eylif Stockmann Dr. Thomas Stockmann

Eylif is Dr. Stockmanns thirteen-year-old son. Dr. Stockmann is branded a public enemy when
He seems to be more conventional than his he discovers that the waters of the baths are
brother, noting when his brother says he would polluted and poisonous and then insists that
rather not work and become a Viking, that he the baths cannot be advertised and reopened
would then have to be a heathen. for clients. He is a good-spirited and generous
man. He is a scientist whose loyalty is to the truth
Mrs. Katherine Stockmann rather than to any political party or ideology. He
The doctors wife, Mrs. Stockmann, is aware has been poor and has had to struggle in order to
that her husbands ethical stand endangers his feed his family. When the play opens, he is in a
livelihood and, consequently his familys wel- more comfortable position than he had been in
fare. Although she tries to restrain him, when in the past. Stockmann lives in town and his
the town turns against him, she supports him. She idea to build the Baths has given him a salary as
is a generous housekeeper and is accustomed to a member of the board of directors of the Baths.
feeding visitors at her table whenever they stop by. He also has a good private practice. Despite
fierce threats against his familys fortune and
safety, he persists in following the path of truth
Morten Stockmann and honor. By nature, he is open, trusting, and
Morten is Dr. Stockmanns ten year-old son. ebullient. When Peter disparages his way of liv-
Both his boys are attacked by other boys because ing, he returns his grouchiness with cheerful
of their fathers stand, and both are told to stay rebuttals. Even in his anger, when he learns
away from school for a while until the issue cools Peter has subverted his supporters, he expresses
off. Morten seems to be more adventurous than his rage with mockery, putting on Peters may-
his brother; he states that he does not wish to oral hat. When the windows of his house are
work when he grows up but to become a Viking. smashed, he makes a joke about the draftiness of

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 5 1
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

the house. Stockmann also can show solid deter-

mination. He is strengthened by his ordeal and is
dedicated to replacing corrupt ideas with fresh
ones. He sees that not only the waters of the
town are pollutedso are the ways the towns-
people think. FURTHER
The townsfolk who appear at the meeting in act  In An Enemy of the People, the issue that
4 can be seen as a character. They represent a provokes the central conflict in the play is
mob and mob mentality. Rather than thinking the quality of the water at the Baths. Today,
about the issues at hand, they are swayed by the climate change is a major political and eco-
manipulative rhetoric of the mayor and actually logical issue, and many people disagree with
become violent. the scientists on this issue. In a paper of at
least a thousand words, trace the political
and ecological issues involved in the prob-
lem of climate change and describe the con-
THEMES flicts that this has provoked. As you do so,
compare current issues and responses to
Self-Interest those presented in An Enemy of the People.
One thing that all Dr. Stockmanns opponents  With several members of your class, organ-
have in common is a firm dedication to their own ize a debate around the following topic: The
self-interest even when it is at the expense of majority is always wrong. Cite historical
the common good, as it always is. The Mayor, examples and examples from the play.
Dr. Stockmanns brother Peter, is not the least  At the conclusion of An Enemy of the People,
bit civic-minded. He is concerned with his own following the belief that education will con-
reputation, with his power, and with his sense tribute to social improvement, Dr. Stockmann
of his own virtue. The liberal newspapermen, decides to open a school. Focusing either on
Aslaksen, Billing, and Hovstad are all corrupt. Western European countries or on the United
What makes them corruptible is that their devo- States, create a timeline tracing the movement
tion to their own interests takes precedence over to make schooling compulsory and list the
devotion to truth and concern for others. Morten philosophies behind that movement.
Kiil attempts to discredit Dr. Stockmanns efforts
and attempts to corrupt Dr. Stockmanns honor
 Dr. Stockmann is at first blind to the nature
because he is offended that his good name and his of his society. When he realizes its power to
fathers good name before him will be besmirched condemn him, rather than being weakened
by the news that his tannery is responsible for by this revelation, he is strengthened. Write
a short story or a ballad about a person who
the waters toxicity.
is strengthened by adversity.
Social Responsibility
Dr. Stockmann embodies the social responsibil-
ity that his opponents have replaced with self-
interest. He is in some ways a vain man. He rel- nevertheless overcomes that fear because of loy-
ishes the esteem he believes his discovery that the alty to her husband, and because he is right.
water is deadly will bring him. But vanity like that
is different from self-interest. Dr. Stockmanns Honor
allegiance is to truth and right action. His pride The foundation of the conflict in An Enemy of
is the result of the success he has in making a the People is the absence of any sense of honor in
discovery. His daughter, Petra, is also motivated any of the leaders of the towns. Honor means
in all her actions and reactions by an unshake- dedicating oneself to the service of something
able sense of social responsibility. Captain true, good, or transcendent. That is not the call-
Horsters chief characteristic is his generosity. ing of any of Dr. Stockmanns adversaries or of
Mrs. Stockmann, fearful about the consequen- the common people represented in the meeting in
ces to her family of her husbands actions, act 4. They are shown to be a mob even before the

5 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

meeting begins, as they talk among themselves realism, that what is happening on the stage
when they agree to see how Aslaksen responds looks like life as it really happens. The play pro-
to the events. ceeds as if it were happening in a room in which
the fourth wall of the room has been removed and
Conformity the audience, unknown to the persons of the play,
The force that Ibsen identifies as allowing is peering into their private spaces.
social injustice to thrive is the force of conform-
ism. One after another, Dr. Stockmanns fellow Prose Plays
citizens refuse contact with him, they say, not Ibsen thought of himself as a poet and he began
because they wish to but because they dare his career writing in verse. His first great suc-
not. The glazier will not fix his windows only cesses, plays that are still staged, such as Brand
because he does not dare not to conform to the
and Peer Gynt, were verse dramas. But with
general will. Petras school superintendent,
Pillars of Society in 1877, Ibsen abandoned
apparently, thinks of herself as progressive as
verse and wrote plays only in prose, attempting
Petra, but she dares not, she says, offend public
to find the language of the middle-class of his
opinion. Consequently she conforms her beliefs
and actions to the low dictates of public opinion, time. Ibsens poetry, once he began to write in
stifling anything that differs from it. Conformity prose, can be found in the rhythms of his plays and
seems to be how the townspeople cope with the depth of his imagination. Readers of Ibsens
divided loyalty. That split is caused by a conflict plays in English are seriously disadvantaged since
between what is the right thing to do and what most of the translations of his works can seem
social pressure demands. Loyalty to a narrow stodgy and wordy, artificial and clumsyprob-
self-interest, and the wish to avoid ostracism or lems his original Norwegian-language work does
worse punishment, leads them to conform to pol- not suffer from.
icies they do not approve of but fear to oppose.
Reversal and Recognition
Democracy The kind of dramatic plot that Aristotle favored
As the plot develops, the value of democracy in the Poetics involves a reversal of fortune and a
becomes a central issue before which all the other recognition of something that had until then
issuespollution, corruption, greed, jealousy been hidden but that is of primary importance
fall. Dr. Stockmann, once he is cast as the enemy for the fate of the hero and in the creation of his
of the people, begins to question the wisdom of heroism. Until the moment of the reversals
the people or the good of a government by the occurrence, the hero of the drama believes in
people. The term Stockmann uses is the major- both his good fortune and his clarity of vision.
ity. The conclusion he reaches is that the major- Once reversal and recognition occur, the hero
ity is always wrong, that the few individuals who realizes he has been blind to what really is and
can see beyond the majority bear the truth and that his sense of his own superior fortune was
can indicate the right paths to follow. The two mistaken, was vain, or was a fault that kept him
forces that Ibsen shows are able to subvert from being able to know something it is essential
democracy are cowardicewhich leads ordinary for him to know. The way he faces that previ-
people to conform to mass opinionand those ously-hidden something, not his actions until
few people, like the mayor, who can manipulate then, determines his stature.
public sentiment. The mayor and others like
In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann
Aslaksen and Hovstad, do this because of their
is at first, although insightful in his hunches,
own corrupt personalities and because of their
blind to the social truth that is both his undoing
skill in corrupting others.
and his opportunity to discover his real power.
He expects to be rewarded for his discovery that
the springs are contaminated. Instead he is
reviled. Being reviled, however, illuminates for
STYLE him the truth of the individuals vision and the
spurious value of the majoritys adulation. Bred
The Fourth Wall to a harder thing / Than Triumph, in the words
An Enemy of the People is a realistic play. That the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, in his poem, To A
means that in it, Ibsen creates the illusion of Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,

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Dr. Stockmann finds the power of his own indi- regard to the play. Ibsen himself was personally
vidual strength. Being deprived of the opportu- attacked and vilified in the basest terms.
nity to enjoy social and professional triumph, he
emerges as the hero of what is, again in Yeatss The Emergence of the Era of the Little
words, most difficultstanding alone. Man
Serious plays, such as the great Greek plays or
The Well-Made Play those by William Shakespeare, were in general
Ibsens realistic plays take the form of the well- about members of the nobility. But Ibsen wrote
made play, the theory of which was developed in during the second half of the nineteenth century
France in the first part of the nineteenth century when the social emphasis had been moved away
by a prolific playwright, librettist, and man of from the nobility to the people, particularly the
the theater, Eugene Scribe, 17911860. The well- bourgeoisiemerchants, entrepreneurs, learned
made play is a play in five formally determined professionals. This shift stemmed from the
acts. Its development is logical. One action inevi- American and the French Revolutions that
tably determines the next. It depends, moreover, occurred at the end of the eighteenth century.
on standard devices, like letters or documents Thusly, Ibsen took his heroes and villains from
that pass among the characters. In a well-made the middle class, from small town burgesses.
play, the first act presents relatively congenial Aslaksen, who shuns conflict and cowers behind
action, but by its conclusion some kind of con- moderation notes that he willingly would
flict begins to emerge. That conflict and the ten- criticize the national government. It is the local
sions it creates are developed in the second act officials he is loathe to criticize. He is not
and intensified in the third. The fourth act brings equipped for the drama of such a conflict. But
the business to a head in a scene crowded with conflict on that local level is the material Ibsen
characters on the stage. In that act, furthermore, uses as he makes little people, as opposed to
the hero is brought to a low point. The fifth act aristocrats and royalty, the vehicles for present-
presents the major characters once more in a ing timeless conflicts. Themes and issues and
series of encounters that resolve the conflict. twists of fate that affect Greek rulers and Shake-
Ibsen took this formal structureoften used spearean nobility are reinvented and reinvigorated
for farcical social comedies of misunderstanding as they are explored in small-town, middle-class,
and reconciliationand transformed it, as is domestic contexts.
obvious in An Enemy of the People, by the seri-
ousness not only of his subject matter and his
The Development of Science
themes but also by the profundity of his dra-
The danger Dr. Stockmann discovers is the
matic intentions.
result of microscopic organisms, single cell crea-
tures invisible to the naked eye. The existence of
such life forms is hard to believe for people who
can only believe what they can see, but lack the
HISTORICAL CONTEXT sophistication to deduce causes from effects. The
1880s, when An Enemy of the People was written,
Reaction to Ghosts were a time of great advances in science, partic-
An Enemy of the People was written as Ibsens ularly in the realm of microscopy. In 1880, work
response to the acrimony with which Ghosts was with microscopes led to the discovery of the
met. Ghosts uses the biblical theme that the sins bacillus that is responsible for typhoid and
of the fathers will be visited on the sons to of the parasite responsible for malaria. These
explore issues like sexual immorality and vene- discoveries were not universally accepted or
real diseases, which were shocking topics in acclaimed when they were first made. When
1881. Beyond that, however, Ghosts challenges Charles-Louis-Alphonse Laveran, for example,
the predominant Weltanschauung or world view presented the findings of his microscope work on
prevalent when Ibsen wrote it. As offensive malaria to the Academy of Medicine at Paris,
as writing about promiscuity and syphilis, the many were skeptical. An inability to accept the
real offense in Ghosts resides in the fact that it possibility of science as a way to discover power-
is a story in which evil is not overcome and the ful but invisible forces contributes to the general
good do not triumph and endure. The public skepticism regarding Dr. Stockmanns discov-
outcry when Ghosts appeared was not merely in ery. Morten Kiil represents this position openly

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 1880s: Social observers like Ibsen are con- Today: The world-wide consumption of
cerned about the power that newspapers fossil fuels is polluting the air and water
have to shape public opinion and influence and, because of climate change, public fig-
political action. ures make films warning that the survival of
Today: The power of the mass media to the earth as a habitable environment for
influence opinion is a recognized fact and a living things is threatened.
matter of concern to those who see the  1880s: Like Dr. Stockmann, who considers
media as a force that undermines the vitality leaving Norway, many Norwegians are in
and efficacy of democracy. fact emigrating. Most move to the United
 1880s: Pollution occurs following the indus- States to find work.
trial revolution. Social reformers write Today: Norway attracts immigrants because
about how seriously the air and water are it has one of the highest standards of living in
being polluted and how the quality of life the world, a humanitarian social system, a
and mans relationship with the environ- policy of offering refuge to victims of war
ment are being compromised. and oppression, and good employment rates.

when he scoffs at the idea that there could pos- wrote, Lucas reports, that he hated Ibsens
sibly be little animals, as he thinks of the deadly plays. Despite admitting that they were well
microorganisms, in the water. written, Morris asserted they were not litera-
ture. Lucas also states that the great psycholog-
ical novelist Henry James called Ibsen ugly,
common, hard, prosaic, bottomlessly bour-
CRITICAL OVERVIEW geois. But James continued: And yet of his
art hes a master. Lucas goes on to note that
According to F. L. Lucas in The Drama of Ibsen
what James found in Ibsen was the presence
and Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, the twentieth-
and the insistence of life. It was not only these
century Italian playwright, declared that after
preeminent literary figures who found Ibsen
Shakespeare, without hesitation, I put Ibsen
troublesome. In 1881, as he was writing An
first. Richard Gilman, writing in The Making
Enemy of the People, just after Ghosts had
of Modern Drama: A Study of Buchner, Ibsen,
Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, appeared, Ibsen had been called an egotist
Handke, reports that the author James Joyce and a bungler, by an unnamed critic in the
learned Norwegian just to read Ibsens plays. London Daily Telegraph and A crazy fanatic
Gilman states that Joyce wrote to Ibsen in 1901 who is Not only consistently dirty but deplor-
to say how much he valued your willful resolu- ably dull, in the English magazine Truth. The
tion to wrest the secret of life. But Ibsen was English playwright, George Bernard Shaw,
and often is seen, as Gillman characterizes it, as a after citing both these and further condemna-
narrow, programmatic . . . social philosopher, tions of Ibsen and his admirers in his book The
or worse. His characters can appear to be stereo- Quintessence of Ibsenism, goes on to treat An
types used to illustrate an idea or represent one side Enemy of the People as a drama of ideas devel-
of a conflict. William Morris, the late nineteenth- oped inside political situations. Shaw reiterates
century English poet, utopian anarchist, and and supports Ibsens distrust of the majority and
designer of books, tapestries, and furniture his reservations about the value of democracy as

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 5 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Scene from the 1977 film version of An Enemy of the People, starring Steve Mcqueen as Doctor
Thomas Stockmann and Charles Durning as Peter Stockmann (Solar / 1st Artists / The Kobal Collection)

an enlightened system of government. The vicissitudes of the human character, and in his
American playwright Arthur Miller, writing in concern for the values that transcend human
the preface to his 1950 adaptation of An Enemy circumstances, Ibsen defines the poetry of social
of the People, argues that Ibsen is really perti- drama.
nent today, and adds that Ibsen embodies the
principle that the dramatic writer has, and must
again demonstrate, the right to entertain with his
brains as well as his heart. CRITICISM
The view of Ibsen as, above all else, a social Neil Heims
playwright, a dramatist concerned with political Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In
and social issues, is indeed influential; but, it is this essay, he argues that in An Enemy of the
also limiting. There is another view of Ibsen the People Ibsen not only wrote a drama concerning
dramatist, the view that his plays are poetic social issues but one in which a man becomes a
fantasies which have a lyrical nuance uncommon hero through his confrontation with adversity.
in the history of the drama, as Maurice Valency What makes An Enemy of the People a great
argues in The Flower and the Castle: An Intro- play is its ability to portray several major themes
duction to Modern Drama. In Valencys opinion, simultaneously. It can be read as a well-made
Ibsen is a romantic writer who uses social issues play that is concerned with specific social issues
to engage the great romantic themes: individual and that explores the larger conflict between
liberty, the opposition between the individual morality and greed. It can also be read as a
and his society, and dedication to truth. In drama of human growth and the destiny that is
Ibsens penetration of the varieties and implicit in character.

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 All My Sons (1947), by Arthur Miller, is a
social drama about a weapons manufacturer
who has prospered during World War II by
manufacturing sub-standard aircraft that
have subsequently caused the death of sev-
be discovered. But that is something Dr. Stock-
eral pilots.
manns enemies refuse to consider. This willful
 Ibsens Ghosts (1881) concerns the bitter blindness is as foolish as it is evil. The financial
consequences of one mans sexual promiscu-
catastrophe the mayor and, ultimately, the entire
ity: his son inherits syphilis from him and his
town want to avert will come crashing down on
wife realizes that her self-sacrifice for her
them. Essential for the maintenance of their
husband was in vain.
blindness is the vilification of Dr. Stockmann.
 The Cherry Orchard (1904), Anton Che- His enemies can only indulge their self-interest if
khovs last play, presents an old Russian
they can assert that Dr. Stockmann is a malicious
aristocratic family caught helplessly in the
troublemaker who ought not to be believed,
midst of historical change.
rather than a concerned scientist and ministering
 The Iceman Cometh (1939), by Eugene physician. The theme of the townspeoples blind-
ONeill, takes place in a saloon populated
ness and also of Dr. Stockmanns blindness,
by a group of alcoholic men who have lived
although of a different sort, gives An Enemy of
their lives without integrity.
the People a dimension beyond the well-made
 Howards End (1910), a novel by E. M. For- drama of conflicting social interests that the play
ster, concerns a society in transition and the obviously is.
conflicts that result when individual values
and aspirations clash with social values and An Enemy of the People has within it elements
expectations. that make the great Greek plays of authors like
Sophocles and Euripides the marvels that they
are. In those plays, their authors describe the
existential and psychological condition of men
and women whom fate unexpectedly upsets
Dr. Stockmann is placed on one side of the and turns around. Although plays like Oedipus
social conflict when he asserts that the water for Rex or The Trojan Women probe the relation-
the Baths is contaminated with dangerous ship between people and their environments,
bacteria. The mayor, the newspapermen, and each plays profundity and depth of seriousness
the rest of the town are on the other side of the come from its exploration of its protagonists
issue, refusing to accept the scientific truth as relationship to his or her own character and
truth because it threatens their self-interests. Dr. actions. The heart of the drama in plays like
Stockmanns conflict is with them individually those resides in the way the hero meets unwanted
and collectively. He represents moral rectitude in fate and the transformation the hero conse-
his desire to prevent an awful epidemic. They quently undergoes. Usually the paradoxical
represent what appears to them to be the good situation is such that a character achieves tran-
of their town, the forces of economic survival, scendental greatness by being brought low. The
and even prosperity for the town. Their short- blindness that a hero like Oedipus first believed
sightedness, were it not so dangerous, might to be clear sight comes to be recognized for the
appear comic. But since it is deliberate, it can blindness it is. Attainment of the awareness of
be seen as reprehensible or even evil. Once, after ignorance becomes illumination. The heroism
all, the Baths are opened, their deadly nature will of the hero is the result of the heros recognition

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A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

of a former, characteristic blindness and of his rather than a savior of the community. The
or her acceptance of fate, especially accepting his twist in the plot, whereby he recognizes that he
or her complicity in that fate. Such acceptance is is an outcast among venal men and that his
the precursor to, and the precondition for, a final comfortable status among them is no longer
transcendence of fate. The hero has the strength comfortable, and that he has suffered a serious
to bear the identity he or she discovers to be his reversal of fortune, despiteor in fact because
or hers and, somehow, to triumph over fate ofhis virtue, brings the play into a different
while seeming to succumb to it. realm from the one it seemed to inhabit. As in
the great Greek works and as in Shakespeare, the
The drama of An Enemy of the People
matter of the play is not (or is not only) social
transports Dr. Stockmann from one sort of
issues and political struggles, but the constitu-
self-confidence to another. At the beginning of
tion of the human character. Dr. Stockmanns
the drama, he is sure of his place within his
response to his fall is not to be defeated but to be
community (mistakenly), of the communitys strengthened. He rises to a level of humanity
good will towards him (which exists as long as higher than he had occupied before his fall. His
he conforms to its requirements), and of his good strength comes not from the support of a major-
will towards the community (which is qualified ity, or from conforming to how things are, but
by his sense of duty to truth). To the extent that from his own resolve to stand by himself as a
An Enemy of the People is seen as a play about herald of how things ought to be. Stockmanns
political corruption, ethical choices, and the condemnation of majority rule is not petulant or
dangers of democracy, it is a vigorous and rig- spiteful. Actually, it is not a condemnation of
orous social drama. Dr. Stockmann, when the democracy, at all, but a condemnation of igno-
play is considered in that way, is an instrument rance. After his sons are sent home from school
to move forward the plot of the play, a vehicle to because the other boys are picking fights with
carry its issues. He is a catalyst to reveal the them because of him, and after his daughter is
pollution in the government of the town as well dismissed from her teaching job because of him,
as in the Baths, and of the pollution in peoples Dr. Stockmann turns those assaults into oppor-
natures that derives from opportunism. Fit- tunity. His next step is to make a school of his
tingly, too, the play dissects how the possibility own in which he will educate street urchins
of democracy can be corrupted through the lower class children whom he will rescue from
manipulation of public opinion by instruments ignorance and through whom he will create the
of mass media run by people intent on shaping strength of democracy. That strength, Stock-
public opinion to their private interestsand mann maintains, resides in the intelligence of a
thereby subverting democracy. The newspaper- citizenry able, in consequence of their education,
men, Aslaksen, Billings, and Hovstad, are to govern themselves justly and truly.
contemptible just because they are not true to
the highest values of their journalistic profes- All Dr. Stockmanns major adversaries,
sion. They are for sale to the highest bidder. Ibsen shows, are loyal not to the truth but to
Dr. Stockmann is commendable because he is the advancement of their own projects and,
always true to his calling as scientist and physi- fundamentally, to themselves. In order to be so,
cian. His action is never determined by his desire they must baffle their vision and become blind
to serve his own interest. That puts him at odds to the truth. The newspaper men represent
this leaning towards blind self-interest. So does
with the rest of the town. His allegiance is to the
Dr. Stockmanns brother Peter. Peter represents
truth, which it is his professional duty to dis-
a consciousness of things and values entirely
cover and to defend. That ought to be the case
different from his brothers. The newspapermen
with the newspapermen, too, but it is not.
waver in their allegiance. Peter is steady in his.
Dr. Stockmanns awful burden is that he can They are corruptible, ready to support whoever
only find his identity in his alliance with the will reward them. Peter is corrupt, ready and
truth. His identity as a human being depends, quite able to subvert anyone who may block
for him, upon serving what is right. That alle- him. Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmanns proud and
giance to the truth and to himself is tested and unscrupulous father-in-law, is a pure and even
proven when his expectation that the community diabolical malevolence. He embodies the triumph
will honor his discovery of the plagued water is of opportunity over morality and of self over
subverted and he is branded a public enemy other. While the newspapermen are weak in

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A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

virtue, Peter Stockmann and Morten Kiil are

strong in vice. An Enemy of the People is not
only about social issues but about the human
beings who shape social issues and conflicts. AN ENEMY OF SOCIETY DEMONSTRATES
The play, like the Greek tragedies it has trans-
formed into bourgeois drama, shows how envi-
ronment, conflict, and even fate are functions of STAGNANT POLITICAL RHETORIC. AUDIENCES
character. The problem of the contaminated ACCUSTOMED TO THE ROMANTIC SENTIMENTALITY
water exists, in the first place, because of Peters
willful and jealous insistence that the conduits be OF THE WELL-MADE PLAY WERE INITIALLY TAKEN
laid as they were despite his brothers considered ABACK BY SUCH CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECTS.
advice to lay them upstream of the tanning fac-
tory. Because of his characteristic need to dom-
inate, Peter erred, and his need to seem above
criticism and reproach causes him to persist in
his error and deepen it.
Even when he appears to be writing a realistic and the restrictive nature of traditional morality.
drama about social issues and conflicts, Ibsen is Once writing that I prefer to ask; tis not my
constructing the archetypal roles of human task to answer, Ibsen did not establish distinct
characters. That does not mean that his plays dichotomies between good and evil, but instead
are not concerned with the issues they purport provided a context in which to explore the com-
to be about. But they also use those issues to plexities of human behavior and the ambiguities
explore the fundamental aspects of character. of reality. Martin Esslin explained: Ibsen can . . .
Dr. Stockmann is not merely the instrument be seen as one of the principal creators and well-
Ibsen uses to deliver a sermon, but a man who springs of the whole modern movement in
realizes his own potential. Dr. Stockmanns drama, having contributed to the development
major discovery is not the danger lurking in the of all its diverse and often seemingly opposed
apparently innocent waters of the Baths or even and contradictory manifestations: the ideologi-
of the political corruption of the town or the cal and political theatre, as well as the intro-
ability of his neighbors to be willingly misled. spective, introverted trends which tend towards
His discovery is instead the direction of his the representation of inner realities and dreams.
own disposition. Following that direction (as
a teacher and a reformer) in the face of opposi- Ibsen was born to wealthy parents in Skien,
tion transforms him from the protagonist of a a lumbering town south of Christiania, now
play into the archetype of a hero. Oslo. The family was reduced to poverty when
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on An Enemy of the
his fathers business failed in 1834. After leaving
People, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, school at age fifteen and working for six years
2008. as a pharmacists assistant, Ibsen went to Chris-
tiania hoping to continue his studies at Chris-
tiania University. He failed the Greek and
Gale mathematics portions of the entrance examina-
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical tions, however, and was not admitted. During
analysis of Ibsens work. this time, he read and wrote poetry, which he
Hailed as one of the pioneers of modern would later say came more easily to him than
drama, Henrik Ibsen broke away from the prose. He wrote his first drama, Catilina (Cati-
romantic tradition of nineteenth-century theater line), in 1850 and although this work generated
with his realistic portrayals of individuals, his little interest and was not produced until several
focus on psychological concerns, and his inves- years later, it evidenced Ibsens emerging con-
tigation into the role of the artist in society. cerns with the conflict between guilt and desire.
While initially utilizing conventions associated While Catiline is a traditional romance written in
with the well-made play, including exagger- verse, Ibsens merging of two female proto-
ated suspense and mistaken identity, Ibsen later typesone conservative and domestic, the other
used dialogue, commonplace events, and symbol- adventurous and dangerousforeshadowed the
ism to explore the elusiveness of self-knowledge psychological intricacies of his later plays.

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Shortly after writing Catiline, Ibsen became and inhumanity of uncompromising idealism.
assistant stage manager at the Norwegian The- While commentators suggest that Brand is a
ater in Bergen. His duties included composing harsh and emotionally inaccessible character,
and producing an original drama each year. they also recognized that this play reflects
Ibsen was expected to write about Norways glo- Ibsens doubts and personal anguish over his
rious past, but because Norway had just recently poverty and lack of success. In comparison to
acquired its independence from Denmark after Brand, the protagonist of Ibsens next drama,
five hundred years, medieval folklore and Viking Peer Gynt (1867), while witty, imaginative, and
sagas were his only sources of inspiration. vigorous, is incapable of self-analysis. Although
Although these early plays were coldly received this play takes on universal significance due to
and are often considered insignificant, they Ibsens use of fantasy, parable, and symbolism,
further indicated the direction Ibsens drama it is often described as a sociological analysis of
was to take, especially in their presentation of the Norwegian people. Harold Beyer explained:
strong individuals who come in conflict with the [Peer Gynt] is a central work in Norwegian
oppressive social mores of nineteenth-century literature, comprising elements from the nation-
Norwegian society. In 1862, verging on a nerv- alistic and romantic atmosphere of the preceding
ous breakdown from overwork, Ibsen began to period and yet satirizing these elements in a spirit
petition the government for a grant to travel and of realism akin to the period that was coming. It
write. He was given a stipend in 1864, and vari- has been said that if a Norwegian were to leave
ous scholarships and pensions subsequently his country and could take only one book to
followed. For the next twenty-seven years he express his national culture, [Peer Gynt] is the
lived in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway one he would choose.
only twice. While critics often cite Ibsens bitter
Ibsen wrote prose dramas concerned with
memories of his fathers financial failure and his
social realism during the second phase of his
own lack of success as a theater manager as the
career. The first of these plays, De Unges Forbund
causes for his long absence, it is also noted that
(1869; The League of Youth), a caustic satire of
Ibsen believed that only by distancing himself
the condescending attitudes of the Norwegian
from his homeland could he obtain the perspec-
upper class, introduced idiomatic speech and
tive necessary to write truly Norwegian drama.
relied upon dialogue rather than monologue to
Ibsen explained: I could never lead a consistent
reveal the thoughts and emotions of the charac-
life [in Norway]. I was one man in my work and
ters. Written, as Ibsen declared, without a
another outsideand for that reason my work
single monologue, or even without a single
failed in consistency too.
aside, The League of Youth evidenced Ibsens
Ibsens work is generally divided by critics shift from an emphasis on grandiose plot struc-
into three phases. The first consists of his early tures to characterization and interpersonal rela-
dramas written in verse and modeled after roman- tionships. During his stay in Munich, when he
tic historical tragedy and Norse sagas: Gildet paa was becoming increasingly aware of social injus-
Solhaug (1856; The Feast of Solhaug), Fru Inger til tice, Ibsen wrote Samfundets Stotter (1877; The
Ostraat (1857; Lady Inger of Ostraat), Haermaen- Pillars of Society). A harsh indictment of the
dene paa Helgeland (1858; The Vikings at Helge- moral corruption and crime resulting from the
land) and Kjaerlighedens Komedie (1862; Loves quest for money and power, this drama provided
Comedy ). These plays are noted primarily for what Ibsen called a contrast between ability and
their idiosyncratic Norwegian characters and desire, between will and possibility. The protag-
for their emerging elements of satire and social onist, Consul Bernick, while first urging his son
criticism. In Loves Comedy, for example, Ibsen to abide by conventional morality and become a
attacked conventional concepts of love and pillar of society, eventually experiences an
explored the conflict between the artists mission inner transformation and asserts instead: You
and his responsibility to others. Brand (1866), an shall be yourself, Olaf, and then the rest will
epic verse drama, was the first play Ibsen wrote have to take care of itself. Ibsens next drama,
after leaving Norway and was the first of his Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Dolls House), is often
works to earn both popular and critical atten- considered a masterpiece of realist theater. The
tion. The story of a clergyman who makes account of the collapse of a middle-class mar-
impossible demands on his congregation, his riage, this work, in addition to sparking debate
family, and himself, Brand reveals the fanaticism about womens rights and divorce, is also

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regarded as innovative and daring because of its and shifted his focus from the individual in soci-
emphasis on psychological tension rather than ety to the individual alone and isolated. It is
external action. This technique required that speculated that The Master Builder was written
emotion be conveyed through small, controlled in response to Norwegian writer Knut Hamsons
gestures, shifts in inflection, and pauses, and proclamation that Ibsen should relinquish his
therefore instituted a new style of acting. Gen- influence in the Norwegian theater to the
gangere (1881; Ghosts) and En Folkefiende (1882; younger generation. Described as a poetic con-
An Enemy of Society ) are the last plays included fession, The Master Builder centers around an
in Ibsens realist period. In Ghosts Ibsen uses a elderly writer, Solness, who believes he has
character infected with syphilis to symbolize misused and compromised his art. Little Eyolf,
how stale habits and prejudices can be passed the account of a crippled boy who compensates
down from generation to generation; An Enemy for his handicap through a variety of other
of Society demonstrates Ibsens contempt for accomplishments, explores how self-deception
what he considered stagnant political rhetoric. can lead to an empty, meaningless life. The search
Audiences accustomed to the Romantic senti- for personal contentment and self-knowledge is
mentality of the well-made play were initially also a primary theme in John Gabriel Borkman, a
taken aback by such controversial subjects. How- play about a banker whose quest for greatness
ever, when dramatists Bernard Shaw and George isolates him from those who love him. In his
Brandes, among others, defended Ibsens works, last play, When We Dead Awaken, subtitled A
the theater-going public began to accept drama as Dramatic Monologue, Ibsen appears to pass
social commentary and not merely as judgement on himself as an artist. Deliberating
entertainment. over such questions as whether his writing would
have been more truthful if he had lived a more
With Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck) and active life, When We Dead Awaken is considered
Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen entered a period of one of Ibsens most personal and autobiogra-
transition during which he continued to deal phical works.
with modern, realistic themes, but made increas-
After completing When We Dead Awaken,
ing use of symbolism and metaphor. The Wild
Ibsen suffered a series of strokes that left him an
Duck, regarded as one of Ibsens greatest trag-
invalid for five years until his death in 1906.
icomical works, explores the role of illusion and
Although audiences considered Ibsens dramas
self-deception in everyday life. In this play,
highly controversial during his lifetime because
Gregers Werle, vehemently believing that every-
of his frank treatment of social problems,
one must be painstakingly honest, inadvertently
present scholars focus on the philosophical and
causes great harm by meddling in other peoples
psychological elements of his plays and the ideo-
affairs. At the end of The Wild Duck, Ibsens
logical debates they have generated. Ibsens
implication that humankind is unable to bear
occasional use of theatrical conventions and out-
absolute truth is reflected in the words of the
moded subject matter has caused some critics to
character named Relling: If you rob the average
dismiss his work as obsolete and irrelevant to
man of his illusion, you are almost certain to rob
contemporary society, but others recognize his
him of his happiness. Hedda Gabler concerns a
profound influence on the development of mod-
frustrated aristocratic woman and the vengeance
ern drama. Haskell M. Block asserted: In its
she inflicts on herself and those around her. Tak-
seemingly limitless capacity to respond to the
ing place entirely in Heddas sitting room shortly
changing need and desires of successive genera-
after her marriage, this play has been praised
tions of audiences, [Ibsens] work is truly classic,
for its subtle investigation into the psyche of a universal in implication and yet capable of end-
woman who is unable to love others or confront less transformation.
her sexuality.
Source: Gale, Henrik Ibsen, in Contemporary Authors
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 and there Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.
entered his third and final period with the dramas
Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder),
Lille Eyolf (1894; Little Eyolf), John Gabriel Bork- F. L. Lucas
man (1896), and Naar vi dode vaagner (1899; In the following essay, Lucas considers Ibsens
When We Dead Awaken). In these final works, promotion of individualism and the attacks that
Ibsen dealt with the conflict between art and life his views first encountered.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 6 1
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

