Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
Archie Rice, the title character. He is an actor, singer, and comedian in an archaic and dying institution, the English music hall. He is known as the “professor” by his fellow artists. His career has never afforded more than a meager livelihood and a shabby sort of gentility, a remnant from the better times when his father, Billy Rice, was a very successful showman. At fifty, he is dapper, friendly, and superficially a gentleman. Despite his self-deprecating claim of being selfish and unfeeling, he is affectionate toward his family, especially his daughter, Jean, and his father. He brings the gag man’s enthusiastic buoyancy into his domestic conversation to mask an entrenched cynicism and self-pity. At times, he is inattentive and unresponsive, even evasive. Seeking solace for his failure, he drinks excessively and womanizes openly, tormenting his long-suffering wife, whom he both pities and resents. His plan to divorce her and marry a much younger woman is thwarted, and his emotional string runs out with the deaths first of his son Mick, and then of his father. He is unable to accept a proffered chance for a new life in Canada. As the play’s ending makes clear, he will end his days either in jail for tax fraud or in poverty, soullessly repeating his music-hall routines before progressively smaller and less appreciative audiences.
Billy Rice, the family patriarch, a retired music-hall showman. He is a dignified man in his seventies, fastidious in manner and dress and both slim and sprightly. Although at times grouchy and stubborn, he inspires fondness in Archie and love in his granddaughter, Jean. Despite his nostalgic ramblings about past glories and his mistrust of contemporary trends, he knows that the music hall is doomed and thinks Archie is a fool for following in his footsteps. He is also mindful of his familial responsibilities. It is Billy who quashes Archie’s plans to divorce Phoebe and marry the younger woman. He tries to make amends for his interference by going back onstage with Archie, but the ordeal soon kills him. His death leads to the dissolution of the family.
Jean Rice, Archie’s daughter by his first wife. At the age of twenty-two, she is a wise, loving, and thoughtful woman whose selflessness contrasts with her father’s selfishness. Her attractive character compensates for her physical plainness. She has a special bond with her grandfather, who is sensitive to her warmth, humor, and intelligence. She is also well educated and responsive to social causes. To the chagrin of her fiancé, Graham Dodd, she has even participated in protest demonstrations. Blaming Archie for Billy’s death, at the play’s end she decides to sacrifice marriage and respectability to care for Phoebe, her stepmother.
Phoebe Rice, Archie’s wife and stepmother to Jean. About ten years older than Archie, she is a rather wretched, pathetic character. She covers her faded good looks with badly applied makeup and supports her unwillingness to face reality with calculated deafness. She fidgets and chats nervously, afraid of getting trapped in confrontations, which depress her. She is basically resigned to her fate, even accepting Archie’s flagrant philandering although she obviously is deeply wounded by it. Mostly passive, she evokes Archie’s meanest traits, as is evidenced in his curtness toward her and his cruel, music-hall jokes.
Frank Rice, Archie and Phoebe’s son, and half brother to Jean. A somewhat pallid young man of nineteen, he is prone to sickness. As a conscientious objector, he served time in jail for refusing military service. He now plays a piano in a bar. Although somewhat shy and retiring, he is drawn into Archie’s routines as a straight man or “feed,” a role that suits them both because it alleviates the need for a more genuine rapport. Frank’s need for familial love and affection is filled largely by Jean, but he will leave her to care for his mother when he seeks a new beginning in Canada.
William (Brother Bill) Rice
William (Brother Bill) Rice, Archie’s brother, a successful, highly regarded barrister. He is a wealthy man who has from time to time bailed Archie out of financial difficulties. After the death of their father, he offers Archie passage to Canada, temporary support, and the settlement of Archie’s debts, but with the stipulation that he will do nothing should Archie refuse. There is no real understanding or bond between them, and Archie’s rejection of his offer merely baffles him.
Graham Dodd, Jean’s fiancé, a respectable, well-educated, and somewhat stuffy young man whose self-assurance is punctured by Jean’s decision to break off their engagement. As is the case with Brother Bill, little is seen of him, and his character is not extensively delineated.
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