Theater and Acting in The Atonement and The Go-between

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Words: 2390 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2390|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Theater and acting fundamentally allow people to become something else- to transcend the bounds of their identities and present, or be presented with, a different reality. The process of writing, a theme particularly prominent in ‘Atonement’, is arguably comparable to acting- they both permit a person to gain a new control of themselves and their surroundings, in creating an imagined realm. Theater is overtly used in ‘Atonement’, the novel being framed by Briony’s ‘ The Trials of Arabella’, and in ‘The Go-Between’ can be seen more implicitly, through Leo casting himself in different roles throughout the novel, as well as imposing them on others. The medium of theater reveals much of both narrators- either through their reflections on it, or changes they undergo by it.

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Firstly, by beginning his novel with the words, ‘the play’, McEwan immediately signals the emphasis on literature within the text, and invites the reader to be highly conscious, from the beginning, that they are reading fiction- a common quality of post post-modernist texts. This aids in setting up the reader as a ‘judge’ in later parts of the novel. Of equal significance, is the insight into Briony as a character, which McEwan’s descriptions of the play unveil to us. Indeed, the story of the play demonstrates the values and strands of life which the young Briony views to be of importance. For example, the dangers of ‘love which did not build a foundation on good sense’, the perfection in reconciliation and happy ending, and the romanticized notion of ‘saviour’- notions which remain of value to her through to her old age. As influenced by the fairy and folk tales Briony voraciously read, the significance of a happy ending is great to her, and reflects the intent of ‘her controlling demon’ and ‘her desire to have the world just so’. Suitably, by beginning and ending the novel with descriptions of ‘The Trials of Arabella’, a fitting cyclicality is created, complementing Briony’s characteristic penchant for control and order. Further, the play demonstrates her attempts to influence in real life, and control in an imagined world, the actions of those around her- in this case, those of her brother, Leon: ‘it was for her brother, to (…) provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends’. The powerful verbs of ‘provoke’ and ‘guide’ certainly convey the force and influence which Briony intended her writing to have on the activity of others in real life , particularly through the more tangible, active form of theatre. It could alternatively be viewed that the ‘prince’ figure in the play was intended by Briony to be representative of Robbie as the ‘impoverished doctor’, channelling the childhood crush which is later revealed to the reader- considered vital to her actions by Robbie, and almost entirely denied by Briony herself. The poster and ticket booth being ‘the project’s highest point of fulfilment’ could therefore hold a subtle irony; her romanticized idea of Robbie being her saviour is quickly inverted, as in her mind he is transformed into a perverse villain- Briony’s planned role for him is never carried across to reality, just as the play never is. Indeed, her wish for ‘the beginning of love at the end of our travail’ fails- although she attempts to reconstruct this love between Robbie and Cecelia through her writing, the epilogue shows Briony’s inability to make the world conform to her imagination and ‘love of (… ) the principles of justice’.

Further, the collapse of Briony’s play and her consequent rejection of this literary form, allows McEwan to highlight the disorder Briony perceives in it, despite initially viewing it as ‘tidiness indeed’. In writing, the play is controlled and direct, as Briony deems, ‘a world reduced to what was said in it’- but when rehearsals begin, the interpretation of other minds causes her play, and world, to become ‘defaced’, creating a barrier between Briony’s perfect vision, and the communication of this to an audience. The ‘telepathy’ she values in story-writing cannot be achieved, which perhaps hints at McEwan’s ideas of the impossibility of finding ‘truth’ in a novel- the intentions of the author cannot always be seamlessly communicated from one mind to another. Arguably, in reality novels are closer to theater than Briony believes- truth is distorted and disordered by interpretation, and opinion and perception clash between the author and reader. Perhaps this prevents Briony from ever achieving atonement through novel form- she can never purge herself, as the events cannot be relayed transparently. Like theater, fiction forms a translucent layer between writer and receiver- the actors and stage play, just as the viewpoint from which a reader regards the text, blur the original meanings of the author.

