Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's light comedy, Whitewashing Julia, proves that it is possible, without incurring disaster, to keep a secret throughout a play, and never reveal it at all. More accurately, what Mr. Jones does is to pretend that there is some explanation of Mrs. Julia Wren's relations with the Duke of Savona, other than the simple explanation that she was his mistress, and to keep us waiting for this "whitewashing" disclosure, when in fact he has nothing of the sort up his sleeve, and the plain truth is precisely what the gossips of Shanctonbury surmise. Julia does not even explain or justify her conduct from her own point of view. She gives out that "an explanation will be forthcoming at the right moment"; but the right moment never arrives. All we are told is that she, Julia, considers that there was never anything degrading in her conduct; and this we are asked to accept as sufficient. It was a daring policy to dangle before our eyes an explanation, which always receded as we advanced towards it, and proved in the end to be wholly unexplanatory. The success of the play, however, was sufficient to show that, in light comedy, at any rate, a secret may with impunity be kept, even to the point of tantalization.
Let us now look at a couple of cases in which the keeping of a secret seems pretty clearly wrong, inasmuch as it diminishes tension, and deprives the audience of that superior knowledge in which lies the irony of drama. In a play named Her Advocate, by Mr. Walter Frith (founded on one of Grenville Murray's French Pictures in English Chalk), a K.C. has fallen madly in love with a woman whose defence he has undertaken. He believes passionately in her innocence, and, never doubting that she loves him in return, he is determined to secure for her a triumphant acquittal. Just at the crucial moment, however, he learns that she loves another man; and, overwhelmed by this disillusion, he has still to face the ordeal and plead her cause. The conjuncture would be still more dramatic if the revelation of this love were to put a different complexion on the murder, and, by introducing a new motive, shake the advocate's faith in his client's innocence. But that is another matter; the question here to be considered is whether the author did right in reserving the revelation to the last possible moment. In my opinion he would have done better to have given us an earlier inkling of the true state of affairs. To keep the secret, in this case, was to place the audience as well as the advocate on a false trail, and to deprive it of the sense of superiority it would have felt in seeing him marching confidently towards a happiness which it knew to be illusory.
The second case is that of La Douloureuse, by M. Maurice Donnay. Through two acts out of the four an important secret is so carefully kept that there seems to be no obstacle between the lovers with whom (from the author's point of view) we are supposed to sympathize. The first act is devoted to an elaborate painting of a somewhat revolting phase of parvenu society in Paris. Towards the end of the act we learn that the sculptor, Philippe Lauberthie, is the lover of Helene Ardan, a married woman; and at the very end her husband, Ardan, commits suicide. This act, therefore, is devoted, not, as the orthodox formula goes, to raising an obstacle between the lovers, but rather to destroying one. In the second act there still seems to be no obstacle of any sort. Helene's year of widowhood is nearly over; she and Philippe are presently to be married; all is harmony, adoration, and security. In the last scene of the act, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appears on the horizon. We find that Gotte des Trembles, Helene's bosom friend, is also in love with Philippe, and is determined to let him know it. But Philippe resists her blandishments with melancholy austerity, and when the curtain falls on the second act, things seem to be perfectly safe and in order. Helene a widow, and Philippe austere—what harm can Gotte possibly do?
The fact is, M. Donnay is carefully keeping a secret from us. Philippe is not Helene's first lover; her son, Georges, is not the child of her late husband; and Gotte, and Gotte alone, knows the truth. Had we also been initiated from the outset (and nothing would have been easier or more natural—three words exchanged between Gotte and Helene would have done it) we should have been at no loss to foresee the impending drama, and the sense of irony would have tripled the interest of the intervening scenes. The effect of M. Donnay's third act is not a whit more forcible because it comes upon us unprepared. We learn at the beginning that Philippe's austerity has not after all been proof against Gotte's seductions; but it has now returned upon him embittered by remorse, and he treats Gotte with sternness approaching to contumely. She takes her revenge by revealing Helene's secret; he tells Helene that he knows it; and she, putting two and two together, divines how it has come to his knowledge. This long scene of mutual reproach and remorseful misery is, in reality, the whole drama, and might have been cited in Chapter XIV as a fine example of a peripety. Helene enters Philippe's studio happy and serene, she leaves it broken-hearted; but the effect of the scene is not a whit greater because, in the two previous acts, we have been studiously deprived of the information that would have led us vaguely to anticipate it.
To sum up this question of secrecy: the current maxim, "Never keep a secret from your audience," would appear to be an over-simplification of a somewhat difficult question of craftsmanship. We may agree that it is often dangerous and sometimes manifestly foolish to keep a secret; but, on the other hand, there is certainly no reason why the playwright should blurt out all his secrets at the first possible opportunity. The true art lies in knowing just how long to keep silent, and just the right time to speak. In the first act of Letty, Sir Arthur Pinero gains a memorable effect by keeping a secret, not very long, indeed, but long enough and carefully enough to show that he knew very clearly what he was doing. We are introduced to Nevill Letchmere's bachelor apartments. Animated scenes occur between Letchmere and his brother-in-law, Letchmere and his sister, Letchmere and Letty, Marion and Hilda Gunning. It is evident that Letty dreams of marriage with Letchmere; and for aught that we see or hear, there is no just cause or impediment to the contrary. It is only, at the end of the very admirable scene between Letchmere and Mandeville that the following little passage occurs:
MANDEVILLE: ... At all events I am qualified to tell her I'm fairly gone on her—honourably gone on her—if I choose to do it.
MANDEVILLE: Which is more than you are, Mr. Letchmere. I am a single man; you ain't, bear in mind.
LETCHMERE: (imperturbably): Very true.
This one little touch is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. It would have been the most natural thing in the world for either the sister or the brother-in-law, concerned about their own matrimonial difficulties, to let fall some passing allusion to Letchmere's separation from his wife; but the author carefully avoided this, carefully allowed us to make our first acquaintance with Letty in ignorance of the irony of her position, and then allowed the truth to slip out just in time to let us feel the whole force of that irony during the last scene of the act and the greater part of the second act. A finer instance of the delicate grading of tension it would be difficult to cite.
One thing is certain; namely, that if a secret is to be kept at all, it must be worth the keeping; if a riddle is propounded, its answer must be pleasing and ingenious, or the audience will resent having been led to cudgel its brains for nothing. This is simply a part of the larger principle, before insisted on, that when a reasonable expectation is aroused, it can be baffled only at the author's peril. If the crux of a scene or of a whole play lie in the solution of some material difficulty or moral problem, it must on no account be solved by a mere trick or evasion. The dramatist is very ill-advised who sets forth with pomp and circumstance to perform some intellectual or technical feat, and then merely skirts round it or runs away from it. A fair proportion should always be observed between effort and effect, between promise and performance.
"But if the audience happens to misread the playwright's design, and form exaggerated and irrational expectations?" That merely means that the playwright does not know his business, or, at any rate, does not know his audience. It is his business to play upon the collective mind of his audience as upon a keyboard—to arouse just the right order and measure of anticipation, and fulfil it, or outdo it, in just the right way at just the right time. The skill of the dramatist, as distinct from his genius or inspiration, lies in the correctness of his insight into the mind of his audience.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: For instance: "If you can get a word with him by pretending that you are his wife, tell him to hold his tongue until morning; that will give me all the start I need."]
[Footnote 2: In The Idyll, by Herr Egge, of which some account is given in Chapter X, the author certainly does right in not allowing the audience for a moment to share the hero's doubts as to the heroine's past. It would have been very easy for him to have kept the secret; but he takes the earliest opportunity of assuring us that her relations with Ringve were quite innocent.]
CLIMAX AND ANTICLIMAX
If it were as easy to write a good last act as a good first act, we should be able to reckon three masterpieces for every one that we can name at present. The reason why the last act should offer special difficulties is not far to seek. We have agreed to regard a play as essentially a crisis in the lives of one or more persons; and we all know that crises are much more apt to have a definite beginning than a definite end. We can almost always put our finger upon the moment—not, indeed, when the crisis began—but when we clearly realized its presence or its imminence. A chance meeting, the receipt of a letter or a telegram, a particular turn given to a certain conversation, even the mere emergence into consciousness of a previously latent feeling or thought, may mark quite definitely the moment of germination, so to speak, of a given crisis; and it is comparatively easy to dramatize such a moment. But how few crises come to a definite or dramatic conclusion! Nine times out of ten they end in some petty compromise, or do not end at all, but simply subside, like the waves of the sea when the storm has blown itself out. It is the playwright's chief difficulty to find a crisis with an ending which satisfies at once his artistic conscience and the requirements of dramatic effect.
