Most plays maintain their audience’s interest by including a diverse range of characters and many different scene changes, but A Lady of Letters is not most plays. Written by playwright Alan Bennett, A Lady of Letters portrays only one character – Irene Ruddock. Whereas most plays have the option to, for example, create and develop relationships between the characters, dramatic monologues do not have this option, due to there only being one character. Bennett, however, has the talent and ability to overcome these problems and more.
One of his techniques is gradually revealing information about Miss Ruddock, which is vital to the progression of the story. It also makes it feel quite personal to the audience and gives the impression that you are getting to know her, but then, Bennett slips in another technique: making the character change dramatically. Apart from maintaining interest, this strategy should also create it by opening up a new branch of the story for the audience to think about and explore. Also, Bennett does manage to introduce new characters to the story, but in description form rather than in person.
Despite the absence of the person, this technique can be used very cleverly. By just using a description, you can still get to know a lot about the character and also gives the audience more questions to ask than before, bringing much more interest and variety to the monologue. Irene Ruddock is a lonely, middle aged woman, and this brief description alone makes her ideally suited to the monologue form of play. The idea of monologues is to get the audience to appreciate people who they usually don’t care about. People who are overlooked and ignored in today’s society.
Although Miss Ruddock is lonely and isolated from the world and society, she has strong opinions and has a lot to talk about. Alan Bennett has taken a risk by writing about someone like Miss Ruddock because mostly when you are lonely and cut-off you don’t do much outside of the house. However, Irene writes letters to such a wide variety of people that it can keep the audience interested. Portraying a character like Miss Ruddock will also give the audience a feeling of what it would be like to be ignored and unwanted.
This feeling will make it feel personal to the audience and will also add to their appreciation of Miss Ruddock. Also, this is Bennett’s way to convey the idea that we are losing the respect for elder people and the sense of ‘close-knit’ communities that were present in previous generations. A Lady of Letter is divided into two distinct stages: before prison and in prison. Not only does the scene, clothes, lighting and furniture change, but this is also Bennett’s most recognisable use of the ‘character changes dramatically’ technique.
Irene’s mood has gone from grouchy and constantly displeased to happy and ambitious. There is also some irony in the fact that earlier in the play Irene said “Prison, they have it easy” in a rather displeased tone, but now that she is there herself; she has suddenly become very happy. We briefly learn in the first scene that Irene’s mother has died and she has one cousin in Canada. They are the only family members that she talks about, but Irene briefly mentions her mother again several times throughout the story. One thing that we learn is that her mother lived in the same house that she lives in now.
There is a branch off the main storyline in which Irene develops an interest for the kiddy over the road. This is due to her never actually seeing it and as the story progresses; her interest gradually turns into an obsession. After Irene writes some thoughtless letters, the police get involved and in the build up to the dramatic climax of this part of the play, the truth about the kiddy is revealed. Now that Irene is in prison, after breaking the rules of her suspended sentence by writing another letter, we hear absolutely nothing more about her life outside.
All that she talks about is things that she has done since being sent to prison. It’s almost as if she has completely forgotten her life outside and put it behind her. This dramatic scene change helps you to grasp Bennett’s ideas in showing that anyone can change. Although at the start of the story Miss Ruddock was very up-tight, hard to please and showed no sign of changing her ways, it is shown that people like her just need the freedom to enjoy themselves (in her case prison, ironically) and show a better side of themselves.
One technique Alan Bennett uses to keep the audience engaged is gradually revealing important information about Miss Ruddock, causing the audience’s opinion to change. From the moment the play starts, you can see that Miss Ruddock is typically hard to please, because it opens with the complaint: “I can’t say the service was up to scratch”. This will most likely give the audience a bad impression and should cause them to take an instant dislike to her. Of course, this is the response that Bennett wants because it gives him a chance to change the audience’s opinion of Miss Ruddock throughout the course of the play.
Miss Ruddock then makes a comment about her pen, saying “It’s stood me in good stead this pen. It’s been a real friend”. This will show the audience that Miss Ruddock likes to write a letter or two, but does not yet reveal her dependency on it. As more vital information is revealed in the comments: “I spotted some dog dirt on the pavement right outside Buckingham Palace” and “The correspondence I initiated on the length of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hair seems to have gone off the boil” builds more and more on the fact that Miss Ruddock depends on writing letters.
Also, the audience may find these reasons for writing letters petty and pointless, almost as if Miss Ruddock will write about anything and builds on the fact that she is lonely and isolated. After a visit from the police, Miss Ruddock is put on a suspended sentence, meaning that if she writes anymore letters she will be sent to prison. During her suspended sentence, Miss Ruddock says “New policeman now. Certainly keeps an eye on No. 56. In there an hour at a stretch. He wants reporting”. Immediately after this the scene changes and we see Miss Ruddock in prison.
