TENSION AND ITS SUSPENSION
In the days of the five-act dogma, each act was supposed to have its special and pre-ordained function. Freytag assigns to the second act, as a rule, the Steigerung or heightening—the working-up, one might call it—of the interest. But the second act, in modern plays, has often to do all the work of the three middle acts under the older dispensation; wherefore the theory of their special functions has more of a historical than of a practical interest. For our present purposes, we may treat the interior section of a play as a unit, whether it consist of one, two, or three acts.
The first act may be regarded as the porch or vestibule through which we pass into the main fabric—solemn or joyous, fantastic or austere—of the actual drama. Sometimes, indeed, the vestibule is reduced to a mere threshold which can be crossed in two strides; but normally the first act, or at any rate the greater part of it, is of an introductory character. Let us conceive, then, that we have passed the vestibule, and are now to study the principles on which the body of the structure is reared.
In the first place, is the architectural metaphor a just one? Is there, or ought there to be, any analogy between a drama and a finely-proportioned building? The question has already been touched on in the opening paragraphs of Chapter VIII; but we may now look into it a little more closely.
What is the characteristic of a fine piece of architecture? Manifestly an organic relation, a carefully-planned interdependence, between all its parts. A great building is a complete and rounded whole, just like a living organism. It is informed by an inner law of harmony and proportion, and cannot be run up at haphazard, with no definite and pre-determined design. Can we say the same of a great play?
I think we can. Even in those plays which present a picture rather than an action, we ought to recognize a principle of selection, proportion, composition, which, if not absolutely organic, is at any rate the reverse of haphazard. We may not always be able to define the principle, to put it clearly in words; but if we feel that the author has been guided by no principle, that he has proceeded on mere hand-to-mouth caprice, that there is no "inner law of harmony and proportion" in his work, then we instinctively relegate it to a low place in our esteem. Hauptmann's Weavers certainly cannot be called a piece of dramatic architecture, like Rosmersholm or Iris; but that does not mean that it is a mere rambling series of tableaux. It is not easy to define the principle of unity in that brilliant comedy The Madras House; but we nevertheless feel that a principle of unity exists; or, if we do not, so much the worse for the play and its author.
There is, indeed, a large class of plays, often popular, and sometimes meritorious, in relation to which the architectural metaphor entirely breaks down. They are what may be called "running fire" plays. We have all seen children setting a number of wooden blocks on end, at equal intervals, and then tilting over the first so that it falls against the second, which in turn falls against the third, and so on, till the whole row, with a rapid clack-clack-clack, lies flat upon the table. This is called a "running fire"; and this is the structural principle of a good many plays. We feel that the playwright is, so to speak, inventing as he goes along—that the action, like the child's fantastic serpentine of blocks, might at any moment take a turn in any possible direction without falsifying its antecedents or our expectations. No part of it is necessarily involved in any other part. If the play were found too long or too short, an act might be cut out or written in without necessitating any considerable readjustments in the other acts. The play is really a series of episodes,
"Which might, odd bobs, sir! in judicious hands, Extend from here to Mesopotamy."
The episodes may grow out of each other plausibly enough, but by no pre-ordained necessity, and with no far-reaching interdependence. We live, in such plays, from moment to moment, foreseeing nothing, desiring nothing; and though this frame of mind may be mildly agreeable, it involves none of that complexity of sensation with which we contemplate a great piece of architecture, or follow the development of a finely-constructed drama. To this order belong many cape-and-sword plays and detective dramas—plays like The Adventure of Lady Ursula, The Red Robe, the Musketeer romances that were at one time so popular, and most plays of the Sherlock Holmes and Raffles type. But pieces of a more ambitious order have been known to follow the same formula—some of the works, for instance, of Mr. Charles McEvoy, to say nothing of Mr. Bernard Shaw.
We may take it, I think, that the architectural analogy holds good of every play which can properly be said to be "constructed." Construction means dramatic architecture, or in other words, a careful pre-arrangement of proportions and interdependencies. But to carry beyond this point the analogy between the two arts would be fantastic and unhelpful. The one exists in space, the other in time. The one seeks to beget in the spectator a state of placid, though it may be of aspiring, contemplation; the other, a state of more or less acute tension. The resemblances between music and architecture are, as is well known, much more extensive and illuminating. It might not be wholly fanciful to call music a sort of middle term between the two other arts.
A great part of the secret of dramatic architecture lies in the one word "tension." To engender, maintain, suspend, heighten and resolve a state of tension—that is the main object of the dramatist's craft.
What do we mean by tension? Clearly a stretching out, a stretching forward, of the mind. That is the characteristic mental attitude of the theatrical audience. If the mind is not stretching forward, the body will soon weary of its immobility and constraint. Attention may be called the momentary correlative of tension. When we are intent on what is to come, we are attentive to what is there and then happening. The term tension is sometimes applied, not to the mental state of the audience, but to the relation of the characters on the stage. "A scene of high tension" is primarily one in which the actors undergo a great emotional strain. But this is, after all, only a means towards heightening of the mental tension of the audience. In such a scene the mind stretches forward, no longer to something vague and distant, but to something instant and imminent.
In discussing what Freytag calls the erregende Moment, we might have defined it as the starting-point of the tension. A reasonable audience will, if necessary, endure a certain amount of exposition, a certain positing of character and circumstance, before the tension sets in; but when it once has set in, the playwright must on no account suffer it to relax until he deliberately resolves it just before the fall of the curtain. There are, of course, minor rhythms of tension and resolution, like the harmonic vibrations of a violin-string. That is implied when we say that a play consists of a great crisis worked out through a series of minor crises. But the main tension, once initiated, must never be relaxed. If it is, the play is over, though the author may have omitted to note the fact. Not infrequently, he begins a new play under the impression that he is finishing the old one. That is what Shakespeare did in The Merchant of Venice. The fifth act is an independent afterpiece, though its independence is slightly disguised by the fact that the erregende Moment of the new play follows close upon the end of the old one, with no interact between. A very exacting technical criticism might accuse Ibsen of verging towards the same fault in An Enemy of the People. There the tension is practically resolved with Dr. Stockmann's ostracism at the end of the fourth act. At that point, if it did not know that there was another act to come, an audience might go home in perfect content. The fifth act is a sort of epilogue or sequel, built out of the materials of the preceding drama, but not forming an integral part of it. With a brief exposition to set forth the antecedent circumstances, it would be quite possible to present the fifth act as an independent comedietta.
But here a point of great importance calls for our notice. Though the tension, once started, must never be relaxed: though it ought, on the contrary, to be heightened or tightened (as you choose to put it) from act to act; yet there are times when it may without disadvantage, or even with marked advantage, be temporarily suspended. In other words, the stretching-forward, without in any way slackening, may fall into the background of our consciousness, while other matters, the relevance of which may not be instantly apparent, are suffered to occupy the foreground. We know all too well, in everyday experience, that tension is not really relaxed by a temporary distraction. The dread of a coming ordeal in the witness-box or on the operating-table may be forcibly crushed down like a child's jack-in-the-box; but we are always conscious of the effort to compress it, and we know that it will spring up again the moment that effort ceases. Sir Arthur Pinero's play, The Profligate, was written at a time when it was the fashion to give each act a sub-title; and one of its acts is headed "The Sword of Damocles." That is, indeed, the inevitable symbol of dramatic tension: we see a sword of Damocles (even though it be only a farcical blade of painted lathe) impending over someone's head: and when once we are confident that it will fall at the fated moment, we do not mind having our attention momentarily diverted to other matters. A rather flagrant example of suspended attention is afforded by Hamlet's advice to the Players. We know that Hamlet has hung a sword of Damocles over the King's head in the shape of the mimic murder-scene; and, while it is preparing, we are quite willing to have our attention switched off to certain abstract questions of dramatic criticism. The scene might have been employed to heighten the tension. Instead of giving the Players (in true princely fashion) a lesson in the general principles of their art, Hamlet might have specially "coached" them in the "business" of the scene to be enacted, and thus doubly impressed on the audience his resolve to "tent" the King "to the quick." I am far from suggesting that this would have been desirable; but it would obviously have been possible. Shakespeare, as the experience of three centuries has shown, did right in judging that the audience was already sufficiently intent on the coming ordeal, and would welcome an interlude of aesthetic theory.