And the difficulty becomes greater the nearer we approach to reality. In the days when tragedy and comedy were cast in fixed, conventional moulds, the playwright's task was much simpler. It was thoroughly understood that a tragedy ended with one or more deaths, a comedy with one or more marriages; so that the question of a strong or a weak ending did not arise. The end might be strongly or weakly led up to, but, in itself, it was fore-ordained. Now that these moulds are broken, and both marriage and death may be said to have lost their prestige as the be-all and end-all of drama, the playwright's range of choice is unlimited, and the difficulty of choosing has become infinitely greater. Our comedies are much more apt to begin than to end with marriage, and death has come to be regarded as a rather cheap and conventional expedient for cutting the knots of life.
From the fact that "the difficulty becomes greater the nearer we approach to reality," it further follows that the higher the form of drama, the more probable is it that the demands of truth and the requirements of dramatic effect may be found to clash. In melodrama, the curtain falls of its own accord, so to speak, when the handcuffs are transferred from the hero's wrists to the villain's. In an adventure-play, whether farcical or romantic, when the adventure is over the play is done. The author's task is merely to keep the interest of the adventure afoot until he is ready to drop his curtain. This is a point of craftsmanship in which playwrights often fail; but it is a point of craftsmanship only. In plays of a higher order, on the other hand, the difficulty is often inherent in the theme, and not to be overcome by any feat of craftsmanship. If the dramatist were to eschew all crises that could not be made to resolve themselves with specifically dramatic crispness and decisiveness, he would very seriously limit the domain of his art. Many excellent themes would be distorted and ruined by having an emphatic ending forced upon them. It is surely much better that they should be brought to their natural unemphatic ending, than that they should be either falsified or ignored.
I suggest, then, that the modern tendency to take lightly Aristotle's demand that the drama should have a "beginning, a middle, and an end," arises from the nature of things, and implies, not necessarily, nor even probably, a decline in craftsmanship, but a new intimacy of relation to life, and a new sincerity of artistic conscience. I suggest that the "weak last act," of which critics so often complain, is a natural development from which authors ought not, on occasion, to shrink, and of which critics ought, on occasion, to recognize the necessity. To elevate it into a system is absurd. There is certainly no more reason for deliberately avoiding an emphatic ending than for mechanically forcing one. But authors and critics alike should learn to distinguish the themes which do, from the themes which do not, call for a definite, trenchant solution, and should handle them, and judge them, in accordance with their inherent quality.
Let us, however, define our terms, and be sure that we know what we are talking about. By an "unemphatic ending" I am far from meaning a makeshift ending, an ending carelessly and conventionally huddled up. Nor do I mean an indecisive ending, where the curtain falls, as the saying goes, on a note of interrogation. An unemphatic ending, as I understand it, is a deliberate anticlimax, an idyllic, or elegiac, or philosophic last act, following upon a penultimate act of very much higher tension. The disposition to condemn such an ending off-hand is what I am here pleading against. It is sometimes assumed that the playwright ought always to make his action conclude within five minutes of its culmination; but for such a hard-and-fast rule I can find no sufficient reason. The consequences of a great emotional or spiritual crisis cannot always be worked out, or even foreshadowed, within so brief a space of time. If, after such a crisis, we are unwilling to keep our seats for another half-hour, in order to learn "what came of it all," the author has evidently failed to awaken in us any real interest in his characters.
A good instance of the unemphatic ending is the last act of Sir Arthur Pinero's Letty. This "epilogue"—so the author calls it—has been denounced as a concession to popular sentimentality, and an unpardonable anticlimax. An anticlimax it is, beyond all doubt; but it does not follow that it is an artistic blemish. Nothing would have been easier than not to write it—to make the play end with Letty's awakening from her dream, and her flight from Letchmere's rooms. But the author has set forth, not merely to interest us in an adventure, but to draw a character; and it was essential to our full appreciation of Letty's character that we should know what, after all, she made of her life. When Iris, most hapless of women, went out into the dark, there was nothing more that we needed to know of her. We could guess the sequel only too easily. But the case of Letty was wholly different. Her exit was an act of will, triumphing over a form of temptation peculiarly alluring to her temperament. There was in her character precisely that grit which Iris lacked; and we wanted to know what it would do for her. This was not a case for an indecisive ending, a note of interrogation. The author felt no doubt as to Letty's destiny, and he wanted to leave his audience in no doubt. From Iris's fate we were only too willing to avert our eyes; but it would have been a sensible discomfort to us to be left in the dark about Letty's.
This, then, I regard as a typical instance of justified anticlimax. Another is the idyllic last act of The Princess and the Butterfly, in which, moreover, despite its comparatively subdued tone, the tension is maintained to the end. A very different matter is the third act of The Benefit of the Doubt, already alluded to. This is a pronounced case of the makeshift ending, inspired (to all appearance) simply by the fact that the play must end somehow, and that no better idea happens to present itself. Admirable as are the other acts, one is almost inclined to agree with Dumas that an author ought not to embark upon a theme unless he foresees a better way out of it than this. It should be noted, too, that The Benefit of the Doubt is a three-act play, and that, in a play laid out on this scale, a whole act of anticlimax is necessarily disproportionate. It is one thing to relax the tension in the last act out of four or five; quite another thing in the last act out of three. In other words, the culminating point of a four-or five-act play may be placed in the penultimate act; in a three-act play, it should come, at earliest, in the penultimate scene.
In the works of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones we find several instances of the unemphatic last act—some clearly justified, others much less so. Among the former I unhesitatingly reckon the fourth act of Mrs. Dane's Defence. It would not have been difficult, but surely most inartistic, to huddle up the action in five minutes after Mrs. Dane's tragic collapse under Sir Daniel Carteret's cross-examination. She might have taken poison and died in picturesque contortions on the sofa; or Lionel might have defied all counsels of prudence and gone off with her in spite of her past; or she might have placed Lionel's hand in Janet's, saying: "The game is up. Bless you, my children. I am going into the nearest nunnery." As a matter of fact, Mr. Jones brought his action to its natural close in a quiet, sufficiently adroit, last act; and I do not see that criticism has any just complaint to make.
In recent French drama, La Douloureuse, already cited, affords an excellent instance of a quiet last act. After the violent and heartrending rupture between the lovers in the third act, we feel that, though this paroxysm of pain is justified by the circumstances, it will not last for ever, and Philippe and Helene will come together again. This is also M. Donnay's view; and he devotes his whole last act, quite simply, to a duologue of reconciliation. It seems to me a fault of proportion, however, that he should shift his locality from Paris to the Riviera, and should place the brief duologue in a romantic woodland scene. An act of anticlimax should be treated, so to speak, as unpretentiously as possible. To invent an elaborate apparatus for it is to emphasize the anticlimax by throwing it into unnecessary relief.
This may be a convenient place for a few words on the modern fashion of eschewing emphasis, not only in last acts, but at every point where the old French dramaturgy demanded it, and especially in act-endings. Punch has a pleasant allusion to this tendency in two suggested examination-papers for an "Academy of Dramatists":
A—FOR THE CLASSICAL SIDE ONLY. 1. What is a "curtain"; and how should it be led up to?
B—FOR THE MODERN SIDE ONLY. 1. What is a "curtain"; and how can it be avoided?
Some modern playwrights have fled in a sort of panic from the old "picture-poster situation" to the other extreme of always dropping their curtain when the audience least expects it. This is not a practice to be commended. One has often seen an audience quite unnecessarily chilled by a disconcerting "curtain." There should be moderation even in the shrinking from theatricality.
This shrinking is particularly marked, though I do not say it is carried too far, in the plays of Mr. Galsworthy. Even the most innocent tricks of emphasis are to him snares of the Evil One. He would sooner die than drop his curtain on a particularly effective line. It is his chief ambition that you should never discern any arrangement, any intention, in his work. As a rule, the only reason you can see for his doing thus or thus is his desire that you should see no reason for it. He does not carry this tendency, as some do, to the point of eccentricity; but he certainly goes as far as any one should be advised to follow. A little further, and you incur the danger of becoming affectedly unaffected, artificially inartificial.
