There are two points of routine on which I am compelled to speak in no uncertain voice—two practices which I hold to be almost equally condemnable. In the first place, no playwright who understands the evolution of the modern theatre can nowadays use in his stage-directions the abhorrent jargon of the early nineteenth century. When one comes across a manuscript bespattered with such cabalistic signs as "R.2.E.," "R.C.," "L.C.," "L.U.E.," and so forth, one sees at a glance that the writer has neither studied dramatic literature nor thought out for himself the conditions of the modern theatre, but has found his dramatic education between the buff covers of French's Acting Edition. Some beginners imagine that a plentiful use of such abbreviations will be taken as a proof of their familiarity with the stage; whereas, in fact, it only shows their unfamiliarity with theatrical history. They might as well set forth to describe a modern battleship in the nautical terminology of Captain Marryat. "Right First Entrance," "Left Upper Entrance," and so forth, are terms belonging to the period when there were no "box" rooms or "set" exteriors on the stage, when the sides of each scene were composed of "wings" shoved on in grooves, and entrances could be made between each pair of wings. Thus, "R. 1 E." meant the entrance between the proscenium and the first "wing" on the right, "R. 2 E." meant the entrance between the first pair of "wings," and so forth. "L.U.E." meant the entrance at the left between the last "wing" and the back cloth. Now grooves and "wings" have disappeared from the stage. The "box" room is entered, like any room in real life, by doors or French windows; and the only rational course is to state the position of your doors in your opening stage-direction, and thereafter to say in plain language by which door an entrance or an exit is to be made. In exterior scenes where, for example, trees or clumps of shrubbery answer in a measure to the old "wings," the old terminology may not be quite meaningless; but it is far better eschewed. It is a good general rule to avoid, so far as possible, expressions which show that the author has a stage scene, and not an episode of real life, before his eyes. Men of the theatre are the last to be impressed by theatrical jargon; and when the play comes to be printed, the general reader is merely bewildered and annoyed by technicalities, which tend, moreover, to disturb his illusion.
A still more emphatic warning must be given against another and more recent abuse in the matter of stage-directions. The "L.U.E.'s," indeed, are bound very soon to die a natural death. The people who require to be warned against them are, as a rule, scarcely worth warning. But it is precisely the cleverest people (to use clever in a somewhat narrow sense) who are apt to be led astray by Mr. Bernard Shaw's practice of expanding his stage-directions into essays, disquisitions, monologues, pamphlets. This is a practice which goes far to justify the belief of some foreign critics that the English, or, since Mr. Shaw is in question, let us say the inhabitants of the British Islands, are congenitally incapable of producing a work of pure art. Our novelists—Fielding, Thackeray, George Eliot—have been sufficiently, though perhaps not unjustly, called over the coals for their habit of coming in front of their canvas, and either gossiping with the reader or preaching at him. But, if it be a sound maxim that the novelist should not obtrude his personality on his reader, how much more is this true of the dramatist! When the dramatist steps to the footlights and begins to lecture, all illusion is gone. It may be said that, as a matter of fact, this does not occur: that on the stage we hear no more of the disquisitions of Mr. Shaw and his imitators than we do of the curt, and often non-existent, stage-directions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. To this the reply is twofold. First, the very fact that these disquisitions are written proves that the play is designed to be printed and read, and that we are, therefore, justified in applying to it the standard of what may be called literary illusion. Second, when a playwright gets into the habit of talking around his characters, he inevitably, even if unconsciously, slackens his endeavour to make them express themselves as completely as may be in their own proper medium of dramatic action and dialogue. You cannot with impunity mix up two distinct forms of art—the drama and the sociological essay or lecture. To Mr. Shaw, of course, much may, and must, be forgiven. His stage-directions are so brilliant that some one, some day, will assuredly have them spoken by a lecturer in the orchestra while the action stands still on the stage. Thus, he will have begotten a bastard, but highly entertaining, form of art. My protest has no practical application to him, for he is a standing exception to all rules. It is to the younger generation that I appeal not to be misled by his seductive example. They have little chance of rivalling him as sociological essayists; but if they treat their art seriously, and as a pure art, they may easily surpass him as dramatists. By adopting his practice they will tend to produce, not fine works of art, but inferior sociological documents. They will impair their originality and spoil their plays in order to do comparatively badly what Mr. Shaw has done incomparably well.
The common-sense rule as to stage directions is absolutely plain; be they short, or be they long, they ought always to be impersonal. The playwright who cracks jokes in his stage-directions, or indulges in graces of style, is intruding himself between the spectator and the work of art, to the inevitable detriment of the illusion. In preparing a play for the press, the author should make his stage-directions as brief as is consistent with clearness. Few readers will burden their memory with long and detailed descriptions. When a new character of importance appears, a short description of his or her personal appearance and dress may be helpful to the reader; but even this should be kept impersonal. Moreover, as a play has always to be read before it can be rehearsed or acted, it is no bad plan to make the stage-directions, from the first, such as tend to bring the play home clearly to the reader's mental vision. And here I may mention a principle, based on more than mere convenience, which some playwrights observe with excellent results. Not merely in writing stage-directions, but in visualizing a scene, the idea of the stage should, as far as possible, be banished from the author's mind. He should see and describe the room, the garden, the sea-shore, or whatever the place of his action may be, not as a stage-scene, but as a room, garden, or sea-shore in the real world. The cultivation of this habit ought to be, and I believe is in some cases, a safeguard against theatricality.
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[Footnote 1: Sardou wrote careful and detailed scenarios, Dumas fils held it a waste of time to do so. Pailleron wrote "enormous" scenarios, Meilhac very brief ones, or none at all. Mr. Galsworthy, rather to my surprise, disdains, and even condemns, the scenario, holding that a theme becomes lifeless when you put down its skeleton on paper. Sir Arthur Pinero says: "Before beginning to write a play, I always make sure, by means of a definite scheme, that there is a way of doing it; but whether I ultimately follow that way is a totally different matter." Mr. Alfred Sutro practically confesses to a scenario. He says: "Before I start writing the dialogue of a play, I make sure that I shall have an absolutely free hand over the entrances and exits: in other words, that there is ample and legitimate reason for each character appearing in any particular scene, and ample motive for his leaving it." Mr. Granville Barker does not put on paper a detailed scenario. He says: "I plan the general scheme, and particularly the balance of the play, in my head; but this, of course, does not depend entirely on entrances and exits." Mr. Henry Arthur Jones says: "I know the leading scenes, and the general course of action in each act, before I write a line. When I have got the whole story clear, and divided into acts, I very carefully construct the first act, as a series of scenes between such and such of the characters. When the first act is written I carefully construct the second act in the same way—and so on. I sometimes draw up twenty scenarios for an act before I can get it to go straight."]
[Footnote 2: A friend of the late Clyde Fitch writes to me: "Fitch was often astonished at the way in which his characters developed. He tried to make them do certain things: they did others."]
[Footnote 3: This account of the matter seems to find support in a statement, by M. Francois de Curel, an accomplished psychologist, to the effect that during the first few days of work at a play he is "clearly conscious of creating," but that gradually he gets "into the skin" of his characters, and appears to work by instinct. No doubt some artists are actually subject to a sort of hallucination, during which they seem rather to record than to invent the doings of their characters. But this somewhat morbid condition should scarcely be cultivated by the dramatist, whose intelligence should always keep a light rein on his more instinctive mental processes. See L'Annee Psychologique, 1894. p. 120.]
[Footnote 4: Sir Arthur Pinero says: "The beginning of a play to me is a little world of people. I live with them, get familiar with them, and they tell me the story." This may sound not unlike the remark of the novelist above quoted; but the intention was quite different. Sir Arthur simply meant that the story came to him as the characters took on life in his imagination. Mr. H.A. Jones writes: "When you have a character or several characters you haven't a play. You may keep these in your mind and nurse them till they combine in a piece of action; but you haven't got your play till you have theme, characters, and action all fused. The process with me is as purely automatic and spontaneous as dreaming; in fact it is really dreaming while you are awake."]
