Play with a Tiger
Doris Lessing wrote Play with a Tiger in 1958, some time before it was staged and published in 1962. She wrote it while working on The Golden Notebook and a third novel of the Children of Violence series. The action of the play resembles a section of The Golden Notebook, as it presents a similar contrast of characters. Anna Freeman of Play with a Tiger resembles Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook, and Dave Miller, with whom Anna is in love in the play, resembles a character who appears near the end of The Golden Notebook, with whom Anna Wulf falls in love. Both of Lessing's Annas are highly serious women grappling with the major political questions of the day, and they are both unhappy about the traditional societal roles of men and women. These women resist marriage because they believe that the institution as it stands is a trap for women, and they experiment beyond the bounds of monogamous love. But whereas The Golden Notebook is about a long period in its heroine's life, Play with a Tiger covers just a few hours.
Play with a Tiger received mixed reviews when it was first staged. Further, since Lessing is known as a writer of novels and short stories, not as a playwright, Play with a Tiger and her few other plays receive considerably less scholarly attention than her novels and short stories.
Play with a Tiger dramatizes the difficulties of having high ideals and trying to live by them with as little compromise as possible. Anna turns out to bePage 167 | Top of Article the strongest person of the play, but even she must compromise in certain situations. Further, she suffers a great deal for her convictions, as Lessing shows how people who depart from societal norms, and who are different, suffer loneliness and scorn. Play with a Tiger is no longer in print, although it is likely to be available at most any large library.
Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler, in Persia (later renamed as Iran) to English parents on October 22, 1919. Her family then moved to Southern Rhodesia (later renamed as Zimbabwe) in Southern Africa, in 1924. There, Lessing left school at the age of thirteen, began working at fifteen, and began a longtime involvement with Marxist politics. She was attracted to Marxism's focus on workers' rights. Further, in its Southern African form, Marxist politics was focused on the rights of blacks. The indigenous black populations in the region had been subjugated since the period of European colonialism. Lessing lived in Africa until she moved to London, England, in 1949.
Lessing arrived in London with a manuscript of a first novel, The Grass is Singing, which takes place in Zimbabwe and which made Lessing's name as a writer. She followed this first publication with three novels from what is, in total, a five-volume set entitled The Children of Violence series. Her next two novels were not parts of the series, and the sixth, The Golden Notebook, is the novel for which Lessing is most admired. It is revered as a classic of feminist writing and as a brilliant portrayal of social and political post–World War II English life. The novel also includes material that takes place in Africa, so that this novel, like so many of Lessing's works, contributes to the body of work by writers whose journalism and fiction explore and contest the inequalities that followed from European imperialism in Africa.
The fifth novel in Lessing's The Children of Violence series points towards the type of fiction she since has been most interested in, novels she calls "space fiction" but which are categorized in bookstores as science fiction. The distinction, Lessing has said, is that science fiction is interested in technology, and she is interested in imagining utopian and other possible future societies.
Of the handful of plays Lessing has written, Play with a Tiger is most interesting for the way in
which its themes and situations mirror many of those of the Golden Notebook. It attests to Lessing's perennial interest in gender and political questions in a modern world that has witnessed the cold war between capitalist and communist regimes and great changes in the relationship between men and women and in the nature of families. The play was first produced in London in 1962, the year it was also published.
Lessing has been nominated for and has won a number of literary prizes throughout her career, such as Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Prize for literature in 2001. In 1995, she received a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for an autobiographical book, Under My Skin, and an honorary degree from Harvard University. In 1999, Queen Elizabeth II of England appointed Lessing a Companion of Honour.
Anna Freeman and Tom Lattimer are in the midst of a heated exchange. Tom is trying to find out why Anna has decided not to marry him. Anna avoids the subject. She responds to Tom's words byPage 168 | Top of Article talking about something completely unrelated. For example, she mentions the man she sees standing in the street outside, the man who often stands there, apparently because he is in love with a woman who lives in a nearby apartment. Finally, however, Anna explains herself. She says that she cannot stand the idea of Tom having taken a job at a popular women's magazine. Tom accuses Anna of being a romantic, insisting that she will one day regret not having a regular job herself.
They hear a noise at the door, the voice of the woman from whom Anna rents rooms. The woman is Mary Jackson; she is calling her cat. She enters the room not knowing Tom is there to ask Anna if she wants to go out for a cup of coffee. She sees Tom and figures out what is going on. She is cavalier about the situation, asking Tom how it was he thought the two of them would ever get married.
They hear the doorbell ring. Mary exits and returns with the visitor. It is Harry Paine, one of Anna's friends. Harry has come for sympathy from Anna. He is married but has affairs. His latest girlfriend has left him; she is going to marry. He wants Anna to go with him for a few drinks so that he can pour his heart out. Anna refuses. He asks Mary to go instead, and Mary is very pleased.
As Mary does, Harry tells Tom that Anna would never have married him. He tells Tom that Tom is turning into a conventional person. Tom responds by telling Harry that Harry has a similar job, that they are not so very different. This makes Harry stop making fun of Tom. The four then begin to speak of Dave Miller, a friend of Anna, whom Harry says Anna should marry instead of Tom. Anna says she never will and predicts that Dave, despite his apparent unconventionality, will end up like Harry—married and routinely cheating on his wife. Harry is angry at Anna's portrait of him.
While they are talking, the doorbell rings again. Mary exits to see who it is. With Mary gone, Tom uses Mary to scare Anna. He says that Anna is on her way to becoming Mary, an older lady obsessed with cats, because cats will be her only company if she continues to refuse marriage proposals. Anna insults Tom, in turn, to defend Mary. Her last word is that she would rather be lonely and true to herself than a compromiser like Tom.
Harry and Mary leave, and the person who rang the doorbell reaches Anna's room. It is Janet Stevens, one of Dave Miller's casual girlfriends. Tom leaves.
With Tom gone, Janet explains why she has come. She is pregnant by Dave, having decided to trap him into marriage by not using birth control. She has not seen him for days and is fearful that he may have left her for good. She knows that Dave is in love with Anna. She wants Anna to tell Dave about her situation. She leaves upset but glad about what she has done. She says it will be good for Dave to settle down.
Next, Dave arrives. Anna is by now deeply frustrated and upset. She has broken an engagement with a man she has been in love with. She is in love with Dave, and she knows that her relationship with Dave is bound to end as well. At first, Anna behaves coldly towards Dave, and he does not know why. Finally, she melts. They sit cross-legged on the carpet facing each other, as if to begin a ritual, and it is clear they have done this before. The lights dim and the walls of Anna's room fade away. The two seem to be floating in the midst of the great city of London.
Anna and Dave are as they were at the end of act 1. Anna stands and becomes as she was when she was a child, mimicking her childhood Australian accent. She is speaking to her mother as she apparently did sometime in the past, declaring that she will never become like her mother: isolated, on a farm, tied to the home by endless duties.
Next Dave goes back into his past. He acts out a scene from his childhood on the streets of Chicago. He is with friends. They are pretending that they are depression-era gangsters. He recalls how he had strong political convictions even then, going through anarchist and socialist phases.
Dave next talks about how he once went to see a psychoanalyst. He begged the psychoanalyst to explain to him how to be content. The doctor tells him to marry and to have a couple children. Dave is both scoffing and nervous as he tells the story, as if he is worried that the analyst is right in telling him to live and believe like most everybody else. Dave also explains how his parents were hardly present as he was growing up. They were both union organizers and often traveled.
They hear a commotion in the street. The women across the way are fighting, as Anna saysPage 169 | Top of Article they did the previous night. Anna and Dave speak anxiously about wanting a better world and wanting to be better people themselves. Anna says she once tried very hard to conjure a vision of herself as an entirely different person. What she saw was a tiger. She called the tiger to her, and it was purring. Then it slashed her and began to snarl. Next she heard its keepers calling and wheeling out its huge cage.
The phone rings, but Anna does not answer it. She tells Dave that his future might simply be marriage to a typical American girl. Anna announces that she is very tired of trying to be good.
Anna turns on the light. The walls of the room return. She declares to Dave that her and Dave's relationship is over. Dave is frustrated. He tries to force Anna to interact with him. She repeats that their relationship is over. She says that they are not so very special, that they are merely egotists. She says that egotists are people for whom self-respect is more important that anything else, even other people. She belittles herself and Dave. They speak briefly of Anna's child. Dave asks what the child means to Anna. She says the child gives her hope in a better future.
Harry and Mary return; their drunken, boisterous voices are heard. There is the sense that Harry will spend the night with Mary. Mary enters but leaves shortly thereafter. Harry enters and says that Mary has fallen asleep. Anna tells Harry to go home to his wife, Helen, which angers Harry. The telephone rings. Harry is sure it is Tom. Anna repeats that Harry must go home to Helen. He does so.
Anna finally tells Dave about Janet's visit and her situation. Dave is not particularly shocked. He says that he will marry Janet if that is what she wants but that he will not really change. He accuses Anna of using Janet as an excuse to end their relationship.
The telephone rings. It is Janet. Dave consoles her. He hangs up. Dave and Anna look at each other. He leaves.
