Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Night and Day encompasses the duality of theme that its title implies. The more obvious examination is of journalistic responsibility. Guthrie and Wagner, the grizzled veterans of the wars and natural disasters of the age, have traveled the globe covering events from earthquakes to assassinations. They are workmanlike, cynical, both consummate professionals. They arrive at the scene, take the pictures, write the story, and move on. They abandoned their idealism long ago. Their only enduring loyalty is to “the business,” the newspaper world itself. Jacob Milne, on the other hand, is young, fresh, dedicated, and enthusiastic. He has just scooped the veteran Wagner on a story to the Sunday Globe, Wagner’s own paper, and, more seriously, was a scab when the union closed the shop. He believes that a free press is the last line of defense, and that with it, all things are correctable. Milne and Wagner implicitly debate the issues of “junk journalism” and the young reporter’s ideal of them as “part of a privileged group inside society and yet outside it, with a license to scourge it and a duty to defend it night and day.”
The play is also as much about Ruth Carson as it is about journalism. To balance the debate of journalistic ethics, Tom Stoppard adds another about private morality. Ruth acts as her own confessor and examines the issues of her (probably first) infidelity to her husband, what path she will take in the future, and whether, as she sings, “The Lady Is a Tramp.” She has coupled with Dick Wagner in the neutral world of a London hotel room. Now, in her own domain, she debates with herself the possibility of a night with the attractive, somewhat innocent young Milne and what such an encounter will cost her. A part of her realizes that in the end the practical Carson and the pragmatic Wagner are likely to triumph over the fantasy match with Milne. As she takes Wagner to her bed for a second encounter, she accepts that in the real world of sex, as in the real world of journalism, compromise and expediency triumph. She has her freedoms and choices dictated to her as clearly as the press has its freedoms to act purely and idealistically—or not. Milne is dead, Ruth has fallen, and Wagner is, in his weary way, triumphant.