[Footnote 5: "Here," says a well-known playwright, "is a common experience. You are struck by an idea with which you fall in love. 'Ha!' you say. 'What a superb scene where the man shall find the missing will under the sofa! If that doesn't make them sit up, what will?' You begin the play. The first act goes all right, and the second act goes all right. You come to the third act, and somehow it won't go at all. You battle with it for weeks in vain; and then it suddenly occurs to you, 'Why, I see what's wrong! It's that confounded scene where the man finds the will under the sofa! Out it must come!' You cut it out, and at once all goes smooth again. But you have thrown overboard the great effect that first tempted you."]
[Footnote 6: The manuscripts of Dumas fils are said to contain, as a rule, about four times as much matter as the printed play! (Parigot: Genie et Metier, p. 243). This probably means, however, that he preserved tentative and ultimately rejected scenes, which most playwrights destroy as they go along.]
[Footnote 7: Lowell points out that this assertion of Heminge and Condell merely shows them to have been unfamiliar with the simple phenomenon known as a fair copy.]
[Footnote 8: Since writing this I have learnt that my conjecture is correct, at any rate as regards some of M. Hervieu's plays.]
[Footnote 9: See Chapters XIII and XVI.]
[Footnote 10: This view is expressed with great emphasis by Dumas fils in the preface to La Princesse Georges. "You should not begin your work," he says, "until you have your concluding scene, movement and speech clear in your mind. How can you tell what road you ought to take until you know where you are going?" It is perhaps a more apparent than real contradiction of this rule that, until Iris was three parts finished, Sir Arthur Pinero intended the play to end with the throttling of Iris by Maldonado. The actual end is tantamount to a murder, though Iris is not actually killed.]
[Footnote 11: See Chapter XVIII.]
[Footnote 12: See Chapter XX.]
[Footnote 13: Most of the dramatists whom I have consulted are opposed to the principle of "roughing out" the big scenes first, and then imbedding them, as it were, in their context. Sir Arthur Pinero goes the length of saying: "I can never go on to page 2 until I am sure that page 1 is as right as I can make it. Indeed, when an act is finished, I send it at once to the printers, confident that I shall not have to go back upon it." Mr. Alfred Sutro says: "I write a play straight ahead from beginning to end, taking practically as long over the first act as over the last three." And Mr. Granville Barker: "I always write the beginning of a play first and the end last: but as to writing 'straight ahead'—it sounds like what one may be able to do in Heaven." But almost all dramatists, I take it, jot down brief passages of dialogue which they may or may not eventually work into the texture of their play.]
[Footnote 14: One is not surprised to learn that Sardou "did his stage-management as he went along," and always knew exactly the position of his characters from moment to moment.]
[Footnote 15: And aurally, it may be added. Sarcey comments on the impossibility of a scene in Zola's Pot Bouille in which the so-called "lovers," Octave Mouret and Blanche, throw open the window of the garret in which they are quarrelling, and hear the servants in the courtyard outside discussing their intrigue. In order that the comments of the servants might reach the ears of the audience, they had to be shouted in a way (says M. Sarcey) that was fatal to the desired illusion.]
The theme being chosen, the next step will probably be to determine what characters shall be employed in developing it. Most playwrights, I take it, draw up a provisional Dramatis Personae before beginning the serious work of construction. Ibsen seems always to have done so; but, in some of his plays, the list of persons was at first considerably larger than it ultimately became. The frugal poet sometimes saved up the characters rejected from one play, and used them in another. Thus Boletta and Hilda Wangel were originally intended to have been the daughters of Rosmer and Beata; and the delightful Foldal of John Gabriel Borkman was a character left over from The Lady from the Sea.
The playwright cannot proceed far in planning out his work without determining, roughly at any rate, what auxiliary characters he means to employ. There are in every play essential characters, without whom the theme is unthinkable, and auxiliary characters, not indispensable to the theme, but simply convenient for filling in the canvas and carrying on the action. It is not always possible to decide whether a character is essential or auxiliary—it depends upon how we define the theme. In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude are manifestly essential: for the theme is the hesitancy of a young man of a certain temperament in taking vengeance upon the seducer of his mother and murderer of his father. But is Ophelia essential, or merely auxiliary? Essential, if we consider Hamlet's pessimistic feeling as to woman and the "breeding of sinners" a necessary part of his character; auxiliary, if we take the view that without this feeling he would still have been Hamlet, and the action, to all intents and purposes, the same. The remaining characters, on the other hand, are clearly auxiliary. This is true even of the Ghost: for Hamlet might have learnt of his father's murder in fifty other ways.
Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, and the rest might all have been utterly different, or might never have existed at all, and yet the essence of the play might have remained intact.
It would be perfectly possible to write a Hamlet after the manner of Racine, in which there should be only six personages instead of Shakespeare's six-and-twenty: and in this estimate I assume Ophelia to be an essential character. The dramatis personae would be: Hamlet, his confidant; Ophelia, her confidant; and the King and Queen, who would serve as confidants to each other. Indeed, an economy of one person might be affected by making the Queen (as she naturally might) play the part of confidant to Ophelia.
Shakespeare, to be sure, did not deliberately choose between his own method and that of Racine. Classic concentration was wholly unsuited to the physical conditions of the Elizabethan stage, on which external movement and bustle were imperatively demanded. But the modern playwright has a wide latitude of choice in this purely technical matter. He may work out his plot with the smallest possible number of characters, or he may introduce a crowd of auxiliary personages. The good craftsman will be guided by the nature of his theme. In a broad social study or a picturesque romance, you may have as many auxiliary figures as you please. In a subtle comedy, or a psychological tragedy, the essential characters should have the stage as much as possible to themselves. In Becque's La Parisienne there are only four characters and a servant; in Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac there are fifty-four personages named in the playbill, to say nothing of supernumeraries. In Peer Gynt, a satiric phantasmagory, Ibsen introduces some fifty individual characters, with numberless supernumeraries; in An Enemy of the People, a social comedy, he has eleven characters and a crowd; for Ghosts and Rosmersholm, psychological tragedies, six persons apiece are sufficient.
It can scarcely be necessary, at this time of day, to say much on the subject of nomenclature. One does occasionally, in manuscripts of a quite hopeless type, find the millionaire's daughter figuring as "Miss Aurea Golden," and her poor but sprightly cousin as "Miss Lalage Gay"; but the veriest tyro realizes, as a rule, that this sort of punning characterization went out with the eighteenth century, or survived into the nineteenth century only as a flagrant anachronism, like knee-breeches and hair-powder.
A curious essay might be written on the reasons why such names as Sir John Brute, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, Sir Peter Teazle, Sir Anthony Absolute, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Lord Foppington, Lord Rake, Colonel Bully, Lovewell, Heartfree, Gripe, Shark and the rest were regarded as a matter of course in "the comedy of manners," but have become offensive to-day, except in deliberate imitations of the eighteenth-century style. The explanation does not lie merely in the contrast between "conventional" comedy and "realistic" drama. Our forefathers (whatever Lamb may say) did not consciously place their comedy in a realm of convention, but generally considered themselves, and sometimes were, realists. The fashion of label-names, if we may call them so, came down from the Elizabethans, who, again, borrowed it from the Mediaeval Moralities. Shakespeare himself gave us Master Slender and Justice Shallow; but it was in the Jonsonian comedy of types that the practice of advertising a "humour" or "passion" in a name (English or Italian) established itself most firmly. Hence such strange appellatives as Sir Epicure Mammon, Sir Amorous La Foole, Morose, Wellbred, Downright, Fastidius Brisk, Volpone, Corbaccio, Sordido, and Fallace. After the Restoration, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger were, for a time, more popular than Shakespeare; so that the label-names seemed to have the sanction of the giants that were before the Flood. Even when comedy began to deal with individuals rather than mere incarnations of a single "humour," the practice of giving them obvious pseudonyms held its ground. Probably it was reinforced by the analogous practice which obtained in journalism, in which real persons were constantly alluded to (and libelled) under fictitious designations, more or less transparent to the initiated. Thus a label-name did not carry with it a sense of unreality, but rather, perhaps, a vague suggestion of covert reference to a real person. I must not here attempt to trace the stages by which the fashion went out. It could doubtless be shown that the process of change ran parallel to the shrinkage of the "apron" and the transformation of the platform-stage into the picture-stage. That transformation was completed about the middle of the nineteenth century; and it was about that time that label-names made their latest appearances in works of any artistic pretension—witness the Lady Gay Spanker of London Assurance, and the Captain Dudley (or "Deadly") Smooth of Money. Faint traces of the practice survive in T.W. Robertson, as in his master, Thackeray. But it was in his earliest play of any note that he called a journalist Stylus. In his later comedies the names are admirably chosen: they are characteristic without eccentricity or punning. One feels that Eccles in Caste could not possibly have borne any other name. How much less living would he be had he been called Mr. Soaker or Mr. Tosspot!
