Topdog/Underdog

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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Topdog/Underdog: Scene Three Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lincoln awakes in the armchair hours later. Still dressed as Abraham Lincoln, it’s clear he’s been drinking heavily. He drifts back to sleep, but Booth barrels into the apartment and slams the door, clearly trying to wake his brother, who doesn’t move. Pausing, Booth opens the door and slams it again. Lincoln wakes up suddenly and asks if Booth hurt himself. On the contrary, Booth tells him, he’s had “an evening to remember,” bragging about Grace by saying, “She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasnt together just so she could say we aint never been apart. She wiped her hand over our breakup. She wiped her hand over her childhood, her teenage years, her first boyfriend, just so she could say that she been mine since the dawn of time.”
Once again, Booth’s confident swagger when it comes to his romantic relationship with Grace seems somewhat disingenuous, especially since his statement that she “wiped her hand over her childhood” is so blatantly hyperbolic. Only Booth—a man obsessed with being seen as a desirable alpha-male—would be so dramatic as to erase parts of history that don’t play in his favor. It’s clear in this moment that it’s he who wants to “wipe” all Grace’s former lovers from his mind, thereby destroying any competition and gaining a masculine sense of possession over his lover. In this moment, Booth conflates romance with ownership, revealing his desire to be a dominant, controlling man uninfluenced by the past.
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Lincoln asks if Grace and Booth had sex. “Course she let me do it,” Booth says. “She let you do it without a rubber?” Lincoln asks, and Booth claims she did, then boasts about how she let him have sex with her “dogstyle” in front of a mirror. However, he tells Lincoln that Grace is going to make him use a condom next time they make love. “Im sure you can talk her out of it,” Lincoln says. After a pause, Booth asks his brother what kind of condoms he used to use when he was married to Cookie, and Lincoln says they didn’t need to use protection because they were married. “But you had other women on the side. What kind you use when you was with them?” Booth asks. “Magnums,” Lincoln says. Hearing this, Booth quickly says, “That’s thuh kind I picked up. For next time.”
Both Booth and Lincoln’s misogyny and chauvinist ideals surface in their conversation about sexual conquests. To them, convincing a woman to forgo contraception during intercourse is a defining element of what they think of as good sex. There’s a certain power Booth seems to derive from (supposedly) talking Grace out of using a condom, a sense of autonomy and control that reinforces his idea of himself as a desirable alpha-male. And if he does need to use a condom—as he claims he’ll have to do the next time he has sex with Grace—he goes out of his way to make sure his brother knows he’ll use a Magnum, a condom meant for men with large penises. What becomes painfully obvious in this moment (especially when Booth scrambles to assure Lincoln that he too must use Magnums) is that Booth’s conception of sexuality is inextricably wrapped up in stereotypical ideas about manhood, masculine dominance, control, and power.
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Booth waxes poetic about his love for Grace, saying she’s not like the “fly-by-night-gals” he used to date. He speaks with admiration about the fact that she’s in cosmetology school and explains that they were previously dating for two years and then broke up because he had a “little employment difficulty and she needed to think.” As he speaks, he lies on his bed behind the dividing partition. Parks’s stage direction indicates that he “fiddles with the condoms, perhaps trying to put one on.” From the other side of the partition, Lincoln asks what he’s doing back there, and he says he’s resting because he’s tired out from all the sex he had with Grace.
When Parks indicates that Booth “fiddles with the condoms, perhaps trying to put one on,” she pokes fun of the fact that he’s clearly more inexperienced than he lets on. Indeed, only somebody who hasn’t been in many sexual situations would experiment with and practice putting on a condom. It’s evident, then, that sex is very much still on Booth’s mind, an indication that he has most likely not spent the night making love to Grace, as he claims. As such, Parks insinuates that Booth is overcompensating for a lack of experience by bragging to his brother about his sexual conquests.
