The Dog Beneath the Skin – some basic interpretations

It has already been a while since I last published some comments on this play, but I promised another update on possible interpretations after reading some secondary literature.

The first thing that becomes clear after reading a few secondary sources (Mendelson, 1988 (textual notes), Mendelson, 1983, Fuller, 1998, Innes, 2004) is that Auden (and Isherwood) have written various versions of this play, and that large parts of it were taken from earlier works. Auden has revised the play various times and there have been different endings (Mendelson, 1988, textual notes). As I wrote earlier in my summary, in the version I read Francis dies and is disguised again as a dog the hide the crime of killing him, while Alan leaves the village alive (published in ‘The Complete Works of W. H. Auden’ by Mendelson (1988)). In Early Auden (1983) Mendelson tells about a version in which both Alan and Francis leave the stage alive.

            The fact that these different version exist, and that various scholars have not all used the same one makes it rather hard to form one distinct interpretation of the play, after all these were not minor changes but in some cases made a big difference.

However, let me start here with some general comments that can be made about The Dog Beneath the Skin. This play has developed as a combination of earlier plays written by Auden, with the help of Isherwood. This can be seen mainly by the characters that feature in older drafts; however also the storyline is a continuation of earlier ideas most clearly shown in its immediate predecessor The Chase (Mendelson, 1983). In a way The Dog Beneath the Skin can be seen as classical story about the search for a heir which leads Alan to visit different parts of Europe.

            On his quest to find Francis, Alan passes through Ostnia and Westland, respectively representing Easter European monarchies dictated by a king, and fascist regimes. The play in a way shows what is wrong about these countries and makes Alan’s native England seem as the best place to live. However, the behaviour of the vicar and the general at the end of the play is also non-democratic. Fuller says that the vicar and the general have ‘founded a rather Mosleyite Boys’ Brigade’ (1998, p.142); Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley was the founder of the British Union of Fascists.[1]

            At the end of the play, right before he gets killed, Francis makes a rather long address in which clearly the message of Marxism can be found. Also here Francis sets himself apart from modern technology (as we have seen so often before in Auden’s prose and poetry), but also from the church (which is more remarkable, especially since we know Auden later returned to the church).

            Finally, and this is one of the aspects I found most remarkable and interesting, but which gets virtually no attention in the secondary texts I read, it are the journalists who decide to help the villagers to hide Francis’ body. They decide not to write about what just happened in front of their faces (because they know the scene was too absurd and no reader would believe it anyway), but instead to ignore everything and make it look like nothing has happened. Auden claims here that if the press doesn’t find something interesting enough, or doesn’t report about an event, it never took place, this is a, to me, remarkable strong position on the role of the press in our modern society (although perhaps in the current communication age this would be very different from the pre-WWII times when the play was written).

            What we could take from the journalists who hide the crime and make sure that live can go on uninterrupted in Pressan Ambo are two themes we have seen before in Auden’s work. First there is the less prominent (and by us less discussed) issue of free choice. But more interesting, it also refers to the concept of timelessness. We have seen this as a general theme in lots of Auden’s works (mainly poetry) and also the hiding of the crime and moving on with the lives in the village uninterruptedly brings the feeling is timelessness.

Fuller, J. (1998). W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Innes, C. (2004). Auden’s plays and dramatic writings: theatre, film and opera. In S. Smith (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden (pp. 82-95). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mendelson, E. (1983). Early Auden. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mendelson, E. (1988). Textual Notes: The Dog Beneath the skin. In W.H. Auden: Collected Poems. (revised edition) (553 – 597). London: Faber and Faber.


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