The question whether a legato or a staccato opening be the more desirable must be decided in accordance with the nature and opportunities of each theme. The only rule that can be stated is that, when the attention of the audience is required for an exposition of any length, some attempt ought to be made to awaken in advance their general interest in the theme and characters. It is dangerous to plunge straight into narrative, or unemotional discussion, without having first made the audience actively desire the information to be conveyed to them. Especially is it essential that the audience should know clearly who are the subjects of the discussion or narrative—that they should not be mere names to them. It is a grave flaw in the construction of Mr. Granville Barker's otherwise admirable play Waste, that it should open with a long discussion, by people whom we scarcely know, of other people whom we do not know at all, whose names we may or may not have noted on the playbill.
Trebell, Lord Charles Cantelupe, and Blackborough ought certainly to have been presented to us in the flesh, however briefly and summarily, before we were asked to interest ourselves in their characters and the political situation arising from them.
There is, however, one limitation to this principle. A great effect is sometimes attained by retarding the entrance of a single leading figure for a whole act, or even two, while he is so constantly talked about as to beget in the audience a vivid desire to make his personal acquaintance. Thus Moliere's Tartufe does not come on the stage until the third act of the comedy which bears his name. Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman is unseen until the second act, though (through his wife's ears) we have already heard him pacing up and down his room like a wolf in his cage. Dubedat, in The Doctor's Dilemma, is not revealed to us in the flesh until the second act. But for this device to be successful, it is essential that only one leading character should remain unseen, on whom the attention of the audience may, by that very fact, be riveted. In Waste, for instance, all would have been well had it suited Mr. Barker's purpose to leave Trebell invisible till the second act, while all the characters in the first act, clearly presented to us, canvassed him from their various points of view. Keen expectancy, in short, is the most desirable frame of mind in which an audience can be placed, so long as the expectancy be not ultimately disappointed. But there is no less desirable mental attitude than that of straining after gleams of guidance in an expository twilight.
The advantage of a staccato opening—or, to vary the metaphor, a brisk, highly aerated introductory passage—is clearly exemplified in A Doll's House. It would have been quite possible for Ibsen to have sent up his curtain upon Nora and Mrs. Linden seated comfortably before the stove, and exchanging confidences as to their respective careers. Nothing indispensable would have been omitted; but how languid would have been the interest of the audience! As it is, a brief, bright scene has already introduced us, not only to Nora, but to Helmer, and aroused an eager desire for further insight into the affairs of this—to all appearance—radiantly happy household. Therefore, we settle down without impatience to listen to the fireside gossip of the two old school-fellows.
The problem of how to open a play is complicated in the English theatre by considerations wholly foreign to art. Until quite recently, it used to be held impossible for a playwright to raise his curtain upon his leading character or characters, because the actor-manager would thus be baulked of his carefully arranged "entrance" and "reception," and, furthermore, because twenty-five per cent of the audience would probably arrive about a quarter of an hour late, and would thus miss the opening scene or scenes. It used at one time to be the fashion to add to the advertisement of a play an entreaty that the audience should be punctually in their seats, "as the interest began with the rise of the curtain." One has seen this assertion made with regard to plays in which, as a matter of fact, the interest had not begun at the fall of the curtain. Nowadays, managers, and even leading ladies, are a good deal less insistent on their "reception" than they used to be. They realize that it may be a distinct advantage to hold the stage from the very outset. There are few more effective openings than that of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, where we find Aubrey Tanqueray seated squarely at his bachelor dinner-table with Misquith on his right and Jayne on his left. It may even be taken as a principle that, where it is desired to give to one character a special prominence and predominance, it ought, if possible, to be the first figure on which the eye of the audience falls. In a Sherlock Holmes play, for example, the curtain ought assuredly to rise on the great Sherlock enthroned in Baker Street, with Dr. Watson sitting at his feet. The solitary entrance of Richard III throws his figure into a relief which could by no other means have been attained. So, too, it would have been a mistake on Sophocles' part to let any one but the protagonist open the Oedipus Rex.
So long as the fashion of late dinners continues, however, it must remain a measure of prudence to let nothing absolutely essential to the comprehension of a play be said or done during the first ten minutes after the rise of the curtain. Here, again, A Doll's House may be cited as a model, though Ibsen, certainly, had no thought of the British dinner-hour in planning the play. The opening scene is just what the ideal opening scene ought to be—invaluable, yet not indispensable. The late-comer who misses it deprives himself of a preliminary glimpse into the characters of Nora and Helmer and the relation between them; but he misses nothing that is absolutely essential to his comprehension of the play as a whole. This, then, would appear to be a sound maxim both of art and prudence: let your first ten minutes by all means be crisp, arresting, stimulating, but do not let them embody any absolutely vital matter, ignorance of which would leave the spectator in the dark as to the general design and purport of the play.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: See Chapter XXIII.]
[Footnote 2: Henri Becque's two best-known plays aptly exemplify the two types of opening. In Les Corbeaux we have almost an entire act of calm domesticity in which the only hint of coming trouble is an allusion to Vigneron's attacks of vertigo. In La Parisienne Clotilde and Lafont are in the thick of a vehement quarrel over a letter. It proceeds for ten minutes or so, at the end of which Clotilde says, "Prenez garde, voila mon mari!"—and we find that the two are not husband and wife, but wife and lover.]
[Footnote 3: Mrs. Craigie ("John Oliver Hobbes") opened her very successful play, The Ambassador, with a scene between Juliet Desborough and her sister Alice, a nun, who apparently left her convent specially to hear her sister's confession, and then returned to it for ever. This was certainly not an economical form of exposition, but it was not unsuited to the type of play.]
[Footnote 4: In that charming comedy, Rosemary, by Messrs. Parker and Carson, there is a gap of fifty years between the last act and its predecessor; but the so-called last act is only an "epi-monologue."]
[Footnote 5: Or at most two closely connected characters: for instance, a husband and wife.]
THE FIRST ACT
Both in the theory and in practice, of late years, war has been declared in certain quarters against the division of a play into acts. Students of the Elizabethan stage have persuaded themselves, by what I believe to be a complete misreading of the evidence, that Shakespeare did not, as it were, "think in acts," but conceived his plays as continuous series of events, without any pause or intermission in their flow. It can, I think, be proved beyond any shadow of doubt that they are wrong in this; that the act division was perfectly familiar to Shakespeare, and was used by him to give to the action of his plays a rhythm which ought not, in representation, to be obscured or falsified. It is true that in the Elizabethan theatre there was no need of long interacts for the change of scenes, and that such interacts are an abuse that calls for remedy. But we have abundant evidence that the act division was sometimes marked on the Elizabethan stage, and have no reason to doubt that it was always more or less recognized, and was present to Shakespeare's mind no less than to Ibsen's or Pinero's.
Influenced in part, perhaps, by the Elizabethan theorists, but mainly by the freakishness of his own genius, Mr. Bernard Shaw has taken to writing plays in one continuous gush of dialogue, and has put forward, more or less seriously, the claim that he is thereby reviving the practice of the Greeks. In a prefatory note to Getting Married, he says—
"There is a point of some technical interest to be noted in this play. The customary division into acts and scenes has been disused, and a return made to unity of time and place, as observed in the ancient Greek drama. In the foregoing tragedy, The Doctor's Dilemma, there are five acts; the place is altered five times; and the time is spread over an undetermined period of more than a year. No doubt the strain on the attention of the audience and on the ingenuity of the playwright is much less; but I find in practice that the Greek form is inevitable when the drama reaches a certain point in poetic and intellectual evolution. Its adoption was not, on my part, a deliberate display of virtuosity in form, but simply the spontaneous falling of a play of ideas into the form most suitable to it, which turned out to be the classical form."
It is hard to say whether Mr. Shaw is here writing seriously or in a mood of solemn facetiousness. Perhaps he himself is not quite clear on the point. There can be no harm, at any rate, in assuming that he genuinely believes the unity of Getting Married to be "a return to the unity observed in," say, the Oedipus Rex, and examining a little into so pleasant an illusion.
