"You see my bishop Hath brought your king to a standstill. You are beaten."
The symbolical game of chess is a well-worn dramatic device. Becket, moreover, seems to feel some vague disquietude as to what may happen if he accepts the archbishopric; but there is nothing to show that he is conscious of any bias towards the intransigent clericalism of the later act. The character-problem, in fact, is not only not solved, but is ignored. The obligatory scene is skipped over, in the interval between the Prologue and the first act.
One of the finest plays of our time—Sir Arthur Pinero's Iris—lacks, in my judgment, an obligatory scene. The character of Iris is admirably true, so far as it goes; but it is incomplete. The author seems to have evaded the crucial point of his play—the scene of her installation in Maldonado's flat. To perfect his psychological study, he was bound to bridge the chasm between the Iris of the third act and the Iris of the fourth. He builds two ends of the bridge, in the incident of the cheque-book at the close of the one act, and in the state of hebetude in which we find her at the opening of the other; but there remains a great gap at which the imagination boggles. The author has tried to throw a retrospective footway across it in Iris's confession to Trenwith in the fifth act; but I do not find that it quite meets the case. It would no doubt have been very difficult to keep the action within reasonable limits had a new act taken the place of the existing fourth; but Sir Arthur Pinero would probably have produced a completer work of art had he faced this difficulty, and contrived to compress into a single last act something like the matter of the existing fourth and fifth. It may be that he deliberately preferred that Iris should give in narrative the history of her decline; but I do not consider this a case in support of that slight plea for impassioned narrative which I ventured to put forth a few pages back. Her confession to Trenwith would have been far more dramatic and moving had it been about one-fourth part as long and one-fourth part as articulate.
* * * * *
Of the scene imposed by history or legend it is unnecessary to say very much. We saw in Chapter IX that the theatre is not the place for expounding the results of original research, which cast a new light on historic character. It is not the place for whitewashing Richard III, or representing him as a man of erect and graceful figure. It is not the place for proving that Guy Fawkes was an earnest Presbyterian, that Nell Gwynn was a lady of the strictest morals, or that George Washington was incapable of telling the truth. The playwright who deals with Henry VIII is bound to present him, in the schoolboy's phrase, as "a great widower." William the Silent must not be a chatterbox, Torquemada a humanitarian, Ivan the Terrible a conscientious opponent of capital punishment. And legend has its fixed points no less than history. In the theatre, indeed, there is little distinction between them: history is legend, and legend history. A dramatist may, if he pleases (though it is a difficult task), break wholly unfamiliar ground in the past; but where a historic legend exists he must respect it at his peril.
From all this it is a simple deduction that where legend (historic or otherwise) associates a particular character with a particular scene that is by any means presentable on the stage, that scene becomes obligatory in a drama of which he is the leading figure. The fact that Shakespeare could write a play about King John, and say nothing about Runnymede and Magna Charta, shows that that incident in constitutional history had not yet passed into popular legend. When Sir Herbert Tree revived the play, he repaired the poet's omission by means of an inserted tableau. Even Shakespeare had not the hardihood to let Caesar fall without saying, "The Ides of March are come" and "Et tu, Brute!" Nero is bound to fiddle while Rome burns, or the audience will know the reason why. Historic criticism will not hear of the "Thou hast conquered, Galilean!" which legend attributes to Julian the Apostate; yet Ibsen not only makes him say it, but may almost be said to find in the phrase the keynote of his world-historic drama. Tristram and Iseult must drink a love-philtre or they are not Tristram and Iseult. It would be the extreme of paradox to write a Paolo-and-Francesca play and omit the scene of "Quel giorno piu non vi leggemmo avante."
The cases are not very frequent, however, in which an individual incident is thus imposed by history or legend. The practical point to be noted is rather that, when an author introduces a strongly-marked historical character, he must be prepared to give him at least one good opportunity of acting up to the character which legend—the best of evidence in the theatre—assigns to him. When such a personage is presented to us, it ought to be at his highest potency. We do not want to see—
"From Marlborough's eyes the tears of dotage flow, And Swift expire, a driveller and a show."
If you deal with Napoleon, for instance, it is perfectly clear that he must dominate the stage. As soon as you bring in the name, the idea, of Napoleon Bonaparte, men have eyes and ears for nothing else; and they demand to see him, in a general way, acting up to their general conception of him. That was what Messrs. Lloyd Osbourne and Austin Strong forgot in their otherwise clever play, The Exile. It is useless to prove, historically, that at a given moment he was passive, supine, unconscious, while people around him were eagerly plotting his escape and restoration. That may have been so; but it is not what an audience wants to see. It wants to see Napoleon Napoleonizing. For anomalies and uncharacteristic episodes in Napoleon's career we must go to books; the playhouse is not the place for them. It is true that a dramatist like Mr. Bernard Shaw may, at his own risk and peril, set forth to give us a new reading of Caesar or of Napoleon, which may or may not be dramatically acceptable. But this is not what Messrs. Osbourne and Strong tried to do. Their Napoleon was the Napoleon of tradition—only he failed to act "in a concatenation according."
There are a few figures in history—and Napoleon is one of them—which so thrill the imagination that their mere name can dominate the stage, better, perhaps, than their bodily presence. In L'Aiglon, by M. Rostand, Napoleon is in fact the hero, though he lies dead in his far-off island, under the Southern Cross. Another such figure is Abraham Lincoln. In James Herne's sadly underrated play, Griffith Davenport, we were always conscious of "Mr. Lincoln" in the background; and the act in which Governor Morton of Indiana brought the President's instructions to Davenport might fairly be called an obligatory scene, inasmuch as it gave us the requisite sense of personal nearness to the master-spirit, without involving any risk of belittlement through imperfections of representation. There is a popular melodrama, passing in Palestine under the Romans, throughout the course of which we constantly feel the influence of a strange new prophet, unseen but wonder-working, who, if I remember rightly, is personally presented to us only in a final tableau, wherein he appears riding into Jerusalem amid the hosannas of the multitude. The execution of Ben Hur is crude and commonplace, but the conception is by no means inartistic. Historical figures of the highest rank may perhaps be best adumbrated in this fashion, with or without one personal appearance, so brief that there shall be no danger of anti-climax.
The last paragraph reminds us that the accomplished playwright shows his accomplishment quite as much in his recognition and avoidance of the scene a ne pas faire as in his divination of the obligatory scene. There is always the chance that no one may miss a scene demanded by logic or psychology; but an audience knows too well when it has been bored or distressed by a superfluous, or inconsequent, or wantonly painful scene.
Some twenty years ago, in criticizing a play named Le Maitre d'Armes, M. Sarcey took the authors gravely to task, in the name of "Aristotle and common sense," for following the modern and reprehensible tendency to present "slices of life" rather than constructed and developed dramas. Especially he reproached them with deliberately omitting the scene a faire. A young lady is seduced, he says, and, for the sake of her child, implores her betrayer to keep his promise of marriage. He renews the promise, without the slightest intention of fulfilling it, and goes on board his yacht in order to make his escape. She discovers his purpose and follows him on board the yacht. "What is the scene," asks M. Sarcey—here I translate literally—"which you expect, you, the public? It is the scene between the abandoned fair one and her seducer. The author may make it in a hundred ways, but make it he must!" Instead of which, the critic proceeds, we are fobbed off with a storm-scene, a rescue, and other sensational incidents, and hear no word of what passes between the villain and his victim. Here, I think, M. Sarcey is mistaken in his application of his pet principle. Words cannot express our unconcern as to what passes between the heroine and the villain on board the yacht—nay, more, our gratitude for being spared that painful and threadbare scene of recrimination. The plot demands, observe, that the villain shall not relent. We know quite well that he cannot, for if he did the play would fall to pieces. Why, then, should we expect or demand a sordid squabble which can lead to nothing? We—and by "we" I mean the public which relishes such plays—cannot possibly have any keen appetite for copious re-hashes of such very cold mutton as the appeals of the penitent heroine to the recalcitrant villain. And the moral seems to be that in this class of play—the drama, if one may call it so, of foregone character—the scene a faire is precisely the scene to be omitted.