There are times, moreover, when it is not only permissible to suspend the tension, but when, by so doing, a great artist can produce a peculiar and admirable effect. A sudden interruption, on the very brink of a crisis, may, as it were, whet the appetite of the audience for what is to come. We see in the Porter scene in Macbeth a suspension of this nature; but Shakespeare used it sparingly, unless, indeed, we are to consider as a deliberate point of art the retardation of movement commonly observable in the fourth acts of his tragedies. Ibsen, on the other hand, deliberately employed this device on three conspicuous occasions. The entrance of Dr. Rank in the last act of A Doll's House is a wholly unnecessary interruption to the development of the crisis between Nora and Helmer. The scene might be entirely omitted without leaving a perceptible hiatus in the action; yet who does not feel that this brief respite lends gathered impetus to the main action when it is resumed? The other instances are offered by the two apparitions of Ulric Brendel in Rosmersholm. The first occurs when Rosmer is on the very verge of his momentous confession to Kroll, the second when Rosmer and Rebecca are on the very verge of their last great resolve; and in each case we feel a distinct value (apart from the inherent quality of the Brendel scenes) in the very fact that the tension has been momentarily suspended. Such a rallentando effect is like the apparent pause in the rush of a river before it thunders over a precipice.
The possibility of suspending tension is of wider import than may at first sight appear. But for it, our dramas would have to be all bone and muscle, like the figures in an anatomical textbook. As it is, we are able, without relaxing tension, to shift it to various planes of consciousness, and thus find leisure to reproduce the surface aspects of life, with some of its accidents and irrelevances. For example, when the playwright has, at the end of his first act, succeeded in carrying onward the spectator's interest, and giving him something definite to look forward to, it does not at all follow that the expected scene, situation, revelation, or what not, should come at the beginning of the second act. In some cases it must do so; when, as in The Idyll above cited, the spectator has been carefully induced to expect some imminent conjuncture which cannot be postponed. But this can scarcely be called a typical case. More commonly, when an author has enlisted the curiosity of his audience of some definite point, he will be in no great hurry to satisfy and dissipate it. He may devote the early part of the second act to working-up the same line of interest to a higher pitch; or he may hold it in suspense while he prepares some further development of the action. The closeness with which a line of interest, once started, ought to be followed up, must depend in some measure on the nature and tone of the play. If it be a serious play, in which character and action are very closely intertwined, any pause or break in the conjoint development is to be avoided. If, on the other hand, it is a play of light and graceful dialogue, in which the action is a pretext for setting the characters in motion rather than the chief means towards their manifestation, then the playwright can afford to relax the rate of his progress, and even to wander a little from the straight line of advance. In such a play, even the old institution of the "underplot" is not inadmissible; though the underplot ought scarcely to be a "plot," but only some very slight thread of interest, involving no strain on the attention. It may almost be called an established practice, on the English stage, to let the dalliance of a pair of boy-and-girl lovers relieve the main interest of a more or less serious comedy; and there is no particular harm in such a convention, if it be not out of keeping with the general character of the play. In some plays the substance—the character-action, if one may so call it—is the main, and indeed the only, thing. In others the substance, though never unimportant, is in some degree subordinate to the embroideries; and it is for the playwright to judge how far this subordination may safely be carried.
One principle, however, may be emphasized as almost universally valid, and that is that the end of an act should never leave the action just where it stood at the beginning. An audience has an instinctive sense of, and desire for, progress. It does not like to realize that things have been merely marking time. Even if it has been thoroughly entertained, from moment to moment, during the progress of an act, it does not like to feel at the end that nothing has really happened. The fall of the curtain gives time for reflection, and for the ordering of impressions which, while the action was afoot, were more or less vague and confused. It is therefore of great importance that each act should, to put it briefly, bear looking back upon—that it should appear to stand in due proportion to the general design of the play, and should not be felt to have been empty, or irrelevant, or disappointing. This is, indeed, a plain corollary from the principle of tension. Suspended it may be, sometimes with positive advantage; but it must not be suspended too long; and suspension for a whole act is equivalent to relaxation.
To sum up: when once a play has begun to move, its movement ought to proceed continuously, and with gathering momentum; or, if it stands still for a space, the stoppage ought to be deliberate and purposeful. It is fatal when the author thinks it is moving, while in fact it is only revolving on its own axis.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: This method of heightening the tension would have been somewhat analogous to that employed by Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere's instructions to her butler, cited on p. 115.]
[Footnote 2: Dryden (Of Dramatic Poesy, p. 56, ed. Arnold, 1903) says: "Our plays, besides the main design, have underplots or by-concernments, of less considerable persons and intrigues, which are carried on with the motion of the main plot; as they say the orb of the fixed stars, and those of the planets, though they have motions of their own, are whirled about by the motion of the primum mobile, in which they are contained." This is an admirable description of the ideal underplot, as conceived by our forefathers; but we find that two lines of tension jar with and weaken each other.]
PREPARATION: THE FINGER-POST
We shall find, on looking into it, that most of the technical maxims that have any validity may be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the great principle of tension. The art of construction is summed up, first, in giving the mind of an audience something to which to stretch forward, and, secondly, in not letting it feel that it has stretched forward in vain. "You will find it infinitely pleasing," says Dryden, "to be led in a labyrinth of design, where you see some of your way before you, yet discern not the end till you arrive at it." Or, he might have added, "if you foresee the end, but not the means by which it is to be reached." In drama, as in all art, the "how" is often more important than the "what."
No technical maxim is more frequently cited than the remark of the younger Dumas: "The art of the theatre is the art of preparations." This is true in a larger sense than he intended; but at the same time there are limits to its truth, which we must not fail to observe.
Dumas, as we know, was an inveterate preacher, using the stage as a pulpit for the promulgation of moral and social ideas which were, in their day, considered very advanced and daring. The primary meaning of his maxim, then, was that a startling idea, or a scene wherein such an idea was implied, ought not to be sprung upon an audience wholly unprepared to accept it. For instance, in Monsieur Alphonse, a husband, on discovering that his wife has had an intrigue before their marriage, and that a little girl whom she wishes to adopt is really her daughter, instantly raises her from the ground where she lies grovelling at his feet, and says: "Creature de Dieu, toi qui as failli et te repens, releve toi, je te pardonne." This evangelical attitude on the part of Admiral de Montaiglin was in itself very surprising, and perhaps not wholly admirable, to the Parisian public of 1873; but Dumas had so "prepared" the coup de theatre that it passed with very slight difficulty on the first night, and with none at all at subsequent performances and revivals. How had he "prepared" it? Why, by playing, in a score of subtle ways, upon the sympathies and antipathies of the audience. For instance, as Sarcey points out, he had made M. de Montaiglin a sailor, "accustomed, during his distant voyages, to long reveries in view of the boundless ocean, whence he had acquired a mystical habit of mind.... Dumas certainly would never have placed this pardon in the mouth of a stockbroker." So far so good; but "preparation," in the sense of the word, is a device of rhetoric or of propaganda rather than of dramatic craftsmanship. It is a method of astutely undermining or outflanking prejudice. Desiring to enforce a general principle, you invent a case which is specially favourable to your argument, and insinuate it into the acceptance of the audience by every possible subtlety of adjustment. You trust, it would seem, that people who have applauded an act of pardon in an extreme case will be so much the readier to exercise that high prerogative in the less carefully "prepared" cases which present themselves in real life. This may or may not be a sound principle of persuasion; as we are not here considering the drama as an art of persuasion, we have not to decide between this and the opposite, or Shawesque, principle of shocking and startling an audience by the utmost violence of paradox. There is something to be said for both methods—for conversion by pill-and-jelly and for conversion by nitroglycerine.
Reverting, now, to the domain of pure craftsmanship, can it be said that "the art of the theatre is the art of preparation"? Yes, it is very largely the art of delicate and unobtrusive preparation, of helping an audience to divine whither it is going, while leaving it to wonder how it is to get there. On the other hand, it is also the art of avoiding laborious, artificial and obvious preparations which lead to little or nothing. A due proportion must always be observed between the preparation and the result.
To illustrate the meaning of preparation, as the word is here employed, I may perhaps be allowed to reprint a passage from a review of Mr. Israel Zangwill's play Children of the Ghetto.
