(The BBC, 1988)
Executive Producers: Kenith Trodd and
Rick McCallum. Producer: John Harris, Director Jon Amiel.
Famous fictional detectives usually seek evidence which will
set their clients free. In "The Singing Detective,"
the detective frees himself. This is not uncommon, but Dennis
Potter's device is perhaps unique. The detective, a literary
creation of his fictional author, Philip Marlow, deliberately
shoots dead that tormented and embittered writer of whom he
is the double. The execution, which delivers a new Marlow,
is thus a symbolic act of procreation drawn from ancient myth.
Gothic tales typically conclude with the hero as shattered
as his double, like "Frankenstein" and "Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". In The Singing Detective, however,
Potter's is no common hero. The release provided by the detective
enables a changed Marlow to attain a new identity. En route
to this metamorphosis, he confronts his own buried, guilt-ridden
"The Singing Detective"
is an almost flawless, self-contained, significant work of art.
Marlow, hospitalized throughout the play, is afflicted by psoriatic
arthropathy. His skin is hideous, his joints are horribly crippled,
and he is suffering terribly. The dramatic content pertains
to Marlow's severe psychological problems and to the reconciliation
of his conflicting infantile urges - clashes so powerful that
they had been expunged long ago from his awareness. Memories
of forbidden wishes, longings, and curiosity return, sometimes
as hallucination or delirium, sometimes in dreams, often terrifying
or attended by extreme guilt. He confronts these despite intense
resistance. The play convincingly dramatizes what used to be
labeled psychosomatic disease.
The play's title is deceptively simple. "The Singing
Detective" is also the title of a work within the play,
in which a detective who resolves several entangled crimes also
entertains by singing in a nightclub. The central focus is on
the present and past life of the suffering author of that detective
story, whose life is presented as a complex puzzle. He struggles
to revise his out-of-print book, but these endeavors are often
derailed by the delirious wandering of his fevered mind. Marlow's
life is entwined with that of the singing detective.
The psychological wheels spinning around in Marlow's current
reactions, reveries and creative activities are also impelled
by the power of memories of emotionally charged incidents of
his early life. Meanwhile, his mind is busily at work modifying
scenes in his book. Potter's device of intermingling the lives
and minds of these two characters (one of whom has created the
other) sets a dualistic clockwork mechanism in motion - wheels
within wheels. Reality and fantasy, the past and the present,
and even individual identities transform or alter before our
The dynamic elements of Marlow's repressed early childhood have
also been spinning against the changing social, political, sexual
and cultural climates in which he has lived. The dramatic evolution
of Marlow's own life is even more engrossing than are the complexities,
subtleties, and obscurities of his detective story. The more
entrancing story in Potter's play is not the one Marlow wrote
but the mystery of the tragedies in Marlow's life - how and
why they arose, and how he had carved his own destiny. Thus
two detective stories in this one play challenge the viewer.
At the end the detective confronts his putative author. We unravel
the clues Potter has planted, and solve both mysteries.
Philip Marlowe, the tough, savvy detective whom Raymond Chandler
introduced in 1939 is the inspiration for Potter's fictitious
Michael Gambon plays the roles of Marlow (no e), a writer of
detective stories, and of a character whom Marlow has created
- that is, the singing detective. Potter sets the story Marlow
is re-writing in the 1940s. Marlow's own life as writer, husband
and sick patient is set in the drab London hospital where Marlow
is being treated without much benefit. His thoughts turn often
to his childhood. He appears as nine and ten year old Philip.
Philip's early life is set in the Forest of Dean and in London,
usually in Hammersmith, where Philip lived with his mother and
her family after a move from the Forest when he was ten.
The singing detective is a healthy adult in a 1945 London setting.
Potter will take his audience deep into "The Singing
Detective" before Marlow appears, and only further
along do we see (and hear) the singing detective (18).
In the opening scene, entitled "Skin," the camera
moves slowly through a rough-surfaced, textured outdoor passageway
and a vaulted exit. It is drab, deserted, dark, damp, ominous,
and melancholy. The background music, Peg o' my Heart (19),
lugubriously rendered on a harmonica, adds to the gloom. Another
vaulted exit opens onto a plaza, where a vague figure materializes:
a scruffy, crippled, busker is playing the harmonica. Even more
vague is a dim outline of a lurking observer. The camera pans
to a flight of stairs leading down to a cellar boîte
with the neon identification: "Skinskapes". (We hear
"I've Got You Under My Skin.)" A doorman appears,
wiping a stain off the back of his right hand. Abruptly, in
a somewhat nasal, smug pronouncement, comes a voice-over - which
will turn out to be that of the singing detective. The doorman,
he says, could pretend that the stain is lipstick and not blood,
but "how'd it get there? Let's be economical . . . If he
slapped some dame across her shiny mouth, then he's got both
answers in one!"
The next character seen is Mark Binney. Urbanely dressed à
la 1940s London, he is lean, lithe and prepossessing, but wary,
cold and intense. He arouses the interest of the audience, but
he is not likeable. The beggar has seen Binney standing in an
archway, apparently waiting for a signal. He changes his tune
to a few bars of "Deutschland Über Alles."
Binney deftly passes a note into his cup, directing his confederate
to meet him at Skinskapes. As Binney then disappears down the
stairs, the singing detective is heard again, contrasting the
stairwell down which the man has disappeared with the rabbit-hole
into which Alice fell. "But there were no bunny rabbits
down there. It was not that sort of a hole. It was a rat-hole."
Marlow, as yet unseen, recasts the singing detective's observation
about rats, adding "the way those creatures nibble and
gnaw at your underbelly can do a lot of damage to your nerves."
When he rewords his thoughts about rats, he adds "Full
stop. New paragraph," and it becomes clear that the action
has been a performance of scenes which someone is creating -
or, as will become explicit, re-editing.
The singing detective's voice is heard again: "A rat always
knows where its tail is, but when Mark Binney went down into
Skinskapes, he might just as well never have learned the difference
between his tail and his elbow." For those who might have
failed to associate a rat-hole to an anus, Potter makes the
connection all-but-explicit. The rat-hole is the first - after
the introductory scene of the passageway - of many symbols and
allusions to the bowels and their function. A vein of anality
runs through this play.
The bartender unaccountably jumps slightly, and instantly the
scene shifts to a hospital corridor. Marlow appears for the
first time, his face horribly scabrous. He had been jolted when
his wheel-chair rolled over a bump, which momentarily disrupted
his reverie. He verbally commands himself: "Concentrate!"
and again conjures up Skinskapes: Binney gains the attention
of the bartender, and gets both the female companion he requests
and the drink suggested by the bartender. Coquettish, sexually
attractive Amanda introduces him to beauteous, dark-eyed, Russian
Sonia. He exchanges a few words in that language with her. Amanda
orders champagne and calls Binney "Sugar" and "Toots,"
which he coldly mimics.
