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Title: Play-Making - A Manual of Craftsmanship
Author: Archer, William, 1856-1924
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Play-Making - A Manual of Craftsmanship" ***


_A Manual of Craftsmanship_

by William Archer



This book is, to all intents and purposes, entirely new. No considerable
portion of it has already appeared, although here and there short
passages and phrases from articles of bygone years are embedded
--indistinguishably, I hope--in the text. I have tried, wherever
it was possible, to select my examples from published plays, which the
student may read for himself, and so check my observations. One reason,
among others, which led me to go to Shakespeare and Ibsen for so many of
my illustrations, was that they are the most generally accessible of

If the reader should feel that I have been over lavish in the use of
footnotes, I have two excuses to allege. The first is that more than
half of the following chapters were written on shipboard and in places
where I had scarcely any books to refer to; so that a great deal had to
be left to subsequent enquiry and revision. The second is that several
of my friends, dramatists and others, have been kind enough to read my
manuscript, and to suggest valuable afterthoughts.


_January_, 1912


Brander Matthews

Guide Philosopher and Friend





















There are no rules for writing a play. It is easy, indeed, to lay down
negative recommendations--to instruct the beginner how _not_ to do it.
But most of these "don'ts" are rather obvious; and those which are not
obvious are apt to be questionable. It is certain, for instance, that if
you want your play to be acted, anywhere else than in China, you must
not plan it in sixteen acts of an hour apiece; but where is the tyro who
needs a text-book to tell him that? On the other hand, most theorists of
to-day would make it an axiom that you must not let your characters
narrate their circumstances, or expound their motives, in speeches
addressed, either directly to the audience, or ostensibly to their
solitary selves. But when we remember that, of all dramatic openings,
there is none finer than that which shows Richard Plantagenet limping
down the empty stage to say--

  "Now is the winter of our discontent
  Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
  And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
  In the deep bosom of the ocean buried"--

we feel that the axiom requires large qualifications. There are no
absolute rules, in fact, except such as are dictated by the plainest
common sense. Aristotle himself did not so much dogmatize as analyse,
classify, and generalize from, the practices of the Attic dramatists. He
said, "you had better" rather than "you must." It was Horace, in an age
of deep dramatic decadence, who re-stated the pseudo-Aristotelian
formulas of the Alexandrians as though they were unassailable dogmas
of art.

How comes it, then, that there is a constant demand for text-books of
the art and craft of drama? How comes it that so many people--and I
among the number--who could not write a play to save their lives, are
eager to tell others how to do so? And, stranger still, how comes it
that so many people are willing to sit at the feet of these instructors?
It is not so with the novel. Popular as is that form of literature,
guides to novel-writing, if they exist at all, are comparatively rare.
Why are people possessed with the idea that the art of dramatic fiction
differs from that of narrative fiction, in that it can and must
be taught?

The reason is clear, and is so far valid as to excuse, if not to
justify, such works as the present. The novel, as soon as it is legibly
written, exists, for what it is worth. The page of black and white is
the sole intermediary between the creative and the perceptive brain.
Even the act of printing merely widens the possible appeal: it does not
alter its nature. But the drama, before it can make its proper appeal at
all, must be run through a highly complex piece of mechanism--the
theatre--the precise conditions of which are, to most beginners, a
fascinating mystery. While they feel a strong inward conviction of their
ability to master it, they are possessed with an idea, often exaggerated
and superstitious, of its technical complexities. Having, as a rule,
little or no opportunity of closely examining or experimenting with it,
they are eager to "read it up," as they might any other machine. That is
the case of the average aspirant, who has neither the instinct of the
theatre fully developed in his blood, nor such a congenital lack of that
instinct as to be wholly inapprehensive of any technical difficulties or
problems. The intelligent novice, standing between these extremes,
tends, as a rule, to overrate the efficacy of theoretical instruction,
and to expect of analytic criticism more than it has to give.

There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side, and quackery
on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who
constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first
principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the
Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack,
on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the
most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to
interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing,
his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally
devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary
from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are
about as valuable as those of Zadkiel or Old Moore.[1]

What, then, is the excuse for such a discussion as is here attempted?
Having admitted that there are no rules for dramatic composition, and
that the quest of such rules is apt to result either in pedantry or
quackery, why should I myself set forth upon so fruitless and foolhardy
an enterprise? It is precisely because I am alive to its dangers that I
have some hope of avoiding them. Rules there are none; but it does not
follow that some of the thousands who are fascinated by the art of the
playwright may not profit by having their attention called, in a plain
and practical way, to some of its problems and possibilities. I have
myself felt the need of some such handbook, when would-be dramatists
have come to me for advice and guidance. It is easy to name excellent
treatises on the drama; but the aim of such books is to guide the
judgment of the critic rather than the creative impulse of the
playwright. There are also valuable collections of dramatic criticisms;
but any practical hints that they may contain are scattered and
unsystematic. On the other hand, the advice one is apt to give to
beginners--"Go to the theatre; study its conditions and mechanism for
yourself"--is, in fact, of very doubtful value. It might, in many cases,
be wiser to warn the aspirant to keep himself unspotted from the
playhouse. To send him there is to imperil, on the one hand, his
originality of vision, on the other, his individuality of method. He may
fall under the influence of some great master, and see life only through
his eyes; or he may become so habituated to the current tricks of the
theatrical trade as to lose all sense of their conventionality and
falsity, and find himself, in the end, better fitted to write what I
have called a quack handbook than a living play. It would be ridiculous,
of course, to urge an aspirant positively to avoid the theatre; but the
common advice to steep himself in it is beset with dangers.

It may be asked why, if I have any guidance and help to give, I do not
take it myself, and write plays instead of instructing others in the
art. This is a variant of an ancient and fallacious jibe against
criticism in general. It is quite true that almost all critics who are
worth their salt are "stickit" artists. Assuredly, if I had the power, I
should write plays instead of writing about them; but one may have a
great love for an art, and some insight into its principles and methods,
without the innate faculty required for actual production. On the other
hand, there is nothing to show that, if I were a creative artist, I
should be a good mentor for beginners. An accomplished painter may be
the best teacher of painters; but an accomplished dramatist is scarcely
the best guide for dramatists. He cannot analyse his own practice, and
discriminate between that in it which is of universal validity, and that
which may be good for him, but would be bad for any one else. If he
happened to be a great man, he would inevitably, even if unconsciously,
seek to impose upon his disciples his individual attitude towards life;
if he were a lesser man, he would teach them only his tricks. But
dramatists do not, as a matter of fact, take pupils or write
handbooks.[2] When they expound their principles of art, it is generally
in answer to, or in anticipation of, criticism--with a view, in short,
not to helping others, but to defending themselves. If beginners, then,
are to find any systematic guidance, they must turn to the critics, not
to the dramatists; and no person of common sense holds it a reproach to
a critic to tell him that he is a "stickit" playwright.

If questions are worth discussing at all, they are worth discussing
gravely. When, in the following pages, I am found treating with all
solemnity matters of apparently trivial detail, I beg the reader to
believe that very possibly I do not in my heart overrate their
importance. One thing is certain, and must be emphasized from the
outset: namely, that if any part of the dramatist's art can be taught,
it is only a comparatively mechanical and formal part--the art of
structure. One may learn how to tell a story in good dramatic form: how
to develop and marshal it in such a way as best to seize and retain the
interest of a theatrical audience. But no teaching or study can enable a
man to choose or invent a good story, and much less to do that which
alone lends dignity to dramatic story-telling--to observe and portray
human character. This is the aim and end of all serious drama; and it
will be apt to appear as though, in the following pages, this aim and
end were ignored. In reality it is not so. If I hold comparatively
mechanical questions of pure craftsmanship to be worth discussing, it is
because I believe that only by aid of competent craftsmanship can the
greatest genius enable his creations to live and breathe upon the stage.
The profoundest insight into human nature and destiny cannot find valid
expression through the medium of the theatre without some understanding
of the peculiar art of dramatic construction. Some people are born with
such an instinct for this art, that a very little practice renders them
masters of it. Some people are born with a hollow in their cranium where
the bump of drama ought to be. But between these extremes, as I said
before, there are many people with moderately developed and cultivable
faculty; and it is these who, I trust, may find some profit in the
following discussions.[3] Let them not forget, however, that the topics
treated of are merely the indispensable rudiments of the art, and are
not for a moment to be mistaken for its ultimate and incommunicable
secrets. Beethoven could not have composed the Ninth Symphony without a
mastery of harmony and counterpoint; but there are thousands of masters
of harmony and counterpoint who could not compose the Ninth Symphony.

The art of theatrical story-telling is necessarily relative to the
audience to whom the story is to be told. One must assume an audience of
a certain status and characteristics before one can rationally discuss
the best methods of appealing to its intelligence and its sympathies.
The audience I have throughout assumed is drawn from what may be called
the ordinary educated public of London and New York. It is not an ideal
or a specially selected audience; but it is somewhat above the average
of the theatre-going public, that average being sadly pulled down by the
myriad frequenters of musical farce and absolutely worthless melodrama.
It is such an audience as assembles every night at, say, the half-dozen
best theatres of each city. A peculiarly intellectual audience it
certainly is not. I gladly admit that theatrical art owes much, in both
countries, to voluntary organizations of intelligent or would-be
intelligent[4] playgoers, who have combined to provide themselves with
forms of drama which specially interest them, and do not attract the
great public. But I am entirely convinced that the drama renounces its
chief privilege and glory when it waives its claim to be a popular art,
and is content to address itself to coteries, however "high-browed."
Shakespeare did not write for a coterie: yet he produced some works of
considerable subtlety and profundity. Molière was popular with the
ordinary parterre of his day: yet his plays have endured for over two
centuries, and the end of their vitality does not seem to be in sight.
Ibsen did not write for a coterie, though special and regrettable
circumstances have made him, in England, something of a coterie-poet. In
Scandinavia, in Germany, even in America, he casts his spell over great
audiences, if not through long runs (which are a vice of the merely
commercial theatre), at any rate through frequently-repeated
representations. So far as I know, history records no instance of a
playwright failing to gain the ear of his contemporaries, and then being
recognized and appreciated by posterity. Alfred de Musset might,
perhaps, be cited as a case in point; but he did not write with a view
to the stage, and made no bid for contemporary popularity. As soon as it
occurred to people to produce his plays, they were found to be
delightful. Let no playwright, then, make it his boast that he cannot
disburden his soul within the three hours' limit, and cannot produce
plays intelligible or endurable to any audience but a band of adepts. A
popular audience, however, does not necessarily mean the mere riff-raff
of the theatrical public. There is a large class of playgoers, both in
England and America, which is capable of appreciating work of a high
intellectual order, if only it does not ignore the fundamental
conditions of theatrical presentation. It is an audience of this class
that I have in mind throughout the following pages; and I believe that a
playwright who despises such an audience will do so to the detriment,
not only of his popularity and profits, but of the artistic quality
of his work.

Some people may exclaim: "Why should the dramatist concern himself about
his audience? That may be all very well for the mere journeymen of the
theatre, the hacks who write to an actor-manager's order--not for the
true artist! He has a soul above all such petty considerations. Art, to
him, is simply self-expression. He writes to please himself, and has no
thought of currying favour with an audience, whether intellectual or
idiotic." To this I reply simply that to an artist of this way of
thinking I have nothing to say. He has a perfect right to express
himself in a whole literature of so-called plays, which may possibly be
studied, and even acted, by societies organized to that laudable end.
But the dramatist who declares his end to be mere self-expression
stultifies himself in that very phrase. The painter may paint, the
sculptor model, the lyric poet sing, simply to please himself,[5] but
the drama has no meaning except in relation to an audience. It is a
portrayal of life by means of a mechanism so devised as to bring it home
to a considerable number of people assembled in a given place. "The
public," it has been well said, "constitutes the theatre." The moment a
playwright confines his work within the two or three hours' limit
prescribed by Western custom for a theatrical performance, he is
currying favour with an audience. That limit is imposed simply by the
physical endurance and power of sustained attention that can be demanded
of Western human beings assembled in a theatre. Doubtless an author
could express himself more fully and more subtly if he ignored these
limitations; the moment he submits to them, he renounces the pretence
that mere self-expression is his aim. I know that there are
haughty-souls who make no such submission, and express themselves in
dramas which, so far as their proportions are concerned, might as well
be epic poems or historical romances.[6] To them, I repeat, I have
nothing to say. The one and only subject of the following discussions is
the best method of fitting a dramatic theme for representation before an
audience assembled in a theatre. But this, be it noted, does not
necessarily mean "writing down" to the audience in question. It is by
obeying, not by ignoring, the fundamental conditions of his craft that
the dramatist may hope to lead his audience upward to the highest
intellectual level which he himself can attain.

These pages, in short, are addressed to students of play-writing who
sincerely desire to do sound, artistic work under the conditions and
limitations of the actual, living playhouse. This does not mean, of
course, that they ought always to be studying "what the public wants."
The dramatist should give the public what he himself wants--but in such
form as to make it comprehensible and interesting in a theatre.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: It is against "technic" in this sense of the term that the
hero of Mr. Howells's admirable novel, _The Story of a Play_, protests
in vigorous and memorable terms. "They talk," says Maxwell, "about a
knowledge of the stage as if it were a difficult science, instead of a
very simple piece of mechanism whose limitations and possibilities
anyone may see at a glance. All that their knowledge of it comes to is
claptrap, pure and simple.... They think that their exits and entrances
are great matters and that they must come on with such a speech, and go
off with another; but it is not of the least importance how they come or
go, if they have something interesting to say or do." Maxwell, it must
be remembered, is speaking of technic as expounded by the star actor,
who is shilly-shallying--as star actors will--over the production of his
play. He would not, in his calmer moments, deny that it is of little use
to have something interesting to say, unless you know how to say it
interestingly. Such a denial would simply be the negation of the very
idea of art.]

[Footnote 2: A dramatist of my acquaintance adds this footnote: "But, by
the Lord! They have to give advice. I believe I write more plays of
other people's than I do of my own."]

[Footnote 3: It may be hoped, too, that even the accomplished dramatist
may take some interest in considering the reasons for things which he
does, or does not do, by instinct.]

[Footnote 4: This is not a phrase of contempt. The would-be intelligent
playgoer is vastly to be preferred to the playgoer who makes a boast of
his unintelligence.]

[Footnote 5: In all the arts, however, the very idea of craftsmanship
implies some sort of external percipient, or, in other words, some sort
of an audience. In point of sheer self-expression, a child's scrabblings
with a box of crayons may deserve to rank with the most masterly canvas
of Velasquez or Vermeer. The real difference between the dramatist and
other artists, is that they can be _their own audience_, in a sense in
which he cannot.]

[Footnote 6: Let me guard against the possibility that this might be
interpreted as a sneer at _The Dynasts_--a great work by a great poet.]



The first step towards writing a play is manifestly to choose a theme.

Even this simple statement, however, requires careful examination before
we can grasp its full import. What, in the first place, do we mean by a
"theme"? And, secondly, in what sense can we, or ought we to,
"choose" one?

"Theme" may mean either of two things: either the subject of a play, or
its story. The former is, perhaps, its proper or more convenient sense.
The theme of _Romeo and Juliet_ is youthful love crossed by ancestral
hate; the theme of _Othello_ is jealousy; the theme of _Le Tartufe_ is
hypocrisy; the theme of _Caste_ is fond hearts and coronets; the theme
of _Getting Married_ is getting married; the theme of _Maternité_ is
maternity. To every play it is possible, at a pinch, to assign a theme;
but in many plays it is evident that no theme expressible in abstract
terms was present to the author's mind. Nor are these always plays of a
low class. It is only by a somewhat artificial process of abstraction
that we can formulate a theme for _As You Like It_, for _The Way of the
World_, or for _Hedda Gabler_.

The question now arises: ought a theme, in its abstract form, to be the
first germ of a play? Ought the dramatist to say, "Go to, I will write a
play on temperance, or on woman's suffrage, or on capital and labour,"
and then cast about for a story to illustrate his theme? This is a
possible, but not a promising, method of procedure. A story made to the
order of a moral concept is always apt to advertise its origin, to the
detriment of its illusive quality. If a play is to be a moral apologue
at all, it is well to say so frankly--probably in the title--and aim,
not at verisimilitude, but at neatness and appositeness in the working
out of the fable. The French _proverbe_ proceeds on this principle, and
is often very witty and charming.[1] A good example in English is _A
Pair of Spectacles_, by Mr. Sydney Grundy, founded on a play by Labiche.
In this bright little comedy every incident and situation bears upon the
general theme, and pleases us, not by its probability, but by its
ingenious appropriateness. The dramatic fable, in fact, holds very much
the same rank in drama as the narrative fable holds in literature at
large. We take pleasure in them on condition that they be witty, and
that they do not pretend to be what they are not.

A play manifestly suggested by a theme of temporary interest will often
have a great but no less temporary success. For instance, though there
was a good deal of clever character-drawing in _An Englishman's Home_,
by Major du Maurier, the theme was so evidently the source and
inspiration of the play that it will scarcely bear revival. In America,
where the theme was of no interest, the play failed.

It is possible, no doubt, to name excellent plays in which the theme, in
all probability, preceded both the story and the characters in the
author's mind. Such plays are most of M. Brieux's; such plays are Mr.
Galsworthy's _Strife_ and _Justice_. The French plays, in my judgment,
suffer artistically from the obtrusive predominance of the theme--that
is to say, the abstract element--over the human and concrete factors in
the composition. Mr. Galsworthy's more delicate and unemphatic art
eludes this danger, at any rate in _Strife_. We do not remember until
all is over that his characters represent classes, and his action is,
one might almost say, a sociological symbol. If, then, the theme does,
as a matter of fact, come first in the author's conception, he will do
well either to make it patently and confessedly dominant, as in the
_proverbe_, or to take care that, as in _Strife_, it be not suffered to
make its domination felt, except as an afterthought.[2] No outside force
should appear to control the free rhythm of the action.

The theme may sometimes be, not an idea, an abstraction or a principle,
but rather an environment, a social phenomenon of one sort or another.
The author's primary object in such a case is, not to portray any
individual character or tell any definite story, but to transfer to the
stage an animated picture of some broad aspect or phase of life, without
concentrating the interest on any one figure or group. There are
theorists who would, by definition, exclude from the domain of drama any
such cinematograph-play, as they would probably call it; but we shall
see cause, as we go on, to distrust definitions, especially when they
seek to clothe themselves with the authority of laws. Tableau-plays of
the type here in question may even claim classical precedent. What else
is Ben Jonson's _Bartholomew Fair_? What else is Schiller's
_Wallensteins Lager_? Amongst more recent plays, Hauptmann's _Die Weber_
and Gorky's _Nachtasyl_ are perhaps the best examples of the type. The
drawback of such themes is, not that they do not conform to this or that
canon of art, but that it needs an exceptional amount of knowledge and
dramaturgic skill to handle them successfully. It is far easier to tell
a story on the stage than to paint a picture, and few playwrights can
resist the temptation to foist a story upon their picture, thus marring
it by an inharmonious intrusion of melodrama or farce. This has often
been done upon deliberate theory, in the belief that no play can exist,
or can attract playgoers, without a definite and more or less exciting
plot. Thus the late James A. Herne inserted into a charming idyllic
picture of rural life, entitled _Shore Acres_, a melodramatic scene in a
lighthouse, which was hopelessly out of key with the rest of the play.
The dramatist who knows any particular phase of life so thoroughly as to
be able to transfer its characteristic incidents to the stage, may be
advised to defy both critical and managerial prejudice, and give his
tableau-play just so much of story as may naturally and inevitably fall
within its limits.

One of the most admirable and enthralling scenes I ever saw on any stage
was that of the Trafalgar Square suffrage meeting in Miss Elizabeth
Robins's _Votes for Women_. Throughout a whole act it held us
spellbound, while the story of the play stood still, and we forgot its
existence. It was only within a few minutes of the end, when the story
was dragged in neck and crop, that the reality of the thing vanished,
and the interest with it.

       *       *       *       *       *

If an abstract theme be not an advisable starting-point, what is? A
character? A situation? Or a story? On this point it would be absurd to
lay down any rule; the more so as, in many cases, a playwright is quite
unable to say in what form the germ of a play first floated into his
mind. The suggestion may come from a newspaper paragraph, from an
incident seen in the street, from an emotional adventure or a comic
misadventure, from a chance word dropped by an acquaintance, or from
some flotsam or jetsam of phrase or fable that has drifted from the
other end of history. Often, too, the original germ, whatever it may be,
is transformed beyond recognition before a play is done.[3] In the mind
of the playwright figs grow from thistles, and a silk purse--perhaps a
Fortunatus' purse--may often be made from a sow's ear. The whole
delicate texture of Ibsen's _Doll's House_ was woven from a commonplace
story of a woman who forged a cheque in order to redecorate her
drawing-room. Stevenson's romance of _Prince Otto_ (to take an example
from fiction) grew out of a tragedy on the subject of Semiramis!

One thing, however, we may say with tolerable confidence: whatever may
be the germ of a play--whether it be an anecdote, a situation, or what
not--the play will be of small account as a work of art unless
character, at a very early point, enters into and conditions its
development. The story which is independent of character--which can be
carried through by a given number of ready-made puppets--is essentially
a trivial thing. Unless, at an early stage of the organizing process,
character begins to take the upper hand--unless the playwright finds
himself thinking, "Oh, yes, George is just the man to do this," or,
"That is quite foreign to Jane's temperament"--he may be pretty sure
that it is a piece of mechanism he is putting together, not a drama with
flesh and blood in it. The difference between a live play and a dead one
is that in the former the characters control the plot, while in the
latter the plot controls the characters. Which is not to say, of course,
that there may not be clever and entertaining plays which are "dead" in
this sense, and dull and unattractive plays which are "live."

A great deal of ink has been wasted in controversy over a remark of
Aristotle's that the action or _muthos_, not the character or _êthos_,
is the essential element in drama. The statement is absolutely true and
wholly unimportant. A play can exist without anything that can be called
character, but not without some sort of action. This is implied in the
very word "drama," which means a doing, not a mere saying or existing.
It would be possible, no doubt, to place Don Quixote, or Falstaff, or
Peer Gynt, on the stage, and let him develop his character in mere
conversation, or even monologue, without ever moving from his chair. But
it is a truism that deeds, not words, are the demonstration and test of
character; wherefore, from time immemorial, it has been the recognized
business of the theatre to exhibit character in action. Historically,
too, we find that drama has everywhere originated in the portrayal of an
action--some exploit or some calamity in the career of some demigod or
hero. Thus story or plot is by definition, tradition, and practical
reason, the fundamental element in drama; but does it therefore follow
that it is the noblest element, or that by which its value should be
measured? Assuredly not. The skeleton is, in a sense, the fundamental
element in the human organism. It can exist, and, with a little
assistance, retain its form, when stripped of muscle and blood and
nerve; whereas a boneless man would be an amorphous heap, more helpless
than a jelly-fish. But do we therefore account the skeleton man's
noblest part? Scarcely. It is by his blood and nerve that he lives, not
by his bones; and it is because his bones are, comparatively speaking,
dead matter that they continue to exist when the flesh has fallen away
from them. It is, therefore, if not a misreading of Aristotle,[4] at any
rate a perversion of reason, to maintain that the drama lives by action,
rather than by character. Action ought to exist for the sake of
character: when the relation is reversed, the play may be an ingenious
toy, but scarcely a vital work of art.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is time now to consider just what we mean when we say that the first
step towards play-writing is the "choice" of a theme.

In many cases, no doubt, it is the plain and literal fact that the
impulse to write some play--any play--exists, so to speak, in the
abstract, unassociated with any particular subject, and that the
would-be playwright proceeds, as he thinks, to set his imagination to
work, and invent a story. But this frame of mind is to be regarded with
suspicion. Few plays of much value, one may guess, have resulted from
such an abstract impulse. Invention, in these cases, is apt to be
nothing but recollection in disguise, the shaking of a kaleidoscope
formed of fragmentary reminiscences. I remember once, in some momentary
access of ambition, trying to invent a play. I occupied several hours of
a long country walk in, as I believed, creating out of nothing at all a
dramatic story. When at last I had modelled it into some sort of
coherency, I stepped back from it in my mind, as it were, and
contemplated it as a whole. No sooner had I done so than it began to
seem vaguely familiar. "Where have I seen this story before?" I asked
myself; and it was only after cudgelling my brains for several minutes
that I found I had re-invented Ibsen's _Hedda Gabler_. Thus, when we
think we are choosing a plot out of the void, we are very apt to be, in
fact, ransacking the store-house of memory. The plot which chooses us
is much more to be depended upon--the idea which comes when we least
expect it, perhaps from the most unlikely quarter, clamours at the gates
of birth, and will not let us rest till it be clothed in dramatic flesh
and blood.[5] It may very well happen, of course, that it has to
wait--that it has to be pigeon-holed for a time, until its due turn
comes.[6] Occasionally, perhaps, it may slip out of its pigeon-hole for
an airing, only to be put back again in a slightly more developed form.
Then at last its convenient season will arrive, and the play will be
worked out, written, and launched into the struggle for life. In the
sense of selecting from among a number of embryonic themes stored in his
mind, the playwright has often to make a deliberate choice; but when,
moved by a purely abstract impulse, he goes out of set purpose to look
for a theme, it may be doubted whether he is likely to return with any
very valuable treasure-trove.[7]

The same principle holds good in the case of the ready-made poetic or
historical themes, which are--rightly or wrongly--considered suitable
for treatment in blank verse. Whether, and how far, the blank verse
drama can nowadays be regarded as a vital and viable form is a question
to be considered later. In the meantime it is sufficient to say that
whatever principles of conception and construction apply to the modern
prose drama, apply with equal cogency to the poetic drama. The
verse-poet may perhaps take one or two licenses denied to the
prose-poet. For instance, we may find reason to think the soliloquy more
excusable in verse than in prose. But fundamentally, the two forms are
ruled by the same set of conditions, which the verse-poet, no less than
the prose-poet, can ignore only at his peril. Unless, indeed, he
renounces from the outset all thought of the stage and chooses to
produce that cumbrous nondescript, a "closet drama." Of such we do not
speak, but glance and pass on. What laws, indeed, can apply to a form
which has no proper element, but, like the amphibious animal described
by the sailor, "cannot live on land and dies in the water"?

