Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
Mr. Smith, an utterly boring, illogical husband living in the suburbs of London. He discusses inconsequential trivia with his wife and with their guests, the Martins, then subsequently with the fire chief. Mr. Smith does not engage in genuine communication with his wife; they do not listen to each other. His absence of rational arguments and his numerous fallacies are satirized. These include sweeping generalization, ignoring the question, circular reasoning, faulty argument by analogy, non sequitur, oversimplification, and faulty assumptions. He frequently makes contradictory statements. His reference to all the members—both men and women—of a large, extended family having the name Bobby Watson satirizes lack of individuality and the blurring of sex lines. He refers to someone as a “living corpse,” reflecting the author’s view that the characters in the play are, indeed, living corpses.
Mrs. Smith, a middle-class housewife married to Mr. Smith. She opens the play by discussing the three helpings she and her husband each had at dinner, gluttony thus being satirized. She often misuses words. Her topics of conversation are utterly trivial. She turns the conversation quickly to death. She, like her husband, abounds in illogical arguments. She criticizes men as effeminate only to have Mr. Smith counter that women are doing masculine things, such as drinking whiskey.
Mary, the maid at the Smiths’ house. She enters, stating the obvious, that she is their maid, as if they did not know. Having been given permission by Mrs. Smith to go out for the afternoon, she, on returning, finds the Smiths’ dinner guests at the door, waiting for Mary to return home: They did not dare enter by themselves. When the Smiths leave to change into dinner clothes, she invites the Martins in. She uses faulty logic to “prove” that Mr. and Mrs. Martin are not who they say they are. When the fire chief arrives later, she embraces him, glad to see him again at last. She insists on reading to the guests her poem, “The Fire,” which is woefully repetitious and atrocious verse. Through Mary, the author satirizes amateur poets.
Donald Martin, a middle-class friend of the Smiths and husband to Elizabeth. As the Martins wait in the living room for the Smiths to enter, Mr. Martin reveals that he does not know where he has met Mrs. Martin, as if they are strangers. They make so little impression on each other that they cannot even remember being together. They finally deduce that they sleep in the same bed. the author, through the Martins, satirizes marriage as lacking real unity. Mr. Martin’s conversation when the Smiths appear is preposterously banal. At the end of the play, the dialogue begins to repeat from the beginning, but with the Martins speaking the lines previously spoken by the Smiths.
Elizabeth Martin, a middle-class woman married to Mr. Martin. Both are rather embarrassed and timid. She reports seeing a man on the street bend down to tie his shoelaces, a hardly believable sight; the ordinary seems to her extraordinary. Her class prejudice against Mary is also satire.
The fire chief
The fire chief, who has come on official business to ascertain if there is a fire in the house because he has orders to extinguish all fires in the city. He complains that his business is poor now because there are few fires; he notes that his profits on output are very meager, an attack on commercialism in public service. the fire chief points out that he does not have the right to extinguish clergymen’s fires. This ties in with Mrs. Smith’s comment that a fireman is also a confessor. That is, she sees him in a religious light, in that fire involves warmth, which is related to life and also to love, which religion aims to foster. Thus, the fire chief is like a priest and hears confessions. Mrs. Smith inverts the relationship, however, seeing the fire chief as the confessor. Mrs. Smith earlier had misused the word “apotheosis,” which refers to exaltation to the rank of a god. the author’s irony indicates that these people are degraded instead. When Mary enters, she embraces the fire chief. He observes that she had extinguished his first fires, implying, perhaps, a previous hot relationship. the fire chief refers to a bald soprano, from which term the play takes its title; the reference implies a lack of something customary and desirable, such as hair.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1587
The Fire Chief
The Fire Chief appears midway through The Bald Soprano, ostensibly on official business. He is looking for fires, under orders to put out any that he finds. He observes that the fire-extinguishing business is not good, that profits are down. Although a little more brusque than the others, like the Martins and Smiths he is superficially polite. He takes the role of an adjudicator and confessor, trying to restore peace between Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who have engaged in a nonsensical argument over whether or not a ringing doorbell indicates that there is actually someone at the door.
He is also a raconteur, though his stories are wholly nonsensical, without logical continuity, unity, or intelligible point. One of them is a shaggy-dog saga that meanders aimlessly along, confusing everybody. When Mary enters, she and the Fire Chief embrace, revealing that they were engaged in a former relationship. That disturbs the Martins and Smiths who are class conscious and find the affair inappropriate. After Mary recites her cataclysmic fire verse, the Fire Chief, having provided "a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour," departs with his oddly incongruous remarks about a bald soprano.
Like his host, Mr. Smith, and the two wives, Donald Martin is distinguished only by having no distinguishing qualities at all. When he and Mrs. Martin first enter, they begin their inane exchange of information from which they deduce that they are husband and wife. The two mirror each other in their banal, excessively polite language and their ridiculous inability to make a logical leap to the conclusion that their tediously repetitive banter finally draws them. These are mechanical puppets or interchangeable parts, not pliable humans.
The Martins are so shallow as to be unable to recognize each other when they enter the Smiths' home, even though they have come in together. When the Smiths re-enter, the two couples engage in further pleasantries, a pastiche of non sequiturs consisting of vapid observations and tidbits of very conventional wisdom. All seem to grow excited over the most mundane behavior, such as a man bending over to tie his shoe or reading a newspaper. Their responses seem artificial, their words ludicrously inappropriate to the situation.
Like the others, Mr. Martin also seems utterly without any important convictions. He is timorous and excessively apologetic. He can not even take a side in the silly doorbell argument between Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The only times that he seems in the least genuine in the expression of his feelings are when he airs his class-conscious biases against Mary, some sexist remarks about women, and in the cacophonous exchange of verbal nonsense in which the characters heatedly engage just before the end of the play.
