Moral Dilemma in A Phoenix Too Frequent

The characters in Fry’s play consistently display a moral and/or psychological dilemma.

The actions of the widow of Ephesus, who is Dynamene in Fry’s play, serve as moral as well as philosophical markers for the concepts of love, loyalty, atonement, and choice. Dynamene, who has made a seemingly permanent decision of starving to death in Virilius’ tomb, is faced with multiple choices, especially when she is confronted with the prospect of a life with Tegeus. Even as she is prepared to die, she confesses her dilemma while speaking to Tegeus (and to herself):

DYNAMENE. Stop, stop, I shall be dragged apart!
Why should the fates do everything to keep me
From dying honourably? They must have got
Tired of honour in Elysium. Chromis, it’s terrible
To be susceptible to two conflicting norths.
I have the constitution of a whirlpool.
Am I actually twirling, or is it just sensation?

With the arrival of Tegeus, she is drawn into conversation and offered wine, where her decision to starve and mourn is challenged. Further, she finds herself attracted to Tegeus while still in Virilius’ tomb, and acting upon her vow to join him in death. Dynamene is faced with firstly, the choice of her older love for the dead Virilius and her newfound love for the lively Tegeus, and secondly with the choice of death as per her vow and of life in what Tegeus has to offer. It is her choice of life with Tegeus that allows her to navigate the decision to use Virilius’ body to save Tegeus from the court martial and secure her life with him.

Doto, Dynamene’s maid, is jolly, and celebrates her colourful life even when she is faced with her own imminent death. She does not attempt to rid any thoughts about the men she has had relations with in the past, and proceeds to philosophise about her choices in with the arrival of Tegeus. Although Doto assures Dynamene that she is “dying to be dead” (Fry 195), just like her mistress, her appetite for her lovers consistently subverts her resolve. She continually oscillates between the commitment to join Dynamene in the quest for death and her scarcely repressible desire to have the interloper Tegeus as her lover (Vos 234). Such a breach of moral ‘propriety’, and its presentation through Doto’s humorous philosophy of life make the question of bodily desire in Doto’s mind, and in the play, an ambivalent one (Wiersma 295). When she admits to her mistress that she would not have allowed the soldier into the tomb, she becomes explicit about her dilemma:

DOTO. Maybe I could have kept him out
But men are in before I wish they wasn’t.
I think quickly enough, but I get behindhand
With what I ought to be saying. It’s a kind of stammer
In my way of life, Madam.

However, Vos writes that Fry means to celebrate Doto’s “openness to the tension between flesh and spirit, death and love” (234), and that her sexuality in the play is Fry’s wonderfully ironic symbol for the Phoenix-like life that the play affirms:

DOTO. …life is more big than a bed
And full of miracles and mysteries like
One man made for one woman, etcetera, etcetera.
Lovely. I feel sung, madam, by a baritone
In mixed company with everyone pleased.
And so I had to come with you here, madam,
For the last sad chorus of me. It’s all
Fresh to me. Death’s a new interest in life

Tegeus, the soldier, is also faced with multiple moral dilemmas from the moment of his arrival in the tomb. At first, he is faced with the affections of Doto, which he side-lines in order to nurture his feelings for Dynamene. He is then faced with the question of whether he loves the idea of Dynamene, created by her sense of purity and sacrifice, or whether he loves the actual woman in the flesh.

Tegeus is presented with his largest dilemma at the end of the play, where he first must decide between facing dishonour after the court martial, or dying honourably by his own hand before he is found. After he resolves to kill himself, Dynamene creates another dilemma by suggesting that they rid themselves of Tegeus’ court martial by replacing the lost body on the tree with the dead Virilius.

It is interesting to note that while Doto as well as Tegeus are both faced with moral dilemmas and life-changing choices of their own, Dynamene makes the final decision, or at least influences it greatly.

She makes the decision of using Virilius’ body as a substitute, thereby determining the course of Tegeus’ life:

TEGEUS. Hang your husband?
Dynamene, it’s terrible, horrible.

DYNAMENE. How little you can understand. I loved
His life not his death. And now we can give his death
The power of life. Not horrible: wonderful!
Isn’t it so? That I should be able to feel
He moves again in the world, accomplishing
Our welfare? It’s more than my grief could do

Further, it is Dynamene’s decision to not let Doto die in the tomb, after which she orders Doto out of the tomb:

DYNAMENE. I’m asking you
To leave me, Doto, at once, as quickly as possible,
Now, before-now, Doto, and let me forget
My bad mind which confidently expected you
To companion me to Hades. Now good-bye
Good-bye.

From the perspective of gender roles and expectations, one may question why the onus of the moral dilemma falls squarely on the shoulders of the widow. The dilemma in the play, between the honour of dying for one’s love versus the choice of continuing to live on with another can be wielded to vilify Dynamene, while the morals of Virilius and Tegeus remain untouched. Interestingly, Doto, the only other woman in the play, is characterised as a woman who has taken more lovers than she can count, and is used as a source of humour. The theme of morality in the play, thus, is gendered by the sexual politics of the characters.

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