Symbolic Layers in A Phoenix Too Frequent

Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent operates between the boundaries of a bawdy secularism and a Christian allegory. The metamorphoses of the lives and decisions of the characters also represent several symbolic levels. All the characters in the play, in their own way, come to represent the erotic. Dynamene, Doto, Tegeus, and even Virilius signify the desire for life and for love in its bodily and sexual form, especially when confronted with death. However, Doto and Virilius seem to both embody a more physical desire, as is evidenced through Doto’s recollections of the several men she has been with, and Virilius’ name evoking the image of sexual prowess. Such a physical desire is counterpointed by the existentially placed love of Dynamene and Tegeus, which is ripe with images of recreation and resurrection. However, any clear symbolic division is problematised by Fry through the use of humour and moral questions directed at Dynamene’s renewed affections for Tegeus.

Dynamene and Tegeus both also become symbols of existing outside societal and statutory laws; Dynamene finds that she is no longer expected to be wedded to the societal idea of sacrificing her life in grief over her husband, while Tegeus learns that the Regulations’ are nothing more than mere demands that may be fulfilled by an unexpected substitute.

The bowl of wine that is shared by the three characters also becomes an important symbolic reference point in the mythicalcontext of the play. At the outset, the bowl of wine becomes a mean of establishing a friendship between the living inhabitants of the tomb. Further, the intoxication of the wine allows Doto at first, and eventually Dynamene herself to stray from the original decision to starve until death and join Virilius in death. The reduced inhibitions between Dynamene and Tegeus also allow their love to blossom. Further, the design on the bowl becomes significant for its mythological connotations:

DYNAMENE. What an exquisite bowl…
TEGEUS. Yes. Do you see the design?
The corded god, tied also by the rays
Of the sun, and the astonished ship erupting
Into vines and vine-leaves, inverted pyramids
Of grapes, the uplifted hands of the men (the raiders),
And here the headlong sea, itself almost
Venturing into leaves and tendrils, and Proteus
With his beard braiding the wind, and this
Held by other hands is a drowned sailor

From one perspective, the design on the bowl is an allusion to the Ovidian story about the kidnap of the wine-God Bacchus, described here as the corded god. He is kidnapped by sailors or “the raiders” who intend to sell him in Egypt as a slave. However, their venture is thwarted when the ship “erupting/ Into vines and vine-leaves, inverted pyramids” undergoes a metamorphosis caused by the god, and is consequently unable to move through the sea. The overthrow of Dynamene’s journey to the underworld is interrupted in much the same way by the wine bowl and Tegeus, as the tomb transforms from a place of grief and death to a place of love, resurrection, and life.

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