By Degrees

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Richard Brucher

Second Committee Member

Naomi Jacobs

Third Committee Member

Margaret Lukens


By Degrees, a play in three acts that depicts a woman who slowly learns her life lessons over three time periods: the 1850s, the 1950s, and the 1610s. Although each era presents very different expectations for women, the character's journey toward independence occurs despite the limitations of the time period. The character becomes more conscious of her choices; each time she becomes slightly more aware of her power to choose, her limitations become freedoms, responsibilities become pleasure, discontent becomes fulfillment. As she progresses through the different time periods, she changes from Susannah to Suzanne to Lady Susan, and experiences different kinds of relationships, both romantic and maternal, to eventually discover that she has found serenity in love, in motherhood, and especially in herself. She learns of her own capabilities "by degrees"; in each act she becomes increasingly cognizant of her choices; consequently, in her last lifetime, she chooses what is most appropriate for herself and becomes more content with her surroundings and circumstances. In structure and style, each of the three acts of the play works toward increasing enlightenment. Drawing from literature of the 19" century, Act I weaves together both sentimentalism and naturalism. Act I chronicles the life of a commonplace housewife of the 1850s who is controlled by her environment. Susannah must sustain her family on a barren island many miles offshore while her husband keeps the lighthouse; her inner anguish over seeking "sustenance", both physical and emotional, culminates in desperation and an attempt to exercise her free will. Her environment and her family manage to thwart her feeble attempts at trying to provide herself with a solution for her yearnings. Melodramatic in style, Act I presents us with our heroine at the bottom of the spiral, a place I from where she cannot yet see her way out. Susannah is propelled into Act 11 as Suzanne, a young black student at Ohio State University. To parallel her new surroundings of slightly fewer limitations than Susannah had, the melodrama of Act I leads into modem drama of Act II. Act II's structure specifically mirrors Adrienne Kennedy's play The Ohio State Murders, with the present Suzanne Alexander narrating her experiences of the past. The structure works as a transition phase for our heroine: the inaction of Susannah in Act I moves into the passive action of Act 11. Suzanne of 1950, like Susannah, is still dangerously vulnerable and her decisions reflect this. The tension of Act 11 provides the drama required to force the protagonist to her next phase. Act 111 differs stylistically from the first two acts. Where the first two acts reveal the protagonist as she is caught up in the drama of her own life, Act 111 unveils Lady Susan, a woman in Renaissance England who is resolute in the protection of herself and her daughters. The comedic style reflects a much lighter situation; Lady Susan's emergence as an individual allows for a less conventional, less stringent plot line. Caryl Churchill's plays Top Girls and Cloud Nine have inspired the structure and style of By Degrees; the product reflects character movement over three time periods and three dramatic styles: melodramatic, dramatic, and comedic, respectively.