The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Dog Beneath the Skin opens in the garden of the vicarage at Pressan Ambo; the setting resembles that of a prewar musical comedy. The villagers promenade with several of the principal characters—the Vicar, General Hotham, his wife, and Miss Iris Crewe—who introduce themselves in lilting verse.

The Vicar explains the fairy tale quest that is to serve as the main structure for the plot. He says that the patriarch of Pressan Ambo, Sir Bingham Crewe, has died, leaving behind two heirs: his son, Sir Francis Crewe, and his daughter, Miss Iris Crewe. Sir Francis Crewe, however, has disappeared; consequently, Sir Bingham’s estate is left unsettled. Each year a man is chosen by lottery to find Sir Francis, and, if successful, his reward will be half of the land and Iris Crewe’s hand in marriage. So far, eight have tried, and eight have failed. This year, the task falls to Alan Norman, a somewhat unassuming young man whose success seems no more likely than that of his predecessors.

At this point, the Dog enters and “begins sniffing about.” It is apparent that both the Vicar and General Hotham have kept the Dog at one time or another. As the General puts it, he turns up “like the prodigal son,” stays one or two weeks, and then is off again, “cool as you please.” Alan takes the Dog along as he sets out on his quest.

After a brief scene in the saloon of a channel steamer, in which Alan meets the First and Second Journalists, the remaining two scenes of the act take place in the kingdom of Ostnia. There he witnesses preparations for the execution of several political prisoners. As the prisoners are led onstage with their wives and mothers, the Master of Ceremonies and the king of Ostnia discuss the matter as if it were itself a bit of show business, critiquing the previous execution and settling plans for the one now under way. Although the king is both apologetic and sympathetic, he carries out the execution with a gold revolver (amid Latin invocations to Zeus and Mars). The ladies of the court serve champagne and cakes as the queen attempts to comfort the bereaved wives and mothers. One of the women shouts “Murderers!!” and is “instantly and politely removed by footmen” as several courtiers “cough and look at the ceiling in pained embarrassment.” Alan Norman and the two Journalists enter to enquire after Sir Francis. No one seems to have heard of him, but the king suggests that they try the red light district. They do, but do not find Sir Francis among the prostitutes and drug addicts of Ostnia.

The second act opens in Westland, a highly politicized and militarized lunatic asylum. At the back of the stage, overlooking the lunatics, there is a large portrait of a man in uniform, beneath which “Our Leader” is written. Instead of a face, the Leader of the Lunatics has a loudspeaker. Two medical officers push Alan onstage in a wheelchair and leave him with the lunatics, bound in a straitjacket. The Leader of the Lunatics, through the loudspeaker, makes a blatantly paranoid speech against the threats to the safety of their homeland. Noticing that he does not cheer...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

At one level, The Dog Beneath the Skin is obviously intended to be a bit of satirical fun. Blatantly slapstick in its visual presentation—Sir Francis, for example, in his dog costume—it resembles the musical comedies and revues of its time. The fairy tale quest contains few genuine surprises and serves mainly as a pretext for broad political burlesque and caricature. On the whole, the effectiveness of the play depends largely on the verbal virtuosity of its playwrights and on an audience attuned to the unconscious ironies of naïve or self-indulgent characters.

On another level, however, the choruses which appear between scenes strike an ominously serious and morally didactic tone often quite different from the scenes they introduce. Derek Verschoyle, who reviewed the original production for The Spectator, summed it up nicely. It differs from musical comedy, he said, “chiefly in its assumption of a comprehensive moral outlook”; while the choruses “are eloquent and often moving,” they are nevertheless difficult to reconcile with the burlesque of the plot. Even those critics who praise the play have felt it necessary to apologize for the work’s lack of dramatic unity.

Auden and Isherwood must have themselves felt the difficulty. Indeed, the end of the play was revised not only for the initial production but again for the 1947 production at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. In 1957, while teaching at Smith College, Auden asked his students to devise yet another closing scene.

Despite the tensions that inevitably arise in the staging of the play, however, most contemporary critics agree that the play is imaginative and ambitious in its attempt to draw together diverse elements. If it is not altogether satisfactory, the language of the play retains vitality, its satire its bite, and the choruses some pathos. As Charles Osborne has suggested, it retains “great energy and pace, and a really imaginative production, with appropriate cuts, would very likely reveal it as still able to entertain audiences in the theater.”


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Auden, W. H. In Solitude for Company: W. H. Auden After 1940—Unpublished Prose and Recent Criticism. Edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Buell, Frederick. W. H. Auden as a Social Poet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Auden. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.

Duchêne, François. The Case of the Helmeted Airman: A Study of W. H. Auden’s Poetry. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972.

Fuller, John. A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. New York: Viking, 1981.

Osborne, Charles. W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet. London: Michael O’Mara, 1995.