Doris Lessing wrote Play with a Tiger in 1958, some time before it was staged and published in 1962. She wrote it while working on The Golden Notebook and a third novel of the Children of Violence series. The action of the play resembles a section of The Golden Notebook, as it presents a similar contrast of characters. Anna Freeman of Play with a Tiger resembles Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook, and Dave Miller, with whom Anna is in love in the play, resembles a character who appears near the end of The Golden Notebook, with whom Anna Wulf falls in love. Both of Lessing’s Annas are highly serious women grappling with the major political questions of the day, and they are both unhappy about the traditional societal roles of men and women. These women resist marriage because they believe that the institution as it stands is a trap for women, and they experiment beyond the bounds of monogamous love. But whereas The Golden Notebook is about a long period in its heroine’s life, Play with a Tiger covers just a few hours.
Play with a Tiger received mixed reviews when it was first staged. Further, since Lessing is known as a writer of novels and short stories, not as a playwright, Play with a Tiger and her few other plays receive considerably less scholarly attention than her novels and short stories.
Play with a Tiger dramatizes the difficulties of having high ideals and trying to live by them with as little compromise as possible. Anna turns out to be the strongest person of the play, but even she must compromise in certain situations. Further, she suffers a great deal for her convictions, as Lessing shows how people who depart from societal norms, and who are different, suffer loneliness and scorn. Play with a Tiger is no longer in print, although it is likely to be available at most any large library.
Anna Freeman and Tom Lattimer are in the midst of a heated exchange. Tom is trying to find out why Anna has decided not to marry him. Anna avoids the subject. She responds to Tom’s words by talking about something completely unrelated. For example, she mentions the man she sees standing in the street outside, the man who often stands there, apparently because he is in love with a woman who lives in a nearby apartment. Finally, however, Anna explains herself. She says that she cannot stand the idea of Tom having taken a job at a popular women’s magazine. Tom accuses Anna of being a romantic, insisting that she will one day regret not having a regular job herself.
They hear a noise at the door, the voice of the woman from whom Anna rents rooms. The woman is Mary Jackson; she is calling her cat. She enters the room not knowing Tom is there to ask Anna if she wants to go out for a cup of coffee. She sees Tom and figures out what is going on. She is cavalier about the situation, asking Tom how it was he thought the two of them would ever get married.
They hear the doorbell ring. Mary exits and returns with the visitor. It is Harry Paine, one of Anna’s friends. Harry has come for sympathy from Anna. He is married but has affairs. His latest girlfriend has left him; she is going to marry. He wants Anna to go with him for a few drinks so that he can pour his heart out. Anna refuses. He asks Mary to go instead, and Mary is very pleased.
As Mary does, Harry tells Tom that Anna would never have married him. He tells Tom that Tom is turning into a conventional person. Tom responds by telling Harry that Harry has a similar job, that they are not so very different. This makes Harry stop making fun of Tom. The four then begin to speak of Dave Miller, a friend of Anna, whom Harry says Anna should marry instead of Tom. Anna says she never will and predicts that Dave, despite his apparent unconventionality, will end up like Harry—married and routinely cheating on his wife. Harry is angry at Anna’s portrait of him.
While they are talking, the doorbell rings again. Mary exits to see who it is. With Mary gone, Tom uses Mary to scare Anna. He says that Anna is on her way to becoming Mary, an older lady obsessed with cats, because cats will be her only company if she continues to refuse marriage proposals. Anna insults Tom, in turn, to defend Mary. Her last word is that she would rather be lonely and true to herself than a compromiser like Tom.
Harry and Mary leave, and the person who rang the doorbell reaches Anna’s room. It is Janet Stevens, one of Dave Miller’s casual girlfriends. Tom leaves.
With Tom gone, Janet explains why she has come. She is pregnant by Dave, having decided to trap him into marriage by not using birth control. She has not seen him for days and is fearful that he may have left her for good. She knows that Dave is in love with Anna. She wants Anna to tell Dave about her situation. She leaves upset but glad about what she has done. She says it will be good for Dave to settle down.
Next, Dave arrives. Anna is by now deeply frustrated and upset. She has broken an engagement with a man she has been in love with. She is in love with Dave, and she knows that her...
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