Overtones Essays and Criticism
by Alice Gerstenberg

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Essays and Criticism

(Drama for Students)

In Overtones, Alice Gerstenberg uses duality, contrast, and juxtaposition to create a piece that is both visually and symbolically intriguing. The play is noted for being the first instance of the use of the dual-character, a technique in which two actresses portray different parts of one single woman. In Overtones, the split is a Freudian one, with one actress portraying the id or primitive portion of the character, while the other portrays the socialized and mannered ego. This dual-character technique allows the audience to experience the inner struggle of the subconscious firsthand, and because the character’s inner thoughts do not have to be conveyed to the audience through an aside or soliloquy, the audience can learn what the character is thinking while the action continues uninterrupted.

The dual-character technique also allows some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two women of the play, and Gerstenberg makes the most of this opportunity. Through the course of the play the audience learns just how similar Harriet and Margaret really are. They are both desperately unhappy and are willing to scheme and lie in order to better their situation. They are also both caught in circumstances that have been dictated by the forces and expectations of society. As Mary Maddock notes in Modern Drama, ‘‘Margaret and Harriet are the unhappy products of the process of socialization that replaces women’s personal desires with patriarchally correct wants and needs.’’ Thus, the characters are both trapped in a world ‘‘not of their own design.’’

The dialogue of Hetty and Maggie make the similarity between the characters very clear. Gerstenberg often uses a parallel construction of dialogue for these two characters in which one line is a direct counterpoint to the line spoken by the other character. For example, when Maggie urges Margaret to ‘‘Flatter her,’’ Hetty counters with, ‘‘Tell her we’re rich.’’ And when Hetty cautions Harriet, ‘‘Don’t let her see you’re anxious to be painted,’’ Maggie also warns, ‘‘Don’t seem anxious to get the order.’’ This repetition of sentence structure textually emphasizes the analogous circumstances in which Harriet and Margaret are trapped.

The similarity of the characters in Overtones introduces a strong sense of irony. Although they do not realize it, Margaret and Harriet are practically mirror images of one another. They have both been schooled in the fine art of etiquette and decorum, and they are both trapped within a patriarchal system that affords them no power except for that obtained by marrying the ‘‘right’’ man. They both believe that if they could only possess what the other has they would be truly happy. Yet, one suspects that if the two were to succeed in gaining what they want, they would still be as miserable as they are now. They may trade places, but they would still be confined within a situation that would make them extremely discontent. Eventually Margaret would become desperately bored and unsatisfied with her marriage to Charles, and Harriet would be hungry and miserable with John.

One can imagine the scene presented in Overtones being repeated in the future with the characters reversed. Harriet is forced to grovel for customers while Margaret now laments the loss of her one true love. As Maddock notes, ‘‘the desires of Harriet and Margaret are so perfectly symmetrical that should both women succeed in their goals they will both fail.’’ Although the play is a meeting between two women, one can almost see it as struggle that is taking place within a single individual who is in turmoil over whether to listen to the practical side that desires Charles’ money, or the idealistic side that desires John’s love. Although this interpretation is not what Gerstenberg intended, the close parallels and similarities between the two characters allow for this type of reading as well. The final moments of the play solidify just...

(The entire section is 1,523 words.)