"... To those who have not read the novel, it must seem as though the mere illustrations of Jewish life entirely overlaid and overwhelmed the action. It is not so in reality. One who knows the story beforehand can often see that it is progressing even in scenes which seem purely episodic and unconnected either with each other or with the general scheme. But Mr. Zangwill has omitted to provide finger-posts, if I may so express it, to show those who do not know the story beforehand whither he is leading them. He has neglected the great art of forecasting, of keeping anticipation on the alert, which is half the secret of dramatic construction. To forecast, without discounting, your effects—that is all the Law and the Prophets. In the first act of Children of the Ghetto, for instance, we see the marriage in jest of Hannah to Sam Levine, followed by the instant divorce with all its curious ceremonies. This is amusing so far as it goes; but when the divorce is completed, the whole thing seems to be over and done with. We have seen some people, in whom as yet we take no particular interest, enmeshed in a difficulty arising from a strange and primitive formalism in the interpretation of law; and we have seen the meshes cut to the satisfaction of all parties, and the incident to all appearance closed. There is no finger-post to direct our anticipation on the way it should go; and those who have not read the book cannot possibly guess that this mock marriage, instantly and ceremoniously dissolved, can have any ulterior effect upon the fortunes of any one concerned. Thus, the whole scene, however curious in itself, seems motiveless and resultless. How the requisite finger-post was to be provided I cannot tell. That is not my business; but a skilful dramatist would have made it his. Then, in the second act, amid illustrations of social life in the Ghetto, we have the meeting of Hannah with David Brandon, a prettily-written scene of love-at-first-sight. But, so far as any one can see, there is every prospect that the course of true love will run absolutely smooth. Again we lack a finger-post to direct our interest forward; nor do we see anything that seems to bring this act into vital relation with its predecessor. Those who have read the book know that David Brandon is a 'Cohen,' a priest, a descendant of Aaron, and that a priest may not marry a divorced woman. Knowing this, we have a sense of irony, of impending disaster, which renders the love-scene of the second act dramatic. But to those, and they must always be a majority in any given audience, who do not know this, the scene has no more dramatic quality than lies in its actual substance, which, although pretty enough, is entirely commonplace. Not till the middle of the third act (out of four) is the obstacle revealed, and we see that the mighty maze was not without a plan. Here, then, the drama begins, after two acts and a half of preparation, during which we were vouchsafed no inkling of what was preparing. It is capital drama when we come to it, really human, really tragic. The arbitrary prohibitions of the Mosaic law have no religious or moral force either for David or for Hannah. They feel it to be their right, almost their duty, to cast off their shackles. In any community, save that of strict Judaism, they are perfectly free to marry. But in thus flouting the letter of the law, Hannah well knows that she will break her father's heart. Even as she struggles to shake them off, the traditions of her race take firmer hold on her; and in the highly dramatic last act (a not unskilful adaptation to the stage of the crucial scene of the book) she bows her neck beneath the yoke, and renounces love that the Law may be fulfilled."
To state the matter in other terms, we are conscious of no tension in the earlier acts of this play, because we have not been permitted to see the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Hannah and David Brandon. For lack of preparation, of pointing-forward, we feel none of that god-like superiority to the people of the mimic world which we have recognized as the characteristic privilege of the spectator. We know no more than they do of the implications of their acts, and the network of embarrassments in which they are involving themselves. Indeed, we know less than they do: for Hannah, as a well brought-up Jewess, is no doubt vaguely aware of the disabilities attaching to a divorced woman. A gentile audience, on the other hand, cannot possibly foresee how—
"Some consequence yet hanging in the stars Shall bitterly begin his fearful date With this night's revels."
and, lacking that foreknowledge, it misses the specifically dramatic effect of the scenes. The author invites it to play at blind-man's-buff with the characters, instead of unsealing its eyes and enabling it to watch the game from its Olympian coign of vantage.
Let the dramatist, then, never neglect to place the requisite finger-posts on the road he would have us follow. It is not, of course, necessary that we should be conscious of all the implications of any given scene or incident, but we must know enough of them not only to create the requisite tension, but to direct it towards the right quarter of the compass. Retrospective elucidations are valueless and sometimes irritating. It is in nowise to the author's interest that we should say, "Ah, if we had only known this, or foreseen that, in time, the effect of such-and-such a scene would have been entirely different!" We have no use for finger-posts that point backwards.
In the works of Sir Arthur Pinero I recall two cases in which the lack of a finger-post impairs the desired effect: slightly, in the one instance, in the other, very considerably. The third act of that delightful comedy The Princess and the Butterfly contains no sufficient indication of Fay Zuliani's jealousy of the friendship between Sir George Lamorant and the Princess Pannonia. We are rather at a loss to account for the coldness of her attitude to the Princess, and her perverse naughtiness in going off to the Opera Ball. This renders the end of the act practically ineffective. We so little foresee what is to come of Fay's midnight escapade, that we take no particular interest in it, and are rather disconcerted by the care with which it is led up to, and the prominence assigned to it. This, however, is a trifling fault. Far different is the case in the last act of The Benefit of the Doubt, which goes near to ruining what is otherwise a very fine play. The defect, indeed, is not purely technical: on looking into it we find that the author is not in fact working towards an ending which can be called either inevitable or conspicuously desirable. His failure to point forward is no doubt partly due to his having nothing very satisfactory to point forward to. But it is only in retrospect that this becomes apparent. What we feel while the act is in progress is simply the lack of any finger-post to afford us an inkling of the end towards which we are proceeding. Through scene after scene we appear to be making no progress, but going round and round in a depressing circle. The tension, in a word, is fatally relaxed. It may perhaps be suggested as a maxim that when an author finds a difficulty in placing the requisite finger-posts, as he nears the end of his play, he will do well to suspect that the end he has in view is defective, and to try if he cannot amend it.
In the ancient, and in the modern romantic, drama, oracles, portents, prophecies, horoscopes and such-like intromissions of the supernatural afforded a very convenient aid to the placing of the requisite finger-posts—"foreshadowing without forestalling." It has often been said that Macbeth approaches the nearest of all Shakespeare's tragedies to the antique model: and in nothing is the resemblance clearer than in the employment of the Witches to point their skinny fingers into the fated future. In Romeo and Juliet, inward foreboding takes the place of outward prophecy. I have quoted above Romeo's prevision of "Some consequence yet hanging in the stars"; and beside it may be placed Juliet's—
"I have no joy of this contract to-night; It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, Too like the lightning which doth cease to be Ere one can say it lightens."
In Othello, on the other hand, the most modern of all his plays, Shakespeare had recourse neither to outward boding, nor to inward foreboding, but planted a plain finger-post in the soil of human nature, when he made Brabantio say—
"Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee."
Mr. Stephen Phillips, in the first act of Paolo and Francesca, outdoes all his predecessors, ancient or modern, in his daring use of sibylline prophecy. He makes Giovanni's blind foster-mother, Angela, foretell the tragedy in almost every detail, save that, in her vision, she cannot see the face of Francesca's lover. Mr. Phillips, I take it, is here reinforcing ancient tradition by a reference to modern "psychical research." He trusts to our conceiving such clairvoyance to be not wholly impossible, and giving it what may be called provisional credence. Whether the device be artistic or not we need not here consider. I merely point to it as a conspicuous example of the use of the finger-post.
It need scarcely be said that a misleading finger-post is carefully to be avoided, except in the rare cases where it may be advisable to beget a momentary misapprehension on the part of the audience, which shall be almost instantly corrected in some pleasant or otherwise effective fashion. It is naturally difficult to think of striking instances of the misleading finger-posts; for plays which contain such a blunder are not apt to survive, even in the memory. A small example occurs in a clever play named A Modern Aspasia by Mr. Hamilton Fyfe. Edward Meredith has two households: a London house over which his lawful wife, Muriel, presides; and a country cottage where dwells his mistress, Margaret, with her two children. One day Muriel's automobile breaks down near Margaret's cottage, and, while the tyre is being repaired, Margaret gives her visitor tea, neither of them knowing the other. Throughout the scene we are naturally wondering whether a revelation is to occur; and when, towards the close, Muriel goes to Margaret's room, "to put her hat straight," we have no longer any doubt on the subject. It is practically inevitable that she should find in the room her husband's photograph, or some object which she should instantly recognize as his, and should return to the stage in full possession of the secret. This is so probable that nothing but a miracle can prevent it: we mentally give the author credit for bringing about his revelation in a very simple and natural way; and we are proportionately disappointed when we find that the miracle has occurred, and that Muriel returns to the sitting-room no wiser than she left it. Very possibly the general economy of the play demanded that the revelation should not take place at this juncture. That question does not here concern us. The point is that, having determined to reserve the revelation for his next act, the author ought not, by sending Muriel into Margaret's bedroom, to have awakened in us a confident anticipation of its occurring there and then. A romantic play by Mr. J. B. Fagan, entitled Under Which King? offers another small instance of the same nature. The date is 1746; certain despatches of vast importance have to be carried by a Hanoverian officer from Moidart to Fort William. The Jacobites arrange to drug the officer; and, to make assurance doubly sure, in case the drug should fail to act, they post a Highland marksman in a narrow glen to pick him off as he passes. The drug does act; but his lady-love, to save his military honour, assumes male attire and rides off with the despatches. We hear her horse's hoofs go clattering down the road; and then, as the curtain falls, we hear a shot ring out into the night. This shot is a misleading finger-post. Nothing comes of it: we find in the next act that the marksman has missed! But marksmen, under such circumstances, have no business to miss. It is a breach of the dramatic proprieties. We feel that the author has been trifling with us in inflicting on us this purely mechanical and momentary "scare." The case would be different if the young lady knew that the marksman was lying in ambush, and determined to run the gantlet. In that case the incident would be a trait of character; but, unless my memory deceives me, that is not the case. On the stage, every bullet should have its billet—not necessarily in the person aimed at, but in the emotions or anticipations of the audience. This bullet may, indeed, give us a momentary thrill of alarm; but it is dearly bought at the expense of subsequent disillusionment.