In plays of a more ambitious class, skill is often shown by the indication, in place of the formal presentment, even of an important scene which the audience may, or might, have expected to witness in full. We have already noted such a case in The Wild Duck: Ibsen knew that what we really required to witness was not the actual process of Gregers's disclosure to Hialmar, but its effects. A small, but quite noticeable, example of a scene thus rightly left to the imagination occurred in Mr. Somerset Maugham's first play, A Man of Honour. In the first act, Jack Halliwell, his wife, and his sister-in-law call upon his friend Basil Kent. The sister-in-law, Hilda Murray, is a rich widow; and she and Kent presently go out on the balcony together and are lost to view. Then it appears, in a scene between the Halliwells, that they fully believe that Kent is in love with Mrs. Murray and is now proposing to her. But when the two re-enter from the balcony, it is evident from their mien that, whatever may have passed between them, they are not affianced lovers; and we presently learn that though Kent is in fact strongly attracted to Mrs. Murray, he considers himself bound in honour to marry a certain Jenny Bush, a Fleet Street barmaid, with whom he has become entangled. Many playwrights would, so to speak, have dotted the i's of the situation by giving us the scene between Kent and Mrs. Murray; but Mr. Maugham has done exactly right in leaving us to divine it. We know all that, at this point, we require to know of the relation between them; to have told us more would have been to anticipate and discount the course of events.
A more striking instance of a scene rightly placed behind the scenes occurs in M. de Curel's terrible drama Les Fossiles. I need not go into the singularly unpleasing details of the plot. Suffice it to say that a very peculiar condition of things exists in the family of the Duc de Chantemelle. It has been fully discussed in the second act between the Duke and his daughter Claire, who has been induced to accept it for the sake of the family name. But a person more immediately concerned is Robert de Chantemelle, the only son of the house—will he also accept it quietly? A nurse, who is acquainted with the black secret, misbehaves herself, and is to be packed off. As she is a violent woman, Robert insists on dismissing her himself, and leaves the room to do so. The rest of the family are sure that, in her rage, she will blurt out the whole story; and they wait, in breathless anxiety, for Robert's return. What follows need not be told: the point is that this scene—the scene of tense expectancy as to the result of a crisis which is taking place in another room of the same house—is really far more dramatic than the crisis itself would be. The audience already knows all that the angry virago can say to her master; and of course no discussion of the merits of the case is possible between these two. Therefore M. de Curel is conspicuously right in sparing us the scene of vulgar violence, and giving us the scene of far higher tension in which Robert's father, wife and sister expect his return, their apprehension deepening with every moment that he delays.
We see, then, that there is such a thing as a false scene a faire—a scene which at first sight seems obligatory, but is in fact much better taken for granted. It may be absolutely indispensable that it should be suggested to the mind of the audience, but neither indispensable nor advisable that it should be presented to their eyes. The judicious playwright will often ask himself, "Is it the actual substance of this scene that I require, or only its repercussion?"
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: For example, in his criticism of Becque's La Parisienne (Quarante Ans de Theatre, VI, p. 364), he tells how, at the end of the second act, one of his neighbours said to him, "Eh! bien, vous voila bien attrape! Ou est la scene a faire?" "I freely admit," he continues, "that there is no scene a faire; if there had been no third act I should not have been greatly astonished. When you make it your business to recite on the stage articles from the Vie Parisienne, it makes no difference whether you stop at the end of the second article or at the end of the third." This clearly implies that a play in which there is no scene a faire is nothing but a series of newspaper sketches. Becque, one fancies, might have replied that the scene between Clotilde and Monsieur Simpson at the beginning of Act III was precisely the scene a faire demanded by the logic of his cynicism.]
[Footnote 2: I need scarcely direct the reader's attention to Mr. Gilbert Murray's noble renderings of these speeches.]
[Footnote 3: Such a scene occurs in that very able play, The Way the Money Goes, by Lady Bell.]
[Footnote 4: In Mr. Stephen Phillips's play he does not actually play on the lyre, but he improvises and recites an ode to the conflagration.]
[Footnote 5: And, after all, Mr. Shaw does not run counter to the legend. He exhibits Caesar and Napoleon "in their well-known attitudes": only, by an odd metempsychosis, the soul of Mr. Shaw has somehow entered into them.]
In the Greek theatre, as every one knows, the peripeteia or reversal of fortune—the turning of the tables, as we might say—was a clearly-defined and recognized portion of the dramatic organism. It was often associated with the anagnorisis or recognition. Mr. Gilbert Murray has recently shown cause for believing that both these dramatic "forms" descended from the ritual in which Greek drama took its origin—the ritual celebrating the death and resurrection of the season of "mellow fruitfulness." If this theory be true, the peripeteia was at first a change from sorrow to joy—joy in the rebirth of the beneficent powers of nature. And to this day a sudden change from gloom to exhilaration is a popular and effective incident—as when, at the end of a melodrama, the handcuffs are transferred from the wrists of the virtuous naval lieutenant to those of the wicked baronet, and, through the disclosure of a strawberry-mark on his left arm, the lieutenant is recognized as the long-lost heir to a dukedom and L50,000 a year.
But when, as soon happened in Greece, the forms appropriate to a celebration of the death and resurrection of Dionysus came to be blent with the tomb-ritual of a hero, the term peripeteia acquired a special association with a sudden decline from prosperity into adversity. In the Middle Ages, this was thought to be the very essence and meaning of tragedy, as we may see from Chaucer's lines:
"Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie, As olde bokes maken us memorie, Of him that stood in gret prosperitee, And is y-fallen out of heigh degree Into miserie, and endeth wrecchedly."
Aristotle cites a good instance of a peripety—to Anglicize the word—"where, in the Lynceus, the hero is led away to execution, followed by Danaus as executioner; but, as the effect of the antecedents, Danaus is executed and Lynceus escapes." But here, as in so many other contexts, we must turn for the classic example to the Oedipus Rex. Jocasta, hearing from the Corinthian stranger that Polybus, King of Corinth, the reputed father of Oedipus, is dead, sends for her husband to tell him that the oracle which doomed him to parricide is defeated, since Polybus has died a natural death. Oedipus exults in the news and triumphs over the oracles; but, as the scene proceeds, the further revelations made by the same stranger lead Jocasta to recognize in Oedipus her own child, who was exposed on Mount Kithairon; and, in the subsequent scene, the evidence of the old Shepherd brings Oedipus himself to the same crushing realization. No completer case of anagnorisis and peripeteia could well be conceived—whatever we may have to say of the means by which it is led up to.
Has the conception of the peripety, as an almost obligatory element in drama, any significance for the modern playwright? Obligatory, of course, it cannot be: it is easy to cite a hundred admirable plays in which it is impossible to discover anything that can reasonably be called a peripety. But this, I think, we may safely say: the dramatist is fortunate who finds in the development of his theme, without unnatural strain or too much preparation, opportunity for a great scene, highly-wrought, arresting, absorbing, wherein one or more of his characters shall experience a marked reversal either of inward soul-state or of outward fortune. The theory of the peripety, in short, practically resolves itself for us into the theory of the "great scene," Plays there are, many and excellent plays, in which some one scene stands out from all the rest, impressing itself with peculiar vividness on the spectator's mind; and, nine times out of ten, this scene will be found to involve a peripety. It can do no harm, then, if the playwright should ask himself: "Can I, without any undue sacrifice, so develop my theme as to entail upon my leading characters, naturally and probably, an experience of this order?"
The peripeties of real life are frequent, though they are apt to be too small in scale, or else too fatally conclusive, to provide material for drama. One of the commonest, perhaps, is that of the man who enters a physician's consulting-room to seek advice in some trifling ailment, and comes out again, half an hour later, doomed either to death or to some calamity worse than death. This situation has been employed, not ineffectively, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the first act of a romantic drama, The Fires of Fate; but it is very difficult to find any dramatic sequel to a peripety involving mere physical disaster. The moral peripety—the sudden dissipation of some illusion, or defeat of some imposture, or crumbling of some castle in the air—is a no less characteristic incident of real life, and much more amenable to the playwright's uses. Certainly there are few things more impressive in drama than to see a man or woman—or a man and woman—come upon the stage, radiant, confident, assured that
"God's in his heaven, All's right with the world,"
and leave it crushed and desperate, after a gradual and yet swift descent into Avernus. Such a scene is of the very marrow of drama. It is a play within a play; a concentrated, quintessentiated crisis.
In the third act of Othello we have a peripety handled with consummate theatrical skill. To me—I confess it with bated breath—the craftsmanship seems greatly superior to the psychology. Othello, when we look into it, succumbs with incredible facility to Iago's poisoned pin-pricks; but no audience dreams of looking into it; and there lies the proof of Shakespeare's technical mastery. In the Trial Scene in The Merchant of Venice we have another great peripety. It illustrates the obvious principle that, where the drama consists in a conflict between two persons or parties, the peripety is generally a double one—the sudden collapse of Shylock's case implying an equally sudden restoration of Antonio's fortunes. Perhaps the most striking peripety in Ibsen is Stockmann's fall from jubilant self-confidence to defiant impotence in the third act of An Enemy of the People. Thinking that he has the "compact majority" at his back, he assumes the Burgomaster's insignia of office, and lords it over his incensed brother, only to learn, by blow on blow of disillusionment, that "the compact majority" has ratted, that he is to be deprived of his position and income, and that the commonest freedom of speech is to be denied him. In A Doll's House there are two peripeties: Nora's fall from elation to despair in the first scene with Krogstad, and the collapse of Helmer's illusions in the last scene of all.
