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Wandering Identities: of Bags and Plays by Wilde, Pinter, and McGuinness

Histoires de sacs: errance, identité et mémoire chez Wilde, Pinter et McGuinness
Emmanuelle Guedj


Que ce soit dans The Importance of Being Earnest d’Oscar Wilde (1899), dans The Caretaker d’Harold Pinter (1960), ou encore dans Baglady de Franck McGuinness (1988), les sacs et valises permettent de dire l’errance des personnages. Oscillant entre le plein et le creux, entre la fonction de racine mobile identitaire et une symbolique de vestige mémoriel stérile, l’objet n’est pas un simple accessoire. Les trois pièces, de nationalités, périodes et contextes différents, s’accordent toutefois pour mettre au jour les ramifications complexes entre errance, mémoire et identité. Le sac devient le signe scénique de l’errance du personnage que celle-ci soit constitutive d’une identité ou au contraire le signe de son effacement progressif mais inéluctable; véritable matérialisation sur scène de la mémoire, il indique également sa perte, devenant un contenant sans contenu. Symbole du bag character, cet être clochardisé errant dans les zones urbaines, le sac permet également de dire ce que le personnage semble ne plus pouvoir dire.

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  • 1 As Charles Chaplin’s 1915 short-length film The Tramp clearly exemplifies.

1Given that an intimate space can be defined as an initial shell, a place where to host imagination and the self (Bachelard 24–25), bags onstage may serve a similar purpose in preserving the remains of a character’s self, alongside a tramp’s knickknacks. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, bags of any type have symbolized travels and wandering,1 thus recalling the spectres of famine, exile, and rootlessness, intimately linked with collective and/or individual trauma. Onstage, the bag evolves into a theatrical sign that helps question identity and memory. Encompassing more than a slice of bread, it becomes the wanderer’s mobile root. Collected objects being “a mental space over which one rules” (Baudrillard 120), this papers aims to show how bags not only introduce the restlessness of identity but also work as the character’s mental space in three very different plays: The Importance of Being Earnest (1899) by Oscar Wilde, The Caretaker (1960) by Harold Pinter and Baglady (1988) by Frank McGuinness. Although the works at stake were written by playwrights of distinct background and nationality, and at different times, they do echo each other in their use of bags to theatrically express metaphysical questions. Wandering and errancy are actually similarly used by these playwrights to explore loss and trauma, despite their particular cultural, historical, and political stance. Indeed, playing with metatheatricality and role swapping, they explore containment, loss, and memory in producing, or not, the mysterious bags onstage. Focusing first on identity and its paradoxical link with physical immobility, this paper will then discuss how by shuffling void and content, bags participate in the reification of characters and memory.

  • 2 Yet, McGuinness stated his play had not been written to respond to the scandals.
  • 3 Staged for instance by Yeats in Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902).

2The Importance of Being Earnest introduces the metaphysical quest for the self via metatheatricality and the destinerrance concept the bag echoes. It sets up the foundations of the twentieth century’s exploration of the wandering self and its questioning of one’s identity and origin. Set in post World War Two London, The Caretaker develops a more tragic exploration of the erring self. In this comedy of menace, Davies, the tramp character, symbolises loss, be it of memory or origins; deprived of both he is doomed to endlessly roam an inescapable mental maze of his own making. Similar to Aston’s unbuilt shed, Davies’ bag stands as an intimate loss of wholeness. Baglady explores its female protagonist’s mindscape. Although identity has disappeared, the ghost-like female-tramp character restlessly shifts from one memory to another; the obsessive snapshots she keeps recollecting gradually reveal the overwhelming layers of an individual and collective trauma. Onstage at a time when the Kerry babies and Ann Lovett cases were bluntly questioning the Catholic moral stance on unwed women and pregnancy in Ireland,2 the play enables the female voice of memory to be heard in the shell-like space the stage has been turned into. Reminiscent of Cathleen Ni Houlihan,3 an allegorical errant female character embodying Ireland, the Baglady is a harsh reminder of have-nots at a time when the Celtic Tiger was in full economic expansion. The traumatised and colonised female body of the protagonist also evokes the postcolonial debates as regards changes and transformations of Irish identity.