We have now to consider the subject of over-preparation, too obtrusive preparation, mountainous preparation leading only to a mouse-like effect. This is the characteristic error of the so-called "well-made play," the play of elaborate and ingenious intrigue. The trouble with the well-made play is that it is almost always, and of necessity, ill-made. Very rarely does the playwright succeed in weaving a web which is at once intricate, consistent, and clear. In nineteen cases out of twenty there are glaring flaws that have to be overlooked; or else the pattern is so involved that the mind's eye cannot follow it, and becomes bewildered and fatigued. A classical example of both faults may be found in Congreve's so-called comedy The Double-Dealer. This is, in fact, a powerful drama, somewhat in the Sardou manner; but Congreve had none of Sardou's deftness in manipulating an intrigue. Maskwell is not only a double-dealer, but a triple—or quadruple-dealer; so that the brain soon grows dizzy in the vortex of his villainies. The play, it may be noted, was a failure.
There is a quite legitimate pleasure to be found, no doubt, in a complex intrigue which is also perspicuous. Plays such as Alexandre Dumas's Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle, or the pseudo-historical dramas of Scribe-Adrienne Lecouvreur, Bertrand et Raton, Un Verre d'Eau, Les Trois Maupin, etc.—are amusing toys, like those social or military tableaux, the figures of which you can set in motion by dropping a penny in the slot. But the trick of this sort of "preparation" has long been found out, and even unsophisticated audiences are scarcely to be thrilled by it. We may accept it as a sound principle, based on common sense and justified by experience, that an audience should never be tempted to exclaim, "What a marvellously clever fellow is this playwright! How infinitely cleverer than the dramatist who constructs the tragi-comedy of life."
This is what we inevitably exclaim as we watch Victorien Sardou, in whom French ingenuity culminated and caricatured itself, laying the foundations of one of his labyrinthine intrigues. The absurdities of "preparation" in this sense could scarcely be better satirized than in the following page from Francisque Sarcey's criticism of Nos Intimes (known in English as Peril)—a page which is intended, not as satire, but as eulogy—
At the sixth performance, I met, during the first interact, a man of infinite taste who ... complained of the lengthiness of this first act: "What a lot of details," he said, "which serve no purpose, and had better have been omitted! What is the use of that long story about the cactus with a flower that is unique in all the world? Why trouble us with that dahlia-root, which M. Caussade's neighbour has thrown over the garden wall? Was it necessary to inflict on us all that talk about the fox that plays havoc in the garden? What have we to do with that mischievous beast? And that Tolozan, with his endless digressions! What do we care about his ideas on love, on metempsychosis, on friendship, etc.? All this stuff only retards the action."
"On the contrary," I replied, "all this is just what is going to interest you. You are impatient of these details, because you are looking out for the scenes of passion which have been promised you. But reflect that, without these preparations, the scenes of passion would not touch you. That cactus-flower will play its part, you may be sure; that dahlia-root is not there for nothing; that fox to which you object, and of which you will hear more talk during two more acts, will bring about the solution of one of the most entertaining situations in all drama."
M. Sarcey does not tell us what his interlocutor replied; but he might have said, like the hero of Le Reveillon: "Are you sure there is no mistake? Are you defending Sardou, or attacking him?"
For another example of ultra-complex preparation let me turn to a play by Mr. Sydney Grundy, entitled The Degenerates. Mr. Grundy, though an adept of the Scribe school, has done so much strong and original work that I apologize for exhuming a play in which he almost burlesqued his own method; but for that very reason it is difficult to find a more convincing or more deterrent example of misdirected ingenuity. The details of the plot need not be recited. It is sufficient to say that the curtain has not been raised ten minutes before our attention has been drawn to the fact that a certain Lady Saumarez has her monogram on everything she wears, even to her gloves: whence we at once foresee that she is destined to get into a compromising situation, to escape from it, but to leave a glove behind her. In due time the compromising situation arrives, and we find that it not only requires a room with three doors, but that a locksmith has to be specially called in to provide two of these doors with peculiar locks, so that, when once shut, they cannot be opened from inside except with a key! What interest can we take in a situation turning on such contrivances? Sane technic laughs at locksmiths. And after all this preparation, the situation proves to be a familiar trick of theatrical thimble-rigging: you lift the thimble, and instead of Pea A, behold Pea B!—instead of Lady Saumarez it is Mrs. Trevelyan who is concealed in Isidore de Lorano's bedroom. Sir William Saumarez must be an exceedingly simple-minded person to accept the substitution, and exceedingly unfamiliar with the French drama of the 'seventies and 'eighties. If he had his wits about him he would say: "I know this dodge: it comes from Sardou. Lady Saumarez has just slipped out by that door, up R., and if I look about I shall certainly find her fan, or her glove, or her handkerchief somewhere on the premises." The author may object that such criticism would end in paralysing the playwright, and that, if men always profited by the lessons of the stage, the world would long ago have become so wise that there would be no more room in it for drama, which lives on human folly. "You will tell me next," he may say, "that I must not make groundless jealousy the theme of a play, because every one who has seen Othello would at once detect the machinations of an Iago!" The retort is logically specious, but it mistakes the point. It would certainly be rash to put any limit to human gullibility, or to deny that Sir William Saumarez, in the given situation, might conceivably be hoodwinked. The question is not one of psychology but of theatrical expediency: and the point is that when a situation is at once highly improbable in real life and exceedingly familiar on the stage, we cannot help mentally caricaturing it as it proceeds, and are thus prevented from lending it the provisional credence on which interest and emotion depend.
An instructive contrast to The Degenerates may be found in a nearly contemporary play, Mrs. Dane's Defence, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones. The first three acts of this play may be cited as an excellent example of dexterous preparation and development. Our interest in the sequence of events is aroused, sustained, and worked up to a high tension with consummate skill. There is no feverish overcrowding of incident, as is so often the case in the great French story-plays—Adrienne Lecouvreur, for example, or Fedora. The action moves onwards, unhasting, unresting, and the finger-posts are placed just where they are wanted.
The observance of a due proportion between preparation and result is a matter of great moment. Even when the result achieved is in itself very remarkable, it may be dearly purchased by a too long and too elaborate process of preparation. A famous play which is justly chargeable with this fault is The Gay Lord Quex. The third act is certainly one of the most breathlessly absorbing scenes in modern drama; but by what long, and serpentine, and gritty paths do we not approach it! The elaborate series of trifling incidents by means of which Sophy Fullgarney is first brought from New Bond Street to Fauncey Court, and then substituted for the Duchess's maid, is at no point actually improbable; and yet we feel that a vast effort has been made to attain an end which, owing to the very length of the sequence of chances, at last assumes an air of improbability. There is little doubt that the substructure of the great scene might have been very much simpler. I imagine that Sir Arthur Pinero was betrayed into complexity and over-elaboration by his desire to use, as a background for his action, a study of that "curious phase of modern life," the manicurist's parlour. To those who find this study interesting, the disproportion between preliminaries and result may be less apparent. It certainly did not interfere with the success of the play in its novelty; but it may very probably curtail its lease of life. What should we know of The School for Scandal to-day, if it consisted of nothing but the Screen Scene and two laborious acts of preparation?
A too obvious preparation is very apt to defeat its end by begetting a perversely quizzical frame of mind in the audience. The desired effect is discounted, like a conjuring trick in which the mechanism is too transparent. Let me recall a trivial but instructive instance of this error. The occasion was the first performance of Pillars of Society at the Gaiety Theatre, London—the first Ibsen performance ever given in England. At the end of the third act, Krap, Consul Bernick's clerk, knocks at the door of his master's office and says, "It is blowing up to a stiff gale. Is the Indian Girl to sail in spite of it?" Whereupon Bernick, though he knows that the Indian Girl is hopelessly unseaworthy, replies, "The Indian Girl is to sail in spite of it." It had occurred to someone that the effect of this incident would be heightened if Krap, before knocking at the Consul's door, were to consult the barometer, and show by his demeanour that it was falling rapidly. A barometer had accordingly been hung, up stage, near the veranda entrance; and, as the scenic apparatus of a Gaiety matinee was in those days always of the scantiest, it was practically the one decoration of a room otherwise bare almost to indecency. It had stared the audience full in the face through three long acts; and when, at the end of the third, Krap went up to it and tapped it, a sigh of relief ran through the house, as much as to say, "At last! so that was what it was for!"—to the no small detriment of the situation. Here the fault lay in the obtrusiveness of the preparation. Had the barometer passed practically unnoticed among the other details of a well-furnished hall, it would at any rate have been innocent, and perhaps helpful. As it was, it seemed to challenge the curiosity of the audience, saying, "I am evidently here with some intention; guess, now, what the intention can be!" The producer had failed in the art which conceals art.
