Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895
Cycle of Life Underscored throughout The Insect Play, sometimes brutally, is the cycle of life. From birth, to maturity, to reproduction, and to death, all of the high points on the human life cycle are represented in the play. The chrysalis contains a female moth that cannot wait to be born. She believes she will do wondrous things for the world after her birth. However, the moth dies soon after she emerges from her chrysalis in what is a mass death of moths. During the epilogue of the play, a woman is taking her sister’s newborn baby to its baptism. The butterflies in Act I represent the maturation process. They flit and flirt with each other, pairing off only temporarily. Nothing is permanent for them yet. The ants in Act III are the opposite: they are about work and being part of the community. This is a different part of the maturation process. There are several examples of reproducing adults, concerned with responsibilities. The ichneumon fly is a doting father whose only goal in life is to feed his daughter and increase the amount of food he has stored. Mr. and Mrs. Cricket are expecting baby crickets. While Mr. and Mrs. Beetle are not interested in having children, they do have their ‘‘capital’’ (a ball of dung and dirt) that is very precious to them and their future.
By far, the harshest part of the life cycle depicted in The Insect Play, however, is death. Many of the deaths are sudden and murderous. The fly kills the crickets to feed his daughter. The parasite kills the fly’s larva and eats her partially as revenge, but also because he seeks food. Victor, the butterfly, comes to a nasty end. A bird eats him, much to Iris’s amusement. Even the Lepidopterist collects butter- flies to kill for his collection. The tramp is horrified by all these senseless deaths, but he cannot abide the yellow ants’ victory over the Ant Realm. He grinds the yellow ant leader into pieces. After all the moths die—perhaps because of the light the tramp struck— he, too, takes his last breath. The Capeks depict the life cycle as endless and cruel, with moments of hope. Though the tramp has died, a baby is being baptized, children are going to school, and two adults move forward. Life may be short, but it is worth living.
Morals and Morality/Ethics/Vice In their depiction of the insect world, the Capeks comment on human vices, morals, and ethics. All but one of the butterflies in Act I lack any depth or compassion. They tease and try to manipulate each other, worrying only about their appearance. Though Felix, the shy sensitive poet butterfly, is not as superficial as the others, he also has his weakness. Felix only cares about his poetry and what effect it might have on female butterflies. He does not write for himself, but to lure them to him. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle are the epitome of greed. They are only concerned with their ‘‘capital’’ (the ball of dung and dirt), and acquiring more of it. When Mrs. Beetle and the capital are missing, Mr. Beetle is more concerned with the capital than his wife. The ichneumon fly shares their obsession to a lesser degree. He kills whatever he has to so that his larva daughter is fed, and stores the rest. Though the parasite claims to sympathize with the tramp over the brutal murder of the Crickets, he too is an opportunist. As soon as the ichneumon fly leaves his lair, the parasite goes in, kills the...
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fly’s larva, and eats her as well as the rest of the fly’s store of food. Those in the Ant Realm are most concerned with doing work more quickly, even though it kills one of their own. The chief engineer ant says whatever is necessary at the moment to get what he desires. He most wants power and declares himself dictator and emperor when battle breaks out between his realm and the yellow ants. The human characters also have their own moral lapses. The scientist is more concerned with capturing and killing the butterflies than how he woke the tramp up from his sleep. Though the tramp is horrified by the harsh behavior of the insects he encounters, he too kills by the end of the play. He rubs out the yellow ant leader with his heel. The Capeks use the insects’ characters to illustrate negative behaviors of humankind and how these behaviors affect others.
Nature and its Meaning Implicit in The Insect Play is a critique of nature and its meaning. Though the Capeks use the insects as symbolic humans, with all their problems, the meaning of nature also comes into play. The ants, for example, have some of the characteristics of real ants. Real ants have a strict division of labor, and seem to work nonstop in a certain kind of pattern. The Capeks take what they observed in nature and added human characteristics. A similar thing could be said for butterflies and the way they flit around; parasites, who live off the work of others; and so on. The Capeks seem to be saying that the ways of nature and human life are not always far apart. Nature has much to show humans about their existence.