I am far from pleading for the conventional tableau at the end of each act, with all the characters petrified, as it were, in penny-plain-twopence-coloured attitudes. But it is certainly desirable that the fall of the curtain should not take an audience entirely by surprise, and even that the spectator should feel the moment to be rightly chosen, though he might be unable to give any reason for his feeling. Moreover—this may seem a super-subtlety, but one has seen it neglected with notably bad effect—a playwright should never let his audience expect the fall of a curtain at a given point, and then balk their expectancy, unless he is sure that he holds in reserve a more than adequate compensation. There is nothing so dangerous as to let a play, or an act, drag on when the audience feels in its heart that it is really over, and that "the rest is silence"—or ought to be. The end of Mr. Granville Barker's fine play, The Voysey Inheritance, was injured by the fact that, several minutes before the curtain actually fell, he had given what seemed an obvious "cue for curtain." I do not say that what followed was superfluous; what I do say is that the author ought to have been careful not to let us imagine that the colloquy between Edward and Alice was over when in fact it had still some minutes to run. An even more remarkable play, The Madras House, was ruined, on its first night, by a long final anticlimax. Here, however, the fault did not lie in awakening a premature expectation of the close, but in the fact that we somehow were more interested in the other characters of the play than in the pair who held the stage throughout the long concluding scene.
Once more I turn to La Douloureuse for an instance of an admirable act-ending of the quiet modern type. The third act—the terrible peripety in the love of Philippe and Helene—has run its agonizing course, and worked itself out. The old dramaturgy would certainly have ended the scene with a bang, so to speak—a swoon or a scream, a tableau of desolation, or, at the very least, a piece of tearful rhetoric. M. Donnay does nothing of the sort. He lets his lovers unpack their hearts with words until they are exhausted, broken, dazed with misery, and have nothing more to say. Then Helene asks: "What o'clock is it?" Philippe looks at his watch: "Nearly seven." "I must be going"—and she dries her eyes, smoothes her hair, pulls herself together, in a word, to face the world again. The mechanical round of life re-asserts its hold upon them. "Help me with my cloak," she says; and he holds her mantle for her, and tucks in the puffed sleeves of her blouse. Then he takes up the lamp and lights her out—and the curtain falls. A model "curtain"!
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: The fact that a great poet can ignore such precepts with impunity is proved by the exquisite anticlimax of the third act of D'Annunzio's La Gioconda.]
The reader may have noticed, possibly with surprise, that some of the stock terms of dramatic criticism occur but rarely in these pages, or not at all. One of them is denouement. According to orthodox theory, I ought to have made the denouement the subject of a whole chapter, if not of a whole book. Why have I not done so?
For two reasons. The lesser, but not negligible, reason is that we possess no convenient English word for the unknotting or disentangling of a complication. Denouement itself cannot be plausibly Anglicized, and no native word has as yet, by common consent, been accepted as its equivalent. I sometimes wish we could adopt, and print without italics, the excellent and expressive Greek word "lusis"; but I cannot, on my own responsibility, attempt so daring an innovation. The second and determining reason for not making the denouement one of the heads of my argument, is that, the play of intrigue being no longer the dominant dramatic form, the image of disentangling has lost some of its special fitness. It is only in a somewhat strained and conventional sense that the term nodus, or knot, can be applied to the sort of crisis with which the modern drama normally deals; and if we do not naturally think of the crisis as a knot, we naturally do not think of its close as an unknotting.
Nevertheless, there are frequent cases in which the end of a play depends on something very like the unravelling of a tangled skein; and still more often, perhaps, is it brought about through the loosening of some knot in the mind of one or more of the characters. This was the characteristic end of the old comedy. The heavy father, or cantankerous guardian, who for four acts and a half had stood between the lovers, suddenly changed his mind, and all was well. Even by our ancestors this was reckoned a rather too simple method of disentanglement. Lisideius, in Dryden's dialogue, in enumerating the points in which the French drama is superior to the English notes that—
You never see any of their plays end with a conversion, or simple change of will, which is the ordinary way which our poets use to end theirs. It shew little art in the conclusion of a dramatick poem, when they who have hindered the felicity during the four acts, desist from it in the fifth, without some powerful cause to take them off their design.
The remark of Lisideius is suggested by a passage in Corneille, who instances, as an apt and artistic method of bringing about the conversion of a heavy father, that his daughter's lover should earn his gratitude by rescuing him from assassination!
Conversions, closely examined, will be found to fall into two classes: changes in volition, and changes in sentiment. It was the former class that Dryden had in mind; and, with reference to this class, the principle he indicates remains a sound one. A change of resolve should never be due to a mere lapse of time—to the necessity for bringing the curtain down and letting the audience go home. It must always be rendered plausible by some new fact or new motive: some hitherto untried appeal to reason or emotion. This rule, however, is too obvious to require enforcement. It was not quite superfluous so long as the old convention of comedy endured. For a century and a half after Dryden's time, hard-hearted parents were apt to withdraw their opposition to their children's "felicity" for no better reason than that the fifth act was drawing to a close. But this formula is practically obsolete. Changes of will, on the modern stage, are not always adequately motived; but that is because of individual inexpertness, not because of any failure to recognize theoretically the necessity for adequate motivation.
Changes of sentiment are much more important and more difficult to handle. A change of will can always manifest itself in action but it is very difficult to externalize convincingly a mere change of heart. When the conclusion of a play hinges (as it frequently does) on a conversion of this nature, it becomes a matter of the first moment that it should not merely be asserted, but proved. Many a promising play has gone wrong because of the author's neglect, or inability, to comply with this condition.
It has often been observed that of all Ibsen's thoroughly mature works, from A Doll's House to John Gabriel Borkman, The Lady from the Sea is the loosest in texture, the least masterly in construction. The fact that it leaves this impression on the mind is largely due, I think, to a single fault. The conclusion of the play—Ellida's clinging to Wangel and rejection of the Stranger—depends entirely on a change in Wangel's mental attitude, of which we have no proof whatever beyond his bare assertion. Ellida, in her overwrought mood, is evidently inclining to yield to the uncanny allurement of the Stranger's claim upon her, when Wangel, realizing that her sanity is threatened, says:
WANGEL: It shall not come to that. There is no other way of deliverance for you—at least I see none. And therefore—therefore I—cancel our bargain on the spot. Now you can choose your own path, in full—full freedom.
ELLIDA (Gazes at him awhile, as if speechless): Is this true—true—what you say? Do you mean it—from your inmost heart?
WANGEL: Yes—from the inmost depths of my tortured heart, I mean it.... Now your own true life can return to its—its right groove again. For now you can choose in freedom; and on your own responsibility, Ellida.
ELLIDA: In freedom—and on my own responsibility? Responsibility? This—this transforms everything.
—and she promptly gives the Stranger his dismissal. Now this is inevitably felt to be a weak conclusion, because it turns entirely on a condition of Wangel's mind of which he gives no positive and convincing evidence. Nothing material is changed by his change of heart. He could not in any case have restrained Ellida by force; or, if the law gave him the abstract right to do so, he certainly never had the slightest intention of exercising it. Psychologically, indeed, the incident is acceptable enough. The saner part of Ellida's will was always on Wangel's side; and a merely verbal undoing of the "bargain" with which she reproached herself might quite naturally suffice to turn the scale decisively in his favour. But what may suffice for Ellida is not enough for the audience. Too much is made to hang upon a verbally announced conversion. The poet ought to have invented some material—or, at the very least, some impressively symbolic—proof of Wangel's change of heart. Had he done so, The Lady from the Sea would assuredly have taken a higher rank among his works.
Let me further illustrate my point by comparing a very small thing with a very great. The late Captain Marshall wrote a "farcical romance" named The Duke of Killiecrankie, in which that nobleman, having been again and again rejected by the Lady Henrietta Addison, kidnapped the obdurate fair one, and imprisoned her in a crag-castle in the Highlands. Having kept her for a week in deferential durance, and shown her that he was not the inefficient nincompoop she had taken him for, he threw open the prison gate, and said to her: "Go! I set you free!" The moment she saw the gate unlocked, and realized that she could indeed go when and where she pleased, she also realized that she had not the least wish to go, and flung herself into her captor's arms. Here we have Ibsen's situation transposed into the key of fantasy, and provided with the material "guarantee of good faith" which is lacking in The Lady from the Sea. The Duke's change of mind, his will to set the Lady Henrietta free, is visibly demonstrated by the actual opening of the prison gate, so that we believe in it, and believe that she believes in it. The play was a trivial affair, and is deservedly forgotten; but the situation was effective because it obeyed the law that a change of will or of feeling, occurring at a crucial point in a dramatic action, must be certified by some external evidence, on pain of leaving the audience unimpressed.
