The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Before the curtain rises on the stage, the Young Man delivers a prologue to the audience. Although the program notes specify London, 1919, as the setting of the play, the Young Man declares that time and place do not matter, that he could have been “born in Birmingham . . . or Brooklyn . . . or Murwillumbah.” He explains that he is “alive” and therefore must “take part in the play, which . . . is a piece about eels.” This produces his dilemma as a poet: He “must take part in the conflict of eels, and survive at the same time.” In effect, he believes that he must live and yet maintain his artistic distance from life. The Young Man also warns the audience that “a number of you are wondering by now whether this is your kind of play”; he states that he cannot give them a “message.”

When the curtain rises, the interior of a lodging house is disclosed, but only the basement is lighted. Will Lusty, the landlord, a “vast . . . swollen” man, sits immobile and silent, for the most part, listening to his wife, Alma, who is “in the dangerous forties, ripe and bursting.” Before she asks the Young Man down for tea, she voices her discontent, her hunger for life, and her vanity (she repeatedly looks at herself in the imaginary mirror). Unconsciously, she reveals a tie between her dead son, Jack, and the Young Man, for she calls the latter Jack.

During the conversation in the Young Man’s bedroom, which is connected with the basement by stairs, Alma and the Young Man reveal their antithetical values. While Alma “would like to devour the world, and keep it warm inside,” the Young Man is withdrawn, lying down with his “cold,” “dead” hands behind his head. Before they go down to tea, the Young Man asks about the tenant in the other front room, which mirrors his room, and Alma identifies her as Phyllis Pither, a “steady girl” who “most nights goes to bed with an aspirin and a cold.” The Young Man, however, senses a presence, the touch of fingers on the other side of the wall where he rests his head.

Scene 4, in the basement, foreshadows Will’s death (the Young Man describes the somber setting as a funeral). Alma is after “life,” which is, according to Will, “wherever a man’appens to be.” The Young Man, suddenly aware that there is more to Will than...

(The entire section is 951 words.)