Critical Context

The Devils is part of Whiting’s contribution as a moral critic who addresses themes of illusion, transcendence, and self-destruction. His plays typically center on one character’s desire to achieve greatness or on attempts by couples to achieve perfect love in a world dominated by human selfishness and unpredictable turns of circumstance. A Penny for a Song (pr. 1951) and Saint’s Day (pr. 1951) concern the difficulties of accepting illusion and the role of self-deception in maintaining happiness and a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose, Whiting suggests, can give meaning and positive value to illusion. In Marching Song (pr., pb. 1954), the principal character, who knows that he is not a superman, is seized by his country’s leader and given the choice between standing trial for treason or committing suicide. Realizing he is doomed, he accepts his fate stoically and, with what moral purpose he has left, takes poison. The Gates of Summer (pr. 1956) viewed these themes from a comic perspective. The female lead, unable to accept her lover’s determination to leave for war, attempts to poison him but mistakenly gives him an aphrodisiac. The two then face the increasingly grim prospect of spending their lives together. Whiting is always certain that, however great one’s talent or power, something in human nature or in society will thwart one’s search for perfection: The best one can hope for is to manage one’s self-destruction with as much purpose and nobility as possible. The Devils is Whiting’s most fully developed statement of this position, as well as of his uncertainty about whether any amount of self-transcendence is possible.