Soon he excuses himself to go, he explains,
to the "gents." As he leaves the room, two mysterious
and sinister men watch him. In fact, he searches for the busker,
whose body he discovers hanging in a closet with a knife embedded
in the chest. Binney closes the eyes of the dead man and bids
"Goodbye, old fruit," but he appears unmoved.
The singing detective now appears. Somewhat stocky and reasonably
fit, he does not, nevertheless, appear rugged. He sports a moustache;
his usual attire is a flashy plaid suit. Although he cautions,
"I'm not as cheap as I look," he seems to attract
"the cases the polite guys pass over." He conceals
his decent, generous, and somewhat poetic true character behind
a hard-boiled facade, mouthing such platitudes as: "Am
I right, or am I right?" He always knows the score, and
lays it on the line (in this case, to his client, Binney):
"Dogshit by any other name smells just as foul, my
friend. And it still sticks to the bottom of your shoe no
matter what you call it. Be as mealy-mouthed as you like,
but not around me, OK? You've stepped in something nasty,
and you want me to clean it up. Isn't that right? I'm the
scoop. I'm the brush and shovel.
For all his verbal toughness, he seems
to be somewhat lacking in masculinity. He warns, "Reach
for that gun and you're a dead man!" but looks more at
home twirling a parasol as he sings and dances "The Umbrella
Man." The detective is obviously a caricature of Chandler's
Marlow. He is unsuccessful in his efforts to protect people
from being murdered: When he is not too late to shoot at the
villain, he usually misses; when he himself narrowly dodges
a killer's bullet, it kills an innocent bystander. One would
not want to have to depend on him. Confusions abound until he
settles his score with the "real" criminal. At the
end it becomes understandable that the singing detective's shortcomings
have not detracted from our fascination.
Director Jon Amiel achieves his spectacular effects through
intriguing, meticulous craftsmanship. Time alters its pace;
sequences are artfully jumbled; people take on each other's
appearance, subtly and sometimes fleetingly. The voices of the
singing stars of the '40s are lip-synched to perfection. Words
from these classic renditions of old favorites and phrases spoken
out of context orient us to themes which preoccupy Marlow, and
to fresh impingements on his consciousness. The focal plane
of the drama shifts repeatedly. Events on the ward attract his
attention, but delirium or hallucination divert it. As he edits,
episodes in the hospital get confused with those in his book.
At times, his voiced punctuation marks jolt the viewer to awareness
that what he has been witnessing, fleetingly, has been drawn
from the plot of "The Singing Detective" in Marlow's
mind, and not from a current event or from Marlow's memory of
an incident in his own life. The dramatic presentations of these
scenes are almost inextricably entwined with depictions of his
childhood and his recent past, all in a constant process of
elaboration and revision. As this unfolds, the songs (which
often seem inappropriate to the immediate context) take us by
surprise. They sometimes come out of the mouths of the most
improbable singers - for example from a patient with an advanced
case of Parkinsonism, who is in fact unable to utter a single
word. They are among the clues which Potter has cunningly worked
into the script. In this instance, the patient is being returned
from X-ray to a bed recently vacated, twice, because his predecessors
had suddenly died. The initial impact is one of incredulity,
as he sings "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow"-almost of
shock at this ludicrous, bathetic interlude.
Marlow appears again in his wheelchair, his exposed skin inflamed
and hideous. He repeats to himself Binney's contemptuous parroting
of Amanda's empty endearments, but time and place have changed
back to present reality. It is tea-time; a black orderly is
wheeling him down a corridor and onto the ward. There are murmurs
of revulsion at the sight of his lesions. Although his expression
is noncommittal, his hostility to his surroundings is evident:
he looks neither right nor left, and acknowledges no one. When
the orderly expects him to get himself from wheelchair to bed,
he responds with a laconic "Can't!" The orderly carries
him onto the bed, and begins to remove Marlow's X-ray smock.
Marlow protests "Close the curtains!" The orderly
demurs: "Aw, aw, now - we's all boys in here together"
and then sees what he has uncovered ("Hooo, man. Jesus
holy shit!"). Eager to get away, he puts his headphones
back on, closes the curtain, and leaves. Marlow, unable to reach
his pajamas, topples on his side, soon to be upbraided by an
officious nurse for his inappropriate position in the bed. His
snarled explanation gives us a glimpse of his nasty temper.
All the patients are subjected endlessly to staff badgering.
When Nurse White offers tea from the passing trolley, each must
acquiesce to her demand: "Say `Please'!" Marlow banters
with Ali, a Pakistani in the next bed. They share a rebellious
derisiveness which galls the more rigid and limited members
of the hospital staff. When Ali almost burns his fingers trying
to use Marlow's propane lighter, Marlow quips: "I could
see the deadlines: `Another Asian Burnt to Death.'" Ali,
grinning, lights Marlow's cigarette. A well-meaning young physician
assumes that Marlow's racial taunts must be offensive to the
Pakistani; their disdain finds its most humorous expression:
he realizes belatedly that he is the butt of their ridicule.
In a stunning example of television drama at its best, Marlow,
naked but for a loin cloth, is seen stretching upward, in agony.
A group in hospital staff garb strides forward to the strains
of "The Entry of the Queen of Sheba," and clusters
at his feet, contemplating the afflicted figure. A symbolic
crucifixion suggests itself. The body, at first appearing vertical
on the television screen, is flat on a hospital bed. The white-coated
legionnaires are a Visiting Medical Professor with full entourage.
To them, the man is a medical embarrassment. His body is failing
to respond to therapeutic efforts. They observe the skin disorder
which is flaying him alive, as members of the staff describe
to the chief the earlier medical mismanagement which has aggravated
the crippled condition of the patient's deformed joints.
In a burst of passion, the man pleads for their attention to
him as an intelligent adult, and he gains it, momentarily. He
describes his torment: unable even to laugh or to cry without
pain, he is, he says, "A prisoner in my own skin and bones!"
He tells them that he cannot get a handle on it, and begs for
death. The response of the medical staff takes on an unnerving
surrealism as they verbally toss around Librium, Valium, barbiturates
and anti-depressants. While they exchange these one word suggestions,
they begin to snap their fingers in syncopation. (The patient
has become delirious.) The episode gives way to a macabre musical
comedy routine: Attractive nurses in fetching ballet costume
dance to the tune of "Dry Bones," high-kicking at
skulls and playing on skeletons' ribs as on a xylophone. The
medical team and attending staff are, meanwhile, fully into
the swinging, bouncy gospel tune, ending with "Now hear
the word of the Lord." As the music ends, so does Marlow's
delirium; the ward returns to normal.
Philip Marlow is a very troubled man. He has not been successful
as a writer; his marriage is a wreck, and there is no indication
throughout the play that he has ever had a friend, although
when Ali (the "brown bugger") dies, his grief is deeply
moving. Marlow later offers a glimpse of his deepest feelings:
He discloses to his psychotherapist that he would not have wanted
to write trivial stories about sordid lives. He had wished to
be a Mozart of literature; "to have used my pen to praise
a loving God and all his loving creation." Even with his
therapist, Marlow's banter has an abrasive edge. His psychotherapist
reads aloud from a passage in "The Singing Detective":
Dr. Gibbon: "Mouth sucking wet and slack at mouth,
tongue chafing against tongue, limb thrusting upon limb, skin
rubbing at skin. Faces contort and stretch into a helpless
leer, organs spurt out smelly stains and sticky betrayals.