It is, if I may so phrase it, a double-barrelled illusion. Getting Married has not the unity of the Greek drama, and the Greek drama has not the unity of Getting Married. Whatever "unity" is predicable of either form of art is a wholly different thing from whatever "unity" is predicable of the other. Mr. Shaw, in fact, is, consciously or unconsciously, playing with words, very much as Lamb did when he said to the sportsman, "Is that your own hare or a wig?" There are, roughly speaking, three sorts of unity: the unity of a plum-pudding, the unity of a string or chain, and, the unity of the Parthenon. Let us call them, respectively, unity of concoction, unity of concatenation, and structural or organic unity. The second form of unity is that of most novels and some plays. They present a series of events, more or less closely intertwined or interlinked with one another, but not built up into any symmetrical interdependence. This unity of longitudinal extension does not here concern us, for it is not that of either Shaw or Sophocles. Plum-pudding unity, on the other hand—the unity of a number of ingredients stirred up together, put in a cloth, boiled to a certain consistency, and then served up in a blue flame of lambent humour—that is precisely the unity of Getting Married. A jumble of ideas, prejudices, points of view, and whimsicalities on the subject of marriage is tied up in a cloth and boiled into a sort of glutinous fusion or confusion, so that when the cloth is taken off they do not at once lose the coherent rotundity conferred upon them by pressure from without. In a quite real sense, the comparison does more than justice to the technical qualities of the play; for in a good plum-pudding the due proportions of the ingredients are carefully studied, whereas Mr. Shaw flings in recklessly whatever comes into his head. At the same time it is undeniably true that he shows us a number of people in one room, talking continuously and without a single pause, on different aspects of a given theme. If this be unity, then he has achieved it. In the theatre, as a matter of fact, the plum-pudding was served up in three chunks instead of one; but this was a mere concession to human weakness. The play had all the globular unity of a pill, though it happened to be too big a pill to be swallowed at one gulp.
Turning now to the Oedipus—I choose that play as a typical example of Greek tragedy—what sort of unity do we find? It is the unity, not of a continuous mass or mash, but of carefully calculated proportion, order, interrelation of parts—the unity of a fine piece of architecture, or even of a living organism. The inorganic continuity of Getting Married it does not possess. If that be what we understand by unity, then Shaw has it and Sophocles has not. The Oedipus is as clearly divided into acts as is Hamlet or Hedda Gabler. In modern parlance, we should probably call it a play in five acts and an epilogue. It so happened that the Greek theatre did not possess a curtain, and did possess a Chorus; consequently, the Greek dramatist employed the Chorus, as we employ the curtain, to emphasize the successive stages of his action, to mark the rhythm of its progress, and, incidentally, to provide resting-places for the mind of the audience—intervals during which the strain upon their attention was relaxed, or at any rate varied. It is not even true that the Greeks habitually aimed at such continuity of time as we find in Getting Married. They treated time ideally, the imaginary duration of the story being, as a rule, widely different from the actual time of representation. In this respect the Oedipus is something of an exception, since the events might, at a pinch, be conceived as passing within the "two hours' traffick of the stage"; but in many cases a whole day, or even more, must be understood to be compressed within these two hours. It is true that the continuous presence of the Chorus made it impossible for the Greeks to overleap months and years, as we do on the modern stage; but they did not aim at that strict coincidence of imaginary with actual time which Mr. Shaw believes himself to have achieved. Even he, however, subjects the events which take place behind the scenes to a good deal of "ideal" compression.
Of course, when Mr. Shaw protests that, in Getting Married, he did not indulge in a "deliberate display of virtuosity of form," that is only his fun. You cannot well have virtuosity of form where there is no form. What he did was to rely upon his virtuosity of dialogue to enable him to dispense with form. Whether he succeeded or not is a matter of opinion which does not at present concern us. The point to be noted is the essential difference between the formless continuity of Getting Married, and the sedulous ordering and balancing of clearly differentiated parts, which went to the structure of a Greek tragedy. A dramatist who can so develop his story as to bring it within the quasi-Aristotelean "unities" performs a curious but not particularly difficult or valuable feat; but this does not, or ought not to, imply the abandonment of the act-division, which is no mere convention, but a valuable means of marking the rhythm of the story. When, on the other hand, you have no story to tell, the act-division is manifestly superfluous; but it needs no "virtuosity" to dispense with it.
It is a grave error, then, to suppose that the act is a mere division of convenience, imposed by the limited power of attention of the human mind, or by the need of the human body for occasional refreshment. A play with a well-marked, well-balanced act-structure is a higher artistic organism than a play with no act-structure, just as a vertebrate animal is higher than a mollusc. In every crisis of real life (unless it be so short as to be a mere incident) there is a rhythm of rise, progress, culmination and solution. We are not always, perhaps not often, conscious of these stages; but that is only because we do not reflect upon our experiences while they are passing, or map them out in memory when they are past. We do, however, constantly apply to real-life crises expressions borrowed more or less directly from the terminology of the drama. We say, somewhat incorrectly, "Things have come to a climax," meaning thereby a culmination; or we say, "The catastrophe is at hand," or, again, "What a fortunate denouement!" Be this as it may, it is the business of the dramatist to analyse the crises with which he deals, and to present them to us in their rhythm of growth, culmination, solution. To this end the act-division is—not, perhaps, essential, since the rhythm may be marked even in a one-act play—but certainly of enormous and invaluable convenience. "Si l'acte n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer"; but as a matter of fact it has existed wherever, in the Western world, the drama has developed beyond its rudest beginnings.
It was doubtless the necessity for marking this rhythm that Aristotle had in mind when he said that a dramatic action must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Taken in its simplicity, this principle would indicate the three-act division as the ideal scheme for a play. As a matter of fact, many of the best modern plays in all languages fall into three acts; one has only to note Monsieur Alphonse, Francillon, La Parisienne, Amoureuse, A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, Johannisfeuer, Caste, Candida, The Benefit of the Doubt, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Silver Box; and, furthermore, many old plays which are nominally in five acts really fall into a triple rhythm, and might better have been divided into three. Alexandrian precept, handed on by Horace, gave to the five act division a purely arbitrary sanction, which induced playwrights to mask the natural rhythm of their themes beneath this artificial one. But in truth the three-act division ought no more to be elevated into an absolute rule than the five-act division. We have seen that a play consists, or ought to consist, of a great crisis, worked out through a series of minor crises. An act, then, ought to consist either of a minor crisis, carried to its temporary solution, or of a well-marked group of such crises; and there can be no rule as to the number of such crises which ought to present themselves in the development of a given theme. On the modern stage, five acts may be regarded as the maximum, simply by reason of the time-limit imposed by social custom on a performance. But one frequently sees a melodrama divided into "five acts and eight tableaux," or even more; which practically means that the play is in eight, or nine, or ten acts, but that there will be only the four conventional interacts in the course of the evening. The playwright should not let himself be constrained by custom to force his theme into the arbitrary mould of a stated number of acts. Three acts is a good number, four acts is a good number, there is no positive objection to five acts. Should he find himself hankering after more acts, he will do well to consider whether he be not, at one point or another, failing in the art of condensation and trespassing on the domain of the novelist.
There is undoubted convenience in the rule of the modern stage: "One act, one scene." A change of scene in the middle of an act is not only materially difficult, but tends to impair the particular order of illusion at which the modern drama aims. Roughly, indeed, an act may be defined as any part of a given crisis which works itself out at one time and in one place; but more fundamentally it is a segment of the action during which the author desires to hold the attention of his audience unbroken and unrelaxed. It is no mere convention, however, which decrees that the flight of time is best indicated by an interact. When the curtain is down, the action on the stage remains, as it were, in suspense. The audience lets its attention revert to the affairs of real life; and it is quite willing, when the mimic world is once more revealed, to suppose that any reasonable space of time has elapsed while its thoughts were occupied with other matters. It is much more difficult for it to accept a wholly imaginary lapse of time while its attention is centred on the mimic world. Some playwrights have of late years adopted the device of dropping their curtain once, or even twice, in the middle of an act, to indicate an interval of a few minutes, or even of an hour—for instance, of the time between "going in to dinner" and the return of the ladies to the drawing-room. Sir Arthur Pinero employs this device with good effect in Iris; so does Mr. Granville Barker in Waste, and Mr. Galsworthy in The Silver Box. It is certainly far preferable to that "ideal" treatment of time which was common in the French drama of the nineteenth century, and survives to this day in plays adapted or imitated from the French.
I remember seeing in London, not very long ago, a one-act play on the subject of Rouget de l'Isle. In the space of about half-an-hour, he handed the manuscript of the "Marseillaise" to an opera-singer whom he adored, she took it away and sang it at the Opera, it caught the popular ear from that one performance, and the dying Rouget heard it sung by the passing multitude in the streets within about fifteen minutes of the moment when it first left his hands. (The whole piece, I repeat, occupied about half-an-hour; but as a good deal of that time was devoted to preliminaries, not more than fifteen minutes can have elapsed between the time when the cantatrice left Rouget's garret and the time when all Paris was singing the "Marseillaise.") This is perhaps an extreme instance of the ideal treatment of time; but one could find numberless cases in the works of Scribe, Labiche, and others, in which the transactions of many hours are represented as occurring within the limits of a single act. Our modern practice eschews such licenses. It will often compress into an act of half-an-hour more events than would probably happen in real life in a similar space of time, but not such a train of occurrences as to transcend the limits of possibility. It must be remembered, however, that the standard of verisimilitude naturally and properly varies with the seriousness of the theme under treatment. Improbabilities are admissible in light comedy, and still more in farce, which would wreck the fortunes of a drama purporting to present a sober and faithful picture of real life.
