‘A Minor Role’ by U.A. Fanthorpe is a reflection on the role the poet has been forced to play within society due to her illness. There is a fine line between the life the poet wants and the one she has, and this is explored through the constantly changing narrative directions of the poem. Fanthorpe challenges the reader to reflect on their own life, on the role they play, and how they present themselves to society.
Although the tone of the poem is overly sardonic, there are flashes of an innate desire to live and to thrive. Fanthorpe seems to be caught in a purgatory of wanting more and finding out how to live as she is.
The tone Fanthorpe evokes could be read as bitter, she is envious of those who have the ‘star part’ while she has to read the ‘unobtrusive’. The desire for something different, even just a ‘simpler illness’ illustrates Fanthorpe’s frustration. The poem is about wanting to change who you are in society, how you project yourself into the world and how you are received.
A large amount of the semantics from the poem comes from the field of the theatre. This relates to the idea of identity as a performance. Considering the inter-textual reference to ‘Oedipus Rex’, the use of theatrical semantics could be a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, in which Jacques says ‘All the world’s a stage’. The performance of life is one everyone is involved with, ‘all the men and women merely players’ they have their exits and their entrances.’ Fanthorpe forces the reader to question the performance of identity.
Structure of A Minor Role
‘A Minor Role is split into 6 unequal stanzas, with major irregularity in line length and stanza shape. There is no rhyme scheme, and lines are often enjambed to increase the flow of the poem. The truncated lines, sometimes enjambed and sometimes broken into pieces with caesuras bring a chaotic rhythm to the poem. It seems as if Fanthrope is freely speaking the poem, with the strange and unmelodic poem a reflection of her thought process.
The differing stanza lengths could be a reflection of the differing roles that one can play in society. Similarly, the strange form could be a reflection of the erratic mindset Fanthorpe feels after not ending in the role she would have liked. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of A Minor Role
I’m best observed on stage,
Propping a spear, or making endless
Exits and entrances with my servant’s
patter, Yes, sir. O no, sir. If I get
‘A Minor Role begins with the first personal pronoun, focusing the attention directly on the poet. The beginning is an idea for the poet, with her desire for the ‘star part’ being realized through her instant directing of the audience to herself. This idea of being central is further explored with the state of being ‘observed’. The poet enjoys the attention of the reader and this central concept of being seen on the ‘stage’ illuminates most of the poem. This idea of ‘stage’ also begins to set the central extended metaphor of the poem, with the idea of performing a ‘part’ in society being imitated through the poet on the stage.
The use of ‘exits and entrances’, as mentioned above, could be a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, in which the concept of identity as a performance is also explored. Nevertheless, the reliance on the semantics of the stage punctuates Fanthorpe’s idea equally. The first stanza is very visual, and the imagery of the stage projects a certain view of the poet. This stanza is polysemic, on one hand, it can be read as an actual performance, perhaps with the poet reminiscing on a past stage performance. Yet, the images could also be interpreted as a reference to the poet playing a role in society.
Furthermore, this idea of ‘endless[ness]’ in the first stanza further relates to the cyclic nature of life and the continual push to perform identity. This isn’t a problem reduced directly to the poet, it is an ‘endless’ force that is applicable to everyone in society. It does not begin or end with the ‘exits and entrances’, but exists in the space between. Here, the poet is arguing that this idea of performance will never change, this is simply the way society is.
These midget moments wrong, the monstrous fabric
Shrinks to unwanted sniggers.
The ‘monstrous fabric’ is a reference to the fabrications one has to make to fit into a certain role in society. Due to the stereotypical ideas of how something should be, the poet argues that one must fabricate one identity to match this. Fanthorpe finds this idea ‘monstrous’, with the adjective detailing her disgust, yet she does nothing about it, continues to play her chosen role ‘endless[ly]’.
This idea of the cruel nature of society is pinpointed within the last line of the first stanza, the ‘unwanted sniggers’ echoing through the poet’s head as she ends the first section of ‘A Minor Role’.
