Friday, April 24, 2020

The Ugly Duckling

Source: Acting Company


A. A. Milne’s one-act play, The Ugly Duckling, acquired a classical status because of the hearty humour used to present a profound theme. The King and the Queen are worried because their daughter Camilla is too ugly to get a suitor. In spite of all the devious strategies employed by the King and his Chancellor, the princess remained unmarried. Camilla was blessed with a unique beauty by her two godmothers but no one could see any beauty in her physical appearance. She has an exquisitely beautiful character. What use is character? The King asks.

The play is an answer to that question. Character plays the most crucial role in our moral science books and traditional rhetoric, religious scriptures and homilies. When it comes to practical life, we look for other things such as wealth, social rank, physical looks, and so on. As the King says in this play, “If a girl is beautiful, it is easy to assume that she has, tucked away inside her, an equally beautiful character. But it is impossible to assume that an unattractive girl, however elevated in character, has, tucked away inside her, an equally beautiful face.”

The King lacks any character worth the label. Like most people who love power, he is a narcissist. When he asks the Chancellor whether Camilla took after him, the Chancellor is shrewd enough to answer, “Most certainly not, Your Majesty.” The previous Chancellor lost his life because he was not shrewd enough to learn kings’ love of flattery. The King did not hesitate to kill a prince who ran away from marrying Camilla. His body was found in the moat next morning. “But what was he doing in the moat, Your Majesty?” The Chancellor asks with feigned innocence. “Bobbing about,” admonishes the King. “Try not to ask needless questions.”

People vanish if they fail to pander to the King’s whims and fancies. Self-conceit is hardly considered character though people in power usually get away with it. Power and character seem to be genetically disjoint entities. Deviousness is the sibling of power. The King here is devious enough to present the beautiful Dulcibella, Camilla’s maid, as the prospective bride to Prince Simon when he comes to meet the Princess.

Dulcibella is physically charming but intellectually stupid. The King trains her on behaviour and etiquette. She is asked to give Simon a look which is “half-way between the breathless adoration of a nun and the voluptuous abandonment of a woman of the world.” Dulcibella is incapable of making heads or tails of such royal amalgamations. It is not required, as it turns out.

The drawbridge over the palace’s moat is so old that it takes half an hour to be brought down. Prince Simon lacks the patience and he jumps into the palace’s battlements by swinging from the branch of a tree beside the moat, quite a risky thing to do especially because he doesn’t know swimming. He admits that there are a lot of other things which he can’t do. It will take “a couple of years” to mention those things, he says. He is saying all this to Princess Camilla who is pretending to be Dulcibella, the maid.

The Prince has a character. He doesn’t put on masks over his deficiencies and drawbacks. He accepts them as part of himself. However, he is not quite sure that Princess Camilla would accept him with all those limitations. So he has asked his attendant Carlo to disguise himself as the Prince. Soon Prince Simon understands that he is disclosing all this to none other than Princess Camilla who is the first person he meets while others in the palace are busy bringing down the ancient drawbridge.

Neither Simon nor Camilla is surprised when they come to know about the disguises and strategies being played out. They will continue to play the game for the sake of the others who don’t possess enough character to understand vital truths.

We live in a world which places a high premium on external appearances. We put on a lot of masks because of that – oh, all that costumes and cosmetics, hair colours and skin creams! We pretend a lot too. Ironically, the present pandemic of Covid-19 has added a real mask to all those virtual ones that conceal our true selves. We may get rid of the medical mask sooner or later. If only we could get rid of some of those virtual masks too. But Simon and Camilla are exceptions. Where everyone wears mask upon mask, it may be dangerous to walk about with a bear face.  
 
A page from the play
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
14. No Exit
17. Quixote
18. The Rebel
Tomorrow: Vernon God Little

25 comments:

  1. We live in a world where people judge others by their physical appearances more than their nature and intellect. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is always a pleasure to read your posts.

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  2. Masks, virtual or real, should be put down for they don't let you breathe freely. I would like to know more about these two beautiful and brave hearts.

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    1. They are very interesting and lovable characters. The whole play is a delight to read, full of innocent fun.

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  3. Our world gives too much importance to external appearances. It is one of the reasons I don't like the idea of love at first sight, which is portrayed in many movies. This book reminds me of Ayushman Khurrana's movie, Bala. It teaches one to not be ashamed of their looks.

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    1. The looks matter for a moment or so. After that, what's inside will begin to matter.

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  4. Portraying strong messages through fun and comedy is most difficult I believe. Classics have that knack in their own ways. Loved this one!

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    1. Milne was an expert in that art. Glad you liked it.

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  5. I loved the story.Character is ingrained The version of truth differs with perspective

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    1. Character can be built too. But a substantial part is already there within.

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  6. Another riveting recommendation. Haven't read this one. But I remember a children's classic by the same name and a similar message read long long ago.
    Pretense comes from the fact that truth is not kindly taken to.

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  7. Hey, I was being suggested this just yesterday by a friend. This is an amazing suggestion and something I would love. Thank you :)
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  8. Light to read yet heavy on message it carries.
    The plot is worthy of a typical 'masala' Bollywood movie. I remember having seen a Hindi movie, that can be called a crude contemporary version of the story, which had a star studded cast.

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  9. Though I’m familiar with the tale, I’ve never read the book. Seems quite relevant.
    www.nooranandchawla.com

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  10. Wow, coincidently my post today is on masks too... Loved the review and the take on masks used by the society as a whole... Yes only the mask for covid seems to be the real one indeed!

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    1. We keep preparing faces to meet the faces we meet.... as Eliot said. World of masks.

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  11. I think this book has been the inspirations for so many Hollywood and Bollywood movies and TV serials.

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    1. True. The play has also been a part of many a university curriculum. I taught it for a few years in North-Eastern Hill University.

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  12. Oh, my son was a part of this play in one of his school functions, years ago!! :D
    The message that it shares is profound!

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    1. Yes, this is staged frequently. Children will love it particularly.

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  13. Loved how you ended this - it maybe riskier to go without a mask. That's why I love the process of writing. It is the one place I know my mask is completely off - and yet since it's all fiction, the mask is in a way firmly in place.

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    1. Writing is one of the safe places for shedding masks. I do it too. But in contemporary India, many a writer is paying a heavy price for shedding masks.

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