A review by David S. Atkinson
Discussion of contemporary writing often focuses (at least partially) on how well the essence of the characters are created and presented. Essentially, is the core identity of a character or characters firmly established and conveyed? Frequently, if the answer is “yes,” then the writing is determined to be successful. And, contrarily, the writing is determined to be unsuccessful if the answer to the previous question is “no.”
However, this all too common approach to evaluation is too simple. As much as human beings struggle to understand their essential identity and thus feel compelled to examine and comprehend the identity of characters in novels, the fundamental essence of a person is not the only aspect to be understood. I realize that this probably sounds a bit puzzling, so I will elaborate.
Regardless of who a person is at their innermost center, that is not who that person is all the time. I do not mean that identity is inherently fractured, or that identity is constantly changing, though indeed I would agree with that as well, and dig the works of Herman Hesse a great deal as well. What I mean here is that, beyond who we are in our basic essence as individuals, we are different people depending on the context in which we find ourselves. We play roles and those roles are a separate part of who we are from who we are as lone individuals.
Smut by Alan Bennett seems to focus on the role-based nature of identity as a central theme, both examining the nature of the roles we play and the fact that we play them. For example, in the first of the two stories in the book, an aging widow finds herself playing various roles and ends up discovering that what she’d always thought herself to be might, in fact, have only been another role. Similarly, in the second story, a group of characters surrounding a young husband and wife play so many different roles that sorting out essential identities may be downright impossible, but is certainly irrelevant.
“The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” the first of the two aforementioned stories, concerns a widow who has taken to playing patients at a training hospital so that medical students can practice their diagnostic technique on her. This alone creates some humorous situations, such as: “I gather you’re my wife,” said the man in the waiting room. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Might one know your name?”
However, there is more to this story than humor. In consciously playing roles at the training hospital—which she is phenomenally good at, though she does not ‘see it as acting’ but more ‘just a case of keeping a straight face’ or ‘a way of not being yourself’— Mrs. Donaldson becomes conscious of the roles she unconsciously plays in her daily life. She notes how she sanitizes and censors with what she informs her daughter about the various situations she finds herself in, and notes how her daughter is always concerned with ‘what Daddy would think’ despite the fact that Mr. Donaldson has been dead for some time.
She also observes that, although she becomes somewhat of an unwilling participant in an arrangement where she watches her young lodgers have sex, she draws herself further into the situation. When the situation first occurs:
Mrs. Donaldson’s first instinct was to look away so that rather than frankly considering this naked man kissing his equally naked girlfriend with his hand buried between her legs she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned.
However, she later ‘presses her ear to the wall’ in order to listen surreptitiously on her lodgers’ lovemaking. She starts wondering, “[w]hat kind of person [is] she. She was now no longer sure.”
In the second story of the book, “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” the characters don’t spend as much time questioning the roles they play as much as they spend crafting how the other characters perceive them. On the surface, this story appears to be about Mrs. Forbes being upset when her attractive son marries an older ‘plain woman’ named Betty.
However, the story changes every time the viewpoint switches.
For the son, Graham, the focus is on keeping the simple-minded Betty, his mother, and his employers in the dark about the fact that he is marrying for money and is actually gay.
To say that Betty had entertained no suspicions of Graham’s premarital sexual experiences suggests that this is what they were, premarital. This was not entirely true. He had still had the odd fling…. On one of these occasional forays Graham found himself in bed with a well-proportioned young man who, while devoting himself wholeheartedly to the business at hand, still managed to five the impression of being a not unamused spectator.
At the same time, the focus for Betty is not blowing her cover as ‘the simple but adoring wife, knowing nothing of money or accounts or the world in general.’ Even ‘more generally undesirable in Betty’s view would be the transformation of their relationship…were Graham to realize she knew that he was gay.’
As you can see from the above excerpts, Graham and Betty are utterly absorbed in crafting personas to manipulate and/or navigate the people around them. Graham’s mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Forbes, add additional focuses and exponential complexity to the story. In short, each character uses masks to deceive another character, and may be doing so based on being deceived by a mask used by that other character.
The different examinations of roles in “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” presents the reader with a different kind of story from fiction that merely attempts to convey the true essence of a character. Perhaps this examination of roles can also teach us something different about the roles we, ourselves, play.
However, that is not to say that these two stories are lacking on characterization or any other fictional element. In my opinion, these stories are well-written characterized and described. There is some great humor, as well as an occasional deep, emotional pull. When people find themselves playing the role of a reader, I imagine that they will enjoy both of the stories in Smut.