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Lincoln asks Booth if he’ll help him practice his new Abraham Lincoln death routine. Booth declines, and when Lincoln can’t convince him, he says, “You didnt get shit tonight.” Booth denies this accusation, but Lincoln doesn’t relent, saying, “You laying over there yr balls blue as my boosted suit. Laying over there waiting for me to go back to sleep or black out so I wont hear you rustling thuh pages of yr fuck book.” He reveals to his brother that he was looking for something under Booth’s bed the previous week and found a collection of pornographic magazines, the pages of which are “matted together” because Booth “spunked” in them. 
When Lincoln admits that he found Booth’s stash of pornography—and that the magazines are covered in Booth’s semen—any suspicions the audience might have already had about Booth and Grace’s relationship are confirmed. Contrary to his previous claims, it’s obvious that Booth isn’t receiving sexual or romantic attention from Grace. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Lincoln levels this accusation at his brother only after Booth breaks his promise to help him with his arcade routine. In response, Lincoln purposefully emasculates his brother, undermining Booth’s image of himself as a desirable and sexually well-versed man. In this way, sexual conquest (or the lack thereof) factors into the ways in which the brothers compete with one another. 
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Defending himself for owning pornographic magazines, Booth says, “Im hot. I need constant sexual release. If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself I would be out there running around on thuh town which costs cash that I dont have so I would be doing worse: Id be out there doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release.” He continues on this tirade, verbally abusing his brother and making arguments about his own sexual rapaciousness. “You a limp dick jealous whiteface motherfucker whose wife dumped him cause he couldnt get it up and she told me so,” he levels at Lincoln. “Came crawling to me cause she needed a man.”
For Booth, a lack of “sexual release” leads to violence and aggression, further supporting the idea that sexual conquest defines his sense of what it means to be an alpha-male. In this statement he also inadvertently confirms that he has, in fact, been lying about his relationship with Grace—if he were truly having sex with her, he wouldn’t need to “take care of [himself].” And once again, these fraught ideas about sexuality and male dominance work their way into Booth and Lincoln’s brotherly relationship, as Booth responds to Lincoln’s emasculating remarks by reminding his brother that Cookie “came crawling to [him]” because “she needed a man,” an insult implying that Booth is more masculine than Lincoln.
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A long silence passes between the brothers. Eventually, Booth looks beyond the divider to see if Lincoln is sleeping and the two men make eye contact. Lincoln tells Booth that he can play Three-Card Monte without him, and Booth says this is exactly what he plans to do. “I could contact my old crew. You could work with them,” Lincoln says. Booth waves this off, saying he can make his own connections, but Lincoln ignores him. “Theyd take you on in a heartbeat,” he says. “With my say. My say still counts with them. They know you from before, when you tried to hang with us but—werent ready yet.” Adding to this, he remarks, “Youd be passable.” At this, Booth’s attention peaks, and he says, “I’d be more than passable, I’d be the be all end all.”
That Lincoln offers to help his brother play Three-Card Monte seems out of step with the nature of their most recent conversation, in which Booth gravely insulted Lincoln. However, this tonal shift is simply part of their relationship as brothers—they fight often, but they’re also able to quickly shift gears, which illustrates that their relational dynamic encompasses both competition and affection. At the same time, though, it’s also worth noting that Lincoln has heretofore been more or less against the idea of Booth becoming a hustler. Having experienced the hardships of this lifestyle himself, he seemed weary of letting his younger brother start throwing cards. Now, though, he encourages the idea, so although the tonal shift in the brothers’ conversation can certainly be attributed to the complicated nature of their relationship, a cynical interpretation of Lincoln’s newfound encouragement might suggest that he no longer wishes to protect his brother from a dangerous lifestyle, instead responding to Booth’s venomous words by emboldening him to go forth and bring upon his own demise.
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Lincoln points out that Booth will have to get a gun if he wants to start hustling, saying the pistol he currently owns isn’t good enough. When Booth asks what his brother knows about guns, Lincoln says he’s around them at the arcade—“They’ve all been reworked so they only fire caps but I see [them] every day.” At this, Booth says, “Maybe I could visit you over there. I’d boost one of them guns and rework it to make it shoot for real again.” Lincoln rejects this, telling Booth the guns are useless anyway, since they only shoot blanks. “Yeah,” Booth says, “like you. Shooting blanks.” After another pause, Booth asks Lincoln if he’s ever afraid a customer will bring a real gun and shoot him in earnest, but the thought has never crossed Lincoln’s mind—he says he can’t spend time “worrying about the actions of miscellaneous strangers.”