A good instance of the "great scene" which involves a marked peripety occurs in Sardou's Dora, once famous in England under the title of Diplomacy. The "scene of the three men" shows how Tekli, a Hungarian exile, calls upon his old friend Andre de Maurillac, on the day of Andre's marriage, and congratulates him on having eluded the wiles of a dangerous adventuress, Dora de Rio-Zares, by whom he had once seemed to be attracted. But it is precisely Dora whom Andre has married; and, learning this, Tekli tries to withdraw, or minimize, his imputation. For a moment a duel seems imminent; but Andre's friend, Favrolles, adjures him to keep his head; and the three men proceed to thrash the matter out as calmly as possible, with the result that, in the course of half-an-hour or so, it seems to be proved beyond all doubt that the woman Andre adores, and whom he has just married, is a treacherous spy, who sells to tyrannical foreign governments the lives of political exiles and the honour of the men who fall into her toils. The crushing suspicion is ultimately disproved, by one of the tricks in which Sardou delighted; but that does not here concern us. Artificial as are its causes and its consequences, the "scene of the three men," while it lasts, holds us breathless and absorbed; and Andre's fall from the pinnacle of happiness to the depth of misery, is a typical peripety.
Equally typical and infinitely more tragic is another postnuptial peripety—the scene of the mutual confession of Angel Clare and Tess in Mr. Hardy's great novel. As it stands on the printed page, this scene is a superb piece of drama. Its greatness has been obscured in the English theatre by the general unskilfulness of the dramatic version presented. One magnificent scene does not make a play. In America, on the other hand, the fine acting of Mrs. Fiske secured popularity for a version which was, perhaps, rather better than that which we saw in England.
I have said that dramatic peripeties are not infrequent in real life; and their scene, as is natural, is often laid in the law courts. It is unnecessary to recall the awful "reversal of fortune" that overtook one of the most brilliant of modern dramatists. About the same period, another drama of the English courts ended in a startling and terrible peripety. A young lady was staying as a guest with a half-pay officer and his wife. A valuable pearl belonging to the hostess disappeared; and the hostess accused her guest of having stolen it. The young lady, who had meanwhile married, brought an action for slander against her quondam friend. For several days the case continued, and everything seemed to be going in the plaintiff's favour. Major Blank, the defendant's husband, was ruthlessly cross-examined by Sir Charles Russell, afterwards Lord Chief Justice of England, with a view to showing that he was the real thief. He made a very bad witness, and things looked black against him. The end was nearing, and every one anticipated a verdict in the plaintiff's favour, when there came a sudden change of scene. The stolen pearl had been sold to a firm of jewellers, who had recorded the numbers of the Bank of England notes with which they paid for it. One of these notes was produced in court, and lo! it was endorsed with the name of the plaintiff. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole edifice of mendacity and perjury fell to pieces. The thief was arrested and imprisoned; but the peripety for her was less terrible than for her husband, who had married her in chivalrous faith in her innocence.
Would it have been—or may it some day prove to be—possible to transfer this "well-made" drama of real life bodily to the stage? I am inclined to think not. It looks to me very much like one of those "blind alley" themes of which mention has been made. There is matter, indeed, for most painful drama in the relations of the husband and wife, both before and after the trial; but, from the psychological point of view, one can see nothing in the case but a distressing and inexplicable anomaly. At the same time, the bare fact of the sudden and tremendous peripety is irresistibly dramatic; and Mr. Henry Arthur Jones has admitted that it suggested to him the great scene of the unmasking of Felicia Hindemarsh in Mrs. Dane's Defence.
It is instructive to note the delicate adjustment which Mr. Jones found necessary in order to adapt the theme to dramatic uses. In the first place, not wishing to plunge into the depths of tragedy, he left the heroine unmarried, though on the point of marriage. In the second place, he made the blot on her past, not a theft followed by an attempt to shift the guilt on to other shoulders, but an error of conduct, due to youth and inexperience, serious in itself, but rendered disastrous by tragic consequences over which she, Felicia, had no control. Thus Mr. Jones raised a real and fairly sufficient obstacle between his lovers, without rendering his heroine entirely unsympathetic, or presenting her in the guise of a bewildering moral anomaly. Thirdly, he transferred the scene of the peripety from a court of justice, with its difficult adjuncts and tedious procedure, to the private study of a great lawyer. At the opening of the scene between Mrs. Dane and Sir Daniel Carteret, she is, no doubt, still anxious and ill-at-ease, but reasonably confident of having averted all danger of exposure. Sir Daniel, too (like Sir Charles Russell in the pearl suit), is practically convinced of her innocence. He merely wants to get the case absolutely clear, for the final confounding of her accusers. At first, all goes smoothly. Mrs. Dane's answers to his questions are pat and plausible. Then she makes a single, almost imperceptible, slip of the tongue: she says, "We had governesses," instead of "I had governesses." Sir Daniel pricks up his ears: "We? You say you were an only child. Who's we?" "My cousin and I," she answers. Sir Daniel thinks it odd that he has not heard of this cousin before; but he continues his interrogatory without serious suspicion. Then it occurs to him to look up, in a topographical dictionary, the little town of Tawhampton, where Mrs. Dane spent her youth. He reads the bald account of it, ending thus, "The living is a Vicarage, net yearly value L376, and has been held since 1875 by"—and he turns round upon her—"by the Rev. Francis Hindemarsh! Hindemarsh?"
Mrs. Dane: He was my uncle.
Sir Daniel: Your uncle?
Mrs. Dane: Sir Daniel, I've done wrong to hide from you that Felicia Hindemarsh was my cousin.
Sir Daniel: Felicia Hindemarsh was your cousin!
Mrs. Dane: Can't you understand why I have hidden it? The whole affair was so terrible.
And so she stumbles on, from one inevitable admission to another, until the damning truth is clear that she herself is Felicia Hindemarsh, the central, though not the most guilty, figure in a horrible scandal.
This scene is worthy of study as an excellent type of what may be called the judicial peripety, the crushing cross-examination, in which it is possible to combine the tension of the detective story with no small psychological subtlety. In Mr. Jones's scene, the psychology is obvious enough; but it is an admirable example of nice adjustment without any obtrusive ingenuity. The whole drama, in short, up to the last act is, in the exact sense of the word, a well-made play—complex yet clear, ingenious yet natural. In the comparative weakness of the last act we have a common characteristic of latter-day drama, which will have to be discussed in due course.
In this case we have a peripety of external fortune. For a clearly-marked moral peripety we may turn to the great scene between Vivie and her mother in the second act of Mrs. Warren's Profession. Whatever may be thought of the matter of this scene, its movement is excellent. After a short, sharp opening, which reveals to Mrs. Warren the unfilial dispositions of her daughter, and reduces her to whimpering dismay, the following little passage occurs:
Mrs. Warren: You're very rough with me, Vivie.
Vivie: Nonsense. What about bed? It's past ten.
Mrs. Warren (passionately): What's the use of my going to bed? Do you think I could sleep?
Vivie: Why not? I shall.
Then the mother turns upon the daughter's stony self-righteousness, and pours forth her sordid history in such a way as to throw a searchlight on the conditions which make such histories possible; until, exhausted by her outburst, she says, "Oh, dear! I do believe I am getting sleepy after all," and Vivie replies, "I believe it is I who will not be able to sleep now." Mr. Shaw, we see, is at pains to emphasize his peripety.
Some "great scenes" consist, not of one decisive turning of the tables, but of a whole series of minor vicissitudes of fortune. Such a scene is the third act of The Gay Lord Quex, a prolonged and thrilling duel, in which Sophy Fullgarney passes by degrees from impertinent exultation to abject surrender and then springs up again to a mood of reckless defiance. In the "great scene" of The Thunderbolt, on the other hand—the scene of Thaddeus's false confession of having destroyed his brother's will—though there is, in fact, a great peripety, it is not that which attracts and absorbs our interest. All the greedy Mortimore family fall from the height of jubilant confidence in their new-found wealth to the depth of disappointment and exasperation. But this is not the aspect of the scene which grips and moves us. Our attention is centred on Thaddeus's struggle to take his wife's misdeed upon himself; and his failure cannot be described as a peripety, seeing that it sinks him only one degree lower in the slough of despair. Like the scene in Mrs. Dane's Defence, this is practically a piece of judicial drama—a hard-fought cross-examination. But as there is no reversal of fortune for the character in whom we are chiefly interested, it scarcely ranks as a scene of peripety.