Acts, then, mark the time-stages in the development of a given crisis; and each act ought to embody a minor crisis of its own, with a culmination and a temporary solution. It would be no gain, but a loss, if a whole two hours' or three hours' action could be carried through in one continuous movement, with no relaxation of the strain upon the attention of the audience, and without a single point at which the spectator might review what was past and anticipate what was to come. The act-division positively enhances the amount of pleasurable emotion through which the audience passes. Each act ought to stimulate and temporarily satisfy an interest of its own, while definitely advancing the main action. The psychological principle is evident enough; namely, that there is more sensation to be got out of three or four comparatively brief experiences, suited to our powers of perception, than out of one protracted experience, forced on us without relief, without contrast, in such a way as to fatigue and deaden our faculties. Who would not rather drink three, four, or five glasses of wine than put the bottle to his lips and let its contents pour down his throat in one long draught? Who would not rather see a stained-glass window broken into three, four, or five cunningly-proportioned "lights," than a great flat sheet of coloured glass, be its design never so effective?
It used to be the fashion in mid Victorian melodramas to give each act a more or less alluring title of its own. I am far from recommending the revival of this practice; but it might be no bad plan for a beginner, in sketching out a play, to have in his mind, or in his private notes, a descriptive head-line for each act, thereby assuring himself that each had a character of its own, and at the same time contributed its due share to the advancement of the whole design. Let us apply this principle to a Shakespearean play—for example, to Macbeth. The act headings might run somewhat as follows—
ACT II.—MURDER AND USURPATION.
ACT III.—THE FRENZY OF CRIME AND THE HAUNTING OF REMORSE.
ACT IV.—GATHERING RETRIBUTION.
ACT V.—RETRIBUTION CONSUMMATED.
Can it be doubted that Shakespeare had in his mind the rhythm marked by this act-division? I do not mean, of course, that these phrases, or anything like them, were present to his consciousness, but merely that he "thought in acts," and mentally assigned to each act its definite share in the development of the crisis.
Turning now to Ibsen, let us draw up an act-scheme for the simplest and most straightforward of his plays, An Enemy of the People. It might run as follows:
ACT I.—THE INCURABLE OPTIMIST.—Dr. Stockmann announces his discovery of the insanitary condition of the Baths.
ACT II.—THE COMPACT MAJORITY.—Dr. Stockmann finds that he will have to fight vested interests before the evils he has discovered can be remedied, but is assured that the Compact Majority is at his back.
ACT III.—THE TURN OF FORTUNE.—The Doctor falls from the pinnacle of his optimistic confidence, and learns that he will have the Compact Majority, not at, but on his back.
ACT IV.—THE COMPACT MAJORITY ON THE WARPATH.—The crowd, finding that its immediate interests are identical with those of the privileged few, joins with the bureaucracy in shouting down the truth, and organizing a conspiracy of silence.
ACT V.—OPTIMISM DISILLUSIONED BUT INDOMITABLE.—Dr. Stockmann, gagged and thrown back into poverty, is tempted to take flight, but determines to remain in his native place and fight for its moral, if not for its physical, sanitation.
Each of these acts is a little drama in itself, while each leads forward to the next, and marks a distinct phase in the development of the crisis.
When the younger Dumas asked his father, that master of dramatic movement, to initiate him into the secret of dramatic craftsmanship, the great Alexandre replied in this concise formula: "Let your first act be clear, your last act brief, and the whole interesting." Of the wisdom of the first clause there can be no manner of doubt. Whether incidentally or by way of formal exposition, the first act ought to show us clearly who the characters are, what are their relations and relationships, and what is the nature of the gathering crisis. It is very important that the attention of the audience should not be overstrained in following out needlessly complex genealogies and kinships. How often, at the end of a first act, does one turn to one's neighbour and say, "Are Edith and Adela sisters or only half-sisters?" or, "Did you gather what was the villain's claim to the title?" If a story cannot be made clear without an elaborate study of one or more family trees, beware of it. In all probability, it is of very little use for dramatic purposes. But before giving it up, see whether the relationships, and other relations, cannot be simplified. Complexities which at first seemed indispensable will often prove to be mere useless encumbrances.
In Pillars of Society Ibsen goes as far as any playwright ought to go in postulating fine degrees of kinship—and perhaps a little further. Karsten Bernick has married into a family whose gradations put something of a strain on the apprehension and memory of an audience. We have to bear in mind that Mrs. Bernick has (a) a half-sister, Lona Hessel; (b) a full brother, Johan Toennesen; (c) a cousin, Hilmar Toennesen. Then Bernick has an unmarried sister, Martha; another relationship, however simple, to be borne in mind. And, finally, when we see Dina Dorf living in Bernick's house, and know that Bernick has had an intrigue with her mother, we are apt to fall into the error of supposing her to be Bernick's daughter. There is only one line which proves that this is not so—a remark to the effect that, when Madam Dorf came to the town. Dina was already old enough to run about and play angels in the theatre. Any one who does not happen to hear or notice this remark, is almost certain to misapprehend Dina's parentage. Taking one thing with another, then, the Bernick family group is rather more complex than is strictly desirable. Ibsen's reasons for making Lona Hessel a half-sister instead of a full sister of Mrs. Bernick are evident enough. He wanted her to be a considerably older woman, of a very different type of character; and it was necessary, in order to explain Karsten's desertion of Lona for Betty, that the latter should be an heiress, while the former was penniless. These reasons are clear and apparently adequate; yet it may be doubted whether the dramatist did not lose more than he gained by introducing even this small degree of complexity. It was certainly not necessary to explain the difference of age and character between Lona and Betty; while as for the money, there would have been nothing improbable in supposing that a wealthy uncle had marked his disapproval of Lona's strong-mindedness by bequeathing all his property to her younger sister. Again, there is no reason why Hilmar should not have been a brother of Johan and Betty; in which case we should have had the simple family group of two brothers and two sisters, instead of the comparatively complex relationship of a brother and sister, a half-sister and a cousin.
These may seem very trivial considerations: but nothing is really trivial when it comes to be placed under the powerful lens of theatrical presentation. Any given audience has only a certain measure of attention at command, and to claim attention for inessentials is to diminish the stock available for essentials. In only one other play does Ibsen introduce any complexity of relationship, and in that case it does not appear in the exposition, but is revealed at a critical moment towards the close. In Little Eyolf, Asta and Allmers are introduced to us at first as half-sister and half-brother; and only at the end of the second act does it appear that Asta's mother (Allmers' stepmother) was unfaithful to her husband, and that, Asta being the fruit of this infidelity, there is no blood kinship between her and Allmers. The danger of relying upon such complexities is shown by the fact that so acute a critic as M. Jules Lemaitre, in writing of Little Eyolf, mistook the situation, and thought that Asta fled from Allmers because he was her brother, whereas in fact she fled because he was not. I had the honour of calling M. Lemaitre's attention to this error, which he handsomely acknowledged.
Complexities of kinship are, of course, not the only complexities which should, so far as possible, be avoided. Every complexity of relation or of antecedent circumstance is in itself a weakness, which, if it cannot be eliminated, must, so to speak, be lived down. No dramatic critic, I think, can have failed to notice that the good plays are those of which the story can be clearly indicated in ten lines; while it very often takes a column to give even a confused idea of the plot of a bad play. Here, then, is a preliminary test which may be commended to the would-be playwright, in order to ascertain whether the subject he is contemplating is or is not a good one: can he state the gist of it in a hundred words or so, like the "argument" of a Boccaccian novella? The test, of course, is far from being infallible; for a theme may err on the side of over-simplicity or emptiness, no less than on the side of over-complexity. But it is, at any rate, negatively useful: if the playwright finds that he cannot make his story comprehensible without a long explanation of an intricate network of facts, he may be pretty sure that he has got hold of a bad theme, or of one that stands sorely in need of simplification.
It is not sufficient, however, that a first act should fulfil Dumas's requirement by placing the situation clearly before us: it ought also to carry us some way towards the heart of the drama, or, at the very least, to point distinctly towards that quarter of the horizon where the clouds are gathering up. In a three-act play this is evidently demanded by the most elementary principles of proportion. It would be absurd to make one-third of the play merely introductory, and to compress the whole action into the remaining two-thirds. But even in a four- or five-act play, the interest of the audience ought to be strongly enlisted, and its anticipation headed in a definite direction, before the curtain falls for the first time. When we find a dramatist of repute neglecting this principle, we may suspect some reason with which art has no concern. Several of Sardou's social dramas begin with two acts of more or less smart and entertaining satire or caricature, and only at the end of the second or beginning of the third act (out of five) does the drama proper set in. What was the reason of this? Simply that under the system of royalties prevalent in France, it was greatly to the author's interest that his play should fill the whole evening. Sardou needed no more than three acts for the development of his drama; to have spread it out thinner would have been to weaken and injure it; wherefore he preferred to occupy an hour or so with clever dramatic journalism, rather than share the evening, and the fees, with another dramatist. So, at least, I have heard his practice explained; perhaps his own account of the matter may have been that he wanted to paint a broad social picture to serve as a background for his action.