This is the sweaty farce out of which we are brought into
being. We are implicated without choice in the slippery catastrophe
of the copulations which spatter us into existence."
Marlow responds: "Oink! Oink! Oink! . . . Oh, I see. Psychiatry
is not nasty enough for you. You still want to get into literary
criticism, do you, running down that slope, with swine to the
left of you, swine to the right of you, grunt, grunt."
(The acerbic but not totally dismissive aside is a perfectly
delivered riposte, as apt as if Potter had written the scene
in anticipation of the present essay.)
Although we understand by way of occasional cryptic indication
that Marlow is reformulating "The Singing Detective,"
we never get sidetracked to the details of his editing. Instead,
Potter quickly carries the audience into the intricate and sometimes
confusing details of Marlow's own life. He is not always certain
about his own identity. He has overheard another patient, Mr.
Hall, complain that Marlow's appearance would have put him off
his bread and jam, if they bothered to give him any. Subsequently,
while being wheeled back to his ward, Marlow's feelings toward
his ward-mates finds silent expression: "Bastards! I'll
wipe you out! Do you know who I am? I'm the singing detective!"
The clues are often obscure and baffling. Comprehension emerges
gradually. All of the action in which Marlow is not directly
portrayed is taking place in his mind as he loses himself in
the plot of his detective story. In those dramatizations, the
singing detective usually takes center stage. An exceptional
one depicts Marlow's paranoid enactment of his wife's presumed
adultery and treachery.
As the psychological turmoil builds, unexpected and often stunning
excursions relieve the stress, comparable to the "Dry Bones"
episode described earlier. In one, compassionate, attractive
Nurse Mills draws the curtain around Marlow's bed and pulls
on transparent plastic gloves, in order to apply ointment to
his ulcerated skin. "Bit like being in a tent in here,
isn't it?", she asks, "with the curtains shut like
this." She becomes briskly professional when she removes
his pajama trousers. As she approaches his genital area, he
tries frantically to avoid signs of his arousal. "Oh, cock,
do not crow, Poor cock do not stir," he pleads silently,
and then tries to concentrate on something "really boring!"
All to no avail. Violin music builds toward a crescendo, and
suddenly Nurse Mills appears as Carlotta, an erotically alluring
entertainer and singer. A typical nightclub crowd, among them
Amanda and Binney, listens and looks with enthusiasm as Carlotta
puts her all into "Blues in the Night." After the
applause dies down, she says, matter-of-factly, exactly what,
as nurse, she had just said to Marlow: "Sorry. But I shall
have to lift your penis now, to grease around it." At that
climactic moment, a group of paunchy, half-drunk, middle-aged
men jump to their feet, whistle, stamp their feet, and applaud.
Marlow, having just ejaculated, comes back to reality with intense
embarrassment, and apologizes. Nurse Mills, flustered, washes
her surgically gloved hands, and suggests, "We don't need
to talk about it, do we."
"The Singing Detective" offers few escapes.
In another scene bearing the stamp of Potter's special talent,
Noddy, a senile patient suffering from Parkinsonism, wakes in
the middle of the night, assumes that the person in the adjacent
bed must be his wife, and makes his shambling way over to and
astride Marlow. Marlow emerges from sleep, indignant. Then,
tormented as he realizes what has happened, he makes a futile
effort to struggle free. The commotion wakes others on the ward.
They begin to complain, but when the lights go on, they whoop
with laughter at the spectacle. The evidence of Marlow's helplessness,
pain, revulsion and terror dispels the comic relief of the ludicrous
In another episode, George, a new patient in the adjacent bed,
somewhat senile, cardiac, and a heavily addicted smoker (as
are Marlow, the singing detective, several characters in other
plays, and Potter himself) has been regaling Marlow with an
obscene account of his wartime pleasures as a soldier in Germany,
able to get shagged for a few fags (cigarettes). Increasingly
excited by his reminiscences, he suffers a heart attack. Marlow
taunts George for having taken advantage of young blonde girls.
He is slow to shout for a nurse. In fact, it appears probable
that he remained silent until he senses that George may have
breathed his last. Later, upset, he asks Nurse Mills whether
George might have been saved if help had arrived sooner, but
shows no remorse at her laconic "Who knows?" Marlow
is rigidly intolerant of sexual selfishness. He is, also, misanthropic
and immersed in rage and self-pity. Almost nothing, however,
has as yet elucidated the origins and sources of these attitudes.
Thanks to the superb acting of Gambon and the rest of the cast,
the director pursues the narrow path which the dramatist has
created. The spectators are buffeted about emotionally between
the humor of the human comedy and the pity, embarrassment, contempt,
disgust or simple pain which some of these episodes elicit.
In several sudden shifts of scene, the nude body of a beautiful
woman is seen floating face down in the Thames. A boat-hook
pulls the corpse toward a small police boat into which the body
is unceremoniously but gently hauled. When they turn it face
up, one cannot recognize her on the first few occasions. There
are onlookers on the nearby bridge. Had she jumped? Was she
killed and thrown in? Whodunit? Why?
Night again. The singing detective is near a pillar of Hammersmith
Bridge. He feels "the creeps with a capital K. Am I not
right?" The water is black and thick, and looks cold, but
it shimmers in the moonlight. "It makes dirty water look
like silver, turns flotsam into the crown jewels, and causes
poor slobs in the cuckoo-house to think they are Jesus Christ
or F. W. Woolworth. Am I not right?" He drags cigarette
smoke deep into his lungs.
Abruptly the scene shifts to the second floor of Binney's apartment,
which overlooks the plaza and the river. Sonia is there, wrapped
in a sable coat. Binney is surprised but satisfied to have Sonia
as his bed-companion, because Amanda, while very pretty, is
"as thick as shit in the neck of a bottle." The furnishings
of his home are obviously expensive, but leaden and uninteresting.
Binney suspects Sonia is involved in counter-espionage. He tells
her, threateningly, that there is room for more than one in
the closet at Skinskapes. She remains silent and motionless
even when Binney roughly smears her lipstick across her face
with the ball of his thumb. Deciding that, after all, she may
be "just one of the whores," Binney tells Sonia to
take off her clothes. "Giff!", she responds, with
a Russian accent, and then, "Mon-ney."
Binney haggles when she demands fifteen pounds (which he had
reluctantly agreed to pay Amanda) and slaps her across her face.
She does not move. Resentfully, he hands over three bills. Finally
Sonia speaks: "Is shit. Mon-ney is." She opens
her coat, revealing an alluring body clad in a few bits of lacy
underwear. She then chews up part of the large bills and spits
the pieces out at his feet. Binney is stung. "What are
you trying to do? Make me feel small?" The scene ends.