Before leaving this subject, we may note that a favourite effect of romantic drama is an upward reversal of fortune through the recognition—the anagnorisis—of some great personage in disguise. Victor Hugo excelled in the superb gestures appropriate to such a scene: witness the passage in Hernani, before the tomb of Charlemagne, where the obscure bandit claims the right to take his place at the head of the princes and nobles whom the newly-elected Emperor has ordered off to execution:
Dieu qui donne le sceptre et qui te le donna M'a fait duc de Segorbe et duc de Cardona, Marquis de Monroy, comte Albatera, vicomte De Gor, seigneur de lieux dont j'ignore le compte. Je suis Jean d'Aragon, grand maitre d'Avis, ne Dans l'exil, fils proscrit d'un pere assassine Par sentence du tien, roi Carlos de Castille.
* * * * *
(Aux autres conjures) Couvrons nous, grands d'Espagnol (Tous les Espagnols se couvrent) Oui, nos tetes, o roi! Ont le droit de tomber couvertes devant toi!
An effective scene of this type occurs in Monsieur Beaucaire, where the supposed hairdresser is on the point of being ejected with contumely from the pump-room at Bath, when the French Ambassador enters, drops on his knee, kisses the young man's hand, and presents him to the astounded company as the Duc d'Orleans, Comte de Valois, and I know not what besides—a personage who immeasurably outshines the noblest of his insulters. Quieter, but not less telling, is the peripety in The Little Father of the Wilderness, by Messrs. Lloyd Osbourne and Austin Strong. The Pere Marlotte, who, by his heroism and self-devotion, has added vast territories to the French possessions in America, is summoned to the court of Louis XV, and naturally concludes that the king has heard of his services and wishes to reward them. He finds, on the contrary, that he is wanted merely to decide a foolish bet; and he is treated with the grossest insolence and contempt. Just as he is departing in humiliation, the Governor-General of Canada arrives, with a suite of officers and Indians. The moment they are aware of Pere Marlotte's presence, they all kneel to him and pay him deeper homage than they have paid to the king, who accepts the rebuke and joins in their demonstration.
A famous peripety of the romantic order occurs in H.M.S. Pinafore, where, on the discovery that Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw have been changed at birth, Ralph instantly becomes captain of the ship, while the captain declines into an able-bodied seaman. This is one of the instances in which the idealism of art ekes out the imperfections of reality.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: That great spiritual drama known as the Book of Job opens, after the Prologue in Heaven, with one of the most startling of peripeties.]
[Footnote 2: The first act of Mr. Gilbert Murray's Carlyon Sahib contains an incident of this nature; but it can scarcely be called a peripety, since the victim remains unconscious of his doom.]
[Footnote 3: For the benefit of American readers, it may be well to state that the person who changes a Bank of England note is often asked to write his or her name on the back of it. It must have been in a moment of sheer aberration that the lady in question wrote her own name.]
[Footnote 4: M. Bernstein, dishing up a similar theme with a piquant sauce of sensuality, made but a vulgar and trivial piece of work of it.]
[Footnote 5: One of the most striking peripeties in recent English drama occurs in the third act of The Builder of Bridges, by Mr. Alfred Sutro.]
PROBABILITY, CHANCE, AND COINCIDENCE
Aristotle indulges in an often-quoted paradox to the effect that, in drama, the probable impossible is to be preferred to the improbable possible. With all respect, this seems to be a somewhat cumbrous way of stating the fact that plausibility is of more importance on the stage than what may be called demonstrable probability. There is no time, in the rush of a dramatic action, for a mathematical calculation of the chances for and against a given event, or for experimental proof that such and such a thing can or cannot be done. If a thing seem plausible, an audience will accept it without cavil; if it, seem incredible on the face of it, no evidence of its credibility will be of much avail. This is merely a corollary from the fundamental principle that the stage is the realm of appearances; not of realities, where paste jewels are at least as effective as real ones, and a painted forest is far more sylvan than a few wilted and drooping saplings, insecurely planted upon the boards.
That is why an improbable or otherwise inacceptable incident cannot be validly defended on the plea that it actually happened: that it is on record in history or in the newspapers. In the first place, the dramatist can never put it on the stage as it happened. The bare fact may be historical, but it is not the bare fact that matters. The dramatist cannot restore it to its place in that intricate plexus of cause and effect, which is the essence and meaning of reality. He can only give his interpretation of the fact; and one knows not how to calculate the chances that his interpretation may be a false one. But even if this difficulty could be overcome; if the dramatist could prove that he had reproduced the event with photographic and cinematographic accuracy, his position would not thereby be improved. He would still have failed in his peculiar task, which is precisely that of interpretation. Not truth, but verisimilitude, is his aim; for the stage is the realm of appearances, in which intrusive realities become unreal. There are, as I have said, incalculable chances to one that the playwright's version of a given event will not coincide with that of the Recording Angel: but it may be true and convincing in relation to human nature in general, in which case it will belong to the sphere of great art; or, on a lower level, it may be agreeable and entertaining without being conspicuously false to human nature, in which case it will do no harm, since it makes no pretence to historic truth. It may be objected that the sixteenth-century public, and even, in the next century, the great Duke of Marlborough, got their knowledge of English history from Shakespeare, and the other writers of chronicle-plays. Well, I leave it to historians to determine whether this very defective and, in great measure, false vision of the past was better or worse than none. The danger at any rate, if danger there was, is now past and done with. Even our generals no longer go to the theatre or to the First Folio for their history. The dramatist may, with an easy conscience, interpret historic fact in the light of his general insight into human nature, so long as he does not so falsify the recorded event that common knowledge cries out against him.
Plausibility, then, not abstract or concrete probability, and still less literal faithfulness to recorded fact, is what the dramatist is bound to aim at. To understand this as a belittling of his art is to misunderstand the nature of art in general. The plausibility of bad art is doubtless contemptible and may be harmful. But to say that good art must be plausible is only to say that not every sort of truth, or every aspect of truth, is equally suitable for artistic representation—or, in more general terms, that the artist, without prejudice to his allegiance to nature, must respect the conditions of the medium in which he works.
Our standards of plausibility, however, are far from being invariable. To each separate form of art, a different standard is applicable. In what may roughly be called realistic art, the terms plausible and probable are very nearly interchangeable. Where the dramatist appeals to the sanction of our own experience and knowledge, he must not introduce matter against which our experience and knowledge cry out. A very small inaccuracy in a picture which is otherwise photographic will often have a very disturbing effect. In plays of society in particular, the criticism "No one does such things," is held by a large class of playgoers to be conclusive and destructive. One has known people despise a play because Lady So-and-so's manner of speaking to her servants was not what they (the cavillers) were accustomed to. On the other hand, one has heard a whole production highly applauded because the buttons on a particular uniform were absolutely right. This merely means that when an effort after literal accuracy is apparent, the attention of the audience seizes on the most trifling details and is apt to magnify their importance. Niceties of language in especial are keenly, and often unjustly, criticized. If a particular expression does not happen to be current in the critic's own circle, he concludes that nobody uses it, and that the author is a pedant or a vulgarian. In view of this inevitable tendency, the prudent dramatist will try to keep out of his dialogue expressions that are peculiar to his own circle, and to use only what may be called everybody's English, or the language undoubtedly current throughout the whole class to which his personage belongs.
It may be here pointed out that there are three different planes on which plausibility may or may not, be achieved. There is first the purely external plane, which concerns the producer almost as much as the playwright. On this plane we look for plausibility of costume, of manners, of dialect, of general environment. Then we have plausibility of what may be called uncharacteristic event—of such events as are independent of the will of the characters, and are not conditioned by their psychology. On this plane we have to deal with chance and accident, coincidence, and all "circumstances over which we have no control." For instance, the playwright who makes the "Marseillaise" become popular throughout Paris within half-an-hour of its having left the composer's desk, is guilty of a breach of plausibility on this plane. So, too, if I were to make my hero enter Parliament for the first time, and rise in a single session to be Prime Minister of England—there would be no absolute impossibility in the feat, but it would be a rather gross improbability of the second order. On the third plane we come to psychological plausibility, the plausibility of events dependent mainly or entirely on character. For example—to cite a much disputed instance—is it plausible that Nora, in A Doll's House, should suddenly develop the mastery of dialectics with which she crushes Helmer in the final scene, and should desert her husband and children, slamming the door behind her?
