Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Sound Check

By W. H. Auden

Sound Check

This poem could be the first number of a really wild Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that is set in the windowless office building of a government bureaucracy. All you’d have to do is add some simple music and actors, and change the title from "The Unknown Citizen" to "The Unknown Citizen!" It probably wouldn’t hurt to throw in some exclamation marks elsewhere in the poem, too: "A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire!"

If you’ve ever seen a musical theater performance like "Ragtime" or "Phantom of the Opera," then you know that sometimes the actors belt out their songs, and sometimes they just seem to be talking-in-song. "The Unknown Citizen" could fit with the second approach. The verses sound catchy and have that "’Twas the Night Before Christmas" meter, but the rhythm isn’t consistent enough to merit the belting-out approach. That is, phrases like "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned" don’t exactly lend themselves to melody (line 4). Instead you’ve got to imagine the actors shouting the lines with lots of enthusiasm and charisma, while instruments play a catchy beat in the background. Oh, and a tuba. There’s got to be a tuba.

Places, people! In center stage you have the speaker, our faceless bureaucrat. But, just to make things more interesting, some of his faceless co-workers are crowded around him, presenting their own reports about the UC. This could work because the poem breaks down nicely into different chunks.

Lines 6-11, for example, provide information about his job and Union membership. Some of these lines have a singable, Dr. Seuss-like sound (and don’t forget to add those exclamation marks): "Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views! / For his Union reports that he paid his dues!" You could have a bunch of different characters representing the different kinds of bureaucrats who get to have their say, from the "Social Psychology works" to the "researchers into Public Opinion." Their words sound a little phony, but they could try to cover up the awkwardness of lines like "his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way" by having a huge smile plastered across their faces. So huge, in fact, that you could see it from the back row.

Overall, the poem is trying to give the impression of a happy celebration, even though the subject matter is boring and, quite honestly, a little frightening. Just like in musical theater, when characters who are supposed to be sad and depressed always seem so darned cheerful because they’re singing.

So, there you have it. The first number of "The Unknown Citizen." the Broadway smash-spectacular coming soon to a theater near you! Now, if you were to write the script to the rest of the musical, how would it go?