On the Face of It, a short play that mostly consists of a conversation between an old man, Mr. Lamb, and a fourteen-year-old boy, Derry, is largely concerned with the relationships between people and the things that divide them or bring them together. Derry has a burned face and Mr. Lamb has lost a leg, and so society treats them differently from other people. In response to this, Derry has learned to close himself off and avoid others, while Mr. Lamb maintains an attitude of openness. Ultimately, Lamb’s friendliness and non-judgmental acceptance win Derry over, and the two find a strong (though brief) connection. In Mr. Lamb’s character, playwright Susan Hill presents a worldview that embraces openness, the dignity and value of all people, and the importance of connection and kindness between them—and though Lamb’s story ends in tragedy, his positive effects on Derry are what linger beyond the play’s final scene.
Derry, whose face was badly burned by acid in a past accident, avoids others because of how they might react to his disability. In talking with Mr. Lamb, he describes several incidents of people being cruel or insensitive to him. Most notably, he describes two women at a bus stop whispering to each other that he has “a face only a mother could love.” And yet even of his mother he says that she only kisses him because she has to, and then only on the unburned side of his face. He also says several times that other people are afraid of him, even if they pretend not to be. Derry lingers on these negative experiences and brings them up to Mr. Lamb as his reason to avoid others—he doesn’t want to be pitied or feared, and so he closes himself off to human interaction altogether. Indeed, he only comes into Lamb’s garden because he assumed it was empty, and he admits that he would never have entered if he knew Lamb was there. Tellingly, he also climbs over the garden wall and doesn’t even notice that the gate is left open—Derry assumes that people should be closed off from each other.
Derry does enter the garden and encounter Mr. Lamb, however, and this leads to their transformative conversation. From the start, Lamb treats Derry like any other boy, and challenges his extreme reservations. Mr. Lamb embodies the play’s philosophy of openness, and he presents this to Derry as an alternative to his bitter isolation. Lamb lives a quiet, contemplative life and welcomes any interaction with people or nature. He leaves his gate open so that anyone might come in, and says that he has “friends everywhere.” “People come in,” he says, “everybody knows me. The gate’s always open. They come and sit here. And in front of the fire in winter. Kids come for the apples and pears.” Later there is doubt cast on whether or not all these people actually visit Mr. Lamb, but the important point is that this is what he wants to happen—he likes accepting everyone. “I’m interested in anybody,” he says.
Notably, Mr. Lamb welcomes not only positive interactions but also negative ones—he accepts whatever comes with a spirit of openness. The neighborhood children mock his disability and call him “Lamey-Lamb,” but he still lets them come into his garden to take apples, and they do so. “Doesn’t trouble me,” he tells Derry. While Derry closes himself off to avoid being hurt by other people, Lamb keeps himself open to all kinds of interaction. This is also symbolized by the state of his house—there are no curtains on the windows, and he likes to keep the windows open even in the rain and wind. He accepts the weather as it comes, just like he accepts people. “I’m not fond of curtains,” he tells Derry. “Shutting things out, shutting things in.” While this might sometimes be uncomfortable, Mr. Lamb seems to have found a great deal of peace in his lifestyle—certainly far more than Derry has.
The authenticity of the two characters’ connection is put to the test when Mr. Lamb invites Derry to pick crabapples with him later in the day. When he first sees Mr. Lamb, Derry immediately tries to make an excuse to flee, but by the end of their conversation he is determined to run the three miles home, tell his mother where he’s going, and then return to Lamb’s garden to talk more and help with the apples. This shows just how much Derry has been changed by Mr. Lamb’s worldview, and that he and the old man have found a real connection with each other. In trying to convince his mother to let him return, Derry even takes on Lamb’s attitude, telling her that “I want to be there, and sit and…listen to things. Listen and look.” He claims that Mr. Lamb says “things that matter. Things nobody else has ever said. Things I want to think about.” Derry has found joy in his connection to the old man, and this inspires him to open himself to the potential of more.
At the play’s end, Mr. Lamb falls and seems to have died, but it’s clear he has touched Derry deeply. As the boy runs to Lamb’s body, Derry starts weeping—a sure sign of a bond between the two, despite the briefness of their relationship. The play then ends, leaving it unclear whether Derry will withdraw once more in the face of this new pain, or if he will continue to follow the old man’s example by seeking out connection with others and remaining open to the entire range of human experience.