Characteristic without eccentricity—that is what a name ought to be. As the characteristic quality depends upon a hundred indefinable, subconscious associations, it is clearly impossible to suggest any principle of choice. The only general rule that can be laid down is that the key of the nomenclature, so to speak, may rightly vary with the key of the play—that farcical names are, within limits, admissible in farce, eccentric names in eccentric comedy, while soberly appropriate names are alone in place in serious plays. Some dramatists are habitually happy in their nomenclature, others much less so. Ibsen would often change a name three or four times in the course of writing a play, until at last he arrived at one which seemed absolutely to fit the character; but the appropriateness of his names is naturally lost upon foreign audiences.
One word may perhaps be said on the recent fashion—not to say fad—of suppressing in the printed play the traditional list of "Dramatis Personae." Bjoernson, in some of his later plays, was, so far as I am aware, the first of the moderns to adopt this plan. I do not know whether his example has influenced certain English playwrights, or whether they arrived independently at the same austere principle, by sheer force of individual genius. The matter is a trifling one—so trifling that the departure from established practice has something of the air of a pedantry. It is not, on the whole, to be approved. It adds perceptibly to the difficulty which some readers experience in picking up the threads of a play; and it deprives other readers of a real and appreciable pleasure of anticipation. There is a peculiar and not irrational charm in looking down a list of quite unknown names, and thinking: "In the course of three hours, I shall know these people: I shall have read their hearts: I shall have lived with them through a great crisis in their lives: some of them may be my friends for ever." It is one of the glories and privileges of the dramatist's calling that he can arouse in us this eager and poignant expectation; and I cannot commend his wisdom in deliberately taking the edge off it, and making us feel as though we were not sitting down to a play, but to a sort of conversational novel. A list of characters, it is true, may also affect one with acute anticipations of boredom; but I have never yet found a play less tedious by reason of the suppression of the "Dramatis Personae."
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[Footnote 1: Partially, too, they were under the influence of antiquity; but the ancients were very discreet in their use of significant names. Only in satyr-plays, in the comic epics, and for a few extravagant characters in comedy (such as the boastful soldier) were grotesque appellations employed. For the rest, the Greek habit of nomenclature made it possible to use significant names which were at the same time probable enough in daily life. For example, a slave might be called Onesimus, "useful," or a soldier Polemon, to imply his warlike function; but both names would be familiar to the audience in actual use.]
THE POINT OF ATTACK: SHAKESPEARE AND IBSEN
Though, as we have already noted, the writing of plays does not always follow the chronological sequence of events, in discussing the process of their evolution we are bound to assume that the playwright begins at the beginning, and proceeds in orderly fashion, by way of the middle, to the end. It was one of Aristotle's requirements that a play should have a beginning, middle and end; and though it may seem that it scarcely needed an Aristotle to lay down so self-evident a proposition, the fact is that playwrights are more than sufficiently apt to ignore or despise the rule. Especially is there a tendency to rebel against the requirement that a play should have an end. We have seen a good many plays of late which do not end, but simply leave off: at their head we might perhaps place Ibsen's Ghosts. But let us not anticipate. For the moment, what we have to inquire is where, and how, a play ought to begin.
In life there are no such things as beginnings. Even a man's birth is a quite arbitrary point at which to launch his biography; for the determining factors in his career are to be found in persons, events, and conditions that existed before he was ever thought of. For the biographer, however, and for the novelist as a writer of fictitious biography, birth forms a good conventional starting-point. He can give a chapter or so to "Ancestry," and then relate the adventures of his hero from the cradle onwards. But the dramatist, as we have seen, deals, not with protracted sequences of events, but with short, sharp crises. The question for him, therefore, is: at what moment of the crisis, or of its antecedents, he had better ring up his curtain? At this point he is like the photographer studying his "finder" in order to determine how much of a given prospect he can "get in."
The answer to the question depends on many things, but chiefly on the nature of the crisis and the nature of the impression which the playwright desires to make upon his audience. If his play be a comedy, and if his object be gently and quietly to interest and entertain, the chances are that he begins by showing us his personages in their normal state, concisely indicates their characters, circumstances and relations, and then lets the crisis develop from the outset before our eyes. If, on the other hand, his play be of a more stirring description, and he wants to seize the spectator's attention firmly from the start, he will probably go straight at his crisis, plunging, perhaps, into the very middle of it, even at the cost of having afterwards to go back in order to put the audience in possession of the antecedent circumstances. In a third type of play, common of late years, and especially affected by Ibsen, the curtain rises on a surface aspect of profound peace, which is presently found to be but a thin crust over an absolutely volcanic condition of affairs, the origin of which has to be traced backwards, it may be for many years.
Let us glance at a few of Shakespeare's openings, and consider at what points he attacks his various themes. Of his comedies, all except one begin with a simple conversation, showing a state of affairs from which the crisis develops with more or less rapidity, but in which it is as yet imperceptibly latent. In no case does he plunge into the middle of his subject, leaving its antecedents to be stated in what is technically called an "exposition." Neither in tragedy nor in comedy, indeed, was this Shakespeare's method. In his historical plays he relied to some extent on his hearers' knowledge of history, whether gathered from books or from previous plays of the historical series; and where such knowledge was not to be looked for, he would expound the situation in good set terms, like those of a Euripidean Prologue. But the chronicle-play is a species apart, and practically an extinct species: we need not pause to study its methods. In his fictitious plays, with two notable exceptions, it was Shakespeare's constant practice to bring the whole action within the frame of the picture, opening at such a point that no retrospect should be necessary, beyond what could be conveyed in a few casual words. The exceptions are The Tempest and Hamlet, to which we shall return in due course.
How does The Merchant of Venice open? With a long conversation exhibiting the character of Antonio, the friendship between him and Bassanio, the latter's financial straits, and his purpose of wooing Portia. The second scene displays the character of Portia, and informs us of her father's device with regard to her marriage; but this information is conveyed in three or four lines. Not till the third scene do we see or hear of Shylock, and not until very near the end of the act is there any foreshadowing of what is to be the main crisis of the play. Not a single antecedent event has to be narrated to us; for the mere fact that Antonio has been uncivil to Shylock, and shown disapproval of his business methods, can scarcely be regarded as a preliminary outside the frame of the picture.
In As You Like It there are no preliminaries to be stated beyond the facts that Orlando is at enmity with his elder brother, and that Duke Frederick has usurped the coronet and dukedom of Rosalind's father. These facts being made apparent without any sort of formal exposition, the crisis of the play rapidly announces itself in the wrestling-match and its sequels. In Much Ado About Nothing there is even less of antecedent circumstance to be imparted. We learn in the first scene, indeed, that Beatrice and Benedick have already met and crossed swords; but this is not in the least essential to the action; the play might have been to all intents and purposes the same had they never heard of each other until after the rise of the curtain. In Twelfth Night there is a semblance of a retrospective exposition in the scene between Viola and the Captain; but it is of the simplest nature, and conveys no information beyond what, at a later period, would have been imparted on the playbill, thus—
"Orsino, Duke of Illyria, in love with Olivia. Olivia, an heiress, in mourning for her brother,"
and so forth. In The Taming of the Shrew there are no antecedents whatever to be stated. It is true that Lucentio, in the opening speech, is good enough to inform Tranio who he is and what he is doing there—facts with which Tranio is already perfectly acquainted. But this was merely a conventional opening, excused by the fashion of the time; it was in no sense a necessary exposition. For the rest, the crisis of the play—the battle between Katherine and Petruchio—begins, develops, and ends before our very eyes. In The Winter's Tale, a brief conversation between Camillo and Archidamus informs us that the King of Bohemia is paying a visit to the King of Sicilia; and that is absolutely all we need to know. It was not even necessary that it should be conveyed to us in this way. The situation would be entirely comprehensible if the scene between Camillo and Archidamus were omitted.
