The play largely consists of a single conversation between an old man, Mr. Lamb, and a boy, Derry, who had previously never met but who eventually find a sense of connection and companionship with each other. A large part of the poignancy of this brief connection (brief because Mr. Lamb presumably dies before their relationship can grow further) is the fact that both characters live in a society that makes them feel alienated and alone. Because of their respective physical disabilities, Derry and Mr. Lamb are treated differently from other people, and this leads them to lives of relative isolation, whether willingly or not. On the Face of It explores some of the ways people separate themselves from others and alienate certain people, and shows just how damaging loneliness and isolation can be.
Derry has secluded himself mostly willingly, as he hates how people treat him because of his badly burned face. When he enters the garden and first sees Mr. Lamb, he immediately makes an excuse and tries to leave, despite the old man’s welcoming words. Soon after, Derry says, “I don’t like being with people. Any people.” He assumes that others find him hideous, and he doesn’t like to “see them being afraid of [him].” It’s also implied that Derry’s mother contributes to his isolation, as she refuses to let him return to Mr. Lamb’s house and seems to purposefully keep him at home because of his disability. These isolating measures are meant to protect Derry from pain—he doesn’t want to be rejected by others, and so he avoids others altogether—but he is clearly lonely, and this leads him to bitterness and even anger.
Mr. Lamb is a more complicated figure. He lives alone in a big house, but leaves his garden gate open and welcomes visitors of all kinds. He claims that he has “hundreds” of friends, and that people come and go in his house and garden, but it’s also unclear if this is true, and he does admit that the neighborhood children mock him and call him “Lamey-Lamb.” At one point Derry says, “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.” To this Mr. Lamb says only, “You think what you please,” but he also seems to confirm Derry’s harsh assessment in his later musings to his bees, saying that none of “them” (presumably other brief visitors like Derry) ever come back. Lamb is not bitter about this, but he does seem to feel a great sadness and longing for conversation and connection. He is lonely, alienated by others, and resigned to his fate.
The central point about isolation comes towards the end of the play. When Mr. Lamb invites Derry to help him pick crabapples later in the day, the idea of “coming back” (since Derry has to go home first and tell his mother where he is) comes to represent human connection and breaking the cycle of isolation. Both characters are lonely, but they have found a brief bond with each other, and the question then becomes whether or not they will pursue this connection further or return to their respective states of aloneness—whether Derry will “come back” or not. Mr. Lamb makes this clear when Derry tries to insult him, and Lamb says, “That’s a good excuse. […] Good excuse not to come back. And you’ve got a burned-up face, and that’s other people’s excuse.” The point he’s making here is that people find reasons to separate themselves from others for fear of being hurt. Whether this is avoiding someone because of a physical disability they have or refusing to get closer to someone because of the way they challenge one’s beliefs, people long for connection but also isolate themselves in an attempt to avoid pain. Of course, Derry does “come back,” making the bold choice to go against his mother’s wishes and his own reclusive tendencies, but he is too late to further his connection with Mr. Lamb, and is left alone again.
On the Face of It portrays characters who have many good reasons to avoid other people, but it also illustrates how human beings long for connection with others, and how isolation and alienation can lead to great suffering. Alienating others and secluding one’s self can be a means of self-preservation, but as the play shows, this isolation only leads to greater unhappiness in the end.
Loneliness and Alienation ThemeTracker
Loneliness and Alienation 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: You want me to ask….say so, then.
DERRY: I don’t like being with people. Any people.
MR LAMB: I should say….to look at it…. I should say, you got burned in a fire.
DERRY: Not in a fire. I got acid all down that side of my face and it burned it all away. It ate my face up. It ate me up. And now it’s like this and it won’t ever be any different.
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]
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….