It need scarcely be said that plausibility on the third plane is vastly the most important. A very austere criticism might even call it the one thing worth consideration. But, as a matter of fact, when we speak of plausibility, it is almost always the second plane—the plane of uncharacteristic circumstance—that we have in mind. To plausibility of the third order we give a more imposing name—we call it truth. We say that Nora's action is true—or untrue—to nature. We speak of the truth with which the madness of Lear, the malignity of Iago, the race hatred of Shylock, is portrayed. Truth, in fact, is the term which we use in cases where the tests to be applied are those of introspection, intuition, or knowledge sub-consciously garnered from spiritual experience. Where the tests are external, and matters of common knowledge or tangible evidence, we speak of plausibility.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that because plausibility of the third degree, or truth, is the noblest attribute of drama, it is therefore the one thing needful. In some forms of drama it is greatly impaired, or absolutely nullified, if plausibility of the second degree, its necessary preliminary, be not carefully secured. In the case above imagined, for instance, of the young politician who should become Prime Minister immediately on entering Parliament: it would matter nothing with what profundity of knowledge or subtlety of skill the character was drawn: we should none the less decline to believe in him. Some dramatists, as a matter of fact, find it much easier to attain truth of character than plausibility of incident. Every one who is in the habit of reading manuscript plays, must have come across the would-be playwright who has a good deal of general ability and a considerable power of characterization, but seems to be congenitally deficient in the sense of external reality, so that the one thing he (or she) can by no means do is to invent or conduct an action that shall be in the least like any sequence of events in real life. It is naturally difficult to give examples, for the plays composed under this curious limitation are apt to remain in manuscript, or to be produced for one performance, and forgotten. There is, however, one recent play of this order which holds a certain place in dramatic literature. I do not know that Mr. Granville Barker was well-advised in printing The Marrying of Anne Leete along with such immeasurably maturer and saner productions as The Voysey Inheritance and Waste; but by doing so he has served my present purpose in providing me with a perfect example of a play as to which we cannot tell whether it possesses plausibility of the third degree, so absolutely does it lack that plausibility of the second degree which is its indispensable condition precedent.
Francisque Sarcey was fond of insisting that an audience would generally accept without cavil any postulates in reason which an author chose to impose upon it, with regard to events supposed to have occurred before the rise of the curtain; always provided that the consequences deduced from them within the limits of the play were logical, plausible, and entertaining. The public will swallow a camel, he would maintain, in the past, though they will strain at a gnat in the present. A classical example of this principle is (once more) the Oedipus Rex, in which several of the initial postulates are wildly improbable: for instance, that Oedipus should never have inquired into the circumstances of the death of Laius, and that, having been warned by an oracle that he was doomed to marry his mother, he should not have been careful, before marrying any woman, to ascertain that she was younger than himself. There is at least so much justification for Sarcey's favourite principle, that we are less apt to scrutinize things merely narrated to us than events which take place before our eyes. It is simply a special instance of the well-worn
"Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus."
But the principle is of very limited artistic validity. No one would nowadays think of justifying a gross improbability in the antecedents of a play by Ibsen or Sir Arthur Pinero, by Mr. Galsworthy or Mr. Granville Barker, on the plea that it occurred outside the frame of the picture. Such a plea might, indeed, secure a mitigation of sentence, but never a verdict of acquittal. Sarcey, on the other hand, brought up in the school of the "well-made" play, would rather have held it a feather in the playwright's cap that he should have known just where, and just how, he might safely outrage probability . The inference is that we now take the dramatist's art more seriously than did the generation of the Second Empire in France.
This brings us, however, to an important fact, which must by no means be overlooked. There is a large class of plays—or rather, there are several classes of plays, some of them not at all to be despised—the charm of which resides, not in probability, but in ingenious and delightful improbability. I am, of course, not thinking of sheer fantasies, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Peter Pan, or The Blue Bird. They may, indeed, possess plausibility of the third order, but plausibility of the second order has no application to them. Its writs do not run on their extramundane plane. The plays which appeal to us in virtue of their pleasant departures from probability are romances, farces, a certain order of light comedies and semi-comic melodramas—in short, the thousand and one plays in which the author, without altogether despising and abjuring truth, makes it on principle subsidiary to delightfulness. Plays of the Prisoner of Zenda type would come under this head: so would Sir Arthur Pinero's farces, The Magistrate, The Schoolmistress, Dandy Dick; so would Mr. Carton's light comedies, Lord and Lady Algy, Wheels within Wheels, Lady Huntworth's Experiment; so would most of Mr. Barrie's comedies; so would Mr. Arnold Bennett's play, The Honeymoon. In a previous chapter I have sketched the opening act of Mr. Carton's Wheels within Wheels, which is a typical example of this style of work. Its charm lies in a subtle, all-pervading improbability, an infusion of fantasy so delicate that, while at no point can one say, "This is impossible," the total effect is far more entertaining than that of any probable sequence of events in real life. The whole atmosphere of such a play should be impregnated with humour, without reaching that gross supersaturation which we find in the lower order of farce-plays of the type of Charlie's Aunt or Niobe.
* * * * *
Plausibility of development, as distinct from plausibility of theme or of character, depends very largely on the judicious handling of chance, and the exclusion, or very sparing employment, of coincidence. This is a matter of importance, into which we shall find it worth while to look somewhat closely.
It is not always clearly recognized that chance and coincidence are by no means the same thing. Coincidence is a special and complex form of chance, which ought by no means to be confounded with the everyday variety. We need not here analyse chance, or discuss the philosophic value of the term. It is enough that we all know what we mean by it in common parlance. It may be well, however, to look into the etymology of the two words we are considering. They both come ultimately, from the Latin "cadere," to fall. Chance is a falling-out, like that of a die from the dice-box; and coincidence signifies one falling-out on the top of another, the concurrent happening of two or more chances which resemble or somehow fit into each other. If you rattle six dice in a box and throw them, and they turn up at haphazard—say, two aces, a deuce, two fours, and a six—there is nothing remarkable in this falling out. But if they all turn up sixes, you at once suspect that the dice are cogged; and if that be not so—if there be no sufficient cause behind the phenomenon—you say that this identical falling-out of six separate possibilities was a remarkable coincidence. Now, applying the illustration to drama, I should say that the playwright is perfectly justified in letting chance play its probable and even inevitable part in the affairs of his characters; but that, the moment we suspect him of cogging the dice, we feel that he is taking an unfair advantage of us, and our imagination either cries, "I won't play!" or continues the game under protest.
Some critics have considered it a flaw in Shakespeare's art that the catastrophe of Romeo and Juliet should depend upon a series of chances, and especially on the miscarriage of the Friar's letter to Romeo. This is not, I think, a valid criticism. We may, if we are so minded, pick to pieces the course of action which brought these chances into play. The device of the potion—even if such a drug were known to the pharmacopoeia—is certainly a very clumsy method of escape from the position in which Juliet is placed by her father's obstinacy. But when once we have accepted that integral part of the legend, the intervention of chance in the catastrophe is entirely natural and probable. Observe that there is no coincidence in the matter, no interlinking or dovetailing of chances. The catastrophe results from the hot-headed impetuosity of all the characters, which so hurries events that there is no time for the elimination of the results of chance. Letters do constantly go astray, even under our highly-organized system of conveyance; but their delay or disappearance seldom leads to tragic results, because most of us have learnt to take things calmly and wait for the next post. Yet if we could survey the world at large, it is highly probable that every day or every hour we should somewhere or other find some Romeo on the verge of committing suicide because of a chance misunderstanding with regard to his Juliet; and in a certain percentage of cases the explanatory letter or telegram would doubtless arrive too late.
We all remember how, in Mr. Hardy's Tess, the main trouble arises from the fact that the letter pushed under Angel Clare's door slips also under the carpet of his room, and so is never discovered. This is an entirely probable chance; and the sternest criticism would hardly call it a flaw in the structure of the fable. But take another case: Madame X has had a child, of whom she has lost sight for more than twenty years, during which she has lived abroad. She returns to France, and immediately on landing at Bordeaux she kills a man who accompanies her. The court assigns her defence to a young advocate, and this young advocate happens to be her son. We have here a piling of chance upon chance, in which the long arm of coincidence is very apparent. The coincidence would have been less startling had she returned to the place where she left her son and where she believed him to be. But no! she left him in Paris, and it is only by a series of pure chances that he happens to be in Bordeaux, where she happens to land, and happens to shoot a man. For the sake of a certain order of emotional effect, a certain order of audience is willing to accept this piling up of chances; but it relegates the play to a low and childish plane of art. The Oedipus Rex, indeed—which meets us at every turn—is founded on an absolutely astounding series of coincidences; but here the conception of fate comes in, and we vaguely figure to ourselves some malignant power deliberately pulling the strings which guide its puppets into such abhorrent tangles. On the modern view that "character is destiny," the conception of supernatural wire-pulling is excluded. It is true that amazing coincidences do occur in life; but when they are invented to serve an artist's purposes, we feel that he is simplifying his task altogether beyond reason, and substituting for normal and probable development an irrelevant plunge into the merely marvellous.
