The Dog Beneath the Skin

by W. H. Auden, Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

Some critics have suggested that the patchwork manner of its composition may well have created many of the difficulties with the dramatic unity of The Dog Beneath the Skin. It is the first full-scale collaboration between Auden and Isherwood; in it, they draw together several of their earlier pieces. Several of the choruses, the main structure of the plot, and the Vicar’s long sermon near the end come from an earlier, unpublished piece by Auden alone, “The Chase” (wr. 1934). “The Chase,” in turn, had borrowed elements from an even earlier Auden and Isherwood collaboration, The Enemies of the Bishop: Or, Die When I Say When (1929).

“The Chase” has three interwoven subplots. The first, Alan Norman’s search for the missing heir and his distraction by Miss Vipond, survived intact in The Dog Beneath the Skin, while incorporating elements of the second, in which two boys escape from a reformatory—one dressed as a dog, the other as a young woman. The third subplot, which rather tenuously links the others, involves a workers’ strike at a lead mine. The missing heir, as well as the two escaped boys, had joined the workers’ movement.

Faber and Faber had accepted “The Chase” for publication, but, having some misgivings, Auden withdrew it and revised it, following Isherwood’s suggestions to eliminate the sexual implications of the young boy dressed as a girl and the political proselytizing centered on the strike. It remained, however, largely the work of Auden. The Dog Beneath the Skin, as it evolved from “The Chase,” became dramatically more compact and more burlesque in tone, but many of the broader social and psychological concerns were lost.

The trend was reversed somewhat in the next Auden and Isherwood collaboration, The Ascent of F6 (pb. 1936, pr. 1937). Like The Dog Beneath the Skin, it uses a fairy tale quest. The mountain F6 lies between British and Osnian Sudoland, and the first white man to reach its summit will rule both. The interest of the play, however, is sustained not by the specifics of its satire, but rather by the psychology of the characters in their quest for social power. Auden’s long, Pulitzer Prize-winning poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1948) focused on man’s isolation in a world of crumbling social traditions and beliefs without using the fanciful trappings of The Dog Beneath the Skin and The Ascent of F6.

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