We have been studying the play Unman Wittering and Zigo, which was written by Giles Cooper in the 1960’s. Giles Cooper was born in Dublin in 1918 into a privileged home. His father was a naval officer, who later became a judge. Giles Cooper’s father wanted him to become a diplomat or a lawyer but Giles chose to go to drama school rather than university. He was educated in a public school, subsequently the story is based on his own experiences of authoritarian teaching while he was a student. Giles Cooper was concerned about the effects of authoritarian teaching and as a result wrote this play.
The play is about a teacher, John Ebony, in his first job who wants to make a good impression. He finds that the boys he is teaching are fractious and have a nasty habit of gambling. His life as a teacher rapidly descends in to a nightmare, and as the story goes on he begins to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of the previous school master. It goes on to reveal something dark and unpleasant about the nature of the boys who killed their form teacher.
The play was written for radio so there aren’t any visuals. The audience therefore had to imagine what the characters and scenarios were like. As it is a radio play the tone and pitch of the voice are very important because this is the medium through which effective understanding is conveyed. The scenes in the play are very short because audiences cannot listen for a long time without visuals. Therefore the director must entertain the audience by providing a gripping thriller.
John is used in the story to expose the hidden secrets of Chantery and the corruption of the boys. Giles Cooper does this through a vulnerable and in experienced teacher. John is trying to be more like Mr Winstanly but this does not work for John because he is far too inexperienced. In the first scene John is appointed as a temporary teacher at Chantery. When the Head is talking to him he makes sure John knows about the reputation of the school, as if the headmaster is showing off.
Surprisingly the headmaster ignores John’s questions and instead of answering he interrupts or changes the subject.
‘Was he my predecessor?
Er, Yes. That brick building….’
This makes the reader wonder why? He does it because he is hiding something about Mr Pelham
The headmaster tells John that Lower 5 B are a little mischievous but he does not reveal the full truth about the class but holds it back. The Head then leaves him with Cary, by doing this the headmaster comes across as an irresponsible character. He also undermines John’s confidence because he feels he is not important enough to be shown around the classroom. This is not the case. The headmaster is scared that John will
find out about the corruption of the school if he is shown too much. This shows the Headmaster is hiding the inner secrets of the school and is only showing the ‘sugar coated topping’ of an apparently successful public school.
In scene 3 the boys take control very quickly. From the beginning the boys start mocking John and giving random and futile comments, as though they are mocking the way teachers teach.
‘Jamaica’s in the Caribbean, sir’
They use a derisive tone by giving useless information as though they are teasing John. John loses his temper and responds to this in an authoritarian way. As a diversion they then poke Wittering, who cries out loud. This delays the lesson again. When his attempt to quiet them down fails he resorts to using his authority.
“Now I don’t wish to crack the whip on our first morning but I will if you make me”
The pupils respond to this by giving a fake confession to him of Mr Pelham’s murder but they use this confession as an attempt to intimidate John throughout scene 3, John raises his voice constantly i.e. using authoritarian teaching to gain control of the class but this does not work and he fails to regain control of the class. The students take advantage of John’s inexperience and in doing so gain an advantage over John
When the Head walks in, the boys carry on with the lesson and by doing this makes us think that they have done this before. This is the chance John has to tell the Headmaster about what they had said, but foolishly he doesn’t. This shows that John’s confidence has diminished. Furthermore John presumably does not want to tell the Head because it could create the impression that he cannot handle the class.
In scene 8, convinced that the boys have committed some sort of crime, John takes Mr Pelham’s wallet to the headmaster and suggests that it should be given to the police. However, (contrary to John expectations) the headmaster tells him off for leaving the class and ignores his concerns.
“‘It was in his pocket when he was killed’
‘It is a practice which is always discouraged here. Every period should be worked through whatever happens'”
The headmaster then changes the subject, suggesting he doesn’t want to discuss John’s concerns, by saying he wanted to invite him for dinner. This shows that the headmaster does not give John any support but more importantly does not want the secrets of what happens in the school to be exposed. He is extremely sensitive about the reputation of the school. The Headmaster then seems to order him to return to Lower 5 B,
“‘ Lower 5 B have been left to their own devices for long enough, Miss Gammel’
‘Discourage any discussion of the matter'”
By doing this the headmaster is discarding any of his suggestions and is not helping out John when he is inexperienced and unsure of what to do.
The situation would affect John greatly because he knows he doesn’t have any one to turn to and cannot do anything even if the boys intimidate and taunt him.
When John returns the pupils seem to know what the Headmaster has said.
‘On the whole Ebony. The less said the better. Perhaps you better return to Lower 5 B. They have been left to their own devices for too long.’
This suggests it has been said before. Teachers have gone to the headmaster but he has been very dismissive. The pupils seeing John’s lack of confidence take advantage of the invitation and make a proposal.
“‘You don’t want to be sacked from your first job do you sir….’
‘No he wants us to be a credit to him.'”
The tone of the pupils her would be very calm, slightly intimidating as though they know they are in control but also very persuasive but this time they spoke in more of a friendly manner. On the other hand John would be speaking in an uncertain tone and seems to agree to the modus vivendi although he doesn’t actually say anything which emphasises his powerlessness.
The modus vivendi creates a vague sense of stability in the classroom as it brings about a situation in which the constant battle for power is ended for the time being. This is because it seems John has finally been defeated and the students have gained control. John admits defeat at this point and it is now that he is finally sees the truth in their confessions and begins to develop an idea of how cunning and clever the students are and how much the system has corrupted them. As a result of this he sees no point of arguing with them as they obviously don’t lack determination.
The situation changes once again when the Headmaster more or less sacks John.
‘….that’s the last thing I’d want you to think, but we always like to have Old Chantovians on the staff and as Grimwits available for the Easter term we really think we ought to take this opportunity to secure his services….’
The headmaster not only puts John out of a job, but crushes his high hopes of raising his teaching status by starting in a well known and supposedly successful public school. One characteristic that John does not lack is ambition. It is this that causes him to be irresolute at a time when discipline is needed as he doesn’t want to spoil his chances of a permanent job. Getting sacked in turn brings about a new feeling of anger. In this new frame of mind it now seems to John that he has nothing to lose and this creates new possibilities for John.
In scene 24 the tables turn, as John gains power and the students lose it. The students begin to realise that they can’t hold anything against John and moreover the fact that he doesn’t seem to care anymore. Now it is the students that begin to panic.
When John refuses to teach the lesson, the students retaliate by trying to show that they don’t need him and haven’t lost anything. They try to prove how little his withdrawal affects them so attempt to continue with the lesson themselves.
“‘And he’s taking it out on us’
‘It’s not fair’
‘Are we going to let him?’
‘No. We’ll go on ahead without him. Cuthbun, you’re the best at history you take us'”
This attempt fails as their independent learning skills have not been developed, and soon there is chaos when they begin to bully Wittering, taking all their frustration out on him. This is where the writer shows that, although too much authority has disturbing consequences, totally removing it would be just as harmful because anarchy would be the result.
The confession and revelation of Mr. Pelham’s death plays an essential role throughout the play. Not only does it disclose what characters authoritarian teaching can create. It also shows the extent of Cooper’s passionate views regarding authoritarian teaching.
The play is about violence and authority, the questions posed by the play are-
Does authority prevent violence, or does authority cause violence?