It is needless to go through the whole list of comedies. The broad fact is that in all the plays commonly so described, excepting only The Tempest, the whole action comes within the frame of the picture. In The Tempest the poet employs a form of opening which otherwise he reserves for tragedies. The first scene is simply an animated tableau, calculated to arrest the spectator's attention, without conveying to him any knowledge either of situation or character. Such gleams of character as do, in fact, appear in the dialogue, are scarcely perceived in the hurly-burly of the storm. Then, in the calm which ensues, Prospero expounds to Miranda in great detail the antecedents of the crisis now developing. It might almost seem, indeed, that the poet, in this, his poetic last-will-and-testament, intended to warn his successors against the dangers of a long narrative exposition; for Prospero's story sends Miranda to sleep. Be this as it may, we have here a case in which Shakespeare deliberately adopted the plan of placing on the stage, not the whole crisis, but only its culmination, leaving its earlier stages to be conveyed in narrative. It would have been very easy for him to have begun at the beginning and shown us in action the events narrated by Prospero. This course would have involved no greater leap, either in time or space, than he had perpetrated in the almost contemporary Winter's Tale; and it cannot be said that there would have been any difficulty in compressing into three acts, or even two, the essentials of the action of the play as we know it. His reasons for departing from his usual practice were probably connected with the particular occasion for which the play was written. He wanted to produce a masque rather than a drama. We must not, therefore, attach too much significance to the fact that in almost the only play in which Shakespeare seems to have built entirely out of his own head, with no previous play or novel to influence him, he adopted the plan of going straight to the catastrophe, in which he had been anticipated by Sophocles (Oedipus Rex), and was to be followed by Ibsen (Ghosts, Rosmersholm, etc.).
Coming now to the five great tragedies, we find that in four of them Shakespeare began, as in The Tempest, with a picturesque and stirring episode calculated to arrest the spectator's attention and awaken his interest, while conveying to him little or no information. The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet is simply a brawl, bringing home to us vividly the family feud which is the root of the tragedy, but informing us of nothing beyond the fact that such a feud exists. This is, indeed, absolutely all that we require to know. There is not a single preliminary circumstance, outside the limits of the play, that has to be explained to us. The whole tragedy germinates and culminates within what the prologue calls "the two hours' traffick of the stage." The opening colloquy of the Witches in Macbeth, strikes the eerie keynote, but does nothing more. Then, in the second scene, we learn that there has been a great battle and that a nobleman named Macbeth has won a victory which covers him with laurels. This can in no sense be called an exposition. It is the account of a single event, not of a sequence; and that event is contemporary, not antecedent. In the third scene, the meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches, we have what may be called an exposition reversed; not a narrative of the past, but a foreshadowing of the future. Here we touch on one of the subtlest of the playwright's problems—the art of arousing anticipation in just the right measure. But that is not the matter at present in hand.
In the opening scene of Othello it is true that some talk passes between Iago and Roderigo before they raise the alarm and awaken Brabantio; but it is carefully non-expository talk; it expounds nothing but Iago's character. Far from being a real exception to the rule that Shakespeare liked to open his tragedies with a very crisply dramatic episode, Othello may rather be called its most conspicuous example. The rousing of Brabantio is immediately followed by the encounter between his men and Othello's, which so finely brings out the lofty character of the Moor; and only in the third scene, that of the Doge's Council, do we pass from shouts and swords to quiet discussion and, in a sense, exposition. Othello's great speech, while a vital portion of the drama, is in so far an exposition that it refers to events which do not come absolutely within the frame of the picture. But they are very recent, very simple, events. If Othello's speech were omitted, or cut down to half a dozen lines, we should know much less of his character and Desdemona's, but the mere action of the play would remain perfectly comprehensible.
King Lear necessarily opens with a great act of state, the partition of the kingdom. A few words between Kent and Gloucester show us what is afoot, and then, at one plunge, we are in the thick of the drama. There was no opportunity here for one of those picturesque tableaux, exciting rather than informative, which initiate the other tragedies. It would have had to be artificially dragged in; and it was the less necessary, as the partition scene took on, in a very few lines, just that arresting, stimulating quality which the poet seems to have desired in the opening of a play of this class.
Finally, when we turn to Hamlet, we find a consummate example of the crisply-touched opening tableau, making a nervous rather than an intellectual appeal, informing us of nothing, but exciting a vivid, though quite vague, anticipation. The silent transit of the Ghost, desiring to speak, yet tongue-tied, is certainly one of Shakespeare's unrivalled masterpieces of dramatic craftsmanship. One could pretty safely wager that if the Ur-Hamlet, on which Shakespeare worked, were to come to light to-morrow, this particular trait would not be found in it. But, oddly enough, into the middle of this admirable opening tableau, Shakespeare inserts a formal exposition, introduced in the most conventional way. Marcellus, for some unexplained reason, is ignorant of what is evidently common knowledge as to the affairs of the realm, and asks to be informed; whereupon Horatio, in a speech of some twenty-five lines, sets forth the past relations between Norway and Denmark, and prepares us for the appearance of Fortinbras in the fourth act. In modern stage versions all this falls away, and nobody who has not studied the printed text is conscious of its absence. The commentators, indeed, have proved that Fortinbras is an immensely valuable element in the moral scheme of the play; but from the point of view of pure drama, there is not the slightest necessity for this Norwegian-Danish embroilment or its consequences. The real exposition—for Hamlet differs from the other tragedies in requiring an exposition—comes in the great speech of the Ghost in Scene V. The contrast between this speech and Horatio's lecture in the first scene, exemplifies the difference between a dramatized and an undramatized exposition. The crisis, as we now learn, began months or years before the rise of the curtain. It began when Claudius inveigled the affections of Gertrude; and it would have been possible for the poet to have started from this point, and shown us in action all that he in fact conveys to us by way of narration. His reason for choosing the latter course is abundantly obvious. Hamlet the Younger was to be the protagonist: the interest of the play was to centre in his mental processes. To have awakened our interest in Hamlet the Elder would, therefore, have been a superfluity and an irrelevance. Moreover (to say nothing of the fact that the Ghost was doubtless a popular figure in the old play, and demanded by the public) it was highly desirable that Hamlet's knowledge of the usurper's crime should come to him from a supernatural witness, who could not be cross-questioned or called upon to give material proof. This was the readiest as well as the most picturesque method of begetting in him that condition of doubt, real or affected, which was necessary to account for his behaviour. But to have shown us in action the matter of the Ghost's revelation would have been hopelessly to ruin its effect. A repetition in narrative of matters already seen in action is the grossest of technical blunders. Hamlet senior, in other words, being indispensable in the spirit, was superfluous in the flesh. But there was another and equally cogent reason for beginning the play after the commission of the initial crime or crimes. To have done otherwise would have been to discount, not only the Ghost, but the play-scene. By a piece of consummate ingenuity, which may, of course, have been conceived by the earlier playwright, the initial incidents of the story are in fact presented to us, in the guise of a play within the play, and as a means to the achievement of one of the greatest dramatic effects in all literature. The moment the idea of the play-scene presented itself to the author's mind, it became absolutely unthinkable that he should, to put it vulgarly, "queer the pitch" for the Players by showing us the real facts of which their performance was to be the counterfeit presentment. The dramatic effect of the incidents was incalculably heightened when they were presented, as in a looking-glass, before the guilty pair, with the eye of the avenger boring into their souls. And have we not here, perhaps, a clue to one of the most frequent and essential meanings of the word "dramatic"? May we not say that the dramatic quality of an incident is proportionate to the variety and intensity of the emotions involved in it?
All this may appear too obvious to be worth setting forth at such length. Very likely it never occurred to Shakespeare that it was possible to open the play at an earlier point; so that he can hardly be said to have exercised a deliberate choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the very obviousness of the considerations involved makes this a good example of the importance of discovering just the right point at which to raise the curtain. In the case of The Tempest, Shakespeare plunged into the middle of the crisis because his object was to produce a philosophico-dramatic entertainment rather than a play in the strict sense of the word. He wanted room for the enchantments of Ariel, the brutishnesses of Caliban, the humours of Stephano and Trinculo—all elements extrinsic to the actual story. But in Hamlet he adopted a similar course for purely dramatic reasons—in order to concentrate his effects and present the dramatic elements of his theme at their highest potency.