Anna begins to cry. She pours herself a drink. Mary comes in and takes the drink away from Anna. Anna says Dave has gone to get married. Mary says he was bound to. The play ends with the two women speaking about how Anna's boy will be coming home from boarding school soon. The walls of Anna's room once again dissolve. The curtain falls.
Anna Freeman is the main character of Play with a Tiger. Over the course of the play's action, she explains to her fiancé that she will not marry him, watches another man she is close to realize that he has been trapped into marriage, and interacts with a friend and with the woman from whom she is renting two rooms. Anna Freeman is an Australian woman who has lived in London long enough that she has lost her accent and speaks like any other middle-class Londoner. Her husband was killed in an unidentified war, perhaps World War II, and she has a child from the marriage. She supports herself by writing reviews of books, and the like, on a freelance basis. Lessing's choice of surname for Anna is significant, as much is made of Anna being "free" in the play. Yet, freedom is not a blissful state for Anna. To be free in the play means to be wholly independent of persons and institutions that conflict with one's ideals. Anna's ideals are that women should be considered the equals of men, that society should be less consumerist, and that governments should be more interested in equalizing society by improving the lot of the working classes. It is important to her not to take a regular job, as this would mean contributing to the strength of society as it stands. Thus, Anna is free at great emotional and financial cost, making very little money and remaining alienated from the mainstream of society. Anna's ideals also explain her decision not to marry. Her feeling is that the institution of marriage, as it stands in British society, does not work as well for women as it does for men. She believes that if she marries she will be compelled to fulfill a particular wifely role that will stifle her individuality. Her feelings that marriage will weaken her ability to live according to her principles are strengthened by the fact that her fiancé, who used to support himself as she does, has taken on a regular job. He is sick of his financially precarious existence, and Anna sees this as evidence that he is becoming a part of society's mainstream.
Mary Jackson owns the house in which Anna lives and rents rooms for herself and her child. She appears intermittently throughout the play. Like Anna, Mary is a widow with a child. She is about ten years older than Anna. In a way, she represents Anna ten years in the future. As such, she represents the difficulties of freedom, as Anna imagines freedom.Page 170 | Top of Article Mary is lonely, craving male companionship but finding that men of her own age gravitate toward women much younger than themselves. She is intelligent and emotionally strong, but there is the sense that her circumstances are wearing her down. There is much discussion of her and her cat, as if she is on her way to becoming a doddering old lady who does little else but talk to animals. Tom uses Mary to scare Anna, to make her think that she will be ridiculous, and lonely, in ten years' time, when she is still unmarried and her child has gone off to college. At the end of the play, Anna and Mary stand together, as if to communicate that as long as women who refuse to compromise have each other, they will be able to withstand the difficulties of their circumstances.
Tom is the character with whom Anna is interacting at the beginning of Play with a Tiger. He appears only in act 1. He and Anna are discussing what was to have been their impending marriage and Anna's decision to break the engagement. Like Anna, Tom is highly principled. Also like Anna, his means of financial support are precarious. In fact, apparently motivating Anna's decision to break off their engagement is his recent decision to take on a regular job as business manager at a woman's magazine. There is the sense that he has taken this job partly in anticipation of his marriage so that the new household will be financially stable. Anna sees this as evidence of a change in Tom's character that does not bode well for her own future. She thinks that his decision to take the job is evidence that he is compromising his ideals, and she fears that in marrying him she will be drawn into a circle of compromise. Although Tom manipulates Anna into thinking twice about breaking off their engagement by exploiting her fears of being alone, he remains a mostly sympathetic character. He is intelligent, treats Anna as a friend and an equal, wants her to change her mind, but does not humiliate himself in his attempts to convince her to do so. Further, he knows that she might still be seeing another man and is bitter, but not abusive. He insists that he is the better choice for her and that financial stability is something she should think about.
Throughout Play with a Tiger, Anna refers to a man who stands vigil in the street below, looking up longingly at the window of some women who live in an apartment across from Anna. According to Anna, the man is in love with one of the apartment's inhabitants.
Dave Miller is a U.S. citizen in his early thirties temporarily in London. He is the child of two labor activists and is active in international socialist politics himself. He is a vivid character, energetic yet tortured by self-doubt. He arrives at Anna's house after Tom, Harry, and Mary have left and after Janet Stevens has visited Anna. He interacts with Anna after his arrival until nearly the end of the play. He and Anna are in love, even though their affair has been taking place with Anna still considering Tom as her primary partner. Dave encourages Anna to remain true to her ideals and not to marry Tom. His attitude about Tom might be motivated by possessive feelings, although he is supposedly above such sentiments. His attitude about Anna's potential marriage is also ironic, as he finds out over the course of the evening that he himself will be marrying shortly; one of his casual girlfriends, Janet Stevens, is five months pregnant. He cannot shame the woman and let her have an illegitimate child, and so he will do what he has said he never would, and what Anna should not, and that is marry a conventional person. To Dave, this marriage means that he will be Janet's husband in name, but not in spirit. Implicitly, he is claiming that his role will be, primarily, to provide financially for her and the child. He insists that Janet's pregnancy should have no effect on his and Anna's relationship. But for Anna, the event of Dave's marriage is the definitive end of their association. He will, after all, end up returning to the United States, and she knows that she is unlikely ever to see him again. Thus, Dave is a character prone to self-deception; he is far less able than Anna to remain true to his ideals, but he seems to believe that he is doing so.
Harry Paine is a man in his fifties who has a job similar to Tom's new one. He is married and has serial affairs. His wife, Helen, who is often referred to but never appears in the play, is ill and accepts his affairs, although they demoralize her. She accepts them in order to maintain the marriage. Much as Mary, as a character, functions to refer to Anna in the future, so Harry functions as a possible future version of Tom. In other words, Harry and Helen's marriage is what Anna fears hers and Tom's will become. Will Tom settle into his job and eventuallyPage 171 | Top of Article come to take Anna for granted? Will he begin having affairs with younger women like Harry does? Will she accept these affairs as Harry's wife does out of fear of change? Mary and Anna pamper Harry. It is clear that they are in the habit of listening to his woes and making him feel better when one of his young women leaves him. Indeed, he visits Anna and Mary for sympathy because his latest affair has dissolved. Considering that Anna and Mary identify with Helen and all other women in her position, their attachment to Harry causes them emotional conflict. Anna's acceptance of Harry also demonstrates that her ability to avoid compromise is imperfect. She dislikes how married men in her society pursue affairs as a matter of course, yet Harry remains her close friend.
Helen never appears in Lessing's play, but she is referred to often. She is Harry Paine's long-suffering wife, putting up with his infidelities because she cannot bear the thought of ending the marriage. She is ill, which makes Harry's infidelities seem crueler, yet he has no intention of changing his ways.
Janet Stevens is a young U.S. citizen in her twenties, who is a lover of Dave Miller. She knows Dave well enough to know that he is unlikely to marry her, and Dave has told her that he is in love with Anna. She becomes pregnant in order to force him to marry her. She arrives at Anna's home after Tom, Harry, and Mary have left and before Dave arrives. She has been unable to get in contact with Dave, and she knows that Dave, sooner or later, will see Anna again. She wants Anna to tell Dave that she is pregnant. She is somewhat ashamed of her dishonesty, but she is also defiant.
Lessing's introductory comments on her play, addressed to potential directors, state that Play with a Tiger is "about the rootless, de-classed people who live in bed-sitting rooms or small flats or the cheaper hotel rooms." "Such people," she says, "are usually presented on the stage in a detailed squalor of realism which to my mind detracts from what is interesting about them." Of interest to Lessing in particular appears to be the way in which many of these persons choose their peripheral status in their pursuit of alternative social and political convictions. To be sure, Lessing's major characters in Play with a Tiger are, or until recently have been, committed political activists, wholly dedicated to their project of changing the world for the better. Their quick, complex speech is delivered with passion; their every act, every moment, is of the essence.
Anna, Dave, and Tom's desire to mold the world into the better one they envision involves their remaining peripheral to the mainstream, as to them all institutions and social practices as they stand perpetuate the tainted system they decry. Anna is just able to scrape together a living by freelance writing. Tom is perhaps finally giving up on his fight, as he has just accepted the offer of a regular job. Similarly, Dave calmly accepts the news that a casual girlfriend is pregnant, and he must marry her. His equanimity suggests that his having been trapped into marriage is not so unwelcome after all, that he is somehow relieved at having been put in the position of having to give up on being different. However, despite the changes of heart the play's principal men seem to be undergoing, it is understood that they are activists, committed to a vision of a changed and better world.
To be free in Lessing's play means to be impervious to the traps of conventional society, to see that the truth lies in other ways of living. The value of this sort of freedom is seen in Lessing's contrast of Harry and Helen's conventional and problematic coupling and Anna and Dave's wholly passionate liaison. Harry betrays the spirit of his marriage as a matter of course; Helen remains married to him, but unhappily. Clearly, they are not really a couple, despite their married state. The intimacy, passion, and comradeship of Anna and Dave stand out by contrast (even as Dave appears to be preparing to give up on his convictions). The two are intellectual partners, eagerly challenging each other and mostly happily agreeing on their aims. They are a "new" couple, man and woman, equal and not focused on their own private comforts but on the good of all.
