A Minor Role

UA Fanthorpe

Fanthorpe’s poem might be called The Unsung Hero or The Inconspicuous Toiler; it’s notable that her title doesn’t even merit a definite article. Though her metaphor is drawn from drama, the poem is about a lack of drama, unostentatious unobtrusiveness. As the old advertisement used to say, the speaker doesn’t make drama out of a crisis.

The opening metaphor of the ‘stage’ is light-hearted, embellishing the cliché of the spear-carrier with dutiful but insignificant dialogue, but still shows the importance of such roles – they might be ‘midget moments’, but the ‘monstrous fabric’ of the whole performance depends on them.

The change of tone is completed by the initial ‘But’ of the second stanza and the scene changes to the location of real dramas rather than staged ones – hospitals. Both the continuity of activity and the secondary nature of the carer’s roles are emphasised by the present participles ‘waiting’, ‘driving’, ‘parking’, ‘holding’, ‘asking’, ‘checking’ and ‘Sustaining’. The speaker makes clear the duties of the support act which the patient needs, although the patient themself is the centre of attention, the star of this show. The imagined ‘Yes, sir. O no, sir’ of stanza 1 has been replaced by interpreting the ‘consultants’ monologues’ for the patient and ‘asking pointed/ Questions’ as well as ‘checking dosages’, all things which the patient may be too unwell to do themselves.

The central section of the poem makes it clear that the carer, although playing the ‘minor role’, still feels the burden, avoiding contact with others by ‘Walking fast’ and avoiding discussion with pre-prepared pat phrases, while home requires the solace of ‘happy-all-the-way-through novels’ and ‘the cat’. The sequence of ordinary activities is concluded by the short phrase to end the stanza, giving punch to the toll taken:

‘Cancel things, tidy things; pretend all’s well,
Admit it’s not.’

A further tonal shift suggests pessimism, springing from that broken half line. The lexis of ‘misery’ is explored: ‘Tears, torpor, boredom, lassitude’. The hospital details of the second stanza suggested serious illness, but Fanthorpe never defines it further. Here there is just the wistful desire ‘For a simple illness, like a broken leg’ to deal with, something simply mendable. Instead there is the suggestive complexity of ‘delays’, referrals and consultants, the medical language implying serious, possibly terminal, illness.

Towards the end of the poem, Fanthorpe reiterates the secondary role of the speaker, the split line drawing focus to ‘Not the star part.’ Yet the end of the poem returns to the opening metaphor, this time to reject it: ‘I jettison the spear,/ The servant’s tray’. With a reference to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the subservient role is finally rejected. In the drama of ancient Greece, the Chorus commented on the action, but could never participate in it or directly affect it. Now the speaker of Fanthorpe’s poem rejects the Oedipus Chorus’ fatalistic advice that ‘It would have been better to die’ and steps up onto the stage. The caesura, emphatic language and punctuation signals the challenge: ‘No it wouldn’t!’ The final statement of the importance of the ‘minor role’ is isolated in its own one-line stanza, using the second person pronoun for the first time. The speaker is addressing the patient for whom she cares; Fanthorpe, perhaps, is addressing the reader.