Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Henry, a son and a prince. As a Polish soldier in World War II fighting in France, Henry dreams of his lost family and family estate in Poland. Despite his resistance, Henry is swept away to the dream constructed in interwar Poland. In his dream, he finds that each of his acts and gestures results in an action that is irrevocable. Thus, when he kneels in front of his father to honor him, this act designates his father as king and Henry as prince. As prince, Henry is propelled to participate in an honorable marriage to his former betrothed, Molly, now a prostitute. He wavers in indecision. Through an equally insignificant gesture, he finds that he has dethroned his father and becomes a dictator king demanding that everyone honor his bride-to-be, Molly. Despite these despotic acts, he is never convinced of the truth of his assertions and demands evidence by way of the suicide of his friend Johnny as an act of submission to Henry’s will. He finds himself still imprisoned by doubts because of the double bind in the existential quandary of being both the subject and object of social form. Ultimately, the inability to become the real self emerges as the real tragedy of Henry’s submission to social forms and judgments.
Johnny, Henry’s friend and a courtier. Johnny is both Henry’s companion in France and guide to Henry’s dream-constructed reality. In the course of Henry’s projection into the inner dream of the king’s court, Johnny fades from his role as friend and becomes a courtier. When Henry demands that Johnny kill himself in response to his demand for an act that will prove the strength of his will over others, Johnny’s death brings about the collision of the reality of their friendship and his simultaneous desire to deform Johnny as subject to his will. As a character, Johnny is not individualized but merely projects those qualities ascribed to him by Henry’s dream.
Frank, Henry’s father, an innkeeper and king. In the first stages of Henry’s dream, Frank appears as the slovenly innkeeper of a cheap roadside inn in whom Henry ultimately recognizes his father. After Henry makes this recognition, Frank demands absolute obedience; when his authority is threatened by the jeering Drunkard, he is suddenly projected to his role as king because of Henry’s act of tribute. As king, Frank is vacillating and terror-stricken lest someone dethrone him. When Henry, in his attempts to calm Frank, dethrones him by touching him, Frank is reduced to the role of a deposed king and prisoner. Like Johnny, Frank is the projection of Henry’s dream, and consequently his actions emerge out of Henry’s dream-state.
Katherine, Henry’s mother, Frank’s wife, and queen. In her role as innkeeper’s wife, Katherine is apologetic. As Henry’s mother, she reinforces the father’s demands for total obedience. Her role in the play is much like her husband’s, to show the consequences of Henry’s thoughts and gestures as he attempts to create a reality entirely subject to his will.
Molly, a servant and Henry’s betrothed. Henry recognizes Molly, his former betrothed, in the slovenly scullery maid at the inn. Suspicions are raised about her virtue, and Henry, to prove the validity of his desires, demands that a wedding take place so that he can alter reality to serve his will and thereby prove that Molly is pure and virtuous. She too is a projection of Henry’s dream and subject to Henry’s thinking of her as his pure betrothed and simultaneously a deceiving slut who is capable of betraying him with his best friend, Johnny. Consequently, she projects these double qualities as a character and does not exist in her own right.
The Drunkard, a grotesque, foulmouthed figure. The Drunkard’s pointing finger serves to undermine the construction of Henry’s reality. His function in the play is to show the impossibility of creating a reality entirely subject to one’s will; his pointing finger has the capacity to create doubts, to undermine, and ultimately to destroy Henry’s creation of a kingdom and marriage entirely subject to his will.
Drunkards, followers of the Drunkard who, with their presence, reinforce the Drunkard’s pointed finger.
Court dignitaries, creations of Henry’s dream-constructed kingdom. As characters, their actions shift in response to Henry’s doubts; thus, at times they fully support Henry’s belief in the purity of Molly, and at other times they whisper and spread rumors about the farce of Henry’s imminent marriage.
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