Our GCSE devised play centres around the theme of ‘something to hide’. As a stimuli we were given the song ‘Luka’ by Suzanne Vega which is about a woman who is abused by her partner but tries to hide it from the outside world. We also studied the play ‘Death of a Salesman’ written by Arthur Miller, a dramatist who wrote with a social conscience.
Many of his plays such as ‘The Crucible’ (about the witch hunts in Salem in the 17th century as a comparison to the McCarthy ‘witch’ hunts in America in the 1950s), ‘All My Sons’ (concerning a family in turmoil due to a secret held by the father from the Second World War) and ‘Death of a Salesman’ (which explores the destructive reality behind the concept of a failed American Dream) are concerned with real people and social issues. Focus’, his novel, is about anti-Semitism and many of his dramatic works focus on the idea of ‘something to hide’, or the truth of a past sin being uncovered.
In ‘Death of a Salesman’ the concealed lie is the fact that Willy Loman, the main protagonist of the play, has had an affair in the past and this has had a devastating effect on his domestic life – his favourite son, Biff, found out about Willy’s cheating and the family unit, a major part of the American Dream, has over the years broken down. Biff accuses his father of being a “phoney fake”.
In each of the scenes of our devised performance the dialogue is improvised and we tried to make the stage scenery as minimalist as possible – this allowed swift scene changes and so each scene can be viewed as a snapshot into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances There are five main scenes in our devised drama piece. One scene concerns the consequences of bigamy and psychological marital abuse. In ‘Death of a Salesman’ the central character, Willy Loman, has had an affair in the past and his guilt about this occasionally makes him act cruelly to his wife.
In one scene he finds his put-upon wife Linda mending stockings which brings back the guilt of his affair for he gave the other woman new stockings. His guilt makes him rebuke Linda, who is mending old clothes because of the shortage of money in the household, by angrily saying “I won’t have you mending stockings in this house! Now throw them out! ” The idea of bigamy was just taking Miller’s representation of an affair to a more extreme conclusion and represented a double life, or having something to hide.
One scene concerns a girl on her deathbed – she is dying from the effects of anorexia, a condition which she tried to hide from her family. In a way this can be viewed as a form of suicide, and Miller explored the idea of attempted suicide destroying a family in ‘Death of a Salesman’. Willy Loman, who has reached rock-bottom mentally, is represented as trying to commit suicide in the play and when he is confronted by his son Biff he shame-facedly denies this fact.
Ironically he kills himself at the end of the play, having reached the conclusion that he is worth more dead than alive, and we explored the effects of a wasted death, which could have been prevented, on those who are left behind. We chose anorexia because weight issues are currently topical and the effects of this illness are particularly pertinent to teenage girls who are influenced by the media representation of the ‘perfect body’.
Just as in Miller’s time the notion of success in business had a high degree of relevance so we felt anorexia had the same topical impact on today’s society – Miller often repeats the phrase about the importance of being ‘well-liked’ in ‘Death of a Salesman’ and we felt that one way that teenage girls felt they could be accepted was to be slim. It is also an illness which many people keep hidden from close family and this showed that although one is very close to someone it is still easy to hide such an awful secret.
One scene is a flashback to the man marrying the two women – we decided to follow Arthur Miller’s use of flashback in ‘Death of a Salesman’ where important events from the past are related and their effects on the present become apparent. Here flashbacks and reality merge to colour the whole picture. In Act III of ‘Top Girls’ by Caryl Churchill reveals to the audience, but not to the character who it mainly concerns, a hidden family secret – the character Angie is in fact Marlene’s child and not her niece as she herself believes.
Also Marlene’s sister Joyce, who is passing herself off as Angie’s mother, has split from her husband but she has kept this from her sister. Therefore we took the concept of complicated family relationships and twisted it to follow on from the first scene with the bigamist husband – a close family again is shown to be able to keep secrets from one another. One scene concerns a transvestite who is trying to hide this fact from his workmates.
We were oddly influenced by the historical timing of ‘Top Girls’ which was set in the time of Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, a strong willed woman who was known as the Iron Lady, in the traditionally male dominated world of politics. We therefore wanted to reverse this idea and put a man in women’s clothes to see how this unconventional non-conformity is frequently unaccepted and how to be comfortable with ‘oneself’ in such circumstances causes people to have to try and hide the ‘real self’.
One scene concerns a teenage girl who has a tattoo and tries to hide this decoration from people – using the idea of the devil and the angel talking over the shoulder to represent her conscience about this rebellious deed. We used the idea of a child rebelling against their parents from Biff’s rebellion against his father’s ideals in ‘Death of a Salesman’. The use of a tattoo was also the most explicitly physical characteristic to hide – all the other scenes in our devised performance concerned mental issues such as anorexia, transvestism etc.
The final scene is about a man who is compelled to tell the truth no matter what the circumstance – we have used this scene as a contrast to having something to hide and the consequences of blatantly telling a truth even if the outcome is a cruel one. This scene was set in a psychiatrists’ office where traditionally the past is delved into and a hidden truth is uncovered. In ‘Death of a Salesman’ Biff states that “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house! and we wanted to show the effects of someone who pathologically tells the truth. The end of Miller’s play, once certain truths have been revealed, ends in tragedy. The man in our scene has an effect on all the other characters in our devised performance – his blatant truth telling acts as a catalyst for all the events that we played out before. In the end we wanted to show, nothing is black and white – everything has grey areas and it is a case of finding the happy medium that makes for a good life.