Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Exit the King is a play not about death itself but about the process of facing one’s own disintegration. Offered as a kind of debate on death, the play pits the young and passionate Queen Marie (who begs Berenger to be lost in the now) against the older and wiser Queen Marguerite (who insists that death must always inform one’s consciousness). The metaphysical debate is not over the nature of death, which remains mysterious in the play, but over its significance. Science, as represented by the learned Doctor, is powerless to stop the inevitable. The rest of humanity, embodied in the choruslike function of the Guard, is reduced to wooden cliché. For each person death is a unique experience, utterly new, and the most one can hope for is a Marguerite, a “guide” reminiscent of those in the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Exit the King is not a tragedy, for tragedy implies noble defeat in the context of an ordered universe. Berenger and his court are a microcosm of modern man, ludicrously crowned with self-made authority, having lost any connection with a “higher order.” Human finitude thus becomes the object of laughter, even of derision, in its futile attempts to command all creation and give it meaning.

The play might be interpreted solipsistically, with the universe itself fading from existence as the King slips into unconsciousness; yet Marguerite assures the King that “nothing will be forgotten. . . . A...

(The entire section is 413 words.)