Eventually, the viewer can identify the nude woman's body as
that of Sonia. Binney has turned for help to the singing detective.
He fears that he will be accused of Sonia's death, and explains
that he needs to establish that nothing nasty happened to her
from his hands. Deliberately, the singing detective insults
him, insisting that indeed something nasty did! Binney complains
again that he is being made to feel small. There are links between
the singing detective and Sonia: each is Binney's whore (the
singing detective in the sense that he does the dirty work for
a fee), but each holds to a concealed ethic, to some higher,
The singing detective suspects that Binney is assisting secret
agents in the rescue of Nazi war criminals. Although hired by
Binney to prove his innocence of Sonia's death, he seeks to
see Binney hang as a spy and perhaps as Sonia's murderer. Also,
he hopes to expose enemy agents and protect their victims, and
of course to thwart the Nazis themselves. He must also identify
the two mysterious men and protect himself against them. Skinskapes
proves to be a den of Russian, German, and English spies, counterspies,
Another beautiful and ambiguously defined woman, the blonde
Lili, works at Skinskapes. She appears several times, wearing
Sonia's sable coat. Perfectly suited to her is the song "Lili
Marlene" - which Philip had heard on a gramophone at his
maternal grandfather's home. She is a counterspy for England,
desperately anxious to tell Marlow about a terrible danger -
so much so that she disregards his warning to remain concealed,
and gets shot by one of the two mysterious men. She dies in
Marlow's arms. These two, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of
the drama, are presumably British Secret Service men. Their
assignment, which they cannot quite determine, seems to have
to do with safeguarding British government efforts to provide
asylum for Nazi rocket scientists.
Potter acquaints the viewer with Marlow's past by way of flashbacks.
Often baffling, these arrive in a kaleidoscopic melange of early
and later "real" scenes, interspersed with images
which have arisen in Marlow's dreams, day-dreams, or deliria.
Philip's mother Betty is pretty, somewhat affected, and at times
casually flirtatious. As a young woman from London's East End,
she had unaccountably married a coal miner from a small town
near the border of Wales. She is blonde and very much resembles
Lili. (The same actress plays both roles.)
Marlow relives experiences which occurred when he was nine.
He and his parents live with Philip's paternal grandparents,
in their wretched home. Grandfather, a coal-miner, suffers from
silicosis. When he casually spits a huge gob of yellow phlegm
onto the fireplace grate, where it sizzles, we experience a
bit of the revulsion which Philip's mother expresses. Her simmering
resentment at having to live with her husband's parents is more
than reciprocated by her mother-in-law. Philip has become a
pawn in the warfare between the two women, and as the adults
squabble, he is disheartened. Most of his mother's rage erupts
against her "gutless bugger" husband, but Philip blames
himself for all the trouble.
He seeks to escape the tension and friction of the household
in the nearby Forest of Dean. He is first seen in his favorite
perch, high in an oak tree. He plans to live forever, to have
a shelf just for books, to have a whole tin of evaporated milk
and a whole tin of peaches all for himself when he grows up,
and, finally, to become a detective and "find out!"
There are several scenes of Philip in his tree. Sometimes he
is praying. He is also seen running in the forest, miserable,
while his classmates taunt him as the teacher's arse-licking
pet. In yet another episode set in the forest, Marlow hallucinates
his wife, Nicola in a sexual embrace, lying on the ground on
her back while he, as nine-year-old Philip, looks on, shocked.
When he then runs wildly away, she calls out to him, laughing,
"Philip, don't be silly!", and adds that he should
not be a spoilsport - should come back and join in. Then, from
a further distance, she can be heard again, calling as if to
a child: "Phil-ip!" Nicola's lover cannot be identified.
Philip's father emerges as an ineffectual, peace-loving man.
He is deeply distressed at the family feud, but helpless for
psychological as well as economic reasons. An excellent singer
and whistler in Marlow's memory, he entertains the townspeople
at social gatherings in the working men's club, and Philip sees
that they respect and admire him.
Once when Philip is in his favorite perch, he spots his mother
with Raymond Binney, a good-looking young man of the town. He
is played by the same actor as the detective story's Binney.
Ray cautions Betty to be quiet, because someone might overhear
them, even deep in the woods. The couple pause. Betty's skirt
is caught in some thorns. Raymond frees her, exposing her thighs,
and his caresses become so ardent that Betty gasps "Not
here!" Philip is shocked and confused, unwilling to believe
his eyes but unable to tear himself away. He uses his thumb
to squash a lady-bug which he had gently spared earlier, with
a comment that he hates dirt. (His gesture is similar to Binney's
smearing the lipstick on Sonia's face.) He follows them to Raymond's
"dingly dell," where, with him, we witness them copulating.
Even after intercourse, Betty's lovely breasts arouse Raymond
to near-adoration. She tells him "Don't!", and breaks
into a fit of crying. Her frustration at her home situation
has become unbearable, and he is unable to support her wishful
fantasy that they elope.
On another occasion in the oak tree, Philip proclaims: "Thoy
won't ever find out who it was. Na!" He continues, with
evident need to reassure himself, "Thoy can give I the
worst Chinese burn ever. Thoy can tie me down on a hill of cruel,
poisonous black ants, with my shirt off my back. [Philip's imagery
presages Marlow's psoriasis.] And I'll never tell! Not ever!
Thoy'll never find out - Not if I kip my mouth sh-- ."
A desperate prayer follows his brave words: "Listen. God.
I promise to be good if you'll let I off. I'll be without nern
a spot and without nern a sin. I didn't mean to do it, God.
A delinquent act, apparently unrelated to Philip's sexual problems
(but in fact directly related on an unconscious level, as will
become clear) had roused his anxiety. Philip, a typical "teacher's
pet", stole back into school one afternoon and defecated
on the teacher's desk. The teacher is a towering figure. At
times she is magisterial, at times she terrifies the children
with threats of divine or human retribution. She has a big chin
and nose, and a ready rod. Understandably, all the children
dread her anger and her quick resort to corporal punishment.
On the day following Philip's transgression, when she discovers
what has been done, the outraged teacher calls on God to help
her find the culprit. She reduces the children to stark terror
as she scrutinizes each one's expression and gestures for signs
of guilt. Deciding on that basis that Philip knows who had done
it, clearly needing to believe that Philip himself could not
have committed so heinous a crime, she brandishes her stick
and describes fiercely and with relish what is in store for
him. He will be taken to the big room. The principal will take
the big cane out of the big cupboard, and Philip will suffer
the worst beating any boy ever suffered, until he names the
While Philip is being pilloried, Raymond's son Mark sneaks in
a hostile, jeering gesture behind the teacher's back. Having
reduced Philip to tears, she changes tactics and coaxes Philip
to name the culprit. Finally Philip names Mark. Revenge against
Mark's father must have been a powerful incentive, and Mark,
a somewhat retarded youngster, was a likely scapegoat. (On a
visit to his village as an adult, Marlow learned that Mark had
later been sent off to an asylum and had never returned.)