Another little trait from a play of those far-past days illustrates the same point. It was a drawing-room drama of the Scribe school. Near the beginning of an act, some one spilt a bottle of red ink, and mopped it up with his (or her) handkerchief, leaving the handkerchief on the escritoire. The act proceeded from scene to scene, and the handkerchief remained unnoticed; but every one in the audience who knew the rules of the game, kept his eye on the escritoire, and was certain that that ink had not been spilt for nothing. In due course a situation of great intensity was reached, wherein the villain produced a pistol and fired at the heroine, who fainted. As a matter of fact he had missed her; but her quick-witted friend seized the gory handkerchief, and, waving it in the air, persuaded the villain that the shot had taken deadly effect, and that he must flee for his life. Even in those days, such an unblushing piece of trickery was found more comic than impressive. It was a case of preparation "giving itself away."
A somewhat later play, The Mummy and the Humming Bird, by Mr. Isaac Henderson, contains a good example of over-elaborate preparation. The Earl of Lumley, lost in his chemical studies with a more than Newtonian absorption, suffers his young wife to form a sentimental friendship with a scoundrel of an Italian novelist, Signor D'Orelli. Remaining at home one evening, when Lady Lumley and a party of friends, including D'Orelli, have gone off to dine at a restaurant, the Earl chances to look out of the window, and observes an organ-grinder making doleful music in the snow. His heart is touched, and he invites the music-monger to join him in his study and share his informal dinner. The conversation between them is carried on by means of signs, for the organ-grinder knows no English, and the Earl is painfully and improbably ignorant of Italian. He does not even know that Roma means Rome, and Londra, London. This ignorance, however, is part of the author's ingenuity. It leads to the establishment of a sort of object-speech, by aid of which the Earl learns that his guest has come to England to prosecute a vendetta against the man who ruined his happy Sicilian home. I need scarcely say that this villain is none other than D'Orelli; and when at last he and the Countess elope to Paris, the object-speech enables Giuseppe to convey to the Earl, by aid of a brandy-bottle, a siphon, a broken plate, and half-a-crown, not only the place of their destination, but the very hotel to which they are going. This is a fair example of that ingenuity for ingenuity's sake which was once thought the very essence of the playwright's craft, but has long ago lost all attraction for intelligent audiences.
We may take it as a rule that any scene which requires an obviously purposeful scenic arrangement is thereby discounted. It may be strong enough to live down the disadvantage; but a disadvantage it is none the less. In a play of Mr. Carton's, The Home Secretary, a paper of great importance was known to be contained in an official despatch-box. When the curtain rose on the last act, it revealed this despatch-box on a table right opposite a French window, while at the other side of the room a high-backed arm-chair discreetly averted its face. Every one could see at a glance that the romantic Anarchist was going to sneak in at the window and attempt to abstract the despatch-box, while the heroine was to lie perdue in the high-backed chair; and when, at the fated moment, all this punctually occurred, one could scarcely repress an "Ah!" of sarcastic satisfaction. Similarly, in an able play named Mr. and Mrs. Daventry, Mr. Frank Harris had conceived a situation which required that the scene should be specially built for eavesdropping. As soon as the curtain rose, and revealed a screen drawn halfway down the stage, with a sofa ensconced behind it, we knew what to expect. Of course Mrs. Daventry was to lie on the sofa and overhear a duologue between her husband and his mistress: the only puzzle was to understand why the guilty pair should neglect the precaution of looking behind the screen. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Daventry, before she lay down, switched off the lights, and Daventry and Lady Langham, finding the room dark, assumed it to be empty. With astounding foolhardiness, considering that the house was full of guests, and this a much frequented public room, Daventry proceeded to lock the door, and continue his conversation with Lady Langham in the firelight. Thus, when the lady's husband came knocking at the door, Mrs. Daventry was able to rescue the guilty pair from an apparently hopeless predicament, by calmly switching on the lights and opening the door to Sir John Langham. The situation was undoubtedly a "strong" one; but the tendency of modern technic is to hold "strength" too dearly purchased at such reckless expense of preparation.
There are, then, very clear limits to the validity of the Dumas maxim that "The art of the theatre is the art of preparations." Certain it is that over-preparation is the most fatal of errors. The clumsiest thing a dramatist can possibly do is to lay a long and elaborate train for the ignition of a squib. We take pleasure in an event which has been "prepared" in the sense that we have been led to desire it, and have wondered how it was to be brought about. But we scoff at an occurrence which nothing but our knowledge of the tricks of the stage could possibly lead us to expect, yet which, knowing these tricks, we have foreseen from afar, and resented in advance.
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[Footnote 1: Of Dramatic Poesy, ed. Arnold, 1903, p. 60.]
[Footnote 2: The World, December 20, 1899.]
[Footnote 3: At the end of the first act of Lady Inger of Ostraat, Ibsen evidently intends to produce a startling effect through the sudden appearance of Olaf Skaktavl in Lady Inger's hall. But as he has totally omitted to tell us who the strange man is, the incident has no meaning for us. In 1855 Ibsen had all his technical lessons yet to learn.]
[Footnote 4: The fact that Mr. Phillips should have deemed such a foreshadowing necessary shows how instinctively a dramatist feels that the logic of his art requires him to assume that his audience is ignorant of his fable. In reality, very few members of the first-night audience, or of any other, can have depended on old Angela's vaticination for the requisite foresight of events. But this does not prove Angela to be artistically superfluous.]
[Footnote 5: See pp. 118, 240.]
[Footnote 6: There is no special harm in this: the question of exits and entrances and their mechanism is discussed in Chapter XXIII.]
[Footnote 7: This might be said of the scene of the second act of The Benefit of the Doubt; but here the actual stage-topography is natural enough. The author, however, is rather over-anxious to emphasize the acoustic relations of the two rooms.]
THE OBLIGATORY SCENE
I do not know whether it was Francisque Sarcey who invented the phrase scene a faire; but it certainly owes its currency to that valiant champion of the theatrical theatre, if I may so express it. Note that in this term I intend no disrespect. My conception of the theatrical theatre may not be exactly the same as M. Sarcey's; but at all events I share his abhorrence of the untheatrical theatre.
What is the scene a faire? Sarcey has used the phrase so often, and in so many contexts, that it is impossible to tie him down to any strict definition. Instead of trying to do so, I will give a typical example of the way in which he usually employs the term.
In Les Fourchambault, by Emile Augier, the first act introduces us to the household of a merchant, of Havre, who has married a wealthy, but extravagant woman, and has a son and daughter who are being gradually corrupted by their mother's worldliness. We learn that Fourchambault, senior, has, in his youth, betrayed a young woman who was a governess in his family. He wanted to marry her, but his relations maligned her character, and he cast her off; nor does he know what has become of her and her child. In the second act we pass to the house of an energetic and successful young shipowner named Bernard, who lives alone with his mother. Bernard, as we divine, is secretly devoted to a young lady named Marie Letellier, a guest in the Fourchambault house, to whom young Leopold Fourchambault is paying undesirable attentions. One day Bernard casually mentions to his mother that the house of Fourchambault is on the verge of bankruptcy; nothing less than a quarter of a million francs will enable it to tide over the crisis. Mme. Bernard, to her son's astonishment, begs him to lend the tottering firm the sum required. He objects that, unless the business is better managed, the loan will only postpone the inevitable disaster. "Well, then, my son," she replied, "you must go into partnership with M. Fourchambault." "I! with that imbecile!" he exclaims. "My son," she says gravely, and emphatically, "you must—it is your duty—I demand it of you!" "Ah!" cries Bernard. "I understand—he is my father!"
After ecstatically lauding this situation and the scenes which have led up to it, M. Sarcey continues—
When the curtain falls upon the words "He is my father," I at once see two scenes a faire, and I know that they will be faites: the scene between the son and the father whom he is to save, the scene between Bernard and his half-brother Leopold, who are in love with the same woman, the one dishonourably and the other secretly and nobly. What will they say to each other? I have no idea. But it is precisely this expectation mingled with uncertainly that is one of the charms of the theatre. I say to myself, "Ah, they will have an encounter! What will come of it?" And that this is the state of mind of the whole audience is proved by the fact that when the two characters of the scenes a faire stand face to face, a thrill of anticipation runs round the whole theatre.