To return to our immediate topic, the poet who essays dramatic
composition on mere abstract impulse, because other poets have done so,
or because he is told that it pays, is only too likely to produce
willy-nilly a "closet drama." Let him beware of saying to himself, "I
will gird up my loins and write a play. Shall it be a Phaedra, or a
Semiramis, or a Sappho, or a Cleopatra? A Julian, or an Attila, or a
Savanarola, or a Cromwell?" A drama conceived in this reach-me-down
fashion will scarcely have the breath of life in it. If, on the other
hand, in the course of his legendary, romantic, or historical reading,
some character should take hold upon his imagination and demand to be
interpreted, or some episode should, as it were, startle him by putting
on vivid dramatic form before his mind's eye, then let him by all means
yield to the inspiration, and try to mould the theme into a drama. The
real labour of creation will still lie before him; but he may face it
with the hope of producing a live play, not a long-drawn rhetorical
anachronism, whether of the rotund or of the spasmodic type.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: For instance, _Il ne faut jurer de rien. Il faut qu'une
porte soit ouverte ou fermée. Un bienfait n'est jamais perdu._ There is
also a large class of pieces of which the title, though not itself a
proverb, makes direct allusion to some fable or proverbial saying: for
example, _Les Brebis de Panurge, La Chasse aux Corbeaux, La Cigale chez
les Fourmis_.]

[Footnote 2: I learn, on the best authority, that I am wrong, in point
of fact, as to the origin of _Strife_. The play arose in Mr.
Galsworthy's mind from his actually having seen in conflict the two men
who were the prototypes of Anthony and Roberts, and thus noted the waste
and inefficacy arising from the clash of strong characters unaccompanied
by balance. It was accident that led him to place the two men in an
environment of capital and labour. In reality, both of them were, if not
capitalists, at any rate on the side of capital. This interesting
correction of fact does not invalidate the theory above stated.]

[Footnote 3: Mr. Henry Arthur Jones writes to me: "Sometimes I start
with a scene only, sometimes with a complete idea. Sometimes a play
splits into two plays, sometimes two or three ideas combine into a
concrete whole. Always the final play is altered out of all knowledge
from its first idea." An interesting account of the way in which two
very different plays by M. de Curel: _L'Envers d'une Sainte_ and
_L'Invitée_,--grew out of one and the same initial idea, may be found in
_L'Année Psychologique_, 1894, p. 121.]

[Footnote 4: In my discussion of this point, I have rather simplified
Aristotle's position. He appears to make action the essential element in
tragedy and not merely the necessary vehicle of character. "In a play,"
he says, "they do not act in order to portray the characters, they
include the characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the
action in it, _i.e._ its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of
the tragedy, and the end is everywhere the chief thing. Besides this, a
tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without
character." (Bywater's Translation.) The last sentence is, in my view,
the gist of the matter; the preceding sentences greatly overstate the
case. There was a lively controversy on the subject in the _Times_
Literary Supplement in May, 1902. It arose from a review of Mr.
Phillips's _Paolo and Francesco_, and Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Churton
Collins, and Mr. A.B. Walkley took part in it.]

[Footnote 5: "Are the first beginnings of imaginative conception
directed by the will? Are they, indeed, conscious at all? Do they not
rather emerge unbidden from the vague limbo of sub-consciousness?" A.B.
Walkley, _Drama and Life_, p. 85.]

[Footnote 6: Sardou kept a file of about fifty _dossiers_, each bearing
the name of an unwritten play, and containing notes and sketches for it.
Dumas, on the other hand, always finished one play before he began to
think of another. See _L'Année Psychologique_, 1894, pp. 67, 76.]

[Footnote 7: "My experience is," a dramatist writes to me, "that you
never deliberately choose a theme. You lie awake, or you go walking, and
suddenly there flashes into your mind a contrast, a piece of spiritual
irony, an old incident carrying some general significance. Round this
your mind broods, and there is the germ of your play." Again be writes:
"It is not advisable for a playwright to start out at all unless he has
so felt or seen something, that he feels, as it matures in his mind,
that he must express it, and in dramatic form."]



It may be well, at this point, to consider for a little what we mean
when we use the term "dramatic." We shall probably not arrive at any
definition which can be applied as an infallible touchstone to
distinguish the dramatic from the undramatic. Perhaps, indeed, the
upshot may rather be to place the student on his guard against troubling
too much about the formal definitions of critical theorists.

The orthodox opinion of the present time is that which is generally
associated with the name of the late Ferdinand Brunetière. "The theatre
in general," said that critic, "is nothing but the place for the
development of the human will, attacking the obstacles opposed to it by
destiny, fortune, or circumstances." And again: "Drama is a
representation of the will of man in conflict with the mysterious powers
or natural forces which limit and belittle us; it is one of us thrown
living upon the stage, there to struggle against fatality, against
social law, against one of his fellow-mortals, against himself, if need
be, against the ambitions, the interests, the prejudices, the folly, the
malevolence of those who surround him."[1]

The difficulty about this definition is that, while it describes the
matter of a good many dramas, it does not lay down any true
differentia--any characteristic common to all drama, and possessed by no
other form of fiction. Many of the greatest plays in the world can with
difficulty be brought under the formula, while the majority of romances
and other stories come under it with ease. Where, for instance, is the
struggle in the _Agamemnon_? There is no more struggle between
Clytemnestra and Agamemnon than there is between the spider and the fly
who walks into his net. There is not even a struggle in Clytemnestra's
mind. Agamemnon's doom is sealed from the outset, and she merely carries
out a pre-arranged plot. There is contest indeed in the succeeding plays
of the trilogy; but it will scarcely be argued that the _Agamemnon_,
taken alone, is not a great drama. Even the _Oedipus_ of Sophocles,
though it may at first sight seem a typical instance of a struggle
against Destiny, does not really come under the definition. Oedipus, in
fact, does not struggle at all. His struggles, in so far as that word
can be applied to his misguided efforts to escape from the toils of
fate, are all things of the past; in the actual course of the tragedy he
simply writhes under one revelation after another of bygone error and
unwitting crime. It would be a mere play upon words to recognize as a
dramatic "struggle" the writhing of a worm on a hook. And does not this
description apply very closely to the part played by another great
protagonist--Othello to wit? There is no struggle, no conflict, between
him and Iago. It is Iago alone who exerts any will; neither Othello nor
Desdemona makes the smallest fight. From the moment when Iago sets his
machination to work, they are like people sliding down an ice-slope to
an inevitable abyss. Where is the conflict in _As You Like It_? No one,
surely, will pretend that any part of the interest or charm of the play
arises from the struggle between the banished Duke and the Usurper, or
between Orlando and Oliver. There is not even the conflict, if so it can
be called, which nominally brings so many hundreds of plays under the
Brunetière canon--the conflict between an eager lover and a more or less
reluctant maid. Or take, again, Ibsen's _Ghosts_--in what valid sense
can it be said that that tragedy shows us will struggling against
obstacles? Oswald, doubtless, wishes to live, and his mother desires
that he should live; but this mere will for life cannot be the
differentia that makes of _Ghosts_ a drama. If the reluctant descent of
the "downward path to death" constituted drama, then Tolstoy's _Death of
Ivan Ilytch_ would be one of the greatest dramas ever written--which it
certainly is not. Yet again, if we want to see will struggling against
obstacles, the classic to turn to is not _Hamlet_, not _Lear_, but
_Robinson Crusoe_; yet no one, except a pantomime librettist, ever saw a
drama in Defoe's narrative. In a Platonic dialogue, in _Paradise Lost_,
in _John Gilpin_, there is a struggle of will against obstacles; there
is none in _Hannele_, which, nevertheless, is a deeply-moving drama.
Such a struggle is characteristic of all great fiction, from _Clarissa
Harlowe_ to _The House with the Green Shutters_; whereas in many plays
the struggle, if there be any at all, is the merest matter of form (for
instance, a quite conventional love-story), while the real interest
resides in something quite different.

The plain truth seems to be that conflict is _one_ of the most dramatic
elements in life, and that many dramas--perhaps most--do, as a matter
of fact, turn upon strife of one sort or another. But it is clearly an
error to make conflict indispensable to drama, and especially to
insist--as do some of Brunetière's followers--that the conflict must be
between will and will. A stand-up fight between will and will--such a
fight as occurs in, say, the _Hippolytus_ of Euripides, or Racine's
_Andromaque_, or Molière's _Tartufe_, or Ibsen's _Pretenders_, or
Dumas's _Françillon_, or Sudermann's _Heimat_, or Sir Arthur Pinero's
_Gay Lord Quex_, or Mr. Shaw's _Candida_, or Mr. Galsworthy's
_Strife_--such a stand-up fight, I say, is no doubt one of the intensest
forms of drama. But it is comparatively rare at any rate as the formula
of a whole play. In individual scenes a conflict of will is frequent
enough; but it is, after all, only one among a multitude of equally
telling forms of drama. No one can say that the Balcony Scene in _Romeo
and Juliet_ is undramatic, or the "Galeoto fú il libro" scene in Mr.
Stephen Phillips's _Paolo and Francesca_; yet the point of these scenes
is not a clash, but an ecstatic concordance, of wills. Is the
death-scene of Cleopatra undramatic? Or the Banquet scene in _Macbeth_?
Or the pastoral act in _The Winter's Tale_? Yet in none of these is
there any conflict of wills. In the whole range of drama there is
scarcely a passage which one would call more specifically dramatic than
the Screen Scene in _The School for Scandal_; yet it would be the
veriest quibbling to argue that any appreciable part of its effect
arises from the clash of will against will. This whole comedy, indeed,
suffices to show the emptiness of the theory. With a little strain it is
possible to bring it within the letter of the formula; but who can
pretend that any considerable part of the attraction or interest of the
play is due to that possibility?

The champions of the theory, moreover, place it on a metaphysical basis,
finding in the will the essence of human personality, and therefore of
the art which shows human personality raised to its highest power. It
seems unnecessary, however, to apply to Schopenhauer for an explanation
of whatever validity the theory may possess. For a sufficient account of
the matter, we need go no further than the simple psychological
observation that human nature loves a fight, whether it be with clubs or
with swords, with tongues or with brains. One of the earliest forms of
mediaeval drama was the "estrif" or "flyting"--the scolding-match
between husband and wife, or between two rustic gossips. This motive is
glorified in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, degraded in the
patter of two "knockabout comedians." Certainly there is nothing more
telling in drama than a piece of "cut-and-thrust" dialogue after the
fashion of the ancient "stichomythia." When a whole theme involving
conflict, or even a single scene of the nature described as a
"passage-at-arms," comes naturally in the playwright's way, by all means
let him seize the opportunity. But do not let him reject a theme or
scene as undramatic merely because it has no room for a clash of
warring wills.

There is a variant of the "conflict" theory which underlines the word
"obstacles" in the above-quoted dictum of Brunetière, and lays down the
rule: "No obstacle, no drama." Though far from being universally valid,
this form of the theory has a certain practical usefulness, and may well
be borne in mind. Many a play would have remained unwritten if the
author had asked himself, "Is there a sufficient obstacle between my two
lovers?" or, in more general terms, "between my characters and the
realization of their will?" There is nothing more futile than a play in
which we feel that there is no real obstacle to the inevitable happy
ending, and that the curtain might just as well fall in the middle of
the first act as at the end of the third. Comedies abound (though they
reach the stage only by accident) in which the obstacle between Corydon
and Phyllis, between Lord Edwin and Lady Angelina, is not even a defect
or peculiarity of character, but simply some trumpery
misunderstanding[2] which can be kept afoot only so long as every one
concerned holds his or her common sense in studious abeyance. "Pyramus
and Thisbe without the wall" may be taken as the formula for the whole
type of play. But even in plays of a much higher type, the author might
often ask himself with advantage whether he could not strengthen his
obstacle, and so accentuate the struggle which forms the matter of his
play. Though conflict may not be essential to drama, yet, when you set
forth to portray a struggle, you may as well make it as real and intense
as possible.

It seems to me that in the late William Vaughn Moody's drama, _The Great
Divide_, the body of the play, after the stirring first act, is weakened
by our sense that the happy ending is only being postponed by a violent
effort. We have been assured from the very first--even before Ruth
Jordan has set eyes on Stephen Ghent--that just such a rough diamond is
the ideal of her dreams. It is true that, after their marriage, the
rough diamond seriously misconducts himself towards her; and we have
then to consider the rather unattractive question whether a single act
of brutality on the part of a drunken husband ought to be held so
unpardonable as to break up a union which otherwise promises to be quite
satisfactory. But the author has taken such pains to emphasize the fact
that these two people are really made for each other, that the answer to
the question is not for a moment in doubt, and we become rather
impatient of the obstinate sulkiness of Ruth's attitude. If there had
been a real disharmony of character to be overcome, instead of, or in
addition to, the sordid misadventure which is in fact the sole barrier
between them, the play would certainly have been stronger, and perhaps
more permanently popular.

In a play by Mr. James Bernard Fagan, _The Prayer of the Sword_, we have
a much clearer example of an inadequate obstacle. A youth named Andrea
has been brought up in a monastery, and destined for the priesthood; but
his tastes and aptitudes are all for a military career. He is, however,
on the verge of taking his priestly vows, when accident calls him forth
into the world, and he has the good fortune to quell a threatened
revolution in a romantic Duchy, ruled over by a duchess of surpassing
loveliness. With her he naturally falls in love; and the tragedy lies,
or ought to lie, in the conflict between this earthly passion and his
heavenly calling and election. But the author has taken pains to make
the obstacle between Andrea and Ilaria absolutely unreal. The fact that
Andrea has as yet taken no irrevocable vow is not the essence of the
matter. Vow or no vow, there would have been a tragic conflict if Andrea
had felt absolutely certain of his calling to the priesthood, and had
defied Heaven, and imperilled his immortal soul, because of his
overwhelming passion. That would have been a tragic situation; but the
author had carefully avoided it. From the very first--before Andrea had
ever seen Ilaria--it had been impressed upon us that he had no priestly
vocation. There was no struggle in his soul between passion and duty;
there was no struggle at all in his soul. His struggles are all with
external forces and influences; wherefore the play, which a real
obstacle might have converted into a tragedy, remained a sentimental
romance--and is forgotten.

       *       *       *       *       *

What, then, is the essence of drama, if conflict be not it? What is the
common quality of themes, scenes, and incidents, which we recognize as
specifically dramatic? Perhaps we shall scarcely come nearer to a
helpful definition than if we say that the essence of drama is _crisis_.
A play is a more or less rapidly-developing crisis in destiny or
circumstance, and a dramatic scene is a crisis within a crisis, clearly
furthering the ultimate event. The drama may be called the art of
crises, as fiction is the art of gradual developments. It is the
slowness of its processes which differentiates the typical novel from
the typical play. If the novelist does not take advantage of the
facilities offered by his form for portraying gradual change, whether in
the way of growth or of decay, he renounces his own birthright, in order
to trespass on the domain of the dramatist. Most great novels embrace
considerable segments of many lives; whereas the drama gives us only the
culminating points--or shall we say the intersecting culminations?--two
or three destinies. Some novelists have excelled precisely in the art
with which they have made the gradations of change in character or
circumstance so delicate as to be imperceptible from page to page, and
measurable, as in real life, only when we look back over a considerable
period. The dramatist, on the other hand, deals in rapid and startling
changes, the "peripeties," as the Greeks called them, which may be the
outcome of long, slow processes, but which actually occur in very brief
spaces of time. Nor is this a merely mechanical consequence of the
narrow limits of stage presentation. The crisis is as real, though not
as inevitable, a part of human experience as the gradual development.
Even if the material conditions of the theatre permitted the
presentation of a whole _Middlemarch_ or _Anna Karénine_--as the
conditions of the Chinese theatre actually do--some dramatists, we
cannot doubt, would voluntarily renounce that license of prolixity, in
order to cultivate an art of concentration and crisis. The Greek drama
"subjected to the faithful eyes," as Horace phrases it, the culminating
points of the Greek epic; the modern drama places under the lens of
theatrical presentment the culminating points of modern experience.

But, manifestly, it is not every crisis that is dramatic. A serious
illness, a law-suit, a bankruptcy, even an ordinary prosaic marriage,
may be a crisis in a man's life, without being necessarily, or even
probably, material for drama. How, then, do we distinguish a dramatic
from a non-dramatic crisis? Generally, I think, by the fact that it
develops, or can be made naturally to develop, through a series of minor
crises, involving more or less emotional excitement, and, if possible,
the vivid manifestation of character. Take, for instance, the case of a
bankruptcy. Most people, probably, who figure in the _Gazette_ do not go
through any one, or two, or three critical moments of special tension,
special humiliation, special agony. They gradually drift to leeward in
their affairs, undergoing a series of small discouragements, small
vicissitudes of hope and fear, small unpleasantnesses, which they take
lightly or hardly according to their temperament, or the momentary state
of their liver. In this average process of financial decline, there may
be--there has been--matter for many excellent novels, but scarcely for a
drama. That admirable chapter in _Little Dorrit,_ wherein Dickens
describes the gradual degradation of the Father of the Marshalsea, shows
how a master of fiction deals with such a subject; but it would be quite
impossible to transfer this chapter to the stage. So, too, with the
bankruptcy of Colonel Newcome--certain emotional crises arising from it
have, indeed, been placed on the stage, but only after all Thackeray's
knowledge of the world and fine gradations of art had been eliminated.
Mr. Hardy's _Mayor of Casterbridge_ has, I think, been dramatized, but
not, I think, with success. A somewhat similar story of financial ruin,
the grimly powerful _House with the Green Shutters_, has not even
tempted the dramatiser. There are, in this novel, indeed, many
potentially dramatic crises; the trouble is that they are too numerous
and individually too small to be suitable for theatrical presentment.
Moreover, they are crises affecting a taciturn and inarticulate race,[3]
a fact which places further difficulties in the way of the playwright.
In all these cases, in short, the bankruptcy portrayed is a matter of
slow development, with no great outstanding moments, and is consequently
suited for treatment in fiction rather than in drama.

But bankruptcy sometimes occurs in the form of one or more sudden, sharp
crises, and has, therefore, been utilized again and again as a dramatic
motive. In a hundred domestic dramas or melodramas, we have seen the
head of a happy household open a newspaper or a telegram announcing the
failure of some enterprise in which all his fortune is embarked. So
obviously dramatic is this incident that it has become sadly hackneyed.
Again, we have bankruptcy following upon a course of gambling, generally
in stocks. Here there is evident opportunity, which has been frequently
utilized, for a series of crises of somewhat violent and commonplace
emotion. In American drama especially, the duels of Wall Street, the
combats of bull and bear, form a very popular theme, which clearly falls
under the Brunetière formula. Few American dramatists can resist the
temptation of showing some masterful financier feverishly watching the
"ticker" which proclaims him a millionaire or a beggar. The "ticker" had
not been invented in the days when Ibsen wrote _The League of Youth_,
otherwise he would doubtless have made use of it in the fourth act of
that play. The most popular of all Björnson's plays is specifically
entitled _A Bankruptcy_. Here the poet has had the art to select a
typical phase of business life, which naturally presents itself in the
form of an ascending curve, so to speak, of emotional crises. We see the
energetic, active business man, with a number of irons in the fire,
aware in his heart that he is insolvent, but not absolutely clear as to
his position, and hoping against hope to retrieve it. We see him give a
great dinner-party, in order to throw dust in the eyes of the world, and
to secure the support of a financial magnate, who is the guest of
honour. The financial magnate is inclined to "bite," and goes off,
leaving the merchant under the impression that he is saved. This is an
interesting and natural, but scarcely a thrilling, crisis. It does not,
therefore, discount the supreme crisis of the play, in which a cold,
clear-headed business man, who has been deputed by the banks to look
into the merchant's affairs, proves to him, point by point, that it
would be dishonest of him to flounder any longer in the swamp of
insolvency, into which he can only sink deeper and drag more people down
with him. Then the bankrupt produces a pistol and threatens murder and
suicide if the arbiter of his fate will not consent to give him one more
chance; but his frenzy breaks innocuous against the other's calm,
relentless reason. Here we have, I repeat, a typically dramatic theme: a
great crisis, bringing out vivid manifestations of character, not only
in the bankrupt himself, but in those around him, and naturally
unfolding itself through a series of those lesser crises, which we call
interesting and moving scenes. The play is scarcely a great one, partly
because its ending is perfunctory, partly because Björnson, poet though
he was, had not Ibsen's art of "throwing in a little poetry" into his
modern dramas. I have summarized it up to its culminating point, because
it happened to illustrate the difference between a bankruptcy, dramatic
in its nature and treatment, and those undramatic bankruptcies to which
reference has been made. In _La Douloureuse_, by Maurice Donnay,
bankruptcy is incidentally employed to bring about a crisis of a
different order. A ball is proceeding at the house of a Parisian
financier, when the whisper spreads that the host is ruined, and has
committed suicide in a room above; whereupon the guests, after a moment
of flustered consternation, go on supping and dancing![4] We are not at
all deeply interested in the host or his fortunes. The author's purpose
is to illustrate, rather crudely, the heartlessness of plutocratic
Bohemia; and by means of the bankruptcy and suicide he brings about what
may be called a crisis of collective character.[5]

       *       *       *       *       *

As regards individual incidents, it may be said in general that the
dramatic way of treating them is the crisp and staccato, as opposed to
the smooth or legato, method. It may be thought a point of inferiority
in dramatic art that it should deal so largely in shocks to the nerves,
and should appeal by preference, wherever it is reasonably possible, to
the cheap emotions of curiosity and surprise. But this is a criticism,
not of dramatic art, but of human nature. We may wish that mankind took
more pleasure in pure apprehension than in emotion; but so long as the
fact is otherwise, that way of handling an incident by which the
greatest variety of poignancy of emotion can be extracted from it will
remain the specifically dramatic way.

We shall have to consider later the relation between what may be called
primary and secondary suspense or surprise--that is to say between
suspense or surprise actually experienced by the spectator to whom the
drama is new, and suspense or surprise experienced only sympathetically,
on behalf of the characters, by a spectator who knows perfectly what is
to follow. The two forms of emotion are so far similar that we need not
distinguish between them in considering the general content of the term
"dramatic." It is plain that the latter or secondary form of emotion
must be by far the commoner, and the one to which the dramatist of any
ambition must make his main appeal; for the longer his play endures, the
larger will be the proportion of any given audience which knows it
beforehand, in outline, if not in detail.

As a typical example of a dramatic way of handling an incident, so as to
make a supreme effect of what might else have been an anti-climax, one
may cite the death of Othello. Shakespeare was faced by no easy problem.
Desdemona was dead, Emilia dead, Iago wounded and doomed to the torture;
how was Othello to die without merely satiating the audience with a glut
of blood? How was his death to be made, not a foregone conclusion, a
mere conventional suicide, but the culminating moment of the tragedy? In
no single detail, perhaps, did Shakespeare ever show his dramatic genius
more unmistakably than in his solution of this problem. We all remember
how, as he is being led away, Othello stays his captors with a gesture,
and thus addresses them:

  "Soft you; a word or two, before you go.
  I have done the state some service, and they know 't;
  No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
  When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
  Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
  Nor set down aught in malice, then must you speak
  Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
  Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
  Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
  Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
  Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
  Albeit unused to the melting mood,
  Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
  Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
  And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
  Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
  Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
  I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
  And smote him--thus!"

What is the essence of Shakespeare's achievement in this marvellous
passage? What is it that he has done? He has thrown his audience, just
as Othello has thrown his captors, off their guard, and substituted a
sudden shock of surprise for a tedious fulfilment of expectation. In
other words, he has handled the incident crisply instead of flaccidly,
and so given it what we may call the specific accent of drama.

Another consummate example of the dramatic handling of detail may be
found in the first act of Ibsen's _Little Eyolf_. The lame boy, Eyolf,
has followed the Rat-wife down to the wharf, has fallen into the water,
and been drowned. This is the bare fact: how is it to be conveyed to the
child's parents and to the audience?

A Greek dramatist would probably have had recourse to a long and
elaborately worked-up "messenger-speech," a pathetic recitation. That
was the method best suited to the conditions, and to what may be called
the prevailing tempo, of the Greek theatre. I am far from saying that it
was a bad method: no method is bad which holds and moves an audience.
But in this case it would have had the disadvantage of concentrating
attention on the narrator instead of on the child's parents, on the mere
event instead of on the emotions it engendered. In the modern theatre,
with greater facilities for reproducing the actual movement of life, the
dramatist naturally aims at conveying to the audience the growing
anxiety, the suspense and the final horror, of the father and mother.
The most commonplace playwright would have seen this opportunity and
tried to make the most of it. Every one can think of a dozen commonplace
ways in which the scene could be arranged and written; and some of them
might be quite effective. The great invention by which Ibsen snatches
the scene out of the domain of the commonplace, and raises it to the
height of dramatic poetry, consists in leaving it doubtful to the father
and mother what is the meaning of the excitement on the beach and the
confused cries which reach their ears, until one cry comes home to them
with terrible distinctness, "The crutch is floating!" It would be hard
to name any single phrase in literature in which more dramatic effect is
concentrated than in these four words--they are only two words in the
original. However dissimilar in its nature and circumstances, this
incident is comparable with the death of Othello, inasmuch as in each
case the poet, by a supreme felicity of invention, has succeeded in
doing a given thing in absolutely the most dramatic method conceivable.
Here we recognize in a consummate degree what has been called the
"fingering of the dramatist"; and I know not how better to express the
common quality of the two incidents than in saying that each is touched
with extraordinary crispness, so as to give to what in both cases has
for some time been expected and foreseen a sudden thrill of novelty and
unexpectedness. That is how to do a thing dramatically.[6]

And now, after all this discussion of the "dramatic" in theme and
incident, it remains to be said that the tendency of recent theory, and
of some recent practice, has been to widen the meaning of the word,
until it bursts the bonds of all definition. Plays have been written,
and have found some acceptance, in which the endeavour of the dramatist
has been to depict life, not in moments of crisis, but in its most level
and humdrum phases, and to avoid any crispness of touch in the
presentation of individual incidents. "Dramatic," in the eyes of writers
of this school, has become a term of reproach, synonymous with
"theatrical." They take their cue from Maeterlinck's famous essay on
"The Tragic in Daily Life," in which he lays it down that: "An old man,
seated in his armchair, waiting patiently, with his lamp beside
him--submitting with bent head to the presence of his soul and his
destiny--motionless as he is, does yet live in reality a deeper, more
human, and more universal life than the lover who strangles his
mistress, the captain who conquers in battle, or the husband who
'avenges his honour.'" They do not observe that Maeterlinck, in his own
practice, constantly deals with crises, and often with violent and
startling ones.