The question how far an audience ought to be carried towards the heart of a dramatic action in the course of the first act is always and inevitably one of proportion. It is clear that too much ought not to be told, so as to leave the remaining acts meagre and spun-out; nor should any one scene be so intense in its interest as to outshine all subsequent scenes, and give to the rest of the play an effect of anti-climax. If the strange and fascinating creations of Ibsen's last years were to be judged by ordinary dramaturgic canons, we should have to admit that in Little Eyolf he was guilty of the latter fault, since in point of sheer "strength," in the common acceptation of the word, the situation at the end of the first act could scarcely be outdone, in that play or any other. The beginner, however, is far more likely to put too little than too much into his first act: he is more likely to leave our interest insufficiently stimulated than to carry us too far in the development of his theme. My own feeling is that, as a general rule, what Freytag calls the erregende Moment ought by all means to fall within the first act. What is the erregende Moment? One is inclined to render it "the firing of the fuse." In legal parlance, it might be interpreted as the joining of issue. It means the point at which the drama, hitherto latent, plainly declares itself. It means the germination of the crisis, the appearance on the horizon of the cloud no bigger than a man's hand. I suggest, then, that this erregende Moment ought always to come within the first act—if it is to come at all There are plays, as we have seen, which depict life on so even a plane that it is impossible to say at any given point, "Here the drama sets in," or "The interest is heightened there."
Pillars of Society is, in a sense, Ibsen's prentice-work in the form of drama which he afterwards perfected; wherefore it affords us numerous illustrations of the problems we have to consider. Does he, or does he not, give us in the first act sufficient insight into his story? I am inclined to answer the question in the negative. The first act puts us in possession of the current version of the Bernick-Toennesen family history, but it gives us no clear indication that this version is an elaborate tissue of falsehoods. It is true that Bernick's evident uneasiness and embarrassment at the mere idea of the reappearance of Lona and Johan may lead us to suspect that all is not as it seems; but simple annoyance at the inopportune arrival of the black sheep of the family might be sufficient to account for this. To all intents and purposes, we are completely in the dark as to the course the drama is about to take; and when, at the end of the first act, Lona Hessel marches in and flutters the social dovecote, we do not know in what light to regard her, or why we are supposed to sympathize with her. The fact that she is eccentric, and that she talks of "letting in fresh air," combines with our previous knowledge of the author's idiosyncrasy to assure us that she is his heroine; but so far as the evidence actually before us goes, we have no means of forming even the vaguest provisional judgment as to her true character. This is almost certainly a mistake in art. It is useless to urge that sympathy and antipathy are primitive emotions, and that we ought to be able to regard a character objectively, rating it as true or false, not as attractive or repellent. The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, the theatre has never been, and never will be, a moral dissecting room, nor has the theatrical audience anything in common with a class of students dispassionately following a professor's demonstration of cold scientific facts. Secondly, in the particular case in point, the dramatist makes a manifest appeal to our sympathies. There can be no doubt that we are intended to take Lona's part, as against the representatives of propriety and convention assembled at the sewing-bee; but we have been vouchsafed no rational reason for so doing. In other words, the author has not taken us far enough into his action to enable us to grasp the true import and significance of the situation. He relies for his effect either on the general principle that an eccentric character must be sympathetic, or on the knowledge possessed by those who have already seen or read the rest of the play. Either form of reliance is clearly inartistic. The former appeals to irrational prejudice; the latter ignores what we shall presently find to be a fundamental principle of the playwright's art—namely, that, with certain doubtful exceptions in the case of historical themes, he must never assume previous knowledge either of plot or character on the part of his public, but must always have in his mind's eye a first-night audience, which knows nothing but what he chooses to tell it.
My criticism of the first act of Pillars of Society may be summed up in saying that the author has omitted to place in it the erregende Moment. The issue is not joined, the true substance of the drama is not clear to us, until, in the second act, Bernick makes sure there are no listeners, and then holds out both hands to Johan, saying: "Johan, now we are alone; now you must give me leave to thank you," and so forth. Why should not this scene have occurred in the first act? Materially, there is no reason whatever. It would need only the change of a few words to lift the scene bodily out of the second act and transfer it to the first. Why did Ibsen not do so? His reason is not hard to divine; he wished to concentrate into two great scenes, with scarcely a moment's interval between them, the revelation of Bernick's treachery, first to Johan, second to Lona. He gained his point: the sledge-hammer effect of these two scenes is undeniable. But it remains a question whether he did not make a disproportionate sacrifice; whether he did not empty his first act in order to overfill his second. I do not say he did: I merely propound the question for the student's consideration. One thing we must recognize in dramatic art as in all other human affairs; namely, that perfection, if not unattainable, is extremely rare. We have often to make a deliberate sacrifice at one point in order to gain some greater advantage at another; to incur imperfection here that we may achieve perfection there. It is no disparagement to the great masters to admit that they frequently show us rather what to avoid than what to do. Negative instruction, indeed, is in its essence more desirable than positive. The latter tends to make us mere imitators, whereas the former, in saving us from dangers, leaves our originality unimpaired.
It is curious to note that, in another play, Ibsen did actually transfer the erregende Moment, the joining of issue, from the second act to the first. In his early draft of Rosmersholm, the great scene in which Rosmer confesses to Kroll his change of views did not occur until the second act. There can be no doubt that the balance and proportion of the play gained enormously by the transference.
After all, however, the essential question is not how much or how little is conveyed to us in the first act, but whether our interest is thoroughly aroused, and, what is of equal importance, skilfully carried forward. Before going more at large into this very important detail of the playwright's craft, it may be well to say something of the nature of dramatic interest in general.
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[Footnote 1: There are several cases in Greek drama in which a hero leaves the stage to fight a battle and returns victorious in a few minutes. See, for example, the Supplices of Euripides.]
[Footnote 2: So far was Shakespeare from ignoring the act-division that it is a question whether his art did not sometimes suffer from the supposed necessity of letting a fourth act intervene between the culmination in the third act and the catastrophe in the fifth.]
[Footnote 3: I think it may be said that the majority of modern serious plays are in four acts. It is a favourite number with Sir Arthur Pinero, Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, Mr. Clyde Fitch, and Mr. Alfred Sutro.]
[Footnote 4: This must not be taken to mean that in no case is a change of scene within the act advisable. The point to be considered is whether the author does or does not want to give the audience time for reflection—time to return to the real world—between two episodes. If it is of great importance that they should not do so, then a rapid change of scene may be the less of two evils. In this case the lights should be kept lowered in order to show that no interact is intended; but the fashion of changing the scene on a pitch-dark stage, without dropping the curtain, is much to be deprecated. If the revolving stage should ever become a common institution in English-speaking countries, dramatists would doubtless be more tempted than they are at present to change their scenes within the act; but I doubt whether the tendency would be wholly advantageous. No absolute rule, however, can be laid down, and it may well be maintained that a true dramatic artist could only profit by the greater flexibility of his medium.]
[Footnote 5: He was, in the first draft; and Lona Hessel was only a distant relative of Bernick's.]
[Footnote 6: The Greeks, who knew most things, knew the value of manageable dimensions and simple structure in a work of art, and had a word to express that combination of qualities—the word eusynopton.]
"CURIOSITY" AND "INTEREST"
The paradox of dramatic theory is this: while our aim is, of course, to write plays which shall achieve immortality, or shall at any rate become highly popular, and consequently familiar in advance to a considerable proportion of any given audience, we are all the time studying how to awaken and to sustain that interest, or, more precisely, that curiosity, which can be felt only by those who see the play for the first time, without any previous knowledge of its action. Under modern conditions especially, the spectators who come to the theatre with their minds an absolute blank as to what is awaiting them, are comparatively few; for newspaper criticism and society gossip very soon bruit abroad a general idea of the plot of any play which attains a reasonable measure of success. Why, then, should we assume, in the ideal spectator to whom we address ourselves, a state of mind which, we hope and trust, will not be the state of mind of the majority of actual spectators?