This, then, is the obligatory scene as Sarcey generally understands it—a scene which, for one reason or another, an audience expects and ardently desires. I have italicized the phrase "expectation mingled with uncertainty" because it expresses in other terms the idea which I have sought to convey in the formula "foreshadowing without forestalling." But before we can judge of the merits of M. Sarcey's theory, we must look into it a little more closely. I shall try, then, to state it in my own words, in what I believe to be its most rational and defensible form.
An obligatory scene is one which the audience (more or less clearly and consciously) foresees and desires, and the absence of which it may with reason resent. On a rough analysis, it will appear, I think, that there are five ways in which a scene may become, in this sense, obligatory:
(1) It may be necessitated by the inherent logic of the theme.
(2) It may be demanded by the manifest exigencies of specifically dramatic effect.
(3) The author himself may have rendered it obligatory by seeming unmistakably to lead up to it.
(4) It may be required in order to justify some modification of character or alteration of will, too important to be taken for granted.
(5) It may be imposed by history or legend.
These five classes of obligatory scenes may be docketed, respectively, as the Logical, the Dramatic, the Structural, the Psychological, and the Historic. M. Sarcey generally employed the term in one of the first three senses, without clearly distinguishing between them. It is, indeed, not always easy to determine whether the compulsion (assuming it to exist at all) lies in the very essence of the theme or situation, or only in the author's manipulation of it.
Was Sarcey right in assuming such a compulsion to be a constant and dominant factor in the playwright's craft? I think we shall see reason to believe him right in holding that it frequently arises, but wrong if he went the length of maintaining that there can be no good play without a definite scene a faire—as eighteenth-century landscape painters are said to have held that no one could be a master of his art till he knew where to place "the brown tree." I remember no passage in which Sarcey explicitly lays down so hard and fast a rule, but several in which he seems to take it for granted.
It may be asked whether—and if so, why—the theory of the obligatory scene holds good for the dramatist and not for the novelist? Perhaps it has more application to the novel than is commonly supposed; but in so far as it applies peculiarly to the drama, the reason is pretty clear. It lies in the strict concentration imposed on the dramatist, and the high mental tension which is, or ought to be, characteristic of the theatrical audience. The leisurely and comparatively passive novel-reader may never miss a scene which an audience, with its instincts of logic and of economy keenly alert, may feel to be inevitable. The dramatist is bound to extract from his material the last particle of that particular order of effect which the stage, and the stage alone, can give us. If he fails to do so, we feel that there has been no adequate justification for setting in motion all the complex mechanism of the theatre. His play is like a badly-designed engine in which a large part of the potential energy is dissipated to no purpose. The novelist, with a far wider range of effects at his command, and employing no special mechanism to bring them home to us, is much more free to select and to reject. He is exempt from the law of rigid economy to which the dramatist must submit. Far from being bound to do things in the most dramatic way, he often does wisely in rejecting that course, as unsuited to his medium. Fundamentally, no doubt, the same principle applies to both arts, but with a wholly different stringency in the case of the drama. "Advisable" in the novelist's vocabulary is translated by "imperative" in the dramatist's. The one is playing a long-drawn game, in which the loss of a trick or two need not prove fatal; the other has staked his all on a single rubber.
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Obligatory scenes of the first type—those necessitated by the inherent logic of the theme—can naturally arise only in plays to which a definite theme can be assigned. If we say that woman's claim to possess a soul of her own, even in marriage, is the theme of A Doll's House, then evidently the last great balancing of accounts between Nora and Helmer is an obligatory scene. It would have been quite possible for Ibsen to have completed the play without any such scene: he might, for instance, have let Nora fulfil her intention of drowning herself; but in that case his play would have been merely a tragic anecdote with the point omitted. We should have felt vague intimations of a general idea hovering in the air, but it would have remained undefined and undeveloped. As we review, however, the series of Ibsen's plays, and notice how difficult it is to point to any individual scene and say, "This was clearly the scene a faire," we feel that, though the phrase may express a useful idea in a conveniently brief form, there is no possibility of making the presence or absence of a scene a faire a general test of dramatic merit. In The Wild Duck, who would not say that, theoretically, the scene in which Gregers opens Hialmar's eyes to the true history of his marriage was obligatory in the highest degree? Yet Ibsen, as a matter of fact, does not present it to us: he sends the two men off for "a long walk" together: and who does not feel that this is a stroke of consummate art? In Rosmersholm, as we know, he has been accused of neglecting, not merely the scene, but the play, a faire; but who will now maintain that accusation? In John Gabriel Borhman, if we define the theme as the clash of two devouring egoisms, Ibsen has, in the third act, given us the obligatory scene; but he has done it, unfortunately, with an enfeebled hand; whereas the first and second acts, though largely expository, and even (in the Foldal scene) episodic, rank with his greatest achievements.
For abundant examples of scenes rendered obligatory by the logic of the theme, we have only to turn to the works of those remorseless dialecticians, MM. Hervieu and Brieux. In such a play as La Course du Flambeau, there is scarcely a scene that may not be called an obligatory deduction from the thesis duly enunciated, with no small parade of erudition, in the first ten minutes of the play. It is that, in handing on the vital lampada, as Plato and "le bon poete Lucrece" express it, the love of the parent for the child becomes a devouring mania, to which everything else is sacrificed, while the love of the child for the parent is a tame and essentially selfish emotion, absolutely powerless when it comes into competition with the passions which are concerned with the transmission of the vital flame. This theorem having been stated, what is the first obligatory scene? Evidently one in which a mother shall refuse a second marriage, with a man whom she loves, because it would injure the prospects and wound the feelings of her adored daughter. Then, when the adored daughter herself marries, the mother must make every possible sacrifice for her, and the daughter must accept them all with indifference, as mere matters of course. But what is the final, triumphant proof of the theorem? Why, of course, the mother must kill her mother to save the daughter's life! And this ultra-obligatory scene M. Hervieu duly serves up to us. Marie-Jeanne (the daughter) is ordered to the Engadine; Sabine (the mother) is warned that Madame Fontenais (the grandmother) must not go to that altitude on pain of death; but, by a series of violently artificial devices, things are so arranged that Marie-Jeanne cannot go unless Madame Fontenais goes too; and Sabine, rather than endanger her daughter's recovery, does not hesitate to let her mother set forth, unwittingly, to her doom. In the last scene of all, Marie-Jeanne light-heartedly prepares to leave her mother and go off with her husband to the ends of the earth; Sabine learns that the man she loved and rejected for Marie-Jeanne's sake is for ever lost to her; and, to complete the demonstration, Madame Fontenais falls dead at her feet. These scenes are unmistakably scenes a faire, dictated by the logic of the theme; but they belong to a conception of art in which the free rhythms of life are ruthlessly sacrificed to the needs of a demonstration. Obligatory scenes of this order are mere diagrams drawn with ruler and compass—the obligatory illustrations of an extravagantly over-systematic lecture.
M. Brieux in some of his plays (not in all) is no less logic-ridden than M. Hervieu. Take, for instance, Les Trois Filles de M. Dupont: every character is a term in a syllogism, every scene is dictated by an imperious craving for symmetry. The main theorem may be stated in some such terms as these: "The French marriage system is immoral and abominable; yet the married woman is, on the whole, less pitiable than her unmarried sisters." In order to prove this thesis in due form, we begin at the beginning, and show how the marriage of Antonin Mairaut and Julie Dupont is brought about by the dishonest cupidity of the parents on both sides. The Duponts flatter themselves that they have cheated the Mairauts, the Mairauts that they have swindled the Duponts; while Antonin deliberately simulates artistic tastes to deceive Julie, and Julie as deliberately makes a show of business capacity in order to take in Antonin. Every scene between father and daughter is balanced by a corresponding scene between mother and son. Every touch of hypocrisy on the one side is scrupulously set off against a trait of dishonesty on the other. Julie's passion for children is emphasized, Antonin's aversion from them is underlined. But lest he should be accused of seeing everything in black, M. Brieux will not make the parents altogether detestable. Still holding the balance true, he lets M. Mairaut on the one side, and Madame Dupont on the other, develop amiable impulses, and protest, at a given moment, against the infamies committed and countenanced by their respective spouses. And in the second and third acts, the edifice of deception symmetrically built up in the first act is no less symmetrically demolished. The parents expose and denounce each other's villainies; Julie and Antonin, in a great scene of conjugal recrimination, lay bare the hypocrisies of allurement that have brought them together. Julie then determines to escape from the loathsome prison-house of her marriage; and this brings us to the second part of the theorem. The title shows that Julie has two sisters; but hitherto they have remained in the background. Why do they exist at all? Why has Providence blessed M. Dupont with "three fair daughters and no more"? Because Providence foresaw exactly the number M. Brieux would require for his demonstration. Are there not three courses open to a penniless woman in our social system—marriage, wage-earning industry, and wage-earning profligacy? Well, M. Dupont must have one daughter to represent each of these contingencies. Julie has illustrated the miseries of marriage; Caroline and Angele shall illustrate respectively the still greater miseries of unmarried virtue and unmarried vice. When Julie declares her intention of breaking away from the house of bondage, her sisters rise up symmetrically, one on either hand, and implore her rather to bear the ills she has than to fly to others that she knows not of. "Symmetry of symmetries, all is symmetry" in the poetics of M. Brieux. But life does not fall into such obvious patterns. The obligatory scene which is imposed upon us, not by the logic of life, but by the logic of demonstration, is not a scene a faire, but a scene a fuir.
