Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The town drunk typically dwells in a small town, small enough that he is the only conspicuous alcoholic. Larger cities may have more than one, but this term appears to come from around the 17th Century; in the stereotype, when a city grows large enough to house a sufficient mass of town drunks, the area where they congregate becomes known as Skid Row.
Uses in fiction
In fiction, the town drunk character serves a number of functions.
- He may serve merely as a moral example on the evils of drunkenness. This approach to the character is associated the "temperance" movement, and peaked at the start of the twentieth century. The notorious Prohibition play Ten Nights in a Barroom portrays the inevitable fall into destitute drunkenness of a person who dared to take that "Fatal Glass of Beer ", the title of another period drama working this vein. A town drunk who appears in Our Town by Thornton Wilder is perhaps the most often seen example of this version of the character.
- The town drunk may play the role of the fool, and his antics serve as the engine for comedy. "Otis" from The Andy Griffith Show is this type of town drunk, as are the many of the denizens of Moe's Tavern such as Barney Gumble from The Simpsons.
- In a similar vein, the town drunk may serve as a semi-comic proxy for the Wise Old Man. He may disrupt public meetings, either for comic effect, or by dispensing what proves to be wisdom in a garbled and comic form. Or, in this incarnation, the character may introduce the hero to some of the worldlier sorts of wisdom, as well as forming a contrast to his truly heroic character. One prototype for this version of the town drunk is supplied by Shakespeare's Falstaff, who appears in both parts of Henry IV and in The Merry Wives of Windsor. When "Prince Hal" matures into a truly heroic figure, the death of Falstaff is reported in Henry V.
Because few people are famous only for drinking heavily, there are relatively few historical figures who inform the stereotype of the town drunk. However, Mad Jack Mytton and his antics would appear to be a historical example. Mytton is an example of one variation on the character, the drunken aristocrat; another example, more frequently found in British humour than American, is the drunken clergyman. American humor, by contrast, is likely to produce a drunken politician, from a local mayor to a Senator --- as in, for example, the ending of National Lampoon's Animal House, revealing the future "Senator and Mrs. Blutarksi". A number of writers and artists have gained some notoriety from eccentric public performances while intoxicated; Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas are particularly notorious in this respect. The comedian W. C. Fields and his movie performances are often classic examples of the character.
The rake is another stock character associated with heavy drinking. However, the rake is invariably much younger than the town drunk, and the designation casts attention on sexual excess and spending money more than on strong drink.
Women and the stereotype
Women are ineligible to become town drunks. There are a number of stereotypes in popular culture for alcoholic women. Most of these stereotypes invoke tragic pasts, self-destructive tendencies, and mental instability. The female drunk in popular culture is often a fey, haunted figure, somewhere between Miss Havisham and Amanda Wingfield (of The Glass Menagerie), who dwells in a Gothic past surrounded by mementos of faded glory. Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate is another example of this. She is seldom a figure of merriment like male drunks can be. On the other hand, her decline into alcoholism is usually explained in terms that prevent her from being made a moral example about the evils of drink.
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