“In Drowning By Numbers – the child’s duties as innocent wit and wise jester have been overtaken by – not one – but two children – only they have grown to an age – thirteen – when childhood wisdom falters”.
– Peter Greenaway, Fear Of Drowning By Numbers
Drowning By Numbers is the exception among Greenaway’s feature films where there is more than one central child; in this instance, Smut – a derivative of the word ‘smart’ and The Skipping-Girl. Perhaps their “childhood wisdom” has become confused, not knowing if they should follow their own instincts or copy their parents’ attitudes. Neither child nor adult, both Smut and The Skipping-Girl are at a suspended stage of life with the added trauma of sexual uncertainty – “… just of an age to be in danger from a mix of love, sex and Romance”. The child’s knowledge has – unfortunately, become garbled. Fragments of wit dispersed with second-hand information passed from adult to parent to child to child like a game of Chinese Whispers. Sadly, this leads to the eventual death of both Smut and The Skipping-Girl.
These children use their parents as mentors – in contrast to the untainted, individual mentality of Augustus in The Draughtsman’s Contract, Beta in A Zed & Two Noughts and the young boy in The Belly Of An Architect, where the children’s temperament was at odds with the adults’ selfish, chaotic disposition.
Drowning By Numbers illustrates how children can empathise with their parents to such an extent that their own sense of identity becomes rearranged, bewildered. “If Smut innocently copies his father, then The Skipping-Girl copies her mother… and innocently and dangerously spreads advice she scarcely comprehends… so that Smut too – to please a woman – sharpens up his story-telling skills – though in his need to impress and excite he gets his stories confused and jumbled…”
This would account for Smut’s identification with the biblical Samson. Smut is in love with The Skipping-Girl who “artlessly suggests circumcision as her love-token”. She tells him: “My mother says it’s better that way” and Smut uses this dubious counsel in the hope of winning her love. Samson becomes the object of Smut’s affinity due to his circumcision ‘qualifications’, although – unfortunately, Smut mistakes Delilah’s scissors as the tool for the job, and conducts his own operation with a sterilised pair. He asks Madgett – his father, if it is “desirable” to be circumcised in hot countries, and following Madgett’s reply of “Some say so”, Smut pipes: “It’s hot in here” – hinting that the climate as motive will sufficiently justify his plans for circumcision. And because Smut discovers that Madgett – his other example, is also circumcised, he feels that his own circumcision is all the more necessary.
Smut’s empathy with Samson is similar to other adolescents’ hero worship of a rock band or football player: “The adolescent “fan” tends to create his own heroes, identification with whom seems to serve to provide supportive models of people who have already and successfully accomplished the task the adolescent is to accomplish himself”.
After Cissie III’s wedding to Bellamy, Smut grips the pillars of the pavilion – a brief return to strength after his circumcision; mirroring Samson’s own pillar-grappling that led to his suicide and the death of several thousand Philistines – perhaps a forecast to Smut’s own suicide. Samson’s vulnerability to Delilah is reminiscent of the male characters’ susceptibility to the women in Drowning By Numbers which – in return, is echoed by the relationship between Smut and The Skipping-Girl: “The activities of the boy and girl comment on and parallel the activities of their elders. The girl extravagantly dressed with a made-up face… attracts the attention of the dull but intrepid male…” It is the women who control the destinies of the various men; Cissies I, II and III drowning their husbands and their manipulation of Madgett – similar to the way in which Smut’s devotion means he is at the mercy of The Skipping-Girl. Women as both initiator and temptress.
The children are pivotal to the film’s structure; a rigid arrangement composed of numbers and games that punctuate the film’s narrative – Smut, controlling the ‘games’; a way of “ritualizing emotions” and The Skipping-Girl, the numbers – counting the stars as she skips; one to one hundred, just as the film is constructed within the grid system of one hundred numbers. After one hundred stars have been counted, The Skipping-Girl terminates her list – completing her count in time for the film’s action to begin. Cissie I approaches her and asks why this is so, and The Skipping-Girl replies: “Once you’ve counted a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same”. Her voice is matter-of-fact as if nothing could be more obvious. Numbers are infinite and as humans, we desperately try to tame an abstract existence with individual responses towards creating a structure and a sense of purpose for our lives. The Skipping-Girl seems to mock this need by condensing a countless mass of stars to a mere hundred; our bodily functions eventually die, then the cycle begins again and new life is born – only to die once more.
