|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.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
14. No Exit
16. The Plague
18. The Rebel
Tomorrow: Vernon God Little