Please explain the poem "Backstage" by Carol Ann Duffy, including its literary form and other important information.
"Backstage," by Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, is a description of, as the title suggests, the experience of an actor waiting backstage before making his or her entrance. We cannot tell from the poem whether the speaker is male or female; rather, the speaker is a vessel for whatever character he or she takes on. The poet conveys this through deliberate obfuscation of the speaker's own gender and position: "I am my father's good daughter / I am my lord's true lover / I am my own twin brother." The actor, as they "pray the script," seems to be appealing to the higher power of drama for the script to simply possess them: they "blank" the words they have "by heart," knowing "they will not leave me."
As the previous answer states, the form of the poem is irregular, with no defined rhyme scheme; the stanzas decrease in length as the poem goes on, seemingly a reflection of the time diminishing before it is the speaker's turn to go onstage. What lends the poem its cohesion is its repeated use of parallel structures, and particularly the anaphora in the initial phrases of each stanza. "All words by heart . . . All scenes rehearsed . . . All text committed . . . " The effect is of a list being recited in the speaker's head, as if he or she is conducting a checklist to ensure full readiness for the part. The sense of an internal chant or mantra is emphasized by the use of occasional pararhyme or anaphora, as in the phrase "All words by heart as I stand in the dark," or " . . . all business timed / I am the reason and the rhyme." Meanwhile the repetition of "breathe, breathe," seems almost onomatopoeiac, creating a vivid image of the speaker steadying themselves with careful preparatory breathing.
The poem makes allusions to Shakespeare: we know that "a dead man" wrote the script, but, moreover, at the end of the poem, the speaker announces that they are "Queen of Egypt," presumably a reference to Shakespeare's Cleopatra.
Overall, the theme of this poem is that an actor, fully prepared, will have rehearsed everything down to the minutest detail—"All moves off pat"—and yet, in the end, they will "lose their reason" and simply become what they intend to portray. The speaker has "the living throat for a poem" and "the seeing eyes for a dream." There is a sense of equivocation between the pragmatic acts of learning lines, blocking, script rewrites, and so on, and the ultimate act of "pray[ing] the script," the sense that, when an actor begins to perform, their fate is in the hands of something beyond them.
The poem "Backstage" by Carol Ann Duffy is free verse in the sense that it has no regular rhythmic pattern. Its stanzaic form does not follow a traditional rhyme scheme, but it does exhibit an interesting feature with respect to stanza length, in a way enacting a countdown to the actor's stage entrance:
- Stanza 1: 7 lines long
- Stanza 2: 6 lines long
- Stanza 3: 5 lines long
- Stanza 4: 4 lines long
- Stanza 5: 3 lines long
- Stanza 6: 2 lines long
Although there is no regular rhyme scheme, there is extensive use of patterned repetition, such as the use of "I am" in the first stanza, "I will" in the second stanza, and "I have" the third stanza.
Thematically, the poem describes an actor's thoughts as she is waiting in the wings for her entrance. She describes having memorized her part, consisting of words written by a dead man and stage "business", a theatrical term for interactions with props such as picking up or putting down objects. She thinks about the identities she will assume as an actor. By the end of the poem, she is ready to become the Queen of Egypt, the role she will assume on stage.