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Traditionally, drama has been an outlet for the extraordinary; only fairly recently with more modernist plays have the focus been shifted onto more ordinary lives. Greek tragedy follows the fall of a noble protagonist; by comparison, domestic tragedy as in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons revolves around ordinary people who are tested by crisis. Meanwhile, comedy often centres around an ‘everyman’ character, or otherwise an extraordinary parody. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest takes the latter approach, and the characters that appear within it are bold and subversive. In Miller’s tragedy, the Kellers are presented in every regard as normal, whereas both the male and female characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are outlandish, abnormal. Each of these character moulds is ideal for the drama the playwrights wish to create, as shaped by the conventions of the tragic or comic genre.
In the opening stage directions of All My Sons, the Keller household is described in great detail to establish a sense of normality. The house is ‘two stories high’ and ‘nicely painted’, and there is garden furniture in the backyard, which creates a representative, unexemplary first impression of a typical American family. However, this sense of the ordinary is offset by a sense somewhat like dread. There are some details in the set design which add a pervading discomfort to the overall atmosphere; the yard is ‘hedged in’ and claustrophobic, and the plants are ‘out of season’. By enclosing the space in this way, Miller can convey the feeling of ennui and displacement so characteristic of modernist writers. These themes make the Kellers appear more accessible to the audience, and thus, despite the subtle departure from flawless normality, more ordinary. These elements of the set design also hint as to Joe Keller’s inescapable moral predicament – he feels trapped by his own past mistakes and both covets and resents his seclusion, as is conveyed by the ‘cut off’ yard. What Joe Keller is revealed to have done – sending off faulty plane parts which resulted in the deaths of twenty one pilots – is explicitly decreed morally repugnant by those around him. Yet the audience is not allowed to distance themselves from Joe, despite his proclamations that ‘a man is in business’, which should set him apart. The set and the sense of normality it conveys is ever present in the background as a constant visual reminder of how typical the Kellers are. Thus, Joe’s mistakes are borne onto the audience, who are forced to question their own contribution to an exploitative economic system. The utter ordinariness of Miller’s main cast is integral in his pursuit to raise these questions, as the audience can substitute in any other suburban, middle-class family in their place, and in this way realize the responsibility we ought to have for one another.
Joe and Kate Keller have the onus of familial responsibility placed upon them, characterized as they are by their role as parents. These labels are ordinary and identifiable, and lie at the core of the emotional drama of the play. Kate and her conflicts are centered around her maternal role, and in her can be seen the neurotic need of the mother. She is fixated on the fate of her son Larry, believing him missing, and her mental abstraction drives her to physical disrepair; she must ask for ‘aspirin’, and she is kept from peaceful sleep by dreams of him ‘flying overhead’. When George visits, she responds by bringing him ‘grape juice’ and fussing over his weight, falling into the role of his parent quickly and easily. As she coddles each of those on stage, including herself and her own delusion (“Why can’t it be?”, she cries despite all evidence to the contrary), the ordinary role she fills is twisted into something almost sinister, and generates a sense of stifling unease. Miller uses his ordinary people to create unordinary feelings in his audience, by showcasing how these natural needs – familial belonging, money, reputation – can be perverted in a similar way as Kate does with her maternal role. Although she teeters on the brink of what seems to be imminent mental collapse, it is in fact Joe who ultimately crumbles under the pressure, which is something that is shocking. Joe Keller, as a physically ‘stolid’ character and father figure, should be strong but emerges as the weakest of the cast through his escape route of suicide. As well as characterising himself as a ‘man of business’, he also places himself firmly into the paternal role, and declares that if there’s anything greater than family, “I’ll put a bullet in my head.” By strongly associating himself with the duties of a father, his lack of moral principle when it came to the shipment of faulty engine parts is made all the more distressing. At the climax of the play, he utters the line “I guess they [the pilots] were all my sons”, and then retreats inside to shoot himself. He has failed in the responsibility of the father by leading to the deaths of both his firstborn son Larry and his other figurative children, those in wider society who rely on his support and protection most. Miller, by having his ordinary characters fail in their ordinary roles, inspires a further sense of pathos and moral righteousness in his audience.
