Alan Bennett’s monologue, “A Cream Cracker under the Settee” manages to take a subject matter which is in itself dark and less than uplifting, and transform it into a touching, yet humorous insight into the life and thoughts of an elderly widow. The success of the monologue depends on the reader identifying with the central character and feeling sympathy for her situation.
Doris lives alone. Thus Bennett’s monologue immediately encourages the reader to empathise with Doris by focusing on an issue which is very important to many people: the fear of losing independence. This is first highlighted through the very mundane task of dusting the house. We can see this when Zulema, Doris’ home help, reportedly says:
“You are now a lady of leisure. Your dusting days are over.”
It is clear throughout the script that Doris has been very house proud. However she no longer has control in this area of her life as she is visited every week by her Social Services appointed home help. The way in which Doris describes her conversations with Zulema makes it clear to the audience that she feels Zulema has power over her therefore could force Doris into residential care at Stafford House at any time, apparently threatening,
“I am the only person that stands between you and Stafford House.”
Zulema is, in fact, blackmailing Doris, which increases Doris’ fear of losing her independence.
Bennett’s choice of name for the home help seems designed to render sympathy for Doris. Doris is from a generation who grew up in a time before immigration. She may feel she has little in common with the person, who now has full access to her home, due to a lack of common background. Doris refers to the change in society due to immigration when she says:
“Carpet sales in chapels now. Else Sikhs”
Society has changed a great deal from what Doris is used to. Religion no longer plays an important role in society; this would not have been the case in Doris’ day. Immigration has brought with it many different religions that were not around for Doris’ generation to experience. The audience can see from watching the television series “Talking Heads”, Doris’ facial expressions express a look of disgust whilst on the subject of immigration. This makes the audience aware of how strongly Doris’ views are on this subject.
In spite of what appears to be a difficult relationship with Zulema, this is at least some sort of company for Doris. The audience cannot help but feel sympathy for Doris as we learn that she lives in a lonely world where the neighbours that she once knew have either died or moved away. The new generation that has now moved in seem to live in a parallel universe to Doris.
“Folk opposite, I don’t know them”
Doris grew up around the time of the war when communities pulled together to help each other. However modern society is a lot more independent; it is now normal not to know everyone in your street. As Doris herself admits, she never gets “any bona fide callers.” Doris finds herself very lonely now she does not have her husband Wilfred, who complemented her in her obsession to clean and keep herself to herself, to talk to. Doris is now alone in the world with only her memories to keep her company.
“A Cream Cracker under the Settee” is more effective because it is a monologue. Due to the monologue form Doris is able to tell the audience her true feelings that she may not have been able to if the production was not set out in this way. Bennett skilfully uses old-fashioned phrases in order to portray Doris as the seventy five year old lady she is.
“He’s spending a penny”
The dramatic devices used in the television series “Talking Heads” ads to the sympathy the audience feels for Doris. The audience does not get to see Doris moving. Bennett may have chosen to have blackout instead to make sure Doris is not perceived as a helpless old lady in pain. Instead reflective music is played during a fade to black, which allows the audience to take in what Doris has just told them instead of feeling sorry for Doris’ lack of mobility. Lighting through out the production inhibits the passing of time. At the beginning of the monologue, when Doris is sharpest, you can clearly see it is broad daylight, whereas as Doris becomes wearier, the lighting slowly fades making the audience presume it is now evening. The camera shots are used affective through out the production. A close up is chosen when Doris is slumped on the floor, this emphasises Doris’ defeated facial expressions, as the audience has no choice but to focus on Doris’ face.
As an audience we cannot help but sympathise with Doris’ main fear of moving into residential care. Bennett’s script allows Doris to voice her own fears and also to remind the audience of their own concerns regarding un spoken fears of incontinence and dementia, both associated with old age.
“They all smell of pee. And daft half of them, banging tambourines.”
Doris is probably scared of ending up like the people she describes. In Doris’ mind this is what is going to happen to her if she ends up in Stafford House. This is the last thing in the world she wants to happen to herself; therefore Doris is determined to stay independent in order to keep her sanity.
