Mr. Walsingham: Breaking Sad

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really…I was alive.” –Walter White, Breaking Bad

The play begins with everyone making a toast to their friend who has just died. Mr. Walsingham is the chairman at the table, enthused to celebrate in the middle of the pestilence. Later, we find out that he lost his mother and his wife. That begs the question: How can he celebrate? The whole scene feels like a classic drown your sorrows in alcohol narrative. The Priest certainly tries to be the voice of reason for him.

“Why have you come here to trouble me?
I cannot, I must not
Follow after you: I am bound here
By despair, by terrible remembrance,”

Was Walsingham entirely wrong in doing what he was though? How justified is what the priest did?

We have seen a recurring theme in the works discussed thus far of victims of plague needing to find ways to cope. Many flee from the plague in search of some normalcy and often the greatest source of normalcy is festivity. We see it in Boccaccio’s Decameron where the characters flee the city and insist on making merry in the countryside. We see it in Severance where some of the characters drink booze and get high every night and we see it here in the Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. Yet this does not necessarily mean that their actions are justified.

This old conveners’ post brings up a similar question, and offers an explanation through Pushkin’s own life. Mr. Walsingham and the Priest serve as Pushkin’s two conflicting states of mind when he himself was dealing with the epidemic of cholera and seeing his friends either die of the pandemic or be politically persecuted.

What we see with Mr. Walsingham and his sadness, or suppression of it, is the struggle between mourning irreparable losses and pursuing happiness in life. This is something everyone at the table is going through, since they all lost their friend. Moreover, if one reads closely the lyrics of all their songs, while they may be celebrating, the songs speak of tragic events.

We ourselves refrain from answering this question but rather like to further ask: what is the best way to honor the dead? Does it have to be solemn and sincere or can it also be open-hearted and celebratory?

Amidst the celebration, a black wagon passes by filled with bodies. In an instance we are reminded that countless lives were lost to the pestilence. Lousia’s fit is a jolting return to reality, if only for a moment in the play.

“He called me to his wagon. Lying in it Were the dead – and they were muttering In some hideous, unknown language”

An illustration of Cholera in Palermo, Italy, 1835

Source:  Wellcome Collection

The Black Man could also have just been someone in black clothing and a plague mask, which were pretty grim reaper-ish.

Mr. Walsingham tells Louisa that the black wagon can go wherever it pleases.  This is compounded by the fact that the plague is referred to as a guest shows how the plague is being personified. This can be compared to Dafoe who uses the term ‘visitation’ . Again, we see a recurring theme throughout various Contagion texts where the Plague almost becomes its own persona – the antagonist.

This ties well to our final point of comparing a pandemic to war, something that Linh also brings up in her augmentor’s post for Defoe. In Mr. Walsingham’s poem, he uses the words of a war against plague. Today, we refer to essential workers as the Frontline ‘Warriors’.  Can the language of war and personifying the plague as the enemy help us better cope with the abstractness of it all? It’s either we pretend that disease is something tangible that can be combated, or we resign ourselves to our miserable fates and make merry where we can.


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  1. I also found an interesting take on the play. It isn’t directly linked to the questions and themes from the post, hence a comment. César Cui, a 19th century Russian composer, composed an opera based on the play, which has been given a fresh take during the pandemic. A new production of A feast in the time of Plague made by Brazilian independent opera company Opera in the Pandemics / Ópera na Pandemia takes place virtually. Looks like an interesting watch.

  2. Thank you for this Convener’s post. I don’t know about other country, but in Vietnam, in funerals people ‘are supposed’ to be crying and grieving, but at the same time the deceased’ family also have to hold a really big feast for everyone who come to the funeral. And in that feast, they are drinking, eating, talking and laughing in the middle of a funeral. So there are crying and laughing at the same place, and many of those reactions just emerge out of rituals and social expectations. It will be really hard for you to decide which is a genuine reaction in a crowded funeral – a social event, something very much resembling a play where everybody has their roles to fulfill.

    That paradox really strikes me because of how similar it is to Pushkin’s Feast During the Plague. I think the Priest kind of serves as a reminder for Walsingham of what behaviors are deemed socially fit/appropriate in the time of plague – How society penetrates even to the most intimate act of individuals – the expression of their emotions and the act of mourning.

    • I want to piggyback on Linh’s comment on honoring the dead in Vietman to mention that there probably isn’t one ‘right’ way of mourning, epidemic or no epidemic. The idea of honoring the deceased is complex and demands to be contextualized within a culture, time period, and even the current public psyche.

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