Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1523
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,...
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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 how alike Harriet and Margaret are when Hetty and Maggie simultaneously exclaim, ‘‘I’m going to rob you—rob you.’’
Comparison and contrast are two key elements of Overtones. They generate interest, and help to raise the play above the level of a typical afternoon tea. One of the ways Gerstenberg introduces contrast into Overtones is through her choice of the husbands’ respective professions. Although the play does not make clear what Charles does for a living, one can assume he is a successful businessman. John, on the other hand, has chosen to forsake the money that the business world could bring in order to pursue his art. John pursues a world of ideas, Charles a world of possessions. In the play, Gerstenberg alludes to this dichotomy by emphasizing the place love plays in each relationship. One gets the feeling that Harriet is just another one of Charles’s possessions. He can keep her safe and comfortable, but does not love her. John, on the other hand, loves Margaret, but is not able to provide safety and comfort for her. Margaret has love. Harriet has material possessions. Neither woman has both.
Another way Gerstenberg uses the ‘‘compare and contrast’’ motif in Overtones is through her use of color. She establishes in the opening stage directions that each primitive self wears a gown of the same color as their counterpart, but in a darker shade. This helps the audience to visually make the connection between each pair of actresses. But Gerstenberg also helps the audience make the distinction between Harriet and Margaret through a clever use of color. She has chosen their costume colors from opposites sides of the color wheel. Purple and green are not directly opposite each other on the wheel because they both share the color blue, and yet the two colors are far enough apart that they provide a strong visual contrast to one another. In other words, purple and green are alike and yet different, just as Margaret and Harriet are. The juxtaposition of these two colors visually emphasizes the themes and relationships contained within the play. Gerstenberg also plays upon a light/dark theme by keeping Maggie and Hetty upstage and partially veiled. One almost gets the sense that they are lurking in the shadows just waiting for the right opportunity to reveal themselves. In the stage directions, Gerstenberg even uses the term ‘‘shadow’’ to describe how Maggie and Hetty move in conjunction with their respective counterparts.
Allowing Maggie and Hetty to interact directly with one another was a wise choice for Gerstenberg, although it is not strictly in keeping with Freudian theory. Normally, one would not assume that the id of one person can directly interact with the id of another because the id’s influence is usually thought to affect only the person within which it is con tained. In Freudian theory, the id can only have contact with the outside world through the ego. The ego is the part of the psyche that mediates the influence of external realities. As Freud notes in The Ego and the Id, ‘‘the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id.’’ By allowing Hetty and Maggie to directly confront one another, however, Gerstenberg multiplies the possibilities for conflict, making for a much more dynamic and forceful piece of theatre. The audience witnesses four simultaneous ‘‘tennis matches’’ on stage: Hetty vs. Harriet; Harriet vs. Margaret; Margaret vs. Maggie; and Maggie vs. Hetty.
Ironically, while this possibility for direct con- flict between the competing ‘‘ids’’ heightens the intensity, it also heightens the humor contained in Overtones. It is comical to watch Hetty and Maggie physically struggling with each other directly behind the reserved pair of their respective socialites. Harriet and Margaret serve as a static facade in the foreground and their prim and proper mannerism provide a humorous counterpoint to the insanity that is occurring right behind them. This humorous vein is in keeping with Gerstenberg’s usual style. As Stuart J. Hecht notes in the Journal of Popular Culture, ‘‘The vast majority of Gerstenberg’s plays are comedic. The few times that her dramaturgy takes a more serious turn comes in those plays where the inner self is confronted.’’
The above techniques of dual-characters, parallel dialogue, color imagery, and direct interaction between the subconscious-character elements all combine to make Overtones an interesting theatre piece visually, audibly, and symbolically. With this play, Gerstenberg pushed the boundaries of theatrical form and used all means available to create an intriguing exploration into two women’s psyches. She provided numerous clues as to what the piece is ‘‘about’’ so that audiences would be able to easily understand this innovative and complex presentation. Apparently her ideas worked because the influence of Overtones on theatrical form is still recognized. That the play survives and is still produced across the country attests to the fact that audiences during the early part of the twentieth century were ready for this type of theatrical/psychological experience and that they still appreciate it today.
Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on Overtones, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.