Once again, Booth can’t resist the opportunity to emasculate his brother, this time unnecessarily insulting him by reminding him that he “shoot[s] blanks.” Fortunately enough, Lincoln’s able to stand these petty insults, and it’s Booth who reveals himself as deeply insecure. Indeed, when he asks Lincoln if he’s ever afraid of being shot in earnest at the arcade, Booth provides insight into his own insecurity as person who can’t imagine ever turning his back to strangers and allowing them to shoot him, even if it’s all make-believe. Even the mere idea of miming getting shot threatens his dominant ego, whereas Lincoln doesn’t try to control “the actions of miscellaneous strangers” because he doesn’t mind allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of other people.
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On the topic of these “miscellaneous strangers,” Booth asks what kind of people come to the arcade and pretend to shoot Lincoln, but Lincoln can’t answer because he doesn’t turn around to look at the shooters. However, he explains that he can see the reflections of the customers in a dented fuse box on the wall opposite where he sits. In this reflection, the customers appear upside-down. Lincoln describes hearing the customer approach, seeing him appear inverted in the box’s reflection, feeling the gun against his head—“Winter or summer thuh gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me [the customer] can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real.” 
What Lincoln describes in this moment is the feeling of giving oneself over completely to vulnerability. When the gun is against his skin, he allows the customer to feel powerful and dominant. Whereas this would unnerve Booth, who is obsessed with power, Lincoln is content to simply watch the customer’s reflection in the dented fuse box. The imagery of this is significant, as each reflection appears upside-down, as if Lincoln gains an alternate perspective of the world by placing himself in a position of vulnerability. Opening himself up to other people and their dormant aggressions—their taste for blood, however imaginary it is—he sees the world anew, suddenly able to see things from fresh angles. His brother, on the other hand, has a pigeon-holed perception of the world because he’s narrowly focused on trying to be dominant and powerful. This mentality—and the ways in which it influences Booth’s relationship with deception—is important to keep in mind as the play progresses.
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Lincoln’s boss wants to replace him with a wax dummy. Hearing this, Booth insists again that Lincoln enhance his act to prove his worth. He finally helps his brother practice his routine, pretending to shoot him and then telling him to curse and scream and wriggle around on the floor. On the third attempt, Lincoln writhes violently and convincingly, screaming all the while. Afterward, he asks Booth what he thinks, and Booth says, “I dunno, man. Something about it. I dunno. It was looking too real or something.” Upon hearing this, Lincoln curses his brother, saying that Booth’s advice to liven up the act will get him fired. “People are funny about they Lincoln shit,” he explains. “Its historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”
Lincoln’s assertion that “people like they historical shit in a certain way” speaks to Booth’s unwillingness to fully examine his own past. Similar to how Lincoln’s customers want to “neatly” “fold” history away, situating it in their minds so that it’s innocuous and manageable, Booth wants to “wipe” away the unfavorable things of his past. The difference, of course, is that Lincoln’s customers don’t try to ignore history altogether—instead, they willingly interact with it, reenacting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in a manner that perhaps helps them conceptualize such a brutal and historically charged act. Booth, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with history, thus trying to live in a timeless present—an obviously unachievable endeavor. 
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Booth reminds Lincoln that, if he does indeed get fired, they can join together as brothers and hustle Three-Card Monte. “Just show me how to do the hook part of the card hustle,” he begs. “The part where the Dealer looks away but somehow he sees—” Cutting him off, Lincoln tells Booth that he couldn’t remember this move even if he wanted to. With that, he rolls over on his recliner and goes to sleep. Meanwhile, on the other side of the partition, Booth reaches for his pornographic magazines. 
Any desire Lincoln may have had to teach Booth Three-Card Monte seemingly dissipates in this moment, when he rolls over and refuses to show Booth his moves. No doubt disappointed by his brother’s sudden disinterest, Booth reaches for his pornography stash, an action that once again highlights the ways in which he turns to “sexual release” in moments of let-down and frustration.
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