This obviously implies – but doesn’t prove – that she was the person who reported the policeman and should verify the audience’s suspicions of her writing inappropriate and cruel letters. Another part of the story that Bennett withholds information about until the dramatic climax is the kiddy over the road. It is a recurring story throughout the play, but to start with it will not be seen as important. The first time the kiddy is mentioned is when Irene says “We’ve got a new couple moved in opposite. Don’t look very promising. The kiddy looks filthy”.
This is kept very brief and the audience will probably think nothing of it, just like everything else Irene has talked about so far. In the next scene though, the subject is brought up again in the statement “He was laid out underneath his car wanting a spanner and she came out, transistor in one hand, kiddy in the other. Thin little thing, bruise on it’s arm”. Now, the significance of this and how Irene’s interest in the kiddy is developing should be emerging and the statement “Couple opposite just having their tea. No cloth on.
They must have put the kiddy to bed” should start to show her obsession. When the police come to her house, the story develops even more with the audience finding out that Irene has been writing letters about the couple. The police take it very seriously and the conversation that takes place shows how important a part the letters play. “‘He says he’ll come straight to the point: was it me who’d been writing these letters’ I said ‘what letters? I don’t write letters’. He said ‘letters’. I said ‘everyone writes letters. I bet you write letters’. He said ‘not like you love’.
This conversation between Miss Ruddock and the policeman vividly stresses how important the letters are to the story and Bennett makes sure that the audience knows this. The climax has also been written in a very dramatic way to make sure that the audience are engaged and will remember it. We find out that the kiddy has died of Leukaemia and because the scene has ended on such a powerful and dramatic word, the audience may need time to put the facts together and gather their senses. Also, my own ideas about Miss Ruddock did change throughout the play. At the start, she appears as a lonely, displeased busybody who likes to complain.
However, as the story develops and we find out more about Irene’s life and because we see things from her point of view, we start to understand her views and appreciate that she is a very different person to what she first makes out to be. For example, towards the end of the first part of the story, Irene seems genuinely worried about the kiddy and is not just being nosey. Another technique used in the play to keep the audience entertained is the use of black humour. Irene is often funny in some of her comments throughout the play without even realising it herself.
There are many examples of this: “I don’t want inundating with sausage” and “The correspondence I initiated on the length of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hair seems to have gone off the boil” are two of her most amusing comments. Including comments like this throughout the play will add variety and slipping them into places where the audience will not expect it, a funeral for example, will help to maintain the audience’s interest. Another advantage is that humour will help the audience to warm to the character of Irene, despite her initially coming across as an unlikeable person.
Due to Irene having an air of likeability around her, the audience is kept on board and do not discard her as just another grumpy, stern old woman. The problem Alan Bennett had when writing a monologue was maintaining the interest of the audience when the only character was Miss Ruddock. He partly solved this problem by introducing a range of characters indirectly. These characters are not just briefly mentioned, but are described in relative detail and are revealed to have significant roles in the development of Miss Ruddock’s story. The detail also helps the reader to create an ‘image’ of the character in question.
For example, when the vicar comes round Miss Ruddock says “Not the old vicar. This was a young fellow in a collar and tie” and “Then I saw he had cycle clips on so I let him in”. Here the vicars clothing is described, allowing the reader to add to their image of the character. Another two characters are the social workers. Maureen is described as: “Shocking finger nails, ginger hair and a hole in her tights as big as a 50p piece” and Mrs. Rabindi as: “Asian, little red spot on her forehead and a bit of a boring woman”. Even in these brief descriptions, these come across as two unique characters from completely different backgrounds.
This is very effective in adding more variety to the story. Throughout the story, Miss Ruddock’s personality and mood is reflected in the costume, setting and lighting. Before Miss Ruddock goes to prison she wears a blouse buttoned up to her neck with no flesh showing and wears her hair in a tight perm. This causes her to come across as uptight, unpleasant and traditional. Despite this, when she does go to prison, Miss Ruddock wears a shirt only buttoned halfway with the sleeves rolled up, she has flesh showing and has her hair down. Her mood has also changed dramatically and she comes across as radiant, friendly and happy.
Not only does her clothing reflect her mood, but also the setting and lighting. Before prison, Miss Ruddock sits in her house which has old, dark coloured furniture and only one window, making it quite dark and dingy. This is a sad and depressing environment and reflects Miss Ruddock’s mood at this stage. On the other hand, in prison, there is clean, lightly coloured and modern furniture, with windows all along both walls letting bright light flood into the room and again reflecting her mood which is now radiant and happy. Bennett has used this technique effectively and should certainly maintain the audience’s interest.
In conclusion, Alan Bennett has successfully captured and maintained the interest of the audience with ‘A Lady of Letters’. He has given the audience a lot of subjects and characters to think about as they leave the theatre. His mix of relaxed and dramatic scenes, such as the vicar visiting Irene and immediately after the police arriving and the scene ending in a dramatic climax, captivates the audience and keeps them engaged. So, therefore Bennett has succeeded and solved his problem of enthralling viewers with an initially monotonous sounding play by creating a captivating masterpiece.