Yet, this sort of freedom takes its toll on its adherents. Anna and Dave suffer in their position on the fringes. They are lonely, as idealists of their ilk are few and far between. The smallness of their numbers means that they have to work for changePage 172 | Top of Article particularly diligently. Thus they are drawn to what they imagine are the solaces of accepting things as they are, for example a less stressful life.
The specter haunting every fervent, radical political idealist is compromise. These persons believe a changed world will be a better one so that participating in societal institutions as they stand is torture tantamount to supporting them. Yet the changes they desire are for the future to deliver, and so the possibility of not having to compromise is nearly impossible. As Lessing's play shows, idealists can simply become weary with the effort of what Anna calls being "good." Tom has compromised his ideals by having accepted a job as business manager in a typical (as opposed to progressive) women's magazine, and Dave is on his way to becoming a husband and father in middle America. Tom is not particularly happy with himself, but he has arrived at the point where he can accuse Anna of being a hopeless romantic. In other words, he is suggesting that these radical views were appropriate in his youth but that greater wisdom, or greater age, entails "compromise."
At the center of Lessing's play are Dave and Anna. They kneel together on the floor, facing each other, engaging in explorations of their past and motivations. They feed off each other's company and long for each other, as the play's man in the street longs for the woman he does not yet know. Anna and Dave's intense relationship points to a vision of love and togetherness extolled by many persons of Lessing's generation. This is not a vision of coupling whose first passion eventually wanes, transmuting into a comfortable, filial intimacy. It is love always fiery, the means by which people continuously grow as persons through a profound communion of minds. Sexuality is a core component of Lessing's vision of perfect love; it is the engine that fuels lovers' growth and deep togetherness.
Like Lessing, many other, younger, mid-twentieth-century Westerners were convinced that their parents' and grandparents' generations had been sexually repressed, caught in the belief that sex was shameful, missing out on one of life's greatest pleasures. Middle-class younger persons were also unhappy about the different sexual standards for men and women, with men given license to experiment sexually, at least before marriage, and with women expected to remain virgins. Further, in middle-class circles various nineteenth-century attitudes about women's sexuality lingered, notions that many women were ready to contest. These were that women enjoyed sex less than men and that enjoying sex was in fact contrary to a true woman's nature. These changes in people's attitudes about sex, in conjunction with the notion that sexual activity was conducive to creativity and personal growth, led to the strong interest in sex that characterized the counterculture and other progressive social and political movements within the mid-twentieth-century West.
There are a great many symbols in Play with a Tiger. Symbols are places, persons, or things in an artwork that suggest a number of ideas, as opposed to just one. For example, the tiger that Anna says she once imagined may be a symbol of creative energy, the danger that trying to change society entails, and of the ideal society Anna wishes for. The man who spends his evenings looking up at the window of a woman he is in love with may symbolize yearning and passion in general and the deep passion of Anna and Dave's love in particular. Anna's room window is also a symbol. It is a symbol of her connection to others and to the outside world. Hence, when she is emotionally overwhelmed in the play, she closes the window, as if to retreat into the safer realm of a wholly private world.
Setting and Props
The setting of Play with a Tiger is, throughout, Anna's room in Mary's house. According to Lessing's stage directions, it is a very large room, sparsely furnished. Lessing's stage directions also indicate that the items that furnish the room, the stage "props," are to be austere: "there are no soft chairs or settees where the actors might lounge or sprawl. This stark set forces a certain formality of movement, stance, and confrontation." Further, at the end of act 1, and for the entire act 2, the walls of Anna's room are dissolved, so that the stage becomes even barer, and the room seems to be a part of the street. The starkness, strangeness, and formality Lessing strives for corresponds to her sense that "naturalism, or, if you like, realism, is the greatest enemy of the theatre." By naturalism, Lessing means a play whose settings and action attempt to mimic those of real life.
The physical discomfort of the actors that the play's props and setting guarantee points to the difficulty and discomfort of their lives. It is difficult to have high ideals and attempt to live up to them; it is difficult to believe differently than other people and so not fit into the mainstream; it is difficult to change oneself and the world. The language of Play with a Tiger conveys these central ideas of the play as well. The characters are always highly passionate in their speech. They often hurt each other with their words, and they often argue. What this conveys, again, is the suffering, difficulties, and stresses of people who refuse to accept themselves and things as they are.
Roughly speaking, there are three generations of characters in Lessing's play. The children of Mary and Anna are the youngest generation. Anna, Tom, and Dave are another. Mary, Harry, and Helen represent a third, oldest generation. The children represent the future, which is as yet unknown and which may be, perhaps, a world closer to that which Anna desires. The rest of Lessing's characters are doubles of each other. Tom and Dave might become Harry, who represents a typical, married British man of the time. He is complacent about his wife, certain that she will not cheat on him, and certain that he may cheat on her as much as he likes: Harry works; Helen, as a typical homemaker, does not; Helen for financial reasons must put up with her husband and conform to his rules. Anna, for her part, might become Mary. Mary is lonely but still has her self-respect.
Fantasy and Transformation
In act 2, Dave and Anna relive moments in their past. They seem to become the children they once were. Anna also recounts a fantasy that seemed very real to her, like something she was actually experiencing. This is the story of the tiger on the loose thatPage 174 | Top of Article she tells to Dave. These moments of fantasy and transformation point to how the world will change for the better only if people try to imagine something new and different. Dave and Anna are willing to imagine; they are persons trying to usher in new and better ways of living.
Britain was a thoroughly chastened nation by the end of World War II. Its vast world empire, which it had built up over the course of the nineteenth century, was unraveling. Many of its former colonies had achieved, or were in the process of fighting for, their independence. Furthermore, London, amongst other cities, had been devastated by German bombing campaigns during the war.
In addition to rebuilding and regaining economic stability, postwar Britain was experiencing significant changes in its sociocultural makeup. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, roughly speaking, Britons tended to fall into either one of two major social groupings: the working class/small shopkeepers or the upper-middle/aristocratic classes. A modern, white-collar, middle-class population had begun developing in the 1930s, but its ranks were as yet quite small.
The cultures of Britain's two major class groupings were widely distinct. The urban working classes had come into being over the course of the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the nineteenth century. They were rural peasants who migrated into cities to become factory workers and the like. The upper-middle classes and aristocracy were made up of land owning families, industrialists, the small numbers of university-educated Britons, those who had benefited from Britain's imperial ventures abroad, and so forth.
As the middle-class grew and more working-class children took advantage of a greater access to education and university training, Britain's traditional balance of classes and cultures was unsettled. The educated and upwardly mobile children of working-class parents had to define themselves as a new class, threatening the established upper classes in the process. Some of these newly educated, working-class persons became university professors. As academics, they began writing about the history, culture, and values of the English working class. They extolled working-class culture as an integral component of British life, upsetting members of the upper classes who had always identified the nation with their own culture and values.
Also posing a challenge to British life and tradition, especially in the great cities, were the immigrants who began arriving from Britain's colonies or former colonies. Indians, Pakistanis, and persons from Caribbean and African countries, for example, brought their distinct cultures to England and a different history of British imperialism. Whereas many Britons had liked to believe that the colonization of foreign territories had been mostly a boon to the colonized, the new immigrants made it clear that the story was otherwise. Colonization from the point of view of the colonized was a story of terrible oppression, a suppression of local belief and tradition, which resulted in nations of persons struggling to establish stable identities. They were no longer what they had been before they were colonized, but they were not British either. Certainly, they were welcomed to British soil by very few. Thus, Britons had to begin negotiating a new multiethnic, multicultural society.
Post-War British Theater
Some histories of post–World War II British theater stress the way in which one play in particular reinvigorated the drama scene. This play is John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which was first produced in 1956. Osborne's play is highly serious. Its main character, Jimmy, is a young married man with a menial job. He is the son of working-class parents, and he is married to a woman of a higher social station. Jimmy is bitter, angry, and very clever. In his speeches, he attacks the stagnant conventionality of his fellow Britons, Britain's class system, the pretensions of the upper classes, himself, his wife, and more.
This play inaugurated a new trend of high purpose and social inquiry in drama. Before this play, after the war, drama was dominated by "drawing-room" comedies, or light comedies of manners, "whodunits" (murder mysteries), and similar light fare. Osborne is often grouped with other British authors of the era, such as Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe. This group of young writers came to be known as the Angry Young Man. MorePage 175 | Top of Article than one critic called Lessing herself an angry young woman, as her novels addressed the same sorts of thorny social, political, and cultural issues that concerned this group of young men.
The Communist Party of Great Britain
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), of which Lessing was a member until 1956, was formed in 1920. It gained members over the next decades and was most influential politically in the 1940s.
In the 1950s, around the time Lessing left the party, the CPGB lost many of its members. Lessing and others were horrified at the Soviet suppression of a popular uprising in Hungary, one of the Union's member states. They felt strongly that if one of the Soviet republics was unhappy with Moscow's rule, then it should be allowed to determine its own future. Lessing and others at this time finally accepted the fact that Soviet leaders had given up entirely on working toward their democratic ideals and were perpetuating communism through dictatorial political methods.