To this question there are several answers. The first and most obvious is that to one audience, at any rate, every play must be absolutely new, and that it is this first-night audience which in great measure determines its success or failure. Many plays have survived a first-night failure, and still more have gone off in a rapid decline after a first-night success. But these caprices of fortune are not to be counted on. The only prudent course is for the dramatist to direct all his thought and care towards conciliating or dominating an audience to which his theme is entirely unknown, and so coming triumphant through his first-night ordeal. This principle is subject to a certain qualification in the case of historic and legendary themes. In treating such subjects, the dramatist is not relieved of the necessity of developing his story clearly and interestingly, but has, on the contrary, an additional charge imposed upon him—that of not flagrantly defying or disappointing popular knowledge or prejudice. Charles I must not die in a green old age, Oliver Cromwell must not display the manners and graces of Sir Charles Grandison, Charles II must not be represented as a model of domestic virtue. Historians may indict a hero or whitewash a villain at their leisure; but to the dramatist a hero must be (more or less) a hero, a villain (more or less) a villain, if accepted tradition so decrees it. Thus popular knowledge can scarcely be said to lighten a dramatist's task, but rather to impose a new limitation upon him. In some cases, however, he can rely on a general knowledge of the historic background of a given period, which may save him some exposition. An English audience, for instance, does not require to be told what was the difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads; nor does any audience, I imagine, look for a historical disquisition on the Reign of Terror. The dramatist has only to bring on some ruffianly characters in Phrygian caps, who address each other as "Citizen" and "Citizeness," and at once the imagination of the audience will supply the roll of the tumbrels and the silhouette of the guillotine in the background.
To return to the general question: not only must the dramatist reckon with one all-important audience which is totally ignorant of the story he has to tell; he must also bear in mind that it is very easy to exaggerate the proportion of any given audience which will know his plot in advance, even when his play has been performed a thousand times. There are inexhaustible possibilities of ignorance in the theatrical public. A story is told, on pretty good authority, of a late eminent statesman who visited the Lyceum one night when Sir Henry Irving was appearing as Hamlet. After the third act he went to the actor's dressing-room, expressed great regret that duty called him back to Westminster, and begged Sir Henry to tell him how the play ended, as it had interested him greatly. One of our most eminent novelists has assured me that he never saw or read Macbeth until he was present at (I think) Mr. Forbes Robertson's revival of the play, he being then nearer fifty than forty. These, no doubt, are "freak" instances; but in any given audience, even at the most hackneyed classical plays, there will be a certain percentage of children (who contribute as much as their elders to the general temper of an audience), and also a percentage of adult ignoramuses. And if this be so in the case of plays which have held the stage for generations, are studied in schools, and are every day cited as matters of common knowledge, how much more certain may we be that even the most popular modern play will have to appeal night after night to a considerable number of people who have no previous acquaintance with either its story or its characters! The playwright may absolutely count on having to make such an appeal; but he must remember at the same time that he can by no means count on keeping any individual effect, more especially any notable trick or device, a secret from the generality of his audience. Mr. J.M. Barrie (to take a recent instance) sedulously concealed, throughout the greater part of Little Mary, what was meant by that ever-recurring expression, and probably relied to some extent on an effect of amused surprise when the disclosure was made. On the first night, the effect came off happily enough; but on subsequent nights, there would rarely be a score of people in the house who did not know the secret. The great majority might know nothing else about the play, but that they knew. Similarly, in the case of any mechanical truc, as the French call it, or feat of theatrical sleight-of-hand, it is futile to trust to its taking unawares any audience after the first. Nine-tenths of all subsequent audiences are sure to be on the look-out for it, and to know, or think they know, "how it's done." These are the things which theatrical gossip, printed and oral, most industriously disseminates. The fine details of a plot are much less easily conveyed and less likely to be remembered.
To sum up this branch of the argument: however oft-repeated and much-discussed a play may be, the playwright must assume that in every audience there will be an appreciable number of persons who know practically nothing about it, and whose enjoyment will depend, like that of the first-night audience, on the skill with which he develops his story. On the other hand, he can never rely on taking an audience by surprise at any particular point. The class of effect which depends on surprise is precisely the class of effect which is certain to be discounted.
We come now to a third reason why a playwright is bound to assume that the audience to which he addresses himself has no previous knowledge of his fable. It is simply that no other assumption has, or can have, any logical basis. If the audience is not to be conceived as ignorant, how much is it to be assumed to know? There is clearly no possible answer to this question, except a purely arbitrary one, having no relation to the facts. In any audience after the first, there will doubtless be a hundred degrees of knowledge and of ignorance. Many people will know nothing at all about the play; some people will have seen or read it yesterday, and will thus know all there is to know; while between these extremes there will be every variety of clearness or vagueness of knowledge. Some people will have read and remembered a detailed newspaper notice; others will have read the same notice and forgotten almost all of it. Some will have heard a correct and vivid account of the play, others a vague and misleading summary. It would be absolutely impossible to enumerate all the degrees of previous knowledge which are pretty certain to be represented in an average audience; and to which degree of knowledge is the playwright to address himself? If he is to have any firm ground under his feet, he must clearly adopt the only logical course, and address himself to a spectator assumed to have no previous knowledge whatever. To proceed on any other assumption would not only be to ignore the all-powerful first-night audience, but to plunge into a veritable morass of inconsistencies, dubieties and slovenlinesses.
These considerations, however, have not yet taken us to the heart of the matter. We have seen that the dramatist has no rational course open to him but to assume complete ignorance in his audience; but we have also seen that, as a matter of fact, only one audience will be entirely in this condition, and that, the more successful the play is, the more widely will subsequent audiences tend to depart from it. Does it not follow that interest of plot, interest of curiosity as to coming events, is at best an evanescent factor in a play's attractiveness—of a certain importance, no doubt, on the first night, but less and less efficient the longer the play holds the stage?
In a sense, this is undoubtedly true. We see every day that a mere story-play—a play which appeals to us solely by reason of the adroit stimulation and satisfaction of curiosity—very rapidly exhausts its success. No one cares to see it a second time; and spectators who happen to have read the plot in advance, find its attraction discounted even on a first hearing. But if we jump to the conclusion that the skilful marshalling and development of the story is an unimportant detail, which matters little when once the first-night ordeal is past, we shall go very far astray. Experience shows us that dramatic interest is entirely distinct from mere curiosity, and survives when curiosity is dead. Though a skilfully-told story is not of itself enough to secure long life for a play, it materially and permanently enhances the attractions of a play which has other and higher claims to longevity. Character, poetry, philosophy, atmosphere, are all very good in their way; but they all show to greater advantage by aid of a well-ordered fable. In a picture, I take it, drawing is not everything; but drawing will always count for much.
This separation of interest from curiosity is partly explicable by one very simple reflection. However well we may know a play beforehand, we seldom know it by heart or nearly by heart; so that, though we may anticipate a development in general outline, we do not clearly foresee the ordering of its details, which, therefore, may give us almost the same sort of pleasure that it gave us when the story was new to us. Most playgoers will, I think, bear me out in saying that we constantly find a great scene or act to be in reality richer in invention and more ingenious in arrangement than we remembered it to be.
We come, now, to another point that must not be overlooked. It needs no subtle introspection to assure us that we, the audience, do our own little bit of acting, and instinctively place ourselves at the point of view of a spectator before whose eyes the drama is unrolling itself for the first time. If the play has any richness of texture, we have many sensations that he cannot have. We are conscious of ironies and subtleties which necessarily escape him, or which he can but dimly divine. But in regard to the actual development of the story, we imagine ourselves back into his condition of ignorance, with this difference, that we can more fully appreciate the dramatist's skill, and more clearly resent his clumsiness or slovenliness. Our sensations, in short, are not simply conditioned by our knowledge or ignorance of what is to come. The mood of dramatic receptivity is a complex one. We instinctively and without any effort remember that the dramatist is bound by the rules of the game, or, in other words, by the inherent conditions of his craft, to unfold his tale before an audience to which it is unknown; and it is with implicit reference to these conditions that we enjoy and appreciate his skill. Even the most unsophisticated audience realizes in some measure that the playwright is an artist presenting a picture of life under such-and-such assumptions and limitations, and appraises his skill by its own vague and instinctive standards. As our culture increases, we more and more consistently adopt this attitude, and take pleasure in a playwright's marshalling of material in proportion to its absolute skill, even if that skill no longer produces its direct and pristine effect upon us. In many cases, indeed, our pleasure consists of a delicate blending of surprise with realized anticipation. We foresaw, and are pleased to recognize, the art of the whole achievement, while details which had grown dim to us give us each its little thrill of fresh admiration. Regarded in this aspect, a great play is like a great piece of music: we can hear it again and again with ever-new realization of its subtle beauties, its complex harmonies, and with unfailing interest in the merits and demerits of each particular rendering.
