Last Updated on February 10, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697
In the character notes before the play begins, Suzan-Lori Parks identifies Link as the eponymous “topdog” and Booth as the “underdog.” This immediately establishes a fraught power dynamic. Link is older, which puts him in a position of power, and this is further reinforced by his employment and seemingly greater financial security. Booth, meanwhile, struggles constantly to live up to and exceed his brother; this can largely be seen in his efforts to take up three-card monte after Link has supposedly given up cards. It is a typical manifestation of sibling rivalry, which turns dangerous and ultimately deadly by the end.
The play is inherently connected with history on a broad scale due to the names of the two main characters, Lincoln and Booth, and Lincoln’s job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Personal and familial history inform the character development of the two brothers, while national history influences the plot and foreshadows the final climax. As the drama progresses, we are slowly exposed to more of Link and Booth’s family story, which highlights the brothers’ own dysfunctions. Booth is the one who witnesses their mother in the process of leaving, which then problematizes his future relationships with women. This is seen most specifically in his on-again, off-again relationship with Grace and his efforts to keep her from leaving him, as evidenced by his decision to steal an engagement ring half a size smaller than her actual size so that she can never take it off. Meanwhile, Link’s personal history is what comes back to haunt him. He quit card hustling after his closest associate, Lonny, was shot on the streets, but he picks it up again after losing his impersonator job. This similarly foreshadows a poor end for Link because shortly after he resumes three-card monte, he too meets his end.
As with many Pulitzer Prize winners, death is a theme that is woven throughout the narrative, though it only explicitly occurs on stage at the dramatic conclusion. Death is omnipresent in Link’s life because that is the basis of his job; each day he reenacts his death dozens, if not hundreds, of times for the twisted entertainment of others. Abraham Lincoln’s death was a catastrophic moment in American history, while Link’s death is ultimately a catastrophic moment in the brothers’ family history, which further serves to entwine the two narratives. It is possible to go so far as to say that Link represents the final threads that remain of the brothers’ family, because when he dies their family dies with him. Interestingly, the deaths of Grace and Lonny, Booth’s and Link’s closest outside relationships respectively, occur beyond the borders of the stage, and the reader is only informed of their occurrences through Link and Booth themselves. This makes the brothers’ relationship appear more isolated, because they must rely only on what the other is willing to share.
Names and Identity
Identity is a complex but integral theme within Topdog/Underdog, with both Link and Booth seeking to establish individual identities but struggling to do so while trapped in a cycle of poverty and familial angst. Link is confident in his identity, as evidenced by his claim that he “was Lincoln before any of that,” despite a shared name with the Great Emancipator and his job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. This separation that Link has cultivated between himself and the historical figure who shares his name is further proven when he cons a child on the bus into paying him twenty dollars for an autograph; he is away from work and has no need to be Honest Abe. Conversely, Booth is distinctly uncomfortable with his identity, which is reflected in his efforts to get Link to call him by his new name, 3-Card. He threatens to shoot anyone who...
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