In the 1960s, the party split into two factions: those who wished to distance themselves entirely from Soviet communism and those who wished to retain ties to Moscow. The former group, committed to what is known as "eurocommunism," garnered more adherents and took over the party.
In 1999, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the CPGB decided to become a think-tank group known as the Democratic Left. Some members,Page 176 | Top of Article however, were not satisfied with this decision and formed new communist parties under different names.
The Cold War
After World War II (1939–1945), with Europe's greatest powers devastated, two superpowers emerged in the world: the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or the Soviet Union). The USSR, which dissolved in 1991, was a group of mainly Eastern European and Asian nations. These two great unions were soon involved in a contest, with the United States dedicated to the spread of capitalism, an economic system based on private investment and ownership, and the Soviet Union dedicated to the spread of communism, a system based on collective ownership and the equal distribution of wealth. This conflict of ideology, or belief, is known as the cold war. It was a "cold" war because the United States and the Soviet Union never took up arms against each other; it was a serious battle nonetheless because both nations intervened extensively in other countries' affairs in an effort to guarantee that its system would be adopted.
Communists in the United States were vigorously suppressed during the period when the cold war was at its height, in the 1950s. This was a bleak period in U.S. political life, since the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and belief. Communists in various other democracies were not suppressed, and so communist parties had memberships in various countries around the globe, including the United Kingdom and Europe, especially the latter.
In Doris Lessing, Mona Knapp writes that Lessing's "main interest in the theater spans the years from 1958 to 1962, and was no doubt inspired by her work as a substitute theater critic for The Observer for a few weeks in 1958." As Knapp says, the plays Lessing wrote during this period "were written concurrently with The Golden Notebook and are thematically related to it."
The play opened in London, in March 1962, to mixed reviews. Critics were appreciative of certain elements of the play and of the acting and staging but found fault with the play's structure. In her review in Theatre World, for example, Frances Stephens writes that "the best passages are concerned with [Anna and Dave's] fierce self-analysis as each in turn looks back to childhood, his in America and hers in Australia. It is part of a desire to unravel the enigma of life and to stumble towards a philosophy that will both explain and justify their love." Yet, as she says, only these "two of Doris Lessing's characters are, strictly speaking, involved in the heart of the play … and the problems, hopes and fears of the remaining four scarcely move us at all." Critic J. W. Lambert, writing in Drama, calls Anna's character an "egomaniac bore." To its credit, he says, the play "has pinned down something about the emotional and psychological rootlessness of much modern life."
When the play was staged in the United States, in New York, in 1965, it received similarly mixed reviews. A reviewer in Variety says bluntly that "Since the characters are loquacious, endlessly psychoanalyzing each other, and since the situation is not very original, the play is tiresome." Edith Oliver, writing for the New Yorker, is less scathing. She writes that the play is "awkward and disappointing" but that it has "a few good moments." She admires the play's "vitality" and states that it has a "literary sureness of touch that is rare Off Broadway."
As Lessing's biographer, Carole Klein, points out, just as Anna's character grows out of Lessing herself, so Dave Miller is based on a love of Lessing's life, the American political activist and author Clancy Sigal. In other words, Play with a Tiger is not autobiographical, but it is, nonetheless, informed by Lessing's own experiences.
Lessing was not happy with the 1962 London production of her play. Unlike its critics, she was displeased with the actors' and director's interpretation of her characters. She felt that the portrayal of Dave Miller was particularly off the mark and was irritated by the long, laborious process of booking actors and getting the play onto the stage. In a 1980 interview conducted by Tan Gim Ean and others, which was collected in Doris Lessing: Conversations, Lessing discusses the 1962 production. She remarks how seeing it performed soured playwrighting for her. As she says, a play, unlike a novel, is not entirely within its author's control, as it must be given to directors and actors to do with what they think best: "That's the agony of being a playwright. Why should one go through this humiliation and torture when you can write a novel and get it printed the way you wrote it?"
Play with a Tiger is rarely discussed in full-length scholarly works on Lessing. Knapp's book is one notable exception to this general rule. Since Lessing is well known as a novelist as opposed to a playwright and since The Golden Notebook, amongst other of Lessing's novels, contains treatments of the same concerns and issues, critics tend to pass over the play, focusing their attention instead on The Golden Notebook or these other novels.
Dell'Amico is an instructor of English literature and composition. In this essay, Dell'Amico explores how Lessing's reformist political convictions inform her play.
Doris Lessing declined to renew her membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain for the year 1957. Like so many other persons with communist political convictions in the West at this time, she felt that she had to cut off ties with the Soviet Union whose communist order had devolved into a pernicious dictatorship. Yet the reformist political convictions that led her to join the party in the first place never left her. Play with a Tiger is evidence of her continued concern with equality, for instance, as it is an examination of how marriage and gender norms contribute to women's lesser status in the Western world. Anna Freeman, the play's protagonist, would rather remain single, even if this means being lonely, as she believes marrying will compromise her independence. Further, the play questions the feasibility and desirability of monogamous relationships. For some communist thinkers, monogamy is seen as a form of ownership—the assumption that another person is one's possession. These thinkers link monogamy to the larger capitalist economic system in which certain persons claim ownership of things as opposed to being interested in the collective good of all. Lessing's exploration of monogamy and "free love" in Play with a Tiger is seen in Anna's simultaneous relationships with Tom and Dave and the problems these relationships cause her.
Play with a Tiger opens with Anna breaking off an engagement with her fiancé, Tom Lattimer. Yet, in very little time, the audience learns that she has been involved in an affair with another man as well, Dave Miller. Anna's sense of freedom in matters of love and sex would not have surprised Lessing's 1962 audience. Audience members would have been familiar either with Lessing's previous works, which also contain explorations of non-monogamous relationships between men and women, or they would have been apprised of such explorations by being attuned to the cultural climate of the time, in which monogamy was a subject of debate. At issue then, in the triangle of Anna, Tom, and Dave, is not cheating or infidelity, which occurs when a couple has an agreement to be monogamous and one member of the couple does not live up to the agreement. Infidelity as an issue is explored in the play through Harry and Helen Paine's relationship. In the case of Tom, Anna, and Dave, the agreement, implicitly, is that each should be free to pursue whatever sexual relations he or she chooses.
From the 1950s through the 1970s in Western culture, monogamy was vigorously questioned in a variety of quarters. Communist thinkers questioned the practice on the basis that it was an extension of the desire to own things, which for them was a problem in capitalist societies. The belief in private (as opposed to collective) ownership deprived too many, they believed, as persons with education or inherited wealth quickly claimed or bought up all that had been previously public and had the power to make laws protecting their possessions, when capitalism as a system began developing. They argued that the rise of middle-class values, which include a belief in monogamy, corresponds to the rise of capitalist ways of being. They pointed out, for example, that in some cultures or eras, monogamy in marriage is not automatic.
Others in the mid-twentieth century questioned monogamy as well. These other doubters included those who believed that people cannot thoroughly explore their sexuality without experimenting with partners and that such explorations are imperative to happiness, self-discovery, and true creativity. These notions of the liberating power of sex were integral to the counterculture movements the 1960s and 1970s.
Lessing's experimenting couples undoubtedly derive from her interest in both communist and counterculture doctrine. The communist underpinnings of her questioning stance is seen in the way that Anna is leaving Tom partly because she believes that he is moving away from his far-leftist political convictions. His taking on a job as business manager of a popular women's magazine is evidence of his doubt in these convictions. The audience understands that this is not a serious or feminist women's magazine, rather a fashion or home publication. He will be working for an establishment that perpetuates women's exclusive association with home and beauty matters. Moreover, as business manager, he will be making sure that the magazine turns a profit. Thus, marriage to Tom would mean accepting the onus to be monogamous. Tom has compromised in the area of work, which may mean he is becoming fully conventional and so will embrace monogamy as well. What then of Anna's attractions to men other than Tom, men like Dave with whom she falls in love, who challenge her intellectually? Yet, the fact remains that Anna agreed to being engaged to Tom. Does this mean that she too has considered embracing the monogamous standard? Certainly, Anna's precarious emotional state and self-laceration suggests her doubts. Nevertheless, she chooses to leave Tom, and so she is, as yet, unwilling to give up her exploratory approach to love and relationships. The allure of intense relationships, such as the one she has with Dave, which challenge her to grow as a person, is obviously still strong.
Besides its exploration of monogamy and free love, Lessing's play considers other topics in love, sex, and marriage. For example, the marriage of Harry and Helen Paine is Lessing's unflattering portrait of a typical British marriage of the time. Harry engages in serial affairs. His wife knows that he does, but she remains married to him, although she is terribly unhappy about his infidelity. Helen, notably, never appears in the play (she is only referred to), and she is said to be ailing. Her absence and illness convey Lessing's take on the situation of many wives of the time. Her absence from the play conveys her lack of power, that is, her inability to determine the rules of the marriage. Her failing health conveys her suffering, that she must accept Harry's ways no matter how much humiliation and unhappiness this acceptance entails. Harry's comfortable sense that he may do as he likes derives from his understanding that his wife is unlikely to leave him, no matter what he does. Clearly, Helen is like many women of the time, brought up to marry as opposed to seek a career. If she were to divorce, her social status would decline considerably for a number of reasons. First, child support and alimony laws were weak at the time. Second, older persons, especially older women, attempting to enter into a university for training in a profession was practically unheard of. Thus, without already having been trained in a profession, Helen would be compelled to take on a menial job, thereby losing her middle-class status.