But we must look deeper than this if we would fully understand the true nature of dramatic interest. The last paragraph has brought us to the verge of the inmost secret, but we have yet to take the final step. We have yet to realize that, in truly great drama, the foreknowledge possessed by the audience is not a disadvantage with certain incidental mitigations and compensations, but is the source of the highest pleasure which the theatre is capable of affording us. In order to illustrate my meaning, I propose to analyse a particular scene, not, certainly, among the loftiest in dramatic literature, but particularly suited to my purpose, inasmuch as it is familiar to every one, and at the same time full of the essential qualities of drama. I mean the Screen Scene in The School for Scandal.
In her "English Men of Letters" volume on Sheridan, Mrs. Oliphant discusses this scene. Speaking in particular of the moment at which the screen is overturned, revealing Lady Teazle behind it, she says—
"It would no doubt have been higher art could the dramatist have deceived his audience as well as the personages of the play, and made us also parties in the surprise of the discovery."
There could scarcely be a completer reversal of the truth than this "hopeless comment," as Professor Brander Matthews has justly called it. The whole effect of the long and highly-elaborated scene depends upon our knowledge that Lady Teazle is behind the screen. Had the audience either not known that there was anybody there, or supposed it to be the "little French milliner," where would have been the breathless interest which has held us through a whole series of preceding scenes? When Sir Peter reveals to Joseph his generous intentions towards his wife, the point lies in the fact that Lady Teazle overhears; and this is doubly the case when he alludes to Joseph as a suitor for the hand of Maria. So, too, with the following scene between Joseph and Charles; in itself it would be flat enough; the fact that Sir Peter is listening lends it a certain piquancy; but this is ten times multiplied by the fact that Lady Teazle, too, hears all that passes. When Joseph is called from the room by the arrival of the pretended Old Stanley, there would be no interest in his embarrassment if we believed the person behind the screen to be the French milliner. And when Sir Peter yields to the temptation to let Charles into the secret of his brother's frailty, and we feel every moment more certain that the screen will be overthrown, where would be the excitement, the tension, if we did not know who was behind it? The real drama, in fact, passes behind the screen. It lies in the terror, humiliation, and disillusionment which we know to be coursing each other through Lady Teazle's soul. And all this Mrs. Oliphant would have sacrificed for a single moment of crude surprise!
Now let us hear Professor Matthews's analysis of the effect of the scene. He says:
"The playgoer's interest is really not so much as to what is to happen as the way in which this event is going to affect the characters involved. He thinks it likely enough that Sir Peter will discover that Lady Teazle is paying a visit to Joseph Surface; but what he is really anxious to learn is the way the husband will take it. What will Lady Teazle have to say when she is discovered where she has no business to be? How will Sir Peter receive her excuses? What will the effect be on the future conduct of both husband and wife? These are the questions which the spectators are eager to have answered."
This is an admirable exposition of the frame of mind of the Drury Lane audience of May 8, 1777. who first saw the screen overturned. But in the thousands of audiences who have since witnessed the play, how many individuals, on an average, had any doubt as to what Lady Teazle would have to say, and how Sir Peter would receive her excuses? It would probably be safe to guess that, for a century past, two-thirds of every audience have clearly foreknown the outcome of the situation. Professor Matthews himself has edited Sheridan's plays, and probably knows The School for Scandal almost by heart; yet we may be pretty sure that any reasonably good performance of the Screen Scene will to-day give him pleasure not so very much inferior to that which he felt the first time he saw it. In this pleasure, it is manifest that mere curiosity as to the immediate and subsequent conduct of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle can have no part. There is absolutely no question which Professor Matthews, or any playgoer who shares his point of view, is "eager to have answered."
Assuming, then, that we are all familiar with the Screen Scene, and assuming that we, nevertheless, take pleasure in seeing it reasonably well acted, let us try to discover of what elements that pleasure is composed. It is, no doubt, somewhat complex. For one thing, we have pleasure in meeting old friends. Sir Peter, Lady Teazle, Charles, even Joseph, are agreeable creatures who have all sorts of pleasant associations for us. Again, we love to encounter not only familiar characters but familiar jokes. Like Goldsmith's Diggory, we can never help laughing at the story of "ould Grouse in the gunroom." The best order of dramatic wit does not become stale, but rather grows upon us. We relish it at least as much at the tenth repetition as at the first. But while these considerations may partly account for the pleasure we take in seeing the play as a whole, they do not explain why the Screen Scene in particular should interest and excite us. Another source of pleasure, as before indicated, may be renewed recognition of the ingenuity with which the scene is pieced together. However familiar we may be with it, short of actually knowing it by heart, we do not recall the details of its dovetailing, and it is a delight to realize afresh the neatness of the manipulation by which the tension is heightened from speech to speech and from incident to incident. If it be objected that this is a pleasure which the critic alone is capable of experiencing, I venture to disagree. The most unsophisticated playgoer feels the effect of neat workmanship, though he may not be able to put his satisfaction into words. It is evident, however, that the mere intellectual recognition of fine workmanship is not sufficient to account for the emotions with which we witness the Screen Scene. A similar, though, of course, not quite identical, effect is produced by scenes of the utmost simplicity, in which there is no room for delicacy of dovetailing or neatness of manipulation.
Where, then, are we to seek for the fundamental constituent in dramatic interest, as distinct from mere curiosity? Perhaps Mrs. Oliphant's glaring error may put us on the track of the truth. Mrs. Oliphant thought that Sheridan would have shown higher art had he kept the audience, as well as Sir Peter and Charles, ignorant of Lady Teazle's presence behind the screen. But this, as we saw, is precisely the reverse of the truth: the whole interest of the scene arises from our knowledge of Lady Teazle's presence. Had Sheridan fallen into Mrs. Oliphant's mistake, the little shock of surprise which the first-night audience would have felt when the screen was thrown down would have been no compensation at all for the comparative tameness and pointlessness of the preceding passages. Thus we see that the greater part of our pleasure arises precisely from the fact that we know what Sir Peter and Charles do not know, or, in other words, that we have a clear vision of all the circumstances, relations, and implications of a certain conjuncture of affairs, in which two, at least, of the persons concerned are ignorantly and blindly moving towards issues of which they do not dream. We are, in fact, in the position of superior intelligences contemplating, with miraculous clairvoyance, the stumblings and tumblings of poor blind mortals straying through the labyrinth of life. Our seat in the theatre is like a throne on the Epicurean Olympus, whence we can view with perfect intelligence, but without participation or responsibility, the intricate reactions of human destiny. And this sense of superiority does not pall upon us. When Othello comes on the scene, radiant and confident in Desdemona's love, our knowledge of the fate awaiting him makes him a hundred times more interesting than could any mere curiosity as to what was about to happen. It is our prevision of Nora's exit at the end of the last act that lends its dramatic poignancy to her entrance at the beginning of the first.
There is nothing absolutely new in this theory. "The irony of fate" has long been recognized as one of the main elements of dramatic effect. It has been especially dwelt upon in relation to Greek tragedy, of which the themes were all known in advance even to "first-day" audiences. We should take but little interest in seeing the purple carpet spread for Agamemnon's triumphal entry into his ancestral halls, if it were not for our foreknowledge of the net and the axe prepared for him. But, familiar as is this principle, I am not aware that it has hitherto been extended, as I suggest that it should be, to cover the whole field of dramatic interest. I suggest that the theorists have hitherto dwelt far too much on curiosity—which may be defined as the interest of ignorance—and far too little on the feeling of superiority, of clairvoyance, with which we contemplate a foreknown action, whether of a comic or of a tragic cast. Of course the action must be, essentially if not in every detail, true to nature. We can derive no sense of superiority from our foreknowledge of an arbitrary or preposterous action; and that, I take it, is the reason why a good many plays have an initial success of curiosity, but cease to attract when their plot becomes familiar. Again, we take no pleasure in foreknowing the fate of wholly uninteresting people; which is as much as to say that character is indispensable to enduring interest in drama. With these provisos, I suggest a reconstruction of our theories of dramatic interest, in which mere first-night curiosity shall be relegated to the subordinate place which by right belongs to it.
Nevertheless, we must come back to the point that there is always the ordeal of the first night to be faced, and that the plays are comparatively few which have lived-down a bad first-night. It is true that specifically first-night merit is a trivial matter compared with what may be called thousandth-performance merit; but it is equally true that there is no inconsistency between the two orders of merit, and that a play will never be less esteemed on its thousandth performance for having achieved a conspicuous first-night success. The practical lesson which seems to emerge from these considerations is that a wise theatrical policy would seek to diminish the all-importance of the first-night, and to give a play a greater chance of recovery than it has under present conditions, from the depressing effect of an inauspicious production. This is the more desirable as its initial misadventure may very likely be due to external and fortuitous circumstances, wholly unconnected with its inherent qualities.