What particularly angered Ibsen was the

abuse from the liberal Left. Natural enough
that, on the Right, bigoted clerical conservatism
IBSEN NEVER WROTE A PROSIER PLAY. BUT should lift up its many heads and bray; but he
had not expected this chorus to be so loudly
joined even by professed democrats. Accordingly
WELL DISPENSE, ON OCCASION, WITH POETRY. YET in An Enemy he kept some of his sharpest cuts for
so-called radical journalists who were anxious,
not to civilize public opinion, but merely to
PLAY ABOUT ANYTHING SO PROSAIC ASDRAINS? trot behind it. I am more and more convinced,
he wrote to Brandes, that there is something
demoralizing in all contact with politics, or
adherence to parties. Never, under any circum-
stances, shall I be able to join any party which has
Ibsen had been prepared for a storm over on its side the majority. Bjrnson says the major-
Ghost. But he was certainly not prepared for the ity is always right. As a practical politician, I
tornado that actually blew up. He was not suppose he must. But I, on the contrary, feel
daunted. But he was very angry. And, like Luther, compelled to saythe minority is always right.
he found anger inspiring. An Enemy of the People
An Enemy of the People is based, like A Dolls
was his counter-defiance; and he completed it
House, on episodes of real life. Ibsen had heard
with what was, for him, unusual speed.
of a certain Dr Meissner at Teplitz whose house
He seems, indeed, to have begun thinking of was stoned in the thirties, because he reported an
this play as early as the spring of 1880, provoked outbreak of cholera, and so ruined the spas
by the far milder outcry over A Dolls House. season. Also a certain Thaulow (181581), an
That summer, however, he turned to meditating apothecary in Christiania, who had a long feud
Ghosts, published in December 1881. Finally, with the Christiania Steam Kitchen, after pub-
further exasperated by the abuse of Ghosts, he lishing in 1880 a pamphlet called The Pillars of
finished An Enemy of the People in the following Society in Prose, had been howled down at a
summer of 1882; whereas from 1877 to 1881 and meeting in February 1881; and died a fortnight
from 1882 to 1896 each new play regularly took later. Further, Dr Stockmann appears to contain
him two years. Further, as Gran points out, An elements of Georg Brandes, Bjrnson, Jonas Lie,
Enemy does not show any trace of Ibsens usual and Ibsen himself. The very name Stockmann is
recastings and redraftings. taken from the home of Ibsens childhood at
It cannot be doubted that, though the poet Skien.
assumed an air of icy indifference, the reception The plot is simple. A small Norwegian town
of Ghost left him really furious. To his friend sets up as a spa, largely thanks to the energy of a
Hegel he wrote, when he was already thinking certain Dr Stockmann. But its penny-wise town-
over An Enemy (16/3/1882): council has laid the pipes too cheaply; and
All these withered, decrepit figures who have Stockmanns analysis confirms his fears that
thus fallen upon my work, will one day receive the water now teems with microbes. The patients
a crushing verdict on themselves in future liter- are less likely to be cured than poisoned. So the
ary history. People will find out how to identify pipes must be relaidat great expense.
the anonymous poachers and footpads who
have pelted me with filth from their lurking- Dr Stockmann, being a simpler, much more
place in Professor Gooss delicatessen-shop sanguine and muddle-headed person than Ibsen,
newspaper and other like localities. expects this vital discovery of his to be hailed by
But Ibsen was in no mood to wait for the his fellow-townsmen with shouts of gratitude.
literary historians of the future. He would vindi- For he is saving them from a scandal and a
cate himself, here and now. So he sat down and disaster that might have cost many lives. Still
wrote An Enemy of the People. He might ironi- worse, it might have cost the town itself, in the
cally describe it as a peaceful work, that can be long run, a lot of money. Little he knows the
read by wholesale-merchants and their wives. blinding potency of wishful thinking.
But this description might have left the whole- Consequencea sharp lesson in practical
sale-merchants considerably astonished. psychology. The Doctors brother Peter,

6 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Mayor and Chief of Police, is furious. Nothing comedy gains by being seen rather than read;
so horrid can possibly be true. Not a word more whereas tragedy, unless superlatively staged, is
of it! The Doctors rich and cunning old father- often better read than seen.
in-law, Morten Kiil (whose own tannery is poi- The most effective thing in the play is its
soning the Baths) takes the whole story for a hero; who seems mainly a mixture of the hope-
clever trick of the Doctors to discredit his fully pugnacious Bjrnson (who had dared to
brother the Mayor. Hating the Mayor, old Kiil defend Ghosts), and the grimly pugnacious
is delighted. He promises, if the Doctor proves Ibsen. Dr Stockmann, said his creator, is in
right, a gift of twentyno, on second thoughts, part a grotesque, hare-brained fellow. But, he
ten poundsto charity. Hovstad, editor of the also said, Dr Stockmann and I get on splen-
local left-wing paper, is equally delightedfor didly; we agree so well in many ways; but the
the moment. What a chance to ruin the town- Doctor has more of a muddle-head than I, which
council! But when Hovstad comes to realize also may make things more tolerable from his mouth
the expense and unpopularity involved, he at than they would be from mine. In short, the
once rats to the side of the Mayor. tight-buttoned Ibsen could here, for once, let
At a public meeting Dr Stockmann is himself go; with a freedom that, when he spoke
howled down, and voted a public enemy. His in his own person, his self-critical reason usually
windows are smashed. His post is taken away. (not always) checked and inhibited. Further, the
His daughter is dismissed from the school where human jackals and crocodiles that the Doctor
she teaches. His landlord gives him notice. And hunts, are quickened by Ibsens angry hands into
his father-in-law blackmails him by investing the a very grotesque and lively variety of game.
money that Stockmanns wife and children One of the plays main themes may seem
would inherit, in the condemned Baths. Indeed, triteHonesty is the best policy. Yet it has
if the Doctor will not recant, old Kiil will leave been objected by one Ibsen-critic (whom it really
all to charity. (Stockmanns father-in-law is a would be unkind to name), that Stockmann
great fellow for charity!) brought a calamity on his native place by his
Such are the rewards of serving humanity. awful propensity for blabbing out the truth.
But Stockmann, like a Voltaire or an Ibsen, This wisdom seems worthy of Peter Stockmann
remains undaunted. He realizes, at last, what himself. Would a hundred cases of typhoid have
Ibsen himself, in his more resolute and less scep- been less of a calamity?
tical moods, so passionately believed: But not all the ideas behind the play are so
The strongest man on earth is he who stands simple. Ibsen has here travelled a good deal
most alone. towards the Right since the days of Catiline.
Ha! ha! cries Hovstad. So Dr Stockmann has
Or as Matthew Arnold had put it: turned aristocrat since the day before yesterday.
Alone the sun arises, and alone Applied to Ibsen himself, that would be only a
Spring the great streams. half-truth. For he remained a liberal. But he had
Ibsen never wrote a prosier play. But this is come to feel that there is no real progress
not a condemnation. Comedy can quite well dis- for communities without progress in the individ-
pense, on occasion, with poetry. Yet how many uals composing them. Hence his warning in 1885
authors would have dared write a play about any- to the workers of Trondheim that democratic
thing so prosaic asdrains? Curiously enough, liberty required, also, an aristocratic element
this prosaic work was immediately followed by of character, of mind and will. We have not
one of the pieces where Ibsen most deeply infused moved much nearer that goal in our age of total-
his prose with hidden poetryThe Wild Duck. itarian tyrannies, and a world still further plebe-
But if Ibsen never wrote a prosier play, he ianized by mass-standards and over-population.
never wrote one more breezy and more bois- An Enemy of the People then, has by no
terous. Perhaps its unusual dash and high spirits means lost its point. Its first audiences seem to
were helped by the unusual rapidity with which have been favourable, but not swept away. A
its authors anger tossed it off. An Enemy of the generation later, however, in 1905, on the day
People becomes, in my experience, even more of the massacre in Kazansky Square, the
amusing than one might expect, when acted and play was performed, says Stanislavsky, at the
produced with vigour. For here, as so often, Moscow Art Theatre. At the moment when

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 6 3
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Dr Stockmann remarks, One must never put on a retained some traditions of freedom, like Hugo
new coat when one goes to fight for liberty and von Hofmannstal, could come in this century to
truth, such a pandemonium of applause burst write: Our time is unredeemed, and do you
from the delighted theatre that the performance know what it wants to be redeemed from? . . .
had to stop. The audience stormed towards the The individual . . . Our age groans too heavily
footlights. Hundreds of hands were stretched under the weight of this child of the sixteenth
out to Stanislavsky who was playing the Doctor. century which the nineteenth fed to monstrous
And many of the younger, more agile playgoers size. Ibsen would have smiled pretty grimly.
jumped on the stage to embrace him. Little their If we had a National Theatre, it could hardly
Russian exuberance guessed that all their revolu- do better to educate the public than perform An
tionary ardour was only to exchange the tyranny Enemy of the People every single year.
of Czars for the tyranny of Commissars; that
Source: F. L. Lucas, An Enemy of the People (1882),
Peter the Great was to be succeeded by a series in The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Cassell, 1962,
of Peter Stockmanns. pp. 17177.
Norwegians are by nature less effusive than
Russians: but Gran similarly tells how in 1915
Dr Stockmanns denunciations of stupid major-
ities were cheered by a packed Norwegian thea- SOURCES
tre; long sickened of political claptrap and
intrigue. Gilman, Richard, The Making of Modern Drama: A
Study of Buchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello,
However, as Dr Stockmann says, truth itself Brecht, Beckett, Handke, Da Capo, 1974, pp. 5051.
does not stand still. Truths are by no means wiry Ibsen, Henrik, An Enemy of the People, in Ghosts and
Methusalehs, as some supposed. A normal truth Other Plays, translated by Peter Watts, Penguin, 1964,
lives, say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen years pp. 103220.
twenty at mostseldom longer. Since then, Lucas, F. L., The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Cassell,
though the damned compact majority can be 1962, pp. 295, 299.
stupid and tyrannical as ever, we have come to Miller, Arthur, Preface, in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays
suffer also from another curse, the damned 19441961, Library of America, 2006, p. 26163.
compact minority that makes up for numbers
Shaw, George Bernard, The Quintessence of Ibsenism,
by fanaticism and organizationthe Party, Hill and Wang, 1913, pp. 9297.
Fascist, Nazi, or Communist, which can bludg-
Valency, Maurice, The Flower and the Castle: An Intro-
eon the masses into pseudo-majorities such as
duction to Modern Drama, Macmillan, 1963, p. 123.
Ibsen never dreamed of, where 99.9 per cent.
vote the Yes of slaves. Under such regimes the Watts, Peter, ed., Introduction, in Ghosts and Other
Plays, Penguin, 1964, pp. 11, 16.
Dr Stockmanns of our age have found, to their
cost, that though in civilized societies he may be Yeats, William Butler, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats,
strongest who stands most alone, that truth holds Macmillan, 1962, p. 107.
true no longer under the brutality of police-states.
Such men ended in the Lipari Islands, in the
Lubianka Prison or Siberia, in Sachsenhausen
or Dachau, or in the grave. Fortunate the man FURTHER READING
who, like Pasternak, was merely gagged, and
reviled as, precisely, an enemy of the people. Adler, Stella, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and
Which suggests that, as one would expect, the Chekhov, edited and with a preface by Barry Paris, Alfred
Russian propaganda-machine has forgotten A. Knopf, 1999.
Stella Adler, who died at the age of ninety one,
Ibsenor it would hardly have chosen the very
in 1992, was known as one of the great acting
phrase which Ibsens play has left so charged teachers of the twentieth century. This book is
with ridicule. a collection of her lectures. The five that are
devoted to Ibsen consider him as a pioneer of
Small wonder then if Russian Marxist critics
modern theater who tore down and recon-
like Plekhanov or Lunacharsky had little use for structed the way dramas were created. Adlers
the individualism of An Enemy of the People, lectures focus on Ibsens plots, his themes, his
with what Lunacharsky called its laughable values, and the demands that his plays make on
tirades. For even writers who should have actors as well as the opportunities they offer.

6 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
A n E n e m y o f t h e P e o p l e

Beyer, Edvard, Ibsen: The Man and His Work, translated Sage, Steven F., Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the
by Marie Wells, Condor/Souvenir Press, 1978. Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich, Carroll &
Beyer offers an account of Norway in Ibsens Graf Publishers, 2006.
lifetime and its literary environment. Then Sage asserts that Dr. Stockmanns acts and
the book goes on to trace the development pronouncements were formative in shaping
of Ibsens career, his art, and his thought. the Nazi leader Adolf Hitlers ideology and
the course of his ascent and rule.
Gosse, Edmund, Henrik Ibsen, Charles Scribners Sons,
Tennant, P. F. D., Ibsens Dramatic Technique, Bowes &
1907. Bowes, 1948.
Gosse, 18491928, was an English poet and This is a compact and well-focused study of
critic who wrote this literary biography shortly Ibsen as a dramatist, his approach to construct-
after Ibsens death. Gosse shows how Ibsens ing stories for the stage, as well as his approaches
life and work were understood by one of his to presenting stories on the stage, and for meth-
younger contemporaries. ods of creating roles for actors.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 6 5
Fabulation; or,
The Re-Education of Undine
LYNN NOTTAGE Lynn Nottages Fabulation; or, The Re-Education
of Undine was published by Dramatists Play Serv-
ice in 2005, the year after it was originally produced
2004 in New York City. It is a riches-to-rags story that
follows the apparent decline of Undine from her
high-profile job in Manhattan back to the projects
where she grew up. Although she loses her status,
wealth, and pride, she gains wisdom and self-
knowledge that would have eluded her in her
prior existence. Facing the people from her past,
she must come to accept them and herself as she
learns that one can never truly outrun the past.
Although the characters are primarily Afri-
can-American, and the play is often categorized
as an African-American play, most of the content
is universal. Nottage may be making a statement
about the particular importance of African Amer-
icans honoring each other in all social strata and
taking pride in their past, but the themes are appli-
cable to many backgrounds and experiences.
There is nothing, after all, about Undine that is
only relevant to African Americans or even
women. She is a person who finds herself in a
situation faced by many people the world over
and in all eras. The result is an accessible play
about confronting uncomfortable personal truths.

Lynn Nottage was born in 1964 in New York
City, and grew up in Brooklyn. As of 2007, she

6 6
F a b u l a t i o n ; o r , T h e R e - E d u c a t i o n o f U n d i n e

The year 2004 was a busy one for Nottage.

One of her plays to see publication was Crumbs
from the Table of Joy, which tells the story of a
widower and his two daughters who move from
Florida to New York to live with family. Set in
the 1950s, the African-American family faces
personal struggles within the family, along with
social struggles in the upheaval of the day. Inti-
mate Apparel was also published in 2004, and
tells the story of a long-distance relationship
and the challenges that come when the couple
marries. Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of
Undine, although published in 2005 by Drama-
tists Play Service, was first produced in 2004. It is
an unusual rags-to-riches-to-rags story of an
African-American woman who overcomes her
humble beginning, becomes arrogant in her
success, and takes a dramatic fall back to where
she started. Nottage has received a number of
prestigious awards for her playwriting, including
a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship
and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005.

Lynn Nottage (Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images) PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1
still lived in New York City. Even as a young The play opens with Undine in her office on
girl, she enjoyed writing scripts in her personal the phone with a client. Undine runs a public
journal. When she was a teenager, she attended relations (PR) firm, and is working on a client
the High School of Music and Art in New York, project as her assistant (Stephie) is madly trying
and then attended Brown University, from to find someone fabulous to accompany her to a
which she graduated with a bachelors degree in major event that night. Undine wants someone
1986. She then went to the Yale School of who will help her make a great entrance, but
Drama, where she completed her Master of Stephie is having trouble making it happen.
Undines accountant is waiting to see her, and
Fine Arts degree in 1989. Although she worked
hits Undine with terrible news. Her account has
as a press officer for Amnesty International after
been emptied, and she should seriously consider
graduating, she later returned to writing. It was a
filing for bankruptcy. Undines husband, Herve,
short play entry that reignited her desire to write
has left and apparently had been slowly taking
scripts; that play, Poof! won an award. Since
their money. Shocked, Undine continues to treat
then, most of Nottages career has been in
everyone around her with little respect and speak
drama. She has worked as an award-winning
tersely to them. The accountant continues to try
playwright and as a visiting lecturer in playwrit-
to get through to her, but Undine digs in her
ing, and scripts continue to inspire and motivate
heels, insisting that she will not give up her busi-
her creativity. Her plays have been produced
ness. When an Federal Bureau of Investigation
agent arrives to talk to Undine about her hus-
After Poof!, Nottage turned her attention back bands identity fraud, she is even more shocked.
to an article she had read about unpaid soldiers in The agent also explains that their research has
Mozambique who took matters into their own shown no record of an Undine Barnes Calles until
hands by nabbing hostages. The resulting play fourteen years prior to that day. He says, you seem
was her 1997 work, Mud, River, Stone. to have materialized from ether. At this point,

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 6 7
F a b u l a t i o n ; o r , T h e R e - E d u c a t i o n o f U n d i n e

Undine excuses herself and addresses the audience but her brother, Flow, mocks her for distancing
directly. She explains that she came from a humble herself from them when she was so successful in
background, acquired excellent schooling, and the city. He is clearly bitter. Undine asks him how
broke from her past to become the owner of a his epic poem about Brer Rabbit is going, and
fierce boutique PR firm catering to the vanity although he has been working on it for years, he
and confusion of the African American nouveau insists that he is still going to finish it. Undine tells
riche. She then explains that she met Herve at a the audience that Flow had been successful in the
party, and she was swept away by his Latin charm military, but came back from Desert Storm
and the fact that he gave me flair and cache. They changed. He now works as a security guard at
married, he got his green card, and they led a Walgreens.
glamorous life. Then Undine grabs her chest and Undine tells her mother she does not know
yells for Stephie. how long she will need to be there, and her
mother tells her she will have to sleep with her
SCENE 2 grandmother. Undine is fine with that. Undine
When the next scene opens, Undine is talk- tries to talk to her father, who speaks in a distant
ing to her doctor and learns that she did not have way about a man in the neighborhood who
a heart attack, just a severe anxiety attack. She solved a prize-winning math problem, but was
tells him that her husband left her, she is broke, killed before he could collect the money. Undine
and she is going to have to close her successful turns to the audience and tells about her family.
business. The doctor tries to cheer her up with Although she told all of her friends in New York
the good news that she is pregnant, to which she City that her family was killed in a fire, her
responds by addressing the audience directly parents actually had wanted to be on the police
again. She talks more about her relationship force, but were not able to pass the exams. So
with Herve, how exciting it was when they met they became security guards at a university. She
and fell in love. Although she had been dating a strikes up chit-chat with her mother, and when
washed-up rapper, Herve was more sophisti- Flow asks about the father of Undines child,
cated and more in line with the image she was Undine gets defensive because she feels like she
working so hard to establish for herself. has become such a negative stereotype as a single
African-American mother in the projects.
In the next scene, Undine and a friend, Alison, SCENE 5
are talking in Undines office about the disaster Undine goes to the room she will share with
that has befallen Undine. It has already been cov- her grandmother. Her grandmother talks about
ered in the paper, and Undine is furious with Herve how she wishes Undine had not left the family
and humiliated for herself. Alison is the only friend the way she did, and that the tension at home
who has not totally abandoned her, and Undine was not as bad as Undine makes it out to be.
tells the audience that Alison also changed her Then Undine learns that her grandmother has
name when she achieved success and wealth out- been using heroin to make herself feel better.
side of Harlem, where she was reared. When When Undine asks her mother if she knows,
Undine asks if she can stay with Alison, she is she dismisses the idea. The grandmother convin-
subtly turned away with shaky promises of having ces Undine to go get more drugs for her, and
dinner together soon. while Undine is in the middle of the deal, the
A Yoruba priest arrives in Undines office, police arrive. Undine is placed under arrest.
on the advice of the accountant. The priest says
that Undine has angered the god Elegba, and he SCENE 6
wants her to go home in order to appease him In jail, Undine meets a harsh woman who
(and give him a thousand dollars and a bottle of tries to start something with her, and another
rum). Undine decides she has nothing to lose, so woman who tells Undine just to ignore the
she pays the money and makes plans to return to other inmate. She then asks Undine if this was
Brooklyn to see her family. her first time as a prostitute, and Undine tells her
that is not why she is there at all, that it was just a
SCENE 4 misunderstanding. The inmate then tells Undine
Undine shows up at her parents house, to the how a guy was looking at her wrong and talking
surprise of everyone. Her mother is welcoming, nasty to her, so she attacked him and was

6 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F a b u l a t i o n ; o r , T h e R e - E d u c a t i o n o f U n d i n e

arrested. When Undine goes before the judge, of her pregnancy, and Undine still has to face
she is sentenced to a drug program that she social services the next day to get the right form.
must attend or face a year in prison.
Undine eventually makes it through the sys-
Act 2 tem and is able to see a doctor. The doctor
SCENE 1 informs Undine that she is farther along in her
As the second act opens, Undine is sitting in pregnancy than she thought. Undine is surprised
on one of her drug counseling group sessions. and also frustrated at the doctors telling her she
The other addicts are talking about their strug- should have come in sooner to receive proper
gles with addiction, and one man, Guy, tries to prenatal care.
encourage them to enjoy the peace of being
clean. Undine remarks that the irony is that the
Undine goes to a drug store in an entirely
descriptions of crack by the addicts make her
different neighborhood because it is such a nice
want to try it. When pushed to share her own
store. She runs into Stephie, who is working there
story, Undine makes up a story of addiction and
while she looks for a better job. Undine is
even manages to cry. Guy encourages her to look
embarrassed to see Stephie. When Stephie leaves,
at her pregnancy not as a burden, but as an Undine finds her vitamins, shoplifts them, and
opportunity to learn. Undine is intrigued by heads home.
him, and accepts his invitation to a date. On
the date, he tells her that he is a security guard SCENE 6
at a movie theater, but that he wants to be a Back at home, Flow is talking about a shop-
firefighter. She tells him that she once had a lifter at his store that he tried to turn around with
successful PR firm. He tells her how much he a moving speech about making better choices to
respects her for her battle against addiction and honor the heritage of African Americans. Then
her preparing to be a single mom. He wants to he teases Undine about how big she is and her
see her again, but she says it is not a good idea. name, and their mother scolds them both for
He always stays positive, and Undine tells the being childish. Undine is frustrated because
audience, His sincerity is sickening, while also someone called for her, but neither parent nor
admitting that everything that makes him so the grandmother remembers anything about the
different from Herve makes him appealing. call or the caller. Flow recites his partially com-
pleted poem, and the family listens. When he is
SCENE 2 done, they talk about how they saw the article
In the courtyard of the projects, Undine runs about Undine where she said her family had died
into two old friends, Rosa and Devora. Although in a fire. She claims it was a misunderstanding,
Undine tries to avoid them, they see her and talk but they know better. Undine addresses the
briefly about the roads their lives have taken. audience with general questions about her life,
Rosa is still living in the projects, and Devora and then announces that the authorities caught
has moved into the city after becoming a finan- up to Herve.
cial planner. Devora had heard of an Undine
who was a PR executive, but does not realize SCENE 7
that it was the same Undine. As Devora leaves, Undine visits Herve in prison, where he is
Rosa mentions social services, and Undine calls it surprised to find her pregnant. He asks whose
the most dreaded part of the system. baby it is, and she releases her anger on him. She
accuses him of being a selfish user, and he
SCENE 3 accuses her of being closed off to the world.
The next scene opens with Undine finally at
the front of the line at social services, where she SCENE 8
confronts a sarcastic and hostile case worker. In her next group counseling session, Undine
They argue over forms and the length of the learns that Guy was the one who called her home.
line until Undine escalates the argument to the She and Guy talk during someone elses heart-
point that the case worker has Undine taken by wrenching discussion of addiction, but their con-
paramedics to a psychiatric hospital. They give versation soon becomes the center of attention.
her antipsychotic drugs she can not take because He tells her that if she wants him to be there for

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her delivery, he will. She admits to being con- unwilling to see her own arrogance. By the end
fused and angry with the world, and accepts his of the play, she has come to understand herself
offer. better as a part of her family, and she will be
forced to put her selfishness aside because she
SCENE 9 will have a baby depending on her. The reader
In the next scene, Undine is pushing her cannot help but think that Undines welcoming
baby while Guy coaches her. She is reluctant to Guy into her life is a sign that she is softening
bring a child into this world, but when she and learning from her many mistakes.
releases her hesitation, the baby comes out. The
last sound in the play is a babys cry as the lights Father
go down. Undines father is emotionally distant and does
not engage on a personal level with the other
members of the family. He seems to see the
world through pessimistic eyes and has given
CHARACTERS up on the idea of living his dreams. When he is
not at work, he is either sitting in a bar with his
Undine Barnes Calles friends, or sitting at the table at home drinking
At thirty-seven, Undine owns a successful bou- beer and occasionally talking to his family. He
tique PR firm in New York City. She is married seems to have a broken spirit, and the world has
to an exciting, sophisticated man, and she seems made him cynical and detached.
to have completely overcome her humble begin-
nings in the Brooklyn projects. She has changed Flow
her name from Sharona to the more refined Flow is Undines brother. He was successful in
Undine, become a mover and shaker, and has military school and in his subsequent military
even made up a story about her family dying in a service. However, the time he spent in Operation
fire, but she learns that she cannot truly change Desert Storm changed him in a profound way.
the truth of her past. When her husband turns Undine says that he was never able to reconcile
out to be a criminal and a thief who leaves her his love of freedom with his love of the uniform.
alone, pregnant, and penniless, Undine returns Like his parents, Flow works as a security guard,
home to face the family and community she although he insists that he will one day finish his
abandoned. Her pride makes her return difficult, epic poem about Brer Rabbit. The work he puts
and she is defensive and judgmental. But in cri- in on his poem, and his passion in discussing it,
sis, she opens her heart and looks at herself more reveal an intellectual side of Flow. He analyzes
closely. She then grows strong in a way she could his world, but unlike his father, he is still deter-
not have understood in her former life. mined to make whatever changes he can.
The play is essentially about Undines per- Evidence of this is not only in the intellectual
sonal growth after realizing that she had built exercise of the poem, but in his workplace
her life among selfish, superficial people who where he tries to turn a young mans life in a
knew little of loyalty or compassion. When her better direction after the young man is caught
business and money are gone, so are her friends shoplifting. Flow is somewhat hot-tempered
and connections. The reader has to wonder if (probably a result of his internal anger), and
Undines pride kept her from looking for a job when the young man does not know who Nelson
working for someone else rather than leave the Mandela is, Flow sends him off with the police.
city quietly. Regardless, she returns to the safety When Undine returns, Flow is resentful and
net of her family, taking her attitude with her. sarcastic; he tries to make her feel awkward
She clearly feels comfortable at home because and unwelcome. He believes she abandoned the
she settles in quickly, speaking her mind with family and only thought of herself when she went
no concern for other peoples feelings. Her pre- to New York City to pursue her dreams, and
occupation with herself is clear in how quick she then came back only when she needed help.
is to criticize those she left behind when she went
to start her business in the city. She shows little Grandmother
gratitude, and she does not even apologize to Undines grandmother has lived a life of hard work
them for telling everyone they were dead. They as a wife and mother. In her old age, she feels un-
know she was ashamed of them, yet she is satisfied and useless with little to look forward to

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every day. She has become a drug addict, shooting Sharona

heroin to make the days go by more easily. She is See Undine Barnes Calles
not proud of her drug use, but she does not try to
hide it from Undine on Undines first day back. Stephie
Undines grandmother makes her feel guilty and Stephie is Undines executive assistant in the first
manipulates Undine into going to buy more drugs scene of the play. She is young, stylish, and a
for her, which lands Undine in jail. good worker. While she does not seem to be
overly ambitious or career-oriented, she is com-
mitted to finding work that will take her some-
Guy where. She seems to have good instincts about
Guy is a sensitive man Undine meets in her drug the workplace, as she was a valued employee to
counseling group session. He is battling his Undine, and then when she works at the drug-
addiction and respects Undine for being a store, she understands the importance of getting
fighter. He works as a security guard at a along with her coworkers. Unlike Undine, Ste-
movie theater, but he dreams of becoming a fire- phie does not judge people, although this is
fighter. He is insightful, persistent, and sincere. partly because she is fairly self-absorbed; when
Undine senses early on that he is trustworthy, Undine comes into her drugstore, Stephie is
and she agrees to have him attend the birth of her friendly and inquisitive, but never says anything
baby. Perhaps because of his own struggles, he to make Undine feel embarrassed.
encourages Undine and tries to help her rebuild
her belief in herself. Undine remarks how differ-
ent he is from Herve, and her attraction to Guy
shows the audience that Undine is changing and
growing. THEMES
Herve Nottage introduces the theme of duality in
Herve is Undines soon-to-be-ex husband. Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine
Although exciting, sophisticated, and suave, he most obviously through the protagonist, Undine.
has little moral fiber. He uses Undine to get a Nottage reinforces this theme in other ways
green card, then puts no effort into their rela- throughout the play, as well. In Undine, Nottage
tionship, and is finally imprisoned for fraud. His has created a character who is effectively two
cruelty is apparent in the fact that before he left people. Her internal struggle comes from the
Undine, he gave her no warning that he was fact that she only wants to be one personthe
planning to leave her, and he slowly siphoned one she created. Still, she is Sharona (her given
all of their money out of their account. Undine is name, the one that her family and friends knew
left penniless and pregnant, neither of which her by when she was young), the girl who grew up
moves Herve. His only redeeming quality is in the Brooklyn projects, where her family
that he sees Undine for who she has become, struggled and she saw despair, violence, and
and he is not afraid to tell her. In this, he chal- hopelessness. She is also Undine, the successful
lenges her to look at herself honestly. businesswoman in New York City who is power-
ful, smart, and wealthy. Undine was created by
Sharona when Sharona was determined to sever
Mother all ties with her former life, even to the extent of
Undines mother struggles to keep the family inventing a tragic story about her family dying in
together in the face of adversity and broken a fire. In the second to last scene of the play,
dreams. She and her husband had hoped to Undine tells Guy that her old self was killed in
join the police force when they were young, but order for her new self to exist. She knows that she
had to settle for jobs as security guards. Undines is two people in one mind and body. What she
mother finds a level of contentment in her home learns, however, is that the duality of the truth of
in the projects by settling into denial about cer- her life is inescapable. She may have become
tain things (like her own mothers drug use), and Undine through hard work and intention, but
holding onto hope about others (such as her she will always be the product of Sharonas expe-
family living harmoniously). riences and roots.

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insight into duality in the hearts and reactions of

others. It seems to run in the family because when
Undine asks her father how he is, he responds, I
TOPICS FOR is and sometimes I aint.
The Pitfalls of Attempting to Escape
STUDY the Past
 Read about the Walt Whitman projects At the heart of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education
(where Undines family lives in the play) in of Undine is a message about the impossibility of
Brooklyn and see if you can gain insight into removing oneself from the past. The past is the
the real-life culture of the community there. truth, and so it can not be changed. Undine tries
Imagine the life of one person living there to change her past by reinventing herself and
who is in some way similar to you, and telling lies about her family, but none of that
write three days worth of journal entries changes the truth of what her past is. Nottage
for this imagined person. addresses the past on another level, too. While
 How would this play be different if it Undine cannot change what the past was, nei-
depicted the lives and struggles of people of ther can she outrun it. Her circumstances take a
another racial or ethnic group? Outline the dramatic downturn, and she is left with no alter-
play with the same basic plotline and many native but to return literally to her past. A grown
of the same themes, but with totally different woman, she must swallow her pride and return to
characters. Pay special attention to how you her familys house, depending on them for sup-
preserve the intent of the play while applying port. At first, Undine regards her circumstances
it to new circumstances. Add a concluding as somewhat tragic and speaks fatalistically: I
paragraph sharing your insights. think Im officially part of the underclass. Penni-
 Undine skips over most of the details of her less. Ive returned to my original Negro state,
rise to the top in New York City. Write a karmic retribution for feeling a bit too pleased
one-act prequel that portrays more of with my life. She is ultimately unable to leave the
Undines childhood, teenage years, and her past behind for good; her situation forces her to
young adulthood. Be sure your script is con- accept, learn, and grow.
sistent with the information Nottage gives As with the theme of duality, Nottage takes
in hers. care to reinforce the theme of the past through
 How have business opportunities for African- the words of other characters. When Flow tells
American women changed in the last ten to his family about the young shoplifter he lectured
twenty years? Research the changes by find- in an effort to help him see a better way, he says
ing statistical information as well as markers that there aint no greater crime than abandon-
such as major events or examples of women ing your history. In a group drug counseling
who have been the first to achieve certain session, one of the addicts talks about the pain of
milestone accomplishments. Create a timeline breaking past habits, and he says, I will no
presenting the information you have found. longer inhabit the places of my past. This is
 Undines self-image changes significantly the other side of the theme. Where Undine
over the course of the play. Create a work attempted to disconnect from her past for rea-
of art in any medium you choose that you sons of status and pride, the addict wants a
believe would be an accurate self-portrait of brighter, cleaner future and wants to break
Undine at the beginning of the play. Create a from his destructive past. In his case, he is right
second one for the end of the play. to turn from his past. But it is critical that he
never forget it, which is what he and Undine
have in common.