In sum, then, it was Shakespeare's usual practice, histories apart, to bring the whole action of his plays within the frame of the picture, leaving little or nothing to narrative exposition. The two notable exceptions to this rule are those we have just examined—Hamlet and The Tempest. Furthermore, he usually opened his comedies with quiet conversational passages, presenting the antecedents of the crisis with great deliberation. In his tragedies, on the other hand, he was apt to lead off with a crisp, somewhat startling passage of more or less vehement action, appealing rather to the nerves than to the intelligence—such a passage as Gustav Freytag, in his Technik des Dramas, happily entitles an einleitende Akkord, an introductory chord. It may be added that this rule holds good both for Coriolanus and for Julius Caesar, in which the keynote is briskly struck in highly animated scenes of commotion among the Roman populace.
Let us now look at the practice of Ibsen, which offers a sharp contrast to that of Shakespeare. To put it briefly, the plays in which Ibsen gets his whole action within the frame of the picture are as exceptional as those in which Shakespeare does not do so.
Ibsen's practice in this matter has been compared with that of the Greek dramatists, who also were apt to attack their crisis in the middle, or even towards the end, rather than at the beginning. It must not be forgotten, however, that there is one great difference between his position and theirs. They could almost always rely upon a general knowledge, on the part of the audience, of the theme with which they were dealing. The purpose even of the Euripidean prologue is not so much to state unknown facts, as to recall facts vaguely remembered, to state the particular version of a legend which the poet proposes to adopt, and to define the point in the development of the legend at which he is about to set his figures in motion. Ibsen, on the other hand, drew upon no storehouse of tradition. He had to convey to his audience everything that he wanted them to know; and this was often a long and complex series of facts.
The earliest play in which Ibsen can be said to show maturity of craftsmanship is The Vikings at Helgeland. It is curious to note that both in The Vikings and in The Pretenders, two plays which are in some measure comparable with Shakespearean tragedies, he opens with a firmly-touched einleitende Akkord. In The Vikings, Ornulf and his sons encounter and fight with Sigurd and his men, very much after the fashion of the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. In The Pretenders the rival factions of Haakon and Skule stand outside the cathedral of Bergen, intently awaiting the result of the ordeal which is proceeding within; and though they do not there and then come to blows, the air is electrical with their conflicting ambitions and passions. His modern plays, on the other hand, Ibsen opens quietly enough, though usually with some more or less arresting little incident, calculated to arouse immediate curiosity. One may cite as characteristic examples the hurried colloquy between Engstrand and Regina in Ghosts; Rebecca and Madam Helseth in Rosmersholm, watching to see whether Rosmer will cross the mill-race; and in The Master Builder, old Brovik's querulous outburst, immediately followed by the entrance of Solness and his mysterious behaviour towards Kaia. The opening of Hedda Gabler, with its long conversation between Miss Tesman and the servant Bertha, comes as near as Ibsen ever did to the conventional exposition of the French stage, conducted by a footman and a parlour-maid engaged in dusting the furniture. On the other hand, there never was a more masterly opening, in its sheer simplicity, than Nora's entrance in A Doll's House, and the little silent scene that precedes the appearance of Helmer.
Regarding The Vikings as Ibsen's first mature production, and surveying the whole series of his subsequent works in which he had stage presentation directly in view, we find that in only two out of the fifteen plays does the whole action come within the frame of the picture. These two are The League of Youth and An Enemy of the People. In neither of these have any antecedents to be stated; neither turns upon any disclosure of bygone events or emotions. We are, indeed, afforded brief glimpses into the past both of Stensgaard and of Stockmann; but the glimpses are incidental and inessential. It is certainly no mere coincidence that if one were asked to pick out the pieces of thinnest texture in all Ibsen's mature work, one would certainly select these two plays. Far be it from me to disparage An Enemy of the People; as a work of art it is incomparably greater than such a piece as Pillars of Society; but it is not so richly woven, not, as it were, so deep in pile. Written in half the time Ibsen usually devoted to a play, it is an outburst of humorous indignation, a jeu d'esprit, one might almost say, though the jeu of a giant esprit.
Observing the effect of comparative tenuity in these two plays, we cannot but surmise that the secret of the depth and richness of texture so characteristic of Ibsen's work, lay in his art of closely interweaving a drama of the present with a drama of the past. An Enemy of the People is a straightforward, spirited melody; The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm are subtly and intricately harmonized.
Going a little more into detail, we find in Ibsen's work an extraordinary progress in the art of so unfolding the drama of the past as to make the gradual revelation no mere preface or prologue to the drama of the present, but an integral part of its action. It is true that in The Vikings he already showed himself a master in this art. The great revelation—the disclosure of the fact that Sigurd, not Gunnar, did the deed of prowess which Hioerdis demanded of the man who should be her mate—this crucial revelation is brought about in a scene of the utmost dramatic intensity. The whole drama of the past, indeed—both its facts and its emotions—may be said to be dragged to light in the very stress and pressure of the drama of the present. Not a single detail of it is narrated in cold blood, as, for example, Prospero relates to Miranda the story of their marooning, or Horatio expounds the Norwegian-Danish political situation. I am not holding up The Vikings as a great masterpiece; it has many weaknesses both of substance and of method; but in this particular art of indistinguishably blending the drama of the present with the drama of the past, it is already consummate. The Pretenders scarcely comes into the comparison. It is Ibsen's one chronicle-play; and, like Shakespeare, he did not shrink from employing a good deal of narrative, though his narratives, it must be said, are always introduced under such circumstances as to make them a vital part of the drama. It is when we come to the modern plays that we find the poet falling back upon conventional and somewhat clumsy methods of exposition, which he only by degrees, though by rapid degrees, unlearns.
The League of Youth, as we have seen, requires no exposition. All we have to learn is the existing relations of the characters, which appear quite naturally as the action proceeds. But let us look at Pillars of Society. Here we have to be placed in possession of a whole antecedent drama: the intrigue of Karsten Bernick with Dina Dorf's mother, the threatened scandal, Johan Toennesen's vicarious acceptance of Bernick's responsibility, the subsidiary scandal of Lona Hessel's outburst on learning of Bernick's engagement to her half-sister, the report of an embezzlement committed by Johan before his departure for America. All this has to be conveyed to us in retrospect; or, rather, in the first place, we have to be informed of the false version of these incidents which is current in the little town, and on which Bernick's moral and commercial prestige is built up. What device, then, does Ibsen adopt to this end? He introduces a "sewing-bee" of tattling women, one of whom happens to be a stranger to the town, and unfamiliar with its gossip. Into her willing ear the others pour the popular version of the Bernick story; and, this impartment effected, the group of gossips disappears, to be heard of no more. These ladies perform the function, in fact, of the First, Second, and Third Gentlemen, so common in Elizabethan and pseudo-Elizabethan plays. They are not quite so artless in their conventionality, for they bring with them the social atmosphere of the tattling little town, which is an essential factor in the drama. Moreover, their exposition is not a simple narrative of facts. It is to some extent subtilized by the circumstance that the facts are not facts, and that the gist of the drama is to lie in the gradual triumph of the truth over this tissue of falsehoods. Still, explain it as we may, the fact remains that in no later play does Ibsen initiate us into the preliminaries of his action by so hackneyed and unwieldy a device. It is no conventional canon, but a maxim of mere common sense, that the dramatist should be chary of introducing characters who have no personal share in the drama, and are mere mouthpieces for the conveyance of information. Nowhere else does Ibsen so flagrantly disregard so obvious a principle of dramatic economy.
When we turn to his next play, A Doll's House, we find that he has already made a great step in advance. He has progressed from the First, Second, and Third Gentlemen of the Elizabethans to the confidant of the French classic drama. He even attempts, not very successfully, to disguise the confidant by giving her a personal interest, an effective share, in the drama. Nothing can really dissemble the fact that the long scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden, which occupies almost one-third of the first act, is simply a formal exposition, outside the action of the play. Just as it was providential that one of the house-wives of the sewing-bee in Pillars of Society should have been a stranger to the town, so it was the luckiest of chances (for the dramatist's convenience) that an old school-friend should have dropped in from the clouds precisely half-an-hour before the entrance of Krogstad brings to a sudden head the great crisis of Nora's life. This happy conjuncture of events is manifestly artificial: a trick of the dramatist's trade: a point at which his art does not conceal his art. Mrs. Linden does not, like the dames of the sewing-bee, fade out of the saga; she even, through her influence on Krogstad, plays a determining part in the development of the action. But to all intents and purposes she remains a mere confidant, a pretext for Nora's review of the history of her married life. There are two other specimens of the genus confidant in Ibsen's later plays. Arnholm, in The Lady from the Sea, is little more; Dr. Herdal, in The Master Builder, is that and nothing else. It may be alleged in his defence that the family physician is the professional confidant of real life.