Smut’s ‘games’ are another form of punctuation and “are all prophetic”. The game of ‘Dead Man’s Catch’, essentially the children’s game of handicap catch, is – for example, played between Cissies I, II and III and their husbands, Madgett, and Smut – a combination of those who will die from unnatural circumstances and those who command the situation. The game is prophetic with the three women being outright winners – just as their unity binds them as survivors in the actual plot, and with the early suggestion of the subsequent deaths of the men who are present.
Games are adults’ regimentation of play, and are ritualistic with their role-playing – seeming to parody and depict the mechanisms of society. “Games are supposed to be for children – it’s the way they are supposed to learn about life – protect them from the real slings and arrows – don’t fight – play chess”.
Smut’s voice-over is used to dictate the rules and characteristics of each game – playing “his father’s games with uncritical seriousness”. The usage of the voice-over would seem to portray Smut as a narrator – carrying the audience over a landscape of games that draw attention to the various issues in the film, just as The Skipping-Girl can be seen as a ‘navigator’ with her relentless counting.
Both children offer a sense of fate – a feeling that rules and structures allow little space for alteration. It is this serious dedication that leads to Smut’s eventual suicide: “The immature Smut plays games with greater dedication and earnestness – but in the end, the game becomes its own substance and he dies accordingly to those strict rules so blindingly applied”.
There are several factors responsible for Smut’s death – the first being the fatality of his love; The Skipping-Girl, caused by misinterpreted knowledge – sadly, on account of Smut’s advice: “You really could skip more out on the road, the rope wouldn’t slap on the doorstep that way”. Eventually the girl complies, and is consequently crushed by a car full of runners. Smut is informed of her death via the silent presentation of her skipping-rope; handed to him by a policeman, who holds the rope in such a way as to suggest an invitation to hang oneself.
Smut feels responsible and is doubly guilty because he had let go of the rope in the game of ‘Tug Of War’ at the policeman’s arrival. The game was played between Cissies I, II and III and their supporters on one side – and Madgett, Smut and their followers on the other. the game was crucial in deciding Madgett’s destiny – relating to his reputation as coroner, and whether or not he would disclose the truth about the death of the three Cissies’ husbands. Unfortunately, participants on both sides have to match “with weight and strength to make it an interesting contest”, and the extraction of Smut’s “nine-stone” offering is “enough to make a decisive victory for the opposite side”.
Smut takes the skipping-rope from the policeman and hangs himself with it from a high branch of a tree; “he becomes the winner and the loser and the final arbitrating judge in his own game”. Smut has played games passed down to him through his father, and eventually applies similar techniques to this death. Is life simply a game? Both Smut and The Skipping-Girl seem to imply this – just as child’s play becomes ordered into games by adults, the frivolity of youth is institutionalized by society.
The concept of death provokes a shocking transition in Smut, and at first he appears even blasé to the notion. When his father comments on feeling sick after the drowning of Cissie I’s husband, Smut retorts: “It’s those mushrooms” and Madgett himself says: “A great many things are dying every day, ask Smut”. This would suggest that Smut has instructed Madgett to believe this – and like Augustus in The Draughtsman’s Contract, he is more in tune with the pattern of nature. Feste, the fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night sings: “And the rain it raineth every day” – an idea denoting that in spite of certain rituals; rain, folly and sadness are the only constant things in life. And Smut’s previous aloofness and acceptance is much the same.
Smut celebrates every death with a firework – “acknowledging the Resurrection myths” – freeing the soul and allowing it to rise up into the heavens. He honours his own departure with an enormous bundle of fireworks – a symbol of unburdening himself from the horror he finally suffers, his grief? A release of the burden he feels himself to be on others?
A first signal of distress is emitted from Smut after the death of Cissie III’s husband. The three husbands have been killed now, and Smut appears distressed, igniting a particularly large batch of fireworks. Cissie II asks him: “What’s dead now Smut?” and Smut replies: “Just about everything… in this field I should think”. He could be upset for two reasons – one is the fact that the third husband has been drowned; there are no more men to drown – except Madgett, symbolic that the end is nigh, the sense that everyone is doomed. Another possibility is that Jonah and Moses – two potential witnesses to the scene of crime, run past, and Smut fears danger and exposure. Moreover, perhaps he has grown up, aware that the formal rules of games can bind the players and trap them.