Nottage supports the theme in other char- While Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine
acters and situations in the play. For example, is not intended to be an anthem to feminism, it
Flow is a man with a divided nature. He has deep does depict some important feminist truths about

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Rapid Pace
The pace of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of
Undine is rapid and at times dizzying. This is inten-
tional, as Nottage explains in the Authors Note
before the play begins. Indeed, she intends the
play to move from scene to scene without black-
outs. This makes the action of the play move
quickly and keeps the audience engaged with little
time to process the action and characterization of
one scene to the next. Still, the play is tightly
written, and the characters decisions and reac-
tions are consistent with the foundation Nottage
lays as the play develops. But where other plays
give audience members an opportunity to antici-
pate outcomes, this play keeps their attention
focused on the present in the play without hav-
ing a chance to worry about its future.
From the perspective of characterization,
the rapid pace makes the audience sympathetic
to Undine. Just as she is swept away by the rapid,
uncontrollable change in her life, so is the audi-
ence. They understand better how she must feel,
Aerial view of Park Avenue, New York City
especially since she is in most scenes. The audi-
( Stock Connection Distribution / Alamy)
ence sees her go immediately from her office to a
doctors exam room, from a street corner to a
jail, and from a group counseling session to the
delivery room. It is all happening so fast, that the
audience can not help but have a level of under-
modern society. First, Undine is a strong, inde- standing as to how Undine must feel being
pendent, successful businesswoman who builds tossed around in the wake of disaster. Seeing
her public relations firm. She does this by her her grow into maturity, wisdom, and compas-
mid-thirties, and is taken seriously in her field. sion is then all the more impressive. By the end,
This indicates that a woman (and an African- the audience is more likely to respect Undine and
American woman, at that) has access to oppor- have hope for her future because of the way she
tunities today. Second, the character of Inmate has handled such rapid, unexpected change.
#2 shows that women are no longer willing to be
objectified and oppressed by chauvinistic atti- Symbolism
tudes. This woman is in prison because a man Nottage uses symbolism in a very subtle, natural
was talking to her and treating her like a way in the play. Perhaps the strongest symbol in
demeaned sexual object, and she physically the play is the job of security guard. Undines
assaulted him to protect not only herself, but to mother, father, brother, and potential boyfriend
are all security guards. Sometimes the characters
teach him not to treat women like that. Recount-
are seen in their uniforms, and sometimes (as
ing the incident, she tells Undine what she said to
with Guy) it is only indicated. This is significant
him, I work from 9 to 5 at Metrotech, my man,
because the two words security and guard
dont you look at me like a ho, dont you talk to should give her an indication where to place her
me like a ho, dont you disrespect me like a video trust. Security guards come to represent family,
ho. She tells Undine, Now, he gonna think love, and acceptance for Undine. These are the
twice fore he place a hand on another woman. people who will stick by her side and encourage
Believe it. She is not willing to stand for being her. In her previous life, she would never have
objectified when she has worked so hard to make hobnobbed with anyone in such a lowly position,
a respectable life for herself and her family. but the people she chose in that life abandoned

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her when it was convenient to do so. The people certain chapters from her past, along with her
in the security guard uniforms (sort of a twist on perspectives on them. She also speaks directly
the white cowboy hats that showed who the good to the audience to reveal what she is thinking
guys were in Westernswhere the bad guys wore about another character or what her hidden reac-
black hats) are the ones who are actually loyal tion to something is. It builds trust and intimacy
and true. between the character and the audience.
Another symbol is Undines pregnancy
itself. Unprepared for motherhood, Undine
grapples with her situation. At one point, she
talks about how to solve it as a problem rather HISTORICAL CONTEXT
than how to fold it into her life. At another
point, she sees it as something that makes her a Single Motherhood
stereotypical single, black mother in the projects. Since the mid-1990s, the number of single-parent
Regardless, the pregnancy is what contributes to homes has remained steady. Of all households in
her return home and what makes her compas- the United States, about nine percent are headed
sionate and understanding to other over- by single parents; this is almost double what it
whelmed women. In the waiting room of her was in 1970. Most single parents are mothers
doctors office in Brooklyn, she has compassion because of personal and court preferences. Cen-
for a scared young pregnant woman and takes sus Bureau statistics for 1995 revealed that
her hand, admitting that she is also scared. The almost two-thirds of all African-American fam-
pregnancy symbolizes Undines share in human- ily groups with children were headed by single
ity. She is joined with other women in a unique parents, and the numbers of those headed by
way, and she takes part in a universal human fathers is extremely low. The story behind the
experience. She is not better than those she statistics is that there are more than ten million
thought she had surpassed; she is part of their single mothers (of all races) striving to support
community and experience. themselves and their children, all while acting as
Another symbol is Devoras business card. both mother and father on a day-to-day basis. In
Devora has risen above her past in the projects, fact, there are almost twice as many single moth-
but has not cut herself off from her roots. She ers as stay-at-home mothers.
still visits and maintains relationships from her The challenges to the single mother can be
past. As a successful financial planner, she is overwhelming. For low-income families, the
actually attempting to help other women in her possibility of higher education or private school-
community instead of denying them altogether, ing is out of the question. Faced with a family to
as Undine had done. When Devora gives Undine rear and a basic education at best, these single
her card, it gives her a slight paper cut, just mothers must find the best job (or jobs) they can,
enough to draw blood. That cut from the card work long hours, pay a lot of what they earn to
shows that Undines thinking had been mis- child care, all while providing guidance and nur-
guided, and it also shows that she has fallen so turing at home. For these reasons, many families
far that she is now on the receiving end of charity rely on grandparents to help bring up the
from a friend. The card, taken by Undine, sym- children.
bolizes her newfound humility.
Professional Career Opportunities
for African-American Women
Aside African-American women have faced challenges
Nottage uses the theatrical technique of asides as in the workplace because of their race and gender.
an effective way to fill in the back story to allow While women have worked and fought to have
the audience access to Undines private thoughts. access to the same opportunities and pay, so have
Asides are when a character speaks directly to the racial minorities. Gradually, the business world
audience without the other characters hearing it. has been opened to African-American women,
Like monologues (which are spoken by charac- but some areas are still undergoing growing
ters who are alone, as if the character is talking to pains. Part of the problem is education. For
himself or thinking out loud), asides let the audi- many urban areas with large African-American
ence know what the characters true thoughts populations, public schooling struggles to keep
and feelings are. Undine shares with the audience up with the increasing demands of the modern

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Brick apartment buildings in a housing project bordering Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn ( James Marshall /

world. There are often fewer resources, teachers captains of industryDonald Trump, Bill Gates,
struggling with discipline, and overcrowded class- Martha Stewart, and othersare still primarily
rooms. As a result, it can be difficult to get a good white, and mostly male.
education, even for motivated students. Further,
because of their family situations, many students
have to work jobs or care for younger siblings in African-American Women Writers
addition to keeping up with school work. Just as African-American women are gaining
Besides educational issues, it can be difficult influence and status in other areas of business
and society, they are also gaining prominence in
for young African-American women to get their
American literature. Continuing a tradition that
feet in the door in businesses because of a lack of
began and was grown through the works of Zora
contacts. Networking can be a critical part of a Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Gwendo-
young persons career. Many people network lyn Brooks, todays African-American women
through family connections, fraternities and soror- writers have shown impressive staying power.
ities, and internships. As more African-American Writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou,
women are achieving career success, they are mak- Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker have been
ing a focused effort to encourage and support other writing and lecturing for more than twenty
young women coming into the workplace. There years. In fact, Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in
1983, and Gloria Naylors The Women of Brew-
are also scholarships and other programs to help
ster Place won the National Book Award the
African-American women attend college and even same year. Picking up the baton was Toni Mor-
go on to graduate or professional schools. But as of rison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in
1996, only 22 percent of African-American women 1993. But Morrison is far from alone at the top
held managerial or professional specialty jobs. The of the literary world. Other African-American

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women whose voices have gained acclaim in the Indeed, Isherwood also observes that the play
1990s and into the 2000s include Edwidge settles on a gently satiric tone that allows us to
Danticat and Pearl Cleage. catch glimpses of the complicated human beings
shackled to their cliched roles in American

The critical reception of Fabulation; or, The Re- CRITICISM
Education of Undine has been mixed. While some
critics praise Nottages clever, fast-paced look at Jennifer A. Bussey
the futility of trying to escape ones past, other Bussey is an independent writer specializing in
critics feel that the play lacks thematic depth and literature. In the following essay, she delves deeply
well-rounded characterization. For instance, into the comparisons between Voltaires Candide
Nicholas de Jongh, writing in the Evening Stand- and Nottages Fabulation; or, The Re-Education
ard calls the play a slick, modern, urban mor- of Undine.
ality play. American Theater critic Randy There have been many comparisons made
Gener describes the play as a surreal fusion of between Lynn Nottages play Fabulation; or, The
Absolutely Fabulous; and a classic trickster tale Re-Education of Undine and Voltaires classic
before labeling it a very tall cautionary urban novel Candide. Such a comparison requires look-
parable. Gener concludes: Spiritually, Fabula- ing closely at the protagonists of the two works,
tion is an American descendant of the West the storylines, and the underlying messages in
Africa fable, whose animating verve lies in the each. Two writers could hardly be more different
psychic concept of nyama (energy of action), in than Nottage (an African-American woman
which the erotics of laughter convey a moral who was raised in Brooklyn and has come into
theme: The past is never truly past. her own as a modern playwright) and Voltaire (a
In Variety, reviewer Charles Isherwood product of the French Enlightenment who was
criticizes Nottage for not revealing enough an intellectual and political rebel known for his
about Undines psyche. He also notes that Not- sharp wit; the French Enlightenment was an
tage does not dwell at length on her pointed eighteenth-century philosophical movement
observations about the fragile perches of ambi- that exalted the power of human reason and
tious black Americans in the social hierarchy. sought greater liberty and rights through social
Isherwood further finds characters such as and political reform). Thus, a comparison of
Undines grandmother a little far-fetched, their works is an intriguing undertaking.
explaining: Nottage sometimes stretches a little First, a brief summary of Candide is in order
too far into absurdity to subvert stereotype. for those who have not read it, or have not read it
Still, he praises the play for not being too recently. In Candide, the main character is a
heavy-handed in its moralizing and for being young, na ve man who meets calamity after
stylistically strong. He writes that the plays calamity, all the while spouting the optimistic
snappy pacing and episodic narrative ensure philosophy of his mentor and companion, Pan-
that neither its cartoonish moments nor its sen- gloss. According to this philosophy, the world is
timental asides drag the play down. Frank the best of all worlds, and everything that hap-
Scheck, writing in Hollywood Reporter, offers a pens must necessarily be for the best because it
different view of the plays pacing, describing it takes place in the best of all worlds. Thus, when
as a series of brief, sketch-like scenes that prove Candide and Pangloss see another of their com-
dizzying in their variety and density, and add- panions drown trying to save another man, they
ing that Nottages writing is not always quite as do nothing to stop it because Pangloss declares
sharp as it aspires to be. that the sea itself was put there for that very
But Nottages critics give Fabulation; or, moment. The novel is rich with satire and
The Re-Education of Undine credit where they irony, and the main characters encounter horri-
see it due. For all the flaws that he sees in the ble circumstances and wretched people, smiling
play, Scheck nonetheless praises the play as a through it all under the banner of optimism. In
whole because the social messages are imparted the end, Candide buys a farm and abandons
with an antic, unpretentious wit and style. Panglosss philosophy (although Pangloss sticks

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 Leith Mullings writes about her own experi-
ences and the findings of her research about
African-American womens experiences in
On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender
in the Lives of African-American Women
(1996). Mullings takes a historical view to
to his guns), but merely substitutes the beliefs of
see how and why the modern experience is
another man instead. Candide is ultimately a
what it is in terms of race and gender as it
static character who never takes a stand on his
applies to work, family, relationships, and
own or learns to think for himself. He is, how-
ever, a man of his word. Throughout the story,
 Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Other he is in pursuit of Cunegonde, the woman he
Plays (2004) contains some of Nottages loves (although it is really no more than an infat-
best-known plays. This collection includes uation). When she becomes ugly and loses all of
Nottages first play and shows her growing her charms, his love vanishes. Still, he marries
interest in African themes and issues. her because that is what he agreed to do when
 Nottages Intimate Apparel (2005) is one of they were both in love.
her most-produced plays, and it attracted Like Candide, Undine mismanages her life
significant attention to the playwrights by adhering to a hollow philosophy. Candides
work. It is the story of a skilled Jewish optimism never did him any good, and only
undergarment maker in New York, and her
made matters worse. Undine believes that sever-
romance by mail that grows into a marriage.
ing ties with her past and reinventing herself will
The couple struggles with getting to know
make her the person she has created. This belief
one another while facing the difficulties of
being a mixed-race couple in a time before does her no good because she ends up face to
this was accepted. face with the very past she ran so hard to escape.
Both characters delude themselves into thinking
 In Kathy Perkinss and Roberta Unos
the world is what they want it to be, but only
anthology Contemporary Plays by Women of
Undine learns that there is another truth outside
Color (1996), the editors demonstrate the
of her delusions. Candide never quite learns this.
diversity of experiences, voices, and styles
among a group of talented ethnic women Candide stays basically selfish and immature,
playwrights. Eighteen works are included by whereas Undine shows signs of personal growth
African-American, Asian-American, Latin- and wisdom. Not only does she allow Guy to
American, and Native-American writers. become a part of her life despite the fact that he is
everything she avoided in her New York City
 The Ground on Which I Stand (2001) is Pulit-
zer Prizewinner August Wilsons keynote life, but when Undine is in the waiting room
address to the Theatre Communications with another pregnant woman, she sets aside
Group. In this address, Wilson challenges her bruised ego (at being called old) and reaches
African-American artists of all kinds to out for the young womans hand to admit that
take control of their cultural identity and she is just as scared. Undine rejects her selfish
importance. The speech led to a great deal impulses so that she can extend humanity and
of discussion and debate about diversity in compassion to a young, scared woman.
American theater.
Undine also shows a capacity to be open and
vulnerable in love. Candide is written as a

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caricature, so it only stands to reason that his while Undine is in a more demanding setting,
story lacks real emotion or personal insight. Can- having learned quite a lot. This is an important
dides experience of love is full-blown infatuation lesson because it shows how two very different
to the point of obsession, which has little to do people can go on similar journeys and, based on
with genuine emotions. Candide never really their personalities and willingness to learn, have
knows Cunegonde, he sets her on a pedestal, completely different outcomes.
like Don Quixote does with Dulcinea in Miguel
The last area to look for comparisons is in
de Cervantess Don Quixote. The romance is
the messages, or themes, of each work. Candide
much more about the pursuit and the excitement
is designed to show the futility of ridiculous
than it is about really knowing a person and
loving her based on a substantial relationship. philosophies and the importance of trustworthy
But Candide is so clueless about love that he authority. The novel shows corrupt or mis-
agrees to go ahead and marry Cunegonde even guided authority in every realmreligious,
after he loses interest in her. He has no concept of political, military, and interpersonal. People are
marriage, and he is too lazy to consider that he misled, given false hope, victimized, and even
might truly fall in love some day with another killed in the wake of unfit authority. While Can-
woman. Undine ditches her washed-up rapper dide and Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of
boyfriend when she is swept up in the romance Undine both depict the negative outcomes of
of Herve. He is exotic and sophisticated, and the foolish philosophy, they part ways on the issue
romance is enough for her. This is akin to Can- of authority. Undines life has been about
dides feelings toward Cunegonde. But when removing herself from under the authority of
Herve turns out to be a thief who abandons anyone but herself. In her story, there is almost
Undine, she sees him clearly and opens herself no authority figure with any power over her
up to another man, Guy. The last scene of the except for the police to arrest her and the court
play shows Guy coaching Undine through the to enforce a drug rehabilitation requirement. But
delivery of her baby. When the play ends with this depiction of authority is different from
the babys cry, Nottage suggests that the three of Voltaires because the police in Undines story
them will be a family. Undine has been honest are fair and right in their application of the law.
with Guy, and he has been honest with her. They In other areas of her life, such as family and
have accepted each other and respect each other, business, however, Undine is her own authority.
so the relationship is based on something abid- In that sense, the reader might draw a parallel
ing. There is hope for Undine that is lacking for because Undines authority over her own life has
Candide. been so lacking. This is so subtle, however, that
Another important element to compare is is unlikely that Nottage is intentionally making a
the storylines of the two works. In both cases, comment about authority. Similarly, Nottages
the characters start out comfortable, content, themes of duality and the past do not readily
and living with wealth and status. In short apply to Voltaires work.
order, both are thrown from their lifestyles and Deep comparisons between Nottages Fabula-
sent on a journey. Candide is in search of a new tion; or, The Re-Education of Undine and Voltaires
life (though he does not know what he is seeking)
Candide are difficult to find or seem somewhat con-
and Cunegonde, and Undine is searching for a
trived. On the surface, however, there are interesting
new life (though she does not know what she is
seeking, either). Both characters find themselves parallels between Nottages play and Voltaires
in a rapid descent, encountering dangerous char- fable. They both have larger-than-life protagonists
acters, becoming the victims of misunderstand- whose lives take a series of twists and turns in their
ing, and going through outrageous experiences. descents. Both portray the trouble that comes from
And while Candides misadventures take him all adhering to a misguided and delusional belief sys-
over the world, Undines misadventures in tem. Both also show the importance of learning
Brooklyn are so varied and extreme that they
from lifes lessons and being willing to mature. In
seem to be unfolding in a large setting. So both
characters are bumped around from misadven- these cases, it is valuable to realize that such lessons
ture to misadventure, moving toward an unde- are so universal that they appear in very different
termined goal. But when Candide lands, he is in works by very different writers in very different
a calmer setting, having learned almost nothing, historical contexts.

7 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F a b u l a t i o n ; o r , T h e R e - E d u c a t i o n o f U n d i n e

Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on Fabulation; in creating this play, Nottage told the Kentucky
or, The Re-Education of Undine, in Drama for Students, Public Television interviewer: I most certainly
Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008. will write more about Africa. I find when I have
spare time I read nonfiction books about the
Gale Congo. I am fascinated by the Congo, fascinated
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical by the politics of that region and the legacy of
analysis of Nottages work. colonialism. By the brutality. I think some of
Lynn Nottage is a playwright whose work is that comes out of working at a place like
intended to lend a voice to the experience of the Amnesty InternationalI studied the abuses of
African-American woman. As a child growing countries. The Congo was one of the most
up in Brooklyn, New York, she began writing aggressive violators of human rights.
plays in her journal. As she recalled in an inter-
Crumbs from the Table of Joy is set during
view posted on the Kentucky Educational Tele-
the 1950s and concerns two teenaged girls whose
vision Web site, I think for me the journey
conservative, widowed father moves with them
begins downstairs at the kitchen table of my
from Florida to New York City, where they all
house. Down there was a gathering place for so
move in with their free-thinking aunt. To their
many women. To come home from school, and
surprise, their father soon comes home with a
my grandmother would be sitting at the table,
new wifea white, German woman. Nottage
and my mother would be sitting at the table. The
explained to the Kentucky Educational Televi-
woman from across the street would be sitting at
sion interviewer that she wrote the play in part to
the table. And they all had stories to tell. They
try to understand the extreme changes that were
were nurses, teachers; they were activists; they
taking place in society at that time: Crumbs
were artists. And I think that is where I got all of
from the Table of Joy is about a displaced South-
my inspiration as a writer.
ern family smack in the center of New York City,
Seeking a world beyond Brooklyn, Nottage in the 1950s, trying to cope with those changes.
attended the High School of Music and Art in Coping with integration, trying to cope with big-
New York, then went on to Brown University city ideals with a small-town sensibility. Review-
and Yale Drama School. After graduation, she ing the play for Back Stage, William Stevenson
worked as national press officer for Amnesty called it at times moving and at times slow-
International and gave up creative writing for going, but concluded: the action picks up in the
some time. Sitting down to work on an entry for second act, with more conflict and a stirring
a short-play competition, she produced the work ending.
Poof! in one sitting. The drama, which deals with
abuse against women, won an award, and Not- In Intimate Apparel Nottage portrays a plain,
tage decided to rededicate herself to writing plays. hard-working seamstress who creates deluxe lin-
gerie for her clients. Although the garments she
Nottages play Mud, River, Stone had its
sews are imaginative and erotic, in her personal
origin in an article the author read about some
life the woman is repressed and has few close
demobilized soldiers in Mozambique who took
relationships. She begins a correspondence with
hostages because they were never paid for their
a man working on the Panama Canal, and he
services. Nottage used the incident as the setting
eventually comes to New York, where they
for her drama about an upper-class African-
marry. Their real-life relationship turns out to be
American couple who travel to Africa for a sec-
very different from what either imagined it would
ond honeymoon. They want to search for their
be, and the second act of the play deals with their
roots, but instead, they find themselves taken
disappointments and the way they cope with
hostage. Symbolically, Nottage sought to por-
them. Reviewing the play for Hollywood Reporter,
tray her own search for Africa and its meaning.
Jay Reiner stated that it is a seemingly simple and
Back Stage reviewer David Sheward wrote that
straightforward piece of stagecraft that gradually
the play starts out as clever comedy, but
takes on a life and meaning all but impossible to
declines into conventional melodrama. Vari-
resist. National Catholic Reporter contributor
ety reviewer Robert L. Daniels also felt that the
Retta Blaney described it as simple yet lovely.
play loses focus, but he also had praise for the
early scenes, in which the characters are clearly Explaining her mission to the interviewer for
defined, the landscape picturesque, the dialogue Kentucky Public Television, Nottage said: I think
laced with humor. Reflecting on her experience that the African-American womans voice is

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 7 9
F a b u l a t i o n ; o r , T h e R e - E d u c a t i o n o f U n d i n e

important because it is part of the American voice. FURTHER READING

But you would not know that by looking at TV or
films. You would think that we do not exist. And Cleage, Pearl, Flyin West, Dramatists Play Service,
part of my mission as a writer is to say, I do exist. 1995.
My mother existed, and my grandmother existed, Cleage is among Americas foremost contem-
and my great-grandmother existed, and they had porary African-American women writers and
stories that are rich, complicated, funny, that are playwrights. This play tells the story of African-
beautiful and essential. And the stories have American women pioneers in the old West and
become the myth of America. . . . I want people to their fight to create a life of fulfillment and
know that my story, that of the African-American
woman, is also the American story. Curry, Cuthrell, Making the Gods in New York: The
Source: Gale, Lynn Nottage, in Contemporary Authors Yoruba Religion in the African American Community,
Online, Thomson Gale, 2006. Routledge, 1997.
Curry reviews the growing presence and influ-
ence of Yoruba culture in religion in the United
States. In addition to a historical review, Curry
SOURCES informs the reader about Yoruba beliefs and
De Jongh, Nicholas, Critics Choice Top Five Plays, in
Hall, Roger, Writing Your First Play, Focal Press, 1998.
the Evening Standard, March 10, 2006, p. 48.
Hall is a professor of creative writing. Here, he
Gener, Randy, Conjurer of the Worlds: From Richly covers the basics of characterization, plot devel-
Imagined Epochs to Unsparing Satires, Lynn Nottages opment, setting, and other important elements,
Roving Imagination Channels Historys Discards into along with examples and writing exercises for
Drama, in American Theatre, Vol. 22, No. 8, October students new to the process.
2005, pp. 2226.
Krasner, David, American Drama 19452000: An Intro-
Isherwood, Charles, Downward Spiral for Gotham
duction, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Diva, in Variety, Vol. 395, No. 6, June 21, 2004, p. 45.
Krasner provides an overview of American
Nottage, Lynn, Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of theater beginning with the conclusion of
Undine, Dramatists Play Service, 2005. World War II and finishing at the end of the
Scheck, Frank, Review of Fabulation; or, The Re-Educa- twentieth century. He covers major plays and
tion of Undine, in Hollywood Reporter, Vol. 384, No. 31, playwrights, taking time to discuss major influ-
July 6, 2004, p. 18. ences and breakthroughs.

8 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
Fefu and Her Friends
Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes was MARIA IRENE FORNES
first produced at the Relativity Media Lab (part of
the New York Theatre Strategy) on May 5, 1977,
and was directed by Fornes herself. It was per- 1977
formed to a wider audience at the Off-Broadway
venue, the American Place Theatre, on January 8,
1978. Fornes published the script of her short play
in the winter 1978 edition of the Performing Arts
Journal, or PAJ. PAJ Publications published the
most recent edition of Fefu and Her Friends as a
slim book in 1990.
Fefu and Her Friends is Forness fifteenth play.
When it was produced, she was an established play-
wright and director. Nevertheless, it was one of
Forness most successful plays and it was also
an unusual format for the absurdist playwright
because it relied more on realism than her earlier
plays. Fornes won an Off-Broadway award, or
Obie, for Fefu and Her Friends. The plays themes
of gender roles, sexuality, love between women, and
insanity strike chords within a society still coming
to terms with the sexual revolution of the 1960sa
revolution some historians claim has actually been
going on since the 1920s. Fefu and Her Friends is a
play that remains raw and relevant today.

Maria Irene Fornes was born on May 14, 1930 in
Havana, Cuba, to Carlos Luis and Carmen His-
menia Fornes. In 1945, when Fornes was only

8 1
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

fifteen, her father died. Later that same year, scene in part 1 begins at noon in the living room
Fornes, her mother, and her sister immigrated of Fefus country home in New England. It is
to the United States. Settling in Manhattan, For- a spring day in 1935 and Fefu has invited her
nes attended Catholic school but dropped out friends over for a meeting. When the play opens,
before graduating so that she could work. Fornes Fefu, Cindy, and Christina are waiting for
became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951. the others to arrive. Fefu tells the others that
As a young adult, Fornes wanted to be a her husband married her to have a constant
painter and spent a lot of time in Greenwich reminder of how loathsome women are. Cindy
Village and even a few years in Paris. While in is surprised, but Fefu assures her that she agrees
Paris, she saw and was struck by the original with Phillips assessment. Fefu explains that
production of Samuel Becketts absurdist mas- what she is really interested in is exciting
terpiece Waiting for Godot. The themes in Beck-
ideas, giving the impression that she is less
etts play have echoed throughout Fornes work.
invested in what she is saying than in the reaction
When she returned to Greenwich Village in 1957,
Fornes spent a few more years supporting herself she gets from others. She tells Cindy and Chris-
as a custom textile designer before discovering her tina that she likes revulsion: Its something to
love of playwriting. Her first professionally pro- grapple with. Fefu illustrates her point by
duced production, The Widow, was staged in describing the worms and fungus found on the
1961. Fornes has gone on to write more than underside of a stone: It is another life that is
forty plays, directing many of them herself. In parallel to the one we manifest. . . . If you dont
1972, Fornes teamed up with other playwrights recognize it. . . . (Whispering) it eats you.
to create the New York Theatre Strategy, which
Hearing voices out on the lawn, Fefu picks
opened in 1973. The New York Theatre Strategy
was envisioned as a place where playwrights could up her gun and shoots at Phillip, who gamely
test out their ideas. Fefu and Her Friends was falls down for a moment and pretends to be
originally staged there in 1977, using the theatres dead. It is a strange game between Phillip and
office and costume shop as part of the set. his wife. Fefu leaves and Cindy tries to convince
In the 1970s, Fornes became deeply involved Christina that Fefu is not crazy although she
in Hispanic theater through INTAR, the His- has an odd marriage. Cindy assures Christina
panic American Arts Center in New York City, that the gun is only loaded with blanks. Rattled,
where she taught workshops for aspiring His- Christina asserts, One can die of fright, you
panic playwrights. In the 1980s, some of Forness know. They argue over putting the gun away;
works were criticized as being too Hispanic, neither wants to touch it. Fefu returns just as
whereas her 2000 production, Letters from Cuba Christina is about to toss a silk shawl over it but,
(based in part on correspondence with her only embarrassed, Christina pretends to be dancing
brother who remained in Cuba), was considered instead.
to be not Hispanic enough. Fornes is also a fem-
inist playwright although some have criticized Fefu informs Cindy that she has fixed the
her work as not being feminist enough. toilet in her bathroom and Cindy is surprised
Fornes has been honored with numerous that Fefu does her own plumbing. Fefu admits
awards and grants including nine Obies (Off- to the other women that Phillip scared her this
Broadway theater awards)one of them for time, that she thought he might really be hurt
Fefu and Her Friends, two Rockefeller grants, because he has threatened to one day put real
two National Endowment for the Arts grants, bullets in the gun. Christina tells Fefu that she
and a Guggenheim fellowship. She is still writing is crazy, stupid, and depressing but Fefu
and directing plays. implores Christina to just laugh at her instead.
I know Im ridiculous. Come on, laugh. Fefu
now tells them that she likes men better than
women. She watches her husband, brother-in-
law, and gardener outside during her soliloquy.
Part 1 Women are restless with each other. . . . They
Fefu and Her Friends is a three-part play. The are always eager for the men to arrive. When
first part has one scene, the second part has four they do, they can put themselves at rest, tranqui-
scenes, and the third part has one scene. The lized and in a mild stupor.

8 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

Fefu leaves to check the toilet and Cindy more of a conformist and therefore threatened
sings a song to soothe Christina. Julia arrives, by Fefu. Cindy tells Christina about a strange
wheelchair-bound. She was injured in a hunting dream she had the night before. In her dream,
accident but Cindy assures Christina that the she was threatened by an angry young doctor
bullet did not touch Julia. Emma, Paula, and and escapes with her sister in a taxi, waking just
Sue arrive soon thereafter. There is a happy before he catches her. Neither know what this
reunion among friends while Christina is intro- dream means.
duced around. They discuss lunch and the meet-
ing/rehearsal they will have later, then disperse IN THE BEDROOM
to different areas of the house. Julia takes up Julias guest room is a converted storage
Fefus rifle, removing the remaining slug and room. She lays in the bed, dressed in a hospital
smelling the barrel. She blacks out for a moment, gown, and is hallucinating quietly. In her mono-
then says, Shes hurting herself. Julia leaves to logue, Julia describes being abused by unidenti-
lay down and Cindy reloads the gun. Cecilia fied attackers: They clubbed me. They broke my
arrives and introduces herself to Cindy and
head. They broke my will. They broke my hands.
They tore my eyes out. They took my voice away.
They didnt do anything to my heart because I
Part 2 didnt bring my heart with me. She explains that
Fornes wrote and directed this middle part of the the judges love her and thats why they beat her.
play to be performed in four parts simultane- He said that I had to be punished because I was
ously. The audience is divided into four groups getting too smart. They are also after Fefu and
and is moved to each location until they have Julia cries out to her judges to spare Fefu for
seen all the scenes. They are reunited again for shes only a joker. Julia says her prayer, declar-
part 3. ing man to be human and woman to be, among
other things, evil and the source of evil. The mate
IN THE LAWN for man is woman and that is the cross man must
It is afternoon and Fefu and Emma are on the bear. In an echo of Fefu and Emmas conversa-
lawn playing croquet and eating apples. Emma tells tion on the lawn, Julia says that mans sexuality is
Fefu that she obsessively thinks about peoples physical and therefore pure whereas womans
genitals all the time; she finds it very strange that sexuality is spiritual and they take those feelings
people arent more self-conscious of their genitals. with them to the afterlife where they corrupt the
The two friends have an easy rapport. Fefu con-
heavens. Julia hallucinates that she is being
fides in Emma, I am in constant pain. . . . Its not
slapped for not believing her prayer. Sue inter-
physical, and its not sorrow. She describes her
rupts her, bringing in a bowl of soup.
pain as being something spiritual but she cannot
adequately express what it is. Fefu abruptly leaves
to get lemonade and Emma recites William Shake- IN THE KITCHEN
speares Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my Paula declares to Sue that she has deter-
judgment pluck. She is commenting on Fefus mined that a love affair lasts exactly seven
enduring and beautiful spirit. Fefu returns with years and three months and goes on to describe
Paula and Cecilia. the pattern in detail. Paula recommends celibacy
to solve the problem of overlapping love affairs,
IN THE STUDY then puzzles over how the mind and body each
Christina is sitting at the desk in the study differently get over a breakup. Sue asks her if
reading a French textbook. Cindy sits nearby something wrong. Paula says no and Sue leaves
reading a magazine. They read pieces aloud to to take soup to Julia. Cecilia enters the kitchen
each other and languidly philosophize. Cindy and it becomes apparent that there was a rela-
asks Christina if shes having a good time and tionship between her and Paula, which has
Christina says she is. They talk about Fefu and fizzled out. Cecilia apologizes repeatedly for
Christina struggles to identify what it is about not calling and Paula shrugs it off. Paula tells
Fefu that unsettles her. Her mind is adventur- Cecilia that she has been examining herself since
ous. Christina determines that Fefus adventur- they were together and is disappointed that she
ousness leads to some measure of disregard for hasnt made more of her life. Paula was the less
convention and that she, Christina, is probably dominant one in their former relationship and

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 8 3
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

organized herself around Cecilias happiness. into the living room. Julia is back in her wheel-
When Cecilia left, Paulas life lost meaning. chair. Paula returns from upstairs. Sue reminis-
Fefu interrupts, coming into the kitchen for ces about old friends of theirs who were sent to
lemonade. She invites them to croquet and the psychiatrist because they were not con-
Paula apologizes to Cecilia, Im not reproaching forming to a womanly ideal.
you. Cecilia, speaking up for the first time since Paula remembers when she was new to the
Paula began pouring out her heart, takes Paulas faculty and thought that everyone who was rich
hand and says, I know. Ive missed you too. was happy. She has changed her mind. I think
we should teach the poor and let the rich take
Part 3 care of themselves. Paula starts crying; Cecilia
The final part of the play takes place in the kisses her and they leave the living room. Sue,
living room in the evening. The women all Christina, Cindy, and Emma go out to the lawn
enter, moving about their business while Cecilia to look at the stars, leaving Fefu and Julia
is telling Sue, We cannot survive in a vacuum. behind to talk. Fefu asks Julia directly if she
We must be part of a community. Julia con- can walk and Julia says she cannot. Fefu is frus-
nects this with her isolation as a person who trated with Julia for not trying. What is it you
has hallucinations because only other hallucinat- see? Fefu demands of her. And youre conta-
ing people can understand what she is going gious. Im going mad too, Fefu accuses Julia.
through. The group prepares for their meeting. Fefu admits to Julia that Phillip hates her; Fefu
They are having a dress rehearsal for an educa- is devastated by this knowledge. She implores
tional fundraising event. Fefu opens the presen- Julia to fight with her, grabbing her and shaking
tation; Paula goes next. Emma is dressed in an her. Christina comes in on this scene and Fefu is
exotic costume for her part and she recites from sure the other womans good opinion of her is
the writings of Emma Sheridan Fry, a childrens totally ruined. She grabs her gun, saying shes
acting teacher. While they discuss the order of going to clean it. Christina tells her not to and
their presentation, Cecilia sits next to Paula and Fefu calls her silly. Cecilia enters, ready to
puts her hand on Paulas leg, absentmindedly. leave. Fefu goes onto the lawn. Julia is worried
When they finish, everyone except Cindy and that she told Fefu something about the judges
Julia go to the kitchen to prepare coffee. Chris- and that now she will be in trouble. A shot rings
tina comes running back into the living room out and Julia touches her forehead. Just like in
because theres a water fight in the kitchen over the first hunting accident, she is mysteriously
who will do the dishes. Emma, Paula, Sue, and bleeding. Then Julias head falls back and she
Fefu begin chasing each other through the house dies. Fefu enters the living room with a dead
with pans of water. Christina hides on the couch rabbit, surprised that she has killed it.
until the water fight is over.
Cindy tells Julia, Shes been hiding all day.
They ask after each others lives. Cindy has bro-
ken up with her boyfriend or husband, Mike, and CHARACTERS
Julia is too concerned with death to have a love
life. I think of death all the time. Paula, Sue, Fefu Beckmann
and Emma, delivering coffee, try to brighten the Fefu (pronounced Feh-foo) is the host of this
mood with silly jokes. Everyone except Paula gathering, which is held at her house in the
retreats to the kitchen to drink coffee. Cecilia New England countryside. She is friends with
enters from the lawn. She promises Paula again everyone except Christina, whom she has just
that she will call her but will not be specific about met. Fefu is a well-heeled philanthropist, giving
when. Paula stands her ground and tells Cecilia talks and fundraising for education. At her
she is not available to be called at just any house, she is a thorough and welcoming host
time. Paula and Cecilia leave the living room in and has a playful, fun spirit. There are also
different directions while Fefu sits quietly on glimpses of her dropping under some kind of
the steps. She observes Juliawalkingas she strain. The audience is introduced to Fefus
briefly comes into the living room, picks up strange relationship with her husband Phillip at
the sugar bowl, puts it back down, and returns the very beginning of the play but Fefus bright
to the kitchen. Immediately thereafter, Julia, behavior glosses over her unhappiness, which
Sue, Cindy, Christina, Emma, and Cecilia come only gradually emerges. In part 2, she tells

8 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

Emma she is in some sort of spiritual pain. The behavior, Emma pays close attention to her
poem Emma recites, Not from the stars do I my friends and has keen insight into their personal-
judgment pluck, is Shakespeares Sonnet 14, ities; however, her own emotions are not revealed.
and the last line, Thy end is truths and beautys
doom and date, expresses Emmas deep respect Christina
for Fefus charactershe believes in her friend Christina is new to this circle of friends and only
even though Fefu doesnt much believe in herself knows Cindy and Julia. She is disturbed by Fefus
anymore. Christina, meanwhile, represents how talk and frightened by the groups outlandish
many other people respond to Fefus brash com- behavior, such as Fefu shooting blanks at her
ments and actions. She is appalled and repulsed, husband and the extensive water fight over who
which Fefu sees and tries to mitigate by asking will do the dishes. Christina prefers to conform
Christina to laugh at her. In part 3, Fefu is sitting to not stand out or be involved in conflictand
on the stairs near the living room, glum, a face she she admits to Cindy that Fefu confuses her. I
hides from everyone else as she dashes around to suppose I do hold back for fear of being disre-
get lunch or fetch lemonade or fix a toilet. She spectful or destroying somethingand I admire
fully reveals her unhappiness to Julia at the end of those who are not. But I also feel they are danger-
the play: Phillip cant stand me. . . . I need him, ous to me. Christinas remark to Fefu at the end
Julia. I need his touch. I need his kiss. I need the of the play, when Fefu picks up her rifle again, is
person he is. Her torment is that Phillip does telling of Christinas priorities: I dont care if you
not need or want her. Fefu, a scholar and a shoot yourself. I just dont like the mess youre
feminist, is crippled by her own powerlessness making. This concern is domestic to an extreme
in her marriage. rather than compassionate.