At the same time, we are bound to recognize that, from the very nature of the case, our present inquiry must be far more concerned with first-night than with thousandth-performance merit. Craftsmanship can, within limits, be acquired, genius cannot; and it is craftsmanship that pilots us through the perils of the first performance, genius that carries us on to the apotheosis of the thousandth. Therefore, our primary concern must be with the arousing and sustaining of curiosity, though we should never forget that it is only a means to the ultimate enlistment of the higher and more abiding forms of interest.
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[Footnote 1: The view that the dramatist has only to think of pleasing himself is elsewhere dealt with.]
[Footnote 2: Two dramatists who have read these pages in proof, exclaim at this passage. The one says, "No, no!" the other asks, "Why?" I can only reiterate that, where there exists a strong and generally accepted tradition, the dramatist not only runs counter to it at his peril, but goes outside the true domain of his art in so doing. New truth, in history, must be established either by new documents, or by a careful and detailed re-interpretation of old documents; but the stage is not the place either for the production of documents or for historical exegesis. It is needless to say that where the popular mind is unbiased, the dramatist's hands are free. For instance, I presume that one might, in England, take any view one pleased of the character of Mary. Queen of Scots; but a highly unfavourable view would scarcely be accepted by Scottish audiences. Similarly, it would be both dangerous and unprofitable to present on the English stage any very damaging "scandal about Queen Elizabeth." Historical criticism, I understand, does not accept the view that Robespierre was mainly responsible for the Reign of Terror, and that his death betokened a general revolt against his sanguinary tyranny; but it would be very hard for any dramatist to secure general acceptance for a more accurate reading of his character and function. Some further remarks on this subject will be found in Chapter XIII.]
[Footnote 3: A malicious anecdote to a similar effect was current in the early days of Sir Henry Irving's career. It was said that at Bristol one night, when Mr. Irving, as Hamlet, "took his call" after the first act, a man turned to his neighbour in the pit and said, "Can you tell me, sir, does that young man appear much in this play?" His neighbour informed him that Hamlet was rather largely concerned in the action, whereupon the inquirer remarked, "Oh! Then I'm off!"]
[Footnote 4: If it be well done, it may remain highly effective in spite of being discounted by previous knowledge. For instance, the clock-trick in Raffles was none the less amusing because every one was on the look-out for it.]
[Footnote 5: The question whether it is ever politic for a playwright to keep a secret from his audience is discussed elsewhere. What I have here in mind is not an ordinary secret, but a more or less tricky effect of surprise.]
[Footnote 6: The pleasure received from exceptionally good acting is, of course, a different matter. I assume that the acting is merely competent enough to pass muster without irritating us, and so distracting our attention.]
[Footnote 7: I myself expressed it in slightly different terms nearly ten years ago. "Curiosity," I said, "is the accidental relish of a single night; whereas the essential and abiding pleasure of the theatre lies in foreknowledge. In relation to the characters in the drama, the audience are as gods looking before and after. Sitting in the theatre, we taste, for a moment, the glory of omniscience. With vision unsealed, we watch the gropings of purblind mortals after happiness, and smile at their stumblings, their blunders, their futile quests, their misplaced exultations, their groundless panics. To keep a secret from us is to reduce us to their level, and deprive us of our clairvoyant aloofness. There may be a pleasure in that too; we may join with zest in the game of blind-man's-buff; but the theatre is in its essence a place where we are privileged to take off the bandage we wear in daily life, and to contemplate, with laughter or with tears, the blindfold gambols of our neighbours."]
[Footnote 8: Here an acute critic writes: "On the whole I agree; but I do think there is dramatic interest to be had out of curiosity, through the identification, so to speak, of the audience with the discovering persons on the stage. It is an interest of sympathy, not to be despised, rather than an interest of actual curiosity."]
FORESHADOWING, NOT FORESTALLING
We return now to the point at which the foregoing disquisition—it is not a digression—became necessary. We had arrived at the general principle that the playwright's chief aim in his first act ought to be to arouse and carry forward the interest of the audience. This may seem a tolerably obvious statement; but it is worth while to examine a little more closely into its implications.
As to arousing the interest of the audience, it is clear that very little specific advice can be given. One can only say, "Find an interesting theme, state its preliminaries clearly and crisply, and let issue be joined without too much delay." There can be no rules for finding an interesting theme, any more than for catching the Blue Bird. At a later stage we may perhaps attempt a summary enumeration of themes which are not interesting, which have exhausted any interest they ever possessed, and "repay careful avoidance." But such an enumeration would be out of place here, where we are studying principles of form apart from details of matter.
The arousing of interest, however, is one thing, the carrying-forward of interest is another; and on the latter point there are one or two things that may profitably be said. Each act, as we have seen, should consist of, or at all events contain, a subordinate crisis, contributory to the main crisis of the play: and the art of act-construction lies in giving to each act an individuality and interest of its own, without so rounding it off as to obscure even for a moment its subsidiary, and, in the case of the first act, its introductory, relation to the whole. This is a point which many dramatists ignore or undervalue. Very often, when the curtain falls on a first or a second act, one says, "This is a fairly good act in itself; but whither does it lead? what is to come of it all?" It awakens no definite anticipation, and for two pins one would take up one's hat and go home. The author has neglected the art of carrying-forward the interest.
It is curious to note that in the most unsophisticated forms of melodrama this art is deliberately ignored. In plays of the type of The Worst Woman in London, it appears to be an absolute canon of art that every act must have a "happy ending"—that the curtain must always fall on the hero, or, preferably, the comic man, in an attitude of triumph, while the villain and villainess cower before him in baffled impotence. We have perfect faith, of course, that the villain will come up smiling in the next act, and proceed with his nefarious practices; but, for the moment, virtue has it all its own way. This, however, is a very artless formula which has somehow developed of recent years; and it is doubtful whether even the audiences to which these plays appeal would not in reality prefer something a little less inept in the matter of construction. As soon as we get above this level, at all events, the fostering of anticipation becomes a matter of the first importance. The problem is, not to cut short the spectator's interest, or to leave it fluttering at a loose end, but to provide it either with a clearly-foreseen point in the next act towards which it can reach onwards, or with a definite enigma, the solution of which is impatiently awaited. In general terms, a bridge should be provided between one act and another, along which the spectator's mind cannot but travel with eager anticipation. And this is particularly important, or particularly apt to be neglected, at the end of the first act. At a later point, if the interest does not naturally and inevitably carry itself forward, the case is hopeless indeed.
To illustrate what is meant by the carrying-forward of interest, let me cite one or two instances in which it is achieved with conspicuous success.
In Oscar Wilde's first modern comedy, Lady Windermere's Fan, the heroine, Lady Windermere, has learnt that her husband has of late been seen to call very frequently at the house of a certain Mrs. Erlynne, whom nobody knows. Her suspicions thus aroused, she searches her husband's desk, discovers a private and locked bank-book, cuts it open, and finds that one large cheque after another has been drawn in favour of the lady in question. At this inopportune moment, Lord Windermere appears with a request that Mrs. Erlynne shall be invited to their reception that evening. Lady Windermere indignantly refuses, her husband insists, and, finally, with his own hand, fills in an invitation-card and sends it by messenger to Mrs. Erlynne. Here some playwrights might have been content to finish the act. It is sufficiently evident that Lady Windermere will not submit to the apparent insult, and that something exciting may be looked for at the reception in the following act. But Oscar Wilde was not content with this vague expectancy. He first defined it, and then he underlined the definition, in a perfectly natural and yet ingenious and skilful way. The day happens to be Lady Windermere's birthday, and at the beginning of the act her husband has given her a beautiful ostrich-feather fan. When he sends off the invitation, she turns upon him and says, "If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with this fan." Here, again, many a dramatist might be content to bring down his curtain. The announcement of Lady Windermere's resolve carries forward the interest quite clearly enough for all practical purposes. But even this did not satisfy Wilde. He imagined a refinement, simple, probable, and yet immensely effective, which put an extraordinarily keen edge upon the expectancy of the audience. He made Lady Windermere ring for her butler, and say: "Parker, be sure you pronounce the names of the guests very distinctly to-night. Sometimes you speak so fast that I miss them. I am particularly anxious to hear the names quite clearly, so as to make no mistake." I well remember the effect which this little touch produced on the first night. The situation was, in itself, open to grave objections. There is no plausible excuse for Lord Windermere's obstinacy in forcing Mrs. Erlynne upon his wife, and risking a violent scandal in order to postpone an explanation which he must know to be ultimately inevitable. Though one had not as yet learnt the precise facts of the case, one felt pretty confident that his lordship's conduct would scarcely justify itself. But interest is largely independent of critical judgment, and, for my own part, I can aver that, when the curtain fell on the first act, a five-pound note would not have bribed me to leave the theatre without assisting at Lady Windermere's reception in the second act. That is the frame of mind which the author should try to beget in his audience; and Oscar Wilde, then almost a novice, had, in this one little passage between Lady Windermere and the butler, shown himself a master of the art of dramatic story-telling. The dramatist has higher functions than mere story-telling; but this is fundamental, and the true artist is the last to despise it.
