Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
Emil Jannings, who is described only as quite fat, heavily made up, and wearing the hints of a costume. His closest relationship, which vacillates between friendliness and animosity for no apparent reason, is with Heinrich George. During the course of the play, Jannings learns and increasingly adopts the poses of the role of boss, in particular in his interactions with George. More than any other character, he epitomizes power and understands the mechanisms of instituting it: Individual desires must be subordinated to the laws of an order naturalized by means of repetition, ritual, and custom. In spite of the apparent ease with which Jannings plays his role, he nevertheless undergoes moments of uncertainty and confusion when events do not correspond to his imagined order, as for example in the final scene, when Alice Kessner does not, contrary to expectations, wear a watch.
Heinrich George, the closest person to Jannings, described in a similar manner. Characterized above all by a somewhat childlike naïveté, George frequently does not comprehend the language of a particular system and accordingly experiences more difficulties than any other character in acting out his various parts. This means that at isolated moments George questions the established order and even contradicts it, although unwittingly, by expressing his own needs and desires. George’s difficulty in learning the rules of the game excludes him from ever holding the reins of power himself: He becomes subordinate to Jannings, and eventually his identity is reduced to that of servant.
Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim (fon SHTROH-him), an impressive figure who, like the other two male characters, wears the hints of a costume. As the master gamesman, von Stroheim plays a variety of parts, including those of magician, actor, and teacher. He serves Jannings as mentor, instructing him and George in the ways of the master-servant relationship. Most important, however, von Stroheim assumes the role of a lover caught between two women. At first appearance, he and Henny Porten belong together, but during the course of the play, he and Elisabeth Bergner go through the motions of a love affair. Von Stroheim accompanies his lover’s role with the appropriate stance, occasionally strumming some softly sentimental chords on a guitar.
Elisabeth Bergner, a beautiful and elegant woman wearing a long dress. Involved in a love affair with von Stroheim, she eventually becomes tired of the role and impassively breaks off the relationship. Dreamy sleepiness, characteristic of all the characters to some extent, typifies Bergner as she glides across stage as if in a trance or merely sits silently with closed or half-closed eyes. The natural ease with which she functions, indicative of an unquestioning acceptance of the order and her place within it, is destroyed periodically by moments of total confusion and disorientation, terrifying reminders of the precariousness of her balance.
Henny Porten, who is described only as wearing an evening dress with a velvet stole. She arrives on stage with von Stroheim as the third member of the love triangle. She is not at all upset at von Stroheim’s vacillation and at times even encourages his relationship with Bergner. Of all the characters, Porten is the most difficult to identify. The distinction between her and Bergner, for example, becomes blurred so that one of the women reacts in the other’s place. Similarly, she is the subordinate member of the partnership with von Stroheim and accordingly sometimes becomes interchangeable with George.
Ellen Kessler, identical twins who walk onstage toward the end of the performance as if by mistake. The entrance of first Alice and then Ellen is a shock to the other characters, because the twins have no assigned role within this drama. Initially, Alice and Ellen allay the fear and confusion they have caused by reciting lines and performing actions so common that they could belong in any play. Gradually, their actions begin to contradict themselves, and they run off the stage, leaving the remaining actors in a state of helplessness in which neither words nor actions follow logically or naturally. The twins epitomize the tendency noted for the other characters toward interchangeability and loss of individuality.
Woman with white scarf
Woman with white scarf, in blackface. The woman opens the play by cleaning the set and removing most of the dustclothes from the props. She appears once again in the final scene with a big doll representing a child. The child cries when confronted with disorder and reaches for the women’s breasts and between the men’s legs. The woman exits, with her doll, leaving the characters immobile and speechless until Bergner awakens, recognizes von Stroheim, and begins to smile.