Phillip Beckmann Cindy

Phillip is Fefus husband. He is offstage on the Cindy is a friend of Fefus and cares for her
lawn for the entire play. Phillip and Fefu have a despite Fefus wild behavior. She is patient and
strange relationshipsuch as Fefu shooting spends most of the play in company with Chris-
blanks at him and Phillip falling down for a tina, who doesnt know this group of friends.
moment, pretending to be hitbut Fefu insists Cindy does not express an opinion as to whether
they are happy. At the end of the play she admits she approves of Fefu or not, giving readers the
to Julia that Phillip cant stand her: Hes left. impression that she rides the fence: she mutely
His body is here but the rest is gone. This line goes along with Fefus ideas but maintains a
is interesting in light of the fact that Phillip is calm, normal exterior, not talking or behaving
never actually seen or heardas if he were like Fefu or Emma. Cindy has a disturbing
indeed gone. Fefus dead rabbit is also proof dream wherein an angry young doctor chases
that there was a real bullet in the rifle. The ques- her. Her dream draws on a fear of authority fig-
tion remains: who put it there? ures: her significant other, Mike; a young male
doctor; and secret policemen. In her dream, she
Stephany Beckmann is aided only by her sister Meg. For a moment in
See Fefu Beckmann the dream Cindy commands everyones respects
by yelling, Stop and listen to me. She has been
Emma Blake separated for a few months from Mike and there
Emma is boisterous and outgoing, jumping into are hints that she is unhappy, but, except for
Julias lap, kissing one of the women sitting on describing the dream, Cindy never opens up
the couch, and taking part in the water fight. She about her feelings.
is wealthy and likes to travel, showing up at
Fefus house wearing an outfit she bought in Paula Cori
Turkey. Emma has also brought along an even Paula, like the other women, is a friend of Fefus
more outlandish costume to wear for their fund- and an educator. She is less well off than her
raiser event. Emma is a performer and likes to wealthy friends but has come to the conclusion
reciteher recitation of Emma Sheridan Fryes that she is no less happy. Paula and Cecilia had a
work is the core performance of their fund- romantic relationship that has recently fizzled
raising event. Emma and Fefu are especially out. Paula tells Cecilia, Im not lusting after
close with each other. Despite her extroverted you, when Cecilia continues to give her mixed

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 8 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

signals. Paula is clearly still drawn to Cecilia but by imaginary judges. These imaginary judges hold
determined to not be the less-dominant figure in her accountable for deviant thoughts and behav-
any future relationship. When Cecilia repeat- ior and the slightest misstep brings further pain.
edly, emptily promises to call Paula so they can Julia tries to comply with their wishes but knows
talk, but refuses to commit to a time, Paula she will not be free of them until she truly believes,
refuses to be infinitely available to her. The in her heart, what they tell her is fact. The things
stronger Paula is, the more Cecilia is attracted she is to believe include the fact that she is not
to her. But unlike Cecilia, this is not manipula- smart, that Fefu is not smart, that human beings
tion on Paulas part. She sincerely cares for Ceci- are men while women are both evil and a gift to
lia and is willing to walk away from their men just like oxen for farming. Julias death may
relationship if Cecilia continues to abuse her be foreshadowing Fefus future decline.
Cecilia Johnson Sue is an educator and a friend of Fefus. She is
Cecilia is a friend of Fefus and is Paulas former helpful: making lunch, serving food and coffee,
lover. She and Paula drifted apart although and washing dishes. She is also the treasurer of
Cecilias disinterest in the relationship seems to their fundraising group. Sue is playful, demon-
have precipitated the breakup. Throughout the strating the many uses of ice cubes on a stick as
play, Cecilia sends Paula mixed signals, sometimes well as taking part in the water fight. She is also
being cold to her and sometimes affectionate. sensitive to others feelings but does not push
Cecilia is manipulative, trying to maintain control them when they do not want to talk. Little is
in their relationship, not inviting Paula to call her known about her life outside this single day at
but telling Paula that she will call, and then refus- Fefus house, except that she, like the others
ing to commit to a time. When Paula shows her there, have been smart enough to not be sent to
strength and refuses to be run over by this manip- the psychiatrist like some of their former friends
ulation, Cecilia is inexplicably drawn to her ex- were. Sue is a feminist-in-hiding, breaking out at
lover. In this play, Cecilias dominating behavior the appropriate times but generally sticking to
is a masculine foil to Paulas feminist strength. the gender role expected of her. Sue is one of the
most domestic women in this playkind and
Julia fun to be with, but also bland and forgettable.
Julia is one of the central characters of this play.
She is wheelchair-bound following a mysterious
hunting accident. She now suffers from petit mal
seizures, also known as absent seizures, where
the person loses consciousness for a few seconds.
Julia may in fact be epileptic and her seizures were Relationships between Women
brought on by the bang of the hunters gun rather Fefu and Her Friends highlights a multitude of
than a blow to the head. Julia assures everyone ways in which women relate to each other. Fefu
that she is adapting well. She matter-of-factly tells and Emma are close friends and appear to have
Cindy, Im very morbid these days. I think of known each other for a long time. They talk
death all the time. There is a lot of tension sur- easily and intimately, unlike Fefu and Christina,
rounding Julias presence in Fefus house because who are unable to find common ground. Every-
of the gun Fornes has placed in the living room. thing Fefu says and does is appalling or discom-
At the end of the play, the tension is resolved by forting to Christina, who clings to conformity as
Julias deathanother mysterious hunting acci- much as Fefu casts it off. Another type of rela-
dent. Fefu is outside shooting rabbit (an irony tionship that Fornes explores is the romantic
since Cindy told Christina in part 1 that Fefu relationship. Cecilia and Paula are old lovers
doesnt hunt anymore because of her love of ani- whose relationship has failed. They are still
mals and because the gun is supposedly loaded drawn to each other but it is clear by the end of
with blanks) but at the crack of Fefus gun, Julia the play that they will not connect again.
slumps over, dead. Through Fefu, Fornes expresses the idea that
In part 2, alone in her room, the audience women are uncomfortable with each other and
observes Julias most private thoughts. She hallu- seek to be with men or to be like men. Men get
cinates freely, wrought with guilt and tormented along with each other easily, unlike women with

8 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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Conformity and Insanity

Julia is losing the battle with her inner demons.
Her inner judges force her to denounce her intelli-
TOPICS FOR gence. They beat her. She must recite a prayer
that encapsulates a decidedly anti-feminist, misog-
FURTHER ynistic point of view. Julias grip on reality is
STUDY shaken when a stray remark from Fefu leads
her to believe she has committed a grievous
 In small groups of four to eight people, write error and accidentally told someone about the
a one-act play portraying these characters judges. Fefu and Julias fates seem linked. Fefu is
ten years after Fefu and Her Friends ends. the only friend Julia mentions by name in her
Take into account historical events and per- hallucinations, fearing that the judges will be
sonalities, adding your own creative touch. after her next. Of all the friends meeting that
Perform your play for your class. When all day, Fefus inner struggles most closely resemble
of the class plays have been presented, Julias. Fefu even thinks she has had her own
engage in a round-table discussion to exam- hallucination when she sees Julia walk into the
ine the different interpretations. living room and pick up the sugar bowl. While
 Social classes are hierarchical (status- this may have been another absent seizure,
because Julia cant remember it happening,
driven) divisions within society that often
fall along lines of wealth, race, or religion. Fefu cannot be sure of herself now. Julia is a
Fornes touches lightly on this matter in her prisoner in her own mind. even as her body is
unable to move. Her death at the end of the play
play but social class has always been a sig-
nificant issue. Research social classes as they is a merciful release.
were organized in the 1930s and write a One of the ways a persons power over their
paper comparing these divisions to social lives and even themselves, can be undermined is
classes today. Has the class divide widened through a diagnosis, or even just a suspicion of
or narrowed over the intervening years? insanity. Sue illustrates this when, during part 3,
she recalls a couple of women whom they used to
 Emma recites from Shakespeare and from
Emma Sheridan Fry. Choose a poem or pas- knowintelligent, beautiful, youngwho were
sage from a book and memorize it, then each sent to the psychiatrist because they were
recite it with dramatic flair for your class. too beautiful and too smart. They are recalled as
if they were dead, cut down in their prime,
Do you feel you have a deeper understanding
of this piece now that you have it memo- because being sent to the psychiatrist was a
rized? Why or why not? Write a brief kind of societal death. The compromise with
society is conformity, as represented in the char-
response on your discoveries.
acters of Sue, Christina, and Cindy. Conformity
 One question that critics pose about Fefu is safe, a known pattern that nearly everyone can
and Her Friends is: Is this a feminist play, follow. It is also dull in its predictability. Many
an anti-feminist play, or just a play that times conformity also masks societal ills wherein
happens to have an all-female cast? Write one group has power over another and main-
an essay in which you address this question, tains that power through general acceptance
using examples from the play to support of the situation (such as accepted inequities of
your thesis. When all of the classs papers gender, race, and religion).
are turned in, take a survey of your class-
mates to find out what the most common Sexuality, Power, and Gender Roles
and uncommon conclusions were. The women of Fefu and Her Friends are con-
cerned with sexuality and the power it confers.
In the first line of dialogue in the play, Fefu
says, My husband married me to have a constant
reminder of how loathsome women are.
other women. Although the women in this play Although Fefu is saying this to excite controversy
are all friends, they are each separated by uncer- and conversation, by the end of the play the
tainty, fear, and confusion, and they only open audience comes to understand the pain Fefu
up to one another reluctantly. bears because this statement is so true. She

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 8 7
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

weeps to Julia that she needs her husband Julias death with the inclusion of the rifle, multiple
emotionally and physicallybut he dislikes her discussions about whether the gun is loaded with
and will not fill that role for her. Phillip has real bullets or not, and Julias frequent talk about
asserted his dominance in their relationship; he death. I will die . . . for no apparent reason, she
is the one in control. This is a startling conclusion prophesizes in part 3. The hunting accident which
because Fefu otherwise is a strong, intelligent, left Julia paralyzed, combined with the presence of
confident woman. Cecilia tries to use similar tac- the rifle, leaves the audience to wonder throughout
tics of withholding affection to manipulate her the play what will happen when the rifle is fired
former lover, Paula. Paula has grown wise and, while Julia is nearby.
although she is still attracted to Cecilia, she stands
her ground every time Cecilia tries to belittle her.
Paulas strength, in fact, draws Cecilia to her. HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Julia allows herself to believe that mens
sexuality is pure and womens is notand that Between Two Wars
women are evil and are only some tool gifted to At the time Fefu and Her Friends takes place, the
men by God. These are deeply ingrained stereo- world is recovering from the ravages of the Great
types that feminists have long struggled to over- War, later known as World War I (19141918).
come. Fefu and her friends are illustrative of the The U.S. economy, under the earnest direction
various forms these struggles can take: Fefu and of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New
her failing marriage; Cecilia and Paula fighting Deal programs, is recovering from economic
for dominance or equality with one another; depression, which hit the country hard in 1929.
Cindy, separated from her significant other but Germany, also economically depressed and
closed-mouthed about her pain; Sue, stable and smarting from the harsh restrictions of the
very domestic; Emma, also stable and anything Treaty of Versailles, became a hotbed of resent-
but domestic; Christina and her fear of noncon- ment. The National Socialist German Workers
formity; and Julia, beating herself for daring to be Party (Nazi Party) was formed in 1919 and took
powerful, intelligent, and female. over the government when its leader, Adolf
Hitler, was elected Fuhrer of Germany in 1933.
After Hitler came into power, he began to break
restrictions established by the Treaty of Versailles
restrictions on actions such as conscripting citi-
zens into military service, building an arsenal,
Absurdism and invading nearby countries. World War II
Absurdism is a belief that human existence is (19391945) officially began when Germany
chaotic and meaningless. Fornes was strongly invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
influenced by Theater of the Absurd playwrights In the United States, many people were
such as Samuel Beckett, and her early plays averse to becoming involved in problems over-
reflect this. Fefu and Her Friends was a new, seas as they felt the United States had enough of
more realistic form for Fornes but still has prom- its own problems. Dust storms ravaged many of
inent absurdist elements. First, the play has no the agricultural states in the Midwest, while
real plot; it is a presentation of a series of con- mobsters and criminals (like Bonnie and Clyde)
versations between women with no particular ran rampant across the country. Few, if any,
direction or resolution. The conversations that were aware of the inhumane treatment happen-
are strung together to form the content of this ing at concentration camps and death camps
play are very loosely connected, leaving the in Europe. The United States held off direct
meaning of the overall production open to inter- involvement in World War II until December 7,
pretation. Events such as Fefu shooting blanks 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,
at her husband, Julias hunting accidents, and Hawaii. At Fefus country house in New England,
the water fight are also absurdist elements. these problems are far away; Paula is the only
one to mention contemporary issues when she
Foreshadowing worries that they should focus more on teaching
Foreshadowing is a device whereby the playwright the poor. These women are under a different
places clues that warn about future events. In Fefu kind of assault, unseen and difficult to over-
and Her Friends, Fornes heavily foreshadows come, involving sexuality and gender roles.

8 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

 1930s: The United States is slowly recovering 1970s: Both realism and absurdism continue
from an economic depression that started to be popular forms in theater. Musicals like
with the stock market crash of 1929. Many A Chorus Line are very popular. Experimen-
people were unemployed (25 percent), their tal forms such as improvisation and per-
lives destroyed by deep poverty, as Paula formance art are being explored. Plays
notes in the play. From 19331938, Presi- about minorities and women also become
dent Franklin D. Roosevelt enacts a number more numerous, reflecting societys emerg-
of programs, collectively called the New ing awareness of issues related to gender and
Deal, designed to stabilize the economy. race. In addition, more women and minority
playwrights see their work produced.
1970s: Soaring energy prices cause people to
fear an economic recession. Unemployment Today: Plays range from experimental to
is around 6.2 percent. The Organization realistic. Theater, always in competition
with cinema and television, is increasingly
of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries
threatened by other media such as the Inter-
(OAPEC) places an embargo on shipping
net, DVDs, and iPods. Still, media has never
oil to the United States from October 1973
been able to fully replace the experience of
to March 1974, resulting in prices at the
live theater.
pump as high as $6.13 per gallon. It takes a
decade for gas prices to return to normal  1930s: The first wave of feminism dies out
levels. once women are granted the right to vote in
the United States in 1920. The country is in
Today: Companies are downsizing and the grips of terrible economic depression and
laying workers off even as income disparity strict gender roles are somewhat loosened as
is becoming more pronounced. Unemploy- women seek work, earn Social Security
ment stands at 4.5 percent. Following Hur- rights from President Roosevelts new law,
ricane Katrina in 2005, which destroyed oil and vote.
refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, the price of 1970s: The second wave of feminism begins.
gasoline at the pump rises to $3.04 per gal- Women are fighting for the passage of the
lon, the highest price since March 1981. Equal Rights Amendment and have been
 1930s: Eugene ONeill, an American play- doing so ever since gaining the right to vote.
wright known for popularizing realism, wins The controversial Roe v. Wade decision is
the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. Non- handed down in 1973, giving women the
commercial theatres and plays with a social right to seek an abortion if they so choose.
or political message are emerging. Experi- Today: More women than ever are political
mental theater (such as absurdist or avant- leaders. Nancy Pelosi became the first
garde) is in its infancy, primarily in Europe, female U.S. Speaker of the House in Janu-
and will fully flourish after World War II. ary 2007.

Womens Rights not readily give up their careers and freedoms. In

Women played a large role in supporting the the United States, the National Womens Party
U.S. economy during World War I, taking on was formed in 1913 to fight for womens rights.
the jobs men had to leave behind to go fight Their primary goal was suffrage, or the right to
overseas. When the war was over, women did vote. They saw success with their campaign in

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 8 9
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Consti- also writes, in response to critics such as Kerr:
tution was ratified. Icons of this era include The only answer they have is that it is a feminist
Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. Earhart play. It could be that it is a feminist play but it
was the first female pilot to fly solo across the could be that it is just a play. . . . it is natural for
Atlantic in 1932 and she inspired many women a woman to write a play where the protagonist is
with her independent spirit. Roosevelt, as First a woman. Man is not the center of life.
Lady, was very active alongside her husband,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in promoting
the New Deal programs. She was known to be
a no-nonsense woman, strong-willed, independ- CRITICISM
ent, and a suffragist. Roosevelt was, however,
opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment Carol Ullmann
because she believed it would be detrimental Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the
for women, and she was not alone in this reason- following essay, she discusses sickness, madness,
ing. The Equal Rights Amendment was never depression, and contagion in Forness Fefu and
ratified, although it continues to be proposed Her Friends.
into legislation at every Congress. Fefu, like Fefu and Her Friends gives audiences a-day-
Earhart and Roosevelt, is a strong, independent in-the-life view of eight progressive 1930s New
woman, although she has discovered that England women who have gathered to discuss
strength and independence do not automatically the very practical matter of a fundraising event
equate with happiness in life. that they are hosting to raise money for educa-
tion. All of these women are involved in educa-
tion and have made it their career. Despite their
independence, their intelligence, and their play-
ful spirits, gloom touches them all, especially
Fefu and Julia.
Fefu and Her Friends was well-received when it The idea of madness is tossed around almost
was first produced in 1977 and again in 1978. carelessly in the beginning of the play when
Writing for the New York Times, Richard Eder Christina confides to Cindy that she thinks Fefu
describes Forness directing as uneven and is crazy and Cindy concurs that she is, albeit a
awkward but praises the script as the dramatic little. On the surface, they are referring to the
equivalent of a collection of poems. He summa- outrageous things Fefu says and to her shooting
rizes: It is an imperfect evening but a stimulat- blanks at her husband. The gun firing scared
ing one; and with moments of genuine splendor them and they are trying to calm their pounding
in it. Walter Kerr, also writing in the New York hearts. Cindy explains to Christina about Phillip
Times and reviewing the same production, gives and Fefu, They are not crazy really. They drive
Fefu and Her Friends a scathing review. He com- each other crazy. Christina is unconvinced. As
plains that the play is too philosophical. He the most timid character in this play, Christina is
does not enjoy the intimacy of part 2 when the completely out of her element around Fefu. She
audience visits different rooms to see the scenes tells her so a little later in part 1, I think youre
performed, and he does not see why the women crazy and You depress me. Christina is accus-
are getting together. Kerr concludes: If I lasted ing Fefu of not only being insane but also being
as long as I did, it was because I kept hoping contagious because her madness has depressed
during my constant journeyings that I might find Christina and depression can be perceived as a
a play in the very next room. first (though not irrevocable) step down the road
These critics saw the Off-Broadway per- to insanity. Fefu claims she is sane and implores
formance at the American Place Theater in Jan- Christina to not be depressed on her account:
uary 1978. Fornes, recalling the question-and- Dont be depressed. Laugh at me if you dont
answer sessions she hosted for audiences during agree with me. . . . I know Im ridiculous.
that production, writes for the Performing Arts Julia is the epicenter of the darkness that
Journal in 1983: I began to notice that a lot of runs throughout the play. The victim of a myste-
the men looked at the play differently from the rious accident that left her paralyzed, Julia is in
women. . . . They insisted on relating to the men the grips of a quiet madness. Julia believes that
in this play, which had no male characters. She none are aware of what she is going through

9 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s



 Renasence and Other Poems, by Edna St.
Vincent Millay, was published in 1917 to petit mal seizures, known today as absence seiz-
critical acclaim. Millay was self-sufficient ures, which are characterized by temporary loss of
and progressive, much like the characters consciousness, with the victim staring off into
in Forness play. space for a short period of time. Whether or not
 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Julia understands her medical condition, she is also
(1966), by Tom Stoppard, is an absurdist now in the grips of serious hallucinations wherein
take on the question of fate and free will, a she believes herself to be persecuted by a group of
question that could be asked regarding nameless judges. Fefu says of Julia, before her
Julias death. accident, She was afraid of nothing. . . . She was
so young and yet she knew so much. This has
 Abingdon Square (1987), by Marie Irene
been completely undermined; Julia is hardly the
Fornes, is a play with a strong historical
same person they once knew. The women are all
element. The play follows a young woman,
disturbed and Julia is desperate to convince them
Marion, from when she is married at age
that she is fine, lest the judges torment her more.
fifteen to nine years later when she nurses
her estranged and dying husband. When she hallucinates, Julia is alternately
 Latin American Dramatists since 1945 being beaten by her judges and trying to placate
(2003), by Tony Harvell, covers more than them by reciting what they want to hear, mainly
700 playwrights and 7,000 plays. Entries are concerning the filthy and evil nature of women
organized by country and playwright, and and their bodies, and the inherent purity of men.
contain biographical information as well as He said that I had to be punished because I was
extensive bibliographic records for each getting too smart. Julia believes that she was
author. already killed once by the judges but revived
when she repented. She is crippled because of
 The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), by Char- her former bad beliefs and behavior. Julias con-
lotte Perkins Gilman, tells the tragic story dition is reminiscent of Fefus comment about
of a wife who is locked in her room by her
the worms under the rock:
husband on the advice of her doctors. This
short story is told in the first-person through You see, that which is exposed to the exterior . . . is
entries in the wifes journal. smooth and dry and clean. That which is not . . .
underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and
 Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook crawling with worms. It is another life that is
(1999), by Elaine Aston, provides informa- parallel to the one we manifest. . . . If you dont
tion and exercises to aid in feminist perform- recognize it . . . (Whispering) it eats you.
ance. It is divided into three sections.
Julia is being destroyed by her madness because
she refuses to acknowledge that that is what it is.
The imagined judges who hurt Julia are also
interested in Fefu, whose intelligence and forth-
because she is careful to keep it a secret, although right behavior is threatening to their misogynist
Cindy has overheard her hallucinations. Cindy beliefs. Julia tries to claim that Fefu is not smart,
tells Fefu and Christina, I fear for her. Her perhaps hoping to spare Fefu what she is going
medical condition is perfectly understandable through. When Julia first arrives, she unloads
Julia is epileptic. The details of her accident are Fefus rifle, noticing the slug is a blank. She
unclear such that it is not certain if the hunters says cryptically, Shes hurting herself, then
gunshot or the fall and blow to the head brought slips into an absent seizure. Even through the
on Julias seizure initially. She now suffers from filter of Julias madness, her words ring true.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 9 1
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

The meaning of this is made clear as the charac- Those were difficult times, Sue remarks. She
ters unfold their innermost thoughts and the also notes that most people, herself included,
audience learns of Fefus depression. The gun is knew better than to report how many men they
a masculine, violent way for Fefu to release her were dating or to be honest at their medical check-
anguish over her failing marriage. But it is also a ups. Otherwise they would end up like na ve Susan
temporary relief, perhaps because it is only Austin, who said she was nervous and she wasnt
loaded with blanks. sleeping well. So she had to see a psychiatrist from
then on. Emma assumes Austin was crazy but
Fefus seemingly careless regard for life
Sue assures her she was not. This is the stigma of
frightens Christina, who does not feel that this
being sent to the psychiatrist.
is natural behavior, even for an adventurous
woman. She is right, but this conclusion is not Repeatedly, Fornes is telling audiences
puzzling when one is aware that Fefu pines for a through Fefu and Her Friends that the brightest
husband who despises her, and that Fefu has women are brought down by madness, whether
lost interest in her lifes work. I am in constant actual or implied. This is the fate that Fefu des-
pain. I dont want to give in to it. If I do I am perately wants to avoid, and she seeks refuge
afraid I will never recover, Fefu tells Emma in from this by pretending to be fine, by hiding
part 2. This is the first direct indication that Fefu within the domestic sphere. Women like Fefu
is not as strong, nor as happy as she appears. take care of their houses, prepare food for their
Fefu covers up her depression with domestic families and guests, and otherwise behave in a
concerns. Whenever she is overly aware of the feminine, subservient manner. Sue and Christina
pain she feels, she rushes out of the room to fetch are superior examples of domesticated scholars.
lemonade, fix a toilet, or make lunch. Fefu is quite the opposite. She tells Cindy and
Christina, I like being like a man. Thinking like
Fefu accuses Julia (much as Christina did to a man. Feeling like a man. Fefu has few avenues
Fefu earlier, only this time with more insistence), for dealing with her problemsa failing mar-
Youre nuts, and willingly so. Julia denies her riage and depressionbecause the world she
madness. Fefu continues, And youre conta- inhabits prefers to treat women themselves as
gious. Im going mad too. Fefu hallucinated the problem rather than as human beings who
that Julia walked across the living room when need help. The underlying implication is that
no one else was around, so it would appear to be Woman is not a human being. . . . Woman gen-
true, that Fefu is also mad. Or was this an absent erates the evil herself.
seizure and Julia does not remember? Madness
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Fefu and Her
and depression are not the same things, despite
Friends, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning,
efforts to equate the two for purposes of neutral- 2008.
izing a persons independence. Sue remembers a
friend from years ago, who dated twenty-eight
men in one semester because she was both beau- Piper Murray
tiful as well as kind to each man who asked her In the following excerpt, Murray interprets Fefu
out. She got in trouble with her superiors for and Her Friends as an astute examination of how
dating too many men. And the worst thing and why women gather together.
was that after that, she thought there was some-
Maria Irene Forness Fefu and Her Friends
thing wrong with her. As seen with Julias imag-
leaves us with a vision that is nothing if not
ined judges, authority figures have a lot of
ambivalent. Coming as the climax of eight wom-
influence on ones beliefs and self-esteem.
ens efforts to throw off the stifling conditions
Gloria Schuman, another friend, was sent to a that have brought them together, Julias sympa-
psychiatrist for writing a brilliant paper. He thetic deathapparently the result of a shot
almost drove her crazy. They just couldnt believe fired by Phillips unsympathetic gunshocks
she was so smart. Julia recalls, Everybody ended and confuses. In an effort to explain this
going to the psychiatrist. Ended, not ended strangely ambiguous ending, many critics have
up. Those who were sent to the psychiatrist looked to one of its most obvious roots: the
those who were perceived as having mental conflicted psyches of Fefu and her friends. In
problemswere no longer valued because they such an interpretation, Julias real and halluci-
were marked by madness (real or otherwise). The nated struggle, however dramatic, becomes just
only identity left to them was that of patient. an extreme example of the pain and paralysis that

9 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

the scenes a kind of hysterical production through

which, into all the play and laughter, erupts a pain
neither purely physical nor purely emotional:
IN THE END, OF COURSE, FEFU AND HER Cindy relates a dream in which she is nearly
strangled by a man who rubs her nipples, while
Sue sucks on Fefus ice cubes before returning
APART, OR EVEN TO LAY THE FOUNDATION FOR A them to the freezer, declaring Im clean. And
through it all, despite her frequent testimony that
she takes pleasure in what others find disgusting,
Fefu seems to spend an awful lot of time wielding a
plunger, presumably in order to keep the abject at
bay. Despite her tendency to feed (on) the very
all the women experience. All of these women, it things that revolt her, that is, Fefu appears unusu-
would seem, have internalized the kind of judges ally preoccupied with ensuring that the the rubber
Julia hallucinates in her Part Two monologue. stopper [ . . . ] falls right over the holemaking
All of them must strive to create an identity not sure, that is, that the once-abjected will not repro-
dependent on men (or man) for its definition, duce itself. Indeed, for the risk-taker Christina
one that celebrates both the plumbing that takes her to be, it would seem that Fefu takes a
women can call their own and the fact that remarkable number of precautions when it comes
women can do all their own plumbing. . . . to plumbing.

Fefu and Her Friends introduces us early on Why is plumbingas Fefu and Julia both
to the abjectand to the ambivalence that describe itso important? Why, in a gathering
always characterizes its performance. Perhaps and performance that is supposed to be about
this is nowhere more evident than in Fefus pre- educational reform, does the plumbing seem so
occupation with plumbing. Plumbing is more often and so insistently to come up? At one level,
important than you think Fefu tells Christina, we might say that the power with which Fefu
and revulsion is exciting: endows her plumbing makes Fefu a paradoxical
performance from the beginning. For plumbing,
that which is exposed to the exterior . . . is smooth especially when it is not performing as it is sup-
and dry and clean. That which is not . . . under- posed to, reminds us of the physical fact of the
neath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling
body and its production of waste. At the same
with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the
one we manifest. Its there. The way worms time, however, when it is functioning as we
are underneath the stone. If you dont recognize expect it to, plumbing is also precisely what ena-
it . . . (Whispering.) it eats you. bles us to conceal, to forget, the fact of our bodily
functions. In other words, plumbing is like
Or, in Julias case, it paralyzes you. As Julia
the perfect performative described by Butler:
makes clear in her hysterical monologue in Part
while it may function as witness to the body
Two, hers is a constant struggle to forget the
and its avenues of abjection, it also functions
stinking parts of the body, even though all
as a smooth and dry and clean denial of that
those parts [that] must be kept clean and put
same function. We might also wonder, of course,
away [ . . . ] are the important ones: the genitals,
whether Fefus prophylactic activity is not
the anus, the mouth, the armpit. Men and
meant as a guard against another kind of bodily
women both might be accused of act[ing] as if
(re)production, as well. As the Shakespearean
they dont have genitals, but, as Julia reiterates
sonnet that Emma recites to Fefu in Part Two
through her prayer, it is woman who is funda-
suggests, Fefu remains childless; she has not yet
mentally, mythologically, not only condemned
convert[ed] herself to store by fulfilling the
to but, in fact, founded on that denial. And we
promise of reproduction. And if Fefu would like
can imagine how exhausting that constant denial
to keep it that way, then she must constantly check
must be, considering that womens entrails are
to make sure that the rubber stopper/diaphragm
heavier than anything on earth.
falls right over the hole. For we might remem-
Though Julias may be the most extreme case, ber that it is Fefus husband, and not Fefu, who
to some extent we come to know all of Fefu and her controls whether the gun shoots blanks or the
friends as abject identities. In the merry-go-round real thingno matter whose hands it is in or
of Part Two, for example, we encounter in each of who it is aimed at.

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F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

As Fefus question to Christina (What do in their world (100; original emphasis). If we are
you do with revulsion?) suggests, the abject invited to be in their spaces but not of them, made
always serves a performative function. We learn to feel how little difference our presence makes in
early on in Fefu that so much talk about the their world, then what does that say for the status
abject, along with the revulsion it produces, is of Fefu as a feminist performance? Does Fefu, in
never merely talk; it is also a production that fact, perform the feminist work we might as critics
does something, that acts. From the very first call on it to do? Or does it allow us to remain
line, [m]y husband married me to have a con- just indifferent enough to view the happiness
stant reminder of how loathsome women are, and unhappiness of Fefu and her friends as
Forness play draws us into a world where every mere performance, regarding them as some-
utterance does something, enacts some inequal- thing between real women and drama queens?
ity between men and women (and, though this is Fornes own comments about the plays recep-
less frequently noted, between women and tion have suggested that many audience mem-
women). Julia tells her audience that as soon as bers continue to judge how well Fefu and her
she believes the prayer that condemns women as friends are together through the familiar lens
inhuman and spiritually sexual, she will forget of hom(m)osociality; indeed, many of the post-
the judges. And when I forget the judges, she performance questions about the play often con-
goes on, I will believe the prayer. They say both cern neither Fefu nor any of her seven friends,
happen at once. And all women have done it. In but the few male characters who never even
other words, if she can forget the performative appear. We, too, it would seem, are always wait-
and (re)productive nature of the female sex, ing for the men to arrive.
and simply allow it to materialize as if it were
natural (much like the plumbing), then she will Perhaps no other play demonstrates so clearly
finally have become a woman who can walk with as Fefu and Her Friends the fundamentaland
other women. Indeed, it would seem that it is this foundingambivalence that necessarily consti-
very act of forgetting that makes woman what tutes female homosocial desire in a culture where
she is in the first place. Julias failure to live up to the men play outside in the fresh air while the
this performative demand will, of course, be women gather inside, in the dark. Certainly the
fatal. To Emmas offer to stage a dance for her complicated struggle of Fefu and her friends to
(and we know from Julias monologue where become well together seems to imply, with But-
dancing got Isadora Duncan), Julia happily ler. that [e]xceeding is not escaping, and the sub-
replies, Im game. And so she is: like the deer ject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound
and the rabbit that are literally hunted, Julias (Psychic Life 17). In the same way, however, the
perception that she is game for her persecutors passionate attachments that Fefu and her friends
finally becomes a paralyzing and deadly reality, do develop would also seem to enact the kind of
and one that, like any performative utterance, is ambivalent hope that Peggy Phelan identifies with
never clearly either the result or the cause of the feminist critical theory: What makes feminist
act it performs . . . criticism performative, she writes, is not its uto-
In the end, of course, Fefu and her friends pian pitch toward a better future but, rather, the
can hardly be said to blow the world apart, or intimate dissonance inspired by the recognition
even to lay the foundation for a new one. But of mutual failure, in the here and nowthe fail-
that the play successfully (if not happily) per- ure to enact what one can barely glimpse, can
forms this struggle in all its ambivalence might only imagine, and cannot reproduce. In other
be evident in the fact that, as Fornes herself has words, because feminist criticism (and perform-
noted, nobody seems to know quite what to do ance) is itself performative, it cannot ever hope
with the sheer number of women in this play. As to have achieved its end once and for all. Instead,
Helene Keyssar writes of her own experience as it must find its hope in the very necessity and
an audience member, spectators of both sexes fragility that repetition has to offer it. Looking
often find themselves disconcerted, not only by at the play in this way, as Fefu and her friends
being moved from our stable and familiar posi- gather around Julias body in the final scene of
tions, but by our proximity to each other to the Forness play, we might ask, not once but many
characters; we are in their spaces but not of them. times, just what kinds of passionate attachments
Their world remains separate from ours, and Fefu and Her Friends makes possiblebetween
there is nothing we can do to make a difference women.

9 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

Source: Piper Murray, They Are Well Together.

Women Are Not: Productive Ambivalence and Female
Hom(m)osociality in Fefu and Her Friends, in Modern
Drama, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 398415.


