Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

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Most critics agree that The Dog Beneath the Skin reflects the political and social realities of the early to mid-1930’s. In the year of the play’s first production, Adolf Hitler had been rising in power for three years, the Spanish Civil War had begun, and European civilization seemed to be once again on the brink of general war. A sense of impending cataclysm continues through the play to Mildred Luce’s hysterical speech at the end: “It’s only play now. But soon they’ll give you real rifles. You’ll learn to shoot. You’ll learn to kill whoever they tell you to. And you’ll be trained to let yourselves be killed, too.” She provides an explicit warning against the militarization sweeping Europe.

In Westland, the illogical logic of paranoia becomes pointedly a satire of Nazi Germany. “Of recent years,” as the First Lunatic puts it, “there have appeared in our midst, masquerading as men of science, certain Jews, obscurantists and Marxist traitors,” specifically recalling the Nazi pogroms and purges. The paranoia becomes international in scale as the Leader of the Lunatics directs his fears at socialist Russia, a nation “schooled in military obedience and precision, saluting even in the cradle.” The lunatics of Westland, however, with their own militaristic posturing, have become the very image of their own fears.

W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood found social inequities to be at the root of the world’s impending cataclysm. The people of Ostnia are said to “lead such terrible lives”; indeed, the Ladies of the Court, serving cake and champagne, point to the absurd disparity between the social classes, but little is offered to remedy the situation. “Believe me,” the king tells his prisoners, prior to their execution, “I sympathize with your aims from the bottom of my heart. Are we not all socialists nowadays?” However, clearly, his aims are not socialist; they are designed to maintain, by violence, an aristocratic order which perpetuates the disparity between the privileged and the poor.

In the chorus that introduces Ostnia and Westland, the audience is warned not to “comfort yourself with the reflection: ’How very un-English.’” If British “follies are different,” the chorus maintains, “it is because you are richer.” Alan’s inability to pay his bill at the Ninevah Hotel serves as a metaphor for the social and economic conditions of Europe. The narcissistic self-indulgence of the upper classes comes more and more at the expense of the lower. Sir Francis tells us: “As a dog, I learnt with what a mixture of fear, bullying, and condescending kindness you treat those whom you consider your inferiors, but on whom you are dependent for your pleasures. It’s an awful shock to start seeing people from underneath.”

His message is clear: The upper classes must renounce their self-indulgent pleasures. As one chorus puts it, “the film of poverty is expanding/ And soon it will reach your treasure and your gentlemanly behavior.” When Sir Francis goes off to join “a unit in the army of the other side,” most critics agree that he refers to the Socialist Party and is enjoining his audience to support Marxist reforms. Indeed, the play ends with the Marxist epithet: “To each his need; from each his power.”