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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Characterization in Our American Cousin

Our American Cousin is a comedy of manners that pokes fun at British mannerisms and American words and phrases. Lord Dundreary is an English aristocrat in the play who was originally intended to be a minor character but whose role was expanded by the English actor E.A. Sothern. Dressed in a "long, full-length coat with vest, cravat, collar, monacle, droopy moustache, massive mutton-chop whiskers and hair neatly parted down the middle*," in addition to his bushy sideburns, Sothern fully embraced the role, which allowed Taylor to make fun of the British aristocracy. One of Dundreary's principles faults was his inability to communicate clearly. He repeatedly confuses words (such as wigs and wings) and at one point messes up a joke in an exchanged with Florence:

Dundreary: When is a dog's tail not a dog's tail? [Florence repeats.]
Flo Yes, and willingly.
Dun When it's a cart. [They look at him enquiringly.]
Flo Why, what in earth has a dog's tail to do with a cart?
Dun When it moves about, you know. A horse makes a cart move,so does a dog make his tail move.
Flo Oh, I see what you mean--when it's a wagon. [Wags the letterin her hand.]
Dun Well, a wagon and a cart are the same thing, ain't they!That's the idea--it's the same thing.

In addition to this, Dundreary has a lisp ("suppothe"). English, as well as American audiences loved Dundreary's character.

Asa Trenchard, the American cousin from Vermont, struggles at times communicating with his British counterparts, as shown in the following exchange with Binny, the family servant:

Bin Will you take a baath before you dress?
Asa Take a baath?
Bin A baath.
Asa I suppose you mean a bath. Wal, man, I calkalate I ain't going to expose myself to the shakes by getting into cold water in this cruel cold climate of yours, so make tracks.
Bin Make what?
Asa Vamose!
Bin Make vamose!
Asa Absquatulate.
Bin Ab-- what sir?
Asa Skedaddle.
Bin Skedaddle?
Asa Oh! get out.

Asa manages to confuse the Brits in the play with many of his words and phrases such as "darned old shoat," "you're small potatoes," and "a regular snorter." One of the funniest exchanges occurs during the first meeting between Asa and Dundreary and Asa expresses his surprise at Dundreary's appearance with the following exclamation: "Concentrated essence of baboons, what on earth is that?" Additionally, when a female character insults his manners, he responds with, "you sockdologizing old man-trap," likely the final words Lincoln heard before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. The comedic value of Dundreary and Asa are what made the play a success.

*This quote is from http://www.josephhaworth.com/ea_sothern.htm .

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