In contrast to Helen is Anna, who is able to support herself as a freelance writer. Evidently, Anna has been educated sufficiently to compete in a professional world dominated by educated men. This contrast of female characters points to Lessing's learning from communism, which, like feminism, insists that women must be trained in professions in order not to be dependent on men for their financial security. Such dependence, they say, encourages women to remain in unhappy or even destructive marriages. Communists and feminists argue, further, in a related vein, that preschool day care facilities should be extensively developed so that neither half of a married couple would ever have to leave the workforce. They point out that only those persons who stay abreast of developments within their profession remain competitive and employable, so that househusbands or housewives who attempt to enter the work force after many years' absence rarely meet with much success. Certainly, in some Northern European democracies in the early 2000s, these ideas have been taken to heart. High-quality child care is readily available and easily affordable, and persons with children receive generous tax credits.
The characters of Mary and Janet point to other of Lessing's concerns about the status of women and gender norms in the mid-twentieth-century West. Janet's decision to trap Dave into marriage points to how women felt that if they were not married at a young age, they would be looked down on by others. Though Janet is in love with Dave and doesPage 179 | Top of Article what she does partly because she wants him in particular, as a husband, her desperate and devious act suggests how she is compelled to marry as quickly as she can. Instead of taking her time to find a more willing mate, Janet believes that marriage on any terms, even one initiated by manipulation, is better than not being married at all.
Mary's situation explains, to a certain extent, Janet's desperation and rush. When the philandering Harry invites her out for a drink, she is thrilled. Her excitement over this paltry invitation from the questionable Harry conveys the limited nature of her social life. As Tom points out, she receives little attention from men, a fact that follows from her age. (She is in her mid-forties.) Certainly, Harry's affairs are with much younger women, pointing to how older men do not feel obliged to seek out women of their own age. This element of the play refers to a problem that continues to plague Western culture, which is that society does not see beauty or desirability in older women. Older heterosexual women who are single remain sexual beings interested in the attentions of men, yet society associates female sexuality and desirability only with very young women. The sexual invisibility of middle-aged and older women is especially evident in the mainstream movie culture in the United States. The most sought-after female actors are the very young, and they are paired with aging male stars as love interests as a matter of course. This is not to say that they are not also paired with male actors of their own age but rather that younger woman/older man couplings are routine, whereas older women/younger men couplings are not.
The number of persons who believe that sudden, radical change can occur in societies declined considerably from the time Play with a Tiger was written. Most reformist thinkers in the early 2000s worked towards gradual change. Nevertheless, reformist thinkers of the early and mid-twentieth century achieved a great deal. They achieved free health care for all in Europe and other countries, for example, and women's freedoms in the West as well as numerous other countries are solidly guaranteed. Still, reformists remain vigilant, watching carefully as governments legislate a women's right to choose or the right of gay couples to enjoy the same financial and legal benefits as heterosexual couples.
Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on Play with a Tiger, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Susan L. Carlson
In the following essay, Carlson examines the relationship between Anna and Dave Miller in Play with a Tiger.
In her best play, Play with a Tiger, Doris Lessing challenges conventions of both drama and society. Like The Golden Notebook, the play is about relationships between men and women. In it Lessing searches for a freedom in which men and women can coexist, and she demonstrates that such freedom is as rare in the dramatic realm as it is in the fictive realm or in the world. In confronting the politics of both social and dramatic forms, Lessing reveals how inextricably linked they are.
Through her stylized set—part of a London flat "tall, bare, and formal," a room designed to force "a certain formality of movement, stance and confrontations," Lessing draws us into a world protestingly unconventional. In this discomforting room, Anna Freeman, Lessing's main character, struggles to maintain her independence in love. By detailing the inadequacies of male-female relationships in our present society, Lessing creates, in Act I, the context in which we study the play's main love relationship—that between Anna and Dave Miller.
The act opens with Anna's attempt to tell Tom Lattimer that she cannot marry him as she had agreed to do. By refusing Tom, Anna rejects a man she sees as a symbol of all she has fought so hard not to be—"another good middle-class citizen … comfort-loving, conventionally unconventional." In Anna's ensuing dialogues with Tom, Harry Payne (an old friend), and Mary (her landlady), the talk continues to be of marriage. During the repartée, a fashionable disdain covers for the characters' fear of relationship. In reviewing the failed marriages around them, Anna and the others are as dismayed by their limited options in forming relationships as they are by their helplessness in increasing them. The stage is thus set for Dave Miller's entrance.
We are prepared for Dave's central role in Anna's world both by the way thoughts of him punctuate her discourse on love and marriage and by the cameo appearance of Janet, the young woman five months pregnant with Dave's child. When Dave finally appears near the end of Act I, with the cockiness and slightly disheveled nonchalance we expect, we are not prepared for the depth of the intimacy Dave and Anna share. Although Dave initially suffers a verbal and physical battering from Anna for his prolonged absence of several weeks,Page 180 | Top of Article they slip quickly into the accustomed rhythms of their intimacy. They also reveal a vulnerability toward one another as Anna tells Dave, "You and I are so close we know everything about each other," and Dave echoes back, "Anna, when I'm away from you I'm cut off from something." As the two move through their mental strip-tease, rolling off the layers of protection they don for dealing with others, we too relax under the influence of their mutual trust and respect.
At this point Lessing takes us, with Anna and Dave, out of the stylized façade of 1950s realism to a locationless, timeless exchange between man and woman—Act II. The conventional roles the two have played with others vanish along with the physical set:
Anna slowly sits opposite him. He smiles at her. She slowly smiles back. As she smiles, the walls fade out. They are two small people in the city, the big, ugly, baleful city all around them, overshadowing them.
Very simply, in Act I Lessing has set up a conventional theater (although a slightly uncomfortable one) just so that she can shock us at the end of the act by discarding it.
In her brief note on directing Tiger, Lessing comments that the play resulted from her never wanting "to write a naturalistic play again," from her distaste for realism—"the greatest enemy of the theatre." To encourage her audience to do the sort of thinking she feels realism prohibits, Lessing has combined her attention to role playing and relationships with her Act II experiment in dramatic form. Act I ends with Dave's question to Anna, "Who are you?"; Act II opens with and answers the same question. The difference that separates the two acts is symbolized by the loss of a set and by Lessing's answer to the question. Act II is a study in the symbiosis of two selves in relationship.
While Anna and Dave's first exercise in role playing comes off sounding somewhat stiff, during the course of Act II the two lovers are able to identify the source of their relational prejudices by working back through the social roles that have necessitated the fierce battles of their present love. In the acting out of the roles of her mother and of her earlier self, Anna identifies the spectre of her mother's life choices. She recognizes that her quest for freedom and her fear of giving herself are inextricably joined. Dave, playing the roles of his earlier, selves—an American child, a womanizer, and a psycho-analyst—finds himself similarly affected and repelled by convention. A persistent undertow, in the guise of Janet, tugs Anna and Dave back to convention as they restlessly don role after role.
The key to the role playing of Act II rests not in the guises the two assume, nor in the specifics of their dialogues, but in the way role playing allows them to open themselves up to possibilities beyond the conventions that define them. In the rhythm of the act, all the "play" with roles is punctuated by the honest responses it releases. Such realizations are the whole point of the role playing:
Anna: I only breathe freely when I'm with you.
Dave: … sometimes I've reached what I'm needing … and under me America rocks, America rocks—like a woman.
Anna: I hate you because you never let me rest.
Dave: One of these days I'll look in the glass, expecting to see a fine earnest ethical young … and there'll be nothing there. Then slowly, a small dark stain will appear on the glass, it will slowly take form and…
Such breakthroughs ready Anna and Dave for an attempt to map out something new to replace the old. Their epiphanies are the path of possibility. Late in the act, Dave tells Anna, somewhat mockingly, that the only medals God will ever award them will be for trying, for "keeping doors open." Then Dave opens a door:
Anna, look—the walls are down, and anyone or anything can come in. Now imagine off the street comes an entirely new and beautiful phenomenon, a new human being.
Whether the uncharted future is represented by Dave's "superman" or Anna's "superwoman," it entails a transcending of the personal and the present. As both attempt to think beyond all they know, Anna imagines the future as a tiger. Between Dave's sarcastic responses, she reveals the image that pulses with all the power of these people, this act, and this play:
He walked in, twitching his tail. An enormous, glossy padded tiger…. The tiger purred so loud that the sound drowned the noise of the traffic. And then suddenly… he lashed out, I was covered with blood. Tiger, I said, what's that for… he backed away, snarling… But tiger, I said, I haven't done anything for you, have I?… But he stared and he glared, and then he was off—down he leaped and out into the street, and off he padded with his yellow eyes gleaming into the shadows of Earl's Court. Then I heard the keepers shouting after him and wheeling along a great cage… That was the best I could do. I tried hard, but that was the best—a tiger. And I'm covered with scars.