3In The Importance of Being Earnest, problems of transient identities first stem from the male characters’ changes of roles, namely “Ernest Worthing” and “Uncle Jack” (Wilde 239). Bunburyism, a neologism invented by Algernon to qualify the identity fraud both young men are guilty of (Wilde 259), comically introduces the restlessness of names and identity. Indeed, to leave the city at will and escape any unpleasant commitment, each has invented a character in need of visiting. With Jack being a player in his own characterisation, the instability of identity in theatre is thus highlighted.

4In The Caretaker, Davies has also been playing with multiple identities for years. Identified as Davies in the stage directions (Pinter 7), the proper name “Davies” can yet be understood as a first name but also as a surname, for Davies identifies himself as “Jenkins. Bernard Jenkins”, and then as “Davies. Mac Davies” (Pinter 20). The character and the stage directions contradict one another and undermine the possibility to define. Besides, Mac also indicates one’s Celtic origin and recalls the famous British actor Anew McMaster Harold Pinter played with when he was young (Lecercle 1996, 47; 86) and wrote a tribute to in 1966, entitled “Mac” (Lecercle 2006, 43–48). Along with metatheatricality, the polysemy of names results in a fragmentation of the character’s self scattered between referential origins that fail to constitute a whole as Jack and Davies shift between roles. Yet, the errancy of identity does come to an end for Jack whereas Davies keeps wandering with neither a real sense of direction nor a name to call his own. Bunburyism evolves into a perverse game that tragically traps Davies into a world he fails to decipher, incapable as he is of finding the tracks to his own memory. Erring identity defies our need for clarity and definitions and creates an overwhelming distrust of language; in undermining the character’s credibility, The Caretaker debunks naturalistic interpretations and participates in the inescapable menace. Aware of Davies’ fraud, the audience can therefore expect a flaw in his incoherent protective shell. For instance, Mick systematically questions his statements and dismantles his name: “Jen. . .kins” (Pinter 30–31). The aposiopesis exposes artifice and highlights threat and suspicion. By splitting the word in two Mick pinpoints the weakness that lies at the heart of what seems like a patched-up role and emphasises the discrepancies between discourse and identity. The canyon-like depth of silence between the two syllables opens up into a new perspective; it hints at the mysterious identity maze Davies has partly revealed and indicates the way to his most intimate psychic space.

5In Baglady, the anonymity of the eponymous character stems from the lack of uniqueness the noun highlights; it paradoxically enables a deeper insight into traumas linked with femininity and Irishness. In The Caretaker the polysemy of names established a polytypic identity for the character. In Baglady, names have been lost and polyphony is what the polymorphic identity of the character is grounded on. Indeed, her voice utters a complexly woven cloth of collective and individual memories and is a conglomerate of several speakers whose parole or speeches constantly overlap. Such ventriloquism conveys a feeling of restlessness when one tries to identify speakers as her card-reading illustrates (McGuinness 391–399). Most pronouns are disconnected from their original reference, so that even addressees are merged. The obsessive incestuous relationship with her father confirms role swapping and the confusion of family functions (McGuinness 388). This wandering process of image, roles, names and identity all erring and sometimes overlapping, recalls the metaphysical quests of the self in a postlapsarian context, which is here after an individual trauma echoing that of the nation itself. The mark of exile is indelible and homecoming an impossible journey as her voice asserts the loss of her roots and sense of belonging: “You have no name. You are not married. You have no family” (McGuinness 391). The anaphoric rhythm of this cue is later echoed in the staccato rhythm of her own questions: “Do I have a name? Is it a girl’s name? Is it a good name, a clean one?” (McGuinness 395); the female body and the colonized island overlap in this crave for roots. Yet names are transient elements that fail to indicate or penetrate the self: to cleanse or to forget the horror of the past, her name was washed away (McGuinness 389) and family ties erased. Paradoxically the break between character and name might serve as a survival technique if understood alongside Derrida’s suggesting names should be protested against if one wants to survive: “Le nom, c’est fait pour se passer de la vie du porteur, c’est donc toujours un peu le nom d’un mort. On ne pourrait vivre vivre, être là, qu’en protestant contre son nom, en protestant de sa non-identité avec son proper nom” (Derrida 45). The waterproof shell of the Baglady’s inner space recalls the window on which names were written but never left a trace (McGuinness 389). Trauma is what really remains once the details are forgotten, and umbilical cords severed. The original catastrophe is manifold (ranging from incest to colonization and exile, to name but a few) and the source of the wandering process.