In Ghosts, Ibsen makes a sudden leap to the extreme of his retrospective method. I am not one of those who consider this play Ibsen's masterpiece: I do not even place it, technically, in the first rank among his works. And why? Because there is here no reasonable equilibrium between the drama of the past and the drama of the present. The drama of the past is almost everything, the drama of the present next to nothing. As soon as we have probed to the depths the Alving marriage and its consequences, the play is over, and there is nothing left but for Regina to set off in pursuit of the joy of life, and for Oswald to collapse into imbecility. It is scarcely an exaggeration to call the play all exposition and no drama. Here for the first time, however, Ibsen perfected his peculiar gift of imparting tense dramatic interest to the unveiling of the past. While in one sense the play is all exposition, in another sense it may quite as truly be said to contain no exposition; for it contains no narrative delivered in cold blood, in mere calm retrospection, as a necessary preliminary to the drama which is in the meantime waiting at the door. In other words, the exposition is all drama, it is the drama. The persons who are tearing the veils from the past, and for whom the veils are being torn, are intensely concerned in the process, which actually constitutes the dramatic crisis. The discovery of this method, or its rediscovery in modern drama, was Ibsen's great technical achievement. In his best work, the progress of the unveiling occasions a marked development, or series of changes, in the actual and present relations of the characters. The drama of the past and the drama of the present proceed, so to speak, in interlacing rhythms, or, as I said before, in a rich, complex harmony. In Ghosts this harmony is not so rich as in some later plays, because the drama of the present is disproportionately meagre. None the less, or all the more, is it a conspicuous example of Ibsen's method of raising his curtain, not at the beginning of the crisis, but rather at the beginning of the catastrophe.
In An Enemy of the People, as already stated, he momentarily deserted that method, and gave us an action which begins, develops, and ends entirely within the frame of the picture. But in the two following plays, The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm, he touched the highest point of technical mastery in his interweaving of the past with the present. I shall not attempt any analysis of the fabric of these plays. The process would be long, tedious, and unhelpful; for no one could hope to employ a method of such complexity without something of Ibsen's genius; and genius will evolve its methods for itself. Let me only ask the reader to compare the scene between old Werle and Gregers in the first act of The Wild Duck with the scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden in the first act of A Doll's House, and mark the technical advance. Both scenes are, in a sense, scenes of exposition. Both are mainly designed to place us in possession of a sequence of bygone facts. But while the Doll's House scene is a piece of quiet gossip, brought about (as we have noted) by rather artificial means, and with no dramatic tension in it, the Wild Duck scene is a piece of tense, one might almost say fierce, drama, fulfilling the Brunetiere definition in that it shows us two characters, a father and son, at open war with each other. The one scene is outside the real action, the other is an integral part of it. The one belongs to Ibsen's tentative period, the other ushers in, one might almost say, his period of consummate mastery.
Rosmersholm is so obviously nothing but the catastrophe of an antecedent drama that an attempt has actually been made to rectify Ibsen's supposed mistake, and to write the tragedy of the deceased Beata. It was made by an unskilful hand; but even a skilful hand would scarcely have done more than prove how rightly Ibsen judged that the recoil of Rebecca's crime upon herself and Rosmer would prove more interesting, and in a very real sense more dramatic, than the somewhat vulgar process of the crime itself. The play is not so profound in its humanity as The Wild Duck, but it is Ibsen's masterpiece in the art of withdrawing veil after veil. From the technical point of view, it will repay the closest study.
We need not look closely at the remaining plays. Hedda Gabler is perhaps that in which a sound proportion between the past and the present is most successfully preserved. The interest of the present action is throughout very vivid; but it is all rooted in facts and relations of the past, which are elicited under circumstances of high dramatic tension. Here again it is instructive to compare the scene between Hedda and Thea, in the first act, with the scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden. Both are scenes of exposition: and each is, in its way, character-revealing; but the earlier scene is a passage of quite unemotional narrative; the later is a passage of palpitating drama. In the plays subsequent to Hedda Gabler, it cannot be denied that the past took the upper hand of the present to a degree which could only be justified by the genius of an Ibsen. Three-fourths of the action of The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken, consists of what may be called a passionate analysis of the past. Ibsen had the art of making such an analysis absorbingly interesting; but it is not a formula to be commended for the practical purposes of the everyday stage.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: Writing of Le Supplice d'une Femme, Alexandre Dumas fils said: "This situation I declare to be one of the most dramatic and interesting in all drama. But a situation is not an idea. An idea, has a beginning, a middle and an end: an exposition, a development, a conclusion. Any one can relate a dramatic situation: the art lies in preparing it, getting it accepted, rendering it possible, especially in untying the knot."]
[Footnote 2: This is what we regard as peculiarly the method of Ibsen. There is, however, this essential difference, that, instead of narrating his preliminaries in cold blood, Ibsen, in his best work, dramatizes the narration.]
[Footnote 3: See Chapter XII.]
[Footnote 4: This must not be taken to imply that, in a good stage-version of the play, Fortinbras should be altogether omitted. Mr. Forbes Robertson, in his Lyceum revival of 1897, found several advantages in his retention. Among the rest, it permitted the retention of one of Hamlet's most characteristic soliloquies.]
[Footnote 5: I omit all speculation as to the form which the story assumed in the Ur-Hamlet. We have no evidence on the point; and, as the poet was no doubt free to remodel the material as he thought fit, even in following his original he was making a deliberate artistic choice.]
[Footnote 6: Shakespeare committed it in Romeo and Juliet, where he made Friar Laurence, in the concluding scene, retell the whole story of the tragedy. Even in so early a play, such a manifest redundancy seems unaccountable. A narrative of things already seen may, of course, be a trait of character in the person delivering it; but, in that case, it will generally be mendacious (for instance, Falstaff and the men in buckram). Or it may be introduced for the sake of its effect upon the characters to whom the narration is addressed. But in these cases its purpose is no longer to convey information to the audience—it belongs, not to the "intelligence department," but to the department of analysis.]
[Footnote 7: I say "variety" rather than complexity because I take it that the emotions of all concerned are here too intense to be very complex. The effect of the scene would appear to lie in the rapidly increasing intensity of comparatively simple emotions in Hamlet, in the King, in the Queen, and in the amazed and bewildered courtiers.]
[Footnote 8: This excludes Love's Comedy, Brand, Peer Gynt, and Emperor and Galilean.]
[Footnote 9: See, for example, King Henry VIII, Act IV, and the opening scene of Tennyson's Queen Mary.]
[Footnote 10: This rule of economy does not necessarily exclude a group of characters performing something like the function of the antique Chorus; that is to say, commenting upon the action from a more or less disinterested point of view. The function of Kaffee-Klatsch in Pillars of Society is not at all that of the Chorus, but rather that of the Euripidean Prologue, somewhat thinly disguised.]
[Footnote 11: It is perhaps worth nothing that Gabriele d'Annunzio in La Gioconda, reverts to, and outdoes, the French classic convention, by giving us three actors and four confidants. The play consists of a crisis in three lives, passively, though sympathetically, contemplated by what is in effect a Chorus of two men and two women. It would be interesting to inquire why, in this particular play, such an abuse of the confidant seems quite admissible, if not conspicuously right.]
[Footnote 12: Dryden, in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, represents this method as being characteristic of Greek tragedy as a whole. The tragic poet, he says, "set the audience, as it were, at the post where the race is to be concluded; and, saving them the tedious expectation of seeing the poet set out and ride the beginning of the course, they suffer you not to behold him, till he is in sight of the goal and just upon you." Dryden seems to think that the method was forced upon them by "the rule of time."]
