Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1758
Well-dressed, confident, and sophisticated, Myra is invited to the Bliss house by her admirer Simon but coolly rebuffs his advances; her real motive in accepting the weekend invitation is to meet his novelist father, David. Before Myra even appears on stage, Simon’s mother, Judith, describes her as a ‘‘self-conscious vampire’’ who ‘‘goes about using Sex as a shrimping net.’’ So the audience is not surprised when Myra later begins a flirtatious conversation with David. Myra herself, however, is taken quite off-guard when David asks her directly, ‘‘Would you like me to make love to you?’’ and then refuses to believe that she is offended by the question, saying simply ‘‘You’ve been trying to make me—all the evening.’’
Although David will not play the game of subtle seduction in the typical manner that Myra expects, he does readily join in the game his wife instigates, pretending that they are ready to break up their marriage so he can be with Myra. Used to being the one who manipulates such situations, Myra is utterly frustrated by the way the entire family’s odd behavior takes events out of her control. Towards the end of the play, she angrily denounces the Blisses in a statement which accurately sums up their way of life: ‘‘You haven’t got one sincere or genuine feeling among the lot of you—you’re artificial to the point of lunacy.’’
David, Judith’s husband and Simon and Sorel’s father, is an absent-minded writer, wrapped up in his latest book. Although his works—which have titles like The Sinful Woman and Broken Reeds— are popular, he admits that they are actually ‘‘very bad novels.’’ Less melodramatic than his flamboyant wife, David nevertheless is equally self-involved and self-obsessed. He forgets he invited Jackie and, as she reports, rudely greets her by saying ‘‘Who the hell are you?’’ He behaves in a similarly unconventional way with Myra. At first bluntly calling her attempts to seduce him exactly what they are, he ruins the mood with his directness. Then, changing his attitude and willingly participating in the romantic ‘‘intrigue,’’ he explains that he loves ‘‘to see things as they are first, and then pretend they’re what they’re not.’’ He again demonstrates this inclination when he calls Judith’s wronged wife routine ‘‘nonsense’’ initially, but then—after calling things ‘‘as they are’’—goes on to ‘‘pretend they’re what they’re not’’ by joining in the scene and acting as if he does love Myra. At the end of the play, his self-absorption is emphasized once more as he reads the last section of his new novel to the family and debates with them over the streets described in a certain passage, not noticing the departing guests.
Judith is David’s wife and Simon and Sorel’s mother. A well-known stage actress who has temporarily retired, she made her name in melodramatic plays with names like Love’s Whirlwind and The Bold Deceiver, which she admits were not that good even though the public loved them. Bored with everyday life, she amuses herself by acting out exaggerated roles and theatrically misinterpreting ordinary situations. During the course of the play, she takes on the demeanor of the rural lady of the manor, the long-suffering mother, the glamorous star, the flirtatious coquette, the betrayed lover, and the wronged wife, among others. Vibrant and eccentric, she is unable to keep from slipping into dramatic personae constantly, and her family has learned to adapt to and play along with this tendency. She is also in the habit of bolstering her ego by inviting young male fans to the house and refuses to apologize for it, telling her daughter not to think that the younger woman has ‘‘the complete monopoly of any amorous adventure there may be about.’’
Judith’s whims and inclinations dictate the action in many of the play’s scenes, her dominant personality overshadowing those that are more quiet and conventional. Her every action supports her self-descriptive statement, ‘‘I won’t stagnate as long as there’s breath left in my body.’’ Early on she tells her children, ‘‘I long for excitement and glamour,’’ and the rest of the play shows her ability to create her own excitement when the world does not provide enough for her.
Simon is Judith and David’s adult son. He first appears on stage looking disheveled and unwashed, and, like the rest of his family, he seems to care little about other people’s opinions. In contrast to his sister, he has no desire to reform the Blisses’ unconventional and often inconsiderate ways, remarking, ‘‘we see things differently, I suppose, and if people don’t like it they must lump it.’’ In typical Bliss fashion, Simon is given to extremes: expressing energetically his adoration for the worldly Myra one minute, then seducing the innocent Jackie the next. He shocks poor Jackie when he kisses her in the garden and then rushes into the house to announce their engagement, even though she has never agreed to marry him. He also willingly participates in his mother’s theatrical scenes—both scripted and improvisational—just as his father and sister do. His own artistic inclinations tend toward drawing, and in the final act he brings a new sketch down to show the others.
