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The Tiger, the Painting and the Bottle of Whisky: Alternative Discourses in David Edgar’s Destiny (1976)

Le tigre, le tableau et la bouteille de whisky: discours multiples dans Destiny de David Edgar (1976)
Susan Blattès


Dans une pièce politique comme Destiny où le texte joue un rôle fondamental, il est tentant de s’intéresser surtout au dialogue. Il ne faudrait pas pour autant sous- estimer le rôle joué par les objets scéniques. Ces objets n’ont pas seulement une fonction utilitaire. Leurs fonctions sont multiples et peuvent évoluer au cours de l’action. A partir de l’opposition faite par Bert O. States, dans son étude sur la phénoménologie théâtrale, entre la transparence et l’opacité de l’objet théâtral, cet article s’intéresse à trois objets, du plus banal au plus exotique, qui occupent des fonctions variées dans la pièce. Nous constaterons que la présence continue ou récurrente de « choses » sur la scène est à l’origine d’autres discours susceptibles de contester par moments la suprématie du verbal par rapport au visuel. Ainsi l’étude des objets nous permet de faire ressortir la dimension proprement théâtrale d’une œuvre comme Destiny.

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1Semiotics has shown us the importance of objects on the stage and in the dialogue, but as Bert O. States has suggested in Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (1985), this has mainly been with a view to demonstrating their “sign-ness” (States 10). We have been so preoccupied with our search for the icon, the index and the symbol that we have tended to look through the object instead of at it. For States, the “sign-ness” of things is only one aspect of their function in the theatre. We should, he argues, also pay attention to the thing itself. He therefore opposes the transparent “sign” to a more material “image” while insisting that the two actually cohabit, to a greater or lesser degree, on the stage. “Theater—unlike fiction, painting, sculpture and film—is really a language whose words consist to an unusual degree of things that are what they seem to be” (States 20). Although States obviously has a soft spot for the “rhetorical scenery” (States 55) in Shakespeare and is obviously attracted to a theatre whose language is “free of the gravity of a palpable visual world” (States 57), his concern with the “corporeality” of things on the stage cannot be denied. Marvin Carlson has coined the term “thingness” in response to States’s idea (Carlson 96). If as the Russian formalists tell us, “All that is on stage is a sign” (Elam 7), their physical presence cannot be denied and should not, perhaps, be overlooked. In fact, the stage object, like the actor, constitutes a meeting-point between reality and illusion and as such needs to be given full consideration. “The phenomenologist, in pursuit of the ‘essence’ of things will subsume their sign function—along with all other possible functions—under their phenomenal character as objects in the real world” (States 21).

2Most contemporary drama would fall somewhere between the two extremes evoked by States: Shakespeare’s empty platform stage on the one hand and Ibsen’s “room of solidly signifying objects, each one waiting its turn to become purposeful” (States 67–68). The duality of stage objects (representing something else and being themselves) can also be identified in many dramatic works. The choice of the term “things” may here really come into its own since it avoids the term “objects” or “props” which imply a specific purpose. The term “thing” on the other hand, whilst applicable to the personal belongings of the realistic stage, may also hint at an undetermined identity leading to a redefinition of binary opposition between the concrete and the abstract, the animate and the inanimate, etc. This indeterminacy may also take into account the necessity for art to make objects “unfamiliar”.

3Even so, a play like Destiny by David Edgar (1976) is an unlikely place to look for “thingness” as opposed to “sign-ness”. Here we have a play quite clearly focused on language and the ability of language to represent and mis-represent reality. It is a play about elections and political discourse where abstract concepts are more common than the real and concrete. Yet, it is precisely in this ephemeral and unstable world of words that things stand out and leave their mark. Language can be distorted and perverted; democracy can be made to mean anything, the object, on the other hand, through its physical presence and the fact that it remains visible longer than the word remains audible can play a role even in a political play.

4This is not of course to suggest that every object mentioned in Edgar’s text has to be seen as an example of “thingness”. There are many instances in the play of objects having the simple functional role semiotic analysis has taught us to look out for. It is clear, for example, that in a play with 17 different settings, the use of an object to represent a space (either by metonymy or synecdoche) is very common. The suitcase to suggest the railway station, the banner and microphone to suggest the meeting hall, the pints of beer to suggest the Labour club all do the job. Not only is it impossible for Edgar to recreate these 17 settings on the stage with any precision, but it is unnecessary. Sound is also used to create space very effectively, for example in the railway station scene, in the factory or during the Remembrance Day ceremony. We can go further and suggest that by reducing functional objects to a minimum, Edgar can leave stage space for less transparent objects. We might even argue that the foregrounding of “things” in the play allows for alternative discourses.

