The Foreigner was first produced at the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Repertory Theatre in January of 1983, and the boisterous laughter it created there made the play an enormous local success. Named by the American Theatre Critics Association as one of the best regional theatre plays for the 1983-1984 season, The Foreigner was subsequently produced Off-Broadway in November of 1984 at the Astor Place Theatre in New York City. Lukewarm responses from the critics failed to quench the play’s enormous audience appeal, and as Laurie Winer reported in a 1988 New York Times article, ‘‘one of the few Off Broadway plays to overcome negative reviews, The Foreigner played 685 performances and fully recouped its $250,000 investment.’’
Because of the extraordinary commercial success of The Foreigner, Shue’s other plays came to the attention of American theatre companies. His earlier farce, The Nerd, had gone from its successful Milwaukee production in 1981 to similarly successful productions in England. It played in Manchester in 1982 and at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 1984, where it earned more money than any other American play on the West End. Two years after Shue’s death, in 1987, The Nerd was produced on Broadway, and eventually his more serious play, Wenceslas Square (1984), became popular as well. These plays are now staples of university, regional, and community theatres all over America.
In 1980, Shue studied with a theatre company in Japan. He developed the central idea for The Foreigner when he discovered that the Japanese would tolerate even his most bizarre behavior (because he was unaware of Japanese social customs), dismissing his inappropriate actions as the conduct of an outsider. The Foreigner remains Shue’s most highly regarded work and is considered the most perfectly realized of his plays.
Act I Summary
Act I, scene i
It is a stormy night in spring as two Englishmen, Staff Sergeant ‘‘Froggy’’ LeSueur and his friend Charlie Baker, enter the log cabin fishing lodge owned and operated by Betty Meeks in Tilghman County, Georgia, two hours South of Atlanta. Every year, Froggy serves as a weekend demolition instructor for the American army, and this year he has brought his shy and sad friend, Charlie, to America in an attempt to cheer him up. Back in England, Charlie’s wife is apparently dying.
After they arrive, Charlie is still inconsolably sad. For twenty-seven years Charlie has been a proofreader for a science fiction magazine, and he reveals that his wife finds him so boring that she regularly cheats on him. As uncomfortably shy as he usually is talking with people, Charlie is now terrified about being left alone for three days with strangers while Froggy leads his training sessions. Froggy promises to come up with some kind of plan to keep Charlie from having to talk to people.
In a conversation alone with Betty, Froggy learns that the proprietor is in danger of losing her lodge because the county property inspector, Owen Musser, is about to condemn the building as unsafe. Betty’s current guests at the lodge include Catherine Simms (heiress of a very large local fortune), Catherine’s fiance (the Reverend David Marshall Lee), and Catherine’s younger brother, Ellard, who appears to be a ‘‘half-wit.’’ If Betty has to sell the house, Catherine and David plan to buy it.
Froggy arrives at a solution to Charlie’s problem. He tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who is ashamed of not...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Act II Summary
Act II, scene i
Two days later, David and Owen examine materials salvaged from the burning of the Klan headquarters in Atlanta. As the two villains leave, Ellard and Charlie enter, continuing their English lessons. Catherine and Betty join the group, and Ellard relates how he and Charlie have been in Tilghman, watching the workers build the new courthouse, where Ellard is learning how to lay bricks. Froggie returns to check in on Charlie and is shocked to see that Charlie has not only continued to pretend that he is a foreigner but has prospered in the ruse.
As a lark, Froggie traps Charlie into telling a story in his foreign language, and Charlie, up to the challenge, creates a fairy-tale-like narrative that everyone seems to understand. Charlie becomes the center of everyone’s attention, especially the adoring Catherine. Alone with Froggy, Charlie exults over his ‘‘adventure,’’ thinking that he may be acquiring a ‘‘personality.’’
When Froggy leaves and Owen enters, Charlie discovers a way to intimidate the racist Owen, scaring him with mysterious threats that lead Owen to call Betty and David into the room. Now with an audience, Charlie also humiliates David, who is astounded when Catherine enters and announces that Ellard’s success with bricklaying and teaching English to Charlie has led to her decision to share the family inheritance with her brother.
As Charlie teaches the group about his language and culture,...
(The entire section is 612 words.)