Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Benefactors is, as the title suggests, about helping others. Rather than approach the subject in an obvious manner, however, Frayn elects to explore as many of the ramifications of benefaction as he can. The play starts with a situation that seems straightforward. David gets a contract to help London’s poor with a housing renewal project, and he and Jane have been helping their good friends across the street in all sorts of ways for some time. Then the situation begins to be questioned subtly. Colin soon hints that he and Sheila are really helping David and Jane: “We make them feel good. It’s our one contribution to the world.” David, in turn, is all for helping their friends, but only as long as it is Jane who does most of the actual work; his notion of benefaction seems to be stronger in the abstract than it is in the particular.

In a further switch, David and Jane eventually become rather dependent upon Sheila when she goes to work for them. They are still helping Sheila by employing her and giving her and her children a place to live, but Sheila, once almost totally dependent upon Jane’s help, is now herself very much a benefactor of her former mentor.

Colin is a sardonic and even a destructive force, hovering about the edge of the action until the second act. At that point, he begins to resist in earnest David’s approach to helping the South Londoners, by helping them organize against the tower project in favor of having their present homes rehabilitated. He thus becomes a benefactor by virtue of the very same act he is using as a force to destroy David in retaliation for the kindnesses that have begun to give Sheila her independence from him. The irony of this situation is central to the play’s theme that doing good is much harder than it seems.

Frayn does not offer a clear picture of what true benefaction is. The play is instead a complex tapestry of twists and turnabouts, with the final situation decidedly mixed. Sheila and Colin’s marriage ends, but she is seeking counseling, and he seems to have matured emotionally. Severe strains have been placed on the relationship of David and Jane, but they have weathered the storm. The South Londoners get their old houses rehabilitated, and even David seems to realize that fixing old housing is better than massive and impersonal urban renewal, but these achievements are not realized without friction along the way. The play thus presents a picture of life’s complexity rather than a thesis by which to live. Helping others, Frayn suggests, is at best a difficult business, and those who try are likely to be rewarded with mixed success.

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