Rooks and Plagues in The Unfortunates

By Shannon Stockwell 

The Unfortunates is now playing at The Strand Theater and closes April 10. Get tickets here!

Everybody dies. It’s a fact of life. Most of us can set aside this truth to get on with our lives and avoid despair, but eventually, we will all have a moment where we must come face to face with our mortality. The Unfortunates tells the story of such a moment: Big Joe must confront the inescapable reality of death—and he must come to terms with it quickly, because the enemy is aiming his gun at Joe’s head.

A copper engraving of a seventeenth-century plague doctor, by Paul Fürst, circa 1656.

In the dream world of The Unfortunates, one of the most potent symbols of death is the plague. It is telling that, although Joe is in the midst of a war in the real world, his subconscious invents a pandemic. Wars and plagues are often thought of in similar terms; one is often used as a metaphor for the other. We talk about the “war” on AIDS, or an enemy’s ideology “infecting” our people. But the two are very different in significant ways, the largest being that war is human driven, but plague comes from uncontrollable biology. It could be argued that war is preventable, but disease is inevitable. In this way, the Unfortunates plague becomes a metaphor for death itself—it’s inescapable. The fervor with which Joe chases after the cure for the plague shows just how much he wants to avoid facing more death.

In The Unfortunates, the heralds of the plague are the Rooks, also important symbols of death, and particularly antagonistic ones at that. The Rooks look like CJ and Coughlin—Joe’s friends in the real world whom he watched the enemy kill. Simply by looking like his dead friends, the Rooks remind Joe of his failings as a human being: he convinced his friends to risk their lives and sign up for the war, and now he can’t even take a bullet without pleading for his own life. He’s a coward, the Rooks tell him.

The Rooks’ costumes are reminiscent of death. They are partially based on the outfits worn by seventeenth-century doctors who treated the bubonic plague. These consisted of wide-brimmed hats, long robes, and beaklike masks. The masks were filled with strong-smelling herbs, which protected the doctors against bad smells, which, they believed, carried disease. In the seventeenth century, these doctors were seen as benevolent figures of good health, but as time went on, it became clear that they were unable to cure the bubonic plague, and today, the outfits are seen as symbols of death and disease.

The Rooks tell Joe everything a dying person doesn’t want to hear—he’s a coward, he’s going to die alone, and, most awfully, no one will remember him after he’s gone. This may get to the root of the terror; as sociologist Joseph A. Scimecca says, what people fear most is not extinction itself, but “extinction without meaning.”

To read more about rooks and death in The Unfortunates, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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