Many critics have recorded their reactions to this tiger and its mirror image in The Golden Notebook, citing its relation to sexuality—Anna's, Dave's, or anyone's—and generally agreeing on its symbolic quality.
Anna brings her tiger to life at the end of Act II, and, at that moment, in addition to being a symbol of the future Anna and Dave can imagine, the tiger becomes a symbol of their struggle to imagine it. In essence, the second act has been their tiger, the superhuman "baby" they have conceived, their best effort to bring to life the possibilities of their love. In its ambiguity, its unpredictability, and its brooding presence, the tiger (and the act) represents the power, both positive and negative, generated in relationships between men and women. It remains, at worst, an unpredictable animal and, at best, an ambiguous symbol. For Anna and Dave have as yet no paradigm of social relations to substitute for the one they know. The tiger represents their dream of a better world, but it remains a dream. Janet is the reality. Near the end of the act, Anna resigns herself to suggesting that the future for now lies not in the promise of her tiger but in the predictable "superman" Janet carries in her belly:
I'll tell you what's funny, Dave Miller. We sit here, tearing ourselves to bits trying to imagine something beautiful and new—but suppose the future is a nice little American college girl all hygienic and virginal and respectable with a baby in her arms. Suppose the baby is what we're waiting for—a nice well-fed, well-educated, psycho-analysed superman…
As Act II ends, Anna's tiger is recaged, ironically powerless next to Janet's much more frightening conventionality.
The reappearance of Act I's "realistic" set at the opening of Act III is our first clue to the distance traveled between Acts II and III. The honesty and tenderness of Act II vanish quickly when Anna and Dave again deal with other characters. The brittle repartée of Act I resurfaces, as do the old male and female roles against which the characters bruise themselves. But perhaps we understand better now, after having experienced Act II, why Mary and Harry seem like caged animals, trapped in the circumference of the roles to which they are tethered. At the end of this final act, just before Dave leaves to find Janet, Anna confronts him with the results of their evening, their second act "play"; however, Dave chooses, at least for a while, to settle for the conventional male role: he will marry Janet. He is not, Anna tells him, willing to expend the constant energy it takes to play with the tiger and live beyond conventional relationships:
Anna: Here you are, Dave Miller, lecturing women all the time about how they should live—women should be free, they should be independent, etc., etc. None of these dishonest female ruses. But if that's what you really want, what are you doing with Janet Stevens—and all the other Janets? Well? The truth is you can't take us, you can't take me, I go through every kind of bloody misery trying to be what you say you want, but…
After Dave leaves and Anna is alone on stage, the walls disappear again. Perhaps Anna will recommence her search for the superwoman; it will be a very different search, however, because she is very much alone.
The innovation and excitement of this play are most intensely felt in Act II. Yet Lessing makes her point about the tiger of Act II by caging it between the bars of Acts I and III. Lessing provides no easy answers, but she shows us answers exist. She tells us, as Anna tells Dave, that new freedoms are hard to come by and that they may come only if we trade in some cherished old ones. The politics of social change, Lessing tells us, are frustrating.
Lessing's battering of realistic stage conventions is her main reinforcement of these messages; her use of comedy is another. Lessing is not known for her sense of humor, perhaps, as Judith Stitzel notes, because laughter "may sap us of the energy we need to shake that something—or someone—off, permanently." In a 1972 postscript to the play, however, Lessing registers her dismay at seeing Tiger performed without humor, counseling future producers that "the undernote or ground of this particular play should be that humour which comes from growing older." Although the play is not a comedy, it does use the leisure, self-consciousness, and openness that have made comedy our main conduit for dramatic portraits of love. Act II, for example, replicates the mood of relaxation and contemplation we feel when Shakespeare moves usPage 182 | Top of Article from Duke Frederick's court to the forest of Arden. The self-conscious role playing by Anna and Dave echoes the posturing so necessary to Congreve's Mirabel and Millamant. Tiger's mixture of moods and modes also suggests comic counterpointing: Lessing's stage directions alert us to "parody," "mimicking," and "mocking." In addition, precise comic timing is called for in the rapid shifts from role playing to physical abuse to tenderness. Lessing is often explicit about the comic expansiveness she is creating, as in this stage direction from Act II:
They [Anna and Dave] look at each other, beginning to laugh. The following sequence, while they throw slogans or newspaper headlines at each other, should be played with enjoyment, on the move, trying to outcap each other.
Such directed moments do not transform Act II into comedy, but they do suggest Lessing's awareness that the space and time of the comic world allow for a leisurely examination of relationships. While Lessing realizes the special freedoms comedy allows, especially for women, she also recognizes the boundaries of that freedom. She knows she cannot write a comedy to study roles and relationships because the genre, for all its expansiveness, cannot accommodate a woman like Anna, who finally refuses roles and molds. In her use of comedy, as in her use of realism, Lessing demonstrates a suitable apparatus for what she wants to promote.
Writing in 1960 of contemporary British theater, Caryl Churchill berates the British dramatists of late 1950s realism for denying their audiences a future. Contending that "depressing" plays like Lessing's earlier Each His Own Wilderness encourage us to wallow in despair, she calls for an active battle against dramatic convention. The way beyond dramatic convention "will not be ordinary, it will not be safe," Churchill predicts, but it promises vital and fulfilling drama. Though Lessing and her earlier play Each His Own Wilderness serve as Churchill's whipping posts, the anti-realism in Tiger (which was not performed until after 1960) fits Churchill's program for a new drama. Lessing's Tiger distinguishes her from the "angry" writers Churchill chides and emphasizes her adherence to testing new dramatic formats.
Lessing's anticonventional drama may be most important today for its prefiguration of the politics and tactics of such current British women playwrights as Pam Gems, Louise Page, Nell Dunn, and Churchill herself. Michelene Wandor has identified certain recurring motifs in contemporary British women's drama, two of which are central to understanding Lessing's theater. First, the plays have the honest, direct approach to the body and sex that Wandor notes in most women writers. Lessing's tiger calls attention to the dangerous freedom we associate with the body and sexuality. While Lessing's stage images of sex pale in comparison to recent, more graphic treatment, as in Churchill's Cloud Nine, Lessing's images are emblematic of the power of the body for women writers. Second, Lessing's plays urge qualifications to Wandor's assertion that contemporary women playwrights focus on female friendship. Lessing's plays do not focus on female friendships; rather, they are darkened by unfulfilled longings for such attachments. In Tiger, for example, Lessing lamely concludes with the brief reunion of Mary and Anna; their fumbling inarticulateness and the awkwardness of the experience point to the need both women have for an intimacy that goes unfulfilled. Lessing shares with contemporary women playwrights an acknowledgment that dramatic forms severely limit the possibilities for on-stage relationships. But while her contemporary counterparts press their belief that men prohibit women-to-women communication, Lessing continues to hold the belief that a new order must be charted by men and women together. This refusal to give up on man-woman relationships does separate her from current playwrights.
Lessing wants to maintain her hope that the world can change and her belief in the transformative power of men's and women's love for one another. She succeeds in part, showing us that it is as difficult in drama as it is in life to transcend roles and types.
Source: Susan L. Carlson, "Doris Lessing, Women Playwrights, and the Politics of Dramatic Form," in Doris Lessing Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 5–7.
Agate Nesaule Krouse
In the following excerpt, Krause identifies commonalities between Play with a Tiger and Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook.
Play with a Tiger, first produced in 1962, shows one evening in the life of Anna Freeman, an Australian-born widowed writer living in London. In the course of the play, she breaks off her engagement to Tom Lattimer, who is on the point of conforming to middle class values; she talks to Harry, a friend strikingly similar to other philanderers created by Lessing such as Graham Spence in One Off thePage 183 | Top of Article Short List and Richard Portmain in The Golden Notebook; she receives a visit from Janet Stevens, a naive young American woman, pregnant by Dave Miller; she talks intensely and intimately with Dave himself, a rootless American, and she recognizes that although she loves him and although they both understand each other and contemporary society, Dave is nevertheless walking out of her life and into marriage with Janet Stevens.
Play with a Tiger has a direct relationship to the Anna/Saul sections of The Golden Notebook. Anna Freeman, the name of the protagonist in the play, is also the "maiden" name of Anna Wulf, the protagonist in the novel. Dave and Saul, political and disillusioned Americans, have similarities too numerous to list, including a driving indiscriminate sexuality they discuss in slightly off-key American slang. In both works, Anna describes a dream about a tiger in almost identical terms. Lessing herself has explicitly indicated the closeness of the play and the novel. After Anna in The Golden Notebook has the dream about the tiger, she thinks to herself, "I must write a play about Anna and Saul and the tiger." And so we have a play by Doris Lessing about Anna and Dave and the tiger. Although Lessing has been justifiably annoyed by commentators who have regarded The Golden Notebook as primarily autobiographical, the very existence of Play with a Tiger suggests an especially close relationship between the sensibilities of author and character in the novel.
