Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The stage sets in both acts are dominated by books, symbolizing the importance of literature to Isaac. His guilt at having survived, when his family was murdered by the Germans, so saturates his soul that he publishes works about Nazi atrocities in the hope that they will find readers and will not compromise by publishing a novel that may be a best-seller. His doggedness is admirable but makes him inflexible. The walls of books that surround him in both office and home symbolize his rigidity; without them, he is afraid he will weaken and crumble.

However, it is the family drama that really commands the audience’s attention. Baitz has based his play, in part, upon William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), in which Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but angrily disinherits Cordelia when she will not lavishly flatter him as do Goneril and Regan. The two daughters who take over the kingdom soon show their ingratitude and even force Lear outside in a storm, where, in the course of a wild night, he realizes how selfishly he has behaved. Like Lear, Isaac appears to be slowly losing his mind, though it is unclear to what extent he realizes that he has destroyed his family. Like Lear, Isaac gives too much responsibility to his children while wanting to retain all authority and finds himself losing control because of his inflexible standards and demands. However, after a night stormy in snow and in...

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The Substance of Fire Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Guernsey, Otis L., and Jeffrey Sweet. The Applause/Best Plays Theater Yearbook of 1990-1991: Featuring the Ten Best Plays of the Season. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1992.

Guthmann, Edward. “Cast Ignites the Fire in Substance.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 1997, p. D3.

Isenberg, Barbara. State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work. New York: Morrow, 2000.

Marks, Peter. “Two Wrenching Dramas Find Unexpected New Lives.” New York Times, December 8, 1996, pp. 2, 15.

Millar, Jeff. “The Substance of Fire Is Powerful.” Houston Chronicle, March 21, 1997, p. F5.

Savran, David. The Playwright’s Voice: American Dramatists on Memory, Writing, and the Politics of Culture. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999.

Schiff, Ellen, ed. Fruitful and Multiplying: Nine Contemporary Plays from the American Jewish Repertoire. New York: Mentor Penguin Books, 1996.

Smith, Sid. “Nuclear Implosions Playwright Uses Families to Examine Society’s Truths.” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1997, p. 5.