Of the abuse of coincidence, I have already given a specimen in speaking of The Rise of Dick Halward (Chapter XII). One or two more examples may not be out of place. I need not dwell on the significance of the fact that most of them occur in forgotten plays.
In The Man of Forty, by Mr. Walter Frith, we find the following conjuncture of circumstances: Mr. Lewis Dunster has a long-lost wife and a long-lost brother. He has been for years in South Africa; they have meanwhile lived in London, but they do not know each other, and have held no communication. Lewis, returning from Africa, arrives in London. He does not know where to find either wife or brother, and has not the slightest wish to look for them; yet in the first house he goes to, the home of a lady whose acquaintance he chanced to make on the voyage, he encounters both his wife and his brother! Not quite so startling is the coincidence on which Mrs. Willoughby's Kiss, by Mr. Frank Stayton, is founded. An upper and lower flat in West Kensington are inhabited, respectively, by Mrs. Brandram and Mrs. Willoughby, whose husbands have both been many years absent in India. By pure chance the two husbands come home in the same ship; the two wives go to Plymouth to meet them, and by pure chance, for they are totally unacquainted with each other, they go to the same hotel; whence it happens that Mrs. Willoughby, meeting Mr. Brandram in a half-lighted room, takes him for her husband, flies to his arms and kisses him. More elaborate than either of these is the tangle of coincidences in Mr. Stuart Ogilvie's play, The White Knight—
Giulietta, the ward of David Pennycuick, goes to study singing at Milan. Mr. Harry Rook, Pennycuick's most intimate friend, meets her by chance in Milan, and she becomes his mistress, neither having the least idea that the other knows Pennycuick. Then Viscount Hintlesham, like Pennycuick, a dupe of Rook's, meets her by chance at Monte Carlo and falls in love with her. He does not know that she knows Rook or Pennycuick, and she does not know that he knows them. Arriving in England, she finds in the manager, the promoter, and the chairman of the Electric White Lead Company her guardian, her seducer, and her lover. When she comes to see her guardian, the first person she meets is her seducer, and she learns that her lover has just left the house. Up to that moment, I repeat, she did not know that any one of these men knew any other; yet she does not even say, "How small the world is!" Surely some such observation was obligatory under the circumstances.
Let us turn now to a more memorable piece of work; that interesting play of Sir Arthur Pinero's transition period, The Profligate. Here the great situation of the third act is brought about by a chain of coincidences which would be utterly unthinkable in the author's maturer work. Leslie Brudenell, the heroine, is the ward of Mr. Cheal, a solicitor. She is to be married to Dunstan Renshaw; and, as she has no home, the bridal party meets at Mr. Cheal's office before proceeding to the registrar's. No sooner have they departed than Janet Preece, who has been betrayed and deserted by Dunstan Renshaw (under an assumed name) comes to the office to state her piteous case. This is not in itself a pure coincidence; for Janet happened to come to London in the same train with Leslie Brudenell and her brother Wilfrid; and Wilfrid, seeing in her a damsel in distress, recommended her to lay her troubles before a respectable solicitor, giving her Mr. Cheal's address. So far, then, the coincidence is not startling. It is natural enough that Renshaw's mistress and his betrothed should live in the same country town; and it is not improbable that they should come to London by the same train, and that Wilfrid Brudenell should give the bewildered and weeping young woman a commonplace piece of advice. The concatenation of circumstances is remarkable rather than improbable. But when, in the next act, not a month later, Janet Preece, by pure chance, drops in at the Florentine villa where Renshaw and Leslie are spending their honeymoon, we feel that the long arm of coincidence is stretched to its uttermost, and that even the thrilling situation which follows is very dearly bought. It would not have been difficult to attenuate the coincidence. What has actually happened is this: Janet has (we know not how) become a sort of maid-companion to a Mrs. Stonehay, whose daughter was a school-friend of Leslie's; the Stonehays have come to Florence, knowing nothing of Leslie's presence there; and they happen to visit the villa in order to see a fresco which it contains. If, now, we had been told that Janet's engagement by the Stonehays had resulted from her visit to Mr. Cheal, and that the Stonehays had come to Florence knowing Leslie to be there, and eager to find her, several links would have been struck off the chain of coincidence; or, to put it more exactly, a fairly coherent sequence of events would have been substituted for a series of incoherent chances. The same result might no doubt have been achieved in many other and neater ways. I merely indicate, by way of illustration, a quite obvious method of reducing the element of coincidence in the case.
The coincidence in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, by which Ellean meets and falls in love with one of Paula's ex-lovers, has been very severely criticized. It is certainly not one of the strong points of the play; but, unlike the series of chances we have just been examining, it places no excessive strain on our credulity. Such coincidences do occur in real life; we have all of us seen or heard of them; the worst we can say of this one is that it is neither positively good nor positively bad—a piece of indifferent craftsmanship. On the other hand, if we turn to Letty, the chance which, in the third act, leads Letchmere's party and Mandeville's party to choose the same restaurant, seems to me entirely justified. It is not really a coincidence at all, but one of those everyday happenings which are not only admissible in drama, but positively desirable, as part of the ordinary surface-texture of life. Entirely to eliminate chance from our representation of life would be a very unreasonable austerity. Strictly speaking, indeed, it is impossible; for even when we have worked out an unbroken chain of rational and commensurate causes and effects, it remains a chance, and an unlikely chance, that chance should not have interfered with it.
All the plays touched upon in the last four paragraphs are in intention realistic. They aim, that is to say, at a literal and sober representation of life. In the other class of plays, which seek their effect, not in plodding probability, but in delightful improbability, the long arm of coincidence has its legitimate functions. Yet even here it is not quite unfettered. One of the most agreeable coincidences in fiction, I take it, is the simultaneous arrival in Bagdad, from different quarters of the globe, of three one-eyed calenders, all blind of the right eye, and all, in reality, the sons of kings. But it is to be noted that this coincidence is not a crucial occurrence in a story, but only a part of the story-teller's framework or mechanism—a device for introducing fresh series of adventures. This illustrates the Sarceyan principle above referred to, which Professor Brander Matthews has re-stated in what seems to me an entirely acceptable form—namely, that improbabilities which may be admitted on the outskirts of an action, must be rigidly excluded when the issue is joined and we are in the thick of things. Coincidences, in fact, become the more improbable in the direct ratio of their importance. We have all, in our own experience, met with amazing coincidences; but how few of us have ever gained or lost, been made happy or unhappy, by a coincidence, as distinct from a chance! It is not precisely probable that three brothers, who have separated in early life, and have not heard of one another for twenty years, should find themselves seated side by side at an Italian table-d'hote; yet such coincidences have occurred, and are creditable enough so long as nothing particular comes of them. But if a dramatist were to make these three brothers meet in Messina on the eve of the earthquake, in order that they might all be killed, and thus enable his hero (their cousin) to succeed to a peerage and marry the heroine, we should say that his use of coincidence was not strictly artistic. A coincidence, in short, which coincides with a crisis is thereby raised to the nth power, and is wholly inacceptable in serious art. Mr. Bernard Shaw has based the action of You Never Can Tell on the amazing coincidence that Mrs. Clandon and her children, coming to England after eighteen years' absence, should by pure chance run straight into the arms, or rather into the teeth, of the husband and father whom the mother, at any rate, only wishes to avoid. This is no bad starting-point for an extravaganza; but even Mr. Shaw, though a despiser of niceties of craftsmanship, introduces no coincidences into serious plays such as Candida or The Doctor's Dilemma.
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[Footnote 1: The malignant caricature of Cromwell in W.G. Wills' Charles I did not, indeed, prevent the acceptance of the play by the mid-Victorian public; but it will certainly shorten the life of the one play which might have secured for its author a lasting place in dramatic literature. It is unimaginable that future generations should accept a representation of Cromwell as
"A mouthing patriot, with an itching palm, In one hand menace, in the other greed."]
[Footnote 2: It is only fair to say that Sarcey drew a distinction between antecedent events and what he calls "postulates of character." He did not maintain that an audience ought to accept a psychological impossibility, merely because it was placed outside the frame of the picture. See Quarante Ans de Theatre, vii, p. 395.]
[Footnote 3: This phrase, which occurs in Mr. Haddon Chambers's romantic melodrama, Captain Swift, was greeted with a burst of laughter by the first-night audience; but little did we then think that Mr. Chambers was enriching the English language. It is not, on examination, a particularly luminous phrase: "the three or four arms of coincidence" would really be more to the point. But it is not always the most accurate expression that is fittest to survive.]