Penny Farfan
In lhe following excerpt, Farfan examines Forness IS THEREFORE IN SIMILAR DANGER OF PUNISHMENT
unusual staging choices in Fefu and Her Friends
as well as how the plays mise-en-scene ` (putting
into the scene) drives its feminist message. CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY, FEFU IS MOST DIRECTLY
The first time that Maria Irene Fornes INVOLVED IN THE STRUGGLE THAT HAS LEFT JULIA
attended a rehearsal of one of her plays, she
was amazed to be informed by the director that CRIPPLED.
she should not communicate her ideas about
staging directly to the actors but should instead
make written notes that they would discuss
together over coffee after rehearsal. This exclu-
sion of the playwright from the rehearsal process That office was the study of Fefus house . . . I
asked if we could use all of their rooms for the
seemed to Fornes like the most absurd thing in
performances, and they agreed.
the world. As she later commented,
I had written Julias speech in the bedroom
Its as if you have a child, your own baby, and
already. I had intended to put it on stage and
you take the baby to school and the baby is
I had not yet arrived at how it would come
crying and the teacher says, Please Ill take
about. Part of the kitchen scene was written,
care of it. Make a note: at the end of the day
but I had thought it would be happening in the
you and I can talk about it. Youd think This
living room. So I had parts of it already. It was
woman is crazy. Im not going to leave my kid
the rooms themselves that modified the scenes
here with this insane person.
which originally I planned to put in the living
Since her initial theatrical experience, For- room.
nes has directed many of the first productions of People asked me, when the play opened, if I had
her own work, having resolved that if she did not written those scenes to be done in different rooms
direct, the work would not be done at all. She and then found the space. No. They were written
has never [seen] any difference between writing that way because the space was there.
and directing and for this reason she rarely goes Yet while Fornes attributes the staging of Fefu
into rehearsal with a completed script in hand. and Her Friends to chance, she has also stated,
The organic relationship between drama- When something happens by accident, I trust
turgy and mise-en-scene` in Forness work is that the play is making its own point. I feel some-
perhaps nowhere more evident than in her 1977 thing is happening that is very profound and very
play Fefu and Her Friends, in the middle section important. Indeed, as I will argue here, in reconfi-
of which the audience is divided into quarters, guring the conventional performer-spectator rela-
taken out of the main auditorium, and rotated tionship, Forness mise-en-scene` in Fefu and Her
through four intimate playing areas representing Friends realizes in theatrical terms an alternative
rooms in Fefus house, where the actresses simul- model for interaction with the universe external to
taneously repeat interlocking yet distinct scenes the self such as that proposed by the metatheatri-
four times, once for each section of the audience. cal actress/educator-character Emma as a means
Fornes arrived at this unique staging by chance of transforming Fefus pain. In this respect, Fefu
while she was looking for a space in which to and Her Friends posits postmodern feminist the-
present her as-yet-unfinished play: atre practice as a constructive response to the
I did not like the space I found because it had psychic dilemmas of the plays female charac-
large columns. But then I was taken backstage ters. As Emma says, Life is theatre. Theatre is
to the rooms the audience could not see. I saw life. If were showing what life is, can be, we must
the dressing room, and I thought, How nice. do theatre.
This could be a room in Fefus house, Then I
was taken to the greenroom. I thought that this Set in New England in 1935, Fefu and Her
also could be a room in Fefus house. Then we Friends involves eight women who seem to share
went to the business office to discuss terms. a common educational background and who

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 9 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

gather at Fefus house to prepare for what seems underlying all the characters interactions, which
to be a fundraising project relating to education. have been described by W. B. Worthen as trans-
One of these women, Julia, suffers from a myste- formations of Julias more explicit subjection.
rious and apparently psychosomatic illness that
The connection between Julia and the other
became evident a year earlier when she collapsed
characters is confirmed in Part Three of Fefu and
after a hunter shot a deer. She has not walked
Her Friends when the women reminisce about
since and still occasionally blanks out. Alone in
their college days in terms that resonate with
her bedroom in Part Two, Julia undergoes a long
and confirm the reality of her hallucinations:
hallucination punctuated by threats and blows
female intelligence is associated in these recollec-
from invisible judges who seem to epitomize
tions with madness, while college professors and
patriarchal authority. During the course of her
doctors are represented as actual versions of
hallucination, she reveals that the onset of her
Julias hallucinated judges and are referred to
illness was a punishment for having got too
smart and that the conditions of her survival similarly, by means of the pronoun they. Elaine
were to become crippled and to remain silent Showalter has written that hysteria and femi-
about what she knows. Even now, however, nism . . . exist on a kind of continuum and that
though she attempts to appease the judges by [i]f we see the hysterical woman as one end of
reciting a creed of the central tenets of patriar- the spectrum of a female avant-garde struggling
chal ideology, Julia remains covertly but essen- to redefine womens place in the social order,
tially defiant and unindoctrinated, challenging then we can also see feminism as the other end
conventional wisdom relating to women and of the spectrum, the alternative to hysterical
attempting to get the judges off the trail of her silence, and the determination to speak and act
friend Fefu, who is also considered to be too for women in the public world. The common
smart. Thus, in the 1930s context in which the educational background of the women in Fefu
play is set, Julias physical symptoms both and Her Friends signifies their shared experience
express and suppress her resistance to womens of the pressure to become indoctrinated into the
subordination within patriarchal society, as did system of beliefs outlined in Julias prayer. At
those of the smart female hysterics treated the same time, the reunion of these women on
by Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, and others the basis of their ongoing commitment to
around the turn of the century. education may suggest a fundamental concern
on Forness part with representing characters
Described by Fornes as the mind of the engaged in the project of researching alternative
playthe seer, the visionary, Julia herself implies modes of response to the knowledge articulated
\that her insights into the patriarchal construction by the hysteric Julia as the mind of the play. In
of female inferiority are repressed common knowl- this sense, the term Lehrstuck or learning play
edge when she states at the end of her Part Two that Bonnie Marranca has used to describe
monologue, They say when I believe the prayer I Forness 1987 work Abingdon Square is applica-
will forget the judges. And when I forget the judges ble to Fefu and Her Friends as well.
I will believe the prayer. They say both happen at
once. And all women have done it. Why cant I? Julia aligns herself explicitly with Fefu,
(emphasis added). Julias connection to the other implying that she also is too smart and is there-
characters in the play is borne out by the simulta- fore in similar danger of punishment by the
neous staging of Part Two, when, at the same time judges; and indeed, of all the characters in the
that she is in the bedroom reciting the patriarchal play, Fefu is most directly involved in the strug-
creed under threat of violence from invisible tor- gle that has left Julia crippled. Fefu is married to
mentors, Paula is in the kitchen describing the pain a man she claims to need and desire, but who has
of breaking up with her lover Cecilia, Cindy is in told her that he [married her] to have a constant
the study recounting a nightmare about an abusive reminder of how loathsome women are and
male doctor, and Emma and Fefu are on the lawn who engages her in a terrible game whereby
discussing Emmas obsession with genitals and he falls to the ground after she shoots at him with
Fefus constant pain. Forness sense of the appro- a rifle that has thus far been loaded with blanks
priateness of a certain amount of sound-spill but that he has threatened one day to load with a
between the various playing areas in Part Two real bullet. Fefus interest in the male-associated
suggests that Julias forbidden knowledge functions activities of shooting and plumbing and her asser-
as the intermittently or partially audible subtext tions that she like[s] men better than women and

9 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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that she like[s] being . . . thinking . . . [f]eeling like and Her Friends problematic. With regard to this
a man indicate that her strategy for coping with question of the plays ending, Forness starting
the pain of her marriage is male-identification, but premises for her work on Fefu may perhaps be
this mode of response is problematized by the instructive. By her own account, she began writ-
presence of female friends who cause her to con- ing the play with two fantasy images in mind.
front the patriarchal construction of female infe- The first image was of a woman . . . who was
riority. In the opening scene, for example, Cindy talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle
forces Fefu to acknowledge a discrepancy between and shot her husband; the second was a joke
what her husband Phillip says about women being involving two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight.
loathsome and what she herself knows of One says to the other, She is pretty, that one
women based on her own personal experience. over there. The other one says, Which one? So
This invalidation of her posture of male-identifi- the first one takes his rifle and shoots her.
cation makes being around women a dangerous He says, That one, the one that falls. In the
situation for Fefu. As she states in Part One, completed play, Fornes has brought these two
starting premises together so that, however indi-
Women are restless with each other. They are
like live wires . . . either chattering to keep
rectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband
themselves from making contact, or else, if Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the
they dont chatter, they avert their eyes . . . like men in the joke who objectify women to the
Orpheus . . . as if a god once said and if they point of annihilation. Notably, in Part One of
shall recognize each other, the world will be the play, Julia remarks of Fefus use of the
blown apart. They are always eager for the gun, Shes hurting herself; inasmuch as taking
men to arrive. When they do, they can put
up the gun is a male-associated strategy of dom-
themselves at rest. tranquilized and in a mild
stupor. With the men they feel safe. The danger
ination, Julias observation is correct. In this
is gone. Thats the closest they can be to feeling Lehrstuck, then, Fefus male-identification is
wholesome. Men are muscle that cover the raw ultimately as self-destructive and ineffectual a
nerve. They are the insulators. The danger is strategy of resistance to womens subordination
gone, but the price is the mind and the spirit . . . within patriarchal culture as Julias hysteria.
High price.Ive never understood it. Why?
Source: Penny Farfan, Feminism, Metatheatricality,
What is feared?Hmmm. Well . . . Do you
` in Maria Irene Forness Fefu and Her
and Mise-en-scene
know? Perhaps the heavens would fall.
Friends, in Modern Drama, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 1997,
The devastating recognition scene that this pp. 18193.
speech anticipates occurs near the end of the play
when, in a moment that may support Julias W. B. Worthen
assertion that [h]allucinations are real, Fefu In the following excerpt, Worthen discusses
sees Julia walking and understands that her Forness political, feminist approach in Fefu and
illness is a psychosomatic response to an insight Her Friends, particularly how she challenges the
that she will not or cannot communicate except audiences inherently uncomfortable response to
through the hysterical paralysis of her body. the play itself.
Unaccepting of what she perceives as Julias
. . . Forness most assured play, Fefu and
passive and voluntary submission, Fefu tries to
Her Friends, brings the gendering of the realistic
force her to her feet to fight and then takes action
spectator fully into view, revealing his covert
herself, exiting to the lawn with the now-loaded
control of the women of the stage. The play opens
rifle. Like the hunter who shot a deer and myste-
at a country house in 1935. Fefu has invited a
riously injured Julia, Fefu now shoots a rabbit
group of women to her home to rehearse a brief
and Julia once more suffers the wound, which
series of skits for a charity benefit to raise money
this time may be fatal.
for a newly founded organization. In the first
Beverley Byers Pevitts has argued that scene, the women arrive and are introduced.
the death of Julia signifies the symbolic killing Many seem to have been college friends, two
off of woman as created by the dominant culture seem to be lovers, or ex-lovers. Much of the
in order to enable the emergence of a new self- action of the scene centers on Julia, who is con-
determined female identity, yet Forness assertion fined to a wheelchair as the result of a mysterious
that her characters should not be seen as symbolic hunting accident: although the bullet missed her,
or representative figures makes Pevittss positive she is paralyzed from the waist down. In part 2,
interpretation of the ambiguous ending of Fefu Fornes breaks the audience into four groups,

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 9 7
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

who tour Fefus homegarden, study, bed-

room, and kitchen: These scenes are performed
simultaneously. When the scenes are completed
the audience moves to the next space and the IN FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, VISION IS
scenes are performed again. This is repeated
four times until each group has seen all four
scenes. In part 3, the audience is returned to STANDING OUTSIDE THE THEATRICAL FORMULA OF
the auditorium. The women rehearse and decide REALISM.
the order of their program, Fefu goes outside to
clean her gun, and suddenly a shot rings out;
Julia falls dead, bleeding, though again the bullet
seems to have gone elsewhere.
The play examines the theatrical poetics of caused by the blow on the head. Its a scar in
the feminine not only as theme, but in the visible the brain.
protocols of the spectacle as well, by unseating The women of Fefu and Her Friends share
the invisible spectator of realism and by drama- Julias invisible scar, the mark of their para-
tizing his authority over the construction of lyzing subjection to a patriarchy that operates on
stage gender. Early in the play, for instance, Fefu the imaginary, ideological plane. The hunter is
looks offstage and sees her husband approa- kin to Julias hallucinatory voices in part 2, the
ching: FEFU reaches for the gun, aims and shoots. judges who enforce her psychic dismember-
CHRISTINA hides behind the couch. She and ment: They clubbed me. They broke my head.
CINDY scream . . . FEFU smiles proudly. She They broke my will. They broke my hands. They
blows on the mouth of the barrel. She puts down the tore my eyes out. They took away my voice.
gun and looks out again. As Fefu explains once Julias bodily identification is broken down and
Phillip has regained his feet, Its a game we play. reordered according to the aesthetic canons
I shoot and he falls. Whenever he hears the blast he prescribed by the male voice, the silent voice
falls. No matter where he is, he falls. Although that characterizes women as loathsome. This
Phillip is never seen in the play, his attitudes con- internalized guardian rewrites Julias identity
stantly intrude on the actionMy husband mar- at the interface of the body itself, where the
ried me to have a constant reminder of how masculine voice materializes itself in the wom-
loathsome women areand mark the presence ans flesh. The subliminal voice infiltrates the
of a powerful, masculine, destructive authority deepest levels of psychological and physiological
lurking just offstage. The shells may be live or identification, enforcing a crippling gesture of
only blanks (Im never sure, says Fefu), but it submission:
hardly matters. The exchange of power takes
place through the sighting of the other. (Her head moves as if slapped.)
Julia: Dont hit me. Didnt I just say my
The power of the absent male is everywhere
evident in Fefu, and particularly imaged in
(A smaller slap.)
Julias paralysis. As Cindy suggests when she
Julia: I believe it.
describes the accident, Julias malady is a version
of Fefus game: I thought the bullet hit her, The gun business derives from a joke, as
but it didnt . . . the hunter aimed . . . at the deer. Fornes reports in Notes: There are two Mex-
He shot: icans in sombreros sitting at a bullfight and one
Julia and the deer fell . . . I screamed for help
says to the other, Isnt she beautiful, the one in
and the hunter came and examined Julia. He yellow? and he points to a woman on the other
said, She is not hurt. Julias forehead was side of the arena crowded with people. The other
bleeding. He said, It is a surface wound. I one says, Which one? and the first takes his gun
didnt hurt her. I know it wasnt he who hurt and shoots her and says, The one that falls. In
her. It was someone else . . . Apparently there the first draft of the play Fefu explains that she
was a spinal nerve injury but the doctors are
started playing this game with her husband as a
puzzled because it doesnt seem her spine was
hurt when she fell. She hit her head and she
joke. But in rewriting the play I took out this
suffered a concussion but that would not affect explanation. Its notable that the gun business
the spinal nerve. So there seems to be no reason dates from Forness original work on the play in
for the paralysis. She blanks out and that is 1964, as Fornes suggests in Interview. For a

9 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

fuller reading of Forness theater, see Worthen, and its privileged, private subject: the invisible,
Still playing games. singular, motionless, masculine I. By reordering
the audiences function in the theatrical process,
As Fornes remarked to Gayle Austin, Julia
Fefu reorders its relation to, and interpretation of,
is really not mad at all. Shes telling the truth.
the dramatic process it shapes.
The only madness is, instead of saying her expe-
rience was as if there was a court that con- As Cecilia says at the opening of part 3, after
demned her, she says that they did (Austin 80). we have returned to the living room, we each
have our own system of receiving information,
Fornes suggests that Julia is the mind of the
placing it, responding to it. That system can func-
play, and Julias scene articulates the shaping tion with such a bias that it could take any sit-
vision of Fefu as a whole, as well as organizing uation and translate it into one formula. In
the dramatic structure of part 2 (Notes). The performance, Fefu and Her Friends dramatizes
action of Fefu and Her Friends takes place under and displaces the theatrical system that renders
watchful eyes of Phillip, of the hunter, of Julias woman visible: the predication of feminine iden-
guardians, a gaze that constructs, enables, and tity on the sight of the spectator, a judge multi-
thwarts the women of the stage: Our sight is a plied from the singular he into an audience of
form they take. That is why we take pleasure in them. In this sense, Forness theatrical strategy
seeing things. In the theater, of course, there is works to replace the objective and objectifying
another invisible voyeur, whose performance is relations of realistic vision with the more fluid
both powerful and imaginary. Fefu and Her boundaries sometimes said to describe womens
Friends extends the function of the spectator experience of themselves and others. Writing
beyond the metaphorical register, by decentering the play, Fornes sought to avoid writing in a
his implicit ordering of the theatricality of linear manner, moving forward, and instead
the feminine. First performed by the New York undertook a series of centrifugal experiments,
Theater Strategy in a SoHo loft, the play origi- exploring characterization by writing a series of
nally invited the spectators to explore the space improvisational, extraneous scenes (Cummings
of Fefus home. In the American Place Theater 53). Perhaps as a result, the staging of Fefu chal-
lenge the institutional objectivity, the control-
production, the spectators were invited, row by
ling partitions of realistic vision. The play not
row, to different areas of the theatera back-
only realizes Julias absent voices, it reshapes
stage kitchen, an upstairs bedroom, the garden
the audiences relation to the drama, requiring
and the study setsbefore being returned to the
an interpretive activity that subordinates plot
auditorium, but not to their original seats. At to atmosphere or environment, one that
first glance, Forness staging may seem simply a refuses recourse to a single, external point of view.
gimmick, a formalist exercise in multiple perspec-
tive something like Alan Ayckbourns The Nor- Stanley Kauffmans reading of the plays
man Conquests (1973). yet Ayckbourns trilogy filmic texture is at once shrewd and, in this
each play takes a different set of soundings from sense, misapplied: I doubt very much that For-
the events of a single weekendimplies that there nes thought of this four-part walk-around as a
could be, in some mammoth play, a single order- gimmick. Probably it signified for her an explan-
ing of events, one drama expressed by a single ation of simultaneity (since all four scenes are
done simultaneously four times for the four
plot and visible from a single perspective. Fefu
groups), a union of play and audience through
and Her Friends, though, bears little confidence
kinetics, some adoption by the theater of cine-
in the adequacy or authority of the single viewing
matic flexibility and montage. But since the
subject characteristic of both film and of fourth-
small content in these scenes would in no way
wall realism, and more closely approximates the
be damaged by traditional serial construction,
decentering disorientation of environmental the-
since this insistence on reminding us that people
ater. Different spectators see the drama in a dif-
actually have related/unrelated conversations
ferent sequence and in fact see different plays, as
simultaneously in different rooms of the same
variations invariably enter into the actors per-
house is banal, we are left with the feeling of
formances. Fornes not only draws the audience
into the performance space, violating the privacy
of the stage, she actively challenges and suspends It should be noted that Fornes also remarks,
the epistemological priorities of realistic vision I dont mean linear in terms of what the feminists

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 9 9
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

claim about the way the male mind works. For coercive force and the gender bias they inscribe
the phrase, fluid boundaries, and for much of within our own performance of the play.
my understanding of feminist psychoanalytic See Jane Gallops description of the oculo-
theory, I am indebted to my late colleague Joan centrism of theory from the Greek theoria, from
Lidoff. Patrocinio Schweickart argues, referring theoros, spectator, from thea, a viewing. It
to the work of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilli- should be noted that theater of this kind is, in the
gan, that men define themselves through individ- careful sense developed by Benjamin Bennett,
uation and separation from others, while women anti-Fascist, in that it not only opposes the imag-
have more flexible ego boundaries and define and ined uniformity of response latent in the single
experience themselves in terms of their affiliations perspective of realism and the single personality
and relationships with others. produced by poetic theater, but it also forces the
In Fefu and Her Friends, vision is achieved audience to negotiate its own variety of responses
only through displacement, by standing outside as part of the plays condition of meaning. See
the theatrical formula of realism. The play Theater as Problem chapter 4, esp. 15963.
undertakes to dramatize both the results of real- Source: W. B. Worthen, Framing Gender: Cloud Nine
istic biasin the various deformations suffered and Fefu and Her Friends, in Modern Drama and the
by Julia, Fefu, and their friendsand to enact Rhetoric Theater, University of California Press, 1992,
the other formula that has been suppressed, pp. 18293.
the formula that becomes the audiences mode of
vision in the theater. To see Fefu is not to imag-
Phyllis Mael
ine an ideal order, a single, causal plot consti-
In the following excerpt, Mael gives a critical
tuted specifically by our absence from the
analysis of Forness life and work.
performance; not only are there several plots,
but we have shared the space in which they have Innocence, tenderness, a sense of humor, a
been enacted. Fefu sharply illustrates how a special kind of joythese are the ingredients
subversive text can open up theatrical rhetoric, Mar a Irene Fornes wants in her plays. Structure
exposing the negotiation of meanings to contra- or form makes these ingredients cohere. Accord-
dictions, circularity, multiple viewpoints (Forte ing to Fornes, structure is not necessarily words
117). Fefu and Her Friends decenters the absent or plot but what takes the audience from one
spectator as the site of authentic interpreta- thing to another. Structure is a personal and
tion, replacing him with a self-evidently theat- idiosyncratic sense of order which is abstract and
ricalized body, an audience, a community instinctive. She compares structure in drama to
sharing irreconcilable yet interdependent experi- form in abstract painting: When looking at an
ences. In Fefu, Fornes provides what Glaspell abstract painting, we see the elements basic to
could not discover in Trifles: a means of politi- painting. When looking at a figurative or repre-
cizing our interpretive activity as spectators. The sentational painting, we are not as aware of the
environmental design of the play invokes the abstract elements of composition which must be
realistic ideal of verisimilitude even as it renders [present] in order for the painting to be good.
any sense of spectatorial objectivity impossi- Structure refers to the basic elements of play-
ble. The perspective offered by the realistic box writing which must be there regardless of
appears to construct a community of witnesses content.
but is in fact grounded in the sight of a single Her experimental plays have earned her rec-
observer: the realistic audience sees with a single ognition and critical support. Author and critic
eye. Fefu challenges the theory of realistic the- Phillip Lopate has written that Fornes helped
ater at its source, by dramatizingand displac- clear a way through the claustrophobic land-
ingthe covert authority of the constitutive scape of Broadway vapidity and Off-Broadway
theoros of realism and the social order it repro- ponderous symbolism, by making theater that
duces: the offstage man. In this regard, Forness was fresh, adventurous, casual, fantastic, per-
theater shares its rhetoric with the theater of ceptive and musical. Like that of many other
Brenton, Barnes, Churchill, Osborne, Kennedy, recent avant-garde playwrights, Forness work
and many others who work to stage our perform- has earned both recognition and financial sup-
ance as a political act. The genius of Fefu and Her port from several universities and philanthropic
Friends lies in the way that Fornes renders the foundations. For her work in the theatre she
relations of visibility palpable, dramatizing their has received awards from the Whitney Foundation

1 0 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

Tango Palace (1964), her first important

play, is about the power struggle between Isi-
dore, an androgynous clown, and Leopold,
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS IS FORNESS MOST an earnest youth. Their struggle is as stylized
as the tango Isidore ostensibly attempts to teach
Leopold and as deadly as the bullfight in which
HER OTHER PLAYS IN USING CINEMATIC ELEMENTS they engage, a fight which culminates in an
embrace as Leopold kills Isidore.
Isidore and Leopold represent the twin poles
of an archetypal battle (father-son, teacher-
BEING MORE REALISTIC, DEVELOPING CHARACTERS student). As the play opens, Isidore is resting in
a shrine, occasionally emerging to toss cards at
Leopold. According to Isidore, the cards con-
FEMINIST CONTENT. tain wisdom which Leopold must memorize,
such as All is fair in love and war. But Leopold
protests this socialization process, wishing
instead to learn in his own way, listening to his
inner voice. There! You Died (1963), the original
(1961), the University of Minnesota (1965), Cintas title, refers to a line that exemplifies Isidores
Foundation (1967), Yale University (1967-1968), desire to be omnipotent. Attempting to convince
Boston University (1968), the Rockefeller Founda- Leopold that all knowledge emanates from him,
Isidore tells Leopold he will die should he burn
tion (1971), the Guggenheim Foundation (1972),
the cards containing Isidores words of wisdom.
the National Endowment for the Arts (1973), and
When Leopold asserts himself by setting fire to a
the New York State Council on the Arts (1976).
card, Isidore trips him and shouts: There! You
These awards testify to her continuing search for
died. But Leopold springs to his feet insisting
new forms to express a personal idiom for theatre.
that he only tripped, thus rebelling against
Fornes emigrated from her native Cuba to Isidores authority.
the United States in 1945 with her mother and
The Successful Life of 3 (1965) exhibits,
sister. In 1954 she went to Europe and spent
according to Richard Gilman, Forness occu-
three years painting, returning in 1957 to New
pation of a domain strategically removed from
York, where she worked as a textile designer. In our own not by extravagant fantasy but by a
1960 she began writing plays and had her first simplicity and matter-of-factness that are much
production in 1961. She has also directed plays, more mysterious. He goes on to suggest that the
principally her own. Since 1973 she has been correct style for staging the play would be doing
president of the New York Theatre Strategy, an it as though it were a movie . . . with the films
organization that produces the work of experi- freedom precisely from the oppressions of finite
mental American playwrights. In addition to time and space . . . eliminating all the integu-
writing plays in English, she has written in Span- ments, the texture of verisimilitude and logical
ish such plays as Cap-a-Pie (1975) and Lolita in connection which . . . Fornes had excluded as
the Garden (1977)both important contribu- part of her principle of writing.
tions to INTAR, a New York native Spanish
theatre. A vivid example of the cinematic influence
in The Successful Life of 3 is the use of freeze
Although some might consider her works shots of the characters. Three people assume
too abstract, too concerned with form and tex- characteristic expressions at certain moments in
ture, Fornes insists a strong message is present in the play: He (handsome young man) looks
most of her plays. But she distinguishes between disdainful; She (sexy young lady) thinks
political thinking and art. In her plays she is with a stupid expression; 3 (plump, middle-
teaching something that is, that exists, but is aged man) looks with intense curiosity. The
not telling what to do about it. To indicate what three stereotyped characters form an absurd
the next step should be, what to do next is polit- triangle which both replicates and undermines
ical action and not the function of art at all. The conventional romantic notions. The illogical use
function of art is to reveal. of time and space and the parodies of masculine

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 0 1
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

rivalry, financial success, justice, and roles of The entire audience participates in the celebration
women all serve to subvert conventional theat- that follows the wedding.
rical and ethical values. Dr. Kheal, first produced in 1968 at the Judson
Forness next play, the musical Promenade Poets Theater, New York, is one of Forness most
(1965), is her greatest critical success prior to frequently performed plays. The playwright,
Fefu and Her Friends (1977). The play mixes wit who states she is a teacher by nature, empathizes
and compassion, humor and tenderness, zani- with the eccentric Dr. Kheal, who is very wise
ness and social satire as prisoners named 105 and wonderful in his madness. Denying that
and 106 journey from prison out into the world Dr. Kheal is related to fascistic teachers such as
and back again. Forness lyrics (aided by the the teacher in Ionescos The Lesson or Miss
music of Rev. Al Carmine) comment on unre- Margarida in Miss Margaridas Way, Fornes
quited love, the abuse of power, the injustice of says Dr. Kheal insults people because he is
those who are supposed to uphold the law, and desperate, because people are so stupid. He is
the illogical and random nature of life. The play saying something and gets angry and frustrated
questions the nature of truth as the mother sings: because people dont understand what he says.
I have to live with my own truth / Whether you Dr. Kheal (like Isidore in Tango Palace) insists
like it or not . . . I know everything. / Half of it I he is always right because he is the master and
really know, / The rest I make up. Social proceeds to lecture on the elusiveness of truth,
criticism is evident but attenuated by the absurd- the impossibility of understanding beauty, and
ity of its presentation. Costumes / Change the the mathematics of love. Alone onstage with his
course of life, as 105 and 106 discover when lectern, blackboard, and charts, Dr. Kheal,
they place their prisoners jackets on an injured according to Gilman, offers a wholly new epis-
man who is then taken away by the jailer. temology, logical, convincing, aggressive, far-
Although 105 and 106 have escaped into the seeing . . . and entirely unreal.
world to discover the appearance of sin, hav- Mollys Dream (1968) illustrates the influ-
ing been unacquainted with evil, they soon ence of cinema on peoples dreams of romance.
learn to steal from the poor as well as the rich. The play, in fact, ironically examines how fanta-
In the last scene of the play they sing When I sies are nourished by the movies. Molly, a wait-
was born I opened my eyes, / And when I looked ress in a saloon, falls asleep and dreams of Jim,
around I closed them; / And when I saw how endowed with sublime sex appeal . . . dressed in
people get kicked in the head, / And kicked in the glittering lace, looking like a prince in a fairy
belly, and kicked in the groin, / I closed them. / tale. The fairy-tale atmosphere is strengthened
My eyes are closed but Im carefree. For Prom- by the appearance in her dream of John (mod-
enade and The Successful Life of 3 Fornes eled after John Wayne) and Alberta (modeled
received the Obie award for distinguished play- after Shirley Temple). By giving themselves to a
writing in 1965. passion, the filmic prototypes are completely
transformed (John to Dracula then Superman,
A Vietnamese Wedding (1967) was one of
Alberta to Hedy Lamarr). Molly and Jim
Forness two plays written to protest American
observe the transformations of John and Alberta
involvement in Vietnam. (The other is The Red but are too proud to fully engage in the intense
Burning Light, 1968.) A Vietnamese Wedding, passion required to establish a relationship.
originally performed as a part of the week-long Molly becomes merely a silly imitation of Mar-
protest called Angry Arts Week, is not a play, lene Dietrich, which only further alienates her
according to Fornes. She says, Rehearsals from Jim.
would serve the sole purpose of getting the read-
ers acquainted with the text and the actions of Although Jim and Molly sing If we had met
the piece. The four people conducting the piece some other time perhaps / Perhaps well meet
are hosts to the members of the audience who will again some other time, the end of the play sug-
enact the wedding, and their behavior should gests that Molly has not learned from the dream.
be casual, gracious and unobtrusive. During While she sleeps with her head on a table, the
the performance ten people are selected from the young man who played Jim in her dream enters
audience to participate in the wedding, during and leaves the saloon. Molly awakens alone.
which the tradition of matchmaking and the sym- Fefu and Her Friends is Forness most suc-
bolic objects used in the ceremony are explained. cessful play to date. Similar to some of her other

1 0 2 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

plays in using cinematic elements and demon- are strangers about whom horrendous myths
strating a tenderness toward the characters, are perpetrated. The human being is of the
Fefu and Her Friends differs in being more masculine gender, Julia recites in the prayer
realistic, developing characters more fully, and the Judges would have her (and all women)
containing decidedly feminist content. believe. The play counters that view by inviting
In the opening scene, Fefu says she envies the audience into a womans home to share the
men because they are well together. Women are pains and joys of female friendship.
not. The play contradicts Fefus statement by Fefu and Her Friends was a critical success.
showing women laughing, relaxing, playing, and Fornes received Obie awards for both her play-
caring for one another. Eight women gather at writing and her directing. Michael Feingold in
Fefus house ostensibly to discuss plans for a the Village Voice described the play as the only
fund raising activity. Through their interaction, essential thing the New York theatre has added
women relate in a way that is relatively new in to our cultural life in the past year. Rob Baker
theatre, and an emerging feminist consciousness in After Dark stated: Once or twice a decade, I
is acknowledged: Women can be wonderful suppose, a play or book or song comes along and
with each other. . . . All women need to do is rec- so changes the way you look at the world that
ognize each other and like each other and give theater or literature or music will never be quite
strength to each other and respect their own the same again. Fefu and Her Friends is just such
minds. The dominant mood of the play is the an experience.
joy of female friendship. Through her playful imagination, graceful
During the second part of the play, the audi- sense of humor, tender concern for humanity,
ence is divided into four parts and invited into and exquisite understanding of dramatic struc-
Fefus home. These close-ups (another example ture, Fornes has created a variety of plays which
of Forness use of cinematic style) enable mem- provide both enjoyment and enrichment.
bers of the audience to experience the womens Source: Phyllis Mael, Maria Irene Fornes, in Diction-
relationships in a more intimate manner than ary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7, Twentieth-Century
would be possible on a proscenium stage. In American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale
the kitchen Sue prepares chicken soup. Fornes Research, 1981, pp. 18891.
sees the literal nourishment related to the psy-
chological nourishment the women provide for Jules Aaron
each other. Paula sits at the kitchen table and In the following review, Aaron praises Forness
tallies up mathematically the sum of a love production of her own play, concluding Fefu
affair. In the study Christina and Cindy relax in and Her Friends challenges our preconceptions
a gentle scene Fornes includes for its texture and about life and the theatre through boldly drawn
the loveliness of the experience. women.
Pain and fear, however, are also depicted. In the introduction to her feminist play The
Julias paralysis reflects the suffering that strong, Mod Donna, Myrna Lamb characterizes wom-
intelligent women can experience. Her paralysis ans entrapment in traditional roles as prevent-
may be caused by her identification with nature, ing the conception of truth, of a true feeling, a
suffering at the hands of man the hunter; she true relationship, a true intensity, a true hatred,
refuses to accept the patriarchal view that women even. In the plays of such disparate writers as
are generically different from men. Fefus hallu- Lamb, Susan Miller, Edward Bond, Wendy
cination toward the end of the play suggests her Wasserstein, Jack Heifner, and Maria Irene
growing participation in Julias vision. Chris- Fornes, the complex needs and relationships of
tina, a conformist willing to accept the dominant women are pointedly explored. Currently, For-
patriarchal view, finds women such as Fefu fright- ness Fefu and Her Friends, in its West Coast
ening. Concerned with a more conventional sense premiere in Pasadena, California, indicates a
of order, Christina admits that some of her way of theatrical breakthrough in creating important
life is endangered by Fefus way of thinking. plays about womens relationships.
Fefu and Her Friends is a feminist play pre- Fefu and Her Friends concerns the exhiliarat-
senting intelligent women who understand the ing, constant pain of women defining their roles in
distortion of womens personalities that can the logical world of men. In 1935, Fefu, a bright,
occur in a patriarchal world in which women outrageous woman, meets with seven friends in

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 0 3
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

her New England country home to prepare a group summer, works dynamically in the cavernous
presentation about education. Among the women main theatre, annex buildings, and grounds of
are Julia, confined to a wheelchair with a mysteri- the Greenhouse Theatre. The multiple realities
ous spinal injury after witnessing the shooting of a of the play are suggested by Nora Chavooshians
deer, two ex-lovers, Celia and Pauline, and an edu- finely detailed settings (combining artificial out-
cator, Emma, whose conference presentation is side grounds off the living room with the natural
based on the early twentieth-century writings of sounds of crickets). Forness direction elicits fine
acting teacher Emma Sheridan Frye. The psycho- ensemble work from the eight actresses and
logical and historical details only provide the audi- strong emotional responses from the audience.
ence with tangible reference points for approaching Fornes began as a painter and her work unfolds
the startling, inexplicable events of the play. with bold brush strokes: as in a Munch painting,
Forness own direction of Fefu is a study of we surround Julias bed in the claustrophobic
space and time, logic and intuition, reality and room and uncomfortably share the horror of
hallucination. As Emma says, Environment her hallucinations; or, evoking a Renoir land-
knocks on the gateway of the senses. While scape, we watch Fefu drift across the lawn eating
exploring this womens world temporarily with- an apple after a croquet game with Emma. Like
out men, Fornes probes the audiences psycho- remembered photographs, it is haunting and dis-
logical and theatrical senses as well. In the orienting to pass other groups moving into new
production at the Greenhouse Theatre, the play rooms and to catch glimpses of empty spaces
is divided into three acts without intermission. which we have previously visited. The momen-
The first and third acts take place in Fefus living tary connections of the women illuminate the
room; in the second, the audience physically dark hallucinatory landscapes of the characters
moves through the bedroom, kitchen, study,
and garden of Fefus house in four audience
groups (the scenes are played through four Fefu and Her Friends challenges our precon-
times), as interludes of the ballad Ramona ceptions about life and the theatre through
drift over the speakers placed throughout the boldly drawn women, temporarily divorced
grounds. The opening act thus becomes a distant from relationships, trying to sort out the ambi-
theatrical viewing of the situation; in the second guities of their lives. Julias wound in Fefu is our
act, real time is intimately and somewhat own. Fornes provides no answers, but her
uncomfortably shared in the four spaces; and in women make startling strides in confronting
the third act, the action drifts in surreal time the oppressive environment of prescribed rela-
between the real world of the theatre and the tionships in art as well as in life.
hallucinatory workings of the characters minds.
Source: Jules Aaron, Review of Fefu and Her Friends, in
The theatrical, mystical tone of the play is set Theatre Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1980, pp. 26667.
by the game that Fefu plays with her husband.
Within the first few minutes of the play, she picks
up a rifle and shoots him across the lawn. He
falls and plays dead. Forness universe is arbi-
trary; mundane questions of plumbing have
equal validity with questions of sanity. Fefus SOURCES
life and the play itself are filled with both ordi-
nary and symbolic tasks; activities like fixing the Austin, Gayle, Colette Brooks, Anne Cattaneo, Marie
Irene Fornes, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, Karen Malpede,
toilet, water fights, and reunions with old lovers
Julia Miles, Joan Schenkar, Roberta Sklar, and Elizabeth
fill the womens lives, bringing them together.
Wray, Backtalk: The Woman Playwright Issue, in the
Yet, though in the last moments of the play, Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1983, pp. 9091.
Fefu sees Julia walk, a moment later she is again
in her wheelchair. Fefu picks up a rifle and walks Eder, Richard, Fefu Takes Friends to American Place,
out on the lawn. We hear a gun shot. As Fefu in the New York Times, January 14, 1978, p. 10.
brings a dead rabbit into the room, blood inex- Fornes, Marie Irene, Fefu and Her Friends, in the Perform-
plicably trickles down Julias forehead. ing Arts Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter 1978, pp. 11240.
Forness production, which was first per- Kerr, Walter, Stage View: Two Plays Swamped by Meta-
formed at Padua Hills Playwrights Festival last phors, in the New York Times, January 22, 1978, p. D3.