This is a more important matter than it may at first sight appear. How to bring home to the audience a decisive change of heart is one of the ever-recurring problems of the playwright's craft. In The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen failed to solve it: in Rosmersholm he solved it by heroic measures. The whole catastrophe is determined by Rosmer's inability to accept without proof Rebecca's declaration that Rosmersholm has "ennobled" her, and that she is no longer the same woman whose relentless egoism drove Beata into the mill-race. Rebecca herself puts it to him: "How can you believe me on my bare word after to-day?" There is only one proof she can give—that of "going the way Beata went." She gives it: and Rosmer, who cannot believe her if she lives, and will not survive her if she dies, goes with her to her end. But the cases are not very frequent, fortunately, in which such drastic methods of proof are appropriate or possible. The dramatist must, as a rule, attain his end by less violent means; and often he fails to attain it at all.
A play by Mr. Haddon Chambers, The Awakening, turned on a sudden conversion—the "awakening," in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer, a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation, and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he "awakens" to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the heroine and the audience to be assured of the fact? That is just the difficulty; and the author takes no effectual measures to overcome it. The heroine, of course, is ultimately convinced; but the audience remains sceptical, to the detriment of the desired effect. "Sceptical," perhaps, is not quite the right word. The state of mind of a fictitious character is not a subject for actual belief or disbelief. We are bound to accept theoretically what the author tells us; but in this case he has failed to make us intimately feel and know that it is true.
In Mr. Alfred Sutro's play The Builder of Bridges, Dorothy Faringay, in her devotion to her forger brother, has conceived the rather disgraceful scheme of making one of his official superiors fall in love with her, in order to induce him to become practically an accomplice in her brother's crime. She succeeds beyond her hopes. Edward Thursfield does fall in love with her, and, at a great sacrifice, replaces the money the brother has stolen. But, in a very powerful peripety-scene in the third act, Thursfield learns that Dorothy has been deliberately beguiling him, while in fact she was engaged to another man. The truth is, however, that she has really come to love Thursfield passionately, and has broken her engagement with the other, for whom she never truly cared. So the author tells us, and so we are willing enough to believe—if he can devise any adequate method of making Thursfield believe it. Mr. Sutro's handling of the difficulty seems to me fairly, but not conspicuously, successful. I cite the case as a typical instance of the problem, apart from the merits or demerits of the solution.
It may be said that the difficulty of bringing home to us the reality of a revulsion of feeling, or a radical change of mental attitude, is only a particular case of the playwright's general problem of convincingly externalizing inward conditions and processes. That is true: but the special importance of a conversion which unties the knot and brings the curtain down seemed to render it worthy of special consideration.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: Of Dramatic Poesy, ed. Arnold, 1903, p. 51.]
[Footnote 2: In Mr. Somerset Maugham's Grace the heroine undergoes a somewhat analogous change of heart, coming to love the husband whom she has previously despised. But we have no difficulty in accepting her conversion, partly because its reasons are clear and fairly adequate, partly because there is no question of convincing the husband, who has never realized her previous contempt for him.]
BLIND-ALLEY THEMES—AND OTHERS
A blind-alley theme, as its name imports, is one from which there is no exit. It is a problem incapable of solution, or, rather, of which all possible solutions are equally unsatisfactory and undesirable. The playwright cannot too soon make sure that he has not strayed into such a no-thoroughfare. Whether an end be comic or tragic, romantic or ironic, happy or disastrous, it should satisfy something within us—our sense of truth, or of beauty, or of sublimity, or of justice, or of humour, or, at the least or lowest, our cynical sense of the baseness of human nature, and the vanity of human aspirations. But a play which satisfies neither our higher nor our lower instincts, baffles our sympathies, and leaves our desires at fault between equally inacceptable alternatives—such a play, whatever beauties of detail it may possess, is a weariness of the spirit, and an artistic blunder.
There are in literature two conspicuous examples of the blind-alley theme—two famous plays, wherein two heroines are placed in somewhat similar dilemmas, which merely paralyse our sympathies and inhibit our moral judgment. The first of these is Measure for Measure. If ever there was an insoluble problem in casuistry, it is that which Shakespeare has here chosen to present to us. Isabella is forced to choose between what we can only describe as two detestable evils. If she resists Angelo, and lets her brother die, she recoils from an act of self-sacrifice; and, although we may coldly approve, we cannot admire or take pleasure in her action. If, on the other hand, she determines at all costs to save her brother's life, her sacrifice is a thing from which we want only to avert the mind: it belongs to the region of what Aristotle calls to miaron, the odious and intolerable. Shakespeare, indeed, confesses the problem insoluble in the fact that he leaves it unsolved—evading it by means of a mediaeval trick. But where, then, was the use of presenting it? What is the artistic profit of letting the imagination play around a problem which merely baffles and repels it? Sardou, indeed, presented the same problem, not as the theme of a whole play, but only of a single act; and he solved it by making Floria Tosca kill Scarpia. This is a solution which, at any rate, satisfies our craving for crude justice, and is melodramatically effective. Shakespeare probably ignored it, partly because it was not in his sources, partly because, for some obscure reason, he supposed himself to be writing a comedy. The result is that, though the play contains some wonderful poetry, and has been from time to time revived, it has never taken any real hold upon popular esteem.
The second glaring instance of a blind-alley theme is that of Monna Vanna. We have all of us, I suppose, stumbled, either as actors or onlookers, into painful situations, which not even a miracle of tact could possibly save. As a rule, of course, they are comic, and the agony they cause may find a safety-valve in laughter. But sometimes there occurs some detestable incident, over which it is equally impossible to laugh and to weep. The wisest words, the most graceful acts, are of no avail. One longs only to sink into the earth, or vanish into thin air. Such a situation, on the largest possible scale, is that presented in Monna Vanna. It differs from that of Measure for Measure in the fact that there can be no doubt as to the moral aspect of the case. It is quite clear that Giovanna ought to sacrifice herself to save, not one puling Claudio, but a whole city full of men, women, and children. What she does is absolutely right; but the conjuncture is none the less a grotesque and detestable one, which ought to be talked about and thought about as little as possible. Every word that is uttered is a failure in tact. Guido, the husband, behaves, in the first act, with a violent egoism, which is certainly lacking in dignity; but will any one tell me what would be a dignified course for him to pursue under the circumstances? The sage old Marco, too—that fifteenth-century Renan—flounders just as painfully as the hot-headed Guido. It is the fatality of the case that "he cannot open his mouth without putting his foot in it"; and a theme which exposes a well-meaning old gentleman to this painful necessity is one by all means to be avoided. The fact that it is a false alarm, and that there is no rational explanation for Prinzivalle's wanton insult to a woman whom he reverently idolizes, in no way makes matters better. Not the least grotesque thing in the play is Giovanna's expectation that Guido will receive Prinzivalle with open arms because he has—changed his mind. We can feel neither approval nor disapproval, sympathy nor antipathy, in such a deplorable conjunction of circumstances. All we wish is that we had not been called upon to contemplate it. Maeterlinck, like Shakespeare, was simply dallying with the idea of a squalid heroism—so squalid, indeed, that neither he nor his predecessor had the courage to carry it through.
Pray observe that the defect of these two themes is not merely that they are "unpleasant." It is that there is no possible way out of them which is not worse than unpleasant: humiliating, and distressing. Let the playwright, then, before embarking on a theme, make sure that he has some sort of satisfaction to offer us at the end, if it be only the pessimistic pleasure of realizing some part of "the bitter, old and wrinkled truth" about life. The crimes of destiny there is some profit in contemplating; but its stupid vulgarities minister neither to profit nor delight.
* * * * *
It may not be superfluous to give at this point a little list of subjects which, though not blind-alley themes, are equally to be avoided. Some of them, indeed, are the reverse of blind-alley themes, their drawback lying in the fact that the way out of them is too tediously apparent.