The scene shifts abruptly to a compartment of the train to London.
Betty and Philip are going to her parents' home in Hammersmith.
She begins to weep. Several British soldiers share the compartment.
One offers her his handkerchief. Philip, suspecting that the
soldier has designs on her, embarrasses everyone by shouting
to leave her alone or he will tell his father. He adds, "and
the man in the woods." In the course of the drama, his
mother's face and figure or those of a spy working out of Skinskapes
as a prostitute - first Sonia, for example, and later, Lili
- fade into his wife Nicola, and vice versa. It is now clear
why those images came to Marlow's mind.
Philip continues to see his forlorn and pathetic father standing
with one arm upraised in a gesture of farewell, while he, leaning
out the window of the train, waves a frantic goodbye. His mother
has meanwhile buried herself in a newspaper to avoid Philip's
questions about why they are going and when his father is coming
to join them. Miserable, he tries to keep his mind occupied.
(The strains of "Paper Doll" sound softly and most
fittingly as background music.) The headlines proclaim that
the war is coming to an end. He makes an effort to recapture
the excitement which the children all felt when the teacher
fervently dramatized the wonderful times to come after the British
troops finished off the Germans. Again dejected, his restless
gaze falls on a scarecrow in a passing field. It seems to become
half-human, raises its arm stiffly, and then turns into a comical
The uncanny scarecrow, a Doppelganger, returns repeatedly
to Marlow's mind, later to become his father with arm raised
in a farewell gesture, and finally to become his terrifying
teacher.(The same actress who plays the schoolteacher also plays
In a later scene, as the singing detective stands in front of
the band singing "Paper Doll," his mind is at work.
"There are songs to sing. There are feelings to feel. There
are thoughts to think . . . I can sing the singing. I can think
the thinking. (Suddenly savage) But you're not going to catch
me feeling the feelings. No, sir." A painful memory has
evidently taken him by surprise; the song has triggered it.
Clearly a paper doll would have been the only consolation which
his father could have found to replace his unfaithful wife,
and Marlow was not about to expose himself to a related feeling..
One day when Philip and his mother are in her parents' home,
the gramophone is playing "Lili Marlene". Grandcher
mentions to Philip, "That is yer actual bleed'n German
that tart is singing!" Philip's mother takes mild exception:
"Philip doesn't understand words like that." Grandcher
retorts, "Then he'd bloody better well learn, then, hadn't
he?" Later, the group, which includes an uncle and a boarder,
attempts to ease Philip's homesickness and to interest him in
his new surroundings: the delights of the trolley buses and
the underground, and the workings of the gramophone, the gas
taps, and the flush ("No more burying the shit in the garden").
Interrupting their efforts to comfort him comes Philip's following
outburst: "There yunt no place like the forest! Where cost
thou go up here? Where be the trees? Where be the oaks? the
elms. Where the beech, you tell I that!" The last recorded
scene of Philip with his mother takes place at an underground
station. He has taken her hand, in his last effort to put things
Philip: When's him a-coming? Mum? When's our Dad going to
Mrs. Marlow: Stop it.
Philip: No! I want to go whum! I want to go back to our Dad.
Back to them trees.
Mrs. Marlow: Sod the trees!
Philip: Oh, no. Oh, no. The oak and the beech and the ash
and the elm. Oh, no. No, no. [Like an odd incantation,
rocking his body a little:] The oak and the beech and the
ash and the elm. The oak and the beech and - .
Mrs. Marlow: Philip!
Philip: The ash and the elm. The oak - .
Mrs. Marlow: (She jerks at his arm, forcing him to stop).
Do you want a smack? Stop it, I said.
Philip: My arm d'hurt. Better show our Dad, an' us. We'd better
show this here arm to our Dad. That's what we got to do, ant
[This is the first appearance of his
Mrs. Marlow: Oh, for God sake -
Philip - Don't keep on -You'll drive me off my - Philip! Once
and for all. Shut up about it. Shut up.
Philip: When's him a-coming, then?
Mrs. Marlow: He's not!
Philip: Mum? Why? Why, Mum? .. Is it coz of what thik bloke
did to you in the woods? In thik dell. Is it?
Betty is aghast. In response to her outburst of startled indignation,
he delivers a point-blank attack about the shagging he had witnessed
in the forest. She slaps him smartly and he runs madly away
from her, through corridors and stairs in the bowels of the
underground. She runs after him, frantically, and then calls
in an agony of remorse, "Phil-ip." There is no evidence
that he ever again saw her alive. Shortly after that interchange,
she drowned herself in the Thames. The significance of the early
scenes at Hammersmith Bridge, where the police pulled the prostitute's
body from the water, is fully obvious now.
Another set of clues is embedded in scenes at the working men's
social club. In one of these scenes, Cloth cap tells Philip
that his father is far too fine a singer to be working in the
pit. In another, Marlow sees himself there as a crippled adult,
appreciating with the others his father's beautiful whistling
of "Birdsongs at Eventide," (softly, in the background,
a cuckoo calls). Marlow cannot join in the applause.
Marlow (shocked): I can't - I can't seem to - I
can't clap my hands - I can't do it! Not even for dear old
Cloth cap (maliciously): Ah, but thee doosn't want
Marlow: What - ? Don't want to?
C.c.: You byunt interested in clapping thee feyther, now be
ya? Thou never did give the poor bugger credit when him was
alive! Got too big for thee boots, disn't?
Cloth cap tells Marlow that his father is long dead, "and
nobody to care yuppence." Marlow replies: "But - no
- but you see - There's so much I want to say - I need to talk
to him, very badly. Don't be so stupid! He can't be. Not my
Marlow has just seen and heard his father in his fantasy, but
now the club room is startlingly deserted, empty, covered with
cobwebs. He calls out for him, and then: "But he was there
- he was! - My lovely dear old Dad was there - That was him
whistling. I heard him! All the birds in the trees - all the
love in the world - I heard him - I saw him!"
This delicate passage is the sole direct indication of the hostility
and aggression of an unresolved Oedipal ambivalence. Potter
has here created another double, a split-off, disavowed part
of Marlow's self. Potter's direct confession that he felt he
had betrayed his father correlates with this, but proves on
more profound consideration to include a reversal. Potter's
self-reproach hides the reproach at the father who allowed the
separation to happen, thus in effect abandoning his son. This
form of reversal is one of the central psychological issues
in the play.
The scene shifts abruptly to Marlow. In his fevered state, delirious,
he becomes Philip, who sees his father frown when Ray Binney,
standing beside Betty at the piano, rests his hand on her shoulder.
Cloth cap lewdly surmises that Ray's hands have been all over
her body, and everyone in the crowded room laughs, much as the
patients did when Noddy mounted Marlow. Philip, meanwhile, sits
with tears trickling down his face. These
scenes capture the intensity of Marlow's ambivalent love for
During Marlow's process of confronting his past, another memory
surfaces. Philip has returned to his father after his mother's
death. They are walking the seven miles home. Mr. Marlow has
no money to pay for a ride.