5We have decided to concentrate on three objects which seem to be granted “thingness” in the play albeit in different ways and with different effects. All three are introduced in the opening scene of the play. We shall look at each one separately before trying to see what they show us about “things” in Edgar’s play.

6Our first object is the most unusual: the tiger. For obvious reasons there are few tigers to be found on the stage even if there are allusions to tigers in Shakespeare for example. States considers animals along with children and running water as “instances of things that resist being either signs or images” (States 29). In such instances, he a rgues “It is not the world that has invaded the illusion; the illusion has stolen something from the world in order to display its own power” (States 34). It is clear that a tiger, even a stuffed tiger, cannot go unnoticed on a stage. Nor is this tiger used just to create local colour and to inform the audience that the first scene takes place in India. We should notice that this particular specimen is obviously out of place to some extent. We do not discover it as part of a scene of colonial splendour. On the contrary, it has been kept out of sight in a box room along with other objects, covered up with sheets: “Turner pulls the dustsheet off the tiger” (Edgar 318). We are just as taken aback as the characters when the sheet is removed to reveal the tiger, a theatrical gesture akin to the raising of the curtains on the proscenium stage. The notion of “ostension” of objects on the stage is taken much further here (Elam 29). In addition, the tiger is the subject of three exchanges as each of the three British soldiers voices some surprise at the sight of it. Their surprise is obviously related to circumstances in which the tiger shows up. Khera, the Sikh servant, focuses his explanations on what it is, suggesting that the British soldiers have no notion of what a tiger is: “Tiger. Stuffed. They shoot them, then they stuff them” (Edgar 318). If the tiger evokes India and the killing of the tiger British exploitation of the colony, this interpretation fails to account for the fact that this particular hunter’s trophy has been hidden away in a box room for some time, nor does it explain why the Major insists on taking it back to England: “Of course we want the bloody tiger. We shot it” (Edgar 322). We may find in the presence of the tiger an allusion to a more glorious past, bearing in mind that the play already spans a thirty year period and progresses in a non-chronological fashion. In this case how are we to react to the physical presence of the past on stage? The appearance of the beast is obviously going to influence our perception, its size and condition being factors to be taken into consideration. A tiger, however small, will nonetheless draw attention to itself and occupy the stage, both as a subject of discourse and as a physical object. Furthermore, the tiger literally and figuratively gets in the way. It stops the action from progressing by embodying a more distant past and the comic routine instigated by the questions and answers concerning its origins repeatedly stalls the dialogue. It is clear that the word “tiger” does not have the same effect as the physical presence of the animal on the stage. Here again States reminds us that watching a play in performance produces quite different impressions from reading one, notably as far as the question of transparency is concerned: “It is because words on the page have no resemblance to the things they conjure that reading is such a transparent process” (States 29). It is not, however, clear whether the tiger is to be seen as an ironic comment on the end of the British Empire, suggesting that the Empire is reduced to shooting animals to prove its might, or as an equally ironic comment on the beginning of Indian independence since the trophy will return to England to be looked on as an object of admiration and nostalgia. As we come to realise later in the play, the ambiguity of the tiger is a fitting parallel to other ambiguities. What can be argued is that the stuffed tiger has been turned into a spectacle to be gazed at in awe or in disgust by the characters and by the spectators. As States puts it of other similar things: “one feels the shudder of its refusal to settle into the illusion” (States 37).

7Our second example is that of an object which does not usually call attention to itself or, to use States’s expression, “stand in its own way” (States 189). A bottle of whisky is the type of object that no spectator notices most of the time since it blends into the overall stage picture and is a recurrent feature of the bourgeois living room. Here, however, Edgar uses the object differently. Again, like the tiger, the bottle of whisky is one of the objects that turn up in the box room. It is taken out of the trunk along with other miscellaneous objects that have much in common with theatrical props (there is also a red hunting coat and a bayonet) which the Colonel pulls out of the trunk one after the other like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. The bottle of whisky is a peculiarly theatrical prop insofar as it is instantly recognisable for what it represents in opposition to what it really contains: traditionally, cold tea. The theatricalization of the bottle of whisky is the first step towards rendering it unfamiliar, but there are other elements too.