6Paradoxically, wandering identities coincide with physical immobility in all three plays. For instance, Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest was found in a bag in Victoria train station (Wilde 268). The commonplace object humorously contrasts with the oddity of the discovery. The potentiality of travel encapsulated in the bag and the train station is almost contradicted by the bag and baby not travelling. The character’s naming process is bound to physical restlessness and chance (Wilde 268). The latter is indeed at the core of wandering as no fixed abode is one of its prerequisites. The holiday destination is what randomly defines the character’s identity. This can be assimilated to Derrida’s destinerrance concept developed in La Carte postale, which refers to a message whose meaning is only to be dictated by the addressee or recipient (Ramond 25). Mr Cardew stands thus as the parcel’s random addressee in this chance discovery. The addressee and his destination both give a sense to the child’s existence, be it in terms of identity or social status. The child’s destiny is hence haphazardly defined both by the movements derived from the journey and the fixity that characterises Worthing.

7In The Caretaker, Davies is also split between restlessness and immobility, although the loss of destination (adestination) and addressee prevail. He repeatedly declares he will go to Sidcup to get his papers left there during the war so as to retrieve a social existence (Pinter 20). The source of physical movement they represent is unreachable precisely because he misses what would allow his move. Aporia, here a mental reasoning going round in circles, prevents the character’s identification. Davies cannot leave the flat he is expelled from and is captured in the theatrical space, which metaphorizes mind trapping. Likewise, the list of places he recalls having visited reveals he is trapped in the London suburb; lost within contradictions he declares: “You see, the name I call myself now, that’s not my real name. My real name’s not the one I’m using, you see. It’s different. You see, the name I go under now ain’t my real one. It’s assumed” (Pinter 44). Despite the anaphora, which expresses the need to confirm the phatic function of language, the character fails to convey a message Aston could possibly understand. The use of anadiplosis or epanalepsis, emphasises the aporetic pattern Davies is erring in. Not remembering where he began, he is caught in a disjointed identity maze. Enquiries about his birth-place (Pinter 25) are never satisfied as if the location itself were not a fixed geographical reality contrary to Worthing in Wilde’s play. Davies’ fear of distinct origins echoes the panic felt by Jews of being identified as such, especially during World War II.

8The Baglady is also locked in a theatrical space assimilated to a mindscape as the stage directions suggest (McGuinness 385). Physical movement, travels, and walks are mental journeys while her body encompasses locations and memories: “(holds up her ten fingers) I carry places with me. These are all streets” (McGuinness 386). The character symbolises Ireland and femininity, past and present, and echoes a long lasting tradition of considering the island as “a feminine landscape, whose contours needed only to be laid bare” (Kiberd 16). Yet, distinctions of places have been annihilated, and because paths have been ingested, there is no escape. Although the Baglady moves onstage, she cannot leave the theatrical space that symbolises her mind similarly to Davies or even Beckett’s characters. If Davies has lost his way, the female tramp has cut off all the roads to her private space. Immobility protects the characters from physical pain but also unleashes memories only forgetfulness could protect them from.

  • 4 I am indebted to Peter Buse for this analogy between human scars betraying people’s identity and th (...)

9In The Importance of Being Earnest, the bag supplies Jack with temporary identity and a direction in life. Ironically, this identity of a transient nature will eventually reveal itself to be closer to the truth than expected at first. Yet, however helpful in finding who one is the hand-bag proves to be, the containing device is unable to speak for itself in terms of memory. Settling down with Gwendoleen is first impossible as Jack is unable to satisfy Lady Bracknell’s demand for a proper family tree. Although it preserved his precious life and played a key role in providing him with a substitute name and status, Jack’s “cradle” is unable to root back to his origin. As only silence is echoed in such emptiness the bag stands as the first signs of the existential void twentieth century drama is doomed to fill (Angel- Perez 89). Indeed, only Miss Prism’s story can supply content for the empty bag, providing him with history (Wilde 309–311). Although it contained a child, the bag cannot deliver memory, even if the scar that identifies it as Prism’s evokes a very human characteristic.4