Mr. M.: (Suddenly): Did you see
Mr. M.: After - the accident?
Philip (quickly): Yes.
(They walk. Mr. Marlow's distress is
beginning to reach his voice, though he tries to suppress
Mr. M.: Lovely, was her?
Mr. M.: Peaceful, like?
His father then tells Philip that he loves him with all his
heart. The boy becomes acutely uncomfortable, and, reminiscent
of the concern which he had heard Ray voice to Betty in the
woods, cautions his father that someone might overhear them.
Philip has noticed a scarecrow nearby! A few minutes farther
along, Philip disappears. His father, perplexed, calls and calls.
Finally, bereft, he walks on, utterly despondent and emotionally
exhausted. Philip is silently watching and listening from his
perch in the great oak tree. His father again stops in his tracks
and suddenly throw back his head as a howl of unbearable anguish
bursts from him. When he slowly begins to trudge on, Philip
calls out to him, joins him, and (in Potter's words), "Almost
slyly, certainly shyly . . . reaches for and then curls his
hand into his father's hand, as they walk."
This event has profound and lasting importance in Philip's life.
One way or another, his intensely erotized, passive-submissive
attachment to his father, and his co-existent identification
with his father's passivity (and Philip's own defenses against
all of these) will find expression. His psychological fate is
Marlow, still confined to a wheelchair, recounts to Dr. Gibbon
his frightening dream of the previous night. The behavior of
the nightmarish scarecrow in it reminded him of the one he saw
from a train window when he returned from London. It was similar
in appearance to the one he had seen on the trip to London.
The scarecrow seemed to be watching him. Gibbon tries in vain
to convince him that the scarecrow represented his mother. Marlow's
recollection that the scarecrow represented, rather, his terrifying
schoolteacher gives way to guilt at having subjected young Mark
to her castigation. He then reveals that he had defecated on
the teacher's desk, and describes his terror at the thought
that she might discover what he did - that he would be found
out and beaten. His rage at her cruelty obscures the fact of
his delinquency - that is, what he had actually done - as well
as the question of why he had done it.
When he had the sudden inspiration to say that he had seen Mark
do it, several classmates suddenly found themselves able to
confirm his accusation. They, too, had seen Mark "do his
nasty!" Marlow recounts to Dr. Gibbon:
I sat at my desk, perjurer, charlatan,
and watched and listened and watched and listened as one after
another they nailed that backward lad hands and feet to my
story. I have not seriously doubted since that afternoon that
any lie will receive almost instant corroboration and almost
instant collaboration if the maintenance of it results in
the public enjoyment of someone else's pain, someone else's
At last he pours out his grief. Gibbon is silent as Marlow sobs,
and then suddenly tells him to get up and walk. Marlow is able
to do so, albeit only with agonizing difficulty. He is clearly
on his way toward a dramatic recovery, thanks to psychotherapy.
Potter recognizes that the process requires confrontation with
one's past, in order to gain a greater degree of what he describes
as sovereignty. Marlow experiences his therapist with feelings
which have tap-roots in early childhood, feelings which are
still active in Marlow's unconscious. The success of Gibbon's
command depended on that source of power. Gibbon, whether consciously
and deliberately or not, is acting as a fatherly confessor and
then posing a powerfully persuasive and encouraging demand.
Another clue to Marlow's pathology found expression in episodes
in which Nurse Mills approached his genitals while applying
grease to his tortured skin. Despite his frantic efforts to
avoid sexual arousal, he ejaculated on at least two such occasions.
A subsequent direct expression of his chaotic sexual turbulence
extends our understanding of the repressed impulse which caused
this lack of control. Shortly before the finale of the play,
in a last-ditch attack on himself as well as Nicola, he sardonically
tells her that he wants to sleep with her again, with a big
So I can turn my head while I'm
doing it and leer at myself. And so that when it starts shooting
up in me and spurting out I can twist to one side coming off
your hot and sticky loins and spit straight in my own face.
Nicola: My God. Philip.
Marlow: Well. It's an improvement, ennit?
Nicola: What is?
Marlow: Spitting at me. At my own reflection. Couple of weeks
ago my idea of happiness would have been to spit into your
Nicola: Christ Almighty!
Marlow: Oh, yes, and him too.
Marlow's orgastic spurts at the hands,
of lovely nurse Mills are acts of defilement, contamination
and contempt. This illustrates how he despises both himself
- i.e., his invisible female double - and women. Marlow, making
common cause with his beloved cuckold father, developed an unshakable
expectation that his wife, too, would be adulterous. (In fact,
he had promoted Nicola's faithlessness by his neurotic behavior.)
Marlow's recurrent paranoid delusions afflict him chiefly when
he was feverish and toxic. At all times, however, he is verbally
abusive to Nicola. On one occasion, he drives her from the ward
with obscenities which shocked everyone present.
Philip had been the engrossed voyeur of what was, for him, an
exhibitionistic display put on by his mother and Raymond. He
had indulged a voyeuristic impulse in following the lovers to
the "dingly dell." The complex of sexual curiosity
and arousal along with fear, rage, guilt and shame were overwhelming,
and provided component elements (the "spinning wheels")
of his neurosis. Having been a shocked observer of his mother's
intimacy with Ray, he later became, essentially, a voyeur, and
his alter ego is an exhibitionist: a night-club singer - i.e.
Marlow's double's double! Marlow himself is also often on display
because of his psoriasis.
Despite the singing detective's warning in an earlier scene:
"Reach for that gun and you're a dead man," his braggadocio
was not convincing. the singing detective behaved foolishly
when he turned his back on Binney, knowing that Binney was armed
and prepared to shoot him. He was offering Binney an easy opportunity
to shoot him in the back.
Later, he thinks like a full-blown paranoiac. In this delusional
state, Nicola's lover appears at first to be Raymond Binney,
a revenant - that is, a person (or apparition) who arrives as
if in a dream - from Marlow's "actual" childhood.
Later, Binney becomes Mark Finney, a thieving scoundrel in cahoots
with Nicola. She has ostensibly stolen the text of "The
Singing Detective." She then succeeds in getting Marlow
to sign away his rights, for which, she convinces him, he will
receive a small but much needed sum. Her purpose, and Finney's,
is to swindle him out of a huge windfall which Hollywood has
offered for production rights. In addition to her share of the
loot, Nicola is to play the female lead. Meanwhile, Mark is
representing himself to be the author. Nicola's presumed treachery
and viciousness are as blatant in his delusion as her licentious
Immediately after Nicola leaves the ward, Finney greets her
with: "You did it question mark", and she answers:
"I did it exclamation point." Marlow, while fashioning
his text, is so caught up in his pathology that, having thrown
Nicola and Finney into a lascivious embrace, he concludes, as
they mock him: "You think I fell for that? She thinks I
fell, hook line and sinker. And look what'll happen! Look what
I'll do! Rot her thieving, narrow, poisonous soul!" He
envisionsNicola's body being hauled from the river.