But my heart’s in the unobtrusive,
The waiting-room roles: driving to hospitals,
Dates; getting on terms with receptionists;
Sustaining the background music of civility.
This stanza focuses more on the reality of the poet’s life. She is sick, with her life reduced to the ‘unobtrusive’ role of a hospital patient. The first three images in the stanza are related directly to the hospital, ‘waiting-room’, ‘driving to hospitals, parking at hospitals’. The monotony of the poet’s life is palpable after being the heightened central focus of the first stanza.
The poet uses asyndeton (a list without connectors) to further the monotony of this stanza. Thirteen images are quickly rattled off within the stanza, covering the typical day to day life of the poet. She even categorizes herself as ‘background music’, with the demeaning shame she feels at having been assigned a ‘waiting-room role’ palpable.
At home in the street you may see me
For well-meant intrusiveness.
Stanza three of ‘A Minor Role’ much reflects the initial ideas of monotony evoked in stanza 2. There is a certain desire to avoid contact, a wish to be left alone. The ‘walking fast’ is a contrast to the slow pace of stanza 2. Yet, the action is one of self-isolation, actually achieving the opposite to what the burst of energy would indicate.
The repetition of ‘getting on, getting better’ works in ways. The first is that the double gerund ‘getting’ shows the quick passing of time. The movement reflects the movement of time, how it is slipping away from her. Moreover, the prepared response displays how the poet has planned out her social interaction before it even happens. It seems that she goes through the same conversation so many times that now she is ready to auto-pilot through any social interaction she encounters. She has been reduced from the main part to one of four words: ‘getting on, getting better’.
The ‘well-meant intrusiveness’ is a direct contrast to the ‘unobtrusive’ of stanza two. Whereas she once was ‘best observed on stage’, she has shrunk with her illness into ‘unobtrusive[ness’. Where she once thrived off being ‘observed’, social interaction now seems ‘intrusive’. The change the illness has brought upon the poet is tragic. She longs for a different role, but this is the one she is destined to perform.
Thinking ahead: Bed? A good idea!
(Bed solves a lot); answer the phone,
Somewhere else. Consultant’s holiday. Saying Thank you,
For anything to everyone
Not the star part.
The repeated beginning of this stanza, ‘At home’ firmly cements the monotony of the poet’s life – it revolves around two locations, the hospital, and her home. The poet’s life has been grounder, her ‘stage’ now fading into ‘home’.
Throughout this stanza, the poet frequently asks questions and answers them herself. This again feeds into the tone of loneliness that the poem projects. The only person with who the poet can speak is herself, ‘Bed? A good idea!’
And who would want it? I jettison the spear,
It would have been better to die*. No it wouldn’t!
Stanza five of A Minor Role’ has an element of grandeur like that of the first, with the intertextual reference to the ‘Chorus’ from ‘Oedipus Rex’. In Greek Tragedy, the Chorus is composed of the eldest and wisest members of the community, with their dialogue normally discussing the complexities of the political situation and plot that drives the play. By linking her own life to this grand concept, the poet regains an element of the glory of her former stature.
Furthermore, the final line exemplifies this rally against her depressive nature. She exclaims ‘No it wouldn’t!’, battling against and overcoming the proceeding ‘it would have been better to die’. The division between these two statements, enforced by the caesura after die can be taken as a representation of the division in the poet’s character. On one hand, she wants to live, to be the ‘star part’ and to thrive, yet there is this part of her that longs to end it all. Although bleak, the poet sees why she must continue to live, a flash of happiness in an otherwise melancholic poem.
I am here to make you believe in life.
*Chorus: from Oedipus Rex, trans. EF Watling
The final stanza reduces its message into one simple line, communicating with the audience directly. If Fanthorpe, with a crippling illness that subdues her completely in life, can continue, so can the reader. The balance of ‘I’ and ‘you’ within the final line also encompasses this reaching out to the reader, with the connection established being a waveform of connection with a poem of isolation.