Mac Wellman's Description Beggared; or The Allegory of Whiteness At the turn of the millennium, the Ring family gathers for a family portrait. Uncle Frazier ("the Marplot"ÃÂ), Cousin Julia ("the Eraser"ÃÂ), Aunt Bianca, Moth, and Louisa (the ninny) present a wonderful parody of our society's problems.
Whiteness is the central metaphor of this experimental play by Mac Wellman, and the director makes sure that nobody fails to recognize this point. The audience is presented with a snow-white stage with white furniture and white flowers, and characters dressed in a stunning array of white fabrics, feathers, lace and vinyl.
The Rings have fabricated a story for their family and refuse to acknowledge anything that does not fit in neatly. They have completely lost sight of the fact that life has two sides, Good and Evil (white and black respectively), and that only by recognizing and being aware of Evil a human person can appreciate and chose Good.
The Rings, however, show their ignorance of Evil when throughout the play they do not seem to notice anything black. They do not acknowledge that Uncle Frazier puts on a black top hat and cape at one point during the play; they call the zebra "white"ÃÂ, even though it obviously is made up of just as much black as white. Ironically, though, they try to have a photo taken failing to realize that the negative will turn black into white, and white into black.
The idea of the Rings' whiteness in the play could be intended to call the audiences attention to our own shortcomings when it comes to seeing the world as it really is. How often do we see evil on TV and instead of dealing with it we switch channels? How many of us have thought that sponsoring a needy child sounds like such a wonderful idea, but decided to wait till after Christmas and concentrated on buying presents for our privileged families and friends instead? As a society, we all are to some point aware of wars, poverty, diseases and misfortune in other parts of the world, but chose to live our daily lives as if those things did not exist.
The zebra in the play could have been a symbol for what our society puts on a pedestal "ÃÂ money, fame, and careers for example. We look at these things (much like the Rings at the zebra) as white and good, as our ultimate achievements. We measure people by them, and fail to realize the black "stripes"ÃÂ, the destruction of moral values and spirituality, increased numbers of divorces, single parent families and neglected or abused children. Arthur Machen, whose story "The White People"ÃÂ this play is partly based on, was involved in occultism and pagan rituals, which supports this interpretation. The zebra is elevated almost to the status of a god to be worshipped, just as modern American society worships money, fame, and careers.
Another interesting symbol in the play was the white dwarf. The fact that the director (presumably with the playwright's consent) chose a clown's costume is very telling. A clown is supposed to be a symbol of childhood fun and laughter, yet many people find clowns unpleasant or are downright scared of them. And really, an evil clown is a pretty horrible idea! The sinister clown in the play might stand for Frazier's sub-conscience. It stands for what is evil in a live that is pretending to be only good. Frazier feels that there might be something wrong with his views.
The Rings have fabricated so many lies and stories that they themselves have started to believe them. Their own stories about flea circuses and wars become more real to them than history. This point is shown when they can neither remember what the "originating documents,"ÃÂ the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, are about, nor the words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."ÃÂ Again, there is an equivalent in our society. We, as well as the Rings, have forgotten if not the words than at least the spirit of these important documents of American history. Instead of acknowledging that all men are created equal we still live with many forms of discrimination. African-Americans as a group are still looked at as less smart and more likely to be violent or commit crimes than Caucasians, women are paid less for the same jobs as men. The problem is not so much that discrimination still exists, but how many people have settled with it, accepted it, and really do not view it as a big problem, as well as how many people are not really aware of the discriminating opinions they hold and views they share.
Interestingly enough, the Rings are unaware of the image they put forth. They talk about Louisa wanting to be white at some point in the past but luckily recognizing the error of her ways and returning to their family instead. The Rings seem to know that here is something wrong with being white, but they have not noticed that that is exactly what they are. They need to be shown a mirror in form of the interrogation in order to start realizing that they are doing something wrong. The change of costumes from pure and sparkling white to dingy off-white/light gray in the end might show that the process has begun and that there might be hope even for this family.
Another obvious point in the play was Mac Wellman's use of language. The characters' conversation often seemed confusing and disconnected. Language has lost its purpose. This reflects our society in so far as we tend to use conversation only to achieve our goals and purposes. The use of conversation as a bonding tool for families or friends has been as good as lost. Instead of spending time with each other sitting on the porch or in the living room talking to family and neighbors we now tend to watch TV or spend time in front of the computer.
Overall, Mac Wellman does a wonderful job stunning his audience. All of us have assumptions and expectations when we go to see a play. We are expecting it to look and sound a certain way. Often, when we get what we expect, we put the play out of our minds shortly after leaving the theater. Not so with this play. Mac Wellman forces us to look at ourselves from a very different angle. He takes issues out of their ordinary contexts and presents them to us in a new way.
Personally, "Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness"ÃÂ has made me (and is still making me) reconsider the way I think about myself. It makes me wonder how honest I really am with myself and what stories I might have fabricated or what memories changed to fit my picture of myself. I, too, look at the world in a certain way and have assumptions about what things are and expectations as to how everything should be. This play might have been enough of a wake-up call for myself to try to become more open-minded about the world around me. The question is: How long will it last?