At the head of this list I would place what may be called the "white marriage" theme: not because it is ineffective, but because its effectiveness is very cheap and has been sadly overdone. It occurs in two varieties: either a proud but penniless damsel is married to a wealthy parvenu, or a woman of culture and refinement is married to a "rough diamond." In both cases the action consists of the transformation of a nominal into a real marriage; and it is almost impossible, in these days, to lend any novelty to the process. In the good old Lady of Lyons the theme was decked in trappings of romantic absurdity, which somehow harmonized with it. One could hear in it a far-off echo of revolutionary rodomontade. The social aspect of the matter was emphasized, and the satire on middle-class snobbery was cruelly effective. The personal aspect, on the other hand—the unfulfilment of the nominal marriage—was lightly and discreetly handled, according to early-Victorian convention. In later days—from the time of M. George Ohnet's Maitre de Forges onwards—this is the aspect on which playwrights have preferred to dwell. Usually, the theme shades off into the almost equally hackneyed Still Waters Run Deep theme; for there is apt to be an aristocratic lover whom the unpolished but formidable husband threatens to shoot or horsewhip, and thereby overcomes the last remnant of repugnance in the breast of his haughty spouse. In The Ironmaster the lover was called the Duc de Bligny, or, more commonly, the Dook de Bleeny; but he has appeared under many aliases. In the chief American version of the theme, Mr. Vaughn Moody's Great Divide, the lover is dispensed with altogether, being inconsistent, no doubt, with the austere manners of Milford Corners, Mass. In one of the recent French versions, on the other hand—M. Bernstein's Samson—the aristocratic lover is almost as important a character as the virile, masterful, plebeian husband. It appears from this survey—which might be largely extended—that there are several ways of handling the theme; but there is no way of renewing and deconventionalizing it. No doubt it has a long life before it on the plane of popular melodrama, but scarcely, one hopes, on any higher plane.
Another theme which ought to be relegated to the theatrical lumber-room is that of patient, inveterate revenge. This form of vindictiveness is, from a dramatic point of view, an outworn passion. It is too obviously irrational and anti-social to pass muster in modern costume. The actual vendetta may possibly survive in some semi-barbarous regions, and Grangerfords and Shepherdsons (as in Mark Twain's immortal romance) may still be shooting each other at sight. But these things are relics of the past; they do not belong to the normal, typical life of our time. It is useless to say that human nature is the same in all ages. That is one of the facile axioms of psychological incompetence. Far be it from me to deny that malice, hatred, spite, and the spirit of retaliation are, and will be until the millennium, among the most active forces in human nature. But most people are coming to recognize that life is too short for deliberate, elaborate, cold-drawn revenge. They will hit back when they conveniently can; they will cherish for half a lifetime a passive, an obstructive, ill-will; they will even await for years an opportunity of "getting their knife into" an enemy. But they have grown chary of "cutting off their nose to spite their face"; they will very rarely sacrifice their own comfort in life to the mere joy of protracted, elaborate reprisals. Vitriol and the revolver—an outburst of rage, culminating in a "short, sharp shock"—these belong, if you will, to modern life. But long-drawn, unhasting, unresting machination, with no end in view beyond an ultimate unmasking, a turn of the tables—in a word, a strong situation—this, I take it, belongs to a phase of existence more leisurely than ours. There is no room in our crowded century for such large and sustained passions. One could mention plays—but they are happily forgotten—in which retribution was delayed for some thirty or forty years, during which the unconscious object of it enjoyed a happy and prosperous existence. These, no doubt, are extreme instances; but cold-storage revenge, as a whole, ought to be as rare on the stage as it is in real life. The serious playwright will do well to leave it to the melodramatists.
A third theme to be handled with the greatest caution, if at all, is that of heroic self-sacrifice. Not that self-sacrifice, like revenge, is an outworn passion. It still rages in daily life; but no audience of average intelligence will to-day accept it with the uncritical admiration which it used to excite in the sentimental dramas of last century. Even then—even in 1869—Meilhac and Halevy, in their ever-memorable Froufrou, showed what disasters often result from it; but it retained its prestige with the average playwright—and with some who were above the average—for many a day after that. I can recall a play, by a living English author, in which a Colonel in the Indian Army pleaded guilty to a damning charge of cowardice rather than allow a lady whom he chivalrously adored to learn that it was her husband who was the real coward and traitor. He knew that the lady detested her husband; he knew that they had no children to suffer by the husband's disgrace; he knew that there was a quite probable way by which he might have cleared his own character without casting any imputation on the other man. But in a sheer frenzy of self-sacrifice he blasted his own career, and thereby inflicted far greater pain upon the woman he loved than if he had told the truth or suffered it to be told. And twenty years afterwards, when the villain was dead, the hero still resolutely refused to clear his own character, lest the villain's widow should learn the truth about her wholly unlamented husband. This was an extravagant and childish case; but the superstition of heroic self-sacrifice still lingers in certain quarters, and cannot be too soon eradicated. I do not mean, of course, that self-sacrifice is never admirable, but only that it can no longer be accepted as a thing inherently noble, apart from its circumstances and its consequences. An excellent play might be written with the express design of placing the ethics of self-sacrifice in their true light. Perhaps the upshot might be the recognition of the simple principle that it is immoral to make a sacrifice which the person supposed to benefit by it has no right to accept.
Another motive against which it is perhaps not quite superfluous to warn the aspiring playwright is the "voix du sang." It is only a few years since this miraculous voice was heard speaking loud and long in His Majesty's Theatre, London, and in a play by a no less modern-minded author than the late Clyde Fitch. It was called The Last of the Dandies, and its hero was Count D'Orsay. At a given moment, D'Orsay learned that a young man known as Lord Raoul Ardale was in reality his son. Instantly the man of the world, the squire of dames, went off into a deliquium of tender emotion. For "my bo-o-oy" he would do anything and everything. He would go down to Crockford's and win a pot of money to pay "my boy's" debts—Fortune could not but be kind to a doting parent. In the beautiful simplicity of his soul, he looked forward with eager delight to telling Raoul that the mother he adored was no better than she should be, and that he had no right to his name or title. Not for a moment did he doubt that the young man would share his transports. When the mother opposed his purpose of betraying her secret, he wept with disappointment. "All day," he said, "I have been saying to myself: When that sun sets, I shall hear him say, 'Good-night, Father!'" He postulated in so many words the "voix du sang," trusting that, even if the revelation were not formally made, "Nature would send the boy some impulse" of filial affection. It is hard to believe—but it is the fact—that, well within the present century, such ingenuous nonsense as this was gravely presented to the public of a leading theatre, by an author of keen intelligence, who, but for an unhappy accident, would now be at the zenith of his career. There are few more foolish conventions than that of the "voix du sang." Perhaps, however, the rising generation of playwrights has more need to be warned against the opposite or Shawesque convention, that kinship utters itself mainly in wrangling and mutual dislike.
Among inherently feeble and greatly overdone expedients may be reckoned the oath or promise of secrecy, exacted for no sufficient reason, and kept in defiance of common sense and common humanity. Lord Windermere's conduct in Oscar Wilde's play is a case in point, though he has not even an oath to excuse his insensate secretiveness. A still clearer instance is afforded by Clyde Fitch's play The Girl with the Green Eyes. In other respects a very able play, it is vitiated by the certainty that Austin ought to have, and would have, told the truth ten times over, rather than subject his wife's jealous disposition to the strain he puts upon it.
It would not be difficult to prolong this catalogue of themes and motives that have come down in the world, and are no longer presentable in any society that pretends to intelligence. But it is needless to enter into further details. There is a general rule, of sovereign efficacy, for avoiding such anachronisms: "Go to life for your themes, and not to the theatre." Observe that rule, and you are safe. But it is easier said than done.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: I have good reason for believing that, in M. Maeterlinck's original scheme, Prinzivalle imposed no such humiliating condition. Giovanna went of her own motive to appeal to his clemency; and her success was so complete that her husband, on her return, could not believe that it had been won by avowable means. This is a really fine conception—what a pity that the poet departed from it!]
[Footnote 2: Much has been made of the Censor's refusal to license Monna Vanna; but I think there is more to be said for his action in this than in many other cases. In those countries where the play has succeeded, I cannot but suspect that the appeal it made was not wholly to the higher instincts of the public.]
[Footnote 3: I am not sure what was the precise relationship of this play to the same author's Beau Brummel. D'Orsay's death scene was certainly a repetition of Brummel's.]
THE FULL CLOSE
In an earlier chapter, I have tried to show that a certain tolerance for anticlimax, for a fourth or fifth act of calm after the storm of the penultimate act, is consonant with right reason, and is a practically inevitable result of a really intimate relation between drama and life. But it would be a complete misunderstanding of my argument to suppose that I deny the practical, and even the artistic, superiority of those themes in which the tension can be maintained and heightened to the very end.
