Sunday, July 15, 2012

"They hate me for it ... I am resigned." the Trope of the "Bitter Cripple"

From H. M. S. Pinafore, Act One (Libretto by William S. Gilbert, 1878):

BOATSWAIN. Aye, Little Buttercup – and well called – for you're the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead.

BUTTERCUP. Red, am I? and round – and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend – hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one's very heart?

BOAT. No, my lass, I can't say I've ever thought that.

Enter Dick Deadeye. He pushes through sailors, and comes down.

DICK. I have thought it often. (All recoil from him.)

BUT. Yes, you look like it! What's the matter with the man? Isn't he well?

BOAT. Don't take no heed of him; that's only poor Dick Deadeye.

DICK. I say – it's a beast of a name, ain't it – Dick Deadeye?

BUT. It's not a nice name.

DICK. I'm ugly too, ain't I?

BUT. You are certainly plain.

DICK. And I'm three-cornered too, ain't I?

BUT. You are rather triangular.

DICK. Ha! ha! That's it. I'm ugly, and they hate me for it; for you all hate me, don't you?

ALL. We do!

DICK. There!

BOAT. Well, Dick, we wouldn't go for to hurt any fellow-creature's feelings, but you can't expect a chap with such a name as Dick Deadeye to be a popular character – now can you?


BOAT. It's asking too much, ain't it?

DICK. It is. From such a face and form as mine the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination. It is human nature – I am resigned.

This exchange, which introduces the character of Dick Deadeye, foreshadows his role as "villain" -- the one who, even though he has nothing to gain by it, deliberately sets out to thwart the hero and heroine's attempts to form a romantic union. Throughout the operetta, Dick repeatedly reminds his fellow shipmates that lofty sentiments such as equality among men, or the power of love to overcome all obstacles is no more than a) empty rhetoric, and b) wishful, delusional, thinking. Since this is a romantic comedy, Dick Deadeye's machinations come to naught -- although, to be fair, his insights into the true power of rank and privilege are still borne out. H. M. S. Pinafore was written as a comedy and a political satire, and as such, this portrayal of ugliness giving rise to cynicism and bitterness might be seen as a spoof of the melodramatic villain -- if only this weren't something that comes up in serious fiction as well.

Dick's shipmates are absolved of all responsibility for their feelings and actions toward him -- it just can't be helped. And at the same time, Dick's cynical feelings toward his fellow man, and the actions he's driven to by those feelings, are painted as entirely his own responsibility -- a weakness of his own spirit. Variations on this trope persist even into the twenty-first century, when so often, in police procedural television, the only motivation for a disabled character to commit murder is to get revenge -- either on the individual he blames for causing his disability (it's almost always a man), or bitter rage against the world at large.

Meanwhile, Dick Deadeye might just be skeptical toward those egalitarian ideals and talk of "love conquering all," because he's experienced the bigotry and hypocrisy of society.

There's no physical description of Dick Deadeye in the libretto, by the way, and no further explanation of what "Triangular" or "Three-cornered" means. It could be that he is missing an arm or a leg... although I've never seen the character portrayed that way in any production I've seen (either in a live or a televised production). That, however, may say more about the difficulty of disabled actors have in getting hired, than it does about the original intent of the operetta's authors.

Wikipedia article on H.M.S. Pinafore

The Full Libretto for H.M.S. Pinafore


  1. I have in fact seen Dick Deadeye portrayed as having a peg-leg (though I believe the actor had two legs and the illusion was maintained by costuming). I distinctly remember that when Buttercup delivered her "you are rather triangular" line, she pointed to his two arms and one leg, drawing a triangle in the air.

    I'm a lifelong G&S fan, and I've never heard anyone provide a real explanation for what Gilbert might have meant by "three-cornered" -- if it means anything at all. Even the gargatuan Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan by Ian Bradley doesn't give it a footnote.

  2. I know... neither have I (though someone involved in the production you saw must have made that connection, too -- so at least I know that interpretation is "not just me").

    It's not exactly a common turn of phrase in describing a fellow human being (at least, not that I've heard). I will freely admit that maybe "missing limb" was the furthest thing from Gilbert's mind when he wrote the line, but nonetheless, the point still holds that other people's revulsion is believed to be the responsibility of the one who is deemed "too ugly."

  3. I certainly agree with you that it's a valid interpretation! It's definitely not just you. Reading my post back, I see that I wasn't being very clear (that's what I get for posting in a hurry). I just find it interesting that I've never heard anyone before you even question the "three-cornered" description and what it could mean. Gilbert was a writer who chose his words very carefully, so it does make you wonder what he had in mind.

  4. I just find it interesting that I've never heard anyone before you even question the "three-cornered" description and what it could mean.

    Well, to be honest, if I hadn't started this blog last year (And thus, being in a near constant state of trawling for potential content), those two lines of dialogue would probably have whizzed past my ears unnoticed.

    ...Which just goes to show how wide and deep the cultural blind spot is, when it comes to the existence and experience of disabled people.

  5. I suspect it's at least partly to contrast with the earlier description of Buttercup as "round" - she's soft and round, he's hard and angular. Why a triangle, specifically, I don't know.

  6. @pedanther -- ah. Good point.

    As for why a triangle -- well, three is the minimum number of corners in a polygon. And triangles are pointier than squares.

    Besides, "Squareness" is already established in the language to be associated with stability: "Fair and Square" or "Let's get everything squared away." A triangle, in contrast, suggests instability ... maybe?

    Anyone know a spiritual medium? or some other way we can call up Mr. Gilbert, and ask him? ;-)

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