In ‘The Go-Between’, the idea of acting and taking on different roles equally reveal much of the narrator, Leo. Stemming from his fixation with the gods of the Zodiac, Leo essentially rejects his own identity when he rejects his star sign, stating: ‘I could not identify myself with him’. When at Brandham, Leo elevates himself by taking on the role of ‘Mercury’- despite still only serving ‘the Gods’, he sees himself to be of the same transcendent nature. Hartley furthers this idea of role-playing with the introduction of Leo’s green suit which, like a costume for theater, helped to ‘alter (his) outlook on the world’. It is clear that Leo feels under obligation to adapt and improve himself in such a way, when he states, ‘I must increase my stature, I must act on a grander scale’ in order to ‘be in tune with all that Brandham hall meant’. The forceful repetition of ‘must’, emphasizes how compelled Leo feels to acclimatize himself, and when he associates himself with ‘Mercury’, he feels he has undergone ‘a spiritual transformation’ having been ‘cast for a new role’. In the same way that Briony finds control by casting roles onto others, such as Leon and Robbie, Leo seems to find order and control in his foreign surroundings by casting the ennobling role of ‘Mercury’ onto himself: Briony, as mirrored by her role in ‘The Trials of Arabella’, directs, whereas Leo acts. Further, Leo’s transformation into this new character only propels him to continue re-adapting and imagining different versions of himself, for example, ‘a Robin Hood in Lincoln green’, a role which fittingly emphasizes his position of servitude to Marian, while paradoxically aggrandizing Leo’s view of himself. In this way, Hartley demonstrates the power that the imagination brings in enabling Leo to ‘act’ thus, as further into the text Leo realizes that this duality provides him with ‘a sense of power’- as does his role as a magician, before he comes to Brandham. Similarly, Briony’s penchant for imposing roles onto others inspires power within her, such that it ‘dispels her own insignificance’, as it equally does for Leo.

Interestingly, in both texts the heat of their surroundings is greatly emphasized and seems to tie in with ideas of theatricality. Particularly in ‘The Go-Between’, the temperature appears as an evolutionary, theatrical medium which permits Leo to take up his new role: ‘the heat was a medium which made this change of outlook possible’. The heat adds another dimension to Leo’s reality, just as theater seems to be a level above reality- it permits one, in both cases, to cross ‘the rainbow bridge from reality to dream’. It is a filter which gives Leo the ability to live up to his zodiac ideals, leading him to claim that ‘one felt another person, one was another person’. The linguistic movement of ‘felt’ to ‘was’ shows the transition from potentiality to reality, enacting the effect that the filter of heat has upon the ideals in Leo’s mind- their being transferred from the imagination, to his perception of reality. In ‘Atonement’, the heat, arguably symbolic of Robbie and Cecelia’s acknowledged passion, accentuates everything; as in ‘The Go-Between’, it adds another layer to reality, acting as a theatrical medium which renders the events more pointed, intense and urgent- as Leon states it becomes ‘a different country. All the rules change’. Heat, then, allows for transgression over both social and personal boundaries, as theater allows a person to lift themselves above their self, and surroundings. These transformative powers of the heat enable Briony to elevate her imagination further, and to develop a more dramatic and exaggerated imagined scene, both at the fountain, and concerning Robbie’s alleged ‘attack’ of Cecelia and rape of Lola. McEwan and Hartley certainly both seem to employ ideas of theatricality, such as role-playing and the environmental mediums which allow for this, in order to emphasize their respective narrators’ imaginative aims to control and shape the world around them.

