The characters in Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent are limited, yet layered with meaning.
Dynamene, whose name means power/energy, is the character at the centre of the play. She is recently widowed and has made the decision to join her husband in the afterlife. However, she finds that her penance and her sentiments are ceremoniously interrupted by Tegeus, and is eventually attracted to him. Dynamene, like the reference of her name suggests, does indeed wield a considerable amount of power over the rest of the characters in the play. Doto is condemned to die simply as a companion for Dynamene, and she further decides what is to be done with the dead Virilius’ body in order to save Tegeus, who she takes the liberty of re-naming Chromis.
Dynamene is accompanied by Doto, whose name refers to ‘dowry’, which could mean property. In this case, the name is perhaps a suggestion of the slave-like position that Doto occupies under Dynamene. Doto is ‘meant to’ die alongside Dynamene and keep her company in her mourning. The lack of choice and agency given to the character of Doto is thus foregrounded in the meaning of her name. Phonetically, Doto also sounds like ‘doting’, wherein she dotes on Dynamene and on several of her own lovers, or alternatively, ‘dodo’ suggestive of her comical role in the play.
Tegeus is the handsome soldier who acts as an intervention in Dynamene and Doto’s resolution to mourn until death. His name is phonetically similar to the word ‘tedious’, and may be thus seen as a suggestion of his (at first) tiresome interruption of the two ladies’ attempt at death by starvation. He also offers them food and wine in the course of the play. Dynamene decides to rename Tegeus as Chromis, stating “I shall call you Chromis. It has a breadlike I think of you as a crisp loaf”. The signification of Tegeus as colour may be a marker of his role in returning the colour to the prospects in Dynamene’s, and indirectly Doto’s, life. He also literally returns the colour to their cheeks by offering them wine.
The play is set in the tomb of Virilius, whose name harks to ‘virility’. However, his absence in the play, an ironic description of him by Dynamene, alongside his replacement by Tegeus adds a rather comical effect to the association of Virilius to virility. At one point, while mourning for Virilius, Dynamene declares “I am lonely, /Virilius. Where is the punctual eye/ And where is the cautious voice which made/ Balance-sheets sound like Homer and Homer sound/ Like balance-sheets?”. These descriptions of Virilius grate against the traditional definition of virile masculinity, and enhances the effect that Tegeus’ virility has on Doto, Dynamene, and the comic irony of the play. However, Virilius’ is able to figuratively ‘give life’ to Dynamene and Tegeus when his body is used to evade Tegeus’ court martial and/or impending death.