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The Use of People as a Means to an End in Powell’s Big Night

Dawn Powell’s “Big Night” is a play that captures the American life in the 1930s when business values overtook all other societal values.  The plot revolves around Ed Bonney-an employee in the advertisement industry and his wife, Myra. Ed desperately tries to retain his job in the fiercely competitive industry by organizing parties in his house to entertain prospective clients. In his endeavors to succeed, he uses his wife to entertain his guests and disregards her feelings and the fact that she resigned from her previous job at the Betsey Dale to get away from customers whose intention was to use her body to satisfy their sexual desires. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that people prefer using others as a means to an end. Powell uses the characters to demonstrate the erosion of societal values and the glorification of business interests, which have led people to treat others not as an end-in-themselves but as a means to achieving goals.

The play begins in Ed’s house where Ed and his wife are preparing a party to entertain Bert Jones, the head of Fortune Gown Stores with the hope of convincing him to become Ed’s client. A conversation between Ed and Myra in their house provides the first hint that Myra is not comfortable with the parties.  She tells Ed that, “I don’t see what this gets us,” referring to the party. Despite her displeasure, Ed convinces her that the parties are crucial to attracting customers because “it’s the personal touch that gets ’em every time”. As the first scene unfolds, the audience becomes aware that there was a prior relationship between Myra and Jones that did not end well. The fact that Ed invites a man with a previous ugly past with his wife in his house, and expects her to make him feel welcome is the first sign that Ed does not value Myra as much as he does his business. In fact, Ed tells Myra that she has the looks and does not need brains.

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When she complains that Ed never listens to her he pretends to pay attention and tells her, “make it snappy,” which shows that he only values her for the beauty and ability to attract customers for him. As the preparation for the party proceeds, Vera, Bonney’s neighbor shows up at the door and requests Myra to help her with a Spanish Shawl. Myra tells her that she does not have a Shawl or any other garment, but Ed interjects and suggests that Myra should give Vera her Pajama set, which was a birthday gift. Ed’s insistence that Myra should give away her pajama further shows that he has little regard for Myra’s feelings. Myra knows that she has a pajama set that can help Vera but does not offer them to her probably because it is special to her. Myra tells Ed to give Vera the pajama, and Ed goes to the bedroom to get it.  At this stage, it is clear that Ed has limited emotional intelligence. Ed should have known that if Myra approved his suggestion, she should have been the one to get the pajama for Vera. Ed either does not realize he is hurting Myra through his action or does not care as long as he gets what he wants.

Act two begins with Jones at the piano, Fargo, Lucille and Myra at the card table while Ed is preparing drinks to refill the glasses. When Jones complains that he is not having fun singing alone, Ed tells Myra to help him, but she is reluctant to do so. Her reluctance is understandable, given that she had a violent encounter with Jones at her previous. Ed suggests that she should even apologize to Jones if she must. Ed does not care that Jones is the one who had wronged Myra. All he wants is his business regardless of the embarrassment that Myra must experience to get the business for him. As an obedient wife, Myra agrees, which is a sign that she has hope that Ed may stop using her and mend their relationship. Fargo tells his wife to go and sing with Jones. Vera enters the house and sits on Jones’ laps. Lucille approaches Jones, and the two women start a contest for Jones’ attention.  Lucille wants Jones to join her at the card table and promises him that he will win. Myra responds to Lucille by saying that, “you are the only one who has made anything tonight,” which provides the audience with an opportunity to see another side of Mrs. Fargo. Lucille is not different from Ed because she is using Jones as a means to an end. When she invites Jones to play the cards, she wishes to get as much money from him as possible.  Another reason she wants Jones close to her is to prevent Ed from talking to him.

If Ed gets a chance to converse with Jones, he may convince him to advertise with him, which may deny Fargo a business deal. Although Fargo and his wife seem to like Jones, they are only befriending him because of his business and not because they like him. When Myra asks Ed to take their dog out, Ed requests Lucille to accompany him. Ed’s request is not a genuine friendship gesture because he wants Lucille out of the way so that Myra can talk to Jones and impress him so that Ed can get his advertising business. Ed acknowledges his plot to Myra after returning from the walk when he says that, “I took her out so that you could get somewhere with Jones” . Lucille agrees to go with Ed but requests Jones to follow them because she does not want Myra to talk to him while they are gone. Both families are concerned with Jones’ economic benefits to them and not because of his character and personality-an end-in-himself. When Jones attempts to tell a story about his life in the army, Fargo interrupts him and tries to tell his story in the military. The interruption demonstrates that Fargo does not care what matters to Jones. In fact, it is possible that if there is another way to get Jones’ money without entertaining him, Fargo would prefer it to listening to Jones. Jones is another character that uses others as a means to an end.  He understands how desperate they are to get his business and can do anything to get it.  Despite having no plan to advertise with either Ed or Fargo, he enjoys their parties and their wives. When Ed gets Vera from Jones’ laps and tries to talk business with him, Jones dismisses him by asking for more drinks.  All he wants is the fun at parties because they cost him nothing.