8If we contrast this bottle of whisky with the pints of beer in Act 1 scene 3, it is clear that in this scene it is not primarily supposed to signify a particular space or signify a convivial atmosphere as it might do otherwise. This bottle turns up rather unexpectedly. The Colonel sends for three tumblers and invites the Sergeant and the young Sikh servant to drink with him, leaving the Sergeant somewhat perplexed at this unusual protocol. The Colonel’s gesture is difficult to interpret. The offering of the whisky, the passing round of glasses and the drinking of a toast suggest a kind of ceremony, but the situation is such that the participants are not sure of the procedure, preventing the ceremony from proceeding smoothly. At first it may seem that the Colonel is responding to the atmosphere of celebration in the streets, the sound of which we can hear onstage. It may resemble a gesture of goodwill across the barriers of rank and race. Yet this interpretation is soon contradicted by the fact that he proposes a toast to the King and Churchill (no longer Prime Minister and therefore not responsible for the act of independence). In the same way, the Major responds to the Sergeant’s reluctance to smoke on duty with a bitterly scathing attack on the policy of decolonization: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, if Mountbatten can hand over the Raj to a bunch of half-crazed dervishes, you can smoke on duty” (Edgar 322). It is also noticeable that the Sikh character’s glass is snatched from his hand before he can taste the whisky by the irascible Major. Only at the end of the scene does he drink the whisky when he is left alone on stage. Again the toast he drinks to his newly acquired British citizenship is fraught with irony: “Civis—Britannicus—Sum” (Edgar 323). He seems to be subverting British notions of racial superiority and yet the next time we see him, he is still on the receiving end of orders from his superiors in the factory where he works in the English Midlands.

9In a later scene in the play (Act 3 scene 1), the bottle of whisky reappears but again serves to question rather than confirm the dialogue, by emptying the ceremony of a clear meaning. The scene starts off in a more conventional way since the bottle is shown in a (somewhat) more appropriate context: the home of the Labour Party candidate. Here he receives the visit of the Conservative Party candidate just before the election. It is surely not by chance that the Labour Party candidate offers his Conservative Party counterpart whisky and not the other way round. The latter has come to discuss how they should respond to the racist strategies of the extreme right- wing candidate. The shared drink is akin to the shared party strategy in matters of immigration. This is made explicit in the dialogue by the Labour Party candidate, who evokes: “the common front. On race” (Edgar 382). We also note that the two candidates are soon on first name terms. However, although they continue to drink together, the dialogue indicates Clifton’s reluctance to continue to collaborate in what he calls “that poker game” (Edgar 382). Are we to believe his words? At first the position he defends seems to suggest a break with the shared policy on race. In this case, drinking whisky together is an inappropriate gesture. Retrospectively however, it is the object, the bottle of whisky, as an image of party consensus which is ultimately closer to the truth than the verbal declarations of Clifton. It is left to Clifton’s wife to make explicit the gap between Clifton’s words and deeds. She pinpoints his ignorance of the day-to-day problems of those he would like to represent in Parliament. He is literally more at home drinking whisky with his Conservative Party rival than with the local Labour voters.

10Finally, we come to the painting. It is first mentioned in the stage directions at the beginning of the play. “On the back wall hangs a huge, dark painting of the putting down of the Indian Mutiny. It dominates the set” (Edgar 317). This painting is no mere backcloth to the action, but is intimately related to what is happening and what will happen. First we can notice in what circumstances the painting is revealed to the audience. The stage is dark as we hear Nehru’s speech. The speech ends with the words “life and freedom” (Edgar 317). Then the lights go on to reveal a kind of performance within the performance: the putting down of the Mutiny enacted in the box room of a British army barracks. As in the case of the stuffed tiger, but more explicitly, we join the characters in becoming spectators. We look at the painting as a painting and not just at the subject it represents. How are we otherwise to interpret the number of times that the characters gaze at it or comment on it, willing us to do the same? The subject of the painting is important of course. It is not the Mutiny itself which is represented but the response of the British army to the Mutiny. The expression “mutiny” is in itself a loaded term, since it expresses the British point of view. From the Indian point of view, the perspective is quite different as it is regarded as the beginning of the war of independence (Khilnani 160). We are asked to imagine a parallel between the Mutiny of 1857 and the Independence of 1947 and consider the implications of turning History into art. Incidentally, Khilnani suggests that post- independence politicians in India attempted to do the contrary and turn art into history to create a sense of unity in the divided country (chapter 4). Although Edgar does not seem to have in mind any specific painting, we are left to suppose that it is an example of what Niall Ferguson calls “the iconography of Empire” (Ferguson 254). The process of turning an event into a work of art is not neutral. By reminding us of this, Edgar is also indirectly alluding to the creation of his own play. At the end of the scene, Khera, the Sikh, actually touches the canvas, before turning to the audience to give his mock toast

Khera goes to the trunk, is about to take the tray off it. Then a second thought, he pours himself a whisky. Then he notices the painting of the Indian Mutiny. He looks at it. He touches the canvas. Then he turns out front, raises the tumbler in a mock toast. (Edgar 323)

Does he need to reassure himself that it is only a painting on canvas before he can feel free to make fun of British arrogance? In any case, the painting seems to exert a powerful effect on those who stare at it.