By comparison, Jack and Algernon from the Importance of Being Earnest defy convention, and appear as extraordinary and farcical figures. Though arguably in some degree ‘ordinary’ due to the theatergoers of the era being predominantly being upper class as the two heroes are, Wilde makes no attempt to make the pair relatable or normal. They take upper class frivolity to the extreme, as both are dedicated ‘bunburyists’ – men who fabricate intricate lies in order to be able to lead two separate existences and escape their duties. Jack’s backstory is furthermore a pastiche of the Victorian appetite for melodrama, as he follows the classic trope of the disadvantaged orphan, exemplified through the prop of the ‘handbag’ found in the ‘cloakroom at Victoria station’. Algernon, on the other hand, appears as a stereotypical dandy, defined through his love of fine indulgences such as music, clothing, and, most notably, food. Algernon’s extraordinary appetite is the source of a recurring joke, first as he eats an entire platter of cucumber sandwiches and then pretends there were never any to begin with, and later devouring a stack of muffins in a ‘perfectly heartless manner’. The two men behave in almost every way exceptionally, and almost on impulse as they are pushed to steadily more extreme behaviours in order to cover for their previous deceptions, such as being rechristened under a different name. The extraordinary nature of the protagonists lies at the crux of The Importance of Being Earnest’s drama, and of its comedy. Their farcical behaviours push the envelope of the narrative, and create opportunities for Wilde’s satirical sense of humour.
The female characters in Oscar Wilde’s play are even more out of the ordinary, particularly for their time. In an age where the female sex was supposed to be submissive and compliant, Wilde’s women dominate. Lady Bracknell is a strong, authoritarian presence, who delivers her condemnatory views on a variety of topics, such as social rank, and the education system – she believes innocence to be a ‘delicate fruit’ that should not be tampered with. The manner in which she speaks, as well as being decisive, is often superfluous: “please rise from this semi-recumbent position”. She presents a barrier for resolution at both the play’s opening and close due to her beliefs in eligibility and propriety. She will not allow Gwendolen to ‘form an alliance with a parcel’ and has curated a list of acceptable alternative partners, while later she is a temporary obstacle to Algernon and Cecily’s union. It is because of the unwavering will of this extraordinary female character that the play progresses in the way it does. The other women, Gwendolen and Cecily, have a similar stubbornness of mind atypical of the setting. Both take charge of their lovers, dictating exactly how they should be proposed to – for example, Cecily orders Algernon “Please don’t cough”, while Gwendolen refuses to accept Jack because “You haven’t got down on one knee yet.” When these two women meet, an immediate power battle is established. The proxemics in this scene is revealing, as both ‘remain standing’, as they attempt to physically create a sense of command over the other. Gwendolen mentions her rank to show the authority she holds, and Cecily deliberately blunders while serving Gwendolen her tea by dropping in ‘four sugar cubes’. The way these women exercise their power provides a source of comedy, and yet it is satisfying for the audience when they revert to the expectations of their archetype; even though they announce “we will not be the first to speak”, they then immediately initiate a conversation with the two men and thus display their feminine weakness. The prior course of the play is far from smooth, and so the return to the ordinary and the expected is intrinsically tied into the resolution, with the men’s previous lies resolved, and the women made acquiescent.
Though the use of ordinary people is not strictly tied into either genre of tragedy or comedy, it can define and shape the nature in which the genre progresses. In Miller’s case, ordinary characters and setting are key to shaping his themes of responsibility, and to push the audience to deeply consider the conflicts presented in a very human tragedy. On the other hand, for Wilde’s comedy of manners, farce is necessary to satirize the flamboyant upper class, and therefore he must elevate his characters beyond the ordinary. However, some degree of normality is necessary in drama in order for it to truly resonate with the audience. The domestic setting in All My Sons creates sympathy and relatability, while the return to a semblance of normality at the denouement of The Importance of Being Earnest settles the dramatic structure and provides a final moment of catharsis following the hectic action of the previous three acts.
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