Additionally, in both texts, the authors’ use of the idea of acting has implications upon social order and compliance, particularly in ‘The Go-Between’. The narrative is interspersed by scenes depicting guests of the house, mostly unnamed, sitting around the dinner table and engaging in polite conversation. The final, most pointed of these scenes precedes the dramatic destruction of Marian and Ted’s love, and is rife with tension as to the unspoken doubts of Marian’s whereabouts. Throughout, the guests and family members seem to be following a social script, involving measured and courteous conversation about the rain, or Marian’s fondness of ‘Nanny Robson’. This is especially true for the unnamed characters, whose presence seems to form a Greek chorus; their speech building up in the dramatic unfolding of the truth. Their echoing, repetitive words such as, ‘Where can she be?’ followed by, ‘Yes, where can she be?’ certainly shows them to be abiding by the appropriate social script- making non-committal, off-hand queries in order to tiptoe around the already unstable social situation. Details such as ‘every action and almost every remark’ being ‘followed by a pause’ further the sense of the rehearsed theatricality of the situation. Interestingly, Hartley interludes these moments by a burst of crackers and smoke, which could be seen as evocative of the special stage effects used in theater: ‘the detonations, the tearing paper, the smoke, the acrid fumes’. This evident theatricality seems to be used by Hartley to build up a layer over the truth of the situation before the smoke and sound die away, and reveal the butler’s affirmation of Marian’s unexplained absence. This creates a sudden shift and change in atmosphere: the unspoken awkwardness of Marian’s absence cause the ‘chorus’ and members of the table to suddenly lapse out of the act- as described by Leo, ‘they had forgotten themselves’, and they neglect the requirements of their social stage directions. The image of the guests being cast in an eerie ‘dark-red’ lighting also seems pointedly theatrical, as if on stage. This breach of the social script is furthered, catastrophically, by Mrs Maudsley: ‘all at once Mrs Maudsley pushed her chair back and stood up (…) her body was bent and trembling, her face unrecognisable’. This lapse out of character and the social act, both for the guests around the table and Mrs Maudsley, seems to turn them into something monstrous and abnormal in Leo’s view- the guests with their ‘hobgoblin look’ and Mrs Maudsley with her distorted ‘unrecognisable’ face. In this way, Hartley appears to criticize the duplicity of such fake, social facades, in implying that underneath their courteous, conformed exteriors, is something completely different, exaggerated to the point of being inhuman. Notably Leo himself shows great interest in social order, as seen in his attempts to separate Marian and Ted through means of the occult, in the hope that ‘Puck or whoever he is (…) will vanish gracefully from the scene’. Alluding to ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ thus, Leo implies that the play of social order was disrupted by some force, and inverted ridiculously in their union- as Puck plays with couples and love, and upturns the former order of things. Hartley therefore uses the idea of theater and acting to demonstrate the facade of ‘high class’ society at the turn of the century, and thus criticize their strict conformity to social standards, which are only idealistic- a dream world, such that can only be reached through theatricality.

It could be viewed that similar ideas are conveyed in ‘Atonement’- Briony appears to abide by a social script, helpfully crafted for her by her surrounding authorities, when the conviction of Robbie is taking place. When being questioned, Briony relates how she became ‘anxious to please’ and how ‘it was comforting to feel that she was confirming what they already knew’. Although Briony is the one who relates what she ‘saw’, it appears that the inspectors put words into her mouth and help to form her ‘script’, in order to relay the events of the crime. Briony describes how they built a ‘sensitively created space’ in which they seem to craft her words: ‘”You’re saying you saw him?” “Yes, I saw him”. Essentially, the inspectors invoke her to change the word ‘know’ to ‘saw’, leading to her indignant repetition of ‘I saw him. I saw him’. Briony switches her choice of word to conform to the script which the inspectors laid out for her, in order to fit into their expectations and abide by what she believed they wanted to hear. Through this, McEwan may have been criticizing the force that authorities, particularly patriarchal authority, has over others- such to the extent of compelling them to comply with their ideas. Therefore, this scene can be compare to the dinner table moments in ‘The Go-Between’- in both, characters seem to be acting, taking on a role to please, or conform to, others or society’s norms.

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Overall, both McEwan and Hartley appear to have crafted ideas of theater into their texts primarily to illuminate the characters of their respective narrators, as well as highlighting the falsity of society. Theater is a medium, like fiction, which allows actors or writers to lift themselves above reality, and attempt to create and control a new self and the effect of it on the audience; indeed, this is what Leo and Briony strive for with their apparent acting and directing. Both characters attempt to embellish and guide situations in their lives through means of the imagination, an effect which is certainly achieved through theater, but such control is never truly carried across to reality, for either Briony or Leo.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Theater and Acting in the Atonement and the Go-Between. (2018, February 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“Theater and Acting in the Atonement and the Go-Between.” GradesFixer, 05 Feb. 2018,
Theater and Acting in the Atonement and the Go-Between. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
Theater and Acting in the Atonement and the Go-Between [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Feb 05 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from:
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