1 0 4 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F e f u a n d H e r F r i e n d s

Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Vintage, 2004.

FURTHER READING First published in 1962, Esslins book coined
the term Theatre of the Absurd and defined a
Armstrong, Ann Elizabeth, and Kathleen Juhl, eds., tradition that, Esslin argues, emerged from the
Radical Acts: Theatre and Feminist Pedagogies of Change, work of European playwrights in the 1940s.
Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
This book is a collection of essays about teach- Giard, Robert, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and
Lesbian Writers, MIT Press, 1997.
ing feminist theatre and includes essays by
Photographer Giard published almost 200
the feminist playwrights Ellen Margolis and
photographs that he took of gay and lesbian
Cherrie Moraga.
writers in the 1980s. Giard captures not just
Delgado, Maria M., and Caridad Svich, eds., Conducting playwrights but also poets, critics, historians,
a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Marie Irene Fornes, novelists, and activists.
Smith and Kraus, 1999. Kent, Assunta Bartolomucci, Maria Irene Fornes and Her
This book is a collection of tributes and remi- Critics, Greenwood Press, 1996.
niscences from the wide array of people Fornes Kents was the first full-length book dedicated
has worked with over her forty-year career. to Forness work. The critic closely examines
Contributors include the critic Susan Sontag Forness writings in their historical, theoreti-
and the playwright Caryl Churchill. cal, and production-based contexts.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 0 5
The Firebugs
MAX FRISCH Max Frischs The Firebugs (first published in
German as Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter,
1958 and sometimes translated in English as Biedermann
and the Firebugs), is one of the playwrights most
enduring plays. It was first conceived of in a short
entry in one of Frischs diaries (Tagebuch, 1946
1949; Diary, 19461949). The original concept was
similar to the final playa parody about middle-
class people who pride themselves on their gener-
osity and open-mindedness to the point of being
blind to the dangers that are threatening them.
Frisch revised the diary entry into a radio play in
1951. The radio play turned out to be popular, so
Frisch reworked it for the stage. The play was
performed on stage for the first time in 1958.
Although the plot of the play is predictable,
the clever dialogue has maintained the plays
popularity. As a parable exposing the threat of
Nazism, the play is also meant to lead audience
members into questioning their own moral char-
acters. The exchanges between the firebugs
(two homeless arsonists who have intimidated
Biedermann into allowing them to spend the
night in his attic) and Biedermann are especially
funny, as well as very revealing of Biedermanns
attempts to hide his real feelings. The firebugs
talk their way into Biedermanns home and then
manipulate their host to the point that they are
given beds, generous meals, the best wine and
cigars, and finally the match that will bring the
firebugs arsonist plans to fruition. Biedermann

1 0 6
T h e F i r e b u g s

father died in 1932, he had to drop out of school to

support his mother. He turned to journalism for
his first job. This gave him the opportunity not
only to hone his skills as a writer but also to travel
around Europe. However, after attempting to
produce literary works, he became dissatisfied
with the results and gave up his dream of becom-
ing a writer. Later, with the support of a generous
family friend, he returned to school and majored
in architecture, which had been his fathers
In 1942, Frisch opened an architect office
and married Constanze von Meyenburg. They
lived together for twelve years, during which
time they had three children. The couple sepa-
rated and then officially divorced in 1959. By
Max Frisch (AP Images) this time, Frisch had written several novels, but
it was his work in drama that brought him the
most critical attention. His first play, Santa Cruz
(1944), involved a journey through a dreamscape.
is so blind to the firebugs intentions that his But with his next plays, such as Now They Are
inability to deal with them reveals Biedermann Singing Again: Attempt at a Requiem (1945),
to be a man who is having a moral crisis. He The Chinese Wall (1947), When War Was Fin-
must not turn away a homeless person from his ished (1949), as well as The Firebugs (1958),
home on a rainy night, must not deny a hungry Frisch began to focus more on problems he saw
person food, and must not believe that strangers in the world around him, especially the effects of
will do him harm without first giving them a war. As his skill in drama improved, he had a
chance to prove themselves otherwise. Of course, chance to gain the acquaintance of Bertolt
the firebugs do prove that Biedermanns initial Brecht, famed German playwright, whose work
suspicions are correct, but by the time Bieder- Frisch had studied in school. Brechts work
mann discovers this, it is too late. He is so pre- would highly influence Frischs writing as the
occupied by his own fear of the arsonists that he playwright matured.
can no longer take any action except to appease
Frischs success with drama gave him confi-
the firebugs.
dence to return to his novel writing. He wrote
An English-language edition of the play was three major novels in the next ten years: Stiller
printed by Hill and Wang in 1963. (1954; Im Not Stiller), Homo Faber. Ein Bericht
(1957; Homo Faber: A Report), and Mein Name
sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors).
However, it was Frischs plays that brought him
the most international fame. In 1958, he won the
prestigious Georg-Buchner Prize, the greatest
Max Frisch was a Swiss architect by training but honor given for German-language literature. In
gave up this profession when he became a suc- the 1960s, Frischs work was translated for
cessful author. He was a prolific writer through- English-speaking audiences as his Firebugs and
out his life, producing plays, novels, and diaries. his other more famous play Andorra (1961), a
Many of his plays continue to be performed play about racial prejudice, were staged in Lon-
around the world, including his one-act drama, don and in the United States for the first time. In
The Firebugs. 1985, he was given the Common Wealth Award
for distinguished work in literature for his lifes
Frisch was born on May 15, 1911, in Zurich,
Switzerland. His father, Franz Bruno Frisch, was
Austrian. His mother, Karolina Wildermuth, was In 1987, Frisch was invited to attend the
German. At college, Frisch took classes in Moscow Peace Congress, where he delivered a
German literature and philosophy. But after his speech about working toward world peace. He

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 0 7
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died of cancer on April 4, 1991. He was living in get out of the rain. He then apologizes for
Zurich at the time. intruding.
Biedermann slowly changes his tone of voice.
He offers Schmitz a cigar and some food. As
Schmitz waits for Anna to bring the food, he
PLOT SUMMARY tells Biedermann that he saw him the night before
at the pub. He says that Biedermann was right to
Scene 1 believe that all the firebugs should be hanged. He
Frishchs The Firebugs is a one-act play divided says Biedermann is the old-fashioned kind of
into eight scenes. All scenes take place in the main citizen, who has a conscience. Then Schmitz asks
characters (Gottlieb Biedermanns) house. The if Biedermann has an empty bed he could spare.
play opens with a dark stage. Then a match is lit. But before Biedermann can answer, Schmitz
All the audience can see is Biedermanns face in laughs and says he does not really need a bed.
the flame of the match. Biedermann lights a cigar. He is used to sleeping on the floor. Schmitz
Then the stage lights come on, and the audience changes the topic, mentioning how everyone,
can see that Biedermann is surrounded by firemen nowadays, is so suspicious of each other. But not
wearing helmets. Biedermann complains that no Biedermann, Schmitz insinuates. Biedermann still
one, nowadays, can even light a cigar without believes in people. Any one else might give him
thinking of the possibility that their houses might some food but then would secretly call the police
burn down. He throws away the lighted cigar, to have him taken away. But not Biedermann,
disgustedly, and leaves the stage. Schmitz says.
The firemen act as a chorus (an old drama Anna enters the room and announces that a
technique from ancient Greek tragedies in which Mr. Knechtling is there and would like to speak
a group of actors fill in the background of a play to Biedermann. Knechtling is a man who used to
by reciting lines, often in poetic stanzas). The work for Biedermann. Knechtling invented the
firemen explain that they are there to watch formula for Biedermanns hair tonic. Bieder-
and listen. They are looking for dangers that mann has fired him. Knechtling has a sick wife
others might not see. There have been many and three kids that he has to feed, but Bieder-
fires in the recent past, and not all of them were mann has no sympathy for him. Biedermann
a matter of fate. Some fires occur because of tells Anna to tell Knechtling to get a lawyer if
stupidity. he wants anything from him. Biedermann hears
his wife coming in, and he invites Schmitz up to
Scene 2 the attic. His wife has a heart condition, and he
The setting is now in the living room of the does not want her to be concerned about seeing
Biedermann house, where Biedermann is read- Schmitz in the house.
ing the newspaper. He complains about a report
In the attic, Biedermann shows Schmitz
he has just read about another fire. They ought
where he can sleep. Before Biedermann leaves,
to hang them! he shouts. The story is about a
he asks Schmitz to assure him that he is not a
peddler, who somehow gets himself invited into
firebug. Schmitz laughs. Downstairs, Babette
a persons home, where he is invited to spend the
hears a noise in the attic, then tells the audience
night in the attic. Anna, his maid, tells him that
that she is so proud of her husband because he
someone is waiting to talk to him. Anna refers to
faithfully checks the attic each night to make
this person as the peddler. Biedermann tells
sure there are no firebugs up there.
Anna he does not want to talk to him. He asks
Anna what the peddler wants. Anna says the ped- The chorus closes the scene by reminding
dler wants kindness and humanity. Biedermann the audience they are always watching what is
says he will throw the man out himself. But then happening.
he recounts. He is not, after all, inhuman.
Before Anna can leave, Schmitz (the ped- Scene 3
dler) enters the room. He is athletic and dressed Biedermann and Babette are discussing Schmitz
in an outfit reminiscent of a prison uniform. while Biedermann is preparing to leave for the
Schmitz tells Biedermann not to worry. He is office. Biedermann tries to reassure his wife that
not a peddler. Rather, he is an unemployed wres- Schmitz is not a firebug. When Babette questions
tler. He came inside the Biedermanns house to her husband about how he knows this, Biedermann

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says he asked Schmitz point blank. He says she barrels, Eisenring blames Schmitz for his poor
should not be so suspicious. Babette tells her hus- calculations. He claims that Schmitz thought the
band he is too good. But she promises to give attic was much bigger. When Biedermann asks
Schmitz breakfast before she tells him to leave. what is in the barrels, Eisenring tells him, gaso-
Babette offers Schmitz breakfast. Babette line. Biedermann thinks this is a joke, until he
tries to bring up the subject of Schmitz leaving, smells it.
but Schmitz cleverly guides the conversation so A policeman appears and says Knechtling
that Babette begins to feel sorry for him. He tells has committed suicide. When the policeman asks
her that she still thinks he is a firebug. Babette what is in the barrels, Biedermann lies, saying it
denies this. Schmitz then brings up a story about is hair tonic.
his childhood, during a time when he was in an
orphanage. Schmitz then tells Babette that he As Biedermann attempts to leave the house,
will leave. He will go out in the rain. Then he the chorus blocks his way. They try to warn him
mentions his friend Willi. Willi has told him that about the gasoline. Biedermann says it is not
no one is willing to offer charity these days. their business. He asks them why they must
Schmitz says Willi would really be surprised to always imagine the worst. He tells them that he
see how nice Babette and her husband have been is free to think whatever he wants to think, even if
treating him. And just then the doorbell rings, that means he does not want to think at all. All he
and Schmitz announces that it is probably his is doing is trying to be good hearted. When the
friend Willi. chorus asks if he smells the gasoline, Biedermann
replies that he smells nothing. The chorus com-
The chorus ends the scene with the state-
ments on how quickly he has become used to the
ment that there are now two firebugs in the
house. They talk about cowardice and fear and
how blind weak people can become. They know
there is evil about them, but they secretly hope
Scene 5
they will somehow avoid it. The weak are
Biedermann tells Babette to fix a goose for dinner.
defenseless, so that in fact, they welcome evil
Then he says if he reports Schmitz and Eisenring
with open arms.
to the police he will make the two men his enemies,
and then all it would take would be one match and
Scene 4 the house would go up in flames. So he decides to
Schmitz and Willi Eisenring are in the attic. They invite them to dinner. Biedermann goes to the
are rolling big barrels into the attic. They remind attic, where he finds Eisenring stringing a cord.
each other to keep quiet, for Schmitz fears Eisenring asks Biedermann if he has seen the det-
Biedermann may call the police. Eisenring does onator cap. Biedermann takes it as a joke. He tells
not think so. He says Biedermann is just as guilty Eisenring he has a sense of humor, but does not
as they are. The reason is that Biedermann like his idea of a joke. Eisenring replies that he has
makes too much money. learned that a joke acts as a camouflage. It is either
Biedermann bangs on the door. When the a joke or sentiment that works best. Eisenring
door is opened, Biedermann tells Schmitz to finds the detonator, and when Biedermann asks,
leave immediately or his wife will call the police. Eisenring tells him the cord in his hand is the fuse.
Biedermann is angry because of all the noise. Biedermann again takes it as a joke and tells
When Biedermann sees Eisenring, he is taken Eisenring that he cannot scare him. But he warns
aback. When he asks why there are now two of Eisenring to be careful, because not everyone has
them, Eisenring turns to Schmitz and says a sense of humor like his.
Didnt I tell you? Didnt I say its no way to There is a brief encounter with a man who is
act. Schmitz hangs his head in shame. The more called the Professor. Eisenring talks to him, but
Biedermann chastises the men for taking advant- the Professor does not respond. The scene ends
age of him, the more Eisenring berates Schmitz, with Babette telling the Professor that she under-
as if Eisenring is taking Biedermanns side. stands what he has to say is urgent, but she is
Biedermann notices the barrels and asks busy fixing the dinner. The chorus then con-
where they came from. Eisenring reads a label cludes by saying that the Professor sees no barrels
and says they were imported. When Biedermann and does not smell the gasoline because he deals
complains that the whole attic is filled with the only in abstractions, until it all explodes.

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Scene 6 they are leaving because they do not believe

Biedermann is in the living room with Mrs. Knech- him, and he wants to know what he can do to
tling, telling her he has no time to think about the get them to believe him. Eisenring tells him that
dead. The widow leaves. Biedermann tells Anna to he can give him some matches. Biedermann
make the table setting simpleno table cloth, no does. The men leave, and the Professor enters.
silver, and no candles. In very academic language that is hard to under-
stand, the Professor reads a statement, then
hands the paper to Biedermann. He says he
Scene 7 wanted to improve the world. He watched
Biedermann walks to the front of the stage and
Eisenring and Schmitz and knows exactly what
addresses the audience, telling them that they
they are doing. What he just recently discovered,
can think what they want, but he knows that as
though, is that they are doing it for the pure joy
long as the two men are well fed and are kept
of it. The Professor then walks off the stage and
laughing, he is safe. He then says the idea that
sits in the audience.
Schmitz and Eisenring are arsonists came on him
slowly, although he was suspicious from the Babette and Anna quiz cannot believe
start. Biedermann gave them matches. Biedermann
says that if they were firebugs, they would have
had their own matches.
Scene 8
The play ends with the chorus. They say the
Biedermann jokes with Schmitz and Eisenring at
story is useless because arson does not accom-
the dinner table and tells Babette that she has no
plish anything.
sense of humor when he tells her that he helped
Eisenring measure out the fuse. He laughs and
says the next thing they probably will do is to ask
him for some matches. Eisenring and Schmitz
ask Biedermann if he has a table cloth and silver-
ware. Biedermann tells Anna to bring out all the Anna
silver. Anna comes in with a card from the Pro- Anna is the maid in the Biedermann household.
fessor, telling Biedermann that he wants to see She does what she is told, whether it makes sense
him. Anna says the Professor says he is waiting or not. Anna is probably a bridge between the
because he wants to expose something. Biedermann couple, with all their wealth, and
Schmitz says he was once an actor, before the firebugs, who do not even have a place to
the theater burnt to the ground. Schmitz had two live. Anna lives in the house but is not of the
lines in a play: Who calleth? and EVERY- same social ranking as the Biedermanns, but she
MAN! EVERYMAN! Then Schmitz calls out is better off than the firebugs who roam from
Biedermanns name and continues repeating it. one house to another in search of shelter and
When Biedermann asks who they are, Schmitz food. She is an objective observer of what goes
answers that he is the ghost of Knechtling. on in the house; but like the Biedermanns, Anna
Eisenring reprimands Schmitz, telling him that does nothing to stop the firebugs.
he is making Biedermann shake. Eisenring says
Biedermann is a good man. After all, he Babette Biedermann
employed Knechtling for fourteen years. Babette is the wife of Gottlieb Biedermann. She
Sirens are heard outside. Babette calls out is not easily persuaded to trust the two homeless
Firebugs! Firebugs! Biedermann says he is men. However, she is completely devoted to her
glad the fire is not at their house. Eisenring husband and will go along with whatever he
explains that that is how they do it. They distract says. Thus, she too is caught up in the trap that
the fire department with one fire, so they can set Schmitz and Eisenring are setting.
another one. Biedermann asks them to stop jok- Schmitz, one of the firebugs, easily lures
ing. Eisenring says he is not joking. They are Babette into accepting his presence in her house
firebugs. They chose his house because it is situ- by telling her about his difficult childhood. Babette,
ated close to the gas works. Biedermann refuses who was, at first, on guard of this stranger, gives in
to admit that he believes they are firebugs. to Schmitz because he has touched her heart. How-
Instead, he thinks of them as his friends. The ever, whereas her husband thinks that the firebugs
men say they must leave. Biedermann thinks are just joking around about setting fires, Babette

1 1 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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sees no humor in the firebugs statements. She is Willi Eisenring

more level-headed than her husband, but in spite of Willi Eisenring is the second firebug to show up
this, she takes no action against the firebugs. at Biedermanns home. Eisenrings manner of
Although she may be more honest and more manipulation of the Biedermanns differs from
instinctual in her responses to the firebugs than Schmitzs. Eisenring is more direct, using truth,
her husband, she submits to her husbands author- which he states is the best camouflage. When, for
ity, denying her own instincts. instance, Biedermann asks what Eisenring is
looking for in the attic, Eisenring tells him he is
Gottlieb Biedermann looking for a detonator cap. Eisenrings dead-
Gottlieb Biedermann (referred to as Biedermann serious answers to Biedermanns questions make
for most of the play), is the central character. Biedermann think the man must be joking.
Biedermann is a successful businessman, living a Eisenring also manipulates Biedermann by sid-
very comfortable life. It is in Biedermanns house ing with him when Biedermann criticizes
that the play takes place. Schmitz. For example, when Biedermann says
Schmitz has gone too far by inviting Eisenring
Biedermann represents the middle-class citi-
to also stay in the attic, Eisenring agrees with
zen who, according to this play, tends to turn
Biedermann, criticizing Schmitzs manners.
away from imposing danger because he is torn
Eisenring might stand for the atrocities that
between wanting to look like an ideal citizen who
were committed by the Nazis, such as the killing
maintains a sense of humanity in spite his
of millions of Jewish people. These actions were
wealth, and his own natural suspicions that
so out of the scope of ordinary citizens, they had
something happening around him might be ter-
difficulty believing the stories they heard, just as
ribly wrong. He wants to appear to be good-
Biedermann had trouble believing Eisenring.
hearted but only when his interests are at stake.
On the one hand, Biedermann feels he has a right
to dismiss a long-time employee because he
Mr. Knechtling
Mr. Knechtling is the employee of Mr. Bieder-
believes the man is being greedy. The situation
manns who invented the hair tonic that Bieder-
with the homeless men, however, becomes more
mann sells. Knechtling asks for a percentage of
personal. Charity, Biedermann believes, is a
the profits and he gets fired for doing so. Knech-
good trait; but his focus is narrow.
tling commits suicide by sticking his head into a
Because Biedermann does not want to gas oven. Knechtling could represent the Jewish
appear to lack understanding when it comes to population that was gassed in the concentration
the homeless, he denies to himself what he camps in Germany under Nazi rule. At the end
instinctively knows to be happening right in of the play, Schmitz pulls the table cloth over his
front of him. He does not want to be called head and pretends that he is the ghost of Knech-
cold-hearted, at least not by either of the fire- tling who has come back to haunt Biedermann.
bugs. He wants to be seen as someone who does
not jump to conclusions when considering the Mrs. Knechtling
poor. Biedermann represents the middle-class Mrs. Knechtling appears briefly in the play to
citizen who is comfortable in his life and there- talk to Biedermann after her husband has killed
fore does not want to put himself out of his himself. Biedermann tells Mrs. Knechtling he
comfort zone by standing up for any kind of has no time to talk about the dead.
social injustice.
Chorus See The Professor
The Chorus is a group of men dressed as firemen.
Their role is to set the background of what is The Professor
happening in the play, to fill in missing details, The professor appears in the attic to watch the
and to summon up a conclusion of what has firebugs, as if he were studying them. Before the
already happened. As firemen, they fail, as it is play ends, however, the professor declares that
assumed that the Biedermann house does burn. he wants to be disassociated from the firebugs
The Chorus might represent government offi- because they are setting fires and destroying lives
cials who fail to stop the spread of Nazism in just for the fun of it. The professor is a satirical
Europe. representation of those who live in an academic

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 1 1
T h e F i r e b u g s

setting and study theories without fully engaging

in the real world.

Sepp Schmitz TOPICS FOR

Although his friend Eisenring sometimes calls
him Sepp, throughout this play he is referred to FURTHER
as Schmitz. Schmitz is the first to knock on the
door of the Biedermanns house, asking if they
have an extra bed. He is a very clever man, who  Research Swiss involvement with the Nazis
mocks Biedermann without Biedermann know- during World War II. Did Swiss business-
ing it. Schmitz also weasels his way into the men, particularly Swiss bankers, in any way
house by making Biedermann feel guilty for all aid the Nazis? Did the Swiss government
that he has accumulated. Schmitz tells stories have a relationship with Germanys Nazi
about hardship in his youth. He does this to government? Write a paper reflecting on
work on the Biedermanns empathy. When the your findings and present the information
Biedermanns are close to throwing Schmitz out to your class.
or calling the police, Schmitz compliments them.
 Frisch won awards for his work as an archi-
In particular, when Schmitz first starts talking to
tect. Find out, by researching Frischs life,
Biedermann, he even compliments the man for
what these awards were and what they were
saying that all the firebugs should be hanged.
for. Copy pictures of the buildings he
He tells Biedermann that he has done exactly
designed and present them to your class,
the right thing. Then Schmitz adds, Youre the
along with any other interesting details
old-time type of solid citizen. Schmitz also tells
about Frischs architecture.
Biedermann that he is the kind of man with a
conscience. Schmitz, along with his friend  Frischs play has been produced in every
Eisenring, are the firebugs, the metaphor for decade since it was first staged. In each dec-
Nazism. They represent evil, chaos, and ruin of ade, there have been different reasons that
society for pure self pleasure. this play was pertinent to the audience. How
do you think audiences would relate to the
play today? Lead a discussion in your class
on this topic. Be sure to address the follow-
ing questions: What issues do you think the
THEMES firebugs would symbolize in your culture
today? What unaddressed dangers are cur-
Self-Deception rently threatening society?
The theme of self-deception is played out
through Biedermann, the main character of
 In Frischs play, there are no scenes that are
The Firebugs. Biedermann wants to believe cer- only between Schmitz and Eisenring. Create
a scene between the firebugs. Stay true to
tain things about himself that are not necessarily
true. Biedermann reportedly shouts out in a pub their personalities but expand on what they
that all firebugs should be hanged, and then later might be thinking. Keep their sharp wit as
he reads a story in the newspaper about another they discuss why they are arsonists, how
fire in the city and repeats his sentiments about they expect to get away with the crime, and
hanging any arsonist. When Schmitz later reminds what they plan to do next. You might even
Biedermann of these statements, Biedermann add an introduction and conclusion by a
weakly tries to explain himself, especially when chorus. When the scene is complete, ask a
Schmitz agrees with Biedermann that all firebugs classmate to join you in delivering the lines
should be hanged. Of course, Schmitz is playing to your class.
with Biedermann and even goes so far as to compli-
ment Biedermann, saying that he is one of the few
men left who still have a conscience. Biedermann is
so flattered by Schmitz that he offers the man
breakfast. He goes along with Schmitzs idealized Instead, Biedermann begins to believe he is this
vision of him, even though he has recently fired a rare man with a conscience, even though he
loyal employee who merely asked for a bonus. shows no concern when Knechtling commits

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suicide over the loss of his job. Neither is there a are doing in the attic and yet they do not stop
sign of a conscience in Biedermann when Knech- them. A chorus is not usually directly involved in
tlings widow comes to the house. Biedermanns the actions of a play, but this chorus is made up
only words for her then is that he has no time to of firemen, which was done for some specific
talk about the dead. And yet, Biedermann contin- purpose. If they are firemen, why do they not
ues to insist that he is a man with great humanity. stop the arsonists? This may be due to the fact
Humanity is the reason Biedermann gives to his that Frisch wanted to use the firemen as another
wife for allowing both Schmitz and Eisenring to example of apathy.
stay in their house. Biedermann, Babette, and Anna are also apa-
In order to keep himself self-deceived and to thetic. Anna does merely as she is told, though she
justify his assumptions about himself, Biedermann senses the firebugs are up to no good. Babette,
refuses to see what is happening right in front of though seemingly more suspicious than her hus-
him. When he finally admits that maybe Schmitz band, allows her husband to soothe her into a
and Eisenring are arsonists, he is so strung up in state of apathy. And Biedermann, who is even
wanting them to think he is a compassionate man, more fully aware of what is going on, convinces
he convinces himself that if he makes friends with himself that the best thing to do is to do nothing at
them, they will spare his house. Biedermanns ridic- all. A policeman comes into the attic, for example,
ulous self-deception goes so far that he gives the and still Biedermann does not take action. He
firebugs a match. He cannot deny them the match could have easily turned Schmitz and Eisenring
because if he did, or so he believes, they will think he over to the authorities then. But he does not.
does not trust them, which he does not. Biedermann Biedermann hopes that in doing nothing, his life
is easy to manipulate because he is so filled with his will remain undisturbed.
own self-deception.
Need for Approval
Apathy Biedermann also demonstrates a need for appro-
The theme of apathy is also played out through val. He works very hard to make Schmitz and
Biedermann but with a little help from the cho- Eisenring his friends by laughing at what he
rus of firemen and the Professor. One definition thinks are their jokes (even though the firebugs
of the word apathy is a lack of concern. Actually are telling Biedermann very important truths,
the professor, despite his small role in this play, Biedermann cannot believe them and thus thinks
may be the most apathetic character. He studies they are joking with him). Though the humor
the firebugs on an abstract level. They make an comes at Biedermanns expense, Biedermann
interesting subject. He wants to observe them to dismisses his own sense of danger and laughs at
figure out why they do what they do. In other the arsonists insistence that they are indeed
words, he tries to define them, which requires planning to burn down Biedermanns house.
that he take an objective stance. But when cities Biedermann also removes all signs of affluence,
are burning down around him, it would seem such as table cloths and silverware from the
that he might want to come forward and show dinner table, believing that this will make the
some concern. However, he does not. The only men (who are used to prison meals) feel more
concern he demonstrates is for his own benefit, comfortable. When the men ask for the luxuries,
at the end, when he jumps off the stage. He has Biedermann jumps up and complies with their
discovered that the firebugs act for no better wishes. It appears that Biedermann will do
reason than for their own enjoyment, which almost anything for the men so they will think
offends the professor. His subjects no longer of him as their friend, even giving them the
interest him after this discovery, and he signs a matches to set his house ablaze.
statement to make it clear that he does not want
to have anything more to do with them. But he Guilt
does not try to stop their actions. It is Biedermann through which another theme is
The chorus of firemen do not take action played out. This time the theme is that of guilt.
either, although they warn Biedermann to Although Biedermann is guilty of many things,
watch out because danger is lurking around most of which he does not acknowledge, there
him. They know what Schmitz and Eisenring are two specific instances in which he clearly

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demonstrates that he feels guilty. The first is Manipulation

when the policeman shows up in Biedermanns The theme of manipulation is played mostly
attic. At this point, Schmitz and Eisenring have through the firebugs. They manipulate both
stacked several barrels of gasoline in the attic Biedermann and Babette throughout the play.
and are setting a fuse. They do this through different techniques,
Prior to the policemans appearance in the depending on the situation and the conversation
attic, Biedermann had been having a conversation that is taking place. Schmitz is especially good at
with the firebugs, asking them what was in the manipulation. He begins his first conversation
barrels. Although he smells the gasoline and senses with Biedermann insinuating that Biedermann
might be afraid of him because of his build. He
that that is what the barrels hold, when the police-
tells Biedermann that he is a wrestler. In other
man notices the barrels and asks Biedermann what
words, Schmitz is telling Biedermann that he
is in them, Biedermann lies. He tells the policeman
should not even think of throwing him out.
that the barrels are filled with hair tonic. Why does
This is very direct manipulation by intimidation.
he do this? It is because he feels guilty. He wants to
Then when Biedermann offers Schmitz some
believe that Schmitz and Eisenring are innocent,
bread, Schmitz asks if that is all Biedermann
that they merely need a place to sleep and to find has. This is slightly less direct manipulation,
food. But he cannot fully accept this, even though but nonetheless it makes Biedermann feel fool-
he tries to laugh at the men, as well as at his own ish. Of course he has more, but he had not
foolishness. But when the policeman appears, intended on offering it. However, after being
Biedermann is awakened to the truth. He is force asked such a direct question, how can Bieder-
to fully realize the truth. But he cannot turn the mann lie? When the bread is offered, Schmitz
firebugs over to the police. By allowing Schmitz asks if he can also have some cheese, meat, and
and Eisenring to stay in his house and for turning a tomatoes, then adds: If its no trouble.
blind eye toward their activities, Biedermann has Of course it is no trouble, so his request is
become an accomplice to their arson. That is why honored.
he feels guilty. Why had he not called the police
Schmitz also manipulates Biedermann by
earlier? How could he have allowed the men to
complimenting him, making Biedermann con-
carry all those barrels to his attic? How could he
fused, not knowing if he should acknowledge the
not have known what they were doing? Circum- compliment or refute it. Schmitz knows that
stantial evidence makes Biedermann look like an Biedermann will accept it, and thus Schmitz will
accomplice, and he knows this. get his way again. For example, when Biedermann
Another time that Biedermann exhibits guilt threatens to put Schmitz out of his house, Schmitz
is when he strips the table of all luxuries. He has plays on Biedermanns inflated sense of self-
Anna set the table for dinner without the refine- importance, telling Biedermann that he is a
ments, such as silver knife rests. Who but a good-hearted man, one of the few that know
wealthy man could afford a silver knife rest? So how to be generous with strangers. Through this
all the silver candle sticks and linen table cloths tactic, Schmitz manipulates Biedermann by dar-
and napkins are stored away. All signs of ing Biedermann to admit that he is, in fact, not
Biedermanns wealth are hidden before he invites good hearted, which Biedermann cannot do. As
Schmitz and Eisenring to the dinner table. There the play nears the end, Schmitzs manipulation
are various reasons for this. Biedermann might gains strength. It begins to grow a bit more sinis-
have wanted the men to feel welcome, believing ter. With a table cloth draped over his head,
that the men were not used to having such a finely Schmitz pretends to be Knechtling, Biedermanns
set table. However, Biedermann might have done former employee who committed suicide. Schmitz
this because he felt guilty for possessing so much insinuates either that Knechtling has come to
wealth, so much more than the homeless men haunt Biedermann or else that Knechtling is the
own. Biedermann wanted, in as many ways as Angel of Death, come to claim Biedermanns life.
possible, to prove that he and the firebugs were It is at this point that Schmitz is about to leave so
on equal ground. That was Biedermanns defini- he really no longer needs to persuade Biedermann,
tion of humanity. so the manipulation becomes more intimidating.

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Elsa Gabriele passes by the battle ruins of Berlin in October 1945 as she accompanies her family to
school. The boys carry their shoes to save on wear and tear. (Fred Ramage / Keystone Features / Getty Images)

STYLE also been seen as a narrator, such as readers find

in a novel, a voice but not a character in the story.
The Use of a Chorus Sometimes a chorus might also provide an anal-
The use of a chorus (a group of actors, or an ysis of what is going on in the drama. In Greek
individual, on stage who often speak in unison) tragedy, it was customary to have twelve to fif-
in drama dates back to the ancient Greek trag- teen members in the chorus. However, in Shake-
edies from around the fifth century B . C . E . In the spearean plays of the sixteenth century, the usual
Greek plays, most of the action took place off- form of a chorus was a single actor narrating the
stage, and thus the chorus was used to fill the lines. Bertolt Brecht, a playwright of the twenti-
audience in on details of what supposedly was eth century and a man who heavily influenced
happening away from the stage. In ancient times, Frisch, also used a chorus in some of his plays.
the chorus did not consist of trained actors but Brecht believed drama was to be used to educate
rather singers and dancers. That is one reason audiences, and his chorus was used to make the
why the lines for the chorus are written in a message of his play very clear. The chorus was
specific meter, or beat. Seldom if ever did the also used to interrupt the action of the play, to
chorus enter into the actions of the play, purposefully remind the audience that the play
although the chorus did empathize with what was not intended as an escape from reality, but
was going on. Rather, the chorus represented a rather to think about real issues that were occur-
kind of general voice of humanity. A chorus can ring in ordinary life outside of the theater.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 1 5
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Epic Theater political satire of the The Daily Show). In

Bertolt Brecht influenced Frischs form of drama Frischs play, the satire is social, aimed at the
in many ways. One of these was through Brechts playwrights (in particular that of Europe and
use of Epic Theater, which Frisch sometimes the United States) middle-class societies who
emulated. In traditional dramatic theater, the were very slow to take action against the Nazi
audience sits back and is basically entertained agenda of genocide. Satire used in this play is
by the play. However, in Epic Theater, the audi- aimed at correcting a lack of moralityor as the
ence is drawn into the play. Frisch did this in character Biedermann often refers to ita lack
different ways. He has his characters talk to the of humanity. Satire is a tool that the playwright
audience directly on several occasions. This uses to open the eyes and minds of his audience.
would not usually be done in traditional Satire can use comedy, but the message under-
drama, where the illusion of an invisible wall neath is often bitinga sharply pointed
(sometimes called the Fourth Wall) between the criticism. Satire can be used as a form of educa-
audience and the stage is assumed. In a tradi- tion, as the playwright presents mockingly
tional staging, it is as if the audience is eaves- humorous situations that nonetheless hit home,
dropping on private conversations. Not so in causing the audience to leave the performance
Epic Theater. Toward the end of Frischs play, still laughing but hopefully changed in the pat-
for example, one of the characters (the profes- tern of their thoughts. Besides including clever
sor) actually jumps into the audience, which dialogue and humor, satire often uses exaggera-
serves to break the imaginary dividing line tion to make a point. For instance, Bieder-
between the audience and the players on the manns character is an exaggeration of how
stage. people tend to look away from some event they
Another difference between the two forms do not want to think about. Biedermann comes
of theater is that traditional dramatic theater across as a buffoon in the process. This is done
tends to appeal to the emotions, whereas in on purpose because the playwright wants to
Epic Theater, the emphasis is on appealing to make sure that his satirical criticism is not
the audiences intellect. In other words, the missed.
plays purpose is to make the audience think.
Rather than identifying emotionally with the
characters, in Epic Theater, the playwright
wants the audience to reflect on their own lives HISTORICAL CONTEXT
and how their lives are affecting society.
Although Epic Theater does entertainthere Switzerlands Neutrality
are humorous moments in Frischs play, for Switzerland is a centrally located country in
examplethe driving force behind the play is Europe (approximately 16,000 square miles in
to teach the audience lessons that might cause size) that comes under the cultural influences of
social change. Epic Theater entails setting up the the countries that border it, namely, Germany,
stage and performing in such a way that the Italy, France, Austria, and Liechtenstein. The
audience is constantly aware that the drama is land surface is made up of mostly mountain
a re-enactment of reality, not reality itself. This is ranges and valleys, and the country has few nat-
supposed to encourage the audience to be more ural resources. Politically, Switzerland is divided
critical about the material that is being pre- into twenty-six cantons (similar to states) and is
sented. Very few, if any, props are used. Very governed by what is referred to as a direct
bright lights flood the stage. And choruses, or democracy (voters have the right to present the
cards with messages, are displayed and are often government with referendums to void laws they
employed to interrupt the flow of dialogue and do not agree with). Although there are many
to emphasize the plays message. languages and dialects spoken in the country,
there are only four officially recognized lan-
Satire guages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
Ever since the theater of the ancient Greeks, As of 2007, Switzerland, which is considered an
satire has been used in drama to cleverly (and isolationist country by tradition, had not joined
openly) criticize certain aspects of society. the European Union.
Today, political satire is quite evident on stage, Historically, Switzerland did not have a uni-
on the radio, and on television (for example the fied government until the French took control in

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 1950s: The world is recovering from the play is influenced by the atrocities of World
damage caused by the spread of Nazism, its War II.
planned genocide of non-Aryan people, and Today: Tim Robbins, a famous actor and
World War II. playwright, is loudly criticized after his
Today: Although outlawed in many Euro- play Embedded opens in Los Angeles. The
pean countries, Neo-Nazi groups still exist play is meant to raise the audiences con-
on the fringe of society, and they continue to sciousness about, and be a protest against,
recruit new members, mostly in Europe and the war in Iraq.
in the United States. Websites, music bands,  1950s: Switzerland creates a five-year plan
and other media produced by Neo-Nazis to build its military in order to defend its
reflect the philosophy of anti-Semitism, rac- right to neutrality.
ism, and homophobia. Today: Swiss voters attempt to abolish the
 1950s: Frischs play Firebugs is staged in Swiss militia entirely. The bill does not pass.
Europe and the United States as a statement However, the number of active members in
against the social pressure to go along with the militia, as well as the military budget, is
the war policies of the Nazi regime. The significantly reduced.

