Sorry, Wrong Number

by Lucille Fletcher

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What are the literary devices and themes in Lucille Fletcher's play Sorry, Wrong Number, and how do they relate to today's life?

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The play Sorry, Wrong Number is a tale of just how badly errors in communication can turn out. Its main literary device is dramatic irony, in which the audience knows more about the protagonist's plight than she does. The prevalent themes include isolation and the importance of politeness. The story can be related to today's life ironically, because no one will ever again need the services of a telephone operator.

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Sorry, Wrong Number is a play about a woman who, thanks to a crossed phone line (the play is set back in the 1940s) overhears two men plotting a murder. She does not initially realize that she was to be the victim. While we cannot hear the operator's side of the conversation, it seems to take him or her a long time to take our protagonist, Mrs. Stevenson, seriously. By the end of the play, we infer that the killer has murdered Mrs. Stevenson and it is the killer rather than Mrs. Stevenson herself, who is answering the phone.

The main literary device used in this play is dramatic irony. This is a story construction technique in which the audience has greater knowledge of the situation playing out than the protagonist does. Dramatic irony is an important element of Sorry, Wrong Number, because the audience becomes aware that Mrs. Stevenson is the intended murder victim long before she herself realizes this.

I would argue that isolation, and the crippling fear that can come with it, is the predominant theme of this play. The tension rises to boiling point, and if Mrs. Stevenson had had a friend or companion with her, the outcome may have been completely different. The importance of politeness is another prevalent theme, as one can't help but wonder whether the telephone operator would have been more sympathetic towards Mrs. Stevenson's plight had she not been so rude to them.

I think this play can be linked to modern life ironically. In the world of 2020, with cell phones, messaging apps and the like, no one will ever again find themselves at the mercy of a telephone operator.

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Sorry, Wrong Number is a thriller which makes extensive use of dramatic irony, both as a radio play and in the 1948 film.

The phone calls provide the listener with suspense, since the viewer starts to piece together that Leona is going to be the victim of the murder plot. That the audience realizes this before Leona is an example of dramatic irony, which is when the audience is privy to information that eludes the characters themselves.

As for theme, the central theme is greed—though not only in regards to money, which is Henry's main motive in wanting his wife dead. In the movie, Leona is herself greedy for Henry's love, and it is her smothering of him which helps estrange him from her. (Yet another example of irony, since Leona's father was highly controlling of her as well.) Greed is presented as a force which separates people and poisons relationships, since it is inherently selfish.

As for how the play/movie relates to modern life, one could argue that the use of the telephone is a symbol of modern communication. Once again, this is laced with irony, because even though a telephone is a device which makes long-distance communication possible, much of the story is about miscommunication and divide within a marriage. For much of the movie, Leona does not know what is going on or just how far her husband has gotten away from her.

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Sorry, Wrong Number originally appeared as a radio broadcast starring Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Stevenson. Many versions of this play have been performed, including a 1948 film adaptation. I'll begin with the version I'm most familiar with, the 1948 broadcast for the Suspense program, and then touch on variations.

The primary theme in most versions might be considered "mystery." A bedridden Leona Stevenson is waiting for her husband, Henry, to return for the office. She calls, but his line is engaged, so she contacts an operator see if they can help. The operator accidentally patches her into a conversation where a murder is being plotted against a woman who lives in a neighborhood not unlike her own. Leona attempts to report the plot to the operator, the police, and the hospital, but she is unsuccessful in convincing each party of the urgency of the situation. As the play progresses, the audience gradually discovers that the murder is being plotted against Leona.

In this version, suspense and foreshadowing act as the most significant literary devices. The audience is suspicious that Leona overheard a conversation that involves Henry, and details emerge that the murder will take place near Leona and Henry's home on 2nd Avenue. Tension is created through a series of clues that make it obvious to the audience that Leona will be the victim, but leave Leona unaware until it's too late. There isn't much substance to this version of the play without this suspense and foreshadowing.

In other versions, Leona is portrayed as a hypochondriac who comes from a wealthy family. Henry comes from a poorer background. Leona's father doesn't approve of their marriage and convinces a potential employer not to hire Henry. Desperate for money, Henry tries to convince an past employee of Leona's father, Mr. Evans, to help him sell narcotics to a Mr. Morano. At first, Evans refuses, but he is later overtaken with greed and decides to help Henry. Eventually, they decide to bypass Morano to earn more profit, but Morano finds out and demands compensation, reminding Henry that he has a wealthy wife and that an "accident" could occur. Henry decides he has no other way to come up with the money than to murder his wife. In this version, a major theme is the consequences of greed. Henry has a change of heart in the last scene, but he's too late.

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