10Contrary to The Importance of Being Earnest in which bags, origin, and identity are closely-knit, Davies’s old bag is split from his long-abandoned quest for identity. Although it used to contain all his t h i n g s, it is now lost unable to materialise itself, let alone Davies’s past. The absent object works as the symbol of the character’s forgetfulness and recalls Beckett’s 1953 play En attendant Godot in which Lucky’s bag is filled with sand (Beckett 89). Halfway between a giant sandglass and the proof that nothing remains, it works as the metonymy of the failing human brain. The characters gradually forget more and more and fail to link a recalled element from the past with a context. Estragon remembers he was kicked, but neither when nor by whom (Beckett 61). Similarly, Davies remembers he had papers but not when he left them. Falling into an isolated memory cave, his mind seems to be crumbling down into pieces that do not hold together anymore. His bag is striking mostly for its absence and a whole rhetoric of void and emptiness is developed. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the bag was similar to a pregnant womb, despite being an empty cave in origin-related matters. In The Caretaker, similar fluctuations are developed, but on a much more sterile ground. The void of existence after the Second World War becomes overwhelming; the necessity for the self to find a place to exist is even more blatant. Instead of hosting the self, the bag is used to echo this fear of emptiness and the disappearance of memory. As in The Importance of Being Earnest, the prime function of Davies’s lost bag was indeed containment: “I wouldn’t mind so much but I left all my belongings in that place, in the back room there. All of them, the lot there was, you see, in this bag. Every lousy blasted bit of all my bleeding belongings I left down there now” (Pinter 10). The alliteration on [b] emphasizes the tension at work to utter the sound. The plosive sound is created by first the obstruction of the air by the lips followed by the sudden release of this trapped air. The movement is thus that of filling and emptying, of content and of void. The alliteration in [l] forces the attention on the repetition of “all” which reverberates throughout the cue. This contributes to the dramatic efficiency of a play on nothingness and somethingness.“All” means both expansion and restriction, although it brings to mind endless possibilities and boundless possessions, the abstract quantity clearly held in a single bag amounting to a derisory content. If Davies’s all equals nothing because it has disappeared with the bag, one may wonder whether possession itself is not inverted. Nothingness is perhaps what was to be found in this container, thus echoing the empty bag in Wilde’s play. The absence of things takes shape and appears to be given a presence in language. The only element that increases is precisely the utterance of this possession found in the expansion of the initial clause with rather disparaging adjectives. The absence of the bag onstage makes the character’s attempt at pointing out the multiplicity of objects even more tragic. Recalling the necessity for a thing to be seen onstage to exist, the absence of the bag is all the more symptomatic of the overwhelming ruin that characterises Davies’s mindscape. Language is thus the only space left where the bag can theatrically exist, and the object left in a pub becomes a mythical shell keeping the nothingness of Davies’s existence.

11As long as their identities wander, both Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest and Davies in The Caretaker, are assimilated to objects. The comic effect in the first case derives from the temporary nature of such process whereas in the second it is tragically endless. Assimilated to an object because he was contained in a piece of luggage, Jack is, indeed, called “a parcel” by Lady Bracknell (Wilde 269). The reification of the young man stands as the ultimate obstacle as far as the hoped- for alliance is concerned; the means to overcome such hurdle is ironically expressed in words that objectify human beings: “to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over” (Wilde 268). The comical effect derives not only from the magical trick Jack is expected to perform (producing a family member out of a bag as a magician would produce a rabbit from a hat) but also from the use of industrial terminology (reminiscent of Marxist rhetoric) to tackle family issues. Besides being useful, like the imaginary brother Jack has invented, family is ironically perceived as some mere merchandise, or accessory one must be in possession of at all costs.

12The problem is never solved in Pinter’s play. Lacking the power to define himself and to decide on a path to follow, Davies evolves into a cumbersome thing. He gradually becomes part of Aston’s collection for a time as the use of the passive in his duplicated cry suggests: “I was brought here! I was brought here!” (Pinter 34). Davies submits himself to the will of things and becomes one himself, as dehumanised as the Buddha was desacralised. He metamorphoses into as unmoveable an object as the window or the gas stove (Pinter 53; 59; 66–7). The character thus relies on the inanimate to endorse the human responsibilities he has fled. Papers define him and objects command him (Pinter 19–20). He does not bleed, but his “bleeding belongings” do (Pinter 10). The expression used instead of today’s very familiar bloody adjective, shows the transfer of living beings’ characteristics to things. Davies’ missing belongings deprive him of any physical or mental possession. The objects’ haemorrhage and new will power metaphorize the decay of identity and memory and the reification of characters.