[Footnote 13: It is a rash enterprise to reconstruct Ibsen, but one cannot help wondering how he would have planned A Doll's House had he written it in the 'eighties instead of the 'seventies. One can imagine a long opening scene between Helmer and Nora in which a great deal of the necessary information might have been conveyed; while it would have heightened by contrast the effect of the great final duologue as we now possess it. Such information as could not possibly have been conveyed in dialogue with Helmer might, one would think, have been left for Nora's first scene with Krogstad, the effect of which it would have enhanced. Perhaps Mrs. Linden might with advantage have been retained, though not in her present character of confidant, in order to show Nora in relation to another woman.]
EXPOSITION: ITS END AND ITS MEANS
We have passed in rapid survey the practices of Shakespeare and Ibsen in respect of their point and method of attack upon their themes. What practical lessons can we now deduce from this examination?
One thing is clear: namely, that there is no inherent superiority in one method over another. There are masterpieces in which the whole crisis falls within the frame of the picture, and masterpieces in which the greater part of the crisis has to be conveyed to us in retrospect, only the catastrophe being transacted before our eyes. Genius can manifest itself equally in either form.
But each form has its peculiar advantages. You cannot, in a retrospective play like Rosmersholm, attain anything like the magnificent onward rush of Othello, which moves—
"Like to the Pontick sea Whose icy current and compulsive course Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on To the Propontick and the Hellespont."
The movement of Rosmersholm is rather like that of a winding river, which flows with a full and steady current, but seems sometimes to be almost retracing its course. If, then, you aim at rapidity of movement, you will choose a theme which leaves little or nothing to retrospect; and conversely, if you have a theme the whole of which falls easily and conveniently within the frame of the picture, you will probably take advantage of the fact to give your play animated and rapid movement.
There is an undeniable attraction in a play which constitutes, so to speak, one brisk and continuous adventure, begun, developed, and ended before our eyes. For light comedy in particular is this a desirable form, and for romantic plays in which no very searching character-study is attempted. The Taming of the Shrew no doubt passed for a light comedy in Shakespeare's day, though we describe it by a briefer name. Its rapid, bustling action is possible because we are always ready to take the character of a shrew for granted. It would have been a very different play had the poet required to account for Katharine's peculiarities of temper by a retrospective study of her heredity and upbringing. Many eighteenth-century comedies are single-adventure plays, or dual-adventure plays, in the sense that the main action sometimes stands aside to let an underplot take the stage. Both She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals are good examples of the rapid working-out of an intrigue, engendered, developed, and resolved all within the frame of the picture. Single-adventure plays of a more modern type are the elder Dumas's Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle, the younger Dumas's Francillon, Sardou's Divorcons, Sir Arthur Pinero's Gay Lord Quex, Mr. Shaw's Devil's Disciple, Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, Mr. Galsworthy's Silver Box. Widely as these plays differ in type and tone, they are alike in this, that they do not attempt to present very complex character-studies, or to probe the deeps of human experience. The last play cited, The Silver Box, may perhaps be thought an exception to this rule; but, though the experience of the hapless charwoman is pitiful enough, hers is a simple soul, so inured to suffering that a little more or less is no such great matter. The play is an admirable genre-picture rather than a searching tragedy.
The point to be observed is that, under modern conditions, it is difficult to produce a play of very complex psychological, moral, or emotional substance, in which the whole crisis comes within the frame of the picture. The method of attacking the crisis in the middle or towards the end is really a device for relaxing, in some measure, the narrow bounds of theatrical representation, and enabling the playwright to deal with a larger segment of human experience. It may be asked why modern conditions should in this respect differ from Elizabethan conditions, and why, if Shakespeare could produce such profound and complex tragedies as Othello and King Lear without a word of exposition or retrospect, the modern dramatist should not go and do likewise? The answer to this question is not simply that the modern dramatist is seldom a Shakespeare. That is true, but we must look deeper than that. There are, in fact, several points to be taken into consideration. For one thing—this is a minor point—Shakespeare had really far more elbow-room than the playwright of to-day. Othello and King Lear, to say nothing of Hamlet, are exceedingly long plays. Something like a third of them is omitted in modern representation; and when we speak of their richness and complexity of characterization, we do not think simply of the plays as we see them compressed into acting limits, but of the plays as we know them in the study. It is possible, no doubt, for modern playwrights to let themselves go in the matter of length, and then print their plays with brackets or other marks to show the "passages omitted in representation." This is, however, essentially an inartistic practice, and one cannot regret that it has gone out of fashion. Another point to be considered is this: are Othello and Lear really very complex character-studies? They are extremely vivid: they are projected with enormous energy, in actions whose violence affords scope for the most vehement self-expression; but are they not, in reality, colossally simple rather than complex? It is true that in Lear the phenomena of insanity are reproduced with astonishing minuteness and truth; but this does not imply any elaborate analysis or demand any great space. Hamlet is complex; and were I "talking for victory," I should point out that Hamlet is, of all the tragedies, precisely the one which does not come within the frame of the picture. But the true secret of the matter does not lie here: it lies in the fact that Hamlet unpacks his heart to us in a series of soliloquies—a device employed scarcely at all in the portrayal of Othello and Lear, and denied to the modern dramatist. Yet again, the social position and environment of the great Shakespearean characters is taken for granted. No time is spent in "placing" them in a given stratum of society, or in establishing their heredity, traditions, education, and so forth. And, finally, the very copiousness of expression permitted by the rhetorical Elizabethan form came to Shakespeare's aid. The modern dramatist is hampered by all sorts of reticences. He has often to work rather in indirect suggestion than in direct expression. He has, in short, to submit to a hundred hampering conditions from which Shakespeare was exempt; wherefore, even if he had Shakespeare's genius, he would find it difficult to produce a very profound effect in a crisis worked out from first to last before the eyes of the audience.
Nevertheless, as before stated, such a crisis has a charm of its own. There is a peculiar interest in watching the rise and development out of nothing, as it were, of a dramatic complication. For this class of play (despite the Shakespearean precedents) a quiet opening is often advisable, rather than a strong einleitende Akkord. "From calm, through storm, to calm," is its characteristic formula; whether the concluding calm be one of life and serenity or of despair and death. To my personal taste, one of the keenest forms of theatrical enjoyment is that of seeing the curtain go up on a picture of perfect tranquillity, wondering from what quarter the drama is going to arise, and then watching it gather on the horizon like a cloud no bigger than a man's hand. Of this type of opening, An Enemy of the People provides us with a classic example; and among English plays we may cite Mr. Shaw's Candida, Mr. Barker's Waste, and Mr. Besier's Don, in which so sudden and unlooked-for a cyclone swoops down upon the calm of an English vicarage. An admirable instance of a fantastic type may be found in Prunella, by Messrs. Barker and Housman.
There is much to be said, however, in favour of the opening which does not present an aspect of delusive calm, but shows the atmosphere already charged with electricity. Compare, for instance, the opening of The Case of Rebellious Susan, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, with that of a French play of very similar theme—Dumas's Francillon. In the latter, we see the storm-cloud slowly gathering up on the horizon; in the former, it is already on the point of breaking, right overhead. Mr. Jones places us at the beginning, where Dumas leaves us at the end, of his first act. It is true that at the end of Mr. Jones's act he has not advanced any further than Dumas. The French author shows his heroine gradually working up to a nervous crisis, the English author introduces his heroine already at the height of her paroxysm, and the act consists of the unavailing efforts of her friends to smooth her down. The upshot is the same; but in Mr. Jones's act we are, as the French say, "in full drama" all the time, while in Dumas's we await the coming of the drama, and only by exerting all his wit, not to say over-exerting it, does he prevent our feeling impatient. I am not claiming superiority for either method; I merely point to a good example of two different ways of attacking the same problem.
In The Benefit of the Doubt, by Sir Arthur Pinero, we have a crisply dramatic opening of the very best type. A few words from a contemporary criticism may serve to indicate the effect it produced on a first-night audience—
We are in the thick of the action at once, or at least in the thick of the interest, so that the exposition, instead of being, so to speak, a mere platform from which the train is presently to start, becomes an inseparable part of the movement. The sense of dramatic irony is strongly and yet delicately suggested. We foresee a "peripety," apparent prosperity suddenly crumbling into disaster, within the act itself; and, when it comes, it awakens our sympathy and redoubles our interest.
Almost the same words might be applied to the opening of The Climbers, by the late Clyde Fitch, one of the many individual scenes which make one deeply regret that Mr. Fitch did not live to do full justice to his remarkable talent.