The fact that tragedy has from of old been recognized as a higher form than comedy is partly due, no doubt, to the tragic poet's traditional right to round off a human destiny in death. "Call no man happy till his life be ended," said Sophocles, quoting from an earlier sage; and it needed no profundity of wisdom to recognize in the "happy ending" of comedy a conventional, ephemeral thing. But when, after all the peripeties of life, the hero "home has gone and ta'en his wages," we feel that, at any rate, we have looked destiny squarely in the face, without evasion or subterfuge. Perhaps the true justification of tragedy as a form of art is that, after this experience, we should feel life to be, not less worth living, but greater and more significant than before.
This is no place, however, for a discussion of the aesthetic basis of tragedy in general. What is here required, from the point of view of craftsmanship, is not so much a glorification of the tragic ending, as a warning against its facile misuse. A very great play may, and often must, end in death; but you cannot make a play great by simply killing off your protagonist. Death is, after all, a very inexpensive means of avoiding anticlimax. Tension, as we saw, is symbolized in the sword of Damocles; and it can always be maintained, in a mechanical way, by letting your hero play about with a revolver, or placing an overdose of chloral well within your heroine's reach. At the time when the English drama was awaking from the lethargy of the 'seventies, an idea got abroad that a non-sanguinary ending was always and necessarily inartistic, and that a self-respecting playwright must at all hazards kill somebody before dropping his curtain. This was an extravagant reaction against the purely commercial principle that the public would not, on any terms, accept a tragic ending. As a matter of fact, the mortality was not very great; for managers were resolute in the old belief, and few dramatists had the courage or authority to stand up against them. But I have often heard playwrights lamenting their inability to massacre the luckless children of their fancy, who, nine times out of ten, had done nothing to incur such a doom. The real trouble was that death seemed to be the only method of avoiding anticlimax.
It is a very sound rule that, before you determine to write a tragedy, you should make sure that you have a really tragic theme: that you can place your hero at such odds with life that reconciliation, or mere endurance, would be morally base or psychologically improbable. Moreover, you must strike deep into character before you are justified in passing capital sentence on your personages. Death is a disproportionate close for a commonplace and superficially-studied life. It is true that quite commonplace people do die; indeed, they preponderate in the bills of mortality; but death on the stage confers a sort of distinction which ought not to be accorded without due and sufficient cause. To one god in particular we may apply the Horatian maxim, "Nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus."
In German aesthetic theory, the conception tragische Schuld—"tragic guilt"—plays a large part. It descends, no doubt, from the Aristotelian maxim that a tragic hero must neither be too good nor too bad; but it also belongs to a moralizing conception, which tacitly or explicitly assumes that the dramatist's aim ought to be "to justify the ways of God to man." In these days we look at drama more objectively, and do not insist on deciding in what degree a man has deserved death, if only we feel that he has necessarily or probably incurred it. But in order that we may be satisfied of this, we must know him intimately and feel with him intensely. We must, in other words, believe that he dies because he cannot live, and not merely to suit the playwright's convenience and help him to an effective "curtain."
As we review the series of Ibsen's modern plays, we cannot but feel that, though he did not shrink from death, he never employed it, except perhaps in his last melancholy effort, as a mere way of escape from a difficulty. In five out of his thirteen modern plays, no one dies at all. One might even say six: for Oswald, in Ghosts, may live for years; but I hold it as only fair to count the death of his mind as more than equivalent to bodily death. Solness, on the plane of literal fact, dies by an accident; on the plane of symbolic interpretation, he dies of the over-great demands which Hilda makes upon his "sickly conscience." Little Eyolf's death can also be regarded from a symbolic point of view; but there is no substantial reason to think of it otherwise than as an accident. John Gabriel Borkman dies of heart seizure, resulting from sudden exposure to extreme cold. In the case of Solness and Borkman, death is a quite natural and probable result of the antecedent conditions; and in the case of Eyolf, it is not a way out of the action, but rather the way into it. There remain the three cases of suicide: Rebecca and Rosmer, Hedda Gabler, and Hedvig. I have already, in Chapter XIX, shown how the death of Rebecca was the inevitable outcome of the situation—the one conclusive proof of her "ennoblement"—and how it was almost equally inevitable that Rosmer should accompany her to her end. Hedda Gabler was constitutionally fated to suicide: a woman of low vitality, overmastering egoism, and acute supersensitiveness, placed in a predicament which left her nothing to expect from life but tedium and humiliation. The one case left—that of Hedvig—is the only one in which Ibsen can possibly be accused of wanton bloodshed. Bjoernson, in a very moving passage in his novel, The Paths of God, did actually, though indirectly, make that accusation. Certainly, there is no more heartrending incident in fiction; and certainly it is a thing that only consummate genius can justify. Ibsen happened to possess that genius, and I am not far from agreeing with those who hold The Wild Duck to be his greatest work. But for playwrights who are tempted to seek for effects of pathos by similar means, one may without hesitation lay down this maxim: Be sure you are an Ibsen before you kill your Hedvig.
This analysis of Ibsen's practice points to the fact—for such I believe it to be—that what the modern playwright has chiefly to guard against is the temptation to overdo suicide as a means of cutting the dramatic knot. In France and Germany there is another temptation, that of the duel; but in Anglo-Saxon countries it scarcely presents itself. Death, other than self-inflicted, is much less tempting, and less apt to be resorted to in and out of season. The heroine, whether virtuous or erring, who dies of consumption, has gone greatly out of vogue. A broken heart is no longer held to be necessarily fatal. The veriest tyro realizes that death by crude accident is inadmissible as a determining factor in serious drama; and murder is practically (though not absolutely) relegated to the melodramatic domain. The one urgent question, then, is that of the artistic use and abuse of suicide.
The principle is pretty plain, I think, that it ought to be the artist's, as it is the man's, last resort. We know that, in most civilized countries, suicide is greatly on the increase. It cannot be called an infrequent incident in daily life. It is certain, too, that the motives impelling to it are apt to be of a dramatic nature, and therefore suited to the playwright's purposes. But it is, on the other hand, such a crude and unreasoning means of exit from the tangle of existence that a playwright of delicate instincts will certainly employ it only under the strongest compulsion from his artistic conscience.
Sir Arthur Pinero has three suicides on his record, though one of them was, so to speak, nipped in the bud. In The Profligate, as presented on the stage, Dunstan Renshaw changed his mind before draining the fatal goblet; and in this case the stage version was surely the right one. The suicide, to which the author still clings in the printed text, practically dates the play as belonging to the above-mentioned period of rebellion against the conventional "happy ending," when the ambitious British dramatist felt that honour required him to kill his man on the smallest provocation. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then, and the disproportion between such a play and such a catastrophe is now apparent to everyone. It is not that we judge Renshaw's delinquencies to be over-punished by death—that is not the question. The fact is simply that the characters are not large enough, true enough, living enough—that the play does not probe deep enough into human experience—to make the august intervention of death seem other than an incongruity. The suicide of Paula Tanqueray, though it, too, has been much criticized, is a very different matter. Inevitable it cannot be called: if the play had been written within the past ten years, Sir Arthur would very likely have contrived to do without it. But it is, in itself, probable enough: both the good and the bad in Paula's character might easily make her feel that only the dregs of life remained to her, and they not worth drinking. The worst one can say of it is that it sins against the canon of practical convenience which enjoins on the prudent dramatist strict economy in suicide. The third case, Zoe Blundell's leap to nothingness, in that harsh and ruthless masterpiece, Mid-Channel, is as inevitable as anything can well be in human destiny. Zoe has made a miserable and hopeless muddle of her life. In spite of her goodness of heart, she has no interests and no ideals, apart from the personal satisfactions which have now been poisoned at their source. She has intervened disastrously in the destinies of others. She is ill; her nerves are all on edge; and she is, as it were, driven into a corner, from which there is but one easy and rapid exit. Here is a case, if ever there was one, where the end is imposed upon the artist by the whole drift of his action. It may be said that chance plays a large part in the concatenation of events—that, for instance, if Leonard Ferris had not happened to live at the top of a very high building, Zoe would not have encountered the sudden temptation to which she yields. But this, as I have tried to show above, is a baseless complaint. Chance is a constant factor in life, now aiding, now thwarting, the will. To eliminate it altogether would be to produce a most unlifelike world. It is only when the playwright so manipulates and reduplicates chance as to make it seem no longer chance, but purposeful arrangement, that we have the right to protest.