Mr. Bernard Shaw, in some sense the Brieux of the English theatre, is not a man to be dominated by logic, or by anything else under the sun. He has, however, given us one or two excellent examples of the obligatory scene in the true and really artistic sense of the term. The scene of Candida's choice between Eugene and Morell crowns the edifice of Candida as nothing else could. Given the characters and their respective attitudes towards life, this sententious thrashing-out of the situation was inevitable. So, too, in Mrs. Warren's Profession, the great scene of the second act between Vivie and her mother is a superb example of a scene imposed by the logic of the theme. On the other hand, in Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's finely conceived, though unequal, play, Michael and his Lost Angel, we miss what was surely an obligatory scene. The play is in fact a contest between the paganism of Audrie Lesden and the ascetic, sacerdotal idealism of Michael Feversham. In the second act, paganism snatches a momentary victory; and we confidently expect, in the third act, a set and strenuous effort on Audrie's part to break down in theory the ascetic ideal which has collapsed in practice. It is probable enough that she might not succeed in dragging her lover forth from what she regards as the prison-house of a superstition; but the logic of the theme absolutely demands that she should make the attempt. Mr. Jones has preferred to go astray after some comparatively irrelevant and commonplace matter, and has thus left his play incomplete. So, too, in The Triumph of the Philistines, Mr. Jones makes the mistake of expecting us to take a tender interest in a pair of lovers who have had never a love-scene to set our interest agoing. They are introduced to each other in the first act, and we shrewdly suspect (for in the theatre we are all inveterate match-makers) that they are going to fall in love; but we have not the smallest positive evidence of the fact before we find, in the second act, that misunderstandings have arisen, and the lady declines to look at the gentleman. The actress who played the part at the St. James's Theatre was blamed for failing to enlist our sympathies in this romance; but what actress can make much of a love part which, up to the very last moment, is all suspicion and jealousy? Fancy Romeo and Juliet with the love-scenes omitted, "by special request!"
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In a second class, according to our analysis, we place the obligatory scene which is imposed by "the manifest exigencies of specifically dramatic effect." Here it must of course be noted that the conception of "specifically dramatic effect" varies in some degree, from age to age, from generation to generation, and even, one may almost say, from theatre to theatre. Scenes of violence and slaughter were banished from the Greek theatre, mainly, no doubt, because rapid movement was rendered difficult by the hieratic trappings of the actors, and was altogether foreign to the spirit of tragedy; but it can scarcely be doubted that the tragic poets were the less inclined to rebel against this convention, because they extracted "specifically dramatic effects" of a very high order out of their "messenger-scenes." Even in the modern theatre we are thrilled by the description of Hippolytus dragged at his own chariot wheel, or Creusa and Creon devoured by Medea's veil of fire. On the Elizabethan stage, the murder of Agamemnon would no doubt have been "subjected to our faithful eyes" like the blinding of Gloucester or the suffocation of Edward II; but who shall say that there is less "specifically dramatic effect" in Aeschylus's method of mirroring the scene in the clairvoyant ecstasy of Cassandra? I am much inclined to think that the dramatic effect of highly emotional narrative is underrated in the modern theatre.
Again, at one class of theatre, the author of a sporting play—is bound to exhibit a horse-race on the stage, or he is held to have shirked his obligatory scene. At another class of theatre, we shall have a scene, perhaps, in a box in the Grand Stand, where some Lady Gay Spanker shall breathlessly depict, from start to finish, the race which is visible to her, but invisible to the audience. At a third class of the theatre, the "specifically dramatic effect" to be extracted from a horse-race is found in a scene in a Black-Country slum, where a group of working-men and women are feverishly awaiting the evening paper which shall bring them the result of the St. Leger, involving for some of them opulence—to the extent, perhaps, of a L5 note—and for others ruin.
The difficulty of deciding that any one form of scene is predestined by the laws of dramatic effect is illustrated in Tolstoy's grisly drama, The Power of Darkness. The scene in which Nikita kills Akoulina's child was felt to be too horrible for representation; whereupon the author wrote an alternative scene between Mitritch and Anna, which passes simultaneously with the murder scene, in an adjoining room. The two scenes fulfil exactly the same function in the economy of the play; it can be acted with either of them, it might be acted with both; and it is impossible to say which produces the intenser or more "specifically dramatic effect."
The fact remains, however, that there is almost always a dramatic and undramatic, a more dramatic and a less dramatic, way of doing a thing; and an author who allows us to foresee and expect a dramatic way of attaining a given end, and then chooses an undramatic or less dramatic way, is guilty of having missed the obligatory scene. For a general discussion of what we mean by the terms "dramatic" and "undramatic" the reader may refer back to Chapter III. Here I need only give one or two particular illustrations.
It will be remembered that one of the scenes a faire which M. Sarcey foresaw in Les Fourchambault was the encounter between the two brothers; the illegitimate Bernard and the legitimate Leopold. It would have been quite possible, and quite natural, to let the action of the play work itself out without any such encounter; or to let the encounter take place behind the scenes; but this would have been a patent ignoring of dramatic possibilities, and M. Sarcey would have had ample reason to pour the vials of his wrath on Augier's head. He was right, however, in his confidence that Augier would not fail to "make" the scene. And how did he "make" it? The one thing inevitable about it was that the truth should be revealed to Leopold; but there were a dozen different ways in which that might have been effected. Perhaps, in real life, Bernard would have said something to this effect: "Young man, you are making questionable advances to a lady in whom I am interested. I beg that you will cease to persecute her; and if you ask by what right I do so, I reply that I am in fact your elder brother, that I have saved our father from ruin, that I am henceforth the predominant partner in his business, and that, if you do not behave yourself, I shall see that your allowance is withdrawn, and that you have no longer the means to lead an idle and dissolute life." This would have been an ungracious but not unnatural way of going about the business. Had Augier chosen it, we should have had no right to complain on the score of probability; but it would have been evident to the least imaginative that he had left the specifically dramatic opportunities of the scene entirely undeveloped. Let us now see what he actually did. Marie Letellier, compromised by Leopold's conduct, has left the Fourchambault house and taken refuge with Mme. Bernard. Bernard loves her devotedly, but does not dream that she can see anything in his uncouth personality, and imagines that she loves Leopold. Accordingly, he determines that Leopold shall marry her, and tells him so. Leopold scoffs at the idea; Bernard insists; and little by little the conflict rises to a tone of personal altercation. At last Leopold says something slighting of Mile. Letellier, and Bernard—who, be it noted, has begun with no intention of revealing the kinship between them—loses his self-control and cries, "Ah, there speaks the blood of the man who slandered a woman in order to prevent his son from keeping his word to her. I recognize in you your grandfather, who was a miserable calumniator." "Repeat that word!" says Leopold. Bernard does so, and the other strikes him across the face with his glove. For a perceptible interval Bernard struggles with his rage in silence, and then: "It is well for you," he cries, "that you are my brother!"
We need not follow the scene in the sentimental turning which it then takes, whereby it comes about, of course, that Bernard, not Leopold, marries Mile. Letellier. The point is that Augier has justified Sarcey's confidence by making the scene thoroughly and specifically dramatic; in other words, by charging it with emotion, and working up the tension to a very high pitch. And Sarcey was no doubt right in holding that this was what the whole audience instinctively expected, and that they would have been more or less consciously disappointed had the author baulked their expectation.