1798 and created a constitution that brought the the Swiss neutrality might have been compro-
governance of the country together and dissolved mised in that they banked money stolen from
the cantons. This proved very unpopular, as the the German Jewish population by the Nazis.
citizens of this region relied heavily on tradition, Also interesting to note, Switzerland housed
which the French government was trying to many Allied officials who spied on Germany,
destroy. In the next decades, there were civil upris- which some have claimed aided in the defeat of
ings as well as invasions from Russia and Austria. Nazi Germany.
However, through the Congress of Vienna in
Switzerland is one of the more affluent
1815, Switzerland regained its independence and
countries in Europe and enjoys one of the lowest
was declared by the then-European powers a per-
rates of unemployment. Banking is a large indus-
manently neutral territory. One more small war
try in Switzerland, and because of its nondisclo-
broke out in the Swiss territory, this time a civil
sure agreement (people can deposit money in
uprising between the Catholics and Protestants.
Swiss banks without fear that their finances will
This uprising lasted only one month, and at the
be disclosed to government authorities), large
end, in 1849, the leaders of both sides created a
sums of money are deposited in Swiss banks,
new constitution. That was the last battle that was
sometimes for reasons that are not legal, such
ever fought on Swiss soil.
as money laundering in the drug trade or tax
During World War I and World War II, evasion by wealthy foreigners. Also, because
Switzerland proclaimed neutrality. Although the Swiss have to import much of their food
Swiss armies guarded the borders and may have and other products, it has been inferred that in
been the determining factor for German forces the past, one reason Switzerland may not have
not entering the country during World War II, become involved in trying to stop the spread of
the Swiss soldiers were not involved in any bat- Nazism during the 1940s was because their larg-
tles. However, there have been allegations that est trade partner was (and still is) Germany.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 1 7
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View across the Limmat River and the old town of Zurich from the top of Grossmunster church ( Eric
Nathan / Alamy)

Nazism and Adolph Hitler conspiracy to take over the world. Hitler was
Nazism generally refers to National Socialism, intent on stopping this from happening. Hitler
or the ideology held by the National Socialist was very much opposed to democracy and
German Workers Party, for which Adolph Hit- believed that a successful government was best
ler (18891945) was appointed the chancellor, in run by one wise leader. Other groups that Hitler
1933, and was given dictatorial rights. Nazis did not approve of included people of African
reigned in Germany from 1933 to 1945, when descent, the Romani tribes, homosexuals, and
the Allies outlawed the Nazi party after the people with physical impairments or illnesses.
defeat of Germany at the end of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany
Nazism was a totalitarian form of government invaded Poland. Two days later, the United
under which everything was controlled by the Kingdom and France declared war on Germany,
governing body. Nazism has its roots in various and World War II had begun. Germany pressed
ideologies, but one of the major beliefs is of a on to invade Norway and Denmark. France was
pure Aryan race made up of people of Nordic Germanys next conquest. Germany also heavily
ancestry. Nazis attempted to purge the German bombed England and gained land in northern
population of people who were not of Nordic Africa and Yugoslavia. In 1941, German troops
heritage, thus purifying the German society. entered the Soviet Union (Russia). There seemed
Nazis believed that the Aryan race was superior no chance of stopping the Nazis. Only a few
to all other ethnicities. Hitler worried that if European countries remained clear of the
Germans were allowed to marry people of German threat, and this included Switzerland,
other ethnicities, the Aryan race would be pol- Sweden, Portugal, and Spain. After the United
luted. Hitlers ideas were recorded in a publica- States declared war on Japan as a result of the
tion called Mein Kempf (19251926). In this bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941,
book, Hitler claimed that there was a Jewish Hitler declared war on the United States. As the

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countries in Europe came under the control of The first U.S. production of Frischs play
the Nazis, the Nazi policy of ethnic cleansing was reviewed by Howard Taubman, writing for
began in each newly-overrun country. The per- the New York Times. The play was produced off-
secution, especially of Jews, in all conquered Broadway, which means it was not staged in a
countries, was pointedly pursued. major theater. The response to the play was
mixed at this time, some reviewers, such as
Bertolt Brecht (18981956) Taubman, remark on the fact that some of the
Bertolt Brecht, one of Germanys most famous effects of the play, such as the Chorus, might be a
playwrights and poets, was a strong influence on little too European for U.S. audiences. However,
Frischs dramatic writing. Threatened by the rise Taubman praises the play, which he finds to be
of Nazism, which caused strict censorship of his so broad that it often resembles a burlesqued
work, Brecht went into self-exile, living in Den- charade. However, Taubman adds that the
mark, in Sweden, and in the United States dur- subject is no laughing matter. Mr. Frischs light-
ing World War II, a time during which he wrote est banter is dusted with ironic fallout.
most of his successful plays. Brecht developed
his own theories for drama, including his Epic Vincent Canby, also writing in the New York
Theatre concept. Brecht also believed in what he Times, states that the play is not so much a
called the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt conventional play as an eight-scene climax, a
in German), through which he constantly kept dramatized convulsion that cannot be stopped
his audiences distracted so they would not any more easily than can a sneeze once started.
become emotionally involved in the plays. For Canby was reviewing an Americanized version
example, actors might change characters right in of Frischs play, in which the firebugs are black
front of the audience in the middle of a scene. and the Biedermanns are white, thus adding the
Brecht wanted his audiences to remain detached theme of racism to the drama. Canby finds the
emotionally so they would be able to critically racial issues in this version to be quite valid.
analyze the messages his dramas were portray- There was also a German-language produc-
ing. Some of Brechts plays that are translated tion of Frischs play in the United States in the
into English include The Three Penny Opera late 1960s, a time when the country was deeply
(1928); Life of Galileo (1938); and Mother Cour- involved in the Vietnam War. Henry Raymont,
age and Her Children (1939). Some of Brechts writing for the New York Times, quotes Maria
influences in drama included the Japanese form Becker, the leading actress of this production, as
of drama called Noh and Greek tragedy, both of saying that in previous years, the play may not
which use choruses to put forward a narrative on have been as pertinent to people in the United
States, but the dehumanization of the Vietnam
war, has changed all this. Raymont describes
the play as one that probes piercingly into the
subject of individual responsibility for social and
political condition.
Bruce Weber, writing for the New York
Frischs satirical drama The Firebugs is often Times, states that Frischs play is an acrid
referred to as a commentary on the spread of comic parable about the lily-livered middle
Nazism across Europe during the 1930s and class. Weber continues his description by refer-
1940s and the willingness of some middle-class ring to the play as Frischs condemnation of
citizens (especially the Swiss middle class, of Swiss neutrality during the rise of Nazism, fur-
which the author was a part) to ignore the dan- ther commenting that it decries the compla-
gers inherent in this political philosophy. cency of comfortable citizens in threatening
Although not widely reviewed, the play has times. Weber says that despite the fact that the
also been called an absurd comedy about moral audience immediately understands who the bad
depravity and self-deception. Other comments guys are, the play is not a simple one. On the
that are often repeated in regards to this play contrary, Weber claims that Frisch was not
concern the plays ability to remain relevant in afraid of dealing with ambiguities. His charac-
contemporary society, fifty years after it was first ters are both scorned for their ignorance and
staged. empathized with for their misguided actions.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 1 9
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 Frischs novel Im Not Stiller was originally a series of essays in Switzerland and War
published in 1954. The story is about Anatol (2000), edited by Joy Charnley and Malcolm
Stiller, a wanted man who disappears from Pender. Although Switzerland remained
his home town in Switzerland and then neutral during the war, the country was
apparently reappears seven years later. affected by the war around them, and con-
Police question the protagonist of this tinues to defend itself against accusations
novel, who denies that he is the man they that the Swiss government aided Nazi Ger-
are looking for. Readers come to their own manys war efforts.
conclusions as to whether or not this man is,
or is not, Stiller. The story is full of angst and  Frisch published two sketchbooks (Sketch-
psychological depth. book: 19461949 [1950] and Sketchbook:
19661971 [1972]). These are collections
 Friedrich Durrenmatt was a contemporary
that Frisch kept of his reflections on eco-
of Frischs and is often mentioned along
nomics, politics, and society. Also included
with Frisch as one of Switzerlands most
are interviews and ideas for future stories
famous playwrights. Durrenmatts Physi-
and plays. They provide an inside look at
cists (1962) is a play about three men living
how the playwright thought and felt.
in a mental institution who claim to be
famous scientists. The play is centered on  Bertolt Brecht was a mentor of Frischs and
the role of science and its potential to also a very celebrated dramatist. One of
destroy the world, a theme that is just as Brechts plays that has been popular in the
current today as when the play was first United States is The Caucasian Circle, first
conceived. produced in 1947. The play was adapted
 Switzerlands neutrality during World War from a thirteenth-century Chinese drama in
II and its influence on the literature and which two communities fight over a piece of
society of this small country is examined in land.

The themes of denial and self-justification, in in relationship to the lack of action made toward
the play still have resonance today. abating the rise of Nazism. Indeed, the purpose
of satire is not to entertain. Rather, satire is most
often meant to bring about social or political
change. In Frischs play, humor, sarcasm,
irony, and tragedy are employed as a means to
CRITICISM communicate a moral lesson.
Joyce M. Hart In scene 5 of The Firebugs, just as Eisenring
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing is laying out the fuse that will light the barrels of
and is a freelance writer and published author. In gasoline in Biedermanns attic, Biedermann
this essay, she examines how Frisch uses satire in questions Eisenring about why he continually
his drama, bringing humor, wit, sarcasm, and tells jokes. Eisenring responds: Thats some-
tragedy together to deliver his message. thing weve learned. When Biedermann asks
Frisch uses satire in his play The Firebugs to for more information, Eisenring adds: A joke
deliver his commentary on middle-class society, is good camouflage. Indeed, this is also the
and to waken audiences to the problems he saw approach that Frisch has taken as a dramatist.

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him that there is not an empty bed in the house.

It is obvious to Schmitz that this is not the truth.
He probably had been watching the house for
BY RIDICULING BIEDERMANN, THE STAND-IN several days and knew that there were only three
people living in the large home. So Schmitz tells
Biedermann that that is what everyone says. So
CAMOUFLAGE HIS MESSAGE THAT COMPLACENCY IS Schmitz turns the tables on Biedermann again,
by telling him that it does not matter. Schmitz is
used to sleeping on the floor. In doing this,
LEAD TO TRAGEDY. Schmitz has stolen Biedermanns excuse for
turning him out. Saying that there are no
empty beds is an easy (and supposedly gentle or
at least non-confrontational) way of turning
homeless people away. In case Biedermann is
The object, or victim, of much of the plays humor still thinking of getting rid of Schmitz, the fire-
is Biedermann, who, in this case, stands for middle- bug mentions that he was brought up poor.
class society, those who are comfortable with life. Everyone in the audience probably recognizes
Their basic needs are met, and they can afford Schmitzs tactic of using pity to get his way, but
small luxuries. Because of this, they may forget not Biedermann. Biedermann is upright and
about those who do not live as they do; nor are proud of himself. He will not allow himself to
they compelled to political action in the same way be considered one of those people who mistrust
as people whose basic needs are not being met. By poor people. Schmitz is both making fun of Bie-
ridiculing Biedermann, the stand-in for the middle- dermann and manipulating him at the same
class, Frisch uses humor to camouflage his message time. Schmitz is taking full advantage, through
that complacency is a dangerous stance that will his wit, of Biedermanns inflated self-image, and,
ultimately lead to tragedy. slowly but surely, he is exposing Biedermann as
the fool that he is.
Biedermann is a man without a backbone. He
makes grand statements, such as his opening Sarcasm comes into play when Biedermann
remarks that all arsonists should be hung. But as discusses Mr. Knechtling, the employee he
has recently fired. Knechtling tries to speak
soon as Schmitz begins questioning Biedermanns
with Biedermann, but Biedermann tells Anna
sense of humanity, Biedermann capitulates.
that Knechtling can stick his head in the gas
Schmitz does this by using wit. First he agrees
stove or get a lawyer! Biedermann becomes self-
with Biedermann for believing that arsonists
conscious when he remembers that Schmitz is
should be put to death. Then he praises Bieder-
sitting in the room with him. And Schmitz
mann for saying so. Whereas Biedermann felt
jumps right on the opportunity. He immediately
righteous in making his statements at first, now
asks, Whod have thought you could still find it,
that he hears Schmitz agree with him, Biedermann
these days? When Biedermann asks what he is
begins to question himself. Schmitz continues by
talking about, Schmitz replies, Humanity! Of
stating that Biedermann has a conscience. But
course, Schmitz pretends to be referring to the
Frisch cleverly switches this statement from mean-
fact that Biedermann has not yet thrown him out
ing something positive to becoming insulting. As
of his house and has graciously offered him food.
soon as Schmitz makes the comment that Bieder-
However, Schmitz is also being sarcastic. No
mann might be one of the last men with a con-
one with any sense of humanity would tell a
science, he adds a story about the circus owner he
depressed person to stick their head in a gas
used to work for. The owner reportedly said If
stove. Schmitz also adds the phrase, God will
anybody has a conscience, you can bet its a bad
reward you! Schmitz is sarcastically referred to
one. This statement makes Biedermann a bit
the fact that he is planning on burning down
uneasy and the comment that the circus owner
Biedermanns house. Biedermann tries to collect
died in a fire makes Biedermann change the
himself, telling Schmitz that he should not think
of him as being inhuman, especially after his
Just a few lines later in the same scene, obvious comment about Knechtling. And once
Schmitz ridicules Biedermann, quite subtly and again, Schmitz uses Biedermanns concern to
quite effectively. He relates that Anna has told his advantage. Schmitz challenges Biedermann,

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through him. In some part, Biedermann under-

stands this, and he does not want the firebugs to
expose him to anyone else. It is bad enough that
BIEDERMANN UND DIE BRANDSTIFTER, they know that he is a fake. And so the house will
burn. Biedermann, Babette, and Anna may die, as
might the community around them, all because of
OF FRISCHS PARABLE PLAYS. BIEDERMANN IS NOT Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on The Firebugs, in
Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.


Ehrhard Bahr
BRUTALITY IN ORDER TO SUCCEED IN THE In the following excerpt, Bahr gives a critical
analysis of Frischs life and work.
German drama during the 1950s would be
COWARD. unthinkable without the works of Max Frisch
and Friedrich Durrenmatt; the lack of postwar
drama in West Germany was made up for by
these two Swiss playwrights between 1945 and
1960. They were the best qualified to fill this
again using sarcasm, by stating what has not yet vacuum because they were writing in German
been proven to be true. Schmitz says: Would and were so close to the situation in postwar
you be giving me a place to sleep tonight if you Germany, yet they were not politically compro-
were inhuman?Ridiculous! mised by previous accommodation with the Nazi
Irony is used when Babette enters the play. regime. Furthermore, they had stayed in close
She hears a noise in the attic and is at first contact with the development of modernist
frightened (as she should be). But then she dramain particular German exile drama,
remembers her husband, and his attentiveness which had found a haven at the Zurich Schaus-
(or so she thinks) to the problem of the firebugs. pielhaus (Playhouse). Plays by exiled dramatists
She comments to the audience that ever since the such as Bertolt Brecht, Ferdinand Bruckner,
threat of arson has become so widespread, her Odon von Horva`th, Friedrich Wolf, and Carl
husband vigilantly checks the attic every night to Zuckmayer had been produced there during the
assure her that their house is safe. She is very 1930s and 1940s, and some of the best German
thankful for this. He does this so she can sleep actors and directors had found employment in
well at night. Babettes fault is her innocence and Zurich after 1933. The Zurich Schauspielhaus
her complete trust in her husband. Rather than was thus an ideal place for young dramatists to
trusting her own intuitions, she relieves herself of learn their trade. Durrenmatt and Frisch made
any responsibility for her own safety. Instead, use of the opportunity offered to them in the
she relies on her husbands good sense, which the 1940s, and they found inspiration for their own
audience already knows does not exist. works from the plays produced at the Schauspiel-
The tragedy of the play is not that Bieder- haus. By the 1960s Frisch and Durrenmatt were
manns house will be burnt down, but rather than internationally recognized dramatists whose
he does nothing to stop it. He takes no action, not plays were translated into many languages and
because he is incapable of doing so or does not performed in many countries. Although Frisch
know what is going on, but because of his own became increasingly disappointed with the iner-
tragic flaw: weakness. He has built himself up on tia of the technical apparatus of the theater and
the labor and wit of others. When it comes time for neglected drama in the 1970s and 1980s in favor
him to truly face a situation, he is not able to react. of prose, he never abandoned it.
Biedermann is manipulated by people who are Frisch was born in Zurich on 15 May 1911 to
smarter than he is; people who understand the Franz Frisch, an archictect, and Lina Wildermuth
flaws in his character. Biedermann has constructed Frisch. His mothers family had immigrated to
his sense of self in a manner that does not reflect his Switzerland from Wurttemberg, Germany. Frisch
true personality. He has lied to himself, and studied German literature at the University of
Schmitz and Eisenring, the firebugs, can see right Zurich from 1931 until his father died in 1933; he

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then left school and became a freelance journalist, preserved throughout. Showing the influence of
writing mainly for the Neue Zurcher Zeitung (New Thornton Wilders Our Town (1938), the play
Zurich Newspaper). In 1936 he took up the study fails as a Zeitstuck (play dealing with current
of architecture at the Eidgenossische Technische events) because neither time nor place is defined.
Hochschule (Federal Institute of Technology) in Die chinesische Mauer, revised in 1955, 1965,
Zurich. After receiving his degree in 1941 he and 1972, is a farce. Its subject is the endless cycle
opened an architectural office. He married Gertrud of human self-destruction. The construction of
Anna Constance von Meyenburg in 1942; they had the Great Wall of China around 200 B.C. is an
three children. In 1944 Frisch was invited to assist allegory for the atomic bomb. Anachronism is
at rehearsals and write for the Schauspielhaus. the main principle of the play; the characters
After World War II, in which he served as a gunner include Der Heutige (Todays Man), Romeo
on the Swiss border, Frisch won an architectural and Juliet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Christopher
competition for a public outdoor swimming pool in Columbus, Don Juan, Pontius Pilate, Brutus,
Zurich, the Freibad Letzigraben, which was built Philip of Spain, Cleopatra, Emile Zola, and
from 1947 to 1949. The first play he wrote, Santa Ivan the Terrible. Instead of traditional dra-
Cruz, was performed in 1946 and was published in matic conflict, there is a constant exchange of
1947; his first play to be performed and published quotations, referring to events of the past. Even
was Nun singen sie wieder (performed, 1945; pub- with his knowledge of history, Der Heutige can-
lished, 1946; translated as Now They Sing Again, not stop the cycle.
1972). They were followed by Die chinesische
In 1948 Frisch met Brecht, whose theory of
Mauer (performed, 1946; published, 1947; trans-
the epic or anti-Aristotelian theater would con-
lated as The Chinese Wall, 1961).
tinue to exercise considerable influence on
Santa Cruz is a dream play. Santa Cruz is Frischs dramatic production until the early
not a geographical place but a realm of dreams 1960s. Frischs fourth play, Als der Krieg zu
and self-fulfillment. Its opposite is a castle in a Ende war (When the War was Over, 1949), is set
wintry European landscape that stands for real- after the fall of Berlin in 1945. Agnes, a German
ity, marriage, and renunciation. Past and present woman, plans to kill a Soviet colonel while her
are synchronized in the dream action of the play. German husband hides in the cellar. Although
An adventurer and a cavalry officer court the neither understands the language of the other,
same woman; she opts for marriage and reality the colonel and Agnes overcome prejudice and
but cannot give up her dreams. Neither can her fall in love. When the colonel learns that Agness
husband, whose alter ego is the adventurer. Only husband had participated in the massacre of Jews
when the adventurer within him dies can the in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, he leaves rather
officer and his wife find peace in their life in the than arresting her husband as a war criminal.
castle. Frischs first play shows the influence of Brecht wanted Frisch to take a stand in favor of
Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Paul Claudel. the Soviet liberation of Germany, but Frisch
considered the conflict between humanity and
Nun singen sie wieder, subtitled Versuch
inhumanity the main theme of the play.
eines Requiems (Attempt at a Requiem), deals
with war crimes and the vain hope of a moral Frisch spent 1951 and 1952 in the United
change. After ordering the shooting of twenty- States and Mexico on a Rockefeller grant. His
one hostages, Karl deserts from the army and next two plays were Graf Oderland (1951; trans-
hangs himself. His wife and child perish in an air lated as Count Oederland, 1962) and Don Juan oder
raid. The members of the enemy air force are Die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953; translated as Don
killed in action. The dead celebrate their sym- Juan; or, The Love of Geometry, 1967). Biedermann
bolic requiem with bread and wine. They are und die Brandstifter (1958; translated as The Fire
committed to a change in spirit, but the survivors Raisers, 1962), first written as a radio drama, is one
do not hear their message. Their deaths will have of Frischs most provocative plays.
been in vain unless the audience listens to the Graf Oderland, which underwent two revi-
song of the hostages, who died singing. Frischs sions after its premiere in 1951, was a failure
stage directions specified that scenery was to be because it does not provide convincing motiva-
present only to the extent that the actors needed tion for the protagonists actions. An ambitious
it; in no case was it to simulate reality. The state prosecutor changes into an ax murderer
impression of a play on a stage was to be with romantically anarchistic notions. But as he

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 2 3
T h e F i r e b u g s

overthrows power in order to be free, he is taking allegory of the Nazi burning of the Reichstag in
over the opposite of freedom: power. Finally the 1933 or the Communist takeover of Czechoslo-
revolutionary takes over as dictator of a new vakia in 1948. Unlike Brecht, who wanted to
government. At the end Oderland desperately change the world with his theater, Frisch did
wants to wake up from the nightmare of murder not believe in the revolutionizing effect of the
and anarchy he has created. Frisch expressly stage. Also, in spite of the absurd aspects of the
rejected an interpretation of the play as an alle- plot, Frisch did not want his play to be under-
gory about Adolf Hitler or a critique of modern stood as theater of the absurd. Denouncing
democracy. `
Eugene Ionesco and his followers, Frisch
declared in 1964 that a public that finds satisfac-
In Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie
tion in absurdity would be a dictators delight.
Don Juan is an intellectual in search of his iden-
tity. He tries to escape his destined role as a Die groe Wut des Philipp Hotz (The Great
seducer by loving geometry more than women, Madness of Philipp Hotz, published, 1958) is a
but the power of the myth catches up with him. Schwank (slapstick farce) that premiered
He stages his death and descent into hell so as to together with Biedermann und die Brandstifter
escape to his first love, geometry. This escape is in 1958. The conventional stereotype of the intel-
denied to him, but he experiences his own hell lectual who is unable to act, Philipp Hotz
after he marries Miranda, a former prostitute. attempts to break out of the prison of his daily
He becomes a prisoner in his own castle: he life by locking his wife in a closet, destroying the
cannot leave the castle because he would then furniture that symbolizes the bourgeois existence
have to live as Don Juan again. He ends up as a from which he wants to escape, and enlisting in
henpecked husband and father, reading about the French foreign legion. Hotz even fabricates
his own legend in the 1630 version by Tirso de an adultery that he has not committed. All his
Molina. efforts to be taken seriously end in failure.
Rejected by the foreign legion because he is
Biedermann und die Brandstifter, subtitled
nearsighted, he returns to his wife and home
Ein Lehrstuck ohne Lehre (A Didactic Play with-
and the routines of his daily life.
out a Lesson), is the first of Frischs parable
plays. Biedermann is not an individual but a In 1958 Frisch was awarded the Georg
type: the businessman who combines pleasant Buchner Prize by the German Academy of Lit-
behavior with ruthless brutality in order to suc- erature in Darmstadt, the Literature Prize of the
ceed in the capitalist world; he is an opportunist City of Zurich, and the Veillon Prize of
and a coward. Because of lack of courage Bie- Lausanne. In 1959 he was divorced from his
dermann allows two suspicious vagrants to first wife. In 1961 he moved to Rome. That
camp in his attic, even though there have been year he had his greatest success on the stage
newspaper reports about arsonists disguised as with Andorra (published, 1961; translated,
peddlers asking for a place to sleep. The vagrants 1964). The twelve scenes of Andorra are linked
store gasoline barrels in Biedermanns attic and by statements made by various characters as
openly handle detonators and fuses in front of they step out of the action of the play to give
him. He cooperates because he does not want to accounts of their deeds and motivations from a
make them his enemies. On the other hand, he witness box in the foreground of the stage. With
has no scruples about driving his employee the exceptions of Andri and Barblin, the charac-
Knechtling to suicide, because he has nothing ters are mere types without names. Andri is a
to fear from Knechtling. Concerned only with young man who is thought to be a Jew who was
saving himself and his house, Biedermann serves rescued from persecution by the Schwarzen
the arsonists a sumptuous dinner; in the end he (Blacks) across the frontier and adopted by the
provides them with the matches they use to set local teacher. Andri is, however, the teachers
his house on fire. Biedermann and his wife perish illegitimate son by the Senora, a woman from
in the flames. A chorus of firemen provides com- across the border. Although he is not Jewish, the
mentary in a parody of Greek tragedy. In 1959 prejudices of his social environment impress on
Frisch added a Nachspiel (epilogue) showing Andri the supposedly Jewish characteristics that
Biedermann and his wife in hell, unchanged and he finally accepts, even after he learns of his non-
as foolish as ever. Frisch rejected any political Jewish origin. When he falls in love with Barblin,
interpretation of his didactic play as an whounknown to himis his half sister, Andri

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T h e F i r e b u g s

believes that his foster father objects to the affair of the Swiss Schiller Foundation and became an
because he is Jewish. Andri perishes as a Jew honorary member of the American Academy of
when the Schwarzen invade Andorra and take Arts and Letters and the National Institute of
him away, while Barblins head is shaved Arts and Letters. In 1975 he traveled to China.
because she is considered the Judenhure (Jews He received the Peace Prize of the German Book
whore). Nobody offers any resistance to the Trade in 1976. His Triptychon: Drei szenische
invasion by the Schwarzen. Everybody is guilty, Bilder (translated as Triptych: Three Scenic
including the teacher, who invented the pious lie Panels, 1981) was published in 1978 and pre-
of adopting a Jewish child instead of confessing miered in 1979. Triptychon consists of three
to his illegitimate son; he hangs himself in the loosely connected scenes dealing with a common
schoolroom. The Andorra of this play has noth- theme, that of death. The first scene deals with
ing to do with the actual state of this name; the embarrassment caused by the death of a
Frisch said in his notes to the play that Andorra seventy-year-old man; the second is a conversa-
is the prototype of a society ruled by prejudice tion among the dead, who find eternity banal;
and fear. There are unmistakable allusions to the last scene deals with the insoluble relation-
Switzerland and its relationship to Nazi Ger- ship between a man and his dead lover.
many, even though Frisch stressed in his stage
In November 1989 there was to be a refer-
directions that, for example, in the uniform of
endum on the abolition of the military. Frisch
the Schwarzen any resemblance to the uniforms
had been a critic of the Swiss army and its ideol-
of the past should be avoided. Andorra was
ogy since 1974, when he attacked the Swiss arms
criticized for obscuring rather than analyzing
industry, Swiss resistance to the immigration of
the aberration of anti-Semitism and of mini-
political refugees, and the concept of defense by
mizing the Holocaust.
withdrawal behind an Alpine Maginot Line in
In 1965 Frisch moved to the Ticino, in south- his Dienstbuchlein (Service Booklet). His
ern Switzerland. That same year he received the extended dialogue Jonas und sein Veteran
Schiller Prize of Baden-Wurttemberg. His comedy (Jonas and His Veteran), which premiered in
Biografie: Ein Spiel (published, 1967; translated as 1989, and his pamphlet Schweiz ohne Armee?
Biography: A Game, 1969) was first produced in Ein Palaver (Switzerland without an Army? A
1968. The play, whose subtitle means both A Palaver), published the same year, were Frischs
Play and A Game, is introduced by a Regis- contribution to the debate on the future of the
trator (chronicler), who reads the stage directions Swiss army. Jonas und sein Veteran consists of a
at a lectern. Kurmann, a professor of psychology, ninety-minute conversation between a Swiss
wants to start his life over again, like an actor army veteran of 1918 and his grandson Jonas,
who faces the alternatives of army service or civil
repeating a scene during a rehearsal. He is con-
disobedience and emigration. Neither alterna-
vinced that he knows exactly what he would do
tive appeals to the young man, who is more
differently. The Registrator and Kurmanns wife
interested in a career in computer science. His
Antoinette agree to let him repeat the scene, but it
grandfather is of no help, because his advice
leads to the same result. All other attempts to consists of historical reminders of Swiss failures
change the outcome of his life also fail: he is and sarcastic analyses of the army as part of
invariably confronted by death from cancer Swiss folklore, as an elite unit to protect Swiss
within seven years. Kumann is limited by his capitalism, or as a prop to shore up Swiss
own identity; any particular scene of his life national identity. The dramatic dialogue dis-
could have been different, but Kurmann cannot cusses alternatives but does not provide a con-
adopt a different personality. As Frisch said in his clusion. Passages from Frischs Dienstbuchlein
notes to the play, the theater grants an opportu- are quoted at great length by the grandfather.
nity that reality denies: to repeat, to rehearse, to The proposal to abolish the military was
change. defeated; but it was supported by 35.6 percent
of the voters, forcing the army to consider
In 1969 Frisch married Marianne Oellers;
the marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
After traveling to Japan he was a guest lecturer In 1989 Frisch was awarded the Heinrich
at Columbia University in New York in 1970- Heine Prize of the City of Dusseldorf. He died
1971. In 1974 he received the Great Schiller Prize in Zurich on 4 April 1991. Although he wrote

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 2 5
T h e F i r e b u g s

playwrights in Germany to overtake him in the

years immediately following it.
I have used the term experiment deliber-
ately, not to imply that Frisch concerns himself
RELATIONSHIPS TO DISCOVER HOW GENUINE AND principally with technical devices, but rather to
indicate that he attempts in each of his plays to
find the form of expression that will affect the
reader or spectator most deeply. He is aware that
the present-day author who does have some-
thing to say can fail utterly to reach his public
when he uses conventional dramatic forms.
extensive notes and suggestions for staging his
What Max Frisch has to say is not new; his
plays, Frisch never provided a comprehensive
message is the eternal one of truth and humanity.
theory of drama. He questioned the didactic
Precisely because he is imbued with great seri-
effectiveness of Brechts epic theater, doubting
ousness of purpose, he has resorted to surrealis-
that anyone would ever change his or her view-
tic, expressionistic, and other such techniques to
point as a result of a stage performance. What
express his ideas.
Frisch had in common with Brecht was his rejec-
tion of attempts to imitate reality; the audience is Die chinesische Mauer, Frischs third play
never supposed to forget that what is happening (first performed in Zurich in 1946) could, like
on the stage is make-believe. Throughout his his first, Santa Cruz be labeled a dream play.
career Frisch was concerned with reminding his He himself calls it a comedy, but what he
audience that his plays were not representations presents is a tragedy thinly disguised as a mas-
of the world but of our consciousness of the queradea peculiar combination of profound
world. thought and light, playful outward form. The
Source: Ehrhard Bahr, Max Frisch, in Dictionary of
setting is the court of the Chinese emperor
Literary Biography, Vol. 124, Twentieth-Century German Hwang Ti, who is giving a garden party at
Dramatists, 19191992, edited by Wolfgang D. Elfe and which there is much talk both of the completion
James Hardin, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 13847. of the Great Wall and of a glorious victory in
battle. Among the Emperors guests are such
historic and fictitious celebrities as Columbus,
Walter E. Glaettli
Cleopatra, Don Juan, Napoleon, and Romeo
In the following excerpt, written in 1952, Glaettli
and Juliet, and one can scarcely help noticing
discusses Frisch as an emerging playwright. This
that the Emperors speech about the unequaled
review explores the very themes in Frischs earlier
heroism of his army has the empty ring of Hitlers
works that would later reappear in The Firebugs,
thus providing further insight on the play.
. . . One of the outstanding representatives The setting of the play is thus in actuality the
of modern German drama whose reputation as entire world; the time is all times, past and
a playwright is becoming increasingly wide- present.
spread is Max Frisch, a native of Zurich who . . . Though Die chinesische Mauer is not a
has thus far written five plays, Santa Cruz, Nun problem play, the innumerabIe anachronisms
singen sie wieder, Die chinesische Mauer, Als der perform somewhat the same function. The fusion
Krieg zu Ende war and Graf Oderland. We may of all times and places is used to show that man
somewhat discount Frischs Swiss citizenship as remains essentially the same irrespective of when
a factor in his career as a writer, since none of his and where he lives. Frischs characters are, how-
works has its setting in Switzerland. It has, on ever, by no means stripped of their personal
the other hand, no doubt proved an advantage characteristics and reduced to mere existences.
by giving him, in contrast to young authors in They are completely portrayed people whose rich
Germany, the opportunity of observing and variety gives the play its comedy-like atmos-
keeping in touch with the trends of literature in phere. The apparently gay mood is heightened
the West. An architect by profession, Fisch [sic] still further by the visors worn by the partici-
began his experiments in playwrighting during pants. These masks are the visible symbols of
the war, and so he gained a lead which made it at the spiritual mask that each of us wears. The
least difficult, if not impossible, for his fellow- mask motif and the concept that All the worlds