In order to feel sympathy for a character the reader must be able to identify with them. In this monologue, Doris tells of her deceased husband Wilfred. She speaks in terms that will be familiar to many. Whilst it is clear that Doris feels great affection for Wilfred, there is also the under current of bickering which is common in many long-term relationships. Whilst disagreements such as “the growing mushrooms in the cellar saga” may be trivial, Bennett creates a rush of sympathy for Doris when we learn of the death of her baby. If this in itself was not enough, even though Doris explains the facts of what happened on that sad day so long ago in matter of fact terms, this does not disguise the hurt she clearly feels at the cold behaviour of the midwife who treated her still born child, and Doris, with such disrespect when she,
“Wrapped him in newspaper as if he was dirty”
Even Bennett’s description of the pram, which stood in the hallway, speaks of promises left unfulfilled.
“Proper prams then, springs and hoods. Big wheels.”
There can be no doubt of the sorrow that Doris felt, and still feels, when we learn that she has kept the baby’s cloths safe for so many years.
In order to sympathise for Doris the audience must believe in and identify with her. Bennett’s description of events that supposedly happened years previously gives depth to Doris’ character and encourages us to think of her as a real person. Her humour also makes it easy for us to relate to Doris. By using humour Bennett is making it easier for the audience to sympathise for Doris. Doris was once young rather than just an old lady sitting immobile on the floor. Doris’ mind is still very much alive and active. She is very sharp and knows exactly what is going on. She uses her humour to mock the attitude of Social Services.
“Have to have a surreptitious go with the Ewbank. Doris. The ewbank is out of bounds.”
Although Doris would not mock Zulema to her face, her witty humour is captured as she mocks Zulemas demeaning ways. This works especially well in the production as the tone in her voice changes as she mocks their patronising ways. Her eyes even light up, as she knows she is mocking her home help, Zulema. Doris is also a very cynical character, which is another aspect of personality that Bennett has given to Doris in order for us to warm to her as a character. Doris is cynical when she says:
“Love God and close all gates”
I think this works very well, as Doris is being witty as well as stating what her religion is. Doris is saying that people should not be able to go around preaching about God is they are unable to complete a simple task such as closing a gate. By mentioning the gate, Doris is once again returning to her obsession with tidiness.
In order to promote sympathy for a character the author must encourage the reader to empathise with their life and fears. In addition, a reader is more likely to feel sympathy for a character if they are perceived as likeable or at least admirable. Doris may no longer be physically fit but she remains mentally sharp. She attempts to retain her own high standards of hygiene in her house, without the Social Services home help or ” home hindrance” as Doris refers to her, knowing. Whilst doing so she discovers a cream cracker under the settee. It is in the attempt to dust the top the photo of her and her husband, that Doris has the fall that eventually leads to her death. Even as she sits helplessly on the floor she does not complain or feel sorry for herself. In fact she reports the state of her leg as a fact.
“I can nip this leg and nothing”
Bennett ensures that Doris is perceived favourably as even at the finish she is too proud to admit that she needs help. She turns a policeman away, even though deep down she knows that she needs his help in order to survive; instead she chooses to allow herself to die alone, claiming,
“No I’m all right.”
Although she has put up a battle, Doris is aware that she is unable to cope alone; therefore she will no doubt end up spending her final days in Stafford House. In this final act, perhaps Doris is able to recover some of the freedom of choice and independence that has been lacking in her life through recent times.
Whilst readers may not choose to agree with Doris’ actions, few could fall but to admire her courage and to sympathise with her unfortunate situation. Bennett’s message is very powerful throughout the monologue. The end leaves the audience feeling guilty that they part of that modern day society who could help someone just like Doris, but fail to find the time of day to fulfil their desired actions.
Bennett skilfully includes aspects of an elderly person’s life that are very close to the heart in order to make the audience aware of the very real situation. Before reading “A Cream Cracker Under the Settee” I did not realise why elderly members of the community I know are so stubborn about certain modern day issues such as immigration. I can now see why they find it hard to accept modern day society moral issues that I would not even class as an issue that needs to be raised.
As the light effectively fades on the final scene, Bennett has transformed, in the space of a few short pages, the character of a crotchety old woman into that of a real person with depth of character and strength of personality. Doris has become known to us all as a person with thoughts, problems, and fears similar to our own. By the end, even though she sometimes appears to be too stubborn for her own good, the audience cannot help but sympathise with Doris as her life draws to a close before our eyes.