Play with a Tiger develops some of the same themes and situations as The Golden Notebook, though more simply and briefly because of dramatic requirements. One of the major themes in The Golden Notebook is that modern experience is chaotic, fragmentary and painful, yet acceptance of this truth can lead to new strength and creativity. The dialogue and staging of Play with a Tiger stress the value and necessity of openness to all kinds of experience. Dave insists that Anna leave the window open, that she not shut herself up against anything, no matter how painful or squalid. Although deeply disappointed in himself, Dave isolates the value of living the way he and Anna have: they have always been ready for "anything new in the world anywhere, any new thought, or new way of living, … ready to hear the first whisper of it." The unrealistic staging also emphasizes their openness; it underlines that they are very much part of the world that surrounds them rather than protected by slogans or self-created isolation. "The lights are out. The walls seem to have vanished, so that the room seems part of the street."
The central symbol in the play, the tiger, stresses the power of imagination and the value of openness to experience as well. Both Dave and Anna despair because of their inability to imagine something better than themselves "to grow into." Only once has Anna had a vision of something other than herself, an "enormous, glossy padding tiger" who "purred so loud that the sound drowned the noise of the traffic." The tiger lashed out at Anna, so that she was covered with blood, "… he stared and he glared, and then he was off… Then I heard the keepers shouting after him and wheeling along a great cage … That was the best I could do. I tried hard, but that was the best—a tiger. And I'm covered with scars."
The tiger of Anna's imagination has some obvious literary parallels: as a representative of awesome power he is reminiscent of the tiger in Blake's poem; as a portent of a terrifying future, he is similar to the "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi," the "shape with lion body and the head of a man" of "The Second Coming." He represents both the power and the limitations of the human imagination. On the one hand, he is beautiful and powerful and he purrs loud enough to drown out the traffic; he represents an escape from the ugliness and loneliness of everyday existence, not by excluding all experience but by admitting it on a different level of one's mind. On the other hand, he is vicious without provocation: in The Golden Notebook, the scars he gives in the dream are impermanent since Anna sees her arm is either not hurt at all or has already healed; in Play with a Tiger, however, Anna is "covered with scars" from her encounter with him. The tiger is also only momentarily free and wild before the keepers shut him in a cage. He is really no improvement over the human race: he is neither morally better nor existentially freer. He differs from "the golden spotted beast" who appears "as if … in aPage 184 | Top of Article country where hostility or dislike had not yet been born" in Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell. The tiger is, finally, a symbol of the male, who maims and hurts, but whose beauty and momentary freedom are desirable nevertheless. Even more specifically, he is Dave Miller.
Considered as a companion piece to The Golden Notebook, Play with a Tiger underlines the richness of the novel. The Golden Notebook is an important treatment of the experience of modern women largely because it fully and specifically deals not only with their personal, but also their political, intellectual, and artistic commitments and problems. Necessarily narrower in scope, Play with a Tiger concentrates on the personal instead. Furthermore, Play with a Tiger indirectly underscores how crucial is Anna's and Saul's mutual descent into madness in The Golden Notebook, how the crackup restores sanity and creativity. Lessing has written that, "… nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled … as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war." Play with a Tiger, however, is about the sex war, and it dramatizes fully the blows struck in it.
But the sex war as presented by Lessing in Play with a Tiger is not entirely convincing, partly because dramatic form demands simplicity and partly because she relies excessively on stereotypes she uses with greater tact elsewhere. The monogamous female, the victim of male faithlessness or unfairness, appears in much that Lessing has written. So does the philandering male. He knows he causes women pain, but he refuses to change. He is usually dishonest, unfaithful, hypocritical, sentimental, un-just, or even all of these things. Contrasted to the women in the same work, he is a rat. While the view that women are morally better than men has been held by some feminists, it does violence to individuals, it is the basis of the double standard, and it can also limit the power of literature.
In Play with a Tiger, as in much of Lessing's work, marriage and other arrangements with men hold disadvantages for women. A repeatedly made, bitter criticism of female-male relationships here is that men successfully use clichés about women to evade their human responsibilities. Although his wife is "cracking up" as a result of his current affair, Harry has the "much used formula" that she likes weak men, that he can't help himself, and that she doesn't really mind his affairs. Dave Miller, in spite of his contempt for slogans, holds the trite but comfortable belief that women are tougher than men and that they don't need to take men seriously if they have children.
There are no exceptions to the rule that men are unfair to women in their behavior and assumptions. In this way Play with a Tiger differs from Each His Own Wilderness where at least one male character, Mike, is a good human being. Anna accuses both Tom and Dave of an unfairness similar to Harry's, and there is no evidence she is wrong. Tom has made callous use of women [sexually]. Anna predicts that Dave when married will behave exactly like Harry: when his wife turns into a boring housewife with no choice but to stay married, he will have a succession of affairs, confess them to his wife, and even use her forgiveness as an added attraction to other women. Dave dishonestly uses one woman to keep free of others. Like the other men he expects this infidelity to be accepted as a matter of course. He aggressively asserts his independence: he is not going to be "any woman's pet" and he is not going to live "according to the rules laid down by the incorporated mothers of the universe." He also cheerfully accepts the fact women have to suffer: he tells Anna mockingly, "Women always have to pay—and may it long remain that way."
Faced with dishonesty and philandering—two characteristics all males in the play possess—a woman just can't win. Marriage, by its very nature, makes women dull, which in turn causes male unfaithfulness and the end of meaningful choice for women. It does not matter what kind of individual a woman is—she is likely to suffer at the hands of men. The philandering males cause pain to their housewifely wives, but they are even more destructive to women who have independence, intelligence, and integrity. Bored by stupid and dull women, they nevertheless are also unfaithful to women who could understand them and with whom they could have real intimacy. Janet Stevens, the pregnant young American woman who is so severely limited in insight she can only talk in awkward slogans, rather than Anna, gets Dave. Janet's values are much inferior to Anna's, who passionately wants an honest relationship with a man, and if she cannot have that, would rather be alone than compromise and accept the kind of self-deception and bitterness her parents had. Janet's values are also different from and inferior to the values of openness and sensitivity held by Dave and explicitly endorsed by the play as a whole.
The bitterest irony is that although men may verbally subscribe to advanced ideas about women, they nevertheless choose the limited and stupid ones. Dave recognizes Janet's limitations perfectly, and he has also repeatedly lectured to Anna that women should be independent; yet he concedes that "some of the time" he can't take women who live without "dishonest female ruses." Anna is bitterly aware that although she and Dave share the same ethical concerns, he will choose Janet. Women, on the other hand, have more integrity in making their choices. As Anna remarks early in the play, "Perhaps she [Mary] prefers to be sex-starved than to [sic] marry an idiot. Which is more than can be said about most men." Anna herself does not get what she wants: "Any man I have stays with me, voluntarily, because he wants to, without ties." She suffers, but she does retain her integrity.
Dave, however, in spite of his bitter and convincing understanding of the shortcomings of conventional life generally and Janet specifically, does the most conventional of things: he does right by the girl he has gotten pregnant. While one could expect predictable reactions from Tom and Harry (i.e., every Tom, Dick, and Barry) Dave is clearly meant to be exceptional. All the values of this play and all of Dave's angry insights are violated by his decision to marry Janet. Furthermore, this decision makes Play with a Tiger extremely one-sided. In it, males use clichés or accept stereotypes about women when it is to their advantage to do so, even though their preconceptions are clearly wrong. On the other hand, although women, too, believe a number of trite things about men, these beliefs do not wound men, in spite of the fact that the structure of the play establishes that the female views are an accurate way of seeing reality.
Lessing's excessive reliance on the stereotype of men as dishonest and faithless makes the play disunified and limited. The first and simplest problem is the discrepancy in Dave's characterization, which is related to the question of how one is to regard the thematic values endorsed in the play. Dave's decision to marry Janet is unbelievable on a realistic level. He has slept with women and left them before. He has not reflected, as Anna insists that he should, what happens to those women and what his responsibility is. He has been unquestionably courageous politically. He is aware of the meaninglessness of conventional life and of marriage to a stupid woman. Such a man, realistically, would not suddenly marry a silly young pregnant woman from Philadelphia just because she happens to cry on the phone—especially since he has not had other powerful forces of society marshalled against him. No rich daddy has appeared with threats or bribes, no dispassionate advocate has convinced him that responsibility to an individual woman is part of responsibility to the whole human race or that his failure to do his duty would make his statements about society hypocritical. His abrupt decision is totally unmotivated.
That in itself would not matter so much, if it did not raise a more serious problem. Are we to regard Dave as a hypocrite, a label that fits perfectly the other two men who behave like him? That implied answer provides an easy way out of the discrepancy in characterization, yet it does not work. Dave so obviously means it when he says society stinks and that he doesn't want to be part of it. He has not been spouting advanced social ideas while secretly longing for the safety of marriage. But how seriously can one take his ideas, or his tormented longing for personal goodness, if the only real decision he has to make shows that he behaves according to the fact that he is male—in Lessing's definition here—rather than human? In other words, she has developed a character who is interesting from an aesthetic, philosophical, and sociological point of view, but the resolution of the play either oversimplifies him or undercuts the concepts he represents. It also trivializes the symbol of the tiger. Dave, like the tiger, is caught, and like him he is responsible for Anna's being covered with scars. But one would hope to see the keepers of the cage. The resolution of the play suggests that they are nothing more than a young woman from Philadelphia.