At the same time, I am far from suggesting that the reaction against the
traditional "dramatic" is a wholly mistaken movement. It is a valuable
corrective of conventional theatricalism; and it has, at some points,
positively enlarged the domain of dramatic art. Any movement is good
which helps to free art from the tyranny of a code of rules and
definitions. The only really valid definition of the dramatic is: Any
representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting
an average audience assembled in a theatre. We must say "representation
of imaginary personages" in order to exclude a lecture or a prize-fight;
and we must say "an average audience" (or something to that effect) in
order to exclude a dialogue of Plato or of Landor, the recitation of
which might interest a specially selected public. Any further attempt to
limit the content of the term "dramatic" is simply the expression of an
opinion that such-and-such forms of representation will not be found to
interest an audience; and this opinion may always be rebutted by
experiment. In all that I have said, then, as to the dramatic and the
non-dramatic, I must be taken as meaning: "Such-and-such forms and
methods have been found to please, and will probably please again. They
are, so to speak, safer and easier than other forms and methods. But it
is the part of original genius to override the dictates of experience,
and nothing in these pages is designed to discourage original genius
from making the attempt." We have already seen, indeed, that in a
certain type of play--the broad picture of a social phenomenon or
environment--it is preferable that no attempt should be made to depict a
marked crisis. There should be just enough story to afford a plausible
excuse for raising and for lowering the curtain.[7]

Let us not, however, seem to grant too much to the innovators and the
quietists. To say that a drama should be, or tends to be, the
presentation of a crisis in the life of certain characters, is by no
means to insist on a mere arbitrary convention. It is to make at once an
induction from the overwhelming majority of existing dramas, and a
deduction from the nature and inherent conditions of theatrical
presentation. The fact that theatrical conditions often encourage a
violent exaggeration of the characteristically dramatic elements in life
does not make these elements any the less real or any the less
characteristically dramatic. It is true that crispness of handling may
easily degenerate into the pursuit of mere picture-poster situation; but
that is no reason why the artist should not seek to achieve crispness
within the bounds prescribed by nature and common sense. There is a
drama--I have myself seen it--in which the heroine, fleeing from the
villain, is stopped by a yawning chasm. The pursuer is at her heels, and
it seems as though she has no resource but to hurl herself into the
abyss. But she is accompanied by three Indian servants, who happen, by
the mercy of Providence, to be accomplished acrobats. The second climbs
on the shoulders of the first, the third on the shoulders of the second;
and then the whole trio falls forward across the chasm, the top one
grasping some bush or creeper on the other side; so that a living bridge
is formed, on which the heroine (herself, it would seem, something of an
acrobat) can cross the dizzy gulf and bid defiance to the baffled
villain. This is clearly a dramatic crisis within our definition; but,
no less clearly, it is not a piece of rational or commendable drama. To
say that such-and-such a factor is necessary, or highly desirable, in a
dramatic scene, is by no means to imply that every scene which contains
this factor is good drama. Let us take the case of another heroine--Nina
in Sir Arthur Pinero's _His House in Order_. The second wife of Filmer
Jesson, she is continually being offered up as a sacrifice on the altar
dedicated to the memory of his adored first wife. Not only her husband,
but the relatives of the sainted Annabel, make her life a burden to her.
Then it comes to her knowledge--she obtains absolute proof--that
Annabel was anything but the saint she was believed to be. By a single
word she can overturn the altar of her martyrdom, and shatter the
dearest illusion of her persecutors. Shall she speak that word, or shall
she not? Here is a crisis which comes within our definition just as
clearly as the other;[8] only it happens to be entirely natural and
probable, and eminently illustrative of character. Ought we, then, to
despise it because of the element it has in common with the
picture-poster situation of preposterous melodrama? Surely not. Let
those who have the art--the extremely delicate and difficult art--of
making drama without the characteristically dramatic ingredients, do so
by all means; but let them not seek to lay an embargo on the judicious
use of these ingredients as they present themselves in life.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: _Etudes Critiques_, vol. vii, pp. 153 and 207.]

[Footnote 2: In the most aggravated cases, the misunderstanding is
maintained by a persevering use of pronouns in place of proper names:
"he" and "she" being taken by the hearer to mean A. and B., when the
speaker is in fact referring to X. and Y. This ancient trick becomes the
more irritating the longer the _quiproquo_ is dragged out.]

[Footnote 3: The Lowland Scottish villager. It is noteworthy that Mr.
J.M. Barrie, who himself belongs to this race, has an almost unique gift
of extracting dramatic effect out of taciturnity, and even out
of silence.]

[Footnote 4: There is a somewhat similar incident in Clyde Fitch's play,
_The Moth and the Flame_.]

[Footnote 5: _Les Corbeaux_, by Henri Becque, might perhaps be classed
as a bankruptcy play, though the point of it is that the Vigneron family
is not really bankrupt at all, but is unblushingly fleeced by the
partner and the lawyer of the deceased Vigneron, who play into each
other's hands.]

[Footnote 6: "Dramatic" has recently become one of the most overworked
words in the vocabulary of journalism. It constantly appears, not only
in the text of the picturesque reporter, but in head-lines and on
bulletin-boards. When, on July 20, 1911, Mr. Asquith wrote to Mr.
Balfour to inform him that the King had guaranteed the creation of
peers, should it prove necessary for the passing of the Parliament Bill,
one paper published the news under this head-line: "DRAMATIC ANNOUNCEMENT
BY THE PRIME MINISTER," and the parliamentary correspondent of another
paper wrote: "With dramatic suddenness and swiftness, the Prime Minister
hurled his thunderbolt at the wavering Tory party yesterday." As a
matter of fact, the letter was probably not "hurled" more suddenly or
swiftly than the most ordinary invitation to dinner: nor can its
contents have been particularly surprising to any one. It was probably
the conclusiveness, the finality, of the announcement that struck these
writers as "dramatic." The letter put an end to all dubiety with a
"short, sharp shock." It was, in fact, crisp. As a rule, however,
"dramatic" is employed by the modern journalist simply as a rather
pretentious synonym for the still more hackneyed "startling."]

[Footnote 7: As a specimen, and a successful specimen, of this new
technic, I may cite Miss Elizabeth Baker's very interesting play,
_Chains_. There is absolutely no "story" in it, no complication of
incidents, not even any emotional tension worth speaking of. Another
recent play of something the same type, _The Way the Money Goes_, by
Lady Bell, was quite thrilling by comparison. There we saw a workman's
wife bowed down by a terrible secret which threatened to wreck her whole
life--the secret that she had actually run into debt to the amount of
£30. Her situation was dramatic in the ordinary sense of the word, very
much as Nora's situation is dramatic when she knows that Krogstad's
letter is in Helmer's hands. But in _Chains_ there is not even this
simple form of excitement and suspense. A city clerk, oppressed by the
deadly monotony and narrowness of his life, thinks of going to
Australia--and doesn't go: that is the sum and substance of the action.
Also, by way of underplot, a shopgirl, oppressed by the deadly monotony
and narrowness of her life, thinks of escaping from it by marrying a
middle-aged widower--and doesn't do it. If any one had told the late
Francisque Sarcey, or the late Clement Scott, that a play could be made
out of this slender material, which should hold an audience absorbed
through four acts, and stir them to real enthusiasm, these eminent
critics would have thought him a madman. Yet Miss Baker has achieved
this feat, by the simple process of supplementing competent observation
with a fair share of dramatic instinct.]

[Footnote 8: If the essence of drama is crisis, it follows that nothing
can be more dramatic than a momentous choice which may make or mar both
the character and the fortune of the chooser and of others. There is an
element of choice in all action which is, or seems to be, the product of
free will; but there is a peculiar crispness of effect when two
alternatives are clearly formulated, and the choice is made after a
mental struggle, accentuated, perhaps, by impassioned advocacy of the
conflicting interests. Such scenes are _Coriolanus_, v. 3, the scene
between Ellida, Wangel, and the Stranger in the last act of _The Lady
from the Sea_, and the concluding scene of _Candida_.]



As no two people, probably, ever did, or ever will, pursue the same
routine in play-making, it is manifestly impossible to lay down any
general rules on the subject. There are one or two considerations,
however, which it may not be wholly superfluous to suggest to beginners.

An invaluable insight into the methods of a master is provided by the
scenarios and drafts of plays published in Henrik Ibsen's _Efterladte
Skrifter_. The most important of these "fore-works," as he used to call
them, have now been translated under the title of _From Ibsen's
Workshop_ (Scribner), and may be studied with the greatest profit. Not
that the student should mechanically imitate even Ibsen's routine of
composition, which, indeed, varied considerably from play to play. The
great lesson to be learnt from Ibsen's practice is that the play should
be kept fluid or plastic as long as possible, and not suffered to become
immutably fixed, either in the author's mind or on paper, before it has
had time to grow and ripen. Many, if not most, of Ibsen's greatest
individual inspirations came to him as afterthoughts, after the play had
reached a point of development at which many authors would have held the
process of gestation ended, and the work of art ripe for birth. Among
these inspired afterthoughts may be reckoned Nora's great line,
"Millions of women have done that"--the most crushing repartee in
literature--Hedvig's threatened blindness, with all that ensues from it,
and Little Eyolf's crutch, used to such purpose as we have already seen.

This is not to say that the drawing-up of a tentative scenario ought not
to be one of the playwright's first proceedings. Indeed, if he is able
to dispense with a scenario on paper, it can only be because his mind is
so clear, and so retentive of its own ideas, as to enable him to carry
in his head, always ready for reference, a more or less detailed scheme.
Go-as-you-please composition may be possible for the novelist, perhaps
even for the writer of a one-act play, a mere piece of dialogue; but in
a dramatic structure of any considerable extent, proportion, balance,
and the interconnection of parts are so essential that a scenario is
almost as indispensable to a dramatist as a set of plans to an
architect. There is one dramatist of note whom one suspects of sometimes
working without any definite scenario, and inventing as he goes along.
That dramatist, I need scarcely say, is Mr. Bernard Shaw. I have no
absolute knowledge of his method; but if he schemed out any scenario for
_Getting Married_ or _Misalliance_, he has sedulously concealed the
fact--to the detriment of the plays.[1]

The scenario or skeleton is so manifestly the natural ground-work of a
dramatic performance that the playwrights of the Italian _commedia dell'
arte_ wrote nothing more than a scheme of scenes, and left the actors to
do the rest. The same practice prevailed in early Elizabethan days, as
one or two MS. "Plats," designed to be hung up in the wings, are extant
to testify. The transition from extempore acting regulated by a scenario
to the formal learning of parts falls within the historical period of
the German stage. It seems probable that the romantic playwrights of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both in England and in Spain, may
have adopted a method not unlike that of the drama of improvisation,
that is to say, they may have drawn out a scheme of entrances and exits,
and then let their characters discourse (on paper) as their fancy
prompted. So, at least, the copious fluency of their dialogue seems to
suggest. But the typical modern play is a much more close-knit organism,
in which every word has to be weighed far more carefully than it was by
playwrights who stood near to the days of improvisation, and could
indulge in "the large utterance of the early gods." Consequently it
would seem that, until a play has been thought out very clearly and in
great detail, any scheme of entrances and exits ought to be merely
provisional and subject to indefinite modification. A modern play is not
a framework of story loosely draped in a more or less gorgeous robe of
language. There is, or ought to be, a close interdependence between
action, character and dialogue, which forbids a playwright to tie his
hands very far in advance.

As a rule, then, it would seem to be an unfavourable sign when a drama
presents itself at an early stage with a fixed and unalterable outline.
The result may be a powerful, logical, well-knit piece of work; but the
breath of life will scarcely be in it. Room should be left as long as
possible for unexpected developments of character. If your characters
are innocent of unexpected developments, the less characters they.[2]
Not that I, personally, have any faith in those writers of fiction, be
they playwrights or novelists, who contend that they do not speak
through the mouths of their personages, but rather let their personages
speak through them. "I do not invent or create" I have heard an eminent
novelist say: "I simply record; my characters speak and act, and I write
down their sayings and doings." This author may be a fine psychologist
for purposes of fiction, but I question his insight into his own mental
processes. The apparent spontaneity of a character's proceedings is a
pure illusion. It means no more than that the imagination, once set in
motion along a given line, moves along that line with an ease and
freedom which seems to its possessor preternatural and almost

Most authors, however, who have any real gift for character-creation
probably fall more or less under this illusion, though they are sane
enough and modest enough to realize that an illusion it is.[4] A
character will every now and then seem to take the bit between his teeth
and say and do things for which his creator feels himself hardly
responsible. The playwright's scheme should not, then, until the latest
possible moment, become so hard and fast as to allow his characters no
elbow room for such manifestations of spontaneity. And this is only one
of several forms of afterthought which may arise as the play develops.
The playwright may all of a sudden see that a certain character is
superfluous, or that a new character is needed, or that a new
relationship between two characters would simplify matters, or that a
scene that he has placed in the first act ought to be in the second, or
that he can dispense with it altogether, or that it reveals too much to
the audience and must be wholly recast.[5]

These are only a few of the re-adjustments which have constantly to be
made if a play is shaping itself by a process of vital growth; and that
is why the playwright may be advised to keep his material fluid as long
as he can. Ibsen had written large portions of the play now known to us
as _Rosmersholm_ before he decided that Rebecca should not be married to
Rosmer. He also, at a comparatively late stage, did away with two
daughters whom he had at first given to Rosmer, and decided to make her
childlessness the main cause of Beata's tragedy.

Perhaps I insist too strongly on the advisability of treating a dramatic
theme as clay to be modelled and remodelled, rather than as wood or
marble to be carved unalterably and once for all. If so, it is because
of a personal reminiscence. In my early youth, I had, like everybody
else, ambitions in the direction of play-writing; and it was my
inability to keep a theme plastic that convinced me of my lack of
talent. It pleased me greatly to draw out a detailed scenario, working
up duly to a situation at the end of each act; and, once made, that
scenario was like a cast-iron mould into which the dialogue had simply
to be poured. The result was that the play had all the merits of a
logical, well-ordered essay. My situations worked out like the Q.E.D.'s
of Euclid. My characters obstinately refused to come to life, or to take
the bit between their teeth. They were simply cog-wheels in a
pre-arranged mechanism. In one respect, my two or three plays were
models--in respect of brevity and conciseness. I was never troubled by
the necessity of cutting down--so cruel a necessity to many
playwrights.[6] My difficulty was rather to find enough for my
characters to say--for they never wanted to say anything that was not
strictly germane to the plot. It was this that made me despair of
play-writing, and realize that my mission was to teach other people how
to write plays. And, similarly, the aspirant who finds that his people
never want to say more than he can allow them to say--that they never
rush headlong into blind alleys, or do things that upset the balance of
the play and have to be resolutely undone--that aspirant will do well
not to be over-confident of his dramatic calling and election. There may
be authors who can write vital plays, as Shakespeare is said (on rather
poor evidence)[7] to have done, without blotting a line; but I believe
them to be rare. In our day, the great playwright is more likely to be
he who does not shrink, on occasion, from blotting an act or two.

There is a modern French dramatist who writes, with success, such plays
as I might have written had I combined a strong philosophical faculty
with great rhetorical force and fluency. The dramas of M. Paul Hervieu
have all the neatness and cogency of a geometrical demonstration. One
imagines that, for M. Hervieu, the act of composition means merely the
careful filling in of a scenario as neat and complete as a schedule.[8]
But for that very reason, despite their undoubted intellectual power, M.
Hervieu's dramas command our respect rather than our enthusiasm. The
dramatist should aim at _being_ logical without _seeming_ so.[9]

It is sometimes said that a playwright ought to construct his play
backwards, and even to write his last act first.[10] This doctrine
belongs to the period of the well-made play, when climax was regarded as
the one thing needful in dramatic art, and anticlimax as the
unforgivable sin. Nowadays, we do not insist that every play should end
with a tableau, or with an emphatic _mot de la fin_. We are more willing
to accept a quiet, even an indecisive, ending.[11] Nevertheless it is
and must ever be true that, at a very early period in the scheming of
his play, the playwright ought to assure himself that his theme is
capable of a satisfactory ending. Of course this phrase does not imply a
"happy ending," but one which satisfies the author as being artistic,
effective, inevitable (in the case of a serious play), or, in one word,
"right." An obviously makeshift ending can never be desirable, either
from the ideal or from the practical point of view. Many excellent plays
have been wrecked on this rock. The very frequent complaint that "the
last act is weak" is not always or necessarily a just reproach; but it
is so when the author has clearly been at a loss for an ending, and has
simply huddled his play up in a conventional and perfunctory fashion. It
may even be said that some apparently promising themes are deceptive in
their promise, since they are inherently incapable of a satisfactory
ending. The playwright should by all means make sure that he has not run
up against one of these blind-alley themes.[12] He should, at an early
point, see clearly the end for which he is making, and be sure that it
is an end which he actively desires, not merely one which satisfies
convention, or which "will have to do."

Some dramatists, when a play is provisionally mapped out, do not attempt
to begin at the beginning and write it as a coherent whole, but make a
dash first at the more salient and critical scenes, or those which
specially attract their imagination. On such a point every author must
obviously be a law unto himself. From the theoretical point of view, one
can only approve the practice, since it certainly makes for plasticity.
It is evident that a detached scene, written while those that lead up to
it are as yet but vaguely conceived, must be subject to indefinite
modification.[13] In several of Ibsen's very roughest drafts, we find
short passages of dialogue sketched out even before the names have been
assigned to the characters, showing that some of his earliest ideas came
to him, as it were, ready dramatized. One would be tempted to hope much
of an author who habitually and unaffectedly thus "lisped in dialogue
for the dialogue came."

Ought the playwright, at an early stage in the process of each act, to
have the details of its scene clearly before him? Ought he to draw out a
scene-plot, and know, from moment to moment, just where each character
is, whether He is standing on the hearthrug and She sitting on the
settee, or _vice versa_? There is no doubt that furniture, properties,
accidents of environment, play a much larger part in modern drama than
they did on the Elizabethan, the eighteenth century, or even the
early-Victorian stage. Some of us, who are not yet centenarians, can
remember to have seen rooms on the stage with no furniture at all except
two or three chairs "painted on the flat." Under such conditions, it was
clearly useless for the playwright to trouble his head about furniture,
and even "positions" might well be left for arrangement at rehearsal.
This carelessness of the environment, however, is no longer possible.
Whether we like it or no (and some theorists do not like it at all),
scenery has ceased to be a merely suggestive background against which
the figures stand out in high relief. The stage now aims at presenting a
complete picture, with the figures, not "a little out of the picture,"
but completely in it. This being so, the playwright must evidently, at
some point in the working out of his theme, visualize the stage-picture
in considerable detail; and we find that almost all modern dramatists
do, as a matter of fact, pay great attention to what may be called the
topography of their scenes, and the shifting "positions" of their
characters. The question is: at what stage of the process of composition
ought this visualization to occur? Here, again, it would be absurd to
lay down a general rule; but I am inclined to think, both theoretically
and from what can be gathered of the practice of the best dramatists,
that it is wisest to reserve it for a comparatively late stage. A
playwright of my acquaintance, and a very remarkable playwright too,
used to scribble the first drafts of his play in little notebooks, which
he produced from his pocket whenever he had a moment to spare--often on
the top of an omnibus. Only when the first draft was complete did he
proceed to set the scenes, as it were, and map out the stage-management.
On the other hand, one has heard of playwrights whose first step in
setting to work upon a particular act was to construct a complete model
of the scene, and people it with manikins to represent the characters.
As a general practice, this is scarcely to be commended. It is wiser,
one fancies, to have the matter of the scene pretty fully roughed-out
before details of furniture, properties, and position are arranged.[14]
It may happen, indeed, that some natural phenomenon, some property or
piece of furniture, is the very pivot of the scene; in which case it
must, of course, be posited from the first. From the very moment of his
conceiving the fourth act of _Le Tartufe_, Molière must have had clearly
in view the table under which Orgon hides; and Sheridan cannot have got
very far with the Screen Scene before he had mentally placed the screen.
But even where a great deal turns on some individual object, the
detailed arrangements of the scene may in most cases be taken for
granted until a late stage in its working out.

One proviso, however, must be made; where any important effect depends
upon a given object, or a particular arrangement of the scene, the
playwright cannot too soon assure himself that the object comes well
within the physical possibilities of the stage, and that the arrangement
is optically[15] possible and effective. Few things, indeed, are quite
impossible to the modern stage; but there are many that had much better
not be attempted. It need scarcely be added that the more serious a play
is, or aspires to be, the more carefully should the author avoid any
such effects as call for the active collaboration of the
stage-carpenter, machinist, or electrician. Even when a mechanical
effect can be produced to perfection, the very fact that the audience
cannot but admire the ingenuity displayed, and wonder "how it is done,"
implies a failure of that single-minded attention to the essence of the
matter in hand which the dramatist would strive to beget and maintain. A
small but instructive example of a difficult effect, such as the prudent
playwright will do well to avoid, occurs in the third act of Ibsen's
_Little Eyolf_. During the greater part of the act, the flag in
Allmers's garden is hoisted to half-mast in token of mourning; until at
the end, when he and Rita attain a serener frame of mind, he runs it up
to the truck. Now, from the poetic and symbolic point of view, this flag
is all that can be desired; but from the practical point of view it
presents grave difficulties. Nothing is so pitifully ineffective as a
flag in a dead calm, drooping nervelessly against the mast; and though,
no doubt, by an ingenious arrangement of electric fans, it might be
possible to make this flag flutter in the breeze, the very fact of its
doing so would tend to set the audience wondering by what mechanism the
effect was produced, instead of attending to the soul-struggles of Rita
and Allmers. It would be absurd to blame Ibsen for overriding theatrical
prudence in such a case; I merely point out to beginners that it is
wise, before relying on an effect of this order, to make sure that it
is, not only possible, but convenient from the practical point of view.
In one or two other cases Ibsen strained the resources of the stage. The
illumination in the last act of _Pillars of Society_ cannot be carried
out as he describes it; or rather, if it were carried out on some
exceptionally large and well-equipped stage, the feat of the mechanician
would eclipse the invention of the poet. On the other hand, the abode of
the Wild Duck in the play of that name is a conception entirely
consonant with the optics of the theatre; for no detail at all need be,
or ought to be, visible, and a vague effect of light is all that is
required. Only in his last melancholy effort did Ibsen, in a play
designed for representation, demand scenic effects entirely beyond the
resources of any theatre not specially fitted for spectacular drama, and
possible, even in such a theatre, only in some ridiculously
makeshift form.

There are two points of routine on which I am compelled to speak in no
uncertain voice--two practices which I hold to be almost equally
condemnable. In the first place, no playwright who understands the
evolution of the modern theatre can nowadays use in his stage-directions
the abhorrent jargon of the early nineteenth century. When one comes
across a manuscript bespattered with such cabalistic signs as "R.2.E.,"
"R.C.," "L.C.," "L.U.E.," and so forth, one sees at a glance that the
writer has neither studied dramatic literature nor thought out for
himself the conditions of the modern theatre, but has found his dramatic
education between the buff covers of _French's Acting Edition_. Some
beginners imagine that a plentiful use of such abbreviations will be
taken as a proof of their familiarity with the stage; whereas, in fact,
it only shows their unfamiliarity with theatrical history. They might as
well set forth to describe a modern battleship in the nautical
terminology of Captain Marryat. "Right First Entrance," "Left Upper
Entrance," and so forth, are terms belonging to the period when there
were no "box" rooms or "set" exteriors on the stage, when the sides of
each scene were composed of "wings" shoved on in grooves, and entrances
could be made between each pair of wings. Thus, "R. 1 E." meant the
entrance between the proscenium and the first "wing" on the right, "R. 2
E." meant the entrance between the first pair of "wings," and so forth.
"L.U.E." meant the entrance at the left between the last "wing" and the
back cloth. Now grooves and "wings" have disappeared from the stage. The
"box" room is entered, like any room in real life, by doors or French
windows; and the only rational course is to state the position of your
doors in your opening stage-direction, and thereafter to say in plain
language by which door an entrance or an exit is to be made. In exterior
scenes where, for example, trees or clumps of shrubbery answer in a
measure to the old "wings," the old terminology may not be quite
meaningless; but it is far better eschewed. It is a good general rule to
avoid, so far as possible, expressions which show that the author has a
stage scene, and not an episode of real life, before his eyes. Men of
the theatre are the last to be impressed by theatrical jargon; and when
the play comes to be printed, the general reader is merely bewildered
and annoyed by technicalities, which tend, moreover, to disturb
his illusion.

A still more emphatic warning must be given against another and more
recent abuse in the matter of stage-directions. The "L.U.E.'s," indeed,
are bound very soon to die a natural death. The people who require to be
warned against them are, as a rule, scarcely worth warning. But it is
precisely the cleverest people (to use clever in a somewhat narrow
sense) who are apt to be led astray by Mr. Bernard Shaw's practice of
expanding his stage-directions into essays, disquisitions, monologues,
pamphlets. This is a practice which goes far to justify the belief of
some foreign critics that the English, or, since Mr. Shaw is in
question, let us say the inhabitants of the British Islands, are
congenitally incapable of producing a work of pure art. Our
novelists--Fielding, Thackeray, George Eliot--have been sufficiently,
though perhaps not unjustly, called over the coals for their habit of
coming in front of their canvas, and either gossiping with the reader or
preaching at him. But, if it be a sound maxim that the novelist should
not obtrude his personality on his reader, how much more is this true of
the dramatist! When the dramatist steps to the footlights and begins to
lecture, all illusion is gone. It may be said that, as a matter of fact,
this does not occur: that on the stage we hear no more of the
disquisitions of Mr. Shaw and his imitators than we do of the curt, and
often non-existent, stage-directions of Shakespeare and his
contemporaries. To this the reply is twofold. First, the very fact that
these disquisitions are written proves that the play is designed to be
printed and read, and that we are, therefore, justified in applying to
it the standard of what may be called literary illusion. Second, when a
playwright gets into the habit of talking around his characters, he
inevitably, even if unconsciously, slackens his endeavour to make them
express themselves as completely as may be in their own proper medium of
dramatic action and dialogue. You cannot with impunity mix up two
distinct forms of art--the drama and the sociological essay or lecture.
To Mr. Shaw, of course, much may, and must, be forgiven. His
stage-directions are so brilliant that some one, some day, will
assuredly have them spoken by a lecturer in the orchestra while the
action stands still on the stage. Thus, he will have begotten a bastard,
but highly entertaining, form of art. My protest has no practical
application to him, for he is a standing exception to all rules. It is
to the younger generation that I appeal not to be misled by his
seductive example. They have little chance of rivalling him as
sociological essayists; but if they treat their art seriously, and as a
pure art, they may easily surpass him as dramatists. By adopting his
practice they will tend to produce, not fine works of art, but inferior
sociological documents. They will impair their originality and spoil
their plays in order to do comparatively badly what Mr. Shaw has done
incomparably well.