By way of a dramatic contrivance, Marlow has her destroy Finney
and herself. He pictures her with Finney while Finney speaks
long-distance to the new producer of the stolen play. Finney
accepts as part of the deal that some other actress than Nicola
get the choice role. When Nicola bitterly protests, he comments
cruelly that she is a bit old for the part. She calls him a
killer and stabs him in the throat, then collapses. Arrested,
she escapes from the police and throws herself into the river.
Marlow has been listening in gleefully as Nicola was humiliated.
When a police officer comes to his hospital bedside and reports
the details of the event, Marlow visualizes the scene of Finney's
death and hers.
We sense that Marlow has drifted from reality, but the presentation
has such punch that despite occasional almost subliminal intrusions
of punctuation marks into the dialogue between Finney and Nicola,
one needs the confirmation of later scenes to be entirely certain
that Finney exists only in Marlow's imagination.
Some other issues infuse the drama subtly and contribute to
its dramatic appeal. Many details correspond to those in Potter's
own life. For example, it was evident that the Forest stirred
Philip deeply. Only in his outburst at his maternal grandparents'
home, however, and in his heartbroken keening at the underground
station - both toward the end of the play - were we exposed
to the full force of this feeling. Some of Potter's roots are
laid bare in those exchanges.
In all of our exposures to Philip's home, the pit and the surrounding
detritus never appeared; nor was the village itself seen. Not
even its name was mentioned. And yet the deep rumblings of the
mine machinery, the comings and goings of the miners, the coal
dust and mud and poverty - the wretched streets and ugly houses
- are viscerally vivid. It was Philip, in Marlow's memory, crying
out for home, that we remember. And in the end, a part of our
aesthetic response to the play is to the Forest of Dean and
a patch of land between the Severn and the Wye. These scenes
elicit so powerful a response because Potter drew on his own
The role of the Forest has its parallel in a more subtle and
complex role played by the mine. One senses the filthy, dangerous
work involved in getting at its precious contents. The coal
is delivered out of the bowels of the earth. To rephrase Sonia's
observation, "Is mon-ey, shit is!" A background presence
of the coal mine provides a serendipitous man-made opportunity
to represent the bowel and its functions symbolically. From
the opening scene of "The Singing Detective," depicting
movement through a passage, bowel images resonate throughout
the play. Did Potter knowingly introduce classic but not generally
known Freudian symbols, equations, and dynamic conflicts - such
as the symbolic connection of gold and feces, in a context of
tunnels, rat-holes and anal deliveries - or was this pure inspiration,
with no consciousness of what he was doing or why?
One further puzzle remains with respect to Marlow's sexual psychopathology.
What led Philip to defecate on the teacher's desk? The student
of Freud finds an explanation in one of the symbolic functions
of the bowel:
The grumus merdae [heap of faeces] left behind [by
a criminal]. . . seems to have both these meanings: contumely,
and the regressive expression of making amends . . . At a
later stage of sexual development, faeces take on the meaning
of a baby. Freud (1914), p. 80, 81.
A complete reversal of sexual roles
was acted out. Philip's delinquency had the unconscious meaning
of a present to his teacher of their baby. She was certainly
far more phallic, psychologically, than his beloved father.
Philip undoubtedly hated and feared her, but he made every effort
to please her by knowing all the answers. Ambivalence toward
her paralleled that toward his father. However much they may
have embarrassed him before his classmates, her praises were
undoubtedly gratifying. In one of Marlow's fantasies, or deliria,
he hears the identical words from the teacher as does Nicola:
"You put the others to shame." He is running through
the woods, ashamed; Nicola is shown at the same moment in a
If the presumption is correct that Potter knew nothing of the
psychoanalytic discoveries of the clinical consequences of primal
scene trauma, then "The Singing Detective" strikingly
validates and confirms them. Potter demonstrated an astounding
insiight-or a creative intuition - in having Marlow invent the
particular aftermath. The clues which he has presented offer
the opportunity both for study of his conscious intent and also
for pursuit of the tantalizing hints of the influence of his
personal physical and psychological ordeals, and the way in
which these have affected - and been affected by - his indisputable
Dr. Gibbon, despite his limitations, understands some of the
apparent links of psyche with soma. He connects skin disease
with the proclamation: "Unclean!" and links the latter
to Marlow's attitude about sex. Under his guidance and tutelage,
Marlow remembers unhappy experiences of his childhood, and even
some of his shameful behavior. At a climactic moment, Dr. Gibbon
issues a command, which is taken by the previously embittered
and hostile patient as forgiveness, permission and encouragement
issued by a parent- or God-like figure.
Potter's creative intuition overreached his psychological knowledge.
There is a disparity in the play between the dynamics of unconscious
conflict and those of the psychotherapy. The roots of Marlow's
contempt for sex, which Gibbon spotted at once, went deep into
Marlow's earliest and most deeply repressed forbidden wishes.
The therapy was framed in apparent ignorance of these, and depended
on such devices as Gibbon's provocations, such as pacing behind
Marlow. That was evidently helpful, but not a cure, which would
have demanded resolution of conflicts which Marlow had kept
from his consciousness. As it is, there is a faint cracked-pot
clatter as Marlow rises on command to Gibbon's applause (20).
Marlow's therapy was useful, however, as a calculated dramatic
device. Perhaps it was also a release for Potter. The clicking
of the toggles at the Grand Hotel had been as jarring to Potter
as were the therapist's footsteps to Marlow. Gibbon certainly
helped Marlow overcome his defeatist attitude, reconcile with
his wife, and get on with his work. The dramatic shift in the
clinical course must also be attributed to the benefit of therapy.
But Marlow paid a price, unrecognized by him, Gibbon, or presumably
Potter. No basic insights sprang forth, nor were basic tendencies
such as misogyny and passivity radically altered. Gibbon fell
into the unrecognized role of the better-father, better-teacher
than those Phillip had had. He was both more likeable than his
teacher and more firm than his father. Only insofar as Marlow's
transference fantasy lasted can we assume that he could maintain
From a literary perspective, many of the confusions which invaded
Marlow's reveries are instances of doubling. An example is his
visualizing himself running from the scene of Nicola's tryst
while the teacher praises each identically, a novel and I believe
utterly unconscious development of Potter's use of a double.
Nicola, happily getting fucked, is not merely a disguised return
of a hated memory of his mother's adultery, she is a double
of Philip in his identification with his mother. In Potter's
unconscious, both the adulterous woman and he who envies her
are rutting bitches. Marlow inadvertently reveals that he doubles
Nicola with himself, and at the same time identifies Nicola
as another shagger like his mother.
Another form of doubling is portrayed in a scene in which Binney,
having just copulated with the beauteous Sonia, becomes the
singing detective, shouting obscenities. Sonia has suddenly
become a common prostitute. The singing detective apologizes
to her for having called her vile names. It was, he attempts
to rationalize, merely an expression of a severe compulsive
disorder, and not really the expression of his actual feelings.