[Footnote 4: The abuse of coincidence is a legacy to modern drama from the Latin comedy, which, again, was founded on the Greek New Comedy. It is worth noting that in the days of Menander the world really was much smaller than it is to-day, when "thalassic" has grown into "oceanic" civilization. Travellers in those days followed a few main routes; half a dozen great seaports were rendezvous for all the world; the slave-trade was active, and kidnappings and abductions with the corresponding meetings and recognitions were no doubt frequent. Thus such a plot as that of the Menaechmi was by no means the sheer impossibility which Shakespeare made it by attaching indistinguishable Dromios to his indistinguishable Antipholuses. To reduplicate a coincidence is in fact to multiply it by a figure far beyond my mathematics. It may be noted, too, that the practice of exposing children, on which the Oedipus, and many plays of Menander, are founded, was common in historic Greece, and that the hapless children were generally provided with identification-tokens gnorismata.]
The term logic is often very vaguely used in relation to drama. French writers especially, who regard logic as one of the peculiar faculties of their national genius, are apt to insist upon it in and out of season. But, as we have already seen, logic is a gift which may easily be misapplied. It too often leads such writers as M. Brieux and M. Hervieu to sacrifice the undulant and diverse rhythms of life to a stiff and symmetrical formalism. The conception of a play as the exhaustive demonstration of a thesis has never taken a strong hold on the Anglo-Saxon mind; and, though some of M. Brieux's plays are much more than mere dramatic arguments, we need not, in the main, envy the French their logician-dramatists.
But, though the presence of logic should never be forced upon the spectator's attention, still less should he be disturbed and baffled by its conspicuous absence. If the playwright announces a theme at all: if he lets it be seen that some general idea underlies his work: he is bound to present and develop that idea in a logical fashion, not to shift his ground, whether inadvertently or insidiously, and not to wander off into irrelevant side-issues. He must face his problem squarely. If he sets forth to prove anything at all, he must prove that thing and not some totally different thing. He must beware of the red-herring across the trail.
For a clear example of defective logic, I turn to a French play—Sardou's Spiritisme. Both from internal and from external evidence, it is certain that M. Sardou was a believer in spiritualism—in the existence of disembodied intelligences, and their power of communicating with the living. Yet he had not the courage to assign to them an essential part in his drama. The spirits hover round the outskirts of the action, but do not really or effectually intervene in it. The hero's belief in them, indeed, helps to bring about the conclusion; but the apparition which so potently works upon him is an admitted imposture, a pious fraud. Earlier in the play, two or three trivial and unnecessary miracles are introduced—just enough to hint at the author's faith without decisively affirming it. For instance: towards the close of Act I Madame d'Aubenas has gone off, nominally to take the night train for Poitiers, in reality to pay a visit to her lover, M. de Stoudza. When she has gone, her husband and his guests arrange a seance and evoke a spirit. No sooner have preliminaries been settled than the spirit spells out the word "O-u-v-r-e-z." They open the window, and behold! the sky is red with a glare which proves to proceed from the burning of the train in which Madame d'Aubenas is supposed to have started. The incident is effective enough, and a little creepy; but its effect is quite incommensurate with the strain upon our powers of belief. The thing is supposed to be a miracle, of that there can be no doubt; but it has not the smallest influence on the course of the play, except to bring on the hurry-scurry and alarm a few minutes earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Now, if the spirit, instead of merely announcing the accident, had informed M. d'Aubenas that his wife was not in it—if, for example, it had rapped out "Gilberte chez Stoudza"—it would have been an honest ghost (though indiscreet), and we should not have felt that our credulity had been taxed to no purpose. As it is, the logical deduction from M. Sardou's fable is that, though spirit communications are genuine enough, they are never of the slightest use; but we can scarcely suppose that that was what he intended to convey.
It may be said, and perhaps with truth, that what Sardou lacked in this instance was not logic, but courage: he felt that an audience would accept episodic miracles, but would reject supernatural interference at a determining crisis in the play. In that case he would have done better to let the theme alone: for the manifest failure of logic leaves the play neither good drama nor good argument. This is a totally different matter from Ibsen's treatment of the supernatural in such plays as The Lady from the Sea, The Master Builder and Little Eyolf. Ibsen, like Hawthorne, suggests without affirming the action of occult powers. He shows us nothing that is not capable of a perfectly natural explanation; but he leaves us to imagine, if we are so disposed, that there may be influences at work that are not yet formally recognized in physics and psychology. In this there is nothing illogical. The poet is merely appealing to a mood, familiar to all of us, in which we wonder whether there may not be more things in heaven and earth than are crystallized in our scientific formulas.
It is a grave defect of logic to state, or hint at, a problem, and then illustrate it in such terms of character that it is solved in advance. In The Liars, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, there is an evident suggestion of the problem whether a man is ever justified in rescuing a woman, by means of the Divorce Court, from marital bondage which her soul abhors. The sententious Sir Christopher Deering argues the matter at great length: but all the time we are hungering for him to say the one thing demanded by the logic of the situation: to wit: "Whatever the abstract rights and wrongs of the case, this man would be an imbecile to elope with this woman, who is an empty-headed, empty-hearted creature, incapable either of the passion or of the loathing which alone could lend any semblance of reason to a breach of social law." Similarly, in The Profligate, Sir Arthur Pinero no doubt intended us to reflect upon the question whether, in entering upon marriage, a woman has a right to assume in her husband the same purity of antecedent conduct which he demands of her. That is an arguable question, and it has been argued often enough; but in this play it does not really arise, for the husband presented to us is no ordinary loose-liver, but (it would seem—for the case is not clearly stated) a particularly base and heartless seducer, whom it is evidently a misfortune for any woman to have married. The authors of these two plays have committed an identical error of logic: namely, that of suggesting a broad issue, and then stating such a set of circumstances that the issue does not really arise. In other words, they have from the outset begged the question. The plays, it may be said, were both successful in their day. Yes; but had they been logical their day might have lasted a century. A somewhat similar defect of logic constitutes a fatal blemish in The Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde. Intentionally or otherwise, the question suggested is whether a single flaw of conduct (the betrayal to financiers of a state secret) ought to blast a political career. Here, again, is an arguable point, on the assumption that the statesman is penitent and determined never to repeat his misdeed; but when we find that this particular statesman is prepared to go on betraying his country indefinitely, in order to save his own skin, the question falls to the ground—the answer is too obvious.
It happened some years ago that two plays satirizing "yellow journalism" were produced almost simultaneously in London—The Earth by Mr. James B. Fagan, and What the Public Wants by Mr. Arnold Bennett. In point of intellectual grasp, or power of characterization, there could be no comparison between the two writers; yet I hold that, from the point of view of dramatic composition, The Earth was the better play of the two, simply because it dealt logically with the theme announced, instead of wandering away into all sorts of irrelevances. Mr. Bennett, to begin with, could not resist making his Napoleon of the Press a native of the "Five Towns," and exhibiting him at large in provincial middle-class surroundings. All this is sheer irrelevance; for the type of journalism in question is not characteristically an outcome of any phase of provincial life. Mr. Bennett may allege that Sir Charles Worgan had to be born somewhere, and might as well be born in Bursley as anywhere else. I reply that, for the purposes of the play, he need not have been born anywhere. His birthplace and the surroundings of his boyhood have nothing to do with what may be called his journalistic psychology, which is, or ought to be, the theme of the play. Then, again, Mr. Bennett shows him dabbling in theatrical management and falling in love—irrelevances both. As a manager, no doubt, he insists on doing "what the public wants" (it is nothing worse than a revival of The Merchant of Venice) and thus offers another illustration of the results of obeying that principle. But all this is beside the real issue. The true gravamen of the charge against a Napoleon of the Press is not that he gives the public what it wants, but that he can make the public want what he wants, think what he thinks, believe what he wants them to believe, and do what he wants them to do. By dint of assertion, innuendo, and iteration in a hundred papers, he can create an apparent public opinion, or public emotion, which may be directed towards the most dangerous ends. This point Mr. Bennett entirely missed. What he gave us was in reality a comedy of middle-class life with a number of incidental allusions to "yellow" journalism and kindred topics. Mr. Fagan, working in broader outlines, and, it must be owned, in cruder colours, never strayed from the logical line of development, and took us much nearer the heart of his subject.
A somewhat different, and very common, fault of logic was exemplified in Mr. Clyde Fitch's last play, The City. His theme, as announced in his title and indicated in his exposition, was the influence of New York upon a family which migrates thither from a provincial town. But the action is not really shaped by the influence of "the city." It might have taken practically the same course if the family had remained at home. The author had failed to establish a logical connection between his theme and the incidents supposed to illustrate it.
