The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Life of Man begins with an empty gray room, feebly lit. Someone-in-Gray, so named for his hooded, shapeless gray robe, moves away from the wall and begins to speak. His tone is indifferent, dispassionate. He warns the audience that has come to the theater to “laugh and be amused” that it will see the whole of Man’s life—from a dark beginning to a dark ending. He sketches the course of this life in the five scenes to come and the lights dim.

The first scene, “The Birth of Man,” opens in utter darkness. Gradually, a group of women emerges, sitting in a large, dimly lit room. Though not midwives, they somehow obviously belong at the birth. In mocking, cynical tones they discuss the relative merits of boys versus girls, the husband’s comical fear and distraction, and the wife’s pain. They listen to her cries and muse on the ease with which animals deliver their young. As Man is finally born, Someone-in-Gray reappears and the candle in his hands lights. The room grows brighter and the Old Women scuttle away, to be replaced by the Relatives. Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Father trade remarks about the health of the child and the mother. The Relatives offer advice both moral and practical on what to name the boy and how to rear him. As the scene ends, the Relatives are discussing the merits of tobacco and the baby is crying.

In scene 2, “Love and Poverty,” the Man is already grown. The room is once again large, nearly empty except for a few pieces of rickety furniture, but it is warmly and brightly lit. Someone-in-Gray is present, but stands in the darkest corner. His candle burns strongly and steadily. The Neighbors, who adore the Man and his Wife for their beauty and kindness, enter. The Neighbors scatter flowers and fragrant grasses; they decorate the poor young couple’s room and leave them a fine cigar, a hair ribbon, a bottle of milk and some bread. They leave with hopes that Man will find work.

Man’s Wife enters as soon as they leave. Her monologue explains their predicament: No one has yet recognized Man’s talent as an architect; no one buys his designs. She has been in the city center seeking either luck or work, but has come home empty-handed. She prays for mercy and for a chance for her stubborn, independent husband to prove himself. Someone-in-Gray steps out to announce to the audience that indeed Man has been discovered, and that on the next day wealthy patrons will seek him out. Man comes home disillusioned and hungry; he has walked the city in search of work, stopping at every grocery window and raging at the well-fed, well-housed people he meets. Man and Wife console each other with fancies of Italian villas and Norwegian castles; she crowns him with a wreath of oak leaves and declares him her knight; the scene ends with their discovery of the Neighbors’ gifts and their waltz to an imaginary orchestra.

The third scene is no imaginary waltz, but a full-scale ball at the Man’s house. Some years have passed. The furnishings are sparse but rich and severe and somehow out of proportion. One group of Guests is dancing;...

(The entire section is 1272 words.)