Another instance of indisputably justified suicide may be found in Mr. Galsworthy's Justice. The whole theme of the play is nothing but the hounding to his end of a luckless youth, who has got on the wrong side of the law, and finds all the forces of society leagued against him. In Mr. Granville Barker's Waste, the artistic justification for Trebell's self-effacement is less clear and compulsive. It is true that the play was suggested by the actual suicide, not of a politician, but of a soldier, who found his career ruined by some pitiful scandal. But the author has made no attempt to reproduce the actual circumstances of that case; and even if he had reproduced the external circumstances, the psychological conditions would clearly have eluded him. Thus the appeal to fact is, as it always must be, barred. In two cases, indeed, much more closely analogous to Trebell's than that which actually suggested it—two famous cases in which a scandal cut short a brilliant political career—suicide played no part in the catastrophe. These real-life instances are, I repeat, irrelevant. The only question is whether Mr. Barker has made us feel that a man of Trebell's character would certainly not survive the paralysing of his energies; and that question every spectator must answer for himself. I am far from answering it in the negative. I merely suggest that the playwright may one day come across a theme for which there is no conceivable ending but suicide, and may wish that he had let Trebell live, lest people should come to regard him as a spendthrift of self-slaughter.
The suicide which brings to a close Mr. Clyde Fitch's very able play, The Climbers, stands on a somewhat different level. Here it is not the protagonist who makes away with himself, nor is his destiny the main theme of the play. Mr. Fitch has painted a broad social picture, in which, if there is any concentration of interest, it is upon Blanche and Warden. Sterling's suicide, then, though it does in fact cut the chief knot of the play, is to be regarded rather as a characteristic and probable incident of a certain phase of life, than as the culmination of a spiritual tragedy. It has not the artistic significance, either good or bad, that it would have if the character and destiny of Sterling were our main concernment.
* * * * *
The happy playwright, one may say, is he whose theme does not force upon him either a sanguinary or a tame last act, but enables him, without troubling the coroner, to sustain and increase the tension up to the very close. Such themes are not too common, but they do occur. Dumas found one in Denise, and another in Francillon, where the famous "Il en a menti!" comes within two minutes of the fall of the curtain. In Heimat (Magda) and in Johannisfeuer, Sudermann keeps the tension at its height up to the fall of the curtain. Sir Arthur Pinero's Iris is a case in point; so are Mr. Shaw's Candida and The Devil's Disciple; so is Mr. Galsworthy's Strife. Other instances will no doubt occur to the reader; yet he will probably be surprised to find that it is not very easy to recall them.
For this is not, in fact, the typical modern formula. In plays which do not end in death, it will generally be found that the culminating scene occurs in the penultimate act, and that, if anticlimax is avoided, it is not by the maintenance of an unbroken tension, by its skilful renewal and reinforcement in the last act. This is a resource which the playwright will do well to bear in mind. Where he cannot place his "great scene" in his last act, he should always consider whether it be not possible to hold some development in reserve whereby the tension may be screwed up again—if unexpectedly, so much the better. Some of the most successful plays within my recollection have been those in which the last act came upon us as a pleasant surprise. An anticlimax had seemed inevitable; and behold! the author had found a way out of it.
An Enemy of the People may perhaps be placed in this class, though, as before remarked, the last act is almost an independent comedy. Had the play ended with the fourth act, no one would have felt that anything was lacking; so that in his fifth act, Ibsen was not so much grappling with an urgent technical problem, as amusing himself by wringing the last drop of humour out of the given situation. A more strictly apposite example may be found in Sir Arthur Pinero's play, His House in Order. Here the action undoubtedly culminates in the great scene between Nina and Hilary Jesson in the third act; yet we await with eager anticipation the discomfiture of the Ridgeley family; and when we realize that it is to be brought about by the disclosure to Filmer of Annabel's secret, the manifest rightness of the proceeding gives us a little shock of pleasure. Mr. Somerset Maugham, again, in the last act of Grace, employs an ingenious device to keep the tension at a high pitch. The matter of the act consists mainly of a debate as to whether Grace Insole ought, or ought not, to make a certain painful avowal to her husband. As the negative opinion was to carry the day, Mr. Maugham saw that there was grave danger that the final scene might appear an almost ludicrous anticlimax. To obviate this, he made Grace, at the beginning of the act, write a letter of confession, and address it to Claude; so that all through the discussion we had at the back of our mind the question "Will the letter reach his hands? Will the sword of Damocles fall?" This may seem like a leaf from the book of Sardou; but in reality it was a perfectly natural and justified expedient. It kept the tension alive throughout a scene of ethical discussion, interesting in itself, but pretty clearly destined to lead up to the undramatic alternative—a policy of silence and inaction. Mr. Clyde Fitch, in the last act of The Truth, made an elaborate and daring endeavour to relieve the mawkishness of the clearly-foreseen reconciliation between Warder and Becky. He let Becky fall in with her father's mad idea of working upon Warder's compassion by pretending that she had tried to kill herself. Only at the last moment did she abandon the sordid comedy, and so prove herself (as we are asked to suppose) cured for ever of the habit of fibbing. Mr. Fitch here showed good technical insight marred by over-hasty execution. That Becky should be tempted to employ her old methods, and should overcome the temptation, was entirely right; but the actual deception attempted was so crude and hopeless that there was no plausibility in her consenting to it, and no merit in her desisting from it.
In light comedy and farce it is even more desirable than in serious drama to avoid a tame and perfunctory last act. Very often a seemingly trivial invention will work wonders in keeping the interest afoot. In Mr. Anstey's delightful farce, The Brass Bottle, one looked forward rather dolefully to a flat conclusion; but by the simple device of letting the Jinny omit to include Pringle in his "act of oblivion," the author is enabled to make his last scene quite as amusing as any of its predecessors. Mr. Arnold Bennett, in The Honeymoon, had the audacity to play a deliberate trick on the audience, in order to evade an anticlimax. Seeing that his third act could not at best be very good, he purposely put the audience on a false scent, made it expect an absolutely commonplace ending (the marriage of Flora to Charles Haslam), and then substituted one which, if not very brilliant, was at least ingenious and unforeseen. Thus, by defeating the expectation of a superlatively bad act, he made a positively insignificant act seem comparatively good. Such feats of craftsmanship are entertaining, but too dangerous to be commended for imitation.
In some modern plays a full close is achieved by the simple expedient of altogether omitting the last act, or last scene, and leaving the end of the play to the imagination. This method is boldly and (I understand) successfully employed by Mr. Edward Sheldon in his powerful play, The Nigger. Philip Morrow, the popular Governor of one of the Southern States, has learnt that his grandmother was a quadroon, and that consequently he has in him a much-attenuated strain of African blood. In the Southern States, attenuation matters nothing: if the remotest filament of a man's ancestry runs back to Africa, he is "a nigger all right." Philip has just suppressed a race-riot in the city, and, from the balcony of the State Capitol, is to address the troops who have aided him, and the assembled multitude. Having resolutely parted from the woman he adores, but can no longer marry, he steps out upon the balcony to announce that he is a negro, that he resigns the Governorship, and that henceforth he casts in his lot with his black brethren. The stage-direction runs thus—
The afternoon sun strikes his figure. At his appearance a shout goes up—long, steady, enthusiastic cheering; and, after a moment, the big regimental band begins playing, very slowly, "My Country, 'tis of Thee." ... All the people in the room are smiling and applauding enthusiastically; and—as Phil in vain raises his hand for silence, and the band crashes through the National Anthem, and the roar of voices still rises from below—
THE CURTAIN FALLS.
One does not know whether to praise Mr. Sheldon for having adroitly avoided an anticlimax, or to reproach him with having unblushingly shirked a difficulty. To my sense, the play has somewhat the air of a hexameter line with the spondee cut off. One does want to see the peripety through. But if the audience is content to imagine the sequel, Mr. Sheldon's craftsmanship is justified, and there is no more to be said. M. Brieux experienced some difficulty in bringing his early play, Blanchette, to a satisfactory close. The third act which he originally wrote was found unendurably cynical; a more agreeable third act was condemned as an anticlimax; and for some time the play was presented with no third act at all. It did not end, but simply left off. No doubt it is better that a play should stop in the middle than that it should drag on tediously and ineffectually. But it would be foolish to make a system of such an expedient. It is, after all, an evasion, not a solution, of the artist's problem.