Fantastic plays, which assume an order of things more or less exempt from the limitations of physical reality, ought, nevertheless, to be logically faithful to their own assumptions. Some fantasies, indeed, which sinned against this principle, have had no small success. In Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, there is a conspicuous lack of logic. The following passage from a criticism of thirty years ago puts my point so clearly that I am tempted to copy it:
As we have no scientific record of a statue coming to life, the probable moral and intellectual condition of a being so created is left to the widest conjecture. The playwright may assume for it any stage of development he pleases, and his audience will readily grant his assumption. But if his work is to have any claim to artistic value, he must not assume all sorts of different stages of development at every second word his creation utters. He must not make her a child in one speech, a woman of the world in the next, and an idiot in the next again. Of course, it would be an extremely difficult task clearly to define in all its bearings and details the particular intellectual condition assumed at the outset, and then gradually to indicate the natural growth of a fuller consciousness. Difficult it would be, but by no means impossible; nay, it would be this very problem which would tempt the true dramatist to adopt such a theme. Mr. Gilbert has not essayed the task. He regulates Galatea's state of consciousness by the fluctuating exigencies of dialogue whose humour is levelled straight at the heads of the old Haymarket pit.
To indicate the nature of the inconsistencies which abound in every scene, I may say that, in the first act, Galatea does not know that she is a woman, but understands the word "beauty," knows (though Pygmalion is the only living creature she has ever seen) the meaning of agreement and difference of taste, and is alive to the distinction between an original and a copy. In the second act she has got the length of knowing the enormity of taking life, and appreciating the fine distinction between taking it of one's own motive, and taking it for money. Yet the next moment, when Leucippe enters with a fawn he has killed, it appears that she does not realize the difference between man and the brute creation. Thus we are for ever shifting from one plane of convention to another. There is no fixed starting-point for our imagination, no logical development of a clearly-stated initial condition. The play, it is true, enjoyed some five-and-twenty years of life; but it certainly cannot claim an enduring place either in literature or on the stage. It is still open to the philosophic dramatist to write a logical Pygmalion and Galatea.
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[Footnote 1: I am here writing from memory, having been unable to obtain a copy of The City; but my memory is pretty clear.]
KEEPING A SECRET
It has been often and authoritatively laid down that a dramatist must on no account keep a secret from his audience. Like most authoritative maxims, this one seems to require a good deal of qualification. Let us look into the matter a little more closely.
So far as I can see, the strongest reason against keeping a secret is that, try as you may, you cannot do it. This point has already been discussed in Chapter IX, where we saw that from only one audience can a secret be really hidden, a considerable percentage of any subsequent audience being certain to know all about it in advance. The more striking and successful is the first-night effect of surprise, the more certainly and rapidly will the report of it circulate through all strata of the theatrical public. But for this fact, one could quite well conceive a fascinating melodrama constructed, like a detective story, with a view to keeping the audience in the dark as long as possible. A pistol shot might ring out just before the rise of the curtain: a man (or woman) might be discovered in an otherwise empty room, weltering in his (or her) gore: and the remainder of the play might consist in the tracking down of the murderer, who would, of course, prove to be the very last person to be suspected. Such a play might make a great first-night success; but the more the author relied upon the mystery for his effect, the more fatally would that effect be discounted at each successive repetition.
One author of distinction, M. Hervieu, has actually made the experiment of presenting an enigma—he calls the play L'Enigme—and reserving the solution to the very end. We know from the outset that one of two sisters-in-law is unfaithful to her husband, and the question is—which? The whole ingenuity of the author is centred on keeping the secret, and the spectator who does not know it in advance is all the time in the attitude of a detective questing for clues. He is challenged to guess which of the ladies is the frail one; and he is far too intent on this game to think or care about the emotional process of the play. I myself (I remember) guessed right, mainly because the name Giselle seemed to me more suggestive of flightiness than the staid and sober Leonore, wherefore I suspected that M. Hervieu, in order to throw dust in our eyes, had given it to the virtuous lady. But whether we guess right or wrong, this clue-hunting is an intellectual sport, not an artistic enjoyment. If there is any aesthetic quality in the play, it can only come home to us when we know the secret. And the same dilemma will present itself to any playwright who seeks to imitate M. Hervieu.
The actual keeping of a secret, then—the appeal to the primary curiosity of actual ignorance—may be ruled out as practically impossible, and, when possible, unworthy of serious art. But there is also, as we have seen, the secondary curiosity of the audience which, though more or less cognizant of the essential facts, instinctively assumes ignorance, and judges the development of a play from that point of view. We all realize that a dramatist has no right to trust to our previous knowledge, acquired from outside sources. We know that a play, like every other work of art, ought to be self-sufficient, and even if, at any given moment, we have, as a matter of fact, knowledge which supplements what the playwright has told us, we feel that he ought not to have taken for granted our possession of any such external and fortuitous information. To put it briefly, the dramatist must formally assume ignorance in his audience, though he must not practically rely upon it. Therefore it becomes a point of real importance to determine how long a secret may be kept from an audience, assumed to have no outside knowledge, and at what point it ought to be revealed.
When Lady Windermere's Fan was first produced, no hint was given in the first act of the fact that Mrs. Erlynne was Lady Windermere's mother; so that Lord Windermere's insistence on inviting her to his wife's birthday reception remained wholly unexplained. But after a few nights the author made Lord Windermere exclaim, just as the curtain fell, "My God! What shall I do? I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her." It was, of course, said that this change had been made in deference to newspaper criticism; and Oscar Wilde, in a characteristic letter to the St. James's Gazette, promptly repelled this calumny. At a first-night supper-party, he said—
"All of my friends without exception were of the opinion that the psychological interest of the second act would be greatly increased by the disclosure of the actual relationship existing between Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne—an opinion, I may add, that had previously been strongly held and urged by Mr. Alexander.... I determined, consequently, to make a change in the precise moment of revelation."
It is impossible to say whether Wilde seriously believed that "psychology" entered into the matter at all, or whether he was laughing in his sleeve in putting forward this solemn plea. The truth is, I think, that this example cannot be cited either for or against the keeping of a secret, the essential fact being that the secret was such a bad and inacceptable one—inacceptable, I mean, as an explanation of Lord Windermere's conduct—that it was probably wise to make a clean breast of it as soon as possible, and get it over. It may be said with perfect confidence that it is useless to keep a secret which, when revealed, is certain to disappoint the audience, and to make it feel that it has been trifled with. That is an elementary dictate of prudence. But if the reason for Lord Windermere's conduct had been adequate, ingenious, such as to give us, when revealed, a little shock of pleasant surprise, the author need certainly have been in no hurry to disclose it. It is not improbable (though my memory is not clear on the point) that part of the strong interest we undoubtedly felt on the first night arose from the hope that Lord Windermere's seemingly unaccountable conduct might be satisfactorily accounted for. As this hope was futile, there was no reason, at subsequent performances, to keep up the pretence of preserving a secret which was probably known, as a matter of fact, to most of the audience, and which was worthless when revealed.
In the second act of The Devil's Disciple, by Mr. Bernard Shaw, we have an instance of wholly inartistic secrecy, which would certainly be condemned in the work of any author who was not accepted in advance as a law unto himself. Richard Dudgeon has been arrested by the British soldiers, who mistake him for the Reverend Anthony Anderson. When Anderson comes home, it takes a very long time for his silly wife, Judith, to acquaint him with a situation that might have been explained in three words; and when, at last, he does understand it, he calls for a horse and his boots, and rushes off in mad haste, as though his one desire were to escape from the British and leave Dudgeon to his fate. In reality his purpose is to bring up a body of Continental troops to the rescue of Dudgeon; and this also he might (and certainly would) have conveyed in three words. But Mr. Shaw was so bent on letting Judith continue to conduct herself idiotically, that he made her sensible husband act no less idiotically, in order to throw dust in her eyes, and (incidentally) in the eyes of the audience. In the work of any other man, we should call this not only an injudicious, but a purposeless and foolish, keeping of a secret. Mr. Shaw may say that in order to develop the character of Judith as he had conceived it, he was forced to make her misunderstand her husband's motives. A development of character obtained by such artificial means cannot be of much worth; but even granting this plea, one cannot but point out that it would have been easy to keep Judith in the dark as to Anderson's purpose, without keeping the audience also in the dark, and making him behave like a fool. All that was required was to get Judith off the stage for a few moments, just before the true state of matters burst upon Anthony. It would then have been perfectly natural and probable that, not foreseeing her misunderstanding, he should hurry off without waiting to explain matters to her. But that he should deliberately leave her in her delusion, and even use phrases carefully calculated to deceive both her and the audience, would be, in a writer who professed to place reason above caprice, a rather gross fault of art.