Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
The Battle between Britain and Ireland
The Au Pair Man is an allegory. An allegory is a work in which the characters, actions, and sometimes the setting, are contrived to make sense on the literal level and also to communicate a second level of meaning. On the literal level, the play is about an English lady hiring an Irish man as her au pair man. On the second level of meaning, the play comments satirically on the battle between Britain (or more specifically, England) and Ireland.
Britain has occupied Ireland for many centuries. Irish nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have opposed the occupation, wanting a unified Ireland independent of Britain. This conflict is embodied in the only two characters in the play, the wealthy English lady, Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, who represents Britain, and the rough Irish bill collector, Eugene Hartigan, who represents Ireland. Mrs. Rogers’s dilapidated house is the crumbling British Empire, while Rose, whom Eugene hopes to marry, represents Northern Ireland, the area of Ireland that is unified with Britain (Irish people who support union with Britain, called unionists, are mostly Protestant and concentrated in Northern Ireland).
Eugene becomes Mrs. Rogers’s sexual slave, underlining Leonard’s view that the relationship between Britain and Ireland is an exploitative one. As well as being a relationship between occupier and occupied, it is also a relationship between the upper- and middle-class British people and the working-class Irish. It should be noted, however, that Leonard has stated that in his play, the exploitation runs both ways. S. F. Gallagher, in his introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, writes:
Leonard . . . who has confessed his fascination with the class structure in Britain—“Class is about the only facet of English life which excites me or about which I care intensely”—says “The Au Pair Man is about an outsider despising this structure while using it for his own material good.”
Eugene is not paid for being Mrs. Rogers’s au pair man, but he is provided with expensive clothes and food and an education in what she considers to be superior English manners. This is a satirical reference to the arguments often used by Irish unionists who want to maintain the union of Northern Ireland with Britain: Northern Ireland benefits economically and developmentally from alliance with the historically more prosperous Britain. Nevertheless, Leonard portrays the more powerful half of this relationship, Mrs. Rogers, with little sympathy. While remaining an amusing comic character, she comes across as dishonest, manipulative, cruel, contemptuous, vengeful, and possessive, leaving the audience in no doubt that she is not excused for her actions and has no claim to the moral high ground. Britain is to be viewed similarly.
The Arrogance of the Occupier
The Au Pair Man draws attention to the habit of Britain and other imperial powers of justifying their occupation of other nations by claiming that they are civilizing those countries. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the civilization claim was mostly based on material examples, such as the introduction of technological advancements and institutions for education and health care. In the nineteenth century, of which Mrs. Rogers is a relic, British justifications were more likely to focus on the alleged positive influence of British manners, learning, and customs. After World War II, awareness grew of various atrocities committed in the name of civilizing nations, and there was a corresponding change in the language of imperial powers. Talk of civilization (which carries an unacceptable implication of superiority of the occupying nation over the occupied) gave way to talk of bringing democracy. However, it could be argued that while the rhetoric changed, the underlying assumption—that the occupier is of superior intelligence and development to the occupied, who should therefore see the occupation of their nation as a boon—remains the same.
Leonard uses the character of Mrs. Rogers to highlight what he sees as British xenophobia (fear of foreigners) and ignorance of other cultures. The irony lies in the discrepancy between the fact that the British have a history of occupying foreign countries by force and the fact that the British are terrified of foreigners. Mrs. Rogers likes to stay in her house and responds with terror to the idea of leaving it because “foreign persons” and “dusky gentlemen” “infest” the streets. When Eugene threatens to leave, she tells him he cannot as “the streets are filled with Australians.” At the same time, she retains the delusion that the Indians whom her father “was obliged to crucify” because they “behaved rather badly,” “all adored him.” (This is a reference to the British occupation of India. Indian resistance peaked in Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement of civil disobedience and ended with India’s independence in 1947.) Mrs. Rogers assumes that the occupied nation can only be grateful to men like her father for their gift of civilization. Similarly, she expects gratitude from Eugene for her teaching him English manners, at the same time that she abuses and insults him.
In 1968, when the play was written, the type of xenophobia embodied by Mrs. Rogers was already seen as old-fashioned and redundant by much of an increasingly multicultural society. This is shown by Mrs. Rogers’s increasing sense of alienation in a world where people who were once her friends now “pretend” that “everyone is as good as everyone else.” However, such xenophobia was perceived to persist in British policy in Ireland, which at that time retained laws discriminating against Catholics.
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