An incident which occurred during the rehearsals for the first production of A Doll's House, at the Novelty Theatre, London, illustrates the difference between the old, and what was then the new, fashion of ending a play. The business manager of the company, a man of ripe theatrical experience, happened to be present one day when Miss Achurch and Mr. Waring were rehearsing the last great scene between Nora and Helmar. At the end of it, he came up to me, in a state of high excitement. "This is a fine play!" he said. "This is sure to be a big thing!" I was greatly pleased. "If this scene, of all others," I thought, "carries a man like Mr. Smith off his feet, it cannot fail to hold the British public." But I was somewhat dashed when, a day or two later, Mr. Smith came up to me again, in much less buoyant spirits. "I made a mistake about that scene," he said. "They tell me it's the end of the last act—I thought it was the end of the first!"
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: The reader who wishes to pursue the theme may do so to excellent advantage in Professor Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy.]
[Footnote 2: It is true that in A Doll's House, Dr. Rank announces his approaching demise: but he does not actually die, nor is his fate an essential part of the action of the play.]
[Footnote 3: The duel, even in countries whose customs permit of it, is essentially an inartistic end; for it leaves the catastrophe to be decided either by Chance or Providence—two equally inadmissible arbiters in modern drama. Alexandre Dumas fils, in his preface to Heloise Paranquet, condemns the duel as a dramatic expedient. "Not to mention," he says, "the fact that it has been much over-done, we are bound to recognize that Providence, in a fit of absence of mind, sometimes suffers the rascal to kill the honest man. Let me recommend my young colleagues," he proceeds, "never to end a piece which pretends to reproduce a phase of real life, by an intervention of chance." The recommendation came rather oddly from the dramatist who, in L'Etrangere, had disposed of his "vibrion," the Duc de Septmonts, by making Clarkson kill him in a duel. Perhaps he did not reckon L'Etrangere as pretending to reproduce a phase of real life. A duel is, of course, perfectly admissible in a French or German play, simply as part of a picture of manners. Its stupid inconclusiveness may be the very point to be illustrated. It is only when represented as a moral arbitrament that it becomes an anachronism.]
[Footnote 4: I am glad to see, from Mr. Malcolm Salaman's introduction to the printed play, that, even in those days of our hot youth, my own aesthetic principles were less truculent.]
[Footnote 5: This image is sometimes suggested by an act-ending which leaves a marked situation obviously unresolved. The curtain should never be dropped at such a point as to leave the characters in a physical or mental attitude which cannot last for more than a moment, and must certainly be followed, then and there, by important developments. In other words, a situation ought not to be cut short at the very height of its tension, but only when it has reached a point of—at any rate momentary—relaxation.]
CHARACTER AND PSYCHOLOGY
For the invention and ordering of incident it is possible, if not to lay down rules, at any rate to make plausible recommendations; but the power to observe, to penetrate, and to reproduce character can neither be acquired nor regulated by theoretical recommendations. Indirectly, of course, all the technical discussions of the previous chapters tend, or ought to tend, towards the effective presentment of character; for construction, in drama of any intellectual quality, has no other end. But specific directions for character-drawing would be like rules for becoming six feet high. Either you have it in you, or you have it not.
Under the heading of character, however, two points arise which may be worth a brief discussion: first, ought we always to aim at development in character? second, what do we, or ought we to, mean by "psychology"?
It is a frequent critical complaint that in such-and-such a character there is "no development": that it remains the same throughout a play; or (so the reproach is sometimes worded) that it is not a character but an invariable attitude. A little examination will show us, I think, that, though the critic may in these cases be pointing to a real fault, he does not express himself quite accurately.
What is character? For the practical purposes of the dramatist, it may be defined as a complex of intellectual, emotional, and nervous habits. Some of these habits are innate and temperamental—habits formed, no doubt, by far-off ancestors. But this distinction does not here concern us. Temperamental bias is a habit, like another, only somewhat older, and, therefore, harder to deflect or eradicate. What do we imply, then, when we complain that, in a given character, no development has taken place? We imply that he ought, within the limits of the play, to have altered the mental habits underlying his speech and actions. But is this a reasonable demand? Is it consistent with the usual and desirable time-limits of drama? In the long process of a novel, there may be time for the gradual alteration of habits: in the drama, which normally consists of a single crisis, any real change of character would have to be of a catastrophic nature, in which experience does not encourage us to put much faith. It was, indeed—as Dryden pointed out in a passage quoted above—one of the foibles of our easy-going ancestors to treat character as practically reversible when the time approached for ringing down the curtain. The same convention survives to this day in certain forms of drama. Even Ibsen, in his earlier work, had not shaken it off; witness the sudden ennoblement of Bernick in Pillars of Society. But it can scarcely be that sort of "development" which the critics consider indispensable. What is it, then, that they have in mind?
By "development" of character, I think they mean, not change, but rather unveiling, disclosure. They hold, not unreasonably, that a dramatic crisis ought to disclose latent qualities in the persons chiefly concerned in it, and involve, not, indeed, a change, but, as it were, an exhaustive manifestation of character. The interest of the highest order of drama should consist in the reaction of character to a series of crucial experiences. We should, at the end of a play, know more of the protagonist's character than he himself, or his most intimate friend, could know at the beginning; for the action should have been such as to put it to some novel and searching test. The word "development" might be very aptly used in the photographic sense. A drama ought to bring out character as the photographer's chemicals "bring out" the forms latent in the negative. But this is quite a different thing from development in the sense of growth or radical change. In all modern drama, there is perhaps no character who "develops," in the ordinary sense of the word, so startlingly as Ibsen's Nora; and we cannot but feel that the poet has compressed into a week an evolution which, in fact, would have demanded many months.
The complaint that a character preserves the same attitude throughout means (if it be justified) that it is not a human being at all, but a mere embodiment of two or three characteristics which are fully displayed within the first ten minutes, and then keep on repeating themselves, like a recurrent decimal. Strong theatrical effects can be produced by this method, which is that of the comedy of types, or of "humors." But it is now generally, and rightly, held that a character should be primarily an individual, and only incidentally (if at all) capable of classification under this type or that. It is a little surprising to find Sarcey, so recently as 1889, laying it down that "a character is a master faculty or passion, which absorbs all the rest.... To study and paint a character is, therefore, by placing a man in a certain number of situations, to show how this principal motive force in his nature annihilates or directs all those which, if he had been another man, would probably have come into action." This dogma of the "ruling passion" belongs rather to the eighteenth century than to the close of the nineteenth.
* * * * *
We come now to the second of the questions above propounded, which I will state more definitely in this form: Is "psychology" simply a more pedantic term for "character-drawing"? Or can we establish a distinction between the two ideas? I do not think that, as a matter of fact, any difference is generally and clearly recognized; but I suggest that it is possible to draw a distinction which might, if accepted, prove serviceable both to critics and to playwrights.
Let me illustrate my meaning by an example. In Bella Donna, by Messrs. Robert Hichens and James B. Fagan, we have a murder-story of a not uncommon or improbable type. A woman of very shady reputation marries an amiable idealist who is infatuated with her. She naturally finds his idealism incomprehensible and his amiability tedious. His position as heir-presumptive to a peerage is shattered by the birth of an heir-apparent. She becomes passionately enamoured of an Egyptian millionaire; and she sets to work to poison her husband with sugar-of-lead, provided by her oriental lover. How her criminal purpose is thwarted by a wise Jewish physician is nothing to the present purpose. In intent she is a murderess, no less than Lucrezia Borgia or the Marquise de Brinvilliers. And the authors have drawn her character cleverly enough. They have shown her in the first act as a shallow-souled materialist, and in the later acts as a vain, irritable, sensual, unscrupulous creature. But have they given us any insight into her psychology? No, that is just what they have not done. They have assigned to her certain characteristics without which cruel and cold-blooded murder would be inconceivable; but they have afforded us no insight into the moral conditions and, mental processes which make it, not only conceivable, but almost an everyday occurrence. For the average human mind, I suppose, the psychology of crime, and especially of fiendish, hypocritical murder-by-inches, has an undeniable fascination. To most of us it seems an abhorrent miracle; and it would interest us greatly to have it brought more or less within the range of our comprehension, and co-ordinated with other mental phenomena which we can and do understand. But of such illumination we find nothing in Bella Donna. It leaves the working of a poisoner's mind as dark to us as ever. So far as that goes, we might just as well have read the report of a murder-trial, wherein the facts are stated with, perhaps, some superficial speculation as to motive, but no attempt is made to penetrate to underlying soul-states. Yet this is surely the highest privilege of art—to take us behind and beneath those surfaces of things which are apparent to the detective and the reporter, the juryman and the judge.