If you were to look up the word ‘underdog’ in the dictionary you would probably be met with such definitions as this, which is taken from the Cambridge dictionary
“A person or group of people who have less power, money, etc. than the rest of society, or (in a competition) the person or team considered to be the weakest and the least likely to win.”
I feel that the ‘underdog’ within a text can be a single character or an entire faction of people. It is certainly very interesting to see how the three playwrights have chosen to represent these characters. We usually feel a great deal of empathy towards the ‘underdog’ whenever they are present. Viewing the differences and similarities in the ways the three playwrights have represented the underdog character, it is easier to distinguish their more illicit meanings within the plays. I will be examining these representations and trying to seek out any of the themes which are linked completely with these characters, hopefully I can understand further how each method of representation can influence an audience’s understanding and which method works best in conveying an opinion.
It is relatively easy to see which characters Moira Buffini has represented as being underdogs, in Silence. I feel that the character Silence and Ymma are portrayed from the very beginning of the play as down-trodden victims of oppression be it, sexism, or ageism, in fact while silence feels put down at the comments of him being “a little boy!” he doesn’t even realise at that stage that since he is really a woman he should probably have been more concerned with the blatant sexism of his teacher Roger, a priest who preaches to silence that he “must stand pure before god” but whom is just as human and susceptible to “sins of the flesh” than any other character. Silence is condemned for believing in an alternative religion, a religion in which (much to the disapproval of Roger) the priest is a women. Silence talks of the teachings of his woman priest he says “she says that ignorance is our greatest enemy and that only by questioning can we defeat it.” As a contemporary audience we understand this notion, I feel it is one of the most important elements of modern life and since at this point in the play we think that Silence is indeed a boy, we applaud his lack of ignorance and his desertion of the dogmatic society he has obviously been accustomed to.
It is these comments on women such as “The soul of women is an inferior thing, a dark shadow compared to the brilliant soul of a man” from Roger, Ethelred and other characters within the play that Moira Buffini has used in order to sway our allegiance towards Ymma who stands up for her beliefs and who would rather die than be exploited or forced to comply with the “ridiculous unions the church will condone”. For example when confronted with the king she says; “when I saw the white cliffs of this land, I should have thrown myself from the boat rather than set one foot on it. I could have been at peace by now, lying free inviolate, under the weight of the great sea.” As readers we admire Ymma for her strength of character and the fact that many of the other characters disregard her opinions as idiocy gives her the status as an underdog and creates an affinity with the character instantly. We hope that she can over-throw the condescending limitations thrust upon her, simply for being a woman.
In comparison to Silence, it is more difficult to see who Nick Grosso is trying to make the underdog within Kosher Harry. It is highly arguable. It is as if we are experiencing the other side of the coin, as it were. We do not have such an affinity with any of the characters or a particular desire for any one character to ‘be triumphant’ in the end. The cabbie, the waitress, the man, and the old lady are all so contemptuous of certain other people whom they make reference too; we see them as ignorant and dismal. The only characters we might feel some sympathy or even empathy for are the off-stage characters, those that are the subject of most of the conversation throughout the play.
The waitress talks about another waitress who used to work at kosher Harry’s, she says “well I called her gladiola I mean her real name was bratislavan or something I mean I couldn’t say it I can hardly say brata bleeding slava” she also labels the new, foreign waitress with this same comical name. Then we see the cabbie making comments about “these Jews” and then talking about his son who “shares a class with a fucking paki”.
It could be viewed that these speaking characters themselves are the underdogs, they lead very mundane lives and have little more to talk about than a few highly racist, sexist or just generally non- p.c. ramblings, on the other hand you could say that characters like ‘Gladiola’ and ‘Poppadom’ who are merely spoken about within the text, are the real underdogs of the play. I feel that by definition, everyone is an underdog in the sense that one person puts another down because they themselves feel underprivileged or demoralized. The play is like an endless vicious circle of put-downs, the sorry characters who we meet within the play are as worthy of sympathy as those they critically remark about, because of their obvious insecurities.
It is hard to adapt this idea of compassion to characters like Ethelred or Roger in Silence, who you could argue are as worthy of sympathy as Ymma or Silence herself. It is obvious as the play Silence unravels that both Ethelred and Roger have some redeeming features, however the difference between the oppression which Ymma, Silence and women in general, suffer and the oppression which poppadom, Gladiola and ethnic minorities, suffer in Kosher Harry is in the way in which the playwrights have presented the characters to us. We never meet gladiola or poppadom or any of the Jews, “chinks – half breeds” that are spoken of, we cannot become too emotionally attached to them, and they are merely a suggestion, secondary knowledge. Had Nick Grosso chosen to include poppadom, for example, as a speaking character, our opinions would be very different.
Looking at Scaramouche Jones we can see another very different representational style from Justin butcher, because the play only has one speaking character this being Scaramouche, a narrator and because the play is so loaded with description it resembles a novel more than a play. Scaramouche says “the scene of my birth was a fishmongers shop on a dingy wharfside in port o’ Spain, Trinidad” aside from the fact that his mother was a whore and he spent most of his life as a slave for ‘Yasu Giovanni-Battista Tasamma’ and then as a gravedigger at the concentration camp at split during the war, Scaramouche spends his whole journey chasing the vision of his “English father” only to arrive in England and join with a band of “beggars and invalids” under waterloo bridge as “discarded sons of England”.
Scaramouche has not achieved anything; he simply found others like himself. So looking simply at this we could conclude that Scaramouch is indeed an underdog, Justin butchers descriptive style promotes some sympathy for the character Scaramouche who is essentially disillusioned and underprivileged, but who is not in my opinion the main ‘underdog’ within the play. This is because it is clear that Scaramouche is not a realistic character, he was born on the stroke of midnight 1899 and is going to die on the stroke of midnight 1999. We learn this from the very beginning of the play which begs us to think that Scaramouche is merely a literary device to convey a particular theme within the play. In a similar way to what we have seen in Kosher Harry, we cannot feel so much empathy towards the character Scaramouche because we are not sympathetically attached to him.
The representation of any sort of character within a play is a difficult thing to pin point, because it really depends on who is experiencing it and in what situation, as we can see in many models on reception theory. It is especially difficult to determine the representation of underdogs because the term can be ambiguous, particularly in Kosher Harry, Scaramouche Jones and Silence. All three playwrights aim to give voice to an oppressed party, in very different ways. What I have realised is that by making a character appear as an underdog in the eyes and ears of the receiver does create empathy for them instantly and this is a very effective way to create sympathy for a particular cause, theme or political belief.. In Kosher Harry, Nick Grosso seems to almost challenge our role as a receiver by forcing us to think more carefully about who is most unfortunate. In Scaramouche Jones, Justin Butcher seems to create a distancing affect for the receiver forcing us to think about the themes of the play not merely sympathise with a character. Whilst in Silence, Moira Buffini aims to emotionally attach the receiver to a character whom we can relate to personally.
If we consider that the role of the underdog within all three plays is to convey some other theme, then whichever style of representation a playwright may choose, in order to convey an idea or belief, the successfulness of this transference is in fact dependant on those who are receiving it.
Buffini Moira, 2002, Silence, Methuen
Butcher, Justin, 2002, Scaramouche Jones, Methuen.
Grosso Nick, 2002, Kosher Harry, Methuen.
Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 2001, Cambridge University Press.