Sorel is Judith and David’s adult daughter. She is the only member of the Bliss family who expresses any concern about their unorthodox behavior. At the start of the play she laments to her brother that they are all ‘‘so awfully bad-mannered’’ and ‘‘never attempt to look after people’’ and are essentially ‘‘abnormal,’’ observations that will be clearly proven true in the scenes to follow. Sorel, however, is ‘‘trying to be better,’’ and so invites a man for the weekend whose perfectly proper behavior is the antithesis of the Blisses’ wildly inappropriate actions.
Sorel’s attempts at reform are only party successful, however, as the audience sees when she still regularly takes part in her mother’s impromptu dramas. Although she does not truly have deep feelings for Sandy, she pretends she does so her mother can act the part of a betrayed lover who nobly gives away the man she loves. Sandy gets swept up in the moment and confesses his love for Sorel, but she clarifies the situation, telling him, ‘‘I was only playing up—one always plays up to mother in this house; it’s sort of an unwritten law.’’ This confession shows a change in Sorel’s habits; as she tells Sandy further, ‘‘A month ago, I should have let you go on believing that, but now I can’t—I’m bent on improving myself.’’ Despite her attempts at selfimprovement, Sorel remains very much a Bliss: eccentric and unconventional. At the end of the play she and her family are absorbed in their argument about the trivial details of David’s novel, oblivious to the departure of the tormented weekend guests.
Described in the stage directions as ‘‘a hot, round, untidy little woman,’’ Clara is a long-suffering Bliss family employee. Originally Judith’s dresser at the theater, she is now the over-taxed family housekeeper. Clara must deal with the imposition of four unexpected weekend guests all by herself because the maid is home sick with a toothache.
Jackie is the ‘‘perfectly sweet flapper’’ David has invited for the weekend because ‘‘she’s an abject fool but a useful type’’ and he wants ‘‘to study her a little in domestic surroundings.’’ Described in the stage directions as ‘‘small and shingled, with an ingenuous manner,’’ she is shy and ill at ease from the start. She feels awkward making small-talk with Richard when the two are left alone early in the play. Later she is completely confused and embarrassed by the word game but in her embarrassment acts out ‘‘winsomely’’—i.e. sweetly and innocently— so well that Sorel still guesses the adverb. She has no idea what to do when Simon suddenly announces their engagement. By the next morning she is so distraught that she bursts into tears when sitting alone at the breakfast table. Completely distressed, she concludes at the end of Act III that the Blisses are ‘‘all mad,’’ and is as eager as her fellow visitors to escape from the house.
Richard is the ‘‘frightfully well-known diplomatist’’ Sorel has invited for the weekend. Described in the stage directions as ‘‘iron-gray and tall,’’ his instinct for politeness is revealed in his first moments on stage when he manages to keep up some sort of conversation with the shy Jackie while they wait in the hall. Although Sorel admires him precisely because of his conventional manners, he is drawn to her and her family because they are ‘‘so alive and vital and different from other people.’’ He admires Judith’s vitality and says he feels ‘‘dead’’ by comparison, but he hardly knows how to respond when after one brief kiss she leaps up and begins announcing plans to leave her husband. Later, when he comes in from the garden to encounter a chaotic scene he unwittingly speaks the line, ‘‘Is this a game?’’ that is the cue for Judith and the kids to launch into the scene from Love’s Whirlwind.
Sandy is the amateur boxer Judith has invited for the weekend. In her words, he is ‘‘a perfect darling, and madly in love with me.’’ But as Sorel says to her, he is just another one of the ‘‘silly, callow young men who are infatuated by your name.’’ Described in the stage directions as ‘‘freshlooking’’ with an unspoiled, youthful sense of honor and rather big hands, owing to a ‘‘misplaced enthusiasm for boxing,’’ Sandy has an athletic form that contrasts with Simon’s less-developed physique. Having fallen in love with Judith when he saw her on stage, Sandy at first can’t believe his good fortune in being her houseguest. He is soon disillusioned, however, by the discovery that she has a husband. Later when he kisses Sorel in the library and is discovered by her mother, he gets swept up in Judith’s interpretation of events—that Sorel has stolen him away from Judith—until Sorel admits that it was all just another act. Such strange encounters with the Blisses leave him so unnerved that the next morning he hides in the library when he thinks one of them might be about to enter the room.
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