1 2 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
T h e F i r e b u g s

a stage and all the men and women merely play- that her husband can so casually equate these
ers may be derivative, but for Frisch no divine two very differently motivated actions is suffi-
being assigns roles in the drama of life; man cient to drive Agnes to despair and suicide.
himself dons his mask and wears it well enough
While Frischs previous plays were slow in
to deceive even himself. Upon occasion Frisch
gaining recognition, Als der Krieg zu Ende war
lifts the veil for a moment: the actor falls out of
rapidly conquered the stages of Germany and
his role to reveal not a hidden divine order but a
was performed in New York in the winter of
bare, meaningless Nichts. Just as the mask is the
195051. Its success in Germany can be
symbol of mans self-deception, so the great Chi-
accounted for on the basis of topical interest.
nese Wall is the symbol of all false illusions fetter-
Its lack of equal success on the American stage
ing mankind. But one character in the play wears
may be due, in part, to the lack of subjective
no mask: the poet Min Ko, ein junger Mann von
experience of the conditions described and to
heute. He alone is aware of the falsehood and
the time that had elapsed since the conclusion
delusion entangling man andto return to the
of the war.
plotwrites revolutionary songs in an attempt to
arouse the nation against the despot who built The play is generally understood to report a
the Great Wall and hence is responsible for the tragic incident of the chaotic conditions of the
general deception. Yet he too fails at the crucial early post-war months and appears, at first
moment. The tyrannised masses finally rise and glance, to have little in common with Die chine-
storm the Emperors palace, but the revolution sische Mauer. On closer inspection, however, we
achieves only the completion of the fateful cycle: find the basic problem to be the same. The rela-
the hero of the people comes to power as the new tionship of truth and falsehood, poetically but
dictator, and one may well prophesy the replace- vaguely expressed in the bewildering chaos of
ment of the Great Wall with a bigger and better
Die chinesische Mauer, becomes a far more
clearly defined issue in Als der Krieg zu Ende
Als der Krieg zu Ende war (1948) is a more war. Frisch probes various human relationships
realistic drama. It takes place in 1945, immedi- to discover how genuine and honest they are. He
ately after the war, in the living room and cellar reveals the falsehood of conventional social life,
of a partially bombed house in Berlin. The living mans inability or unwillingness to perceive his
room is occupied by a group of Russian officers own or anothers guilt, and his tendency to belit-
and soldiers; the cellar is the hiding place of the tle or even disregard the horrible. The strongest
previous owners of the house, Captain Anders, a and most dangerous opponent of truth is the
Heimkehrer, and his wife Agnes. Discovered by man with convictions.
the Russians, Agnes, in order to save her hus-
band, sacrifices herself by consenting to visit the . . . In this apparently more realistic work
Russian colonel each day on the condition that Frisch has the heroine deliver a monologue in
the cellar is not to be entered. In contrast to the which she gives expression to a consciousness
other Russians, of whom we hear only acts of transcending that of the individualone eluci-
cruelty and bestiality, Colonel Stepan Iwanow dating the plot and breaking through its surface
proves to be a man of noble mind. In the course like that of the chorus of Greek tragedy. Thus, in
of time Agnes feelings toward him develop into spite of all obvious differences, both plays are
true love. One day Captain Anders, leaving his typical expressions of Frischs dramatic work.
hiding place, is caught and identified by a Jewish Both deal with the same fundamental problem;
Russian soldier as a war criminal of the worst both reveal the authors profound pessimism;
sort. Stepan Iwanow, believing that Agnes has both embody outstanding experimental techni-
merely trifled with his love to protect her hus- ques. Moreover, both have similar defects. Die
band, leaves the house without speaking to her. chinesische Mauer has virtually no coherent plot,
She, on her part, has no full understanding of and the net of questions in which the author
what has occurred. The import of the tragedy is becomes entangled bewilders the spectator. In
apparent when Anders forgives Agnes her love Als der Krieg zu Ende war the basic question is
affair on the grounds that her action was condi- clearly stated and satisfactorily solved but Frisch
tioned by the war situation and justifies his own appears to have been so completely occupied
responsibility for the slaughter of thousands of with it that he has either overlooked or pur-
Jews in Warsaw on the same grounds. The fact posely neglected the questions arising in the

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 2 7
T h e F i r e b u g s

readers mind about the motivation of Agnes FURTHER READING

deceit of her husband and about the extent to
which her love for Stepan is more than physical Bessel, Richard, Nazism and War, Modern Library, 2006.
desire. Such unanswered questions weaken the Bessel, a noted historian, presents an in-depth
effectiveness of the drama. This same weakness look into Nazism in Germany and its effects on
the world, providing a detailed perspective on
appears in all of Frischs works; all suffer from a
the political, economic, and social environment
certain lack of clarity because the basic problems that helped to foster the overwhelming sweep
are overshadowed by vaguely defined secondary of Nazism across Europe.
problems which the author fails to solve Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of
satisfactorily . . . An Aesthetic, translated by John Willett, Hill and Wang,
Source: Walter E. Glaettli, Max Frisch, a New German Brecht revolutionized theater just as Frisch
Playwright, in German Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, began bringing his plays to the stage. Brechts
November 1952, pp. 24854. influence was very strong not only in Germany
but all over the Western world. Brechts con-
cepts of theater are fully explained in this col-
lection of essays.
Lichtenstein, Claude, Playfully Rigid: Swiss Architecture,
Graphic Design, Product Design, 19502006, Lars Muller
SOURCES Publishers, 2006.
Frisch was an architect in Switzerland (as was
Barnes, Clive, Cocteau Repertory Does Max Frischs his father) before he became a full-time writer.
Firebugs, in the New York Times, March 27, 1975, p. 32. This book provides a perspective of what archi-
tecture looked like in Frischs time as well as
Canby, Vincent, Theater: A Transformed Firebugs, in
how it has changed over the decades.
the New York Times, July 2, 1968, p. 36.
Wistrich, Robert S., Hitler and the Holocaust, Modern
Frisch, Max, The Firebugs, Hill and Wang, 1963, pp. 4, 7, Library, 2003.
910, 1314, 21, 33, 49, 76, 79. Wistrich argues that the indifference of many
European societies aided Hitler in his determi-
Raymont, Henry, Theater: The Firebugs Gives Lesson,
nation to exterminate the Jews. In this book,
in the New York Times, November 27, 1969, p. 52.
Wistrich explores a 2,000-year history of anti-
Taubman, Howard, The Firebugs Opens Off Broad- Semitism leading to the rise and fall of the
way, in the New York Times, February 13, 1963, p. 7. Third Reich in Germany. In the process, Wis-
trich attempts to answer why the Holocaust
Weber, Bruce, An Acrid Comic Parable about Nazis, in happened and how it differs from other forms
the New York Times, June 18, 2002, p. E3. of twentieth-century genocide.

1 2 8 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
Frozen, by British playwright Bryony Lavery, BRYONY LAVERY
was first produced in 1998, by the Birmingham
Repertory Theatre, in Birmingham, England. It
is available in an edition published by Faber and
Faber in 2002. Frozen is about the murder of a
ten-year-old girl by a child-molesting serial killer
and the crimes aftermath. There are three main
characters, whose stories begin separately but
then gradually converge. Agnetha, a psychiatrist
from New York, presents evidence that violent
criminals are brain damaged and not responsible
for what they do. Nancy, the mother of the victim,
is eventually able to forgive the murderer, Ralph,
who for his part finally learns to feel remorse.
Frozen raises issues of great importance for
criminal justice. Is the murderer evil or is his
crime only the symptom of an illness? The play
also explores the act of forgiveness. How can it
be possible for a mother to forgive a man who
has sexually molested and murdered her young
daughter? With its powerful emotional impact,
Frozen has been an international success. In
recent years it has been one of the most produced
plays in the United States and has also been
produced around the world in cities such as Dub-
lin, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Paris. The play also
became the subject of controversy when Lavery
was accused of plagiarizing the work of an Amer-
ican psychiatrist, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, whose
life and work closely resembled that of the char-
acter Agnetha in the play.

1 2 9
F r o z e n

Bell, Lavery then formed a collective group, Les

Oeufs Malades, which performed her plays in
small venues. During the 1970s and 1980s, Lav-
ery was artistic director for a number of small
theater groups in London, including Extraordi-
nary Productions, Female Trouble, and Gay
Lavery has written over fifty plays. Some of
the most notable include Origin of the Species
(1984), Her Aching Heart (1990), Kitchen Matters
(1990), More Light (1996) and Goliath (1997), the
latter a one-woman show in which the actress
plays all the characters. In 1991, she cowrote
Peter Pan (based on the book by J. M. Barrie),
and played the role of Tinkerbell herself.
In 1998, Frozen, Laverys most well-known
play, was produced. It won TMA Best Play
1998 and Eileen Anderson Central Television
Award for Best Regional Play 1998. When Fro-
zen moved to Broadway in 2004, it was nomi-
nated for a Tony Award. The play became
controversial when Lavery was accused of pla-
giarizing some of her material from an article in
the New Yorker about a psychiatrist who had
studied serial killers.
Laverys most recent plays are A Wedding
Story (2000), The Magic Toyshop (2001; adapted
from the novel by Angela Carter), Illyria (2002),
and Last Easter, which was produced in New
Bryony Lavery (Thos Robinson / Getty Images) York at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2004.
Lavery has also written television and radio
plays, and is the author of a biography of the
actress Tallulah Bankhead. She taught play-
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY writing at Birmingham University from 1989 to
1992. She is an honorary doctor of arts at De
British playwright and director Bryony Lavery Montfort University and a fellow of the Royal
was born on December 21, 1947, in Wakefield, Society of Literature.
Yorkshire, England. Her father was the princi-
pal of a nurse training college; her mother stayed
at home raising their four children. In an interview
with the Observer newspaper, Lavery described
her childhood as very happy and very poor.
Lavery attended the University of London, where Act 1
she first began writing plays, three of which were Act 1 of Frozen begins in New York, where
produced while she was still a student. She grad- psychiatrist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is about
uated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969. to leave her apartment and catch a plane to
In the 1970s, while working as a theater London. As she leaves she bursts into tears and
administrator, she began to make a name for her- screams into her carry-on bag. She recovers her
self in Britains emerging alternative theater move- composure and leaves for the airport.
ment. She was especially concerned with writing In scene 2, Nancy is at home in her back
plays that had prominent roles for women. Her garden in the evening, nipping some buds off her
play, Sharing, which she also directed, was pro- flowers. Her monologue gives insight into her
duced in London in 1976. With a friend, Gerard family situation. It appears that her relationship

1 3 0 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
F r o z e n

with Bob, her husband, has become difficult. She her daughter Ingrid is coping with her sisters
has two daughters, Ingrid and Rhona, who are disappearance.
always quarreling. Nancy recalls that she wanted Twenty years later (scene 8), Ralph sits on a
Ingrid, who is the older of the two, to take prun- bench. He has just had a tattoo of the Grim
ing shears to her grandmothers house, but Reaper done on his ankle. He shows other tat-
Ingrid protested. Nancy then let Ingrid go out toos, on his arms. He remembers exactly where
somewhere else and told Rhona to take the he got each tattoo, and how long it took the
shears to Grandma. Rhona has not yet returned. tattooist to do it. Then he sees a young girl some-
In scene 3, Ralph washes his hands in the where and hears her laughing. He pays close
sink. He says it is one of those days when he just attention and is obviously beginning to plan
knows he is going to do it, although he does not another abduction.
specify what he means. He then describes how he In scene 9, three or four days later, Nancy is
goes out in his van and tries to entice a young girl walking in the sun. She says that the police have
on the street to get in the van with him. He keeps arrested a man for an unsuccessful abduction,
cushions and a sleeping bag in the van, and it does and they have found the remains of other chil-
not take him long to tempt the girl to step inside. dren in the earth floor of a lock-up shed. The
Scene 4 is in Rhonas bedroom, seven man has named Rhona as one of the children.
months later. Rhona is still missing. Nancy says Nancy reflects that all the time she thought
she has lost two stone (twenty-eight pounds), and Rhona was alive, her daughter was actually
started smoking again. She has left Rhonas room buried in the shed.
exactly as it was, and she believes that Rhona is In his cell in scene 10, Ralph describes the
still alive. way he was interrogated by police, who have
In scene 5, Ralph brings a suitcase into his tried to tie him to the areas in which the crimes
room. He has been questioned by the police were committed by questioning him about where
about an incident in Scotland, which he denies he got each tattoo. When he discovered they had
having anything to do with. The police found found his shed and his collection of videos,
nothing incriminating in his room, but his land- he confessed to the crimes. This did not stop
lady has asked him to leave anyway. He packs the police from threatening him with violence.
some pornographic videotapes involving children In scene 11, Nancy reflects on the fact that
in his case. He has all the titles written down in his the shed where Rhona was buried was close by.
notebook and is proud of the fact that the tapes She has passed it many times. Her thoughts
cost a lot of money and he had to get them from oppress her like a heavy weight.
Agnetha addresses an academic audience in
On board the flight to England in scene 6, a large hall in London (scene 12), beginning to
Agnetha works on her laptop, referring to the explain her research on the brains of criminals.
title of her academic thesis, Serial Killing . . . a She has also examined Ralph, who is now serving
forgivable act? Scared of flying, she writes a life sentence without parole for the murders
an angry email to her collaborator Dr. David of seven young girls over a period of twenty-one
Nabkus. She cannot get the stewardess to bring years. The scene switches to the prison, with
her the brandy she thinks she needs. Agnetha talking to Ralph, measuring the circum-
Scene 7 takes place four years later. Nancy ference of his head and doing various tests. After
has joined an organization called FLAME, which one test, in which she taps him on the bridge of
publicizes cases of missing children. She has just the nose, his rapid blinking suggests that he has
returned from addressing a parent/teachers meet- damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. The
ing in which she tells the story of Rhona, who is frontal lobes are part of the cortex and allow
still missing, on her fifteenth birthday. Nancy people to make rational judgments and adapt to
believes Rhona is still alive. She recounts the the rules of everyday life.
story of how FLAME found another child who In scene 13, Nancy is in her house, smoking.
had been missing for nine years. Nancys activ- She is thinking that she would like to see Ralph
ities with FLAME have brought her closer to her die and watch him suffer like Rhona suffered.
husband, who had been having an affair, but She has seen on a videotape showing that in
she does not have much understanding of how America, the family of the victim is allowed to

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attend the execution of the criminal. She quotes In scene 19, Nancy says that she has just
an eighty-year-old grandmother whose grandson returned from the chapel of rest, where she and
was murdered, as saying that she could forgive Ingrid viewed Rhonas remains that are collected
but not forget. Nancy thinks that forgiveness in two cardboard boxes. Nancy held her daugh-
must take guts. Her mother will not forgive the ters skull and said it was beautiful. She placed
killer and neither will her husband. Nancy then Rhonas toy, Leo the Lion, in the coffin with the
reveals that Ingrid has decided to travel in Asia. remains. When they return, Ingrid tells her she
Nancy does not understand her daughters moti- must let go of her anger, visit Ralph and forgive
vation and has little sympathy for her. him. Nancy says if she visited him, she would kill
him. She cannot forgive.
Agnetha meets Ralph again in prison (scene
14). The scene alternates between the questions
she asks him for word-fluency and other struc- Act 2
tured tests and the explanation she gives to her- In scene 20, Agnetha calls Mary, the wife of her
academic audience, in which she says she believes deceased colleague, David. She is worried that
she can show that Ralphs responses are abnor- Mary may have read the email she sent to David
mal (due to brain damage). from the airplane. Mary has not. Agnetha tells
her that she misses David.
In scene 15, Nancy reports how she watched
In scene 21, Nancy tells Agnetha that she
as the shed where the crimes were committed was
wants to meet Ralph. She wants him to know
razed to the ground. She is grief-stricken and
how she feels, and why he picked Rhona. She has
calls out for her daughters.
tackled all the bureaucratic red tape and was told
Agnetha continues her examination of Ralph that a recommendation from Agnetha could
in scene 16, noting that he has a limp. She asks speed up the process of getting permission.
him where he got a scar on his forehead, and he Ralph explains to Agnetha (scene 22) how
gives two explanations, first that he fell off a roof methodical he is and how furious he is that the
when he was drunk, second, that he was in a car authorities have destroyed his video collection.
crash when he was sixteen. He also says he Agnetha asks him if he feels any remorse, and
blacked out after falling down a mine shaft, and explains to him the meaning of the word. Ralph
that his mother threw him into the sink when he says no. He tells Agnetha about his childhood.
was little. Agnetha decides not to recommend Nancy for a
Nancy hangs out her washing in the garden visit.
(scene 17). She has received postcards from In scene 23, Nancy is determined to get per-
Ingrid in Tibet, and gifts including prayer flags mission to visit. Her marriage has broken up,
that, according to Ingrid, help to spread com- and her family, except for Ingrid, oppose her
passion. Nancy is not impressed. She cannot desire to visit Ralph.
sleep and feels barely alive. The authorities will Agnetha concludes her address in scene 24.
not even let her have her daughters remains for She says that serial murderers are not evil because
burial. She pegs out the flags and they wave in they have no control over what they do. Their
the wind. Ingrid returns. actions are only symptoms of their illness.
Agnetha concludes her address in scene 18. Nancy visits Ralph in prison in scene 25.
She explains research showing that toddlers who She says she forgives him. After a long pause,
have been abused respond to a classmate in dis- he thanks her. She says she wants him to know
tress differently from children who have not she does not hate him, and that she has brought
been abused. They show no concern for the wel- some photographs of Rhona. She shows them to
fare of the distressed child but lash out with him. He claims he did not hurt her and she was
anger and physical assaults. To illustrate this, not frightened. Nancy disputes both statements.
Agnetha and Ralph are shown together; she She asks him about his family, and he tells of
cries because her colleague David recently died, beatings received from his father. Only then does
but he responds aggressively. Agnetha continues he see, as Nancy points it out to him, that Rhona
her lecture by saying that severely abused chil- must have been as hurt and frightened by what
dren also suffer brain damage. Such brain dam- he was doing to her as he was by his fathers
age means that they are unable to form strong actions. He starts to cry and tells Nancy not to
connections with other human beings. come again.

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In scene 26, Agnetha sings happily to herself. the criminal brain. They have studied two hun-
It appears that she has regained her joy in life. In dred and fifty dangerous criminals, including
the next scene, Ralph struggles to write a letter to fifteen on Death Row. When Agnetha examines
Nancy in which he says he is sorry for what he Ralph, she is convinced that, like the other crim-
did. He seals the letter but then tears it up. inals she has studied, he suffered brain damage
In scene 28, Nancy is drinking her morning as a child and is therefore not responsible for
tea and talking about a date she had with a man what he did. This enables her to have some empa-
the previous evening. They spent the night thy for him as an individual, and she even hugs
together. She is not sure what is going on in her him and kisses him on the cheek when she says
life but Ingrid is encouraging her. goodbye. Like Nancy, Agnetha is also suffering
Agnetha and Ralph meet again (scene 29). from grief following the death of a loved one. In
Ralph says he is sick; he has a pain in his heart, her case, it is the recent death of her colleague
but the doctor says there is nothing wrong with David. They had a long association. She worked
it. He says the pain began the night after Nancy with David every day for ten years, and just two
came to see him. Agnetha says that what he is days before he died, she slept with him for the first
feeling may be psychological; it may be remorse. time. His senseless death has shattered her belief
As she leaves him, she gives him a kiss on the in the beneficence of life, and she must learn to
cheek. In the next scene, Agnetha is about to leave forgive him for leaving her so abruptly. When she
London and is elated. first appears in act 1, scene 1, she is clearly upset,
and gives in to a crying fit. On the airplane from
In his cell, Ralph is working out (scene 31).
New York to London, she is furious with David
He thinks he has cancer, and to beat the disease,
for getting himself killed, because his death shows
he fashions a belt into a noose, stands on a chair,
her that there is no justice in the world. She must
kicks the chair away and hangs himself.
also learn to deal with her own guilt, since David
In the final scene, Agnetha and Nancy meet was a married man and Agnetha is good friends
in a memorial garden after attending Ralphs with his wife. Like Nancy, Agnetha is frozen up
funeral. Nancy asks Agnetha if she thinks Ralph inside, and must find a way to embrace life again.
committed suicide because of her visit, and Agne-
tha replies yes. Agnetha is in mourning for David,
who died six months ago in a traffic accident. Dr. David Nabkus
She reveals that two days before he died, she Dr. David Nabkus, a neurologist, was Agnetha
slept with him. She asks Nancy whether she Gottmundsdottirs colleague. He was killed in a
should tell his wife. Nancy says no, she should road accident six months before the play begins.
just live with it. The sun breaks through and However, his voice is heard in the play in act 1,
music plays. Nancy smiles at Agnetha. scene 18, when Agnetha plays an audiotape of
David speaking about his research. He gives a
description of the behavior of an abused boy
toward a classmate in distress.
Bob Ingrid Shirley
Bob is Nancy Shirleys husband at the time Ingrid Shirley is Nancys elder daughter. She does
Rhona is killed. He does not appear directly in not appear directly in the play but her words
the play. He has an affair with another woman, are reported by Nancy. At the beginning of the
and eventually he and Nancy get divorced. play she is an adolescent and quarrels with her
mother. She thinks Nancy gives too much atten-
Agnetha Gottmundsdottir tion to Rhona. Later, Ingrid learns how to deal
Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is an American psy- with her grief by traveling to Asia and exploring
chiatrist from the New York School of Medicine Eastern systems of thought that promote com-
who flies to London to present her research find- passion and forgiveness. Even though her
ings in a lecture to an academic audience. For ten mother shows little understanding of what she
years, Agnetha and her collaborator, Dr. David is trying to do, it is Ingrid who paves the way for
Nabkus, a neurologist, have been conducting Nancy to forgive Ralph. Ingrid is able to let go of
psychological and neurological research into the pain of her loss.

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 3 3
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Nancy Shirley have severely damaged his brain. He prides him-

Nancy Shirley is the mother of Rhona, the ten- self on his competence and the efficiency with
year-old girl who was murdered. She has another which he carries out the abduction and murder
daughter, Ingrid. Her husband, Bob, has an of young girls. He confines his crimes to an
affair with another woman and eventually leaves eighty-mile radius of what he calls his centre
her. Nancy deals with her grief by keeping alive of operations, by which he means the lock-up
the hope that Rhona is alive and one day will shed in which he keeps his video collection of
return home. She also finds consolation in join- child pornography and where he also buries his
ing FLAME, an organization that publicizes victims. Ralph is extremely methodical and is
cases of missing children; she speaks publicly obsessed with controlling his environment. He
about Rhonas case as well as those of other makes lists and keeps a notebook in which he
children. It is clear from act 1, scene 7, when she records the titles of his porn videos. He plans
talks about the speeches she gives for FLAME, everything very carefully, and has a high opinion
that she enjoys her work and prides herself on the of his own intelligence: Youve got to wake up
dramatic effect she has as the mother of a victim. very early to get ahead of me! He remembers
She says that she finds such work on behalf of exactly where he got his tattoos, how long each one
missing children easy and that she was born to do took, and even the advertising slogans of the tattoo
it, but the audience guesses that she is using this parlors. Eventually, after Nancy visits him in
work to cover up her pain. prison, Ralph appears to feel something approach-
When Nancy learns what actually happened ing remorse for what he did, and he writes a letter
to Rhona, she has a new level of grief to deal to Nancy saying he is sorry. Fearing that he has
with. In act 1, scene 12, for example, when she lung cancer and hoping to avoid a slow death, he
learns the details of the crime, she goes over her commits suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
actions on that day, wishing that she had done
something differently that might have saved
Rhonas life. She urges FLAME to expand its
mission to include lobbying for pedophile identi- THEMES
fication laws. She wants the authorities to inform
local communities when convicted pedophiles Criminal Culpability
move into their neighborhoods. With its focus on issues of criminal justice, the
In dealing with her grief, Nancy at first feels play questions the extent to which violent crim-
only anger toward the killer. She thinks he inals such as child killers can be held responsible
deserves to be executed. She also feels that her for their acts. The view forcefully presented is
heart has been torn out of her chest and she is that many men who commit the most heinous of
unable to feel anything. But encouraged by Ingrid, crimes show significant brain damage that pre-
she eventually learns how to forgive Ralph, and vents them, at least in the eyes of the research
her life starts to move forward again. team of Agnetha Gottmundsdottir and David
Nabkus, from forming normal human relation-
ships. The research shows that such criminals
Rhona Shirley often have damage to the frontal lobes of the
Rhona Shirley does not appear directly in the brain, the function of which, as Agnetha explains,
play. She is the daughter of Nancy Shirley, and is to provide judgement, / to organise behaviour /
she is abducted, sexually assaulted, and killed by and decision-making / to learn to stick to / rules
Ralph Wantage. Her body is not found for sev- of everyday life. Such individuals also have a
eral years. smaller hippocampus, part of the brain that
organizes and shapes memories. The result of
Ralph Wantage this kind of damage is that the wiring within
Ralph Wantage is the man who killed Rhona the brain that is involved in creating emotional
Shirley. He abducted, sexually assaulted, and bonds is less dense, less complex, than in normal
killed seven young girls over a period of people, which means that individuals suffering
twenty-one years and has been sentenced to life from such brain damage cannot connect well with
in prison without parole. Ralph was abused as a others. In addition, Agnethas research reveals
child by his father and was also in several acci- that in most cases, including that of Ralph, such
dents in which he received head injuries that may individuals suffered from abuse in childhood.

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crime has a choice about whether to do it or not;

in the latter, he does not, since his illness predis-
poses him to such conduct. He is driven by forces
beyond his control. It is for this reason that
TOPICS FOR Agnetha is able to show compassion to Ralph.
FURTHER Its not your fault. You cant help it, she tells
The view presented in the play is a radical
 Describe an occasion when you forgave some- one; according to the law, Ralph, who has not
one who had wronged you. What made you been declared insane, is considered responsible
decide to forgive them? What benefit did you for his actions. The play is weighted heavily
derive from your decision? Write a letter in towards Agnethas point of view; it does not
which you forgive someone for doing some- address the obvious question that of all the chil-
thing that hurt or offended you. The letter dren who are abused, only a few go on to become
should explain your understanding of why child killers, which would suggest that there is
the person behaved as he or she did, pref- more to be considered than the criminals early
erably in a way that does not express a neg- background.
ative judgment of them.
 Research serial killers. Is there a typical pro-
Revenge and Forgiveness
file of a serial killer? Do serial killers have
At first, Nancys only desire is for revenge against
certain personality traits in common with
each other? In an essay, briefly describe two Ralph. She would like to watch him suffer and
serial killers and how they fit or do not fit the die; she is clearly in favor of capital punishment.
typical profile of such individuals. An eye for an eye / tooth for a tooth, she says.
The theme of forgiveness is introduced for the
 Bearing in mind that Ralph possesses a large
first time shortly afterwards, when Nancy refers
collection of child pornography, research
the link, if any, between pornography and to a videotape she has seen in which an American
violent crimes committed by men against grandmother whose grandson was murdered
women or girls. If pornography is shown to says she can forgive the murderer. At that point,
be connected to violence against women, Nancy cannot even entertain such a notion. She
should all pornography be banned, or just gets no closer to it when Ingrid sends her prayer
pornography involving children, or pornog- flags from Tibet with spiritual blessings on them.
raphy that contains sexual violence? Would According to Ingrid, when the flags are hung up
the banning of pornography violate the con- and wave in the wind, they spread healing and
stitutional right to free speech? Conduct a compassion. But Nancy is not yet ready to hear
debate on these topics with your classmates. the message. Later, Ingrid says directly to Nancy
 On the issue of crime and punishment, con- that she should forgive Ralph; Nancy resists, still
servatives often insist on the importance of angry and possessed by thoughts of revenge and
personal responsibility, however deprived a retribution. When she finally conceives a desire
criminals background might be. However, to visit Ralph to find out more about why he
liberals are more likely to argue that adverse did what he did, the burden she has been carry-
personal and social circumstances mitigate a ing for so many years begins to ease. She repaints
persons culpability. Which side of the debate
Rhonas room and removes the kiddie furniture.
are you on? Do you agree with Agnetha in
She realizes it is time for her to admit new feel-
the play that killers are not born but made, or
are some people simply evil? Write an essay in ings into her life rather than continue the same
which you explain both sides of the argument old response to the tragedy she suffered; then she
but note your favor of one or the other. will be free once more. When she visits Ralph,
she tells him that she forgives him. Her forgive-
ness, and her ability to listen to Ralphs story
with empathy, enables him to feel some remorse
for his actions. In forgiving him, she is able to
It is on this basis that Agnetha distinguishes lead him to some limited measure of understand-
between what she calls crimes of evil and crimes ing of the gravity of the crime he committed.
of illness; in the former, the perpetrator of the Anger (on Nancys part) and callous indifference

D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5 1 3 5
F r o z e n

(on Ralphs part) give way to more constructive Monologue

feelings. After this cathartic event, Nancy is able Much of the play is presented in the form of
to begin a new relationship with a man, following monologues. A monologue is a lengthy speech
the break-up of her marriage; her life has started given by one character in which the character
moving forward again. To use the plays central expresses his or her thoughts aloud. In Frozen,
metaphor; she has unfrozen and can live once entire scenes are given over to monologues. Pre-
more in the flow of life. senting the play in this form allows the dramatist
to underline one of the themes of the play, that
each character is frozen in his or her own world,
unable to communicate or interact with others
or to participate fully in life. A good example of a
monologue is in act 1, scene 2, in which Nancy
STYLE speaks about the events of the day, as well as her
Recurring Metaphor family life, touching upon her difficulties with
The metaphor of ice is used many times to indi- her husband and daughters. Act 1, scene 3 is also
cate a person whose mind has become rigid and a monologue, this time spoken by Ralph, who
inflexible, rendering them incapable of connect- explains what was going on in his mind when he
ing to others and responding adequately to lifes abducted Rhona. Most of act 1 is in the form of
monologues. Act 1, scene 12, in which Agnetha
demands for change and growth. It is notable
and Ralph appear together is the first scene in
that each character speaks frequently in long
which there is any dialogue. Agnetha and Ralph
monologues rather than in dialogue with others.
engage in dialogue again in scenes 15, 16, and 18;
The ice metaphor first occurs when Nancy while in intervening scenes Nancy continues her
reports Ingrids dream that she was in the frozen monologues. It is not until act 2, scene 21 (in the
Arctic and had lost somebody. The body was latter third of the play), that Nancy is shown
under the ice but there was no hole that would with another character (Agnetha) in dialogue.
enable her to reach it. Later, when Rhonas remains This is the prelude to scene 25 when Nancy
are found, Nancy feels something heavy / block meets Ralph and engages in conversation with
of ice / burning ice / pressing on my lungs. Agne- him.
tha also uses the ice metaphor. She tells her aca-
demic audience that her ancestors came from
Iceland and uses this as a bridge to inform her
audience that she is an explorer in the Arctic HISTORICAL CONTEXT
frozen sea that is . . . / the criminal brain. When
she explains that the kind of brain damage often Serial Killers Frederick
seen in criminals makes them inflexible, unable and Rosemary West
to adapt to new situations, she says, Theres While Lavery was conceiving and writing Fro-
a certain rigidity there / like the person is ice- zen, the British public was learning the horrify-
bound / in a kinda Arctic midwinter. ing details of serial killings carried out by
Frederick West and his wife Rosemary. With
When Nancy is in distress following the his wife as an accomplice, West murdered at
destruction of the shed in which the crimes least twelve young women at the couples home
were committed, the stage direction reads A in Gloucestershire, England. The victims were
sound of splintering ice floes, which suggests young women who came as lodgers or to care
that a process of healing may have begun. Two for the Wests two young children. They were
further sound effects occur during Agnethas sexually assaulted, tortured, killed, and dismem-
explanation of the brain damage suffered by bered. Their bodies were disposed of under a
many violent criminals: somewhere, some liquid cellar floor. The first victim was murdered in
starts dripping slowly and A sound of some- 1973, and most of the crimes were committed
thing breaking. Both are suggestive of melting during the remainder of the decade. The murders
ice and convey the idea that knowing the truth went unsolved for over twenty years, before
about brain damage opens the possibility of Frederick West was arrested in 1994 after police
understanding and forgiveness on the part of the excavated the garden and found human remains.
victims. West was charged with eleven murders and

1 3 6 D r a m a f o r S t u d e n t s , V o l u m e 2 5
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confessed to ten of them. Before the case could

come to trial, in January 1995 West committed
suicide in his cell at Birminghams Winson
Green Prison by hanging himself. In 1995, Rose-
mary West was convicted of ten murders.
The Wests third victim was Lucy Parting-
ton, a twenty-one-year-old woman who may
have been abducted at a bus stop. It is likely
that Partington was tortured and kept alive for
a week before being murdered in early January,
1974. Some years after the arrest of West and the
identification of Lucys remains, Lucys sister,
Marian Partington, began to speak publicly
about her own feelings regarding Lucys murder.
Marian Partingtons story influenced Lavery in
her writing of Frozen. Partington wrote of the fact
that the family was not allowed to have Lucys
bones back because they were being kept as
exhibits by Wests defense lawyers. But Parting-
ton, like Nancy in Frozen, went to the mortuary
and performed a ceremony: As she wrote in the
Buddhist magazine Dharma Life:
I decided to place special items in the coffin, and
something to represent the elements: a sprig of
heather (earth), rescue remedy (water), a candle
(fire) and some incense (air).
I gasped at the sight of her skullit was so Scene from the 2002 Cottesloe Theatre/National
beautiful, like burnished gold. Holding her
skull was very intense: for a moment I knew
Theatre, London production of Frozen, starring
a deep reality, and felt that what I was doing Anita Dobson as Nancy and Tom Georgeson as
was not just for Lucy but for everyone who had Ralph ( Donald Cooper / Photostage)
suffered a violent death. I wrapped Lucys skull
in her soft brown blanket, while her friend
placed some cherished childhood possessions
inside to guard her bones.
receives some type of restitution from the
Readers will recognize the similarity in this
offender. Victims will often meet directly with
description to what happens when Nancy and
offenders, and such programs are known as Vic-
Ingrid visit the chapel of rest in act 1, scene 19.
tim-Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORPS)
Partington wrote also about the long path she
or Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM). The idea
took that eventually resulted in her being able to
is to allow victims to express the impact the crime
forgive. She discovered Tibetan prayer flags,
has had on their lives and to seek answers from
which symbolize compassion, and hung them
outside her kitchen window (an idea borrowed the offender about the crime. It also allows
by Lavery in the play). Partington also sought a offenders to tell their story about why they
meeting in prison with Rosemary West, who acted as they did. The theory behind restorative
showed no interest in such a meeting, never hav- justice is that it helps offenders to face up to what
ing acknowledged her guilt. they have done. Research has confirmed that
VORPS not only help offenders to come to a
better understanding of the effects of their
Restorative Justice actions on others but also help to reduce a vic-
During the 1990s, the approach to crime known tims desire for violent revenge. Victims also
as restorative justice was increasingly wide- report that through participating in VORPS
spread, both in the United Kingdom, other