One of the ablest of recent openings is that of Mr. Galsworthy's Silver Box. The curtain rises upon a solid, dull, upper-middle-class dining-room, empty and silent, the electric lights burning, the tray with whiskey, siphon and cigarette-box marking the midnight hour. Then we have the stumbling, fumbling entrance of Jack Barthwick, beatifically drunk, his maudlin babble, and his ill-omened hospitality to the haggard loafer who follows at his heels. Another example of a high-pitched opening scene may be found in Mr. Perceval Landon's The House Opposite. Here we have a midnight parting between a married woman and her lover, in the middle of which the man, glancing at the lighted window of the house opposite, sees a figure moving in such a way as to suggest that a crime is being perpetrated. As a matter of fact, an old man is murdered, and his housekeeper is accused of the crime. The hero, if so he can be called, knows that it was a man, not a woman, who was in the victim's room that night; and the problem is: how can he give his evidence without betraying a woman's secret by admitting his presence in her house at midnight? I neither praise nor blame this class of story; I merely cite the play as one in which we plunge straight into the crisis, without any introductory period of tranquillity.
The interest of Mr. Landon's play lay almost wholly in the story. There was just enough character in it to keep the story going, so to speak. The author might, on the other hand, have concentrated our attention on character, and made his play a soul-tragedy; but in that case it would doubtless have been necessary to take us some way backward in the heroine's antecedents and the history of her marriage. In other words, if the play had gone deeper into human nature, the preliminaries of the crisis would have had to be traced in some detail, possibly in a first act, introductory to the actual opening, but more probably, and better, in an exposition following the crisply touched einleitende Akkord. This brings us to the question how an exposition may best be managed.
It may not unreasonably be contended, I think, that, when an exposition cannot be thoroughly dramatized—that is, wrung out, in the stress of the action, from the characters primarily concerned—it may best be dismissed, rapidly and even conventionally, by any not too improbable device. That is the principle on which Sir Arthur Pinero has always proceeded, and for which he has been unduly censured, by critics who make no allowances for the narrow limits imposed by custom and the constitution of the modern audience upon the playwrights of to-day. In His House in Order (one of his greatest plays) Sir Arthur effects part of his exposition by the simple device of making Hilary Jesson a candidate for Parliament, and bringing on a reporter to interview his private secretary. The incident is perfectly natural and probable; all one can say of it is that it is perhaps an over-simplification of the dramatist's task. The Second Mrs. Tanqueray requires an unusual amount of preliminary retrospect. We have to learn the history of Aubrey Tanqueray's first marriage, with the mother of Ellean, as well as the history of Paula Ray's past life. The mechanism employed to this end has been much criticized, but seems to me admirable. Aubrey gives a farewell dinner-party to his intimate friends, Misquith and Jayne. Cayley Drummle, too, is expected, but has not arrived when the play opens. Without naming the lady, Aubrey announces to his guests his approaching marriage. He proposes to go out with them, and has one or two notes to write before doing so. Moreover, he is not sorry to give them an opportunity to talk over the announcement he has made; so he retires to a side-table in the same room, to do his writing. Misquith and Jayne exchange a few speeches in an undertone, and then Cayley Drummle comes in, bringing the story of George Orreyd's marriage to the unmentionable Miss Hervey. This story is so unpleasant to Tanqueray that, to get out of the conversation, he returns to his writing; but still he cannot help listening to Cayley's comments on George Orreyd's "disappearance"; and at last the situation becomes so intolerable to him that he purposely leaves the room, bidding the other two "Tell Cayley the news." The technical manipulation of all this seems to me above reproach —dramatically effective and yet life-like in every detail. If one were bound to raise an objection, it would be to the coincidence which brings to Cayley's knowledge, on one and the same evening, two such exactly similar misalliances in his own circle of acquaintance. But these are just the coincidences that do constantly happen. Every one knows that life is full of them.
The exposition might, no doubt, have been more economically effected. Cayley Drummle might have figured as sole confidant and chorus; or even he might have been dispensed with, and all that was necessary might have appeared in colloquies between Aubrey and Paula on the one hand, Aubrey and Ellean on the other. But Cayley as sole confidant—the "Charles, his friend," of eighteenth-century comedy—would have been more plainly conventional than Cayley as one of a trio of Aubrey's old cronies, representing the society he is sacrificing in entering upon this experimental marriage; and to have conveyed the necessary information without any confidant or chorus at all would (one fancies) have strained probability, or, still worse, impaired consistency of character. Aubrey could not naturally discuss his late wife either with her successor or with her daughter; while, as for Paula's past, all he wanted was to avert his eyes from it. I do not say that these difficulties might not have been overcome; for, in the vocabulary of the truly ingenious dramatist there is no such word as impossible. But I do suggest that the result would scarcely have been worth the trouble, and that it is hyper-criticism which objects to an exposition so natural and probable as that of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, simply on the ground that certain characters are introduced for the purpose of conveying certain information. It would be foolish to expect of every work of art an absolutely austere economy of means.
Sometimes, however, Sir Arthur Pinero injudiciously emphasizes the artifices employed to bring about an exposition. In The Thunderbolt, for instance, in order that the Mortimores' family solicitor may without reproach ask for information on matters with which a family solicitor ought to be fully conversant, it has to be explained that the senior partner of the firm, who had the Mortimore business specially in hand, has been called away to London, and that a junior partner has taken his place. Such a rubbing-in, as it were, of an obvious device ought at all hazards to be avoided. If the information cannot be otherwise imparted (as in this case it surely could), the solicitor had better be allowed to ask one or two improbable questions—it is the lesser evil of the two.
When the whole of a given subject cannot be got within the limits of presentation, is there any means of determining how much should be left for retrospect, and at what point the curtain ought to be raised? The principle would seem to be that slow and gradual processes, and especially separate lines of causation, should be left outside the frame of the picture, and that the curtain should be raised at the point where separate lines have converged, and where the crisis begins to move towards its solution with more or less rapidity and continuity. The ideas of rapidity and continuity may be conveniently summed up in the hackneyed and often misapplied term, unity of action. Though the unities of time and place are long ago exploded as binding principles—indeed, they never had any authority in English drama—yet it is true that a broken-backed action, whether in time or space, ought, so far as possible, to be avoided. An action with a gap of twenty years in it may be all very well in melodrama or romance, but scarcely in higher and more serious types of drama. Especially is it to be desired that interest should be concentrated on one set of characters, and should not be frittered away on subsidiary or preliminary personages. Take, for instance, the case of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. It would have been theoretically possible for Sir Arthur Pinero to have given us either (or both) of two preliminary scenes: he might have shown us the first Mrs. Tanqueray at home, and at the same time have introduced us more at large to the characters of Aubrey and Ellean; or he might have depicted for us one of the previous associations of Paula Ray—might perhaps have let us see her "keeping house" with Hugh Ardale. But either of these openings would have been disproportionate and superfluous. It would have excited, or tried to excite, our interest in something that was not the real theme of the play, and in characters which were to drop out before the real theme—the Aubrey-Paula marriage—was reached. Therefore the author, in all probability, never thought of beginning at either of these points. He passed instinctively to the point at which the two lines of causation converged, and from which the action could be carried continuously forward by one set of characters. He knew that we could learn in retrospect all that it was necessary for us to know of the first Mrs. Tanqueray, and that to introduce her in the flesh would be merely to lead the interest of the audience into a blind alley, and to break the back of his action. Again, in His House in Order it may seem that the intrigue between Maurewarde and the immaculate Annabel, with its tragic conclusion, would have made a stirring introductory act. But to have presented such an act would have been to destroy the unity of the play, which centres in the character of Nina. Annabel is "another story"; and to have told, or rather shown us, more of it than was absolutely necessary, would have been to distract our attention from the real theme of the play, while at the same time fatally curtailing the all-too-brief time available for the working-out of that theme. There are cases, no doubt, when verbal exposition may advantageously be avoided by means of a dramatized "Prologue"—a single act, constituting a little drama in itself, and generally separated by a considerable space of time from the action proper. But this method is scarcely to be commended, except, as aforesaid, for purposes of melodrama and romance. A "Prologue" is for such plays as The Prisoner of Zenda and The Only Way, not for such plays as His House in Order.