Like her husband, Elizabeth Martin is a human cipher. In their initial exchanges, her speech, except in the nouns of address, is virtually indistinguishable from that of Mr. Martin. They simply echo each other, using the same phrases and words repeatedly, especially variations on the exclamation "how curious it is." Like him, she also seems at times to have no grasp of the most obvious things, though at other times she finds the most mundane and obvious behavior extraordinary.
For example, she is apprehensive about disclosing that she saw the man who bent over to tie his shoe for fear that she will not be believed. Mrs. Martin cautiously sides with Mrs. Smith in her doorbell argument with Mr. Smith, even though Mrs. Smith concludes that when the doorbell rings it means that there is nobody at the door. Mrs. Martin claims that her husband is also "obstinate," yet when the Fire Chief actually appears the fourth time the bell is rung, she stubbornly maintains that the fourth time does not count because she will not allow experience to invalidate Mrs. Smith's claim that a ringing doorbell means that there is nobody at the door.
Like the other characters, at odd moments Mrs. Martin offers bizarre observations that seem out of character because they glimpse beyond the inane dialogue that generally suggests no intelligence at all. For example, it is she who thanks the Fire Chief for the "truly Cartesian quarter of an hour" that he has spent at the Smiths'. Otherwise, she mirrors the character of her husband and the Smiths, revealing the same social prejudices and rigid ineptitude. That she is almost identical to Mrs. Smith is made apparent when at the end of the play she replaces Mrs. Smith in the repeated opening of the play, using the same dialogue but with the Martins as the prospective host and hostess.
Mary is the Smiths' maid, which she announces when she first enters, presumably to inform the audience of her role. She has just returned from spending the afternoon at the cinema and having milk and brandy with a male friend. At first she is very matter-of-fact in her manner, but suddenly breaks into laughter, then tears, announcing "I bought me a chamber pot," as if that fact explained her emotional instability. When the Smiths go off to dress for their guests, Mary lets the Martins in, upbraiding them for being late. She then exits, but returns on tiptoe after the Martins fall asleep, exhausted from their protracted verbal voyage on which they have discovered that they are man and wife. Mary then lets the audience in on the secret that despite the extensive logical deduction of Donald Martin, the Martins are not really the parents of their alleged common child and are, therefore, not really who they claim to be. She exits after confiding that she, in reality, is Sherlock Holmes. Mary reappears during the visit of the Fire Chief, requesting, to the chagrin of Martins and Smiths, that she also be allowed to tell a story. She and the Chief recognize each other, overcome with wonder that they should be reunited in the Smiths' home. When he explains that Mary had helped him put out his earliest fires, she tells him, "I am your little firehose." The Martins and Smiths become irritated by Mary's familiarity, but can not prevent her from reading her poem honoring the Fire Chief as the Smiths push her offstage.
Mr. Smith, the host, is a reductio ad absurdum parody of a complacent, middle-class British suburbanite and husband, one confident in his ignorance and stupefyingly dull in his observations. In the first part of the play, he merely reads and clicks his tongue while his wife gives her account of who they are and what they consumed at dinner. When he finally talks, he does so to take issue with his wife, whom he mildly bullies with a ridiculously smug sense of having superior reasoning powers, when in fact neither is capable of logical discourse or even meaningful communication.
Smith and his wife may talk, but neither seems to really listen to the other or even to their own previous observations. In their mostly-quiet, polite game of one-upmanship, they often contradict themselves, oblivious to their illogicality. They share no love or genuine concern for each other, only a mutual shallowness covered with a thin veneer of verbal civility that sometimes breaks down, as, for example, when Mr Smith angrily upbraids the Martins for having arrived so late, and when he calls Mrs. Smith "disgusting" for having interrupted his interruption of Mrs. Martin's aborted account of a man she saw outside a cafe.
Most of the time, however, Mr. Smith is simply boring, incapable of sustaining any original thought or meaningful discussion on any topic broached. Only in his trivial argument with Mrs. Smith over the import of the doorbell does he come close to maintaining a consistent stance. Like his wife and the Marlins, he generally makes incongruous, irrelevant, or contradictory pronouncements that frustrate all attempts at rational discourse.
Mrs. Smith, a parody of a stuffy, middle-class British housewife, is the appropriate counterpart to Mr. Smith. Like his, her speech is basically a litany of incoherent trivia often couched in pat phrases and class-reflective clichés. At the beginning of the play, she presents a virtual monologue in which she gives a tedious, detailed account of what she and Mr. Smith consumed for dinner. She also reveals that the couple have children and hints that Mr. Smith lacks sufficient sexual vigor, which she obliquely continues to target in the pair's put-down game.
That she and her husband are otherwise virtually indistinguishable in outlook and temperament is borne home by their discussion of the Watsons, a husband and wife, both named Bobby, who were so much like each other as to confuse acquaintances. Although they take opposite tacks, as in their silly doorbell argument and the manner in which they first greet the Martins, they sound so like each other as to suggest that they take their stances not from conviction but from spite for each other. The spite sometimes erupts, as when Mrs. Smith bares her teeth and hurls some socks across the stage, or when she attacks her husband as a boor. It also takes other forms, flirtation with Mr. Martin and the Fire Chief, for example.
Like her husband and the Martins, Mrs. Smith seems driven by underlying but non-specific anxieties that partly account for the bizarre observations that each of them makes. Her insecurities seem to be centered on sex, health, and mortality; normal concerns, certainly, but ones which remain mostly subliminal in the superficially polite conversation that blocks all attempts at honest communication.