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In Jacob's Wake by Michael Cook, the author follows the conventions of the traditional naturalistic family, while also stretching the bounds of that family.
The family has been deteriorating even as it began. Only one of Skipper's sons has followed in his father's footsteps, going to sea to capture and kill seals for their hides. However, that son was killed at sea. While Skipper remains in bed without legs (lost the same day Jacob was killed)—reliving that fateful day, the family is disintegrating. As Skipper has been holding a wake for Jacob (his dead son) for thirty years, the other members of his family are heading for disaster, foreshadowed by the deadly storm building outside during the play (which culminates in the family's destruction)—the very same kind of storm that hit so many years before.
The traditional naturalistic family can be seen in the way the brothers fight one moment and get on the next. While Wayne and Alonzo don't always see eye to eye, they can work out financial deals that benefit them both, and Alonzo even agrees to forge his father's signature so the brothers can have Skipper committed to an institution. On the other hand, when when Wayne first arrives home, he joins in a game of cards with his father and Alonzo. Wayne discovers that Alonzo is cheating, and he is enraged. Winston and Alonzo then torment Wayne, insulting his masculinity. The men do so to entertain themselves at Wayne's expense, and Wayne is infuriated—lashing out at Alonzo:
You disgusting, cheating pimp. No more favours, d'you hear. No more contracts. Not from me. Not from anybody in this government.
Alonzo's failure to respond to this threat simply enrages Wayne all the more.
Two other siblings who always hate each other are Mary and Winston. While Winston is crude and lazy (relying on welfare and money Wayne sends home), Mary is self-righteous and hypercritical—never missing the chance to berate her brother, his children and eventually even Rosie, Winston's hardworking and devoted wife—seemingly (at the start) Mary's friend. Mary adores Wayne, who she practically raised, but insults and dismisses the remainder of the family, including her own father, Skipper.
Rosie, typical of a what one might expect from the consummate mother, waits on everyone, offers sympathy, chastises, and tries to keep the peace. At one point because of his treatment of Wayne, she slaps Alonzo for what she knows was more than fun, as he called it...
Jest like the old days...
Rosie keeps the peace, telling Mary the young men were kidding, but lets Alonzo know to stop. She is a good mother and wife, but also a devoted daughter-in-law: she takes excellent care of Skipper, who responds better to her than his own kin.
The siblings scold each other for making Rosie work too hard, but each still asks her to do what they could easily do themselves. The quibbling falls short of typical—with the intensity and resentment that runs just beneath the surface.
Of Cook's play, it is said:
It quickly moves from an apparently realistic family drama to nightmarish, expressionistic drama of 20th century failure as an approaching storm begins to dominate the stage.
The bounds of this traditional family are stretched by Skipper's obsession with the hunting of seals and the loss of Jacob. While they cannot live together, in the end, the family is united as it faces the deadly force of the storm that eventually kills them, supernaturally led by the ghost of Skipper.
Jacob's Wake is conventional in telling the story of a family comprising a father and three grown sons. Each of the sons has something about his place in life and Newfoundland that metaphorically merits a wake. For instance, Brad is a failed priest. The play defies convention when it deviates into each of the four principles breaking the rules of conduct: as the approaching storm over Newfoundland gets more wild, the lives and ttransgressions of the family members becomes more wild.
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