Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

The Entertainer is a play about decadence and decay: the decadence of the Rice family’s habits, the decay of propriety and of the music hall as a primary form of entertainment (indeed, as a way of life). It also addresses the hypocrisy of war and the futility of ordinary people—nobodies—trying to be somebodies. The man in Archie’s joke at the play’s end ironically finds heaven by saying a word whose crudity reflects his low class. Mick’s death reveals that obedience only leads one to be fodder for leaders to send to war at their will; by brainwashing young people into the patriotic way of thinking, politicians also remove any potential threat to the established order. Jean represents the new mind, the new woman, who will not settle for life as it traditionally has been. She rejects Archie’s phony persona, including his need to flirt, as being as old-fashioned as his pathetic antics onstage. She loves Billy because he has faded from the limelight with a dignity Archie cannot muster. She loves Phoebe for her simplicity and endurance in the face of infidelity, the death of her son, and her miserable past existence—which Archie so cruelly and contemptuously dismisses.

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The play is not so much concerned with class as with the effects of time upon tradition. Within two generations, a girl like Jean can shock her female ancestry by doing the simple thing of going to a rally in Trafalgar Square, while Archie can desperately destroy Billy’s dignity by putting him back onstage, in a last-ditch attempt to impress a dying audience. Archie himself does not know when to give up. He is arguably the unhappiest character in the play because he is the phoniest. Frank’s choice of conscientious objection, set against Mick’s willingness to enlist, also shows the contrast between old and new attitudes. Mick dies; Frank lives on.

Is Frank’s life, however—as a menial worker in a hospital—worth living? Frank becomes more and more cutting toward Archie as the play proceeds, and his resentment builds up. He has something of the family’s musical talent but prefers not to develop it further. His choice, like Jean’s, is that of the modern generation— again, the past dies out as the world changes. Politics, for them, may be more important than art; music hall and cinema in a parochial setting are no longer valid forms of entertainment and are certainly not to be taken seriously. Although the audience is not told where Jean has traveled from, nor where she will go, she is obviously mobile and independent, not trapped in the town of her birth or imprisoned by outmoded traditions.

In the end, however, interest centers on the figure of Archie. Clearly, he embodies an era, a tradition, a way of life. All these, one may feel, are associated in Osborne’s mind with 1950’s England, still clinging grimly to its post-Imperial status in the world, but unable to support it: unable to show dignity (like Billy), unable to break loose (like Jean), ultimately facing only death or futility (like Mick and Frank, respectively). Archie Rice’s threadbare comedy is, in the end, not only a satire on British humor; it is also a commentary on British attitudes in general—attitudes that, Osborne implies, lead to an evasion of reality.

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Characters