Absurd Person Singular comments on what modern English society expects men and women to do, as the play’s middle-class characters obey strong yet unwritten rules about their gender roles. The three male characters work, while their wives do not, and tend to be more overtly associated with the domestic sphere. And yet, as a result of the structure of middle-class life, these kinds of gender roles keep getting mixed up. Men behave in stereotypically effeminate ways, and women embrace stereotypically masculine behaviors. (Ayckbourn finds an apt symbol for these scrambled gender roles when the characters cover Ronald Brewster-Wright, who’s just been electrocuted, with a variety of male and female articles of clothing.)
Although the characters only ever speak about gender rules indirectly, it’s clear that they all have strong ideas about how they’re supposed to behave. The men act as “breadwinners” for their families, and seem to believe that this permits them to be unfaithful and inattentive to their wives. This is clearest toward the end of the first act, when Geoffrey Jackson, Ronald, and Sidney Hopcroft discuss Geoffrey’s affairs with other women. In an innuendo-heavy monologue, Geoffrey brags about how he’s cheated on his wife, Eva Jackson, many times, and adds that Eva has no choice but to accept his “rules” of marriage, a sentiment that Ronald and Sidney approve of, or believe they’re supposed to show their approval of in a party setting. Throughout the play, furthermore, the male characters treat their wives indifferently, and instead focus their energy on vaguely defined, nonsensical business pursuits. There’s even a suggestion that Geoffrey has hit his wife, reinforcing the fact that he, like other men, dominates his wife and forces her to play by his rules. At the end of Act One, Sidney is so pleased at having persuaded Ronald to give him a loan that he ignores his anxious, weary wife, Jane, even though she’s been humiliated at her own party. The act ends with the poignant, Sisyphean image of Jane alone in her kitchen, cleaning the same objects she was cleaning earlier, while Sidney watches television. The shallowness and materialism of the British middle class, Ayckbourn implies, has in some ways exaggerated old, offensive stereotypes about male and female behavior. Men, because of their labor, enjoy some small measure of freedom, while women are confined to the kitchen.
But although there’s a strong sexist undercurrent throughout Absurd Person Singular, gender roles repeatedly break down as the play goes on. At many points, it is the female characters, not their partners, who do the hard physical labor, while the men remain idle. During her Christmas party, Jane Hopcroft, not her husband, goes out into the rainy night to buy more bottles of tonic water—an act that Ayckbourn symbolically genders as male by having Jane don a man’s raincoat before leaving the house. Throughout Act One, Sidney often seems emasculated and too timid to assert himself at his own party. When Geoffrey brags about his sexual conquests, for example, Sidney laughs along with everybody else, but Ayckbourn notes that he’s way “out of his depth.” In Act Three, furthermore, the female characters are often more business-minded than their husbands: for instance, Eva Jackson has to pressure her husband to ask Sidney Hopcroft for job opportunities, and in the end she just asks on his behalf. In the strange new world of the middle class, masculine and feminine gender roles seem to be moving closer and closer together.
One could argue that Ayckbourn is having his cake and eating it, too: criticizing traditional gender roles and also criticizing the modified, middle-class roles that succeed them. On one hand, he pokes fun at Sidney and the other male characters for their timid, emasculated behavior and finds humor in Jane’s donning a man’s raincoat. On the other hand, he seems to suggest that traditional, rigidly defined gender roles are just as bad, or worse. But perhaps these two concepts—rigidly-defined gender roles and reversed or blurred gender roles—are more closely connected than they appear: put another way, the characters assert traditional gender roles because they see these gender roles collapsing. At times, the emasculated male characters become so frustrated that they lash out at their wives, ordering them around (as Sidney does in Act One), hitting them (as Geoffrey claims to have done in Act Two), or calling them ugly (as Ronald does in Act Three). In each act of Absurd Person Singular, one could even argue, gender roles become complicated in some significant way, only to be clumsily reestablished by the characters. Gender roles, like everything else in this play, are in a constant state of flux, and any order the characters try to impose is short-lived.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Absurd Person Singular
SIDNEY: [chuckling knowingly] I don't imagine the wife of a banker will particularly choose to spend her evening in our kitchen. Smart as it is.
RONALD: Ah. Well, as long as you know about him. Might have been after your silver. I mean, you never know. Not these days.
SIDNEY : No, indeed. No, he—he was from the off-licence.
GEOFFREY: Oh now, come off it. Nonsense. She chooses to live with me, she lives by my rules. I mean we've always made that perfectly clear. She lives her life to a certain extent; I live mine, do what I like within reason. It's the only way to do it...
SIDNEY: Good gracious.
RONALD: I wish you'd have a chat with Marion. Convince her.
GEOFFREY: Eva—I'm being very patient. Very patient indeed. But in a minute I really do believe I'm going to lose my temper. And we know what happens then, don't we? I will take a swing at you and then you will feel hard done by, and by way of reprisal, will systematically go round and smash everything in the flat. And come tomorrow breakfast time, there will be the familiar sight of the three of us, you, me and George, trying to eat our meals off our one surviving plate.
GEOFFREY: Now, I'm going to phone the doctor. I’ll just be two minutes, all right? Now, you sit there. Don't move, just sit there like a good girl.
JANE: Shall I tell you something—Sidney would get so angry if he heard me saying this—but I'd far sooner be down here on the floor, on my knees in the oven—than out there, talking. Isn't that terrible. But I’m never at ease, really, at parties. I don't enjoy drinking, you see.
RONALD: Drink? No, I don't honestly think so. She's always liked a—I mean, the doctor did say she should lay off. But that was only because it was acting as a stimulant—She hasn't touched it lately.
RONALD: Both my wives, God bless them, they've given me a great deal of pleasure over the years but, by God, they've cost me a fortune in fixtures and fittings. All the same. Couldn't do without them, could we?
RONALD: Nobody wants your damn picture, now shut up.