An instructive example of the failure to "make" a dramatically obligatory scene may be found in Agatha by Mrs. Humphry Ward and Mr. Louis Parker. Agatha is believed to be the child of Sir Richard and Lady Fancourt; but at a given point she learns that a gentleman whom she has known all her life as "Cousin Ralph" is in reality her father. She has a middle-aged suitor, Colonel Ford, whom she is very willing to marry; but at the end of the second act she refuses him, because she shrinks from the idea, on the one hand, of concealing the truth from him, on the other hand, of revealing her mother's trespass. This is not, in itself, a very strong situation, for we feel the barrier between the lovers to be unreal. Colonel Ford is a man of sense. The secret of Agatha's parentage can make no real difference to him. Nothing material—no point of law or of honour—depends on it. He will learn the truth, and all will come right between them. The only point on which our interest can centre is the question how he is to learn the truth; and here the authors go very far astray. There are two, and only two, really dramatic ways in which Colonel Ford can be enlightened. Lady Fancourt must realize that Agatha is wrecking her life to keep her mother's secret, and must either herself reveal it to Colonel Ford, or must encourage and enjoin Agatha to do so. Now, the authors choose neither of these ways: the secret slips out, through a chance misunderstanding in a conversation between Sir Richard Fancourt and the Colonel. This is a typical instance of an error of construction; and why?—because it leaves to chance what should be an act of will. Drama means a thing done, not merely a thing that happens; and the playwright who lets accident effect what might naturally and probably be a result of volition, or, in other words, of character, sins against the fundamental law of his craft. In the case before us, Lady Fancourt and Agatha—the two characters on whom our interest is centred—are deprived of all share in one of the crucial moments of the action. Whether the actual disclosure was made by the mother or by the daughter, there ought to have been a great scene between the two, in which the mother should have insisted that, by one or other, the truth must be told. It would have been a painful, a delicate, a difficult scene, but it was the obligatory scene of the play; and had we been allowed clearly to foresee it at the end of the second act, our interest would have been decisively carried forward. The scene, too, might have given the play a moral relevance which in fact it lacks. The readjustment of Agatha's scheme of things, so as to make room for her mother's history, might have been made explicit and partly intellectual, instead of implicit, inarticulate and wholly emotional.
This case, then, clearly falls under our second heading. We cannot say that it is the logic of the theme which demands the scene, for no thesis or abstract idea is enunciated. Nor can we say that the course of events is unnatural or improbable; our complaint is that, without being at all less natural, they might have been highly dramatic, and that in fact they are not so.
In a very different type of play, we find another example of the ignoring of a dramatically obligatory scene. The author of that charming fantasy, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, was long ago guilty of a play named The Rise of Dick Halward, chiefly memorable for having elicited from Mr. Bernard Shaw one of the most brilliant pages in English dramatic criticism. The hero of this play, after an adventurous youth in Mexico, has gone to the bar, but gets no briefs, and is therefore unable to marry a lady who announces that no suitor need apply who has less than L5000 a year. One fine day Dick receives from Mexico the will of an old comrade, which purports to leave to him, absolutely, half a million dollars, gold; but the will is accompanied by a letter, in which the old comrade states that the property is really left to him only in trust for the testator's long-lost son, whom Dick is enjoined to search out and endow with a capital which, at 5 per cent, represents accurately the desiderated L5000 a year. As a matter of fact (but this is not to our present purpose), the long-lost son is actually, at that moment, sharing Dick's chambers in the Temple. Dick, however, does not know this, and cannot resist the temptation to destroy the old miner's letter, and grab the property. We know, of course, that retribution is bound to descend upon him; but does not dramatic effect imperatively require that, for a brief space at any rate, he should be seen—with whatever qualms of conscience his nature might dictate—enjoying his ill-gotten wealth? Mr. Jerome, however, baulks us of this just expectation. In the very first scene of the second act we find that the game is up. The deceased miner wrote his letter to Dick seated in the doorway of a hut; a chance photographer took a snap-shot at him; and on returning to England, the chance photographer has nothing more pressing to do than to chance upon the one man who knows the long-lost son, and to show him the photograph of the dying miner, whom he at once recognizes. By aid of a microscope, the letter he is writing can be deciphered, and thus Dick's fraud is brought home to him. Now one would suppose that an author who had invented this monstrous and staggering concatenation of chances, must hope to justify it by some highly dramatic situation, in the obvious and commonplace sense of the word. It is not difficult, indeed, to foresee such a situation, in which Dick Halward should be confronted, as if by magic, with the very words of the letter he has so carefully destroyed. I am far from saying that this scene would, in fact, have justified its amazing antecedents; but it would have shown a realization on the author's part that he must at any rate attempt some effect proportionate to the strain he had placed upon our credulity. Mr. Jerome showed no such realization. He made the man who handed Dick the copy of the letter explain beforehand how it had been obtained; so that Dick, though doubtless surprised and disgusted, was not in the least thunderstruck, and manifested no emotion. Here, then, Mr. Jerome evidently missed a scene rendered obligatory by the law of the maximum of specifically dramatic effect.
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The third, or structural, class of obligatory scenes may be more briefly dealt with, seeing that we have already, in the last chapter, discussed the principle involved. In this class we have placed, by definition, scenes which the author himself has rendered obligatory by seeming unmistakably to lead up to them—or, in other words, scenes indicated, or seeming to be indicated, by deliberately-planted finger-posts. It may appear as though the case of Dick Halward, which we have just been examining, in reality came under this heading. But it cannot actually be said that Mr. Jerome either did, or seemed to, point by finger-posts towards the obligatory scene. He rather appears to have been blankly unconscious of its possibility.
We have noted in the foregoing chapter the unwisdom of planting misleading finger-posts; here we have only to deal with the particular case in which they seem to point to a definite and crucial scene. An example given by M. Sarcey himself will, I think, make the matter quite clear.
M. Jules Lemaitre's play, Revoltee, tells the story of a would-be intellectual, ill-conditioned young woman, married to a plain and ungainly professor of mathematics, whom she despises. We know that she is in danger of yielding to the fascinations of a seductive man-about-town; and having shown us this danger, the author proceeds to emphasize the manly and sterling character of the husband. He has the gentleness that goes with strength; but where his affections or his honour is concerned, he is not a man to be trifled with. This having been several times impressed upon us, we naturally expect that the wife is to be rescued by some striking manifestation of the husband's masterful virility. But no such matter! Rescued she is, indeed; but it is by the intervention of her half-brother, who fights a duel on her behalf, and is brought back wounded to restore peace to the mathematician's household: that man of science having been quite passive throughout, save for some ineffectual remonstrances. It happens that in this case we know just where the author went astray. Helene (the wife) is the unacknowledged daughter of a great lady, Mme. de Voves; and the subject of the play, as the author first conceived it, was the relation between the mother, the illegitimate daughter, and the legitimate son; the daughter's husband taking only a subordinate place. But Lemaitre chose as a model for the husband a man whom he had known and admired; and he allowed himself to depict in vivid colours his strong and sympathetic character, without noticing that he was thereby upsetting the economy of his play, and giving his audience reason to anticipate a line of development quite different from that which he had in mind. Inadvertently, in fact, he planted, not one, but two or three, misleading finger-posts.
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We come now to the fourth, or psychological, class of obligatory scenes—those which are "required in order to justify some modification of character or alteration of will, too important to be taken for granted."
An obvious example of an obligatory scene of this class may be found in the third act of Othello. The poet is bound to show us the process by which Iago instils his poison into Othello's mind. He has backed himself, so to speak, to make this process credible to us; and, by a masterpiece of dexterity and daring, he wins his wager. Had he omitted this scene—had he shown us Othello at one moment full of serene confidence, and at his next appearance already convinced of Desdemona's guilt—he would have omitted the pivot and turning—point of the whole structure. It may seem fantastic to conceive that any dramatist could blunder so grossly; but there are not a few plays in which we observe a scarcely less glaring hiatus.
A case in point may be found in Lord Tennyson's Becket. I am not one of those who hold Tennyson merely contemptible as a dramatist. I believe that, had he taken to playwriting nearly half-a-century earlier, and studied the root principles of craftsmanship, instead of blindly accepting the Elizabethan conventions, he might have done work as fine in the mass as are the best moments of Queen Mary and Harold. As a whole, Becket is one of his weakest productions; but the Prologue and the first act would have formed an excellent first and third act for a play of wholly different sequel, had he interposed, in a second act, the obligatory scene required to elucidate Becket's character. The historic and psychological problem of Thomas Becket is his startling transformation from an easy-going, luxurious, worldly statesman into a gaunt ecclesiastic, fanatically fighting for the rights of his see, of his order, and of Rome. In any drama which professes to deal (as this does) with his whole career, the intellectual interest cannot but centre in an analysis of the forces that brought about this seeming new-birth of his soul. It would have been open to the poet, no doubt, to take up his history at a later point, when he was already the full-fledged clerical and ultramontane. But this Tennyson does not do. He is at pains to present to us the magnificent Chancellor, the bosom friend of the King, and mild reprover of his vices; and then, without the smallest transition, hey presto! he is the intransigent priest, bitterly combating the Constitutions of Clarendon. It is true that in the Prologue the poet places one or two finger-posts—small, conventional foreshadowings of coming trouble. For instance, the game of chess between King and Chancellor ends with a victory for Becket, who says—