The common-sense rule as to stage directions is absolutely plain; be
they short, or be they long, they ought always to be _impersonal_. The
playwright who cracks jokes in his stage-directions, or indulges in
graces of style, is intruding himself between the spectator and the work
of art, to the inevitable detriment of the illusion. In preparing a play
for the press, the author should make his stage-directions as brief as
is consistent with clearness. Few readers will burden their memory with
long and detailed descriptions. When a new character of importance
appears, a short description of his or her personal appearance and dress
may be helpful to the reader; but even this should be kept impersonal.
Moreover, as a play has always to be read before it can be rehearsed or
acted, it is no bad plan to make the stage-directions, from the first,
such as tend to bring the play home clearly to the reader's mental
vision. And here I may mention a principle, based on more than mere
convenience, which some playwrights observe with excellent results. Not
merely in writing stage-directions, but in visualizing a scene, the idea
of the stage should, as far as possible, be banished from the author's
mind. He should see and describe the room, the garden, the sea-shore, or
whatever the place of his action may be, not as a stage-scene, but as a
room, garden, or sea-shore in the real world. The cultivation of this
habit ought to be, and I believe is in some cases, a safeguard against

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: Sardou wrote careful and detailed scenarios, Dumas _fils_
held it a waste of time to do so. Pailleron wrote "enormous" scenarios,
Meilhac very brief ones, or none at all. Mr. Galsworthy, rather to my
surprise, disdains, and even condemns, the scenario, holding that a
theme becomes lifeless when you put down its skeleton on paper. Sir
Arthur Pinero says: "Before beginning to write a play, I always make
sure, by means of a definite scheme, that there is _a_ way of doing it;
but whether I ultimately follow that way is a totally different matter."
Mr. Alfred Sutro practically confesses to a scenario. He says: "Before I
start writing the dialogue of a play, I make sure that I shall have an
absolutely free hand over the entrances and exits: in other words, that
there is ample and legitimate reason for each character appearing in any
particular scene, and ample motive for his leaving it." Mr. Granville
Barker does not put on paper a detailed scenario. He says: "I plan the
general scheme, and particularly the balance of the play, in my head;
but this, of course, does not depend entirely on entrances and exits."
Mr. Henry Arthur Jones says: "I know the leading scenes, and the general
course of action in each act, before I write a line. When I have got the
whole story clear, and divided into acts, I very carefully construct the
first act, as a series of scenes between such and such of the
characters. When the first act is written I carefully construct the
second act in the same way--and so on. I sometimes draw up twenty
scenarios for an act before I can get it to go straight."]

[Footnote 2: A friend of the late Clyde Fitch writes to me: "Fitch was
often astonished at the way in which his characters developed. He tried
to make them do certain things: they did others."]

[Footnote 3: This account of the matter seems to find support in a
statement, by M. François de Curel, an accomplished psychologist, to the
effect that during the first few days of work at a play he is "clearly
conscious of creating," but that gradually he gets "into the skin" of
his characters, and appears to work by instinct. No doubt some artists
are actually subject to a sort of hallucination, during which they seem
rather to record than to invent the doings of their characters. But this
somewhat morbid condition should scarcely be cultivated by the
dramatist, whose intelligence should always keep a light rein on his
more instinctive mental processes. See _L'Année Psychologique_, 1894.
p. 120.]

[Footnote 4: Sir Arthur Pinero says: "The beginning of a play to me is a
little world of people. I live with them, get familiar with them, and
_they_ tell me the story." This may sound not unlike the remark of the
novelist above quoted; but the intention was quite different. Sir Arthur
simply meant that the story came to him as the characters took on life
in his imagination. Mr. H.A. Jones writes: "When you have a character or
several characters you haven't a play. You may keep these in your mind
and nurse them till they combine in a piece of action; but you haven't
got your play till you have theme, characters, and action all fused. The
process with me is as purely automatic and spontaneous as dreaming; in
fact it is really dreaming while you are awake."]

[Footnote 5: "Here," says a well-known playwright, "is a common
experience. You are struck by an idea with which you fall in love. 'Ha!'
you say. 'What a superb scene where the man shall find the missing will
under the sofa! If that doesn't make them sit up, what will?' You begin
the play. The first act goes all right, and the second act goes all
right. You come to the third act, and somehow it won't go at all. You
battle with it for weeks in vain; and then it suddenly occurs to you,
'Why, I see what's wrong! It's that confounded scene where the man finds
the will under the sofa! Out it must come!' You cut it out, and at once
all goes smooth again. But you have thrown overboard the great effect
that first tempted you."]

[Footnote 6: The manuscripts of Dumas _fils_ are said to contain, as a
rule, about four times as much matter as the printed play! (Parigot:
_Génie et Métier_, p. 243). This probably means, however, that he
preserved tentative and ultimately rejected scenes, which most
playwrights destroy as they go along.]

[Footnote 7: Lowell points out that this assertion of Heminge and
Condell merely shows them to have been unfamiliar with the simple
phenomenon known as a fair copy.]

[Footnote 8: Since writing this I have learnt that my conjecture is
correct, at any rate as regards some of M. Hervieu's plays.]

[Footnote 9: See Chapters XIII and XVI.]

[Footnote 10: This view is expressed with great emphasis by Dumas _fils_
in the preface to _La Princesse Georges_. "You should not begin your
work," he says, "until you have your concluding scene, movement and
speech clear in your mind. How can you tell what road you ought to take
until you know where you are going?" It is perhaps a more apparent than
real contradiction of this rule that, until _Iris_ was three parts
finished, Sir Arthur Pinero intended the play to end with the throttling
of Iris by Maldonado. The actual end is tantamount to a murder, though
Iris is not actually killed.]

[Footnote 11: See Chapter XVIII.]

[Footnote 12: See Chapter XX.]

[Footnote 13: Most of the dramatists whom I have consulted are opposed
to the principle of "roughing out" the big scenes first, and then
imbedding them, as it were, in their context. Sir Arthur Pinero goes the
length of saying: "I can never go on to page 2 until I am sure that page
1 is as right as I can make it. Indeed, when an act is finished, I send
it at once to the printers, confident that I shall not have to go back
upon it." Mr. Alfred Sutro says: "I write a play straight ahead from
beginning to end, taking practically as long over the first act as over
the last three." And Mr. Granville Barker: "I always write the beginning
of a play first and the end last: but as to writing 'straight ahead'--it
sounds like what one may be able to do in Heaven." But almost all
dramatists, I take it, jot down brief passages of dialogue which they
may or may not eventually work into the texture of their play.]

[Footnote 14: One is not surprised to learn that Sardou "did his
stage-management as he went along," and always knew exactly the position
of his characters from moment to moment.]

[Footnote 15: And aurally, it may be added. Sarcey comments on the
impossibility of a scene in Zola's _Pot Bouille_ in which the so-called
"lovers," Octave Mouret and Blanche, throw open the window of the garret
in which they are quarrelling, and hear the servants in the courtyard
outside discussing their intrigue. In order that the comments of the
servants might reach the ears of the audience, they had to be shouted in
a way (says M. Sarcey) that was fatal to the desired illusion.]



The theme being chosen, the next step will probably be to determine what
characters shall be employed in developing it. Most playwrights, I take
it, draw up a provisional Dramatis Personae before beginning the serious
work of construction. Ibsen seems always to have done so; but, in some
of his plays, the list of persons was at first considerably larger than
it ultimately became. The frugal poet sometimes saved up the characters
rejected from one play, and used them in another. Thus Boletta and Hilda
Wangel were originally intended to have been the daughters of Rosmer and
Beata; and the delightful Foldal of _John Gabriel Borkman_ was a
character left over from _The Lady from the Sea_.

The playwright cannot proceed far in planning out his work without
determining, roughly at any rate, what auxiliary characters he means to
employ. There are in every play essential characters, without whom the
theme is unthinkable, and auxiliary characters, not indispensable to the
theme, but simply convenient for filling in the canvas and carrying on
the action. It is not always possible to decide whether a character is
essential or auxiliary--it depends upon how we define the theme. In
_Hamlet_, for example, Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude are manifestly
essential: for the theme is the hesitancy of a young man of a certain
temperament in taking vengeance upon the seducer of his mother and
murderer of his father. But is Ophelia essential, or merely auxiliary?
Essential, if we consider Hamlet's pessimistic feeling as to woman and
the "breeding of sinners" a necessary part of his character; auxiliary,
if we take the view that without this feeling he would still have been
Hamlet, and the action, to all intents and purposes, the same. The
remaining characters, on the other hand, are clearly auxiliary. This is
true even of the Ghost: for Hamlet might have learnt of his father's
murder in fifty other ways.

Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, and the rest might all have been utterly
different, or might never have existed at all, and yet the essence of
the play might have remained intact.

It would be perfectly possible to write a _Hamlet_ after the manner of
Racine, in which there should be only six personages instead of
Shakespeare's six-and-twenty: and in this estimate I assume Ophelia to
be an essential character. The dramatis personae would be: Hamlet, his
confidant; Ophelia, her confidant; and the King and Queen, who would
serve as confidants to each other. Indeed, an economy of one person
might be affected by making the Queen (as she naturally might) play the
part of confidant to Ophelia.

Shakespeare, to be sure, did not deliberately choose between his own
method and that of Racine. Classic concentration was wholly unsuited to
the physical conditions of the Elizabethan stage, on which external
movement and bustle were imperatively demanded. But the modern
playwright has a wide latitude of choice in this purely technical
matter. He may work out his plot with the smallest possible number of
characters, or he may introduce a crowd of auxiliary personages. The
good craftsman will be guided by the nature of his theme. In a broad
social study or a picturesque romance, you may have as many auxiliary
figures as you please. In a subtle comedy, or a psychological tragedy,
the essential characters should have the stage as much as possible to
themselves. In Becque's _La Parisienne_ there are only four characters
and a servant; in Rostand's _Cyrano de Bergerac_ there are fifty-four
personages named in the playbill, to say nothing of supernumeraries. In
_Peer Gynt_, a satiric phantasmagory, Ibsen introduces some fifty
individual characters, with numberless supernumeraries; in _An Enemy of
the People_, a social comedy, he has eleven characters and a crowd; for
_Ghosts_ and _Rosmersholm_, psychological tragedies, six persons apiece
are sufficient.

It can scarcely be necessary, at this time of day, to say much on the
subject of nomenclature. One does occasionally, in manuscripts of a
quite hopeless type, find the millionaire's daughter figuring as "Miss
Aurea Golden," and her poor but sprightly cousin as "Miss Lalage Gay";
but the veriest tyro realizes, as a rule, that this sort of punning
characterization went out with the eighteenth century, or survived into
the nineteenth century only as a flagrant anachronism, like
knee-breeches and hair-powder.

A curious essay might be written on the reasons why such names as Sir
John Brute, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, Sir Peter Teazle, Sir Anthony Absolute,
Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Lord Foppington, Lord Rake, Colonel Bully,
Lovewell, Heartfree, Gripe, Shark and the rest were regarded as a matter
of course in "the comedy of manners," but have become offensive to-day,
except in deliberate imitations of the eighteenth-century style. The
explanation does not lie merely in the contrast between "conventional"
comedy and "realistic" drama. Our forefathers (whatever Lamb may say)
did not consciously place their comedy in a realm of convention, but
generally considered themselves, and sometimes were, realists. The
fashion of label-names, if we may call them so, came down from the
Elizabethans, who, again, borrowed it from the Mediaeval Moralities.[1]
Shakespeare himself gave us Master Slender and Justice Shallow; but it
was in the Jonsonian comedy of types that the practice of advertising a
"humour" or "passion" in a name (English or Italian) established itself
most firmly. Hence such strange appellatives as Sir Epicure Mammon, Sir
Amorous La Foole, Morose, Wellbred, Downright, Fastidius Brisk, Volpone,
Corbaccio, Sordido, and Fallace. After the Restoration, Jonson, Beaumont
and Fletcher, and Massinger were, for a time, more popular than
Shakespeare; so that the label-names seemed to have the sanction of the
giants that were before the Flood. Even when comedy began to deal with
individuals rather than mere incarnations of a single "humour," the
practice of giving them obvious pseudonyms held its ground. Probably it
was reinforced by the analogous practice which obtained in journalism,
in which real persons were constantly alluded to (and libelled) under
fictitious designations, more or less transparent to the initiated. Thus
a label-name did not carry with it a sense of unreality, but rather,
perhaps, a vague suggestion of covert reference to a real person. I must
not here attempt to trace the stages by which the fashion went out. It
could doubtless be shown that the process of change ran parallel to the
shrinkage of the "apron" and the transformation of the platform-stage
into the picture-stage. That transformation was completed about the
middle of the nineteenth century; and it was about that time that
label-names made their latest appearances in works of any artistic
pretension--witness the Lady Gay Spanker of _London Assurance_, and the
Captain Dudley (or "Deadly") Smooth of _Money_. Faint traces of the
practice survive in T.W. Robertson, as in his master, Thackeray. But it
was in his earliest play of any note that he called a journalist Stylus.
In his later comedies the names are admirably chosen: they are
characteristic without eccentricity or punning. One feels that Eccles in
_Caste_ could not possibly have borne any other name. How much less
living would he be had he been called Mr. Soaker or Mr. Tosspot!

Characteristic without eccentricity--that is what a name ought to be. As
the characteristic quality depends upon a hundred indefinable,
subconscious associations, it is clearly impossible to suggest any
principle of choice. The only general rule that can be laid down is that
the key of the nomenclature, so to speak, may rightly vary with the key
of the play--that farcical names are, within limits, admissible in
farce, eccentric names in eccentric comedy, while soberly appropriate
names are alone in place in serious plays. Some dramatists are
habitually happy in their nomenclature, others much less so. Ibsen would
often change a name three or four times in the course of writing a play,
until at last he arrived at one which seemed absolutely to fit the
character; but the appropriateness of his names is naturally lost upon
foreign audiences.

One word may perhaps be said on the recent fashion--not to say fad--of
suppressing in the printed play the traditional list of "Dramatis
Personae." Björnson, in some of his later plays, was, so far as I am
aware, the first of the moderns to adopt this plan. I do not know
whether his example has influenced certain English playwrights, or
whether they arrived independently at the same austere principle, by
sheer force of individual genius. The matter is a trifling one--so
trifling that the departure from established practice has something of
the air of a pedantry. It is not, on the whole, to be approved. It adds
perceptibly to the difficulty which some readers experience in picking
up the threads of a play; and it deprives other readers of a real and
appreciable pleasure of anticipation. There is a peculiar and not
irrational charm in looking down a list of quite unknown names, and
thinking: "In the course of three hours, I shall know these people: I
shall have read their hearts: I shall have lived with them through a
great crisis in their lives: some of them may be my friends for ever."
It is one of the glories and privileges of the dramatist's calling that
he can arouse in us this eager and poignant expectation; and I cannot
commend his wisdom in deliberately taking the edge off it, and making us
feel as though we were not sitting down to a play, but to a sort of
conversational novel. A list of characters, it is true, may also affect
one with acute anticipations of boredom; but I have never yet found a
play less tedious by reason of the suppression of the "Dramatis

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: Partially, too, they were under the influence of antiquity;
but the ancients were very discreet in their use of significant names.
Only in satyr-plays, in the comic epics, and for a few extravagant
characters in comedy (such as the boastful soldier) were grotesque
appellations employed. For the rest, the Greek habit of nomenclature
made it possible to use significant names which were at the same time
probable enough in daily life. For example, a slave might be called
Onesimus, "useful," or a soldier Polemon, to imply his warlike function;
but both names would be familiar to the audience in actual use.]





Though, as we have already noted, the writing of plays does not always
follow the chronological sequence of events, in discussing the process
of their evolution we are bound to assume that the playwright begins at
the beginning, and proceeds in orderly fashion, by way of the middle, to
the end. It was one of Aristotle's requirements that a play should have
a beginning, middle and end; and though it may seem that it scarcely
needed an Aristotle to lay down so self-evident a proposition, the fact
is that playwrights are more than sufficiently apt to ignore or despise
the rule.[1] Especially is there a tendency to rebel against the
requirement that a play should have an end. We have seen a good many
plays of late which do not end, but simply leave off: at their head we
might perhaps place Ibsen's _Ghosts_. But let us not anticipate. For the
moment, what we have to inquire is where, and how, a play ought
to begin.

In life there are no such things as beginnings. Even a man's birth is a
quite arbitrary point at which to launch his biography; for the
determining factors in his career are to be found in persons, events,
and conditions that existed before he was ever thought of. For the
biographer, however, and for the novelist as a writer of fictitious
biography, birth forms a good conventional starting-point. He can give a
chapter or so to "Ancestry," and then relate the adventures of his hero
from the cradle onwards. But the dramatist, as we have seen, deals, not
with protracted sequences of events, but with short, sharp crises. The
question for him, therefore, is: at what moment of the crisis, or of its
antecedents, he had better ring up his curtain? At this point he is like
the photographer studying his "finder" in order to determine how much of
a given prospect he can "get in."

The answer to the question depends on many things, but chiefly on the
nature of the crisis and the nature of the impression which the
playwright desires to make upon his audience. If his play be a comedy,
and if his object be gently and quietly to interest and entertain, the
chances are that he begins by showing us his personages in their normal
state, concisely indicates their characters, circumstances and
relations, and then lets the crisis develop from the outset before our
eyes. If, on the other hand, his play be of a more stirring description,
and he wants to seize the spectator's attention firmly from the start,
he will probably go straight at his crisis, plunging, perhaps, into the
very middle of it, even at the cost of having afterwards to go back in
order to put the audience in possession of the antecedent circumstances.
In a third type of play, common of late years, and especially affected
by Ibsen, the curtain rises on a surface aspect of profound peace, which
is presently found to be but a thin crust over an absolutely volcanic
condition of affairs, the origin of which has to be traced backwards, it
may be for many years.

Let us glance at a few of Shakespeare's openings, and consider at what
points he attacks his various themes. Of his comedies, all except one
begin with a simple conversation, showing a state of affairs from which
the crisis develops with more or less rapidity, but in which it is as
yet imperceptibly latent. In no case does he plunge into the middle of
his subject, leaving its antecedents to be stated in what is technically
called an "exposition." Neither in tragedy nor in comedy, indeed, was
this Shakespeare's method. In his historical plays he relied to some
extent on his hearers' knowledge of history, whether gathered from books
or from previous plays of the historical series; and where such
knowledge was not to be looked for, he would expound the situation in
good set terms, like those of a Euripidean Prologue. But the
chronicle-play is a species apart, and practically an extinct species:
we need not pause to study its methods. In his fictitious plays, with
two notable exceptions, it was Shakespeare's constant practice to bring
the whole action within the frame of the picture, opening at such a
point that no retrospect should be necessary, beyond what could be
conveyed in a few casual words. The exceptions are _The Tempest_ and
_Hamlet_, to which we shall return in due course.

How does _The Merchant of Venice_ open? With a long conversation
exhibiting the character of Antonio, the friendship between him and
Bassanio, the latter's financial straits, and his purpose of wooing
Portia. The second scene displays the character of Portia, and informs
us of her father's device with regard to her marriage; but this
information is conveyed in three or four lines. Not till the third scene
do we see or hear of Shylock, and not until very near the end of the act
is there any foreshadowing of what is to be the main crisis of the play.
Not a single antecedent event has to be narrated to us; for the mere
fact that Antonio has been uncivil to Shylock, and shown disapproval of
his business methods, can scarcely be regarded as a preliminary outside
the frame of the picture.

In _As You Like It_ there are no preliminaries to be stated beyond the
facts that Orlando is at enmity with his elder brother, and that Duke
Frederick has usurped the coronet and dukedom of Rosalind's father.
These facts being made apparent without any sort of formal exposition,
the crisis of the play rapidly announces itself in the wrestling-match
and its sequels. In _Much Ado About Nothing_ there is even less of
antecedent circumstance to be imparted. We learn in the first scene,
indeed, that Beatrice and Benedick have already met and crossed swords;
but this is not in the least essential to the action; the play might
have been to all intents and purposes the same had they never heard of
each other until after the rise of the curtain. In _Twelfth Night_ there
is a semblance of a retrospective exposition in the scene between Viola
and the Captain; but it is of the simplest nature, and conveys no
information beyond what, at a later period, would have been imparted on
the playbill, thus--

  "Orsino, Duke of Illyria, in love with Olivia.
  Olivia, an heiress, in mourning for her brother,"

and so forth. In _The Taming of the Shrew_ there are no antecedents
whatever to be stated. It is true that Lucentio, in the opening speech,
is good enough to inform Tranio who he is and what he is doing
there--facts with which Tranio is already perfectly acquainted. But this
was merely a conventional opening, excused by the fashion of the time;
it was in no sense a necessary exposition. For the rest, the crisis of
the play--the battle between Katherine and Petruchio--begins, develops,
and ends before our very eyes. In _The Winter's Tale_, a brief
conversation between Camillo and Archidamus informs us that the King of
Bohemia is paying a visit to the King of Sicilia; and that is absolutely
all we need to know. It was not even necessary that it should be
conveyed to us in this way. The situation would be entirely
comprehensible if the scene between Camillo and Archidamus were omitted.

It is needless to go through the whole list of comedies. The broad fact
is that in all the plays commonly so described, excepting only _The
Tempest_, the whole action comes within the frame of the picture. In
_The Tempest_ the poet employs a form of opening which otherwise he
reserves for tragedies. The first scene is simply an animated tableau,
calculated to arrest the spectator's attention, without conveying to him
any knowledge either of situation or character. Such gleams of character
as do, in fact, appear in the dialogue, are scarcely perceived in the
hurly-burly of the storm. Then, in the calm which ensues, Prospero
expounds to Miranda in great detail the antecedents of the crisis now
developing. It might almost seem, indeed, that the poet, in this, his
poetic last-will-and-testament, intended to warn his successors against
the dangers of a long narrative exposition; for Prospero's story sends
Miranda to sleep. Be this as it may, we have here a case in which
Shakespeare deliberately adopted the plan of placing on the stage, not
the whole crisis, but only its culmination, leaving its earlier stages
to be conveyed in narrative.[2] It would have been very easy for him to
have begun at the beginning and shown us in action the events narrated
by Prospero. This course would have involved no greater leap, either in
time or space, than he had perpetrated in the almost contemporary
_Winter's Tale_; and it cannot be said that there would have been any
difficulty in compressing into three acts, or even two, the essentials
of the action of the play as we know it. His reasons for departing from
his usual practice were probably connected with the particular occasion
for which the play was written. He wanted to produce a masque rather
than a drama. We must not, therefore, attach too much significance to
the fact that in almost the only play in which Shakespeare seems to have
built entirely out of his own head, with no previous play or novel to
influence him, he adopted the plan of going straight to the catastrophe,
in which he had been anticipated by Sophocles (_Oedipus Rex_), and was
to be followed by Ibsen (_Ghosts_, _Rosmersholm_, etc.).

Coming now to the five great tragedies, we find that in four of them
Shakespeare began, as in _The Tempest_, with a picturesque and stirring
episode calculated to arrest the spectator's attention and awaken his
interest, while conveying to him little or no information. The opening
scene of _Romeo and Juliet_ is simply a brawl, bringing home to us
vividly the family feud which is the root of the tragedy, but informing
us of nothing beyond the fact that such a feud exists. This is, indeed,
absolutely all that we require to know. There is not a single
preliminary circumstance, outside the limits of the play, that has to be
explained to us. The whole tragedy germinates and culminates within what
the prologue calls "the two hours' traffick of the stage." The opening
colloquy of the Witches in _Macbeth_, strikes the eerie keynote, but
does nothing more. Then, in the second scene, we learn that there has
been a great battle and that a nobleman named Macbeth has won a victory
which covers him with laurels. This can in no sense be called an
exposition. It is the account of a single event, not of a sequence; and
that event is contemporary, not antecedent. In the third scene, the
meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches, we have what may be
called an exposition reversed; not a narrative of the past, but a
foreshadowing of the future. Here we touch on one of the subtlest of the
playwright's problems--the art of arousing anticipation in just the
right measure. But that is not the matter at present in hand.[3]

In the opening scene of _Othello_ it is true that some talk passes
between Iago and Roderigo before they raise the alarm and awaken
Brabantio; but it is carefully non-expository talk; it expounds nothing
but Iago's character. Far from being a real exception to the rule that
Shakespeare liked to open his tragedies with a very crisply dramatic
episode, _Othello_ may rather be called its most conspicuous example.
The rousing of Brabantio is immediately followed by the encounter
between his men and Othello's, which so finely brings out the lofty
character of the Moor; and only in the third scene, that of the Doge's
Council, do we pass from shouts and swords to quiet discussion and, in a
sense, exposition. Othello's great speech, while a vital portion of the
drama, is in so far an exposition that it refers to events which do not
come absolutely within the frame of the picture. But they are very
recent, very simple, events. If Othello's speech were omitted, or cut
down to half a dozen lines, we should know much less of his character
and Desdemona's, but the mere action of the play would remain perfectly

_King Lear_ necessarily opens with a great act of state, the partition
of the kingdom. A few words between Kent and Gloucester show us what is
afoot, and then, at one plunge, we are in the thick of the drama. There
was no opportunity here for one of those picturesque tableaux, exciting
rather than informative, which initiate the other tragedies. It would
have had to be artificially dragged in; and it was the less necessary,
as the partition scene took on, in a very few lines, just that
arresting, stimulating quality which the poet seems to have desired in
the opening of a play of this class.