13A baglady is a wandering creature peculiarized by the plastic shopping-bags she carries around. The compound thus materialises the fusion between the object and the female character. The individual is therefore swallowed into the generic term, as memories of the past and identity are also often locked in long-forgotten boxes or attics. In becoming the voice of her memorial space, she finally fills with words the void that was found in Jack and Davies’s silent bags. She reveals memories that the items she takes from her sack confirm and materialise. People from her past are carried along with her as playing cards. Like the playing card deck she takes out from her pocket, her appalling story is multilayered. Contrary to Wilde and Pinter’s plays, only the Baglady’s sack contains material objects from her past that concur with her speech, thus echoing Winnie’s bag in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961). She displays an accumulation of memories that are indeed shuffled and come out randomly one after another. Collecting events and people in the shape of cards, and places under the guise of fingers, amounts to a complex system, which helps the individual set up a new world, a private whole (Baudrillard 121). The king of diamonds embodies death by water (391). A mysterious infant-figure summons infanticides (McGuinness 390; 392; 393), which the queen of hearts, having lost her son, echoes (McGuinness 392). The ace of spades corroborates the bad omen (McGuinness 393). The father is metamorphosed into a devilish black dog (McGuinness 390) eating his own daughter (McGuinness 394) and is over-imposed on a threatening character trying to kidnap her: “a bad man with a bag on his back” (McGuinness 385) whose alliterative and assonantic description creates a sing-song effect the signifieds harshly undermine. Accordingly, the knave of clubs, a coercive figure, comes out (McGuinness 393). The father’s tongue is mentioned twice (McGuinness 389), and is assimilated to a sharpening object (McGuinness 398), blatantly exposing incest, not to mention issues regarding the Gaelic and English languages and the stakes of mother tongues. His presents are torture devices and suffocate the character onstage (McGuinness 397); bleeding and cleansing references are also recurrent. Objects therefore materialise and confirm the character’s traumatic past. Her multilayered mindscape parallels her status of containing device. Turned into a memory bag from which the voice of sufferance emerges, the ghost- like character is doomed to roam and wander. Neither her mental disclosure nor her physical journey follows a straight line. One may therefore wonder about the possibility of putting an end to this double edged wandering process. Even though she discards the symbols of her past in dropping them onstage (McGuinness 399), emptiness applies to her sack, not to her mind. The free-flowing process that transfers objects from her bag to her own space clearly highlights the osmosis between the two. Trapped onstage, she cannot escape her traumatic past, contrary to Davies who seems to willingly try to forget it.

14The evolution between the three plays clearly shows the importance of wandering in twentieth century drama in Ireland and in Britain in spite of very distinct cultural and political contexts. Although Wilde’s is definitely closer to the comic genre and finds a solution to end the character’s restlessness, it is nonetheless a cornerstone work in that it introduces wandering onstage, even before William Butler Yeats, Douglas Hyde, or John Millington Synge staged it. Pinter and McGuinness’s plays are set in a post traumatic era and therefore explore the endlessness of humans wandering. The overwhelming presence of restlessness helps stage the century’s metaphysical loss of direction and questioning. The theatrical impossibility to fix identity emphasises Man’s transience on earth, and recalls the indelible mark of Cain that Genesis mentions. In the three plays discussed here, bags are used to reflect and materialise the characters’ mindscapes and fading identities in their own respective context. Bags do work as the characters’ intimate shells; they host their minds and mirror their forgetfulness or remembrance. This process introduces confusion between humans and their things, once more questioning human responsibility and what being human really means.

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1 As Charles Chaplin’s 1915 short-length film The Tramp clearly exemplifies.

2 Yet, McGuinness stated his play had not been written to respond to the scandals.

3 Staged for instance by Yeats in Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902).

4 I am indebted to Peter Buse for this analogy between human scars betraying people’s identity and the one on Prism’s bag.

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Emmanuelle Guedj, « Wandering Identities: of Bags and Plays by Wilde, Pinter, and McGuinness »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2019, consulté le 07 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuelle Guedj

Université Paris-Sorbonne

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