When Fargo suggests that Ed should stop talking business with Jones, Jones gladly supports the comment, which indicates he does not derive pleasure from discussing business.  When Fargo mentions rye, Jones’ excitement becomes obvious and asks, “Who said rye?”.The materialistic nature of the characters comes out when Fargo and his wife attempts to convince Jones to stay for the weekend. They promise him rye and champagne because they want him to hang around long enough to strike a business deal with them. As the night progress, Myra punches Jones when he tries to touch her inappropriately. Ed blames Myra for the commotion and claims that it is Myra’s fault. Myra gives in and allows Jones to touch and even kiss her.  Ed’s controlling power becomes manifested in Myra’s change of behavior when she warms up to Jones’ advances. Myra looks like she is living in a dream where she has no grasp on her life.  From the beginning of the play, Myra’s disapproval of the parties has been a recurring theme.  The only reason she agrees to tolerate Jones is to satisfy Ed’s wishes.

The third Act starts in the morning after the party, and Jones tries to recollect his thoughts.  Myra engages him in a conversation and sounds like she has given up on Ed.  Given the previous night’s change of attitude towards Jones, Myra’s plan is to use Jones to leave Ed. She does not want to leave without someone on whom to hold.  However, she hides her intention to use Jones to solve her current predicament.

The conversation that follows sets the stage for Myra’s next decision in life. She suggests that Ed should go to his office to avoid getting fired. Ed accuses Myra of planning to kick him out of the house to remain with Jones. The accusation is not devoid of the truth that Myra may be seeking an opportunity with Jones so that she can execute her plan to abandon Ed. Her disappointment is understandable because she has tried her best to put off Ed’s guests unsuccessfully. Ed gets furious after Jones reveals that he has no advertisement to offer and accuses Myra and Jones of double crossing him. Ed’s thoughts about Myra become evident when he accuses her of loving to sleep with customers in her previous job and only marrying him because of his money. He rants that he married her because they could do business together well. Ed’s words represent the last nail in his coffin because Myra sees him as uncaring and a manipulative person who has no love for her. When Myra suggests she could have slept with Jones the previous night, Ed loses his temper. However, the revelation of his true nature comes when Jones promises to give him business worth half a million dollars.  Ed brightens up and forgets his disappointment that Jones may have slept with his wife. The reaction makes Myra sad and probably gives her the courage to run away with Jones who promises to give her a better life than the one she currently lives.

At this point, Myra is using both Ed and Jones to justify the actions she plans to take. She knows that Ed will get angry and say things that will hurt her when she agrees that she slept with Jones. Provoking him will make her final decision less burdensome on her because Ed’s nasty comments will seem enough reasons to prompt her to run away. She probably knows that Jones will promise Ed business just to calm him down, which will reflect negatively on him. As such, she creates a confrontation with the home that Jones will calm Ed down by promising and offer. Jones seduces Myra to run away with him by suggesting that he can make her a queen especially because of her brains.  Jones plans to use Myra not for financial reasons but social contacts, although he is unaware that she is using him as well.  Jones says that “they wouldn’t turn up their noses at Jones because he is not educated”. He further suggests that Myra would fix them for him. Jones asserts that once he marries Myra, he would get access to the Riders’ Club after Vernay finds out that Myra is his wife. Myra must be very naive to think that Jones would behave better than Ed, especially after what he has just said.  Myra has made a foolish decision because she will find herself in similar problems to those from which she is running.

While Ed has used her for business purposes, Jones is likely to use her for social gains.  The last part of the play indicates that Jones has a problem getting accepted into a famous club. Once Myra has agreed to elope with him, Jones says, “you could wind Vernay around your little fingers,” a reference to Myra’s ability to control Vernay so that he can allow Jones into the club. Myra’s decision to go with Jones is tragic because it will not lead to a happy ending.  When she quit her first job, she thought getting married to Ed would distance her from the men who wanted to exploit her, but Ed took advantage of her and brought the same type of people home.  Running away with Jones will most likely lead to agony and tears because he cares more about what she can do for him socially than their mutual feelings.

In conclusion, the main characters in Dawn Powell’s Big Night treat each other as means to an end except Vera, who sees people for who they are.  Myra has been unfortunate because she has experienced all the negative results of the business values. Although she understands the pain of being used, she also uses Ed and Jones to achieve her objective at the end of the play. She orchestrates the whole situation by evoking Ed’s anger, which has led to the business offer from Jones. Ed’s going to the office, leaving Myra and Jones alone is the opportunity that Myra needs to get Jones’ attention and run away with him. Her naivety has influenced her to make choices that lead to unhappiness. The play has demonstrated that once the society abandons intrinsic values and embraces materialistic behaviors, the results are chaos and anguish.

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