Finally, when we turn to _Hamlet_, we find a consummate example of the
crisply-touched opening tableau, making a nervous rather than an
intellectual appeal, informing us of nothing, but exciting a vivid,
though quite vague, anticipation. The silent transit of the Ghost,
desiring to speak, yet tongue-tied, is certainly one of Shakespeare's
unrivalled masterpieces of dramatic craftsmanship. One could pretty
safely wager that if the _Ur-Hamlet_, on which Shakespeare worked, were
to come to light to-morrow, this particular trait would not be found in
it. But, oddly enough, into the middle of this admirable opening
tableau, Shakespeare inserts a formal exposition, introduced in the most
conventional way. Marcellus, for some unexplained reason, is ignorant of
what is evidently common knowledge as to the affairs of the realm, and
asks to be informed; whereupon Horatio, in a speech of some twenty-five
lines, sets forth the past relations between Norway and Denmark, and
prepares us for the appearance of Fortinbras in the fourth act. In
modern stage versions all this falls away, and nobody who has not
studied the printed text is conscious of its absence. The commentators,
indeed, have proved that Fortinbras is an immensely valuable element in
the moral scheme of the play; but from the point of view of pure drama,
there is not the slightest necessity for this Norwegian-Danish
embroilment or its consequences.[4] The real exposition--for _Hamlet_
differs from the other tragedies in requiring an exposition--comes in
the great speech of the Ghost in Scene V. The contrast between this
speech and Horatio's lecture in the first scene, exemplifies the
difference between a dramatized and an undramatized exposition. The
crisis, as we now learn, began months or years before the rise of the
curtain. It began when Claudius inveigled the affections of Gertrude;
and it would have been possible for the poet to have started from this
point, and shown us in action all that he in fact conveys to us by way
of narration. His reason for choosing the latter course is abundantly
obvious.[5] Hamlet the Younger was to be the protagonist: the interest
of the play was to centre in his mental processes. To have awakened our
interest in Hamlet the Elder would, therefore, have been a superfluity
and an irrelevance. Moreover (to say nothing of the fact that the Ghost
was doubtless a popular figure in the old play, and demanded by the
public) it was highly desirable that Hamlet's knowledge of the usurper's
crime should come to him from a supernatural witness, who could not be
cross-questioned or called upon to give material proof. This was the
readiest as well as the most picturesque method of begetting in him that
condition of doubt, real or affected, which was necessary to account for
his behaviour. But to have shown us in action the matter of the Ghost's
revelation would have been hopelessly to ruin its effect. A repetition
in narrative of matters already seen in action is the grossest of
technical blunders.[6] Hamlet senior, in other words, being
indispensable in the spirit, was superfluous in the flesh. But there was
another and equally cogent reason for beginning the play after the
commission of the initial crime or crimes. To have done otherwise would
have been to discount, not only the Ghost, but the play-scene. By a
piece of consummate ingenuity, which may, of course, have been conceived
by the earlier playwright, the initial incidents of the story are in
fact presented to us, in the guise of a play within the play, and as a
means to the achievement of one of the greatest dramatic effects in all
literature. The moment the idea of the play-scene presented itself to
the author's mind, it became absolutely unthinkable that he should, to
put it vulgarly, "queer the pitch" for the Players by showing us the
real facts of which their performance was to be the counterfeit
presentment. The dramatic effect of the incidents was incalculably
heightened when they were presented, as in a looking-glass, before the
guilty pair, with the eye of the avenger boring into their souls. And
have we not here, perhaps, a clue to one of the most frequent and
essential meanings of the word "dramatic"? May we not say that the
dramatic quality of an incident is proportionate to the variety[7] and
intensity of the emotions involved in it?

All this may appear too obvious to be worth setting forth at such
length. Very likely it never occurred to Shakespeare that it was
possible to open the play at an earlier point; so that he can hardly be
said to have exercised a deliberate choice in the matter. Nevertheless,
the very obviousness of the considerations involved makes this a good
example of the importance of discovering just the right point at which
to raise the curtain. In the case of _The Tempest_, Shakespeare plunged
into the middle of the crisis because his object was to produce a
philosophico-dramatic entertainment rather than a play in the strict
sense of the word. He wanted room for the enchantments of Ariel, the
brutishnesses of Caliban, the humours of Stephano and Trinculo--all
elements extrinsic to the actual story. But in _Hamlet_ he adopted a
similar course for purely dramatic reasons--in order to concentrate his
effects and present the dramatic elements of his theme at their
highest potency.

In sum, then, it was Shakespeare's usual practice, histories apart, to
bring the whole action of his plays within the frame of the picture,
leaving little or nothing to narrative exposition. The two notable
exceptions to this rule are those we have just examined--_Hamlet_ and
_The Tempest_. Furthermore, he usually opened his comedies with quiet
conversational passages, presenting the antecedents of the crisis with
great deliberation. In his tragedies, on the other hand, he was apt to
lead off with a crisp, somewhat startling passage of more or less
vehement action, appealing rather to the nerves than to the
intelligence--such a passage as Gustav Freytag, in his _Technik des
Dramas_, happily entitles an _einleitende Akkord_, an introductory
chord. It may be added that this rule holds good both for _Coriolanus_
and for _Julius Caesar_, in which the keynote is briskly struck in
highly animated scenes of commotion among the Roman populace.

Let us now look at the practice of Ibsen, which offers a sharp contrast
to that of Shakespeare. To put it briefly, the plays in which Ibsen gets
his whole action within the frame of the picture are as exceptional as
those in which Shakespeare does not do so.

Ibsen's practice in this matter has been compared with that of the Greek
dramatists, who also were apt to attack their crisis in the middle, or
even towards the end, rather than at the beginning. It must not be
forgotten, however, that there is one great difference between his
position and theirs. They could almost always rely upon a general
knowledge, on the part of the audience, of the theme with which they
were dealing. The purpose even of the Euripidean prologue is not so much
to state unknown facts, as to recall facts vaguely remembered, to state
the particular version of a legend which the poet proposes to adopt, and
to define the point in the development of the legend at which he is
about to set his figures in motion. Ibsen, on the other hand, drew upon
no storehouse of tradition. He had to convey to his audience everything
that he wanted them to know; and this was often a long and complex
series of facts.

The earliest play in which Ibsen can be said to show maturity of
craftsmanship is _The Vikings at Helgeland_. It is curious to note that
both in _The Vikings_ and in _The Pretenders_, two plays which are in
some measure comparable with Shakespearean tragedies, he opens with a
firmly-touched _einleitende Akkord_. In _The Vikings_, Ornulf and his
sons encounter and fight with Sigurd and his men, very much after the
fashion of the Montagues and Capulets in _Romeo and Juliet_. In _The
Pretenders_ the rival factions of Haakon and Skule stand outside the
cathedral of Bergen, intently awaiting the result of the ordeal which is
proceeding within; and though they do not there and then come to blows,
the air is electrical with their conflicting ambitions and passions. His
modern plays, on the other hand, Ibsen opens quietly enough, though
usually with some more or less arresting little incident, calculated to
arouse immediate curiosity. One may cite as characteristic examples the
hurried colloquy between Engstrand and Regina in _Ghosts_; Rebecca and
Madam Helseth in _Rosmersholm_, watching to see whether Rosmer will
cross the mill-race; and in _The Master Builder_, old Brovik's querulous
outburst, immediately followed by the entrance of Solness and his
mysterious behaviour towards Kaia. The opening of _Hedda Gabler_, with
its long conversation between Miss Tesman and the servant Bertha, comes
as near as Ibsen ever did to the conventional exposition of the French
stage, conducted by a footman and a parlour-maid engaged in dusting the
furniture. On the other hand, there never was a more masterly opening,
in its sheer simplicity, than Nora's entrance in _A Doll's House_, and
the little silent scene that precedes the appearance of Helmer.

Regarding _The Vikings_ as Ibsen's first mature production, and
surveying the whole series of his subsequent works in which he had stage
presentation directly in view,[8] we find that in only two out of the
fifteen plays does the whole action come within the frame of the
picture. These two are _The League of Youth_ and _An Enemy of the
People_. In neither of these have any antecedents to be stated; neither
turns upon any disclosure of bygone events or emotions. We are, indeed,
afforded brief glimpses into the past both of Stensgaard and of
Stockmann; but the glimpses are incidental and inessential. It is
certainly no mere coincidence that if one were asked to pick out the
pieces of thinnest texture in all Ibsen's mature work, one would
certainly select these two plays. Far be it from me to disparage _An
Enemy of the People_; as a work of art it is incomparably greater than
such a piece as _Pillars of Society_; but it is not so richly woven,
not, as it were, so deep in pile. Written in half the time Ibsen usually
devoted to a play, it is an outburst of humorous indignation, a _jeu
d'esprit_, one might almost say, though the _jeu_ of a giant _esprit_.

Observing the effect of comparative tenuity in these two plays, we
cannot but surmise that the secret of the depth and richness of texture
so characteristic of Ibsen's work, lay in his art of closely
interweaving a drama of the present with a drama of the past. _An Enemy
of the People_ is a straightforward, spirited melody; _The Wild Duck_
and _Rosmersholm_ are subtly and intricately harmonized.

Going a little more into detail, we find in Ibsen's work an
extraordinary progress in the art of so unfolding the drama of the past
as to make the gradual revelation no mere preface or prologue to the
drama of the present, but an integral part of its action. It is true
that in _The Vikings_ he already showed himself a master in this art.
The great revelation--the disclosure of the fact that Sigurd, not
Gunnar, did the deed of prowess which Hiördis demanded of the man who
should be her mate--this crucial revelation is brought about in a scene
of the utmost dramatic intensity. The whole drama of the past,
indeed--both its facts and its emotions--may be said to be dragged to
light in the very stress and pressure of the drama of the present. Not a
single detail of it is narrated in cold blood, as, for example, Prospero
relates to Miranda the story of their marooning, or Horatio expounds the
Norwegian-Danish political situation. I am not holding up _The Vikings_
as a great masterpiece; it has many weaknesses both of substance and of
method; but in this particular art of indistinguishably blending the
drama of the present with the drama of the past, it is already
consummate. _The Pretenders_ scarcely comes into the comparison. It is
Ibsen's one chronicle-play; and, like Shakespeare, he did not shrink
from employing a good deal of narrative, though his narratives, it must
be said, are always introduced under such circumstances as to make them
a vital part of the drama. It is when we come to the modern plays that
we find the poet falling back upon conventional and somewhat clumsy
methods of exposition, which he only by degrees, though by rapid
degrees, unlearns.

_The League of Youth_, as we have seen, requires no exposition. All we
have to learn is the existing relations of the characters, which appear
quite naturally as the action proceeds. But let us look at _Pillars of
Society_. Here we have to be placed in possession of a whole antecedent
drama: the intrigue of Karsten Bernick with Dina Dorf's mother, the
threatened scandal, Johan Tönnesen's vicarious acceptance of Bernick's
responsibility, the subsidiary scandal of Lona Hessel's outburst on
learning of Bernick's engagement to her half-sister, the report of an
embezzlement committed by Johan before his departure for America. All
this has to be conveyed to us in retrospect; or, rather, in the first
place, we have to be informed of the false version of these incidents
which is current in the little town, and on which Bernick's moral and
commercial prestige is built up. What device, then, does Ibsen adopt to
this end? He introduces a "sewing-bee" of tattling women, one of whom
happens to be a stranger to the town, and unfamiliar with its gossip.
Into her willing ear the others pour the popular version of the Bernick
story; and, this impartment effected, the group of gossips disappears,
to be heard of no more. These ladies perform the function, in fact, of
the First, Second, and Third Gentlemen, so common in Elizabethan and
pseudo-Elizabethan plays.[9] They are not quite so artless in their
conventionality, for they bring with them the social atmosphere of the
tattling little town, which is an essential factor in the drama.
Moreover, their exposition is not a simple narrative of facts. It is to
some extent subtilized by the circumstance that the facts are not facts,
and that the gist of the drama is to lie in the gradual triumph of the
truth over this tissue of falsehoods. Still, explain it as we may, the
fact remains that in no later play does Ibsen initiate us into the
preliminaries of his action by so hackneyed and unwieldy a device. It is
no conventional canon, but a maxim of mere common sense, that the
dramatist should be chary of introducing characters who have no personal
share in the drama, and are mere mouthpieces for the conveyance of
information. Nowhere else does Ibsen so flagrantly disregard so obvious
a principle of dramatic economy.[10]

When we turn to his next play, _A Doll's House_, we find that he has
already made a great step in advance. He has progressed from the First,
Second, and Third Gentlemen of the Elizabethans to the confidant[11] of
the French classic drama. He even attempts, not very successfully, to
disguise the confidant by giving her a personal interest, an effective
share, in the drama. Nothing can really dissemble the fact that the long
scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden, which occupies almost one-third of
the first act, is simply a formal exposition, outside the action of the
play. Just as it was providential that one of the house-wives of the
sewing-bee in _Pillars of Society_ should have been a stranger to the
town, so it was the luckiest of chances (for the dramatist's
convenience) that an old school-friend should have dropped in from the
clouds precisely half-an-hour before the entrance of Krogstad brings to
a sudden head the great crisis of Nora's life. This happy conjuncture of
events is manifestly artificial: a trick of the dramatist's trade: a
point at which his art does not conceal his art. Mrs. Linden does not,
like the dames of the sewing-bee, fade out of the saga; she even,
through her influence on Krogstad, plays a determining part in the
development of the action. But to all intents and purposes she remains a
mere confidant, a pretext for Nora's review of the history of her
married life. There are two other specimens of the genus confidant in
Ibsen's later plays. Arnholm, in _The Lady from the Sea_, is little
more; Dr. Herdal, in _The Master Builder_, is that and nothing else. It
may be alleged in his defence that the family physician is the
professional confidant of real life.

In _Ghosts_, Ibsen makes a sudden leap to the extreme of his
retrospective method. I am not one of those who consider this play
Ibsen's masterpiece: I do not even place it, technically, in the first
rank among his works. And why? Because there is here no reasonable
equilibrium between the drama of the past and the drama of the present.
The drama of the past is almost everything, the drama of the present
next to nothing. As soon as we have probed to the depths the Alving
marriage and its consequences, the play is over, and there is nothing
left but for Regina to set off in pursuit of the joy of life, and for
Oswald to collapse into imbecility. It is scarcely an exaggeration to
call the play all exposition and no drama. Here for the first time,
however, Ibsen perfected his peculiar gift of imparting tense dramatic
interest to the unveiling of the past. While in one sense the play is
all exposition, in another sense it may quite as truly be said to
contain no exposition; for it contains no narrative delivered in cold
blood, in mere calm retrospection, as a necessary preliminary to the
drama which is in the meantime waiting at the door. In other words, the
exposition is all drama, it _is_ the drama. The persons who are tearing
the veils from the past, and for whom the veils are being torn, are
intensely concerned in the process, which actually constitutes the
dramatic crisis. The discovery of this method, or its rediscovery in
modern drama,[12] was Ibsen's great technical achievement. In his best
work, the progress of the unveiling occasions a marked development, or
series of changes, in the actual and present relations of the
characters. The drama of the past and the drama of the present proceed,
so to speak, in interlacing rhythms, or, as I said before, in a rich,
complex harmony. In _Ghosts_ this harmony is not so rich as in some
later plays, because the drama of the present is disproportionately
meagre. None the less, or all the more, is it a conspicuous example of
Ibsen's method of raising his curtain, not at the beginning of the
crisis, but rather at the beginning of the catastrophe.

In _An Enemy of the People_, as already stated, he momentarily deserted
that method, and gave us an action which begins, develops, and ends
entirely within the frame of the picture. But in the two following
plays, _The Wild Duck_ and _Rosmersholm_, he touched the highest point
of technical mastery in his interweaving of the past with the present. I
shall not attempt any analysis of the fabric of these plays. The process
would be long, tedious, and unhelpful; for no one could hope to employ a
method of such complexity without something of Ibsen's genius; and
genius will evolve its methods for itself. Let me only ask the reader to
compare the scene between old Werle and Gregers in the first act of _The
Wild Duck_ with the scene between Nora and Mrs. Linden in the first act
of _A Doll's House_, and mark the technical advance. Both scenes are, in
a sense, scenes of exposition. Both are mainly designed to place us in
possession of a sequence of bygone facts. But while the _Doll's House_
scene is a piece of quiet gossip, brought about (as we have noted) by
rather artificial means, and with no dramatic tension in it, the _Wild
Duck_ scene is a piece of tense, one might almost say fierce, drama,
fulfilling the Brunetière definition in that it shows us two characters,
a father and son, at open war with each other. The one scene is outside
the real action, the other is an integral part of it. The one belongs to
Ibsen's tentative period, the other ushers in, one might almost say, his
period of consummate mastery.[13]

_Rosmersholm_ is so obviously nothing but the catastrophe of an
antecedent drama that an attempt has actually been made to rectify
Ibsen's supposed mistake, and to write the tragedy of the deceased
Beata. It was made by an unskilful hand; but even a skilful hand would
scarcely have done more than prove how rightly Ibsen judged that the
recoil of Rebecca's crime upon herself and Rosmer would prove more
interesting, and in a very real sense more dramatic, than the somewhat
vulgar process of the crime itself. The play is not so profound in its
humanity as _The Wild Duck_, but it is Ibsen's masterpiece in the art of
withdrawing veil after veil. From the technical point of view, it will
repay the closest study.

We need not look closely at the remaining plays. _Hedda Gabler_ is
perhaps that in which a sound proportion between the past and the
present is most successfully preserved. The interest of the present
action is throughout very vivid; but it is all rooted in facts and
relations of the past, which are elicited under circumstances of high
dramatic tension. Here again it is instructive to compare the scene
between Hedda and Thea, in the first act, with the scene between Nora
and Mrs. Linden. Both are scenes of exposition: and each is, in its way,
character-revealing; but the earlier scene is a passage of quite
unemotional narrative; the later is a passage of palpitating drama. In
the plays subsequent to _Hedda Gabler_, it cannot be denied that the
past took the upper hand of the present to a degree which could only be
justified by the genius of an Ibsen. Three-fourths of the action of _The
Master Builder_, _Little Eyolf_, _John Gabriel Borkman_, and _When We
Dead Awaken_, consists of what may be called a passionate analysis of
the past. Ibsen had the art of making such an analysis absorbingly
interesting; but it is not a formula to be commended for the practical
purposes of the everyday stage.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: Writing of _Le Supplice d'une Femme_, Alexandre Dumas
_fils_ said: "This situation I declare to be one of the most dramatic
and interesting in all drama. But a situation is not an idea. An idea,
has a beginning, a middle and an end: an exposition, a development, a
conclusion. Any one can relate a dramatic situation: the art lies in
preparing it, getting it accepted, rendering it possible, especially in
untying the knot."]

[Footnote 2: This is what we regard as peculiarly the method of Ibsen.
There is, however, this essential difference, that, instead of narrating
his preliminaries in cold blood, Ibsen, in his best work, _dramatizes_
the narration.]

[Footnote 3: See Chapter XII.]

[Footnote 4: This must not be taken to imply that, in a good
stage-version of the play, Fortinbras should be altogether omitted. Mr.
Forbes Robertson, in his Lyceum revival of 1897, found several
advantages in his retention. Among the rest, it permitted the retention
of one of Hamlet's most characteristic soliloquies.]

[Footnote 5: I omit all speculation as to the form which the story
assumed in the _Ur-Hamlet_. We have no evidence on the point; and, as
the poet was no doubt free to remodel the material as he thought fit,
even in following his original he was making a deliberate
artistic choice.]

[Footnote 6: Shakespeare committed it in _Romeo and Juliet_, where he
made Friar Laurence, in the concluding scene, retell the whole story of
the tragedy. Even in so early a play, such a manifest redundancy seems
unaccountable. A narrative of things already seen may, of course, be a
trait of character in the person delivering it; but, in that case, it
will generally be mendacious (for instance, Falstaff and the men in
buckram). Or it may be introduced for the sake of its effect upon the
characters to whom the narration is addressed. But in these cases its
purpose is no longer to convey information to the audience--it belongs,
not to the "intelligence department," but to the department of

[Footnote 7: I say "variety" rather than complexity because I take it
that the emotions of all concerned are here too intense to be very
complex. The effect of the scene would appear to lie in the rapidly
increasing intensity of comparatively simple emotions in Hamlet, in the
King, in the Queen, and in the amazed and bewildered courtiers.]

[Footnote 8: This excludes _Love's Comedy, Brand, Peer Gynt_, and
_Emperor and Galilean_.]

[Footnote 9: See, for example, _King Henry VIII_, Act IV, and the
opening scene of Tennyson's _Queen Mary_.]

[Footnote 10: This rule of economy does not necessarily exclude a group
of characters performing something like the function of the antique
Chorus; that is to say, commenting upon the action from a more or less
disinterested point of view. The function of _Kaffee-Klatsch_ in
_Pillars of Society_ is not at all that of the Chorus, but rather that
of the Euripidean Prologue, somewhat thinly disguised.]

[Footnote 11: It is perhaps worth nothing that Gabriele d'Annunzio in
_La Gioconda_, reverts to, and outdoes, the French classic convention,
by giving us three actors and four confidants. The play consists of a
crisis in three lives, passively, though sympathetically, contemplated
by what is in effect a Chorus of two men and two women. It would be
interesting to inquire why, in this particular play, such an abuse of
the confidant seems quite admissible, if not conspicuously right.]

[Footnote 12: Dryden, in his _Essay of Dramatic Poesy_, represents this
method as being characteristic of Greek tragedy as a whole. The tragic
poet, he says, "set the audience, as it were, at the post where the race
is to be concluded; and, saving them the tedious expectation of seeing
the poet set out and ride the beginning of the course, they suffer you
not to behold him, till he is in sight of the goal and just upon you."
Dryden seems to think that the method was forced upon them by "the rule
of time."]

[Footnote 13: It is a rash enterprise to reconstruct Ibsen, but one
cannot help wondering how he would have planned _A Doll's House_ had he
written it in the 'eighties instead of the 'seventies. One can imagine a
long opening scene between Helmer and Nora in which a great deal of the
necessary information might have been conveyed; while it would have
heightened by contrast the effect of the great final duologue as we now
possess it. Such information as could not possibly have been conveyed in
dialogue with Helmer might, one would think, have been left for Nora's
first scene with Krogstad, the effect of which it would have enhanced.
Perhaps Mrs. Linden might with advantage have been retained, though not
in her present character of confidant, in order to show Nora in relation
to another woman.]



We have passed in rapid survey the practices of Shakespeare and Ibsen in
respect of their point and method of attack upon their themes. What
practical lessons can we now deduce from this examination?

One thing is clear: namely, that there is no inherent superiority in one
method over another. There are masterpieces in which the whole crisis
falls within the frame of the picture, and masterpieces in which the
greater part of the crisis has to be conveyed to us in retrospect, only
the catastrophe being transacted before our eyes. Genius can manifest
itself equally in either form.

But each form has its peculiar advantages. You cannot, in a
retrospective play like _Rosmersholm_, attain anything like the
magnificent onward rush of Othello, which moves--

               "Like to the Pontick sea
  Whose icy current and compulsive course
  Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
  To the Propontick and the Hellespont."

The movement of _Rosmersholm_ is rather like that of a winding river,
which flows with a full and steady current, but seems sometimes to be
almost retracing its course. If, then, you aim at rapidity of movement,
you will choose a theme which leaves little or nothing to retrospect;
and conversely, if you have a theme the whole of which falls easily and
conveniently within the frame of the picture, you will probably take
advantage of the fact to give your play animated and rapid movement.

There is an undeniable attraction in a play which constitutes, so to
speak, one brisk and continuous adventure, begun, developed, and ended
before our eyes. For light comedy in particular is this a desirable
form, and for romantic plays in which no very searching character-study
is attempted. _The Taming of the Shrew_ no doubt passed for a light
comedy in Shakespeare's day, though we describe it by a briefer name.
Its rapid, bustling action is possible because we are always ready to
take the character of a shrew for granted. It would have been a very
different play had the poet required to account for Katharine's
peculiarities of temper by a retrospective study of her heredity and
upbringing. Many eighteenth-century comedies are single-adventure plays,
or dual-adventure plays, in the sense that the main action sometimes
stands aside to let an underplot take the stage. Both _She Stoops to
Conquer_ and _The Rivals_ are good examples of the rapid working-out of
an intrigue, engendered, developed, and resolved all within the frame of
the picture. Single-adventure plays of a more modern type are the elder
Dumas's _Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle_, the younger Dumas's _Francillon_,
Sardou's _Divorçons_, Sir Arthur Pinero's _Gay Lord Quex_, Mr. Shaw's
_Devil's Disciple_, Oscar Wilde's _Importance of Being Earnest_, Mr.
Galsworthy's _Silver Box_. Widely as these plays differ in type and
tone, they are alike in this, that they do not attempt to present very
complex character-studies, or to probe the deeps of human experience.
The last play cited, _The Silver Box_, may perhaps be thought an
exception to this rule; but, though the experience of the hapless
charwoman is pitiful enough, hers is a simple soul, so inured to
suffering that a little more or less is no such great matter. The play
is an admirable genre-picture rather than a searching tragedy.

The point to be observed is that, under modern conditions, it is
difficult to produce a play of very complex psychological, moral, or
emotional substance, in which the whole crisis comes within the frame of
the picture. The method of attacking the crisis in the middle or towards
the end is really a device for relaxing, in some measure, the narrow
bounds of theatrical representation, and enabling the playwright to deal
with a larger segment of human experience. It may be asked why modern
conditions should in this respect differ from Elizabethan conditions,
and why, if Shakespeare could produce such profound and complex
tragedies as _Othello_ and _King Lear_ without a word of exposition or
retrospect, the modern dramatist should not go and do likewise? The
answer to this question is not simply that the modern dramatist is
seldom a Shakespeare. That is true, but we must look deeper than that.
There are, in fact, several points to be taken into consideration. For
one thing--this is a minor point--Shakespeare had really far more
elbow-room than the playwright of to-day. _Othello_ and _King Lear_, to
say nothing of _Hamlet_, are exceedingly long plays. Something like a
third of them is omitted in modern representation; and when we speak of
their richness and complexity of characterization, we do not think
simply of the plays as we see them compressed into acting limits, but of
the plays as we know them in the study. It is possible, no doubt, for
modern playwrights to let themselves go in the matter of length, and
then print their plays with brackets or other marks to show the
"passages omitted in representation." This is, however, essentially an
inartistic practice, and one cannot regret that it has gone out of
fashion. Another point to be considered is this: are Othello and Lear
really very complex character-studies? They are extremely vivid: they
are projected with enormous energy, in actions whose violence affords
scope for the most vehement self-expression; but are they not, in
reality, colossally simple rather than complex? It is true that in Lear
the phenomena of insanity are reproduced with astonishing minuteness and
truth; but this does not imply any elaborate analysis or demand any
great space. Hamlet is complex; and were I "talking for victory," I
should point out that _Hamlet_ is, of all the tragedies, precisely the
one which does not come within the frame of the picture. But the true
secret of the matter does not lie here: it lies in the fact that Hamlet
unpacks his heart to us in a series of soliloquies--a device employed
scarcely at all in the portrayal of Othello and Lear, and denied to the
modern dramatist.[1] Yet again, the social position and environment of
the great Shakespearean characters is taken for granted. No time is
spent in "placing" them in a given stratum of society, or in
establishing their heredity, traditions, education, and so forth. And,
finally, the very copiousness of expression permitted by the rhetorical
Elizabethan form came to Shakespeare's aid. The modern dramatist is
hampered by all sorts of reticences. He has often to work rather in
indirect suggestion than in direct expression. He has, in short, to
submit to a hundred hampering conditions from which Shakespeare was
exempt; wherefore, even if he had Shakespeare's genius, he would find it
difficult to produce a very profound effect in a crisis worked out from
first to last before the eyes of the audience.

