George S. Kaufman Questions and Answers

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How is the play "The Still Alarm" by George S. Kaufman related to today's society? How are literary devices and characterization used in the play?

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At least five literary devices are used in the play “The Still Alarm,” four of which are considered literary elements and one of which is considered a literary technique. The four elements include setting, which is the time and place in which the story takes place; dialogue, how the characters speak with one another; and mood, the general atmosphere of the play. The last element is character, to which your question also refers. The literary technique used by playwright Kaufman is irony, meaning he uses words or actions in such a way in which the intended meaning is completely opposite to their literal meaning.

The playwright chooses a room in a burning hotel as the setting, yet the way the characters dialogue with one another and the polite language they use establishes a mood that is quite unlike the mood one would expect from characters in a crisis. Let us break down each literary element and see how irony is used within these elements.

Setting: The title of the play “The Still Alarm” sums up the setting. The characters are calm (still), polite, and, ironically, not at all anxious about the fire burning up the floors beneath them. Although they discuss the fire, look out the window to see it, and even feel the heat of the fire, their nonchalant, mundane dialogue continues. They remain “still” during an alarm. Kaufman uses the setting to create the play’s irony. Note that a “still alarm” is defined as a fire alarm transmitted in a way other than sounding the alarm bell. In this case, a bellman comes to the room to calmly report that the building is on fire.

Dialogue: Notice how the characters speak to one another. They are not hurried in their speech; they discuss how bad the fire looks and how close it is to them, but they do not excite panic or a create a fearful atmosphere. Again, this is ironic. At one point the character Ed telephones for ice water because he is feeling warm. There is an expectation that the hotel concierge will be available to answer the phone and meet his request—despite the fact that the ground floor he or she is on has already burned. It is ironic that Ed would even ask for ice water while the building is burning down around him.

Mood: Similar to the devices of setting and dialogue, Kaufman has the characters engaged in civil conversation throughout the play. The characters create a gracious, genteel mood by the way in which they discuss the fire and its progress. Irony is again used, as this mood is completely opposite of the mood one would expect among people in a burning building.

Characterization: Kaufman expertly uses characterization to complement the setting, dialogue, and mood of the play. The five characters all act the same way. Each character’s personage is displayed by how he is dressed, how he moves, his physical appearance, and his choice of words. Again, none is hurried, anxious, or excited. Through these mannerisms, the audience can infer that they are calm amid a storm, so to speak. Again, is that not ironic?

In the play’s final scene, irony is used expertly. One of the firefighters picks up a violin and plays a song, bringing to some an image of the band on the Titanic playing songs calmly and persistently as the ship sunk. The song played by the firefighter is called “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”

How is this play related to today’s society? Answer this based on how you see society. Maybe you see people reacting too quickly to a relatively uneventful situation. Maybe not quickly enough? Contemplate what statement this play may be making about contemporary society to find the answer to your question.

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