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Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones Review Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones is one of the first examples in which it was demonstrated the way of showing the unconscious on the stage. He used two actresses to demonstrate two different personalities of the same character which was a unique convention that had never been used before. This new technique along with the publications of Sigmund Freud who was on a trip to New York at the time of the productions spread interest in the use of the unconscious mind. The visual split of the ego and the id on stage was one of the first examples when dramatizing the unconscious was favored over realism. These factors made this play one of the most produced and most popular plays.

Discussion of the characters of this play would start with the character of Margaret Caldwell. The character she is playing is one-half of one character in this play. She is the cultured part of herself, and she is the alter ego of her character. She longs to escape from the desperate situation she is forced to live in. She is married to John Caldwell, with whom she is living in poverty, as he is a painter who unsuccessfully tried to make a living as an artist. Margaret loves John but the severe poverty she lives in is overwhelming this love. As she is dreaming of good food and all the privileges that wealth can bring she would exchange her love for the money, although she does not show that.

The other side of Margaret is Maggie who is a character-driven by instincts. She always gets what she wants, and does not avoid confrontation. Maggie always seeks the true meanings of words behind the words of her ego or Harriet. When Margaret says “It is not too much when one considers that John is in the foremost rank of artists today. A picture painted by him now will double and treble in value. “, Maggie responds with “It’s all a lie. He is growing weak with despair.” (Goodman, Washington square plays.1916)

She is not afraid of telling the truth though it sometimes may seem pessimistic, it’s all in her operating on a primitive level. As seen throughout the play, both characters Maggie and Margaret complete each other.

Maggie is controlled by her needs for food along with overall hunger, and Margaret is controlling her so she will not overcome her and make her behave in a way that is not typical for her. Those are two minds of one person portrayed in the play by two different characters.

Similarly is the character of Harriet Goodrich who is married to the very rich Charles Goodrich. She has everything typical for wealthy people. It can be noticed the use of the last name of her husband good and rich, to emphasize the conditions of their wealth. Although she pretends to be happy in her situation, she hides the truth about being trapped in her marriage.

She once dated John Caldwell who even proposed to her, but in the search for happiness in wealth she turned him down as she expected that life with him will lead to poverty. Despite turning him down she is still in love with him and feels jealousy of his marriage with Margaret, but as a polite woman who was taught how to behave, she never shows her true feelings to Margaret.

Harriet’s alter ego is Hetty who as Maggie represents the true feelings of her id. It can be seen through the dialogue of the characters that whatever Hetty is saying is the true feelings of her id Harriet. Harriet wants to regain John, but she never shows that, while Hetty acting on her primitive level is not ashamed of pushing Harriet to succeed in that direction.

As in the case of Margaret, Harriet must work hard to hold Hetty from overcoming her. In analyzing the remarks of the characters, it is obvious that while Harriet acts politely because of the way she is taught to behave, Hetty expresses what she wants, and if we ignore the fact that in the play the personalities are played by two different characters, it can be seen that as one complete character she suffers from the limitations put on her by her culture and politeness.

There are some distinguishing marks in the style of the play that can be seen through the three acts. The use of the alter ego as a single character allows the audience to track down the inner thoughts of each character which might be possible with one character, but it wouldn’t transfer the visual and the physical conditions of the emotions the character is feeling. The use of darker tones for the color of the counterpart costume is a symbol of the kind of emotions each alters ego carries. The use of such symbols along with the imagery of the counterparts in shadows helps the audiences to link both characters together.

The play concentrates on many themes which can be recognized throughout the acts that help to understand the culture of that period. The proper behavior of the characters of Margaret and Harriet while having contrast feelings to each other shows how manners of society were important in that era.

Following those rules can be understood as a necessity at that time as it can be seen their ways of hiding the emotions they are going through. Another matter is the subject of the personality relation with her alter ego which was used in this play.

The conflict of the personalities of the man in the modern world is enlarged by using the different character styles.

While the struggle of the person with his demons can be pictured in the way that person looks or acts. On the other hand, the duality in the characters helps deeply understand the emotions and the thoughts that are contradictory to each other. The ideas of Sigmund Freud at that time which concentrated on the topics of the unconscious mind along with the ego–id theories, helped to popularize the play while being one of its main themes. The setting of the play is perfectly suitable for showing the conflict of morality and instincts.

While it can be said that a modern version of the play would still have success, it’s true that the emphasis on morality and social manners which are so distinctive and characteristic of that era would not be so honest in bringing the same feeling of suffering for a modern world man. From that perspective of that era, it can be noticed that both the characters of Harriet and Margaret are similar to each other. Both of them are searching for happiness, both of them are unhappy with the situation they are caught in.

They both are trapped in a position forced on them by the circumstances that surround them, and both of them would lie in an attempt to break free from that trap.

The emphasis on that situation is the setting of the play. Although the play is taking place almost a decade after the end of the Victorian era, the effects of that era can be traced through the play.

The social values and morality distinctive to that era perfectly adapt as a set for the play. In addition, although it is seen in the play, that the man is the master in the house, it can be sensed that a feel of feminism is formed in the play.

Both women depend on their men to bring wealth and happy life for them, and though Margaret tries to help her husband to get a commission from a painting, she is generally disappointed in her life.

The sense of feminism might not be obvious, but for that era – the era, in which women were supposed to sit at home, they had some choices, limited though. They could not improve the situation by themselves, so a search for the best option to link with was the only way. Their unhappiness with what they have, and the desire to have the position of her rivals raises another set for the play which is jealousy. The jealousy as a stimulant might have been one of the main provocations for their alter egos to push them forward.

On a final note after analyzing the play, the first of the many features of the play that would be summarized is its novelty. Novelty in visual style along with a good idea makes this play a mark, especially with good execution. The human inner depth portrayed in this play demonstrates the closeness of the audience with the character.

As even for a reader it is easy to find similarities and draw parallels between the struggles of the characters and oneself. The fight in which modern man always tries to prison his demons might be typical to any person no matter what age or gender he is.

Works Cited

Goodman, Edward. Washington Square Plays Ed. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1916.

McMahan, Elizabeth; X Day, Susan; Funk , Robert. Literature and the writing process 5th edition, Prentice Hall College Div, 1998.

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