Nevertheless, as before stated, such a crisis has a charm of its own.
There is a peculiar interest in watching the rise and development out of
nothing, as it were, of a dramatic complication. For this class of play
(despite the Shakespearean precedents) a quiet opening is often
advisable, rather than a strong _einleitende Akkord_. "From calm,
through storm, to calm," is its characteristic formula; whether the
concluding calm be one of life and serenity or of despair and death. To
my personal taste, one of the keenest forms of theatrical enjoyment is
that of seeing the curtain go up on a picture of perfect tranquillity,
wondering from what quarter the drama is going to arise, and then
watching it gather on the horizon like a cloud no bigger than a man's
hand. Of this type of opening, _An Enemy of the People_ provides us with
a classic example; and among English plays we may cite Mr. Shaw's
_Candida_, Mr. Barker's _Waste_, and Mr. Besier's _Don_, in which so
sudden and unlooked-for a cyclone swoops down upon the calm of an
English vicarage. An admirable instance of a fantastic type may be found
in _Prunella_, by Messrs. Barker and Housman.[2]

There is much to be said, however, in favour of the opening which does
not present an aspect of delusive calm, but shows the atmosphere already
charged with electricity. Compare, for instance, the opening of _The
Case of Rebellious Susan_, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, with that of a
French play of very similar theme--Dumas's _Francillon_. In the latter,
we see the storm-cloud slowly gathering up on the horizon; in the
former, it is already on the point of breaking, right overhead. Mr.
Jones places us at the beginning, where Dumas leaves us at the end, of
his first act. It is true that at the end of Mr. Jones's act he has not
advanced any further than Dumas. The French author shows his heroine
gradually working up to a nervous crisis, the English author introduces
his heroine already at the height of her paroxysm, and the act consists
of the unavailing efforts of her friends to smooth her down. The upshot
is the same; but in Mr. Jones's act we are, as the French say, "in full
drama" all the time, while in Dumas's we await the coming of the drama,
and only by exerting all his wit, not to say over-exerting it, does he
prevent our feeling impatient. I am not claiming superiority for either
method; I merely point to a good example of two different ways of
attacking the same problem.

In _The Benefit of the Doubt_, by Sir Arthur Pinero, we have a crisply
dramatic opening of the very best type. A few words from a contemporary
criticism may serve to indicate the effect it produced on a first-night

  We are in the thick of the action at once, or at least in the thick
  of the interest, so that the exposition, instead of being, so to
  speak, a mere platform from which the train is presently to start,
  becomes an inseparable part of the movement. The sense of dramatic
  irony is strongly and yet delicately suggested. We foresee a
  "peripety," apparent prosperity suddenly crumbling into disaster,
  within the act itself; and, when it comes, it awakens our sympathy
  and redoubles our interest.

Almost the same words might be applied to the opening of _The Climbers_,
by the late Clyde Fitch, one of the many individual scenes which make
one deeply regret that Mr. Fitch did not live to do full justice to his
remarkable talent.

One of the ablest of recent openings is that of Mr. Galsworthy's _Silver
Box_. The curtain rises upon a solid, dull, upper-middle-class
dining-room, empty and silent, the electric lights burning, the tray
with whiskey, siphon and cigarette-box marking the midnight hour. Then
we have the stumbling, fumbling entrance of Jack Barthwick, beatifically
drunk, his maudlin babble, and his ill-omened hospitality to the haggard
loafer who follows at his heels. Another example of a high-pitched
opening scene may be found in Mr. Perceval Landon's _The House
Opposite_. Here we have a midnight parting between a married woman and
her lover, in the middle of which the man, glancing at the lighted
window of the house opposite, sees a figure moving in such a way as to
suggest that a crime is being perpetrated. As a matter of fact, an old
man is murdered, and his housekeeper is accused of the crime. The hero,
if so he can be called, knows that it was a man, not a woman, who was in
the victim's room that night; and the problem is: how can he give his
evidence without betraying a woman's secret by admitting his presence in
her house at midnight? I neither praise nor blame this class of story; I
merely cite the play as one in which we plunge straight into the crisis,
without any introductory period of tranquillity.

The interest of Mr. Landon's play lay almost wholly in the story. There
was just enough character in it to keep the story going, so to speak.
The author might, on the other hand, have concentrated our attention on
character, and made his play a soul-tragedy; but in that case it would
doubtless have been necessary to take us some way backward in the
heroine's antecedents and the history of her marriage. In other words,
if the play had gone deeper into human nature, the preliminaries of the
crisis would have had to be traced in some detail, possibly in a first
act, introductory to the actual opening, but more probably, and better,
in an exposition following the crisply touched _einleitende Akkord_.
This brings us to the question how an exposition may best be managed.

It may not unreasonably be contended, I think, that, when an exposition
cannot be thoroughly dramatized--that is, wrung out, in the stress of
the action, from the characters primarily concerned--it may best be
dismissed, rapidly and even conventionally, by any not too improbable
device. That is the principle on which Sir Arthur Pinero has always
proceeded, and for which he has been unduly censured, by critics who
make no allowances for the narrow limits imposed by custom and the
constitution of the modern audience upon the playwrights of to-day. In
_His House in Order_ (one of his greatest plays) Sir Arthur effects part
of his exposition by the simple device of making Hilary Jesson a
candidate for Parliament, and bringing on a reporter to interview his
private secretary. The incident is perfectly natural and probable; all
one can say of it is that it is perhaps an over-simplification of the
dramatist's task.[3] _The Second Mrs. Tanqueray_ requires an unusual
amount of preliminary retrospect. We have to learn the history of Aubrey
Tanqueray's first marriage, with the mother of Ellean, as well as the
history of Paula Ray's past life. The mechanism employed to this end has
been much criticized, but seems to me admirable. Aubrey gives a farewell
dinner-party to his intimate friends, Misquith and Jayne. Cayley
Drummle, too, is expected, but has not arrived when the play opens.
Without naming the lady, Aubrey announces to his guests his approaching
marriage. He proposes to go out with them, and has one or two notes to
write before doing so. Moreover, he is not sorry to give them an
opportunity to talk over the announcement he has made; so he retires to
a side-table in the same room, to do his writing. Misquith and Jayne
exchange a few speeches in an undertone, and then Cayley Drummle comes
in, bringing the story of George Orreyd's marriage to the unmentionable
Miss Hervey. This story is so unpleasant to Tanqueray that, to get out
of the conversation, he returns to his writing; but still he cannot help
listening to Cayley's comments on George Orreyd's "disappearance"; and
at last the situation becomes so intolerable to him that he purposely
leaves the room, bidding the other two "Tell Cayley the news." The
technical manipulation of all this seems to me above reproach
--dramatically effective and yet life-like in every detail. If
one were bound to raise an objection, it would be to the coincidence
which brings to Cayley's knowledge, on one and the same evening, two
such exactly similar misalliances in his own circle of acquaintance. But
these are just the coincidences that do constantly happen. Every one
knows that life is full of them.

The exposition might, no doubt, have been more economically effected.
Cayley Drummle might have figured as sole confidant and chorus; or even
he might have been dispensed with, and all that was necessary might have
appeared in colloquies between Aubrey and Paula on the one hand, Aubrey
and Ellean on the other. But Cayley as sole confidant--the "Charles, his
friend," of eighteenth-century comedy--would have been more plainly
conventional than Cayley as one of a trio of Aubrey's old cronies,
representing the society he is sacrificing in entering upon this
experimental marriage; and to have conveyed the necessary information
without any confidant or chorus at all would (one fancies) have strained
probability, or, still worse, impaired consistency of character. Aubrey
could not naturally discuss his late wife either with her successor or
with her daughter; while, as for Paula's past, all he wanted was to
avert his eyes from it. I do not say that these difficulties might not
have been overcome; for, in the vocabulary of the truly ingenious
dramatist there is no such word as impossible. But I do suggest that the
result would scarcely have been worth the trouble, and that it is
hyper-criticism which objects to an exposition so natural and probable
as that of _The Second Mrs. Tanqueray_, simply on the ground that
certain characters are introduced for the purpose of conveying certain
information. It would be foolish to expect of every work of art an
absolutely austere economy of means.

Sometimes, however, Sir Arthur Pinero injudiciously emphasizes the
artifices employed to bring about an exposition. In _The Thunderbolt_,
for instance, in order that the Mortimores' family solicitor may without
reproach ask for information on matters with which a family solicitor
ought to be fully conversant, it has to be explained that the senior
partner of the firm, who had the Mortimore business specially in hand,
has been called away to London, and that a junior partner has taken his
place. Such a rubbing-in, as it were, of an obvious device ought at all
hazards to be avoided. If the information cannot be otherwise imparted
(as in this case it surely could), the solicitor had better be allowed
to ask one or two improbable questions--it is the lesser evil of
the two.

When the whole of a given subject cannot be got within the limits of
presentation, is there any means of determining how much should be left
for retrospect, and at what point the curtain ought to be raised? The
principle would seem to be that slow and gradual processes, and
especially separate lines of causation, should be left outside the frame
of the picture, and that the curtain should be raised at the point where
separate lines have converged, and where the crisis begins to move
towards its solution with more or less rapidity and continuity. The
ideas of rapidity and continuity may be conveniently summed up in the
hackneyed and often misapplied term, unity of action. Though the unities
of time and place are long ago exploded as binding principles--indeed,
they never had any authority in English drama--yet it is true that a
broken-backed action, whether in time or space, ought, so far as
possible, to be avoided. An action with a gap of twenty years in it may
be all very well in melodrama or romance, but scarcely in higher and
more serious types of drama.[4] Especially is it to be desired that
interest should be concentrated on one set of characters, and should not
be frittered away on subsidiary or preliminary personages. Take, for
instance, the case of _The Second Mrs. Tanqueray_. It would have been
theoretically possible for Sir Arthur Pinero to have given us either (or
both) of two preliminary scenes: he might have shown us the first Mrs.
Tanqueray at home, and at the same time have introduced us more at large
to the characters of Aubrey and Ellean; or he might have depicted for us
one of the previous associations of Paula Ray--might perhaps have let us
see her "keeping house" with Hugh Ardale. But either of these openings
would have been disproportionate and superfluous. It would have excited,
or tried to excite, our interest in something that was not the real
theme of the play, and in characters which were to drop out before the
real theme--the Aubrey-Paula marriage--was reached. Therefore the
author, in all probability, never thought of beginning at either of
these points. He passed instinctively to the point at which the two
lines of causation converged, and from which the action could be carried
continuously forward by one set of characters. He knew that we could
learn in retrospect all that it was necessary for us to know of the
first Mrs. Tanqueray, and that to introduce her in the flesh would be
merely to lead the interest of the audience into a blind alley, and to
break the back of his action. Again, in _His House in Order_ it may seem
that the intrigue between Maurewarde and the immaculate Annabel, with
its tragic conclusion, would have made a stirring introductory act. But
to have presented such an act would have been to destroy the unity of
the play, which centres in the character of Nina. Annabel is "another
story"; and to have told, or rather shown us, more of it than was
absolutely necessary, would have been to distract our attention from the
real theme of the play, while at the same time fatally curtailing the
all-too-brief time available for the working-out of that theme. There
are cases, no doubt, when verbal exposition may advantageously be
avoided by means of a dramatized "Prologue"--a single act, constituting
a little drama in itself, and generally separated by a considerable
space of time from the action proper. But this method is scarcely to be
commended, except, as aforesaid, for purposes of melodrama and romance.
A "Prologue" is for such plays as _The Prisoner of Zenda_ and _The Only
Way_, not for such plays as _His House in Order_.

The question whether a legato or a staccato opening be the more
desirable must be decided in accordance with the nature and
opportunities of each theme. The only rule that can be stated is that,
when the attention of the audience is required for an exposition of any
length, some attempt ought to be made to awaken in advance their general
interest in the theme and characters. It is dangerous to plunge straight
into narrative, or unemotional discussion, without having first made the
audience actively desire the information to be conveyed to them.
Especially is it essential that the audience should know clearly who are
the subjects of the discussion or narrative--that they should not be
mere names to them. It is a grave flaw in the construction of Mr.
Granville Barker's otherwise admirable play _Waste_, that it should open
with a long discussion, by people whom we scarcely know, of other people
whom we do not know at all, whose names we may or may not have noted on
the playbill.

Trebell, Lord Charles Cantelupe, and Blackborough ought certainly to
have been presented to us in the flesh, however briefly and summarily,
before we were asked to interest ourselves in their characters and the
political situation arising from them.

There is, however, one limitation to this principle. A great effect is
sometimes attained by retarding the entrance of a single leading figure
for a whole act, or even two, while he is so constantly talked about as
to beget in the audience a vivid desire to make his personal
acquaintance. Thus Molière's Tartufe does not come on the stage until
the third act of the comedy which bears his name. Ibsen's John Gabriel
Borkman is unseen until the second act, though (through his wife's ears)
we have already heard him pacing up and down his room like a wolf in his
cage. Dubedat, in _The Doctor's Dilemma_, is not revealed to us in the
flesh until the second act. But for this device to be successful, it is
essential that only one leading character[5] should remain unseen, on
whom the attention of the audience may, by that very fact, be riveted.
In _Waste_, for instance, all would have been well had it suited Mr.
Barker's purpose to leave Trebell invisible till the second act, while
all the characters in the first act, clearly presented to us, canvassed
him from their various points of view. Keen expectancy, in short, is the
most desirable frame of mind in which an audience can be placed, so long
as the expectancy be not ultimately disappointed. But there is no less
desirable mental attitude than that of straining after gleams of
guidance in an expository twilight.

The advantage of a staccato opening--or, to vary the metaphor, a brisk,
highly aerated introductory passage--is clearly exemplified in _A Doll's
House_. It would have been quite possible for Ibsen to have sent up his
curtain upon Nora and Mrs. Linden seated comfortably before the stove,
and exchanging confidences as to their respective careers. Nothing
indispensable would have been omitted; but how languid would have been
the interest of the audience! As it is, a brief, bright scene has
already introduced us, not only to Nora, but to Helmer, and aroused an
eager desire for further insight into the affairs of this--to all
appearance--radiantly happy household. Therefore, we settle down without
impatience to listen to the fireside gossip of the two old

The problem of how to open a play is complicated in the English theatre
by considerations wholly foreign to art. Until quite recently, it used
to be held impossible for a playwright to raise his curtain upon his
leading character or characters, because the actor-manager would thus be
baulked of his carefully arranged "entrance" and "reception," and,
furthermore, because twenty-five per cent of the audience would probably
arrive about a quarter of an hour late, and would thus miss the opening
scene or scenes. It used at one time to be the fashion to add to the
advertisement of a play an entreaty that the audience should be
punctually in their seats, "as the interest began with the rise of the
curtain." One has seen this assertion made with regard to plays in
which, as a matter of fact, the interest had not begun at the fall of
the curtain. Nowadays, managers, and even leading ladies, are a good
deal less insistent on their "reception" than they used to be. They
realize that it may be a distinct advantage to hold the stage from the
very outset. There are few more effective openings than that of _The
Second Mrs. Tanqueray_, where we find Aubrey Tanqueray seated squarely
at his bachelor dinner-table with Misquith on his right and Jayne on his
left. It may even be taken as a principle that, where it is desired to
give to one character a special prominence and predominance, it ought,
if possible, to be the first figure on which the eye of the audience
falls. In a Sherlock Holmes play, for example, the curtain ought
assuredly to rise on the great Sherlock enthroned in Baker Street, with
Dr. Watson sitting at his feet. The solitary entrance of Richard III
throws his figure into a relief which could by no other means have been
attained. So, too, it would have been a mistake on Sophocles' part to
let any one but the protagonist open the _Oedipus Rex_.

So long as the fashion of late dinners continues, however, it must
remain a measure of prudence to let nothing absolutely essential to the
comprehension of a play be said or done during the first ten minutes
after the rise of the curtain. Here, again, _A Doll's House_ may be
cited as a model, though Ibsen, certainly, had no thought of the British
dinner-hour in planning the play. The opening scene is just what the
ideal opening scene ought to be--invaluable, yet not indispensable. The
late-comer who misses it deprives himself of a preliminary glimpse into
the characters of Nora and Helmer and the relation between them; but he
misses nothing that is absolutely essential to his comprehension of the
play as a whole. This, then, would appear to be a sound maxim both of
art and prudence: let your first ten minutes by all means be crisp,
arresting, stimulating, but do not let them embody any absolutely vital
matter, ignorance of which would leave the spectator in the dark as to
the general design and purport of the play.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: See Chapter XXIII.]

[Footnote 2: Henri Becque's two best-known plays aptly exemplify the two
types of opening. In _Les Corbeaux_ we have almost an entire act of calm
domesticity in which the only hint of coming trouble is an allusion to
Vigneron's attacks of vertigo. In _La Parisienne_ Clotilde and Lafont
are in the thick of a vehement quarrel over a letter. It proceeds for
ten minutes or so, at the end of which Clotilde says, "Prenez garde,
voilà mon mari!"--and we find that the two are not husband and wife, but
wife and lover.]

[Footnote 3: Mrs. Craigie ("John Oliver Hobbes") opened her very
successful play, _The Ambassador_, with a scene between Juliet
Desborough and her sister Alice, a nun, who apparently left her convent
specially to hear her sister's confession, and then returned to it for
ever. This was certainly not an economical form of exposition, but it
was not unsuited to the type of play.]

[Footnote 4: In that charming comedy, _Rosemary_, by Messrs. Parker and
Carson, there is a gap of fifty years between the last act and its
predecessor; but the so-called last act is only an "epi-monologue."]

[Footnote 5: Or at most two closely connected characters: for instance,
a husband and wife.]



Both in the theory and in practice, of late years, war has been declared
in certain quarters against the division of a play into acts. Students
of the Elizabethan stage have persuaded themselves, by what I believe to
be a complete misreading of the evidence, that Shakespeare did not, as
it were, "think in acts," but conceived his plays as continuous series
of events, without any pause or intermission in their flow. It can, I
think, be proved beyond any shadow of doubt that they are wrong in this;
that the act division was perfectly familiar to Shakespeare, and was
used by him to give to the action of his plays a rhythm which ought not,
in representation, to be obscured or falsified. It is true that in the
Elizabethan theatre there was no need of long interacts for the change
of scenes, and that such interacts are an abuse that calls for remedy.
But we have abundant evidence that the act division was sometimes marked
on the Elizabethan stage, and have no reason to doubt that it was always
more or less recognized, and was present to Shakespeare's mind no less
than to Ibsen's or Pinero's.

Influenced in part, perhaps, by the Elizabethan theorists, but mainly by
the freakishness of his own genius, Mr. Bernard Shaw has taken to
writing plays in one continuous gush of dialogue, and has put forward,
more or less seriously, the claim that he is thereby reviving the
practice of the Greeks. In a prefatory note to _Getting Married_,
he says--

  "There is a point of some technical interest to be noted in this
  play. The customary division into acts and scenes has been disused,
  and a return made to unity of time and place, as observed in the
  ancient Greek drama. In the foregoing tragedy, _The Doctor's
  Dilemma_, there are five acts; the place is altered five times; and
  the time is spread over an undetermined period of more than a year.
  No doubt the strain on the attention of the audience and on the
  ingenuity of the playwright is much less; but I find in practice
  that the Greek form is inevitable when the drama reaches a certain
  point in poetic and intellectual evolution. Its adoption was not, on
  my part, a deliberate display of virtuosity in form, but simply the
  spontaneous falling of a play of ideas into the form most suitable
  to it, which turned out to be the classical form."

It is hard to say whether Mr. Shaw is here writing seriously or in a
mood of solemn facetiousness. Perhaps he himself is not quite clear on
the point. There can be no harm, at any rate, in assuming that he
genuinely believes the unity of _Getting Married_ to be "a return to the
unity observed in," say, the _Oedipus Rex_, and examining a little into
so pleasant an illusion.

It is, if I may so phrase it, a double-barrelled illusion. _Getting
Married_ has not the unity of the Greek drama, and the Greek drama has
not the unity of _Getting Married_. Whatever "unity" is predicable of
either form of art is a wholly different thing from whatever "unity" is
predicable of the other. Mr. Shaw, in fact, is, consciously or
unconsciously, playing with words, very much as Lamb did when he said to
the sportsman, "Is that your own hare or a wig?" There are, roughly
speaking, three sorts of unity: the unity of a plum-pudding, the unity
of a string or chain, and, the unity of the Parthenon. Let us call them,
respectively, unity of concoction, unity of concatenation, and
structural or organic unity. The second form of unity is that of most
novels and some plays. They present a series of events, more or less
closely intertwined or interlinked with one another, but not built up
into any symmetrical interdependence. This unity of longitudinal
extension does not here concern us, for it is not that of either Shaw or
Sophocles. Plum-pudding unity, on the other hand--the unity of a number
of ingredients stirred up together, put in a cloth, boiled to a certain
consistency, and then served up in a blue flame of lambent humour--that
is precisely the unity of _Getting Married_. A jumble of ideas,
prejudices, points of view, and whimsicalities on the subject of
marriage is tied up in a cloth and boiled into a sort of glutinous
fusion or confusion, so that when the cloth is taken off they do not at
once lose the coherent rotundity conferred upon them by pressure from
without. In a quite real sense, the comparison does more than justice to
the technical qualities of the play; for in a good plum-pudding the due
proportions of the ingredients are carefully studied, whereas Mr. Shaw
flings in recklessly whatever comes into his head. At the same time it
is undeniably true that he shows us a number of people in one room,
talking continuously and without a single pause, on different aspects of
a given theme. If this be unity, then he has achieved it. In the
theatre, as a matter of fact, the plum-pudding was served up in three
chunks instead of one; but this was a mere concession to human weakness.
The play had all the globular unity of a pill, though it happened to be
too big a pill to be swallowed at one gulp.

Turning now to the _Oedipus_--I choose that play as a typical example of
Greek tragedy--what sort of unity do we find? It is the unity, not of a
continuous mass or mash, but of carefully calculated proportion, order,
interrelation of parts--the unity of a fine piece of architecture, or
even of a living organism. The inorganic continuity of _Getting Married_
it does not possess. If that be what we understand by unity, then Shaw
has it and Sophocles has not. The _Oedipus_ is as clearly divided into
acts as is _Hamlet_ or _Hedda Gabler_. In modern parlance, we should
probably call it a play in five acts and an epilogue. It so happened
that the Greek theatre did not possess a curtain, and did possess a
Chorus; consequently, the Greek dramatist employed the Chorus, as we
employ the curtain, to emphasize the successive stages of his action, to
mark the rhythm of its progress, and, incidentally, to provide
resting-places for the mind of the audience--intervals during which the
strain upon their attention was relaxed, or at any rate varied. It is
not even true that the Greeks habitually aimed at such continuity of
time as we find in _Getting Married_. They treated time ideally, the
imaginary duration of the story being, as a rule, widely different from
the actual time of representation. In this respect the _Oedipus_ is
something of an exception, since the events might, at a pinch, be
conceived as passing within the "two hours' traffick of the stage"; but
in many cases a whole day, or even more, must be understood to be
compressed within these two hours. It is true that the continuous
presence of the Chorus made it impossible for the Greeks to overleap
months and years, as we do on the modern stage; but they did not aim at
that strict coincidence of imaginary with actual time which Mr. Shaw
believes himself to have achieved.[1] Even he, however, subjects the
events which take place behind the scenes to a good deal of "ideal"

Of course, when Mr. Shaw protests that, in _Getting Married_, he did not
indulge in a "deliberate display of virtuosity of form," that is only
his fun. You cannot well have virtuosity of form where there is no form.
What he did was to rely upon his virtuosity of dialogue to enable him to
dispense with form. Whether he succeeded or not is a matter of opinion
which does not at present concern us. The point to be noted is the
essential difference between the formless continuity of _Getting
Married_, and the sedulous ordering and balancing of clearly
differentiated parts, which went to the structure of a Greek tragedy. A
dramatist who can so develop his story as to bring it within the
quasi-Aristotelean "unities" performs a curious but not particularly
difficult or valuable feat; but this does not, or ought not to, imply
the abandonment of the act-division, which is no mere convention, but a
valuable means of marking the rhythm of the story. When, on the other
hand, you have no story to tell, the act-division is manifestly
superfluous; but it needs no "virtuosity" to dispense with it.

It is a grave error, then, to suppose that the act is a mere division of
convenience, imposed by the limited power of attention of the human
mind, or by the need of the human body for occasional refreshment. A
play with a well-marked, well-balanced act-structure is a higher
artistic organism than a play with no act-structure, just as a
vertebrate animal is higher than a mollusc. In every crisis of real life
(unless it be so short as to be a mere incident) there is a rhythm of
rise, progress, culmination and solution. We are not always, perhaps not
often, conscious of these stages; but that is only because we do not
reflect upon our experiences while they are passing, or map them out in
memory when they are past. We do, however, constantly apply to real-life
crises expressions borrowed more or less directly from the terminology
of the drama. We say, somewhat incorrectly, "Things have come to a
climax," meaning thereby a culmination; or we say, "The catastrophe is
at hand," or, again, "What a fortunate _dénouement_!" Be this as it may,
it is the business of the dramatist to analyse the crises with which he
deals, and to present them to us in their rhythm of growth, culmination,
solution. To this end the act-division is--not, perhaps, essential,
since the rhythm may be marked even in a one-act play--but certainly of
enormous and invaluable convenience. "Si l'acte n'existait pas, il
faudrait l'inventer"; but as a matter of fact it has existed wherever,
in the Western world, the drama has developed beyond its rudest

It was doubtless the necessity for marking this rhythm that Aristotle
had in mind when he said that a dramatic action must have a beginning, a
middle and an end. Taken in its simplicity, this principle would
indicate the three-act division as the ideal scheme for a play. As a
matter of fact, many of the best modern plays in all languages fall into
three acts; one has only to note _Monsieur Alphonse, Françillon, La
Parisienne, Amoureuse, A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Master Builder,
Little Eyolf, Johannisfeuer, Caste, Candida, The Benefit of the Doubt,
The Importance of Being Earnest, The Silver Box_; and, furthermore, many
old plays which are nominally in five acts really fall into a triple
rhythm, and might better have been divided into three. Alexandrian
precept, handed on by Horace, gave to the five act division a purely
arbitrary sanction, which induced playwrights to mask the natural rhythm
of their themes beneath this artificial one.[2] But in truth the
three-act division ought no more to be elevated into an absolute rule
than the five-act division. We have seen that a play consists, or ought
to consist, of a great crisis, worked out through a series of minor
crises. An act, then, ought to consist either of a minor crisis, carried
to its temporary solution, or of a well-marked group of such crises; and
there can be no rule as to the number of such crises which ought to
present themselves in the development of a given theme. On the modern
stage, five acts may be regarded as the maximum, simply by reason of the
time-limit imposed by social custom on a performance. But one frequently
sees a melodrama divided into "five acts and eight tableaux," or even
more; which practically means that the play is in eight, or nine, or ten
acts, but that there will be only the four conventional interacts in the
course of the evening. The playwright should not let himself be
constrained by custom to force his theme into the arbitrary mould of a
stated number of acts. Three acts is a good number, four acts is a good
number,[3] there is no positive objection to five acts. Should he find
himself hankering after more acts, he will do well to consider whether
he be not, at one point or another, failing in the art of condensation
and trespassing on the domain of the novelist.

