The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Set in a seedy urban studio apartment, Topdog/Underdog explores the relationship between two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, so named as a joke by their father. A former master of the con game three-card monte, Lincoln earns his living by donning whiteface and impersonating Abraham Lincoln in a local arcade, where patrons pay to re-create the former president’s assassination with an assortment of cap guns. He has recently been kicked out by his former wife, Cookie, and has moved in with his younger brother, Booth. Nicknamed 3-Card, Booth earns his living by stealing, or “boosting” as he calls it, what he needs. He dreams of becoming a more accomplished and celebrated dealer of three-card monte than his brother. The first half of the play develops this central conflict: Lincoln is content to work at the arcade, earn his paycheck, and take his dose of whiskey, which the brothers affectionately call “med-sin,” while Booth dreams of the prestige, the money, and the women that could be his, with Lincoln’s help, as a hustler of three-card monte.

Lincoln resists Booth’s attempts to draw him back into the world of three-card monte. He left the game when his partner was murdered, and though he resents his position at the arcade, he is glad to earn an honest living and even takes a certain pride in his work. In a scene that is both humorous and foreboding, Lincoln practices his arcade routine with Booth, who suggests that he make the assassination more dramatic. Lincoln experiments with several groans and gestures as Booth pretends to shoot him. In contrast, Booth finds Lincoln’s job demeaning and tries repeatedly to persuade Lincoln to pick up the cards so they can work as a team. The siblings take different approaches to their struggle for survival; when Lincoln receives his paychecks, one of the first items in the budget is the bottle of whiskey that takes their minds off their dismal surroundings and their bleak prospects.

In their cramped and dilapidated quarters, Lincoln and Booth relate to each other in primarily combative ways. Though they share lighthearted, even mutually respectful moments, as when Lincoln brings home his paycheck, or when Booth shows Lincoln the new suits that he...

(The entire section is 909 words.)