11We are taken by surprise in the final scene of the play when the painting reappears. Edgar does not specify that is the same painting, but it is described as being huge and dark and the subject matter is the same (Edgar 399). Although we have seen it before (or one like it), this time it appears altogether less familiar because the action of the play has moved away from the military context in India. This time the painting turns up in the most unlikely of places, the hospitality room of a merchant bank in the city. This time it is Turner, the former sergeant, who touches the texture of the canvas, emphasizing the materiality of the painting just as much as what it represents. He looks at and comments on it twice (Edgar 399 and 403). His gesture at the end of the play is exactly the same as that of the Sikh character at the beginning, thereby neatly, and in a more subtle fashion than is often the case in political drama, highlighting the similarities between the two characters’ situations. The dialogue in the final scene gradually makes it clear that former Sergeant Turner has actually been manipulated into joining an extreme right-wing party in the belief that such a party will protect his interests, when in fact this party is in the hands of the very people who have cheated him out of his business. Very little of this is said explicitly in the dialogue, Turner’s discovery of the facts is transmitted through his attitude to the painting. On the subject of a painting by Van Gogh, States argues: “The painting is a place of disclosure, not a place of reference” (States 4). This also seems to apply here. The one word he pronounces as he looks at the painting could apply to his situation, to the businessmen who have deceived him or to the painting itself “ghastly”. It is not primarily the subject represented but the physical presence of such a work in such a place which touches Turner profoundly. In this case, the painting does not lead us outside the universe of the play, does not express the world so much as stand in its place. States calls this a “theater about the reality of art as much as about the reality outside” (States 101–102). Destiny then comes full circle in terms of its use of the painting. It is seen first just after Nehru’s speech and at the close of the play focus on the painting is followed by the words of Hitler.

12It is rather surprising to find in a work concerned with history and politics objects whose transparency is deliberately clouded and whose physical presence seems to count more than their “sign-ness”. In the three examples I have discussed there is a specifically theatrical dimension to the way they are presented to the audience. In the case of both the tiger and the painting the objects also have an explicitly aesthetic function. They are objects to be looked at in a specific context. When this context changes, our perception changes too. Even the bottle of whisky must be seen as having more than a simply functional purpose. In order to understand that Edgar is subverting a ritual, we have first to recognise that some kind of ritual is being evoked in the scene. To this extent all three objects can be said to focus audience attention on the act of presenting rather than re-presenting. By associating them with different characters, situations and settings, Edgar attempts to empty the objects of their more obvious meanings so that we can see them differently. The bottle of whisky, for example, does not contain whisky or cold tea, but a yet-to-be-tasted brew. The important point is that the meaning associated with the object has not been defined once and for all, but evolves throughout the performance. According to States: “[A]n object that does not represent something in advance becomes a blank check, an open presence; it becomes the source of something not yet here, a thing without a history, or rather a thing whose history is about to be revised” (States 113).

13Finally then, what is the role of objects like these in a political play? We can obviously demonstrate that the complexity of the political issues involved requires a number of different strategies to encourage the audience to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. Intertextuality, spatial and temporal discontinuity achieve this. The use of objects can also contribute to this process by forcing the spectator to pause and gaze at the object, thereby focusing on the here and now and providing an alternative rhythm to the unfolding of events. Furthermore, the sheer visual presence of the “things” gives the audience access to other times (the mutiny of 1857) and other spaces (hunting tigers in the wild) that can be confronted within the fiction and beyond it. The barriers between fiction and reality are thus blurred as befits a history play. By concentrating on the “thingness” of these objects, rather than on their “sign-ness” Edgar can raise the possibility of alternative perceptions, leading to alternative questions and, of course, alternative answers. In this universe where words wield enormous power, things may offer alternative discourses constructed through the act of showing and the act of looking.

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Aston, Elaine & George Savona, Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance, London: Routledge, 1991.

Carlson, Marvin, Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Edgar, David, Plays: One (Destiny, Mary Barnes, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Saigon Rose, O fair Jerusalem), London: Methuen, 1987.

Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, London: Routledge, 1980.

Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, London: Allen Lane, 2003.

Khilani, Sunil, The Idea of India, New Dehli: Penguin Books India, 1998.

States, Bert, O., Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater, Berkeley, U California P, 1985.

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Susan Blattès, « The Tiger, the Painting and the Bottle of Whisky: Alternative Discourses in David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2019, consulté le 25 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Susan Blattès

Université Stendhal-Grenoble 3

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