The two opposing ideologies in this play are liberal humanism and post-structuralism. How are they represented? How does the play operate to position the audience to finally prefer one above the other? Dead White Males is a play about a sexually deprived lecturer, Dr Grant Swain, who attempts and almost succeeds in bedding one of his students, Angela Judd, by utilising his position in the university, and by imbuing his views upon his students. Alongside this plot is the conflict between two ideologies, liberal humanism and post-structuralism. Angela, the main character of the play is compelled to make a choice between post-structuralism represented by Dr Swain, and liberal humanism, (Shakespeare), who is constantly opposed and criticised by Swain. By the end of act one it is quite obvious who the villain of this play is. In the opening scene the villain first shows his destructive nature through his unnecessary violence. “ANGELA How is it that you know so much about us? [SHAKESPEARE is just about to answer when a MAN in his thirties, dressed in fashionable casual clothes appears behind him.] MAN He doesn’t you know. [The MAN pulls out a pistol and shoots SHAKESPEARE dead. ANGELA looks at the MAN, horrified]” (Pp 1)
The man in this scene is of course Dr Grant Swain, and his dramatic entrance encourages us to dislike him, because we feel it is wrong to shoot people for no apparent reason. Swain appears to us the villain, due to his unmistakable character, for, aside from his violent episodes, we find that he is interested in only one thing. Sex. He tries to hit on Angela, but she declines his offer. After Melissa accepts his offer of dinner later on, he quickly and conveniently loses interest in Angela making it obvious that he was concerned with only one thing. Another quality we disfavour him for is his over-confidence. From the beginning of the play, when introducing himself and his course, he is “animated by the intense certainty that he has a supremely important message to communicate and is enormously well equipped to deliver it.” Swain endeavours to shoot Shakespeare several times, and although this is only in Angela’s imagination, we are positioned to agree with Angela’s attitude towards Swain because she is one of the sympathetic characters. The audience sees Angela as one of the “good guys”. She is a sympathetic character, and her circumstances as well as her attributes position us to see her as such.
Sympathy is evoked for her: 1. Because she seems naive, and readily falls prey to Swain’s way of thinking 2. Because she is a victim of the villain 3. She has been deprived of the nurturing her mother should have provided 4. Because she has suffered through her childhood as a result of her parents’ “happy marriage” 5. When she is embarrassed in front of Steve Also she defends Col, and takes on the rest of the family. In doing so she becomes a sort of heroine, defending the helpless and upholding the truth, and this positions us to like her character even more. The warring ideologies in this play are represented not only as favourable and unfavourable in this play, but also by certain characters. By establishing who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”, the representation of the characters’ respective ideologies are also determined. Post-structuralism is without doubt the unfavourable ideology in this play. This is simply because it is expended through the villain of the play. Even though Angela admits that she ‘think(s) there is some truth in what he (Swain) says’ (Pp 80) the fact that Swain subscribes to post-structuralism still conquers, causing post-structuralism to seem as flimsy as its subscriber does.
Even when Angela reprimands Shakespeare for his disgraceful casting of women, liberal humanism still holds its approval above post-structuralism, as Shakespeare asks to be wished back to an era of sanity, implying that Angela’s views are insane. Because post-structuralism is the unfavoured ideology, liberal humanism has no other option but to be seen as the favoured one. It’s values and attitudes are mouthed by unobjectionable characters and so are preferred over that of post-structuralism. The play operates by using conventions such as characterisation/casting, tone, dialogue, and conflicts, as well as using our own ideologies to position us to view all the characters and ideologies as we do. When there are conflicts between the characters we instinctively choose sides, as we look for a character to feel for and a character to be disinclined to. This helps to support liberal humanism throughout the play, as in each individual conflict we find that the pitiable characters are those that speak the patriarchal type ideologies, whereas the aggressive characters mouth the more modern ideologies.
This occurs between Swain and Shakespeare, Col and his daughters, Col and Sarah, and Sarah and Martin. The casting and characterisation of Dead White Males plays a major part in determining who and what are preferred above the others. By having certain characters approve certain ideologies, it encourages the audience to also approve or disapprove of those ideologies. Swain an objectionable character is so very offensive because of his character. He is power hungry, as well as sex orientated as we see in his reaction to Melissa’s let down. ‘SWAIN You’ve really made and idiot of me, haven’t you? MELISSA Are you saying the marks you gave me weren’t genuine, because if you are – SWAIN Of course there were genuine, but – MELISSA Good marks equals sex. Is that what was going on in your mind? SWAIN No! For God’s sake this was not a case of exploitation. I have grown extremely fond of you! [ANGELA enters. SWAIN makes a great effort to control his anger.’ (Pp 91) By using him to mouth the more passive ideology, the audience becomes less receptive to it.
However it is not enough to just have the good guys endorsing the dominant ideology, and the more offensive guys endorsing the bad one, for the audience to accept the prominent ideology. So the good guy (Angela) becomes a victim of the evil post structuralism, and then is shown the light. In the end she succumbs to liberal humanism causing the audience to look upon it favourably. Ironically, the majority of the males in this play are far from the liberal humanist version of the typical dominant male. They are all somewhat spineless to s certain extent and are all victims of their dominant ideology. Swain, being ridiculed for his view, Col being abused by his family for being loyal to a mate, Steve and Martin, both being not very assertive and so are run down by their lack of confidence. The females too are far from their docile liberal humanist stereotype. Sarah is a headstrong feminist, Melissa is ready to give Swain exactly what he deserves and Angela is almost bullies her father as much as the rest of the females do.
In fact the characters although mouthing liberal humanist beliefs (well, some of them) actually conform to post-structuralist stereotyping. However, this juxtaposition of the cast with the plot only reinforces liberal humanist attitudes, suggesting that if the males and females had been playing their respective roles then perhaps the story would not have been so miserable. The play uses our own ideology as well to make us choose one of the plays ideologies above the other. Note that it is very difficult to gain the support for an alternative ideology from an audience when dominant ideology of our society is liberal humanism.
The two opposing ideologies in this play are liberal humanism and post-structuralism. Dead White Males operates by using techniques such as characterisation to position us to prefer one ideology above the other. The main way the play does this is by having an objectionable character, mouth the values and attitudes of post-structuralism, causing us to prefer liberal humanism. In the end I feel there is only a slight preference of one over the other because although Swain is the villain who shoots himself in the foot, much of what he says is historical fact. Bibliography : Dead White Males by David Williamson