Marlow has created a counterpart of himself: Binney's contemptible
behavior with Sonia appears to be a projection of Marlow's own
attitude and impulse. Potter thus arranged for Marlow to have
a moment of near-revelation, but Marlow apparently succeeded
in avoiding consciousness of his loathing of women.
The psychological threads woven into the fabric of the detective
story arouse the interest of viewers even when they fail to
grasp the technical implications. As he constructed the drama,
Potter seems to have been clear, at least up to a point, about
some of the answers to his clues about destructive behavior
and its origins. He attributed it to the damage inflicted on
Marlow in his early life. For that reason, as is often the case,
the meaning of some of the most profound clues seem to have
eluded the consciousness of the author.
Denouement: the death and rebirth
It is now time to turn to the conclusion of the drama, in which,
at last, Potter gives the viewer an opportunity to unravel the
tangle of clues. I have teased apart many individual threads.
They include Philip's early trauma and his neurotic guilt; Marlow's
suffering the same neurosis, the same guilt, and the same aggressiveness;
Marlow as author constructing a play full of clues about whores,
rat-holes and anal tunnels, and about vicious, treacherous criminals.
As the singing detective, he searches for the extrinsic responsibility
for evil. Finally, there is Marlow's psychotic disturbance,
in which he rationalizes his paranoid rage at his wife.
His psychological cure might be thought to be complete once
he expiates guilt while recalling bitter, painful memories,
such as shifting the blame onto Mark for his own delinquency
Marlow's emotional catharsis is, however, not a cure. His confession
is followed by a defensive flight. He shifts the burden of guilt;
his attention focuses with rage and bitterness on the evils
perpetrated by the teacher and by his classmates. Marlow has
been defending himself from other self-accusations with one
device after another - for example, his sudden switch to the
scarecrow memory to escape from Gibbon's prompting about his
mother. Now, the last effort at defense: he volunteers as a
mea culpa a lesser evil. Writers, he tells Gibbon, are cannibals.
The implication is that everything, even including the tragic
suicide of his mother, is grist for an author's mill. Nonetheless,
he finds it necessary to emphasize to Gibbon,"I didn't
kill her, you know."
Marlow needed to exonerate himself from responsibility. He had
not quite admitted into consciousness his rage at his mother
as a sexual sinner, nor its unconscious counterpart, envy. His
ability to avoid feeling guilty obtruded throughout the play.
As a child, he denied having fouled the teacher's desk. In effect,
by attacking his teacher and stressing his contempt for the
classmates who had corroborated his lie, he later denied to
Gibbon the impact of his cowardice and treachery on young Mark
Binney. By creating the Lili Marlene role in "The Singing
Detective," he denied the relation of his verbal attack
on his mother to her death: Marlow: (thinks) "The thing
is - It's always the least likely character who turns out to
be the killer. Got to obey the rules. The least likely. This
must be him. This must be the one. Old Noddy here. Defin
-ite -ly. Noddy did it. You hear that, Nicola? You get that?"
(He smiles) "Well - it can't be me, that's for sure. It
can't be me. I didn't do it."
Soon after the episode of Nicola's imagined suicide, while Marlow
was in good contact with reality, a police officer visited the
ward, for reasons having nothing to do with him or Nicola. Marlow
became panic-stricken, believing for a moment that the tragedy
which he created in his paranoid re-editing had actually come
to pass. Only as he gave up the defense of denial and thus came
to terms with his guilt was he able to approach health. These
remarkable developments are facilitated by his therapy, but
also by his wife Nicola's forbearance. Furthermore, she has
given him the hope of gaining status and money as a result of
his work. For Marlow, work is a necessary affirmation of his
manhood. He is soon laboring at writing, with a prosthetic device
strapping the pen to his crippled hands (23).
In short, many aspects of mental conflict in normal life, in
states of neurotic conflict, in artistic activity and in psychotic
states are depicted, and much of the drama consists in the vivid
graphic portrayal of these processes.
At the end of the play, Marlow's double became a part of him.
Potter uses this ancient and not-often-successful literary device
with the utmost delicacy and craft. He created in "The
Singing Detective" a number of double pairs: both an author
and his created character; both a tormented and a debonair band-leader;
both an accuser and an accused; both a befouling criminal frantic
to escape detection and a shit-scraping detective.
The singing detective finally settles the score with the real
criminal. The scene is the most violent in the entire play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suddenly appear on Marlow's ward
to complain bitterly that he has not properly defined their
roles in his book. They are in an existential universe, and
do not know whence they came, nor why, who they are or where
they are going. Frantic and enraged, they turn on their creator
They torture him by twisting his agonizingly painful hands.
The singing detective now appears, gun in hand, and engages
in a shoot-out with the two evil characters. All the pent-up
rage within Marlow finds a last release, via his double, just
as he had vowed at the beginning. The singing detective suddenly
turns to face Marlow,and shoots him dead. So Marlow has now
paid with his life, it would seem, for his evil deeds.
The singing detective, who always knows the score, relates the
punishment to the crime. He sums up: "I suppose you could
say we'd been partners, him and me. Like Laurel and Hardy or
Fortnum and Mason. But, hell, this was one sick fellow, from
way back when. And I reckon I'm man enough to tie my own shoe-laces
now." His assertion forecasts Potter's subsequent dismissal
of Trodd. It relates Marlow and himself as doubles of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, who as we now know, had no defined existence
even as literary figures.
Not long after this scene, Marlow bids goodbye to his ward-mates.
Shaky but ambulatory, with his arm around Nicola, he bestows
on her a wan smile of affection which provides the final detail
of Marlow's recovery. Nicola has brought his Trilby (the hat
which was a distinguishing feature of the singing detective),
and he dons it with delight. This indicates his assumption of
a new - or at least a changed - identity. The summation suggests
that the singing detective has eliminated the bad aspects of
the old Marlow. In their place is a new Marlow, as if he were
now the singing detective, who had, however, solved the most
consequential problems and who is now able and willing to feel
the feelings. An opportunity and a responsibility to escape
from the deadening hand of the past finds vivid illustration
in Marlow's successful effort.
As the drama ends, one may conclude that Marlow's therapy, self-administered
in part by re-editing his book has been responsible for his
reconciliation with his wife as well as for the striking amelioration
of his physical ailment and perhaps for the overcoming of his
writing inhibition. But the happy outcome is not quite certain!
The couple leave to the haunting strains of an ambiguous "We'll
meet again", a song which, at the end of the movie "Dr.
Strangelove" bleakly imparted the grim opposite message:
"It has been seen as the most profound of detective stories,
one of the greatest of the genre . . . where the essential
detective is the criminal himself. It has been read as a metaphysical
thriller, in which the very nature of sin is analyzed."
Malcolm Bradbury (1988), re: "Crime and punishment"
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© Irving Harrison, M.D.