For another example of a first act brought to what one may call a judiciously tantalizing conclusion, I turn to Mr. R.C. Carton's comedy Wheels within Wheels. Lord Eric Chantrell has just returned from abroad after many years' absence. He drives straight to the bachelor flat of his old chum, Egerton Vartrey. At the flat he finds only his friend's valet, Vartrey himself has been summoned to Scotland that very evening, and the valet is on the point of following him. He knows, however, that his master would wish his old friend to make himself at home in the flat; so he presently goes off, leaving the newcomer installed for the night. Lord Eric goes to the bedroom to change his clothes; and, the stage being thus left vacant, we hear a latch-key turning in the outer door. A lady in evening dress enters, goes up to the bureau at the back of the stage, and calmly proceeds to break it open and ransack it. While she is thus burglariously employed, Lord Eric enters, and cannot refrain from a slight expression of surprise. The lady takes the situation with humorous calmness, they fall into conversation, and it is manifest that at every word Lord Eric is more and more fascinated by the fair house-breaker. She learns who he is, and evidently knows all about him; but she is careful to give him no inkling of her own identity. At last she takes her leave, and he expresses such an eager hope of being allowed to renew their acquaintance, that it amounts to a declaration of a peculiar interest in her. Thereupon she addresses him to this effect: "Has it occurred to you to wonder how I got into your friend's rooms? I will show you how"—and, producing a latch-key, she holds it up, with all its questionable implications, before his eyes. Then she lays it on the table, says: "I leave you to draw your own conclusions" and departs. A better opening for a light social comedy could scarcely be devised. We have no difficulty in guessing that the lady, who is not quite young, and has clearly a strong sense of humour, is freakishly turning appearances against herself, by way of throwing a dash of cold water on Lord Eric's sudden flame of devotion. But we long for a clear explanation of the whole quaint little episode; and here, again, no reasonable offer would tempt us to leave the theatre before our curiosity is satisfied. The remainder of the play, though amusing, is unfortunately not up to the level of the first act; else Wheels within Wheels would be a little classic of light comedy.
For a third example of interest carefully carried forward, I turn to a recent Norwegian play, The Idyll, by Peter Egge. At the very rise of the curtain, we find Inga Gar, wife of an author and journalist, Dr. Gar, reading, with evident tokens of annoyance and distaste, a new book of poems by one Rolfe Ringve. Before her marriage, Inga was an actress of no great talent; Ringve made himself conspicuous by praising her far beyond her merits; and when, at last, an engagement between them was announced, people shrugged their shoulders and said: "They are going to regularize the situation." As a matter of fact (of this we have early assurance), though Ringve has been her ardent lover, Inga has neither loved him nor been his mistress. Ringve being called abroad, she has, during his absence, broken off her engagement to him, and has then, about a year before the play opens, married Dr. Gar, to whom she is devoted. While Gar is away on a short lecture tour, Ringve has published the book of love-poems which we find her reading. They are very remarkable poems; they have already made a great stir in the literary world; and interest is all the keener for the fact that they are evidently inspired by his passion for Inga, and are couched in such a tone of intimacy as to create a highly injurious impression of the relations between them. Gar, having just come home, has no suspicion of the nature of the book; and when an editor, who cherishes a grudge against him, conceives the malicious idea of asking him to review Ringve's masterpiece, he consents with alacrity. One or two small incidents have in the meantime shown us that there is a little rift in the idyllic happiness of Inga and Gar, arising from her inveterate habit of telling trifling fibs to avoid facing the petty annoyances of life. For instance, when Gar asks her casually whether she has read Ringve's poems, a foolish denial slips out, though she knows that the cut pages of the book will give her the lie. These incidents point to a state of unstable equilibrium in the relations between husband and wife; wherefore, when we see Gar, at the end of the act, preparing to read Ringve's poems, our curiosity is very keen as to how he will take them. We feel the next hour to be big with fate for these two people; and we long for the curtain to rise again upon the threatened household. The fuse has been fired; we are all agog for the explosion.
In Herr Egge's place, I should have been inclined to have dropped my curtain upon Gar, with the light of the reading-lamp full upon him, in the act of opening the book, and then to have shown him, at the beginning of the second act, in exactly the same position. With more delicate art, perhaps, the author interposes a little domestic incident at the end of the first act, while leaving it clearly impressed on our minds that the reading of the poems is only postponed by a few minutes. That is the essential point: the actual moment upon which the curtain falls is of minor importance. What is of vast importance, on the other hand, is that the expectation of the audience should not be baffled, and that the curtain should rise upon the immediate sequel to the reading of the poems. This is, in the exact sense of the words, a scene a faire—an obligatory scene. The author has aroused in us a reasonable expectation of it, and should he choose to balk us—to raise his curtain, say, a week, or a month, later—we should feel that we had been trifled with. The general theory of the scene a faire will presently come up for discussion. In the meantime, I merely make the obvious remark that it is worse than useless to awaken a definite expectation in the breast of the audience, and then to disappoint it.
The works of Sir Arthur Pinero afford many examples of interest very skilfully carried forward. In his farces—let no one despise the technical lessons to be learnt from a good farce—there is always an adventure afoot, whose development we eagerly anticipate. When the curtain falls on the first act of The Magistrate, we foresee the meeting of all the characters at the Hotel des Princes, and are impatient to assist at it. In The Schoolmistress, we would not for worlds miss Peggy Hesseltine's party, which we know awaits us in Act II. An excellent example, of a more serious order, is to be found in The Benefit of the Doubt. When poor Theo, rebuffed by her husband's chilly scepticism, goes off on some manifestly harebrained errand, we divine, as do her relatives, that she is about to commit social suicide by seeking out John Allingham; and we feel more than curiosity as to the event—we feel active concern, almost anxiety, as though our own personal interests were involved. Our anticipation is heightened, too, when we see Sir Fletcher Portwood and Mrs. Cloys set off upon her track. This gives us a definite point to which to look forward, while leaving the actual course of events entirely undefined. It fulfils one of the great ends of craftsmanship, in foreshadowing without forestalling an intensely interesting conjuncture of affairs.
I have laid stress on the importance of carrying forward the interest of the audience because it is a detail that is often overlooked. There is, as a rule, no difficulty in the matter, always assuming that the theme be not inherently devoid of interest. One could mention many plays in which the author has, from sheer inadvertence, failed to carry forward the interest of the first act, though a very little readjustment, or a trifling exercise of invention, would have enabled him to do so. Pillars of Society, indeed, may be taken as an instance, though not a very flagrant one. Such interest as we feel at the end of the first act is vague and unfocused. We are sure that something is to come of the return of Lona and Johan, but we have no inkling as to what that something may be. If we guess that the so-called black sheep of the family will prove to be the white sheep, it is only because we know that it is Ibsen's habit to attack respectability and criticize accepted moral values—it is not because of anything that he has told us, or hinted to us, in the play itself. In no other case does he leave our interest at such a loose end as in this, his prentice-work in modern drama. In The League of Youth, an earlier play, but of an altogether lighter type, the interest is much more definitely carried forward at the end of the first act. Stensgaard has attacked Chamberlain Bratsberg in a rousing speech, and the Chamberlain has been induced to believe that the attack was directed not against himself, but against his enemy Monsen. Consequently he invites Stensgaard to his great dinner-party, and this invitation Stensgaard regards as a cowardly attempt at conciliation. We clearly see a crisis looming ahead, when this misunderstanding shall be cleared up; and we consequently look forward with lively interest to the dinner-party of the second act—which ends, as a matter of fact, in a brilliant scene of comedy.
The principle, to recapitulate, is simply this: a good first act should never end in a blank wall. There should always be a window in it, with at least a glimpse of something attractive beyond. In Pillars of Society there is a window, indeed; but it is of ground glass.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: That great story-teller, Alexandra Dumas pere, those a straightforward way of carrying forward the interest at the end of the first act of Henri III et sa Cour. The Due de Guise, insulted by Saint-Megrin, beckons to his henchman and says, as the curtain falls, "Qu'on me cherche les memes hommes qui ont assassine Dugast!"]
[Footnote 2: There are limits to the validity of this rule, as applied to minor incidents. For example, it may sometimes be a point of art to lead the audience to expect the appearance of one person, when in fact another is about to enter. But it is exceedingly dangerous to baffle the carefully fostered anticipation of an important scene. See Chapters XVII and XXI.]