There is undoubted convenience in the rule of the modern stage: "One
act, one scene." A change of scene in the middle of an act is not only
materially difficult, but tends to impair the particular order of
illusion at which the modern drama aims.[4] Roughly, indeed, an act may
be defined as any part of a given crisis which works itself out at one
time and in one place; but more fundamentally it is a segment of the
action during which the author desires to hold the attention of his
audience unbroken and unrelaxed. It is no mere convention, however,
which decrees that the flight of time is best indicated by an interact.
When the curtain is down, the action on the stage remains, as it were,
in suspense. The audience lets its attention revert to the affairs of
real life; and it is quite willing, when the mimic world is once more
revealed, to suppose that any reasonable space of time has elapsed while
its thoughts were occupied with other matters. It is much more difficult
for it to accept a wholly imaginary lapse of time while its attention is
centred on the mimic world. Some playwrights have of late years adopted
the device of dropping their curtain once, or even twice, in the middle
of an act, to indicate an interval of a few minutes, or even of an
hour--for instance, of the time between "going in to dinner" and the
return of the ladies to the drawing-room. Sir Arthur Pinero employs this
device with good effect in _Iris_; so does Mr. Granville Barker in
_Waste_, and Mr. Galsworthy in _The Silver Box_. It is certainly far
preferable to that "ideal" treatment of time which was common in the
French drama of the nineteenth century, and survives to this day in
plays adapted or imitated from the French.

I remember seeing in London, not very long ago, a one-act play on the
subject of Rouget de l'Isle. In the space of about half-an-hour, he
handed the manuscript of the "Marseillaise" to an opera-singer whom he
adored, she took it away and sang it at the Opera, it caught the popular
ear from that one performance, and the dying Rouget heard it sung by the
passing multitude in the streets within about fifteen minutes of the
moment when it first left his hands. (The whole piece, I repeat,
occupied about half-an-hour; but as a good deal of that time was devoted
to preliminaries, not more than fifteen minutes can have elapsed between
the time when the cantatrice left Rouget's garret and the time when all
Paris was singing the "Marseillaise.") This is perhaps an extreme
instance of the ideal treatment of time; but one could find numberless
cases in the works of Scribe, Labiche, and others, in which the
transactions of many hours are represented as occurring within the
limits of a single act. Our modern practice eschews such licenses. It
will often compress into an act of half-an-hour more events than would
probably happen in real life in a similar space of time, but not such a
train of occurrences as to transcend the limits of possibility. It must
be remembered, however, that the standard of verisimilitude naturally
and properly varies with the seriousness of the theme under treatment.
Improbabilities are admissible in light comedy, and still more in farce,
which would wreck the fortunes of a drama purporting to present a sober
and faithful picture of real life.

Acts, then, mark the time-stages in the development of a given crisis;
and each act ought to embody a minor crisis of its own, with a
culmination and a temporary solution. It would be no gain, but a loss,
if a whole two hours' or three hours' action could be carried through in
one continuous movement, with no relaxation of the strain upon the
attention of the audience, and without a single point at which the
spectator might review what was past and anticipate what was to come.
The act-division positively enhances the amount of pleasurable emotion
through which the audience passes. Each act ought to stimulate and
temporarily satisfy an interest of its own, while definitely advancing
the main action. The psychological principle is evident enough; namely,
that there is more sensation to be got out of three or four
comparatively brief experiences, suited to our powers of perception,
than out of one protracted experience, forced on us without relief,
without contrast, in such a way as to fatigue and deaden our faculties.
Who would not rather drink three, four, or five glasses of wine than put
the bottle to his lips and let its contents pour down his throat in one
long draught? Who would not rather see a stained-glass window broken
into three, four, or five cunningly-proportioned "lights," than a great
flat sheet of coloured glass, be its design never so effective?

It used to be the fashion in mid Victorian melodramas to give each act a
more or less alluring title of its own. I am far from recommending the
revival of this practice; but it might be no bad plan for a beginner, in
sketching out a play, to have in his mind, or in his private notes, a
descriptive head-line for each act, thereby assuring himself that each
had a character of its own, and at the same time contributed its due
share to the advancement of the whole design. Let us apply this
principle to a Shakespearean play--for example, to _Macbeth_. The act
headings might run somewhat as follows--






Can it be doubted that Shakespeare had in his mind the rhythm marked by
this act-division? I do not mean, of course, that these phrases, or
anything like them, were present to his consciousness, but merely that
he "thought in acts," and mentally assigned to each act its definite
share in the development of the crisis.

Turning now to Ibsen, let us draw up an act-scheme for the simplest and
most straightforward of his plays, _An Enemy of the People_. It might
run as follows:

  ACT I.--THE INCURABLE OPTIMIST.--Dr. Stockmann announces his
  discovery of the insanitary condition of the Baths.

  ACT II.--THE COMPACT MAJORITY.--Dr. Stockmann finds that he will
  have to fight vested interests before the evils he has discovered
  can be remedied, but is assured that the Compact Majority is at
  his back.

  ACT III.--THE TURN OF FORTUNE.--The Doctor falls from the pinnacle
  of his optimistic confidence, and learns that he will have the
  Compact Majority, not _at_, but _on_ his back.

  that its immediate interests are identical with those of the
  privileged few, joins with the bureaucracy in shouting down the
  truth, and organizing a conspiracy of silence.

  gagged and thrown back into poverty, is tempted to take flight, but
  determines to remain in his native place and fight for its moral, if
  not for its physical, sanitation.

Each of these acts is a little drama in itself, while each leads forward
to the next, and marks a distinct phase in the development of
the crisis.

When the younger Dumas asked his father, that master of dramatic
movement, to initiate him into the secret of dramatic craftsmanship, the
great Alexandre replied in this concise formula: "Let your first act be
clear, your last act brief, and the whole interesting." Of the wisdom of
the first clause there can be no manner of doubt. Whether incidentally
or by way of formal exposition, the first act ought to show us clearly
who the characters are, what are their relations and relationships, and
what is the nature of the gathering crisis. It is very important that
the attention of the audience should not be overstrained in following
out needlessly complex genealogies and kinships. How often, at the end
of a first act, does one turn to one's neighbour and say, "Are Edith and
Adela sisters or only half-sisters?" or, "Did you gather what was the
villain's claim to the title?" If a story cannot be made clear without
an elaborate study of one or more family trees, beware of it. In all
probability, it is of very little use for dramatic purposes. But before
giving it up, see whether the relationships, and other relations, cannot
be simplified. Complexities which at first seemed indispensable will
often prove to be mere useless encumbrances.

In _Pillars of Society_ Ibsen goes as far as any playwright ought to go
in postulating fine degrees of kinship--and perhaps a little further.
Karsten Bernick has married into a family whose gradations put something
of a strain on the apprehension and memory of an audience. We have to
bear in mind that Mrs. Bernick has (_a_) a half-sister, Lona Hessel;
(_b_) a full brother, Johan Tönnesen; (_c_) a cousin, Hilmar Tönnesen.
Then Bernick has an unmarried sister, Martha; another relationship,
however simple, to be borne in mind. And, finally, when we see Dina Dorf
living in Bernick's house, and know that Bernick has had an intrigue
with her mother, we are apt to fall into the error of supposing her to
be Bernick's daughter. There is only one line which proves that this is
not so--a remark to the effect that, when Madam Dorf came to the town.
Dina was already old enough to run about and play angels in the theatre.
Any one who does not happen to hear or notice this remark, is almost
certain to misapprehend Dina's parentage. Taking one thing with another,
then, the Bernick family group is rather more complex than is strictly
desirable. Ibsen's reasons for making Lona Hessel a half-sister instead
of a full sister of Mrs. Bernick are evident enough. He wanted her to be
a considerably older woman, of a very different type of character; and
it was necessary, in order to explain Karsten's desertion of Lona for
Betty, that the latter should be an heiress, while the former was
penniless. These reasons are clear and apparently adequate; yet it may
be doubted whether the dramatist did not lose more than he gained by
introducing even this small degree of complexity. It was certainly not
necessary to explain the difference of age and character between Lona
and Betty; while as for the money, there would have been nothing
improbable in supposing that a wealthy uncle had marked his disapproval
of Lona's strong-mindedness by bequeathing all his property to her
younger sister. Again, there is no reason why Hilmar should not have
been a brother of Johan and Betty;[5] in which case we should have had
the simple family group of two brothers and two sisters, instead of the
comparatively complex relationship of a brother and sister, a
half-sister and a cousin.

These may seem very trivial considerations: but nothing is really
trivial when it comes to be placed under the powerful lens of theatrical
presentation. Any given audience has only a certain measure of attention
at command, and to claim attention for inessentials is to diminish the
stock available for essentials. In only one other play does Ibsen
introduce any complexity of relationship, and in that case it does not
appear in the exposition, but is revealed at a critical moment towards
the close. In _Little Eyolf_, Asta and Allmers are introduced to us at
first as half-sister and half-brother; and only at the end of the second
act does it appear that Asta's mother (Allmers' stepmother) was
unfaithful to her husband, and that, Asta being the fruit of this
infidelity, there is no blood kinship between her and Allmers. The
danger of relying upon such complexities is shown by the fact that so
acute a critic as M. Jules Lemaître, in writing of _Little Eyolf_,
mistook the situation, and thought that Asta fled from Allmers because
he was her brother, whereas in fact she fled because he was not. I had
the honour of calling M. Lemaître's attention to this error, which he
handsomely acknowledged.

Complexities of kinship are, of course, not the only complexities which
should, so far as possible, be avoided. Every complexity of relation or
of antecedent circumstance is in itself a weakness, which, if it cannot
be eliminated, must, so to speak, be lived down. No dramatic critic, I
think, can have failed to notice that the good plays are those of which
the story can be clearly indicated in ten lines; while it very often
takes a column to give even a confused idea of the plot of a bad play.
Here, then, is a preliminary test which may be commended to the would-be
playwright, in order to ascertain whether the subject he is
contemplating is or is not a good one: can he state the gist of it in a
hundred words or so, like the "argument" of a Boccaccian novella? The
test, of course, is far from being infallible; for a theme may err on
the side of over-simplicity or emptiness, no less than on the side of
over-complexity. But it is, at any rate, negatively useful: if the
playwright finds that he cannot make his story comprehensible without a
long explanation of an intricate network of facts, he may be pretty sure
that he has got hold of a bad theme, or of one that stands sorely in
need of simplification.[6]

It is not sufficient, however, that a first act should fulfil Dumas's
requirement by placing the situation clearly before us: it ought also to
carry us some way towards the heart of the drama, or, at the very least,
to point distinctly towards that quarter of the horizon where the clouds
are gathering up. In a three-act play this is evidently demanded by the
most elementary principles of proportion. It would be absurd to make
one-third of the play merely introductory, and to compress the whole
action into the remaining two-thirds. But even in a four- or five-act
play, the interest of the audience ought to be strongly enlisted, and
its anticipation headed in a definite direction, before the curtain
falls for the first time. When we find a dramatist of repute neglecting
this principle, we may suspect some reason with which art has no
concern. Several of Sardou's social dramas begin with two acts of more
or less smart and entertaining satire or caricature, and only at the end
of the second or beginning of the third act (out of five) does the drama
proper set in. What was the reason of this? Simply that under the system
of royalties prevalent in France, it was greatly to the author's
interest that his play should fill the whole evening. Sardou needed no
more than three acts for the development of his drama; to have spread it
out thinner would have been to weaken and injure it; wherefore he
preferred to occupy an hour or so with clever dramatic journalism,
rather than share the evening, and the fees, with another dramatist. So,
at least, I have heard his practice explained; perhaps his own account
of the matter may have been that he wanted to paint a broad social
picture to serve as a background for his action.

The question how far an audience ought to be carried towards the heart
of a dramatic action in the course of the first act is always and
inevitably one of proportion. It is clear that too much ought not to be
told, so as to leave the remaining acts meagre and spun-out; nor should
any one scene be so intense in its interest as to outshine all
subsequent scenes, and give to the rest of the play an effect of
anti-climax. If the strange and fascinating creations of Ibsen's last
years were to be judged by ordinary dramaturgic canons, we should have
to admit that in _Little Eyolf_ he was guilty of the latter fault, since
in point of sheer "strength," in the common acceptation of the word, the
situation at the end of the first act could scarcely be outdone, in that
play or any other. The beginner, however, is far more likely to put too
little than too much into his first act: he is more likely to leave our
interest insufficiently stimulated than to carry us too far in the
development of his theme. My own feeling is that, as a general rule,
what Freytag calls the _erregende Moment_ ought by all means to fall
within the first act. What is the _erregende Moment_? One is inclined to
render it "the firing of the fuse." In legal parlance, it might be
interpreted as the joining of issue. It means the point at which the
drama, hitherto latent, plainly declares itself. It means the
germination of the crisis, the appearance on the horizon of the cloud no
bigger than a man's hand. I suggest, then, that this _erregende Moment_
ought always to come within the first act--if it is to come at all There
are plays, as we have seen, which depict life on so even a plane that it
is impossible to say at any given point, "Here the drama sets in," or
"The interest is heightened there."

_Pillars of Society_ is, in a sense, Ibsen's prentice-work in the form
of drama which he afterwards perfected; wherefore it affords us numerous
illustrations of the problems we have to consider. Does he, or does he
not, give us in the first act sufficient insight into his story? I am
inclined to answer the question in the negative. The first act puts us
in possession of the current version of the Bernick-Tönnesen family
history, but it gives us no clear indication that this version is an
elaborate tissue of falsehoods. It is true that Bernick's evident
uneasiness and embarrassment at the mere idea of the reappearance of
Lona and Johan may lead us to suspect that all is not as it seems; but
simple annoyance at the inopportune arrival of the black sheep of the
family might be sufficient to account for this. To all intents and
purposes, we are completely in the dark as to the course the drama is
about to take; and when, at the end of the first act, Lona Hessel
marches in and flutters the social dovecote, we do not know in what
light to regard her, or why we are supposed to sympathize with her. The
fact that she is eccentric, and that she talks of "letting in fresh
air," combines with our previous knowledge of the author's idiosyncrasy
to assure us that she is his heroine; but so far as the evidence
actually before us goes, we have no means of forming even the vaguest
provisional judgment as to her true character. This is almost certainly
a mistake in art. It is useless to urge that sympathy and antipathy are
primitive emotions, and that we ought to be able to regard a character
objectively, rating it as true or false, not as attractive or repellent.
The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, the theatre has never been, and
never will be, a moral dissecting room, nor has the theatrical audience
anything in common with a class of students dispassionately following a
professor's demonstration of cold scientific facts. Secondly, in the
particular case in point, the dramatist makes a manifest appeal to our
sympathies. There can be no doubt that we are intended to take Lona's
part, as against the representatives of propriety and convention
assembled at the sewing-bee; but we have been vouchsafed no rational
reason for so doing. In other words, the author has not taken us far
enough into his action to enable us to grasp the true import and
significance of the situation. He relies for his effect either on the
general principle that an eccentric character must be sympathetic, or on
the knowledge possessed by those who have already seen or read the rest
of the play. Either form of reliance is clearly inartistic. The former
appeals to irrational prejudice; the latter ignores what we shall
presently find to be a fundamental principle of the playwright's
art--namely, that, with certain doubtful exceptions in the case of
historical themes, he must never assume previous knowledge either of
plot or character on the part of his public, but must always have in his
mind's eye a first-night audience, which knows nothing but what he
chooses to tell it.

My criticism of the first act of _Pillars of Society_ may be summed up
in saying that the author has omitted to place in it the _erregende
Moment_. The issue is not joined, the true substance of the drama is not
clear to us, until, in the second act, Bernick makes sure there are no
listeners, and then holds out both hands to Johan, saying: "Johan, now
we are alone; now you must give me leave to thank you," and so forth.
Why should not this scene have occurred in the first act? Materially,
there is no reason whatever. It would need only the change of a few
words to lift the scene bodily out of the second act and transfer it to
the first. Why did Ibsen not do so? His reason is not hard to divine; he
wished to concentrate into two great scenes, with scarcely a moment's
interval between them, the revelation of Bernick's treachery, first to
Johan, second to Lona. He gained his point: the sledge-hammer effect of
these two scenes is undeniable. But it remains a question whether he did
not make a disproportionate sacrifice; whether he did not empty his
first act in order to overfill his second. I do not say he did: I merely
propound the question for the student's consideration. One thing we must
recognize in dramatic art as in all other human affairs; namely, that
perfection, if not unattainable, is extremely rare. We have often to
make a deliberate sacrifice at one point in order to gain some greater
advantage at another; to incur imperfection here that we may achieve
perfection there. It is no disparagement to the great masters to admit
that they frequently show us rather what to avoid than what to do.
Negative instruction, indeed, is in its essence more desirable than
positive. The latter tends to make us mere imitators, whereas the
former, in saving us from dangers, leaves our originality unimpaired.

It is curious to note that, in another play, Ibsen did actually transfer
the _erregende Moment_, the joining of issue, from the second act to the
first. In his early draft of _Rosmersholm_, the great scene in which
Rosmer confesses to Kroll his change of views did not occur until the
second act. There can be no doubt that the balance and proportion of the
play gained enormously by the transference.

After all, however, the essential question is not how much or how little
is conveyed to us in the first act, but whether our interest is
thoroughly aroused, and, what is of equal importance, skilfully carried
forward. Before going more at large into this very important detail of
the playwright's craft, it may be well to say something of the nature of
dramatic interest in general.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: There are several cases in Greek drama in which a hero
leaves the stage to fight a battle and returns victorious in a few
minutes. See, for example, the _Supplices_ of Euripides.]

[Footnote 2: So far was Shakespeare from ignoring the act-division that
it is a question whether his art did not sometimes suffer from the
supposed necessity of letting a fourth act intervene between the
culmination in the third act and the catastrophe in the fifth.]

[Footnote 3: I think it may be said that the majority of modern serious
plays are in four acts. It is a favourite number with Sir Arthur Pinero,
Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, Mr. Clyde Fitch, and Mr. Alfred Sutro.]

[Footnote 4: This must not be taken to mean that in no case is a change
of scene within the act advisable. The point to be considered is whether
the author does or does not want to give the audience time for
reflection--time to return to the real world--between two episodes. If
it is of great importance that they should not do so, then a rapid
change of scene may be the less of two evils. In this case the lights
should be kept lowered in order to show that no interact is intended;
but the fashion of changing the scene on a pitch-dark stage, without
dropping the curtain, is much to be deprecated. If the revolving stage
should ever become a common institution in English-speaking countries,
dramatists would doubtless be more tempted than they are at present to
change their scenes within the act; but I doubt whether the tendency
would be wholly advantageous. No absolute rule, however, can be laid
down, and it may well be maintained that a true dramatic artist could
only profit by the greater flexibility of his medium.]

[Footnote 5: He was, in the first draft; and Lona Hessel was only a
distant relative of Bernick's.]

[Footnote 6: The Greeks, who knew most things, knew the value of
manageable dimensions and simple structure in a work of art, and had a
word to express that combination of qualities--the word _eusynopton_.]



The paradox of dramatic theory is this: while our aim is, of course, to
write plays which shall achieve immortality, or shall at any rate become
highly popular, and consequently familiar in advance to a considerable
proportion of any given audience, we are all the time studying how to
awaken and to sustain that interest, or, more precisely, that curiosity,
which can be felt only by those who see the play for the first time,
without any previous knowledge of its action. Under modern conditions
especially, the spectators who come to the theatre with their minds an
absolute blank as to what is awaiting them, are comparatively few; for
newspaper criticism and society gossip very soon bruit abroad a general
idea of the plot of any play which attains a reasonable measure of
success. Why, then, should we assume, in the ideal spectator to whom we
address ourselves, a state of mind which, we hope and trust, will not be
the state of mind of the majority of actual spectators?

To this question there are several answers. The first and most obvious
is that to one audience, at any rate, every play must be absolutely new,
and that it is this first-night audience which in great measure
determines its success or failure. Many plays have survived a
first-night failure, and still more have gone off in a rapid decline
after a first-night success. But these caprices of fortune are not to be
counted on. The only prudent course is for the dramatist to direct all
his thought and care towards conciliating or dominating an audience to
which his theme is entirely unknown,[1] and so coming triumphant through
his first-night ordeal. This principle is subject to a certain
qualification in the case of historic and legendary themes. In treating
such subjects, the dramatist is not relieved of the necessity of
developing his story clearly and interestingly, but has, on the
contrary, an additional charge imposed upon him--that of not flagrantly
defying or disappointing popular knowledge or prejudice. Charles I must
not die in a green old age, Oliver Cromwell must not display the manners
and graces of Sir Charles Grandison, Charles II must not be represented
as a model of domestic virtue. Historians may indict a hero or whitewash
a villain at their leisure; but to the dramatist a hero must be (more or
less) a hero, a villain (more or less) a villain, if accepted tradition
so decrees it.[2] Thus popular knowledge can scarcely be said to lighten
a dramatist's task, but rather to impose a new limitation upon him. In
some cases, however, he can rely on a general knowledge of the historic
background of a given period, which may save him some exposition. An
English audience, for instance, does not require to be told what was the
difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads; nor does any audience, I
imagine, look for a historical disquisition on the Reign of Terror. The
dramatist has only to bring on some ruffianly characters in Phrygian
caps, who address each other as "Citizen" and "Citizeness," and at once
the imagination of the audience will supply the roll of the tumbrels and
the silhouette of the guillotine in the background.

To return to the general question: not only must the dramatist reckon
with one all-important audience which is totally ignorant of the story
he has to tell; he must also bear in mind that it is very easy to
exaggerate the proportion of any given audience which will know his plot
in advance, even when his play has been performed a thousand times.
There are inexhaustible possibilities of ignorance in the theatrical
public. A story is told, on pretty good authority, of a late eminent
statesman who visited the Lyceum one night when Sir Henry Irving was
appearing as Hamlet. After the third act he went to the actor's
dressing-room, expressed great regret that duty called him back to
Westminster, and begged Sir Henry to tell him how the play ended, as it
had interested him greatly.[3] One of our most eminent novelists has
assured me that he never saw or read _Macbeth_ until he was present at
(I think) Mr. Forbes Robertson's revival of the play, he being then
nearer fifty than forty. These, no doubt, are "freak" instances; but in
any given audience, even at the most hackneyed classical plays, there
will be a certain percentage of children (who contribute as much as
their elders to the general temper of an audience), and also a
percentage of adult ignoramuses. And if this be so in the case of plays
which have held the stage for generations, are studied in schools, and
are every day cited as matters of common knowledge, how much more
certain may we be that even the most popular modern play will have to
appeal night after night to a considerable number of people who have no
previous acquaintance with either its story or its characters! The
playwright may absolutely count on having to make such an appeal; but he
must remember at the same time that he can by no means count on keeping
any individual effect, more especially any notable trick or device, a
secret from the generality of his audience. Mr. J.M. Barrie (to take a
recent instance) sedulously concealed, throughout the greater part of
_Little Mary_, what was meant by that ever-recurring expression, and
probably relied to some extent on an effect of amused surprise when the
disclosure was made. On the first night, the effect came off happily
enough; but on subsequent nights, there would rarely be a score of
people in the house who did not know the secret. The great majority
might know nothing else about the play, but that they knew. Similarly,
in the case of any mechanical _truc_, as the French call it, or feat of
theatrical sleight-of-hand, it is futile to trust to its taking unawares
any audience after the first. Nine-tenths of all subsequent audiences
are sure to be on the look-out for it, and to know, or think they know,
"how it's done."[4] These are the things which theatrical gossip,
printed and oral, most industriously disseminates. The fine details of a
plot are much less easily conveyed and less likely to be remembered.

To sum up this branch of the argument: however oft-repeated and
much-discussed a play may be, the playwright must assume that in every
audience there will be an appreciable number of persons who know
practically nothing about it, and whose enjoyment will depend, like that
of the first-night audience, on the skill with which he develops his
story. On the other hand, he can never rely on taking an audience by
surprise at any particular point. The class of effect which depends on
surprise is precisely the class of effect which is certain to be

We come now to a third reason why a playwright is bound to assume that
the audience to which he addresses himself has no previous knowledge of
his fable. It is simply that no other assumption has, or can have, any
logical basis. If the audience is not to be conceived as ignorant, how
much is it to be assumed to know? There is clearly no possible answer to
this question, except a purely arbitrary one, having no relation to the
facts. In any audience after the first, there will doubtless be a
hundred degrees of knowledge and of ignorance. Many people will know
nothing at all about the play; some people will have seen or read it
yesterday, and will thus know all there is to know; while between these
extremes there will be every variety of clearness or vagueness of
knowledge. Some people will have read and remembered a detailed
newspaper notice; others will have read the same notice and forgotten
almost all of it. Some will have heard a correct and vivid account of
the play, others a vague and misleading summary. It would be absolutely
impossible to enumerate all the degrees of previous knowledge which are
pretty certain to be represented in an average audience; and to which
degree of knowledge is the playwright to address himself? If he is to
have any firm ground under his feet, he must clearly adopt the only
logical course, and address himself to a spectator assumed to have no
previous knowledge whatever. To proceed on any other assumption would
not only be to ignore the all-powerful first-night audience, but to
plunge into a veritable morass of inconsistencies, dubieties and

These considerations, however, have not yet taken us to the heart of the
matter. We have seen that the dramatist has no rational course open to
him but to assume complete ignorance in his audience; but we have also
seen that, as a matter of fact, only one audience will be entirely in
this condition, and that, the more successful the play is, the more
widely will subsequent audiences tend to depart from it. Does it not
follow that interest of plot, interest of curiosity as to coming events,
is at best an evanescent factor in a play's attractiveness--of a certain
importance, no doubt, on the first night, but less and less efficient
the longer the play holds the stage?

In a sense, this is undoubtedly true. We see every day that a mere
story-play--a play which appeals to us solely by reason of the adroit
stimulation and satisfaction of curiosity--very rapidly exhausts its
success. No one cares to see it a second time; and spectators who happen
to have read the plot in advance, find its attraction discounted even on
a first hearing. But if we jump to the conclusion that the skilful
marshalling and development of the story is an unimportant detail, which
matters little when once the first-night ordeal is past, we shall go
very far astray. Experience shows us that dramatic _interest_ is
entirely distinct from mere _curiosity_, and survives when curiosity is
dead. Though a skilfully-told story is not of itself enough to secure
long life for a play, it materially and permanently enhances the
attractions of a play which has other and higher claims to longevity.
Character, poetry, philosophy, atmosphere, are all very good in their
way; but they all show to greater advantage by aid of a well-ordered
fable. In a picture, I take it, drawing is not everything; but drawing
will always count for much.