Lessing herself has sensed the one-sidedness of the play, but has blamed it on mistaken casting and unfair cutting of lines. In a postscript written in 1972, she has noted that "some Women's Liberation groups" have cast Dave "as a fool, a stud, or a nothing man, making it 'a woman's play' … a self-righteous aria for the female voice." She goes on to observe that unless Dave is "cast and acted so that he has every bit as much weight as Anna, then the play goes to pieces." But even without indiscriminate cutting, the resolution of the play makes its vision of female-male relationships one-sided.
Other problems in the play can also be seen by reference to the stereotype of the dishonest philandering male. A recurring theme is that the conventional beliefs of society are ridiculous and narrow. Both Anna and Dave are satiric toward them. And yet, Anna holds a highly traditional viewPage 186 | Top of Article of male sexuality and is shown to be right in holding it. The belief that men need more sexual outlets than one woman is not so different from the belief that society needs stable marriages. Both of these views are the basis of the double standard. But the men in the play, somewhat boringly, enact a cliché. Anna's and Lessing's irony does not extend to an examination of all assumptions of society. Instead, the irony is directed only against male beliefs and behavior. It is not all-encompassing.
The play is also narrow in its human sympathies. It is Anna's play: what hurts her is treated seriously, while parallel situations are dismissed, forgotten, or handled satirically. For example, Anna's suffering is real and terrible when she loses Dave. On the other hand, Tom Lattimer, who loves her and whom she rejects, is shown to be pompous, hypocritical, and cruel. That he could suffer equally as a victim of the sex war is not a consideration. In the same way, Harry's actions are shown to cause his wife pain, but his own anguish about the marriage of his mistress is not treated seriously. He dramatizes his problems, and he selfishly demands sympathy and sexual satisfaction. Unlike Anna, he is not covered with scars and never will be.
The most interesting case of a character whose suffering is not taken seriously and whose situation is not related to a thematic motif is Janet Stevens. Pregnant, young, desperate, and uninteresting, she is about to marry Dave. She is clearly getting no prize. While she is not likely to suffer as intensely as Anna, she will suffer long, consistently, and fully according to her capacity. Harry's wife, mentioned early in the play, probably foreshadows Janet's future. Dave will not be responsible for turning Janet into "just another boring housewife"—she already is that—but he is likely to be a terrible husband. Yet this connection is never made. Anna is sorry that it's not her baby and she sarcastically says that she wasn't as intelligent as Janet. But Janet is so stupid as to be almost a comic figure. The sympathy for all women as victims, which would follow logically from the assumption of male unfairness, is forgotten. Anna only, not Janet, is to be regarded as an object of sympathy. The kind of elementary sisterhood, so well treated by Lessing elsewhere, is not developed. Men are harder on intelligent women, but at least the housewifely women get the men. And, the play implies, that is a victory of sorts rather than the victimization that other motifs would lead one to expect. Anna keeps her integrity and suffers. She is superior to other women and all the men, but it is hard to accept her as an ideal in feelings or insights. She just happens to be right about female-male relationships because of abrupt elements in the plot and in spite of the fact that her view does not include all the complex situations touched on in the play.
And yet, Play with a Tiger cannot and should not be dismissed because of its flaws. Its value lies not only in its relationship to The Golden Notebook, but also in its anger. Lessing dramatizes the problems, not the victories of an intelligent and independent woman, and it is as unfair to expect calm impartiality from a play produced in 1962 as it is today. Certainly, a generation that elevated the idiosyncratic Jimmy Porter of Look Back into Anger into a profound critic of society, needs to consider Anna Freeman as seriously. Probably more so.
Source: Agate Nesaule Krouse, "Doris Lessing's Feminist Plays," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 15, No. 2, November 1976, pp. 305–12.
In the following review, Gellert praises the intent behind Lessing's play but says the play suffers in performance.
It is a brave man—and perhaps a braver woman—who attempts to expose on a stage the intimate mental gropings of lovers. Love shared is perfect to the sharers but embarrassing to observers; love illreciprocated gains at once in dramatic interest, but the necessary condensation of experience into a few pithy scenes leads almost inevitably to a bloating of life's absurd delicacies, a kind of noisy, rhetorical sensitiveness that carries its own built-in alienation effect. Basically, one mustn't funk it, Doris Lessing's Play with a Tiger (Comedy) has a lot in common with, say, The Deep Blue Sea of Rattigan—the doomed love of a serious, mature woman for a callow, bumptious youth—and it's surprising, looking back on it, how far Rattigan's lack of profundity was made good by his crafty construction. In Mrs. Lessing's play the pains of disparate love are more authentically probed, but they suffer by magnification and have little craft to cover the cracks.
Anna Freeman (Siobhan McKenna) is a widowed Australian writer of 40 or so; she has a son away at boarding-school, and lives in a great, grey Earls Court bed-sitter, tapping out 'little reviews on this and that'. She has been having an anguished affair with a young, 'hip' Jewish-American called Dave Miller (Alex Viespi), a hulking, oversexed, egocentric infant who buffoons his way from bed toPage 187 | Top of Article bed with supreme indifference to the fate of their occupants. That's why, Anna says, he calls every woman Baby—'the anonymous Baby, in case you whisper the wrong name in the wrong ear in the dark'. All Dave wants is someone to lie with and talk at—anyone, as long as they are changed regularly, like sheets. Anna is a pretty good talker herself, and they have a mutual-analysis game called 'Who are You?' where they dim the lights and recall their childhood, interchanging reflections on marriage, parents, hypocrisy and truth, while the hidden London of Alan Tagg's fine set kindles and looms outside. The core of the play is devoted to a long session of this game, directed by Ted Kotcheff with a moody brilliance that exactly serves the tragicomic clash of Anna's and Dave's temperamental needs. The only trouble with these over-articulate jousters, as with Elaine Dundy's thespians who preceded them at the Comedy, is that they are so word-perfect in their recriminations that one feels they are enjoying it all too much; and one begins faintly to resent the portrayal of left-wing love as all biting and flyting.
Other frauds, victims and failures hover at the edges of Mrs. Lessing's canvas—Anna's friend and landlady, Mary (most endearingly played by Maureen Pryor), an attractive eccentric losing her grip on life, growing deafer, drunker and sillier; the journalist Harry, philandering doggedly on, refusing to face his wife's unhappiness; Tom, the young man from Birmingham into whose priggish embrace Anna rebounds during one of Dave's absences; and Janet, a bourgeois American innocent whom Dave gets with child. These last two are mere caricatures, pathetic butts for Anna's misery to chastise, but Mary and Harry are sympathetic studies of the sort of nice, disintegrating people we all know. For most of the time, however, we are alone with Anna and Dave locked in their indecisive brawling, until she concludes that 'there are more important things than love' and convinces Dave, momentarily, of his responsibilities. The protagonists are brought over-poweringly to life, but whether one feels elated or enlarged by an evening with them is less certain, for Miss McKenna (stern, beautiful and ravaged though she is) dangerously overstresses Anna's self-pity and witheringly superior attitude to others' feelings, while Mr. Viespi's Dave, six foot of relaxed, rubbery egotism, is very funny (his account of treatment by a British psychiatrist is magnificent) but finally insufferable.
Source: Roger Gellert, "Liaisons," in New Statesman, Vol. 63, No. 1620, March 30, 1962, p. 462.
Ean, Tan Gim, et. al., Interview, in Doris Lessing: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, Ontario Review Press, 1994.
Klein, Carole, Doris Lessing: A Biography, Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2000.
Knapp, Mona, Doris Lessing, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984.
Lambert, J. W., Review of Play with a Tiger, in Drama, Summer 1962, pp. 18–19.
Oliver, Edith, Review of Play with a Tiger, in the New Yorker, January 9, 1965, p. 86.
Review of Play with a Tiger, in Variety, January 13, 1965, p. 82.
Stephens, Frances, Review of Play with a Tiger, in Theatre World, May 1962, pp. 5–6.
Klein, Carole, Doris Lessing: A Biography, Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2000.
Klein's biography discusses Lessing's life after the publication of The Golden Notebook.
Knapp, Mona, Doris Lessing, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984.
Knapp's text is a solid study of Lessing's literary works, including her plays. Knapp's study includes an excellent bibliography of Lessing criticism, reviews, and interviews.
Lessing, Doris, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949–1962, HarperPerrenial, 1997.
This second volume in Lessing's multivolume autobiography covers the period during which she wrote Play with a Tiger.
Sprague, Claire, and Virginia Tiger, Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, G. K. Hall, 1986.
Sprague and Tiger's collection includes essays covering all aspects of Lessing's literary career. It also contains a chronology of Lessing's life and publications and a good introductory overview of her work and career.
Wills, A. J., An Introduction to the History of Central Africa, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Wills's book covers the history of Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.