Human Connection and Openness ThemeTracker
Human Connection and Openness Quotes in On the Face of It
DERRY: I thought it was empty….an empty house.
MR LAMB: So it is. Since I’m out here in the garden. It is empty. Until I go back inside. In the meantime, I’m out here and likely to stop. A day like this. Beautiful day. Not a day to be indoors.
DERRY: [Panic] I’ve got to go.
MR LAMB: Not on my account. I don’t mind who comes into the garden. The gate’s always open. Only you climbed the garden wall.
DERRY: [Angry] You were watching me.
MR LAMB: I saw you. But the gate’s open. All welcome. You’re welcome. I sit here. I like sitting.
MR LAMB: Some call them weeds. If you like, then….a weed garden, that. There’s fruit and there are flowers, and trees and herbs. All sorts. But over there….weeds. I grow weeds there. Why is one green, growing plant called a weed and another ‘flower’? Where’s the difference. It’s all life….growing. Same as you and me.
DERRY: We’re not the same.
MR LAMB: I’m old. You’re young. You’ve got a burned face, I’ve got a tin leg. Not important. You’re standing there…. I’m sitting here. Where’s the difference?
DERRY: I don’t like being near people. When they stare….when I see them being afraid of me.
MR LAMB: You could lock yourself up in a room and never leave it. There was a man who did that. He was afraid, you see. Of everything. Everything in this world. A bus might run him over, or a man might breathe deadly germs onto him, or a donkey might kick him to death, or lightning might strike him down, or he might love a girl and the girl would leave him, and he might slip on a banana skin and fall and people who saw him would laugh their heads off. So he went into this room, and locked the door, and got into his bed, and stayed there.
DERRY: For ever?
MR LAMB: For a while.
DERRY: Then what?
MR LAMB: A picture fell off the wall on to his head and killed him.
[Derry laughs a lot]
MR LAMB: I’m not fond of curtains. Shutting things out, shutting things in. I like the light and the darkness, and the windows open, to hear the wind.
DERRY: Yes. I like that. When it’s raining, I like to hear it on the roof.
MR LAMB: So you’re not lost, are you? Not altogether? You do hear things. You listen.
DERRY: Do you have any friends?
MR LAMB: Hundreds.
DERRY: But you live by yourself in that house. It’s a big house, too.
MR LAMB: Friends everywhere. People come in…. everybody knows me. The gate’s always open. They come and sit here. And in front of the fire in winter. Kids come for the apples and pears. And for toffee. I make toffee with honey. Anybody comes. So have you.
DERRY: But I’m not a friend.
MR LAMB: Certainly you are. As far as I’m concerned. What have you done to make me think you’re not?
DERRY: Those other people who come here….do they talk to you? Ask you things?
MR LAMB: Some do, some don’t. I ask them. I like to learn.
DERRY: I don’t believe in them. I don’t think anybody ever comes. You’re here all by yourself and miserable and no one would know if you were alive or dead and nobody cares.
MR LAMB: You think what you please.
DERRY: I think you’re daft….crazy….
MR LAMB: That’s a good excuse.
DERRY: What for? You don’t talk sense.
MR LAMB: Good excuse not to come back. And you’ve got a burned-up face, and that’s other people’s excuse.
DERRY: You’re like the others, you like to say things like that. If you don’t feel sorry for my face, you’re frightened of it, and if you’re not frightened, you think I’m ugly as a devil. I am a devil. Don’t you? [Shouts]
[Mr Lamb does not reply. He has gone to his bees.]
DERRY: [Quietly] No. You don’t. I like it here.
DERRY: I hate it here.
MOTHER: You can’t help the things you say. I forgive you. It’s bound to make you feel bad things….and say them. I don’t blame you.
DERRY: It’s got nothing to do with my face and what I look like. I don’t care about that and it isn’t important. It’s what I think and feel and what I want to see and find out and hear. And I’m going back there. Only to help him with the crab apples. Only to look at things and listen. But I’m going.
MOTHER: You’ll stop here.
DERRY: Oh no, oh no. Because if I don’t go back there, I’ll never go anywhere in this world again.
[The door slams. Derry runs, panting.]
And I want the world….I want it….I want it….