This separation of interest from curiosity is partly explicable by one
very simple reflection. However well we may know a play beforehand, we
seldom know it by heart or nearly by heart; so that, though we may
anticipate a development in general outline, we do not clearly foresee
the ordering of its details, which, therefore, may give us almost the
same sort of pleasure that it gave us when the story was new to us. Most
playgoers will, I think, bear me out in saying that we constantly find a
great scene or act to be in reality richer in invention and more
ingenious in arrangement than we remembered it to be.

We come, now, to another point that must not be overlooked. It needs no
subtle introspection to assure us that we, the audience, do our own
little bit of acting, and instinctively place ourselves at the point of
view of a spectator before whose eyes the drama is unrolling itself for
the first time. If the play has any richness of texture, we have many
sensations that he cannot have. We are conscious of ironies and
subtleties which necessarily escape him, or which he can but dimly
divine. But in regard to the actual development of the story, we imagine
ourselves back into his condition of ignorance, with this difference,
that we can more fully appreciate the dramatist's skill, and more
clearly resent his clumsiness or slovenliness. Our sensations, in short,
are not simply conditioned by our knowledge or ignorance of what is to
come. The mood of dramatic receptivity is a complex one. We
instinctively and without any effort remember that the dramatist is
bound by the rules of the game, or, in other words, by the inherent
conditions of his craft, to unfold his tale before an audience to which
it is unknown; and it is with implicit reference to these conditions
that we enjoy and appreciate his skill. Even the most unsophisticated
audience realizes in some measure that the playwright is an artist
presenting a picture of life under such-and-such assumptions and
limitations, and appraises his skill by its own vague and instinctive
standards. As our culture increases, we more and more consistently adopt
this attitude, and take pleasure in a playwright's marshalling of
material in proportion to its absolute skill, even if that skill no
longer produces its direct and pristine effect upon us. In many cases,
indeed, our pleasure consists of a delicate blending of surprise with
realized anticipation. We foresaw, and are pleased to recognize, the art
of the whole achievement, while details which had grown dim to us give
us each its little thrill of fresh admiration. Regarded in this aspect,
a great play is like a great piece of music: we can hear it again and
again with ever-new realization of its subtle beauties, its complex
harmonies, and with unfailing interest in the merits and demerits of
each particular rendering.

But we must look deeper than this if we would fully understand the true
nature of dramatic interest. The last paragraph has brought us to the
verge of the inmost secret, but we have yet to take the final step. We
have yet to realize that, in truly great drama, the foreknowledge
possessed by the audience is not a disadvantage with certain incidental
mitigations and compensations, but is the source of the highest pleasure
which the theatre is capable of affording us. In order to illustrate my
meaning, I propose to analyse a particular scene, not, certainly, among
the loftiest in dramatic literature, but particularly suited to my
purpose, inasmuch as it is familiar to every one, and at the same time
full of the essential qualities of drama. I mean the Screen Scene in
_The School for Scandal_.

In her "English Men of Letters" volume on Sheridan, Mrs. Oliphant
discusses this scene. Speaking in particular of the moment at which the
screen is overturned, revealing Lady Teazle behind it, she says--

  "It would no doubt have been higher art could the dramatist have
  deceived his audience as well as the personages of the play, and
  made us also parties in the surprise of the discovery."

There could scarcely be a completer reversal of the truth than this
"hopeless comment," as Professor Brander Matthews has justly called it.
The whole effect of the long and highly-elaborated scene depends upon
our knowledge that Lady Teazle is behind the screen. Had the audience
either not known that there was anybody there, or supposed it to be the
"little French milliner," where would have been the breathless interest
which has held us through a whole series of preceding scenes? When Sir
Peter reveals to Joseph his generous intentions towards his wife, the
point lies in the fact that Lady Teazle overhears; and this is doubly
the case when he alludes to Joseph as a suitor for the hand of Maria.
So, too, with the following scene between Joseph and Charles; in itself
it would be flat enough; the fact that Sir Peter is listening lends it a
certain piquancy; but this is ten times multiplied by the fact that Lady
Teazle, too, hears all that passes. When Joseph is called from the room
by the arrival of the pretended Old Stanley, there would be no interest
in his embarrassment if we believed the person behind the screen to be
the French milliner. And when Sir Peter yields to the temptation to let
Charles into the secret of his brother's frailty, and we feel every
moment more certain that the screen will be overthrown, where would be
the excitement, the tension, if we did not know who was behind it? The
real drama, in fact, passes behind the screen. It lies in the terror,
humiliation, and disillusionment which we know to be coursing each other
through Lady Teazle's soul. And all this Mrs. Oliphant would have
sacrificed for a single moment of crude surprise!

Now let us hear Professor Matthews's analysis of the effect of the
scene. He says:

"The playgoer's interest is really not so much as to what is to happen
as the way in which this event is going to affect the characters
involved. He thinks it likely enough that Sir Peter will discover that
Lady Teazle is paying a visit to Joseph Surface; but what he is really
anxious to learn is the way the husband will take it. What will Lady
Teazle have to say when she is discovered where she has no business to
be? How will Sir Peter receive her excuses? What will the effect be on
the future conduct of both husband and wife? These are the questions
which the spectators are eager to have answered."

This is an admirable exposition of the frame of mind of the Drury Lane
audience of May 8, 1777. who first saw the screen overturned. But in the
thousands of audiences who have since witnessed the play, how many
individuals, on an average, had any doubt as to what Lady Teazle would
have to say, and how Sir Peter would receive her excuses? It would
probably be safe to guess that, for a century past, two-thirds of every
audience have clearly foreknown the outcome of the situation. Professor
Matthews himself has edited Sheridan's plays, and probably knows _The
School for Scandal_ almost by heart; yet we may be pretty sure that any
reasonably good performance of the Screen Scene will to-day give him
pleasure not so very much inferior to that which he felt the first time
he saw it. In this pleasure, it is manifest that mere curiosity as to
the immediate and subsequent conduct of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle can
have no part. There is absolutely no question which Professor Matthews,
or any playgoer who shares his point of view, is "eager to have

Assuming, then, that we are all familiar with the Screen Scene, and
assuming that we, nevertheless, take pleasure in seeing it reasonably
well acted,[6] let us try to discover of what elements that pleasure is
composed. It is, no doubt, somewhat complex. For one thing, we have
pleasure in meeting old friends. Sir Peter, Lady Teazle, Charles, even
Joseph, are agreeable creatures who have all sorts of pleasant
associations for us. Again, we love to encounter not only familiar
characters but familiar jokes. Like Goldsmith's Diggory, we can never
help laughing at the story of "ould Grouse in the gunroom." The best
order of dramatic wit does not become stale, but rather grows upon us.
We relish it at least as much at the tenth repetition as at the first.
But while these considerations may partly account for the pleasure we
take in seeing the play as a whole, they do not explain why the Screen
Scene in particular should interest and excite us. Another source of
pleasure, as before indicated, may be renewed recognition of the
ingenuity with which the scene is pieced together. However familiar we
may be with it, short of actually knowing it by heart, we do not recall
the details of its dovetailing, and it is a delight to realize afresh
the neatness of the manipulation by which the tension is heightened from
speech to speech and from incident to incident. If it be objected that
this is a pleasure which the critic alone is capable of experiencing, I
venture to disagree. The most unsophisticated playgoer feels the effect
of neat workmanship, though he may not be able to put his satisfaction
into words. It is evident, however, that the mere intellectual
recognition of fine workmanship is not sufficient to account for the
emotions with which we witness the Screen Scene. A similar, though, of
course, not quite identical, effect is produced by scenes of the utmost
simplicity, in which there is no room for delicacy of dovetailing or
neatness of manipulation.

Where, then, are we to seek for the fundamental constituent in dramatic
interest, as distinct from mere curiosity? Perhaps Mrs. Oliphant's
glaring error may put us on the track of the truth. Mrs. Oliphant
thought that Sheridan would have shown higher art had he kept the
audience, as well as Sir Peter and Charles, ignorant of Lady Teazle's
presence behind the screen. But this, as we saw, is precisely the
reverse of the truth: the whole interest of the scene arises from our
knowledge of Lady Teazle's presence. Had Sheridan fallen into Mrs.
Oliphant's mistake, the little shock of surprise which the first-night
audience would have felt when the screen was thrown down would have been
no compensation at all for the comparative tameness and pointlessness of
the preceding passages. Thus we see that the greater part of our
pleasure arises precisely from the fact that we know what Sir Peter and
Charles do not know, or, in other words, that we have a clear vision of
all the circumstances, relations, and implications of a certain
conjuncture of affairs, in which two, at least, of the persons concerned
are ignorantly and blindly moving towards issues of which they do not
dream. We are, in fact, in the position of superior intelligences
contemplating, with miraculous clairvoyance, the stumblings and
tumblings of poor blind mortals straying through the labyrinth of life.
Our seat in the theatre is like a throne on the Epicurean Olympus,
whence we can view with perfect intelligence, but without participation
or responsibility, the intricate reactions of human destiny. And this
sense of superiority does not pall upon us. When Othello comes on the
scene, radiant and confident in Desdemona's love, our knowledge of the
fate awaiting him makes him a hundred times more interesting than could
any mere curiosity as to what was about to happen. It is our prevision
of Nora's exit at the end of the last act that lends its dramatic
poignancy to her entrance at the beginning of the first.

There is nothing absolutely new in this theory.[7] "The irony of fate"
has long been recognized as one of the main elements of dramatic effect.
It has been especially dwelt upon in relation to Greek tragedy, of which
the themes were all known in advance even to "first-day" audiences. We
should take but little interest in seeing the purple carpet spread for
Agamemnon's triumphal entry into his ancestral halls, if it were not for
our foreknowledge of the net and the axe prepared for him. But, familiar
as is this principle, I am not aware that it has hitherto been extended,
as I suggest that it should be, to cover the whole field of dramatic
interest. I suggest that the theorists have hitherto dwelt far too much
on curiosity[8]--which may be defined as the interest of ignorance--and
far too little on the feeling of superiority, of clairvoyance, with
which we contemplate a foreknown action, whether of a comic or of a
tragic cast. Of course the action must be, essentially if not in every
detail, true to nature. We can derive no sense of superiority from our
foreknowledge of an arbitrary or preposterous action; and that, I take
it, is the reason why a good many plays have an initial success of
curiosity, but cease to attract when their plot becomes familiar. Again,
we take no pleasure in foreknowing the fate of wholly uninteresting
people; which is as much as to say that character is indispensable to
enduring interest in drama. With these provisos, I suggest a
reconstruction of our theories of dramatic interest, in which mere
first-night curiosity shall be relegated to the subordinate place which
by right belongs to it.

Nevertheless, we must come back to the point that there is always the
ordeal of the first night to be faced, and that the plays are
comparatively few which have lived-down a bad first-night. It is true
that specifically first-night merit is a trivial matter compared with
what may be called thousandth-performance merit; but it is equally true
that there is no inconsistency between the two orders of merit, and that
a play will never be less esteemed on its thousandth performance for
having achieved a conspicuous first-night success. The practical lesson
which seems to emerge from these considerations is that a wise
theatrical policy would seek to diminish the all-importance of the
first-night, and to give a play a greater chance of recovery than it has
under present conditions, from the depressing effect of an inauspicious
production. This is the more desirable as its initial misadventure may
very likely be due to external and fortuitous circumstances, wholly
unconnected with its inherent qualities.

At the same time, we are bound to recognize that, from the very nature
of the case, our present inquiry must be far more concerned with
first-night than with thousandth-performance merit. Craftsmanship can,
within limits, be acquired, genius cannot; and it is craftsmanship that
pilots us through the perils of the first performance, genius that
carries us on to the apotheosis of the thousandth. Therefore, our
primary concern must be with the arousing and sustaining of curiosity,
though we should never forget that it is only a means to the ultimate
enlistment of the higher and more abiding forms of interest.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: The view that the dramatist has only to think of pleasing
himself is elsewhere dealt with.]

[Footnote 2: Two dramatists who have read these pages in proof, exclaim
at this passage. The one says, "No, no!" the other asks, "Why?" I can
only reiterate that, where there exists a strong and generally accepted
tradition, the dramatist not only runs counter to it at his peril, but
goes outside the true domain of his art in so doing. New truth, in
history, must be established either by new documents, or by a careful
and detailed re-interpretation of old documents; but the stage is not
the place either for the production of documents or for historical
exegesis. It is needless to say that where the popular mind is unbiased,
the dramatist's hands are free. For instance, I presume that one might,
in England, take any view one pleased of the character of Mary. Queen of
Scots; but a highly unfavourable view would scarcely be accepted by
Scottish audiences. Similarly, it would be both dangerous and
unprofitable to present on the English stage any very damaging "scandal
about Queen Elizabeth." Historical criticism, I understand, does not
accept the view that Robespierre was mainly responsible for the Reign of
Terror, and that his death betokened a general revolt against his
sanguinary tyranny; but it would be very hard for any dramatist to
secure general acceptance for a more accurate reading of his character
and function. Some further remarks on this subject will be found in
Chapter XIII.]

[Footnote 3: A malicious anecdote to a similar effect was current in the
early days of Sir Henry Irving's career. It was said that at Bristol one
night, when Mr. Irving, as Hamlet, "took his call" after the first act,
a man turned to his neighbour in the pit and said, "Can you tell me,
sir, does that young man appear much in this play?" His neighbour
informed him that Hamlet was rather largely concerned in the action,
whereupon the inquirer remarked, "Oh! Then I'm off!"]

[Footnote 4: If it be well done, it may remain highly effective in spite
of being discounted by previous knowledge. For instance, the clock-trick
in _Raffles_ was none the less amusing because every one was on the
look-out for it.]

[Footnote 5: The question whether it is ever politic for a playwright to
keep a secret from his audience is discussed elsewhere. What I have here
in mind is not an ordinary secret, but a more or less tricky effect of

[Footnote 6: The pleasure received from exceptionally good acting is, of
course, a different matter. I assume that the acting is merely competent
enough to pass muster without irritating us, and so distracting our

[Footnote 7: I myself expressed it in slightly different terms nearly
ten years ago. "Curiosity," I said, "is the accidental relish of a
single night; whereas the essential and abiding pleasure of the theatre
lies in foreknowledge. In relation to the characters in the drama, the
audience are as gods looking before and after. Sitting in the theatre,
we taste, for a moment, the glory of omniscience. With vision unsealed,
we watch the gropings of purblind mortals after happiness, and smile at
their stumblings, their blunders, their futile quests, their misplaced
exultations, their groundless panics. To keep a secret from us is to
reduce us to their level, and deprive us of our clairvoyant aloofness.
There may be a pleasure in that too; we may join with zest in the game
of blind-man's-buff; but the theatre is in its essence a place where we
are privileged to take off the bandage we wear in daily life, and to
contemplate, with laughter or with tears, the blindfold gambols of our

[Footnote 8: Here an acute critic writes: "On the whole I agree; but I
do think there is dramatic interest to be had out of curiosity, through
the identification, so to speak, of the audience with the discovering
persons on the stage. It is an interest of sympathy, not to be despised,
rather than an interest of actual curiosity."]



We return now to the point at which the foregoing disquisition--it is
not a digression--became necessary. We had arrived at the general
principle that the playwright's chief aim in his first act ought to be
to arouse and carry forward the interest of the audience. This may seem
a tolerably obvious statement; but it is worth while to examine a little
more closely into its implications.

As to arousing the interest of the audience, it is clear that very
little specific advice can be given. One can only say, "Find an
interesting theme, state its preliminaries clearly and crisply, and let
issue be joined without too much delay." There can be no rules for
finding an interesting theme, any more than for catching the Blue Bird.
At a later stage we may perhaps attempt a summary enumeration of themes
which are not interesting, which have exhausted any interest they ever
possessed, and "repay careful avoidance." But such an enumeration would
be out of place here, where we are studying principles of form apart
from details of matter.

The arousing of interest, however, is one thing, the carrying-forward of
interest is another; and on the latter point there are one or two things
that may profitably be said. Each act, as we have seen, should consist
of, or at all events contain, a subordinate crisis, contributory to the
main crisis of the play: and the art of act-construction lies in giving
to each act an individuality and interest of its own, without so
rounding it off as to obscure even for a moment its subsidiary, and, in
the case of the first act, its introductory, relation to the whole. This
is a point which many dramatists ignore or undervalue. Very often, when
the curtain falls on a first or a second act, one says, "This is a
fairly good act in itself; but whither does it lead? what is to come of
it all?" It awakens no definite anticipation, and for two pins one would
take up one's hat and go home. The author has neglected the art of
carrying-forward the interest.

It is curious to note that in the most unsophisticated forms of
melodrama this art is deliberately ignored. In plays of the type of _The
Worst Woman in London_, it appears to be an absolute canon of art that
every act must have a "happy ending"--that the curtain must always fall
on the hero, or, preferably, the comic man, in an attitude of triumph,
while the villain and villainess cower before him in baffled impotence.
We have perfect faith, of course, that the villain will come up smiling
in the next act, and proceed with his nefarious practices; but, for the
moment, virtue has it all its own way. This, however, is a very artless
formula which has somehow developed of recent years; and it is doubtful
whether even the audiences to which these plays appeal would not in
reality prefer something a little less inept in the matter of
construction. As soon as we get above this level, at all events, the
fostering of anticipation becomes a matter of the first importance. The
problem is, not to cut short the spectator's interest, or to leave it
fluttering at a loose end, but to provide it either with a
clearly-foreseen point in the next act towards which it can reach
onwards, or with a definite enigma, the solution of which is impatiently
awaited. In general terms, a bridge should be provided between one act
and another, along which the spectator's mind cannot but travel with
eager anticipation. And this is particularly important, or particularly
apt to be neglected, at the end of the first act. At a later point, if
the interest does not naturally and inevitably carry itself forward, the
case is hopeless indeed.

To illustrate what is meant by the carrying-forward of interest, let me
cite one or two instances in which it is achieved with conspicuous

In Oscar Wilde's first modern comedy, _Lady Windermere's Fan_, the
heroine, Lady Windermere, has learnt that her husband has of late been
seen to call very frequently at the house of a certain Mrs. Erlynne,
whom nobody knows. Her suspicions thus aroused, she searches her
husband's desk, discovers a private and locked bank-book, cuts it open,
and finds that one large cheque after another has been drawn in favour
of the lady in question. At this inopportune moment, Lord Windermere
appears with a request that Mrs. Erlynne shall be invited to their
reception that evening. Lady Windermere indignantly refuses, her husband
insists, and, finally, with his own hand, fills in an invitation-card
and sends it by messenger to Mrs. Erlynne. Here some playwrights might
have been content to finish the act. It is sufficiently evident that
Lady Windermere will not submit to the apparent insult, and that
something exciting may be looked for at the reception in the following
act. But Oscar Wilde was not content with this vague expectancy. He
first defined it, and then he underlined the definition, in a perfectly
natural and yet ingenious and skilful way. The day happens to be Lady
Windermere's birthday, and at the beginning of the act her husband has
given her a beautiful ostrich-feather fan. When he sends off the
invitation, she turns upon him and says, "If that woman crosses my
threshold, I shall strike her across the face with this fan." Here,
again, many a dramatist might be content to bring down his curtain. The
announcement of Lady Windermere's resolve carries forward the interest
quite clearly enough for all practical purposes. But even this did not
satisfy Wilde. He imagined a refinement, simple, probable, and yet
immensely effective, which put an extraordinarily keen edge upon the
expectancy of the audience. He made Lady Windermere ring for her butler,
and say: "Parker, be sure you pronounce the names of the guests very
distinctly to-night. Sometimes you speak so fast that I miss them. I am
particularly anxious to hear the names quite clearly, so as to make no
mistake." I well remember the effect which this little touch produced on
the first night. The situation was, in itself, open to grave objections.
There is no plausible excuse for Lord Windermere's obstinacy in forcing
Mrs. Erlynne upon his wife, and risking a violent scandal in order to
postpone an explanation which he must know to be ultimately inevitable.
Though one had not as yet learnt the precise facts of the case, one felt
pretty confident that his lordship's conduct would scarcely justify
itself. But interest is largely independent of critical judgment, and,
for my own part, I can aver that, when the curtain fell on the first
act, a five-pound note would not have bribed me to leave the theatre
without assisting at Lady Windermere's reception in the second act. That
is the frame of mind which the author should try to beget in his
audience; and Oscar Wilde, then almost a novice, had, in this one little
passage between Lady Windermere and the butler, shown himself a master
of the art of dramatic story-telling. The dramatist has higher functions
than mere story-telling; but this is fundamental, and the true artist is
the last to despise it.[1]

For another example of a first act brought to what one may call a
judiciously tantalizing conclusion, I turn to Mr. R.C. Carton's comedy
_Wheels within Wheels._ Lord Eric Chantrell has just returned from
abroad after many years' absence. He drives straight to the bachelor
flat of his old chum, Egerton Vartrey. At the flat he finds only his
friend's valet, Vartrey himself has been summoned to Scotland that very
evening, and the valet is on the point of following him. He knows,
however, that his master would wish his old friend to make himself at
home in the flat; so he presently goes off, leaving the newcomer
installed for the night. Lord Eric goes to the bedroom to change his
clothes; and, the stage being thus left vacant, we hear a latch-key
turning in the outer door. A lady in evening dress enters, goes up to
the bureau at the back of the stage, and calmly proceeds to break it
open and ransack it. While she is thus burglariously employed, Lord Eric
enters, and cannot refrain from a slight expression of surprise. The
lady takes the situation with humorous calmness, they fall into
conversation, and it is manifest that at every word Lord Eric is more
and more fascinated by the fair house-breaker. She learns who he is, and
evidently knows all about him; but she is careful to give him no inkling
of her own identity. At last she takes her leave, and he expresses such
an eager hope of being allowed to renew their acquaintance, that it
amounts to a declaration of a peculiar interest in her. Thereupon she
addresses him to this effect: "Has it occurred to you to wonder how I
got into your friend's rooms? I will show you how"--and, producing a
latch-key, she holds it up, with all its questionable implications,
before his eyes. Then she lays it on the table, says: "I leave you to
draw your own conclusions" and departs. A better opening for a light
social comedy could scarcely be devised. We have no difficulty in
guessing that the lady, who is not quite young, and has clearly a strong
sense of humour, is freakishly turning appearances against herself, by
way of throwing a dash of cold water on Lord Eric's sudden flame of
devotion. But we long for a clear explanation of the whole quaint little
episode; and here, again, no reasonable offer would tempt us to leave
the theatre before our curiosity is satisfied. The remainder of the
play, though amusing, is unfortunately not up to the level of the first
act; else _Wheels within Wheels_ would be a little classic of
light comedy.

For a third example of interest carefully carried forward, I turn to a
recent Norwegian play, _The Idyll_, by Peter Egge. At the very rise of
the curtain, we find Inga Gar, wife of an author and journalist, Dr.
Gar, reading, with evident tokens of annoyance and distaste, a new book
of poems by one Rolfe Ringve. Before her marriage, Inga was an actress
of no great talent; Ringve made himself conspicuous by praising her far
beyond her merits; and when, at last, an engagement between them was
announced, people shrugged their shoulders and said: "They are going to
regularize the situation." As a matter of fact (of this we have early
assurance), though Ringve has been her ardent lover, Inga has neither
loved him nor been his mistress. Ringve being called abroad, she has,
during his absence, broken off her engagement to him, and has then,
about a year before the play opens, married Dr. Gar, to whom she is
devoted. While Gar is away on a short lecture tour, Ringve has published
the book of love-poems which we find her reading. They are very
remarkable poems; they have already made a great stir in the literary
world; and interest is all the keener for the fact that they are
evidently inspired by his passion for Inga, and are couched in such a
tone of intimacy as to create a highly injurious impression of the
relations between them. Gar, having just come home, has no suspicion of
the nature of the book; and when an editor, who cherishes a grudge
against him, conceives the malicious idea of asking him to review
Ringve's masterpiece, he consents with alacrity. One or two small
incidents have in the meantime shown us that there is a little rift in
the idyllic happiness of Inga and Gar, arising from her inveterate habit
of telling trifling fibs to avoid facing the petty annoyances of life.
For instance, when Gar asks her casually whether she has read Ringve's
poems, a foolish denial slips out, though she knows that the cut pages
of the book will give her the lie. These incidents point to a state of
unstable equilibrium in the relations between husband and wife;
wherefore, when we see Gar, at the end of the act, preparing to read
Ringve's poems, our curiosity is very keen as to how he will take them.
We feel the next hour to be big with fate for these two people; and we
long for the curtain to rise again upon the threatened household. The
fuse has been fired; we are all agog for the explosion.

In Herr Egge's place, I should have been inclined to have dropped my
curtain upon Gar, with the light of the reading-lamp full upon him, in
the act of opening the book, and then to have shown him, at the
beginning of the second act, in exactly the same position. With more
delicate art, perhaps, the author interposes a little domestic incident
at the end of the first act, while leaving it clearly impressed on our
minds that the reading of the poems is only postponed by a few minutes.
That is the essential point: the actual moment upon which the curtain
falls is of minor importance. What is of vast importance, on the other
hand, is that the expectation of the audience should not be baffled, and
that the curtain should rise upon the immediate sequel to the reading of
the poems. This is, in the exact sense of the words, _a scène à
faire_--an obligatory scene. The author has aroused in us a reasonable
expectation of it, and should he choose to balk us--to raise his
curtain, say, a week, or a month, later--we should feel that we had been
trifled with. The general theory of the _scène à faire_ will presently
come up for discussion. In the meantime, I merely make the obvious
remark that it is worse than useless to awaken a definite expectation in
the breast of the audience, and then to disappoint it.[2]

The works of Sir Arthur Pinero afford many examples of interest very
skilfully carried forward. In his farces--let no one despise the
technical lessons to be learnt from a good farce--there is always an
_adventure_ afoot, whose development we eagerly anticipate. When the
curtain falls on the first act of _The Magistrate_, we foresee the
meeting of all the characters at the Hôtel des Princes, and are
impatient to assist at it. In _The Schoolmistress_, we would not for
worlds miss Peggy Hesseltine's party, which we know awaits us in Act II.
An excellent example, of a more serious order, is to be found in _The
Benefit of the Doubt_. When poor Theo, rebuffed by her husband's chilly
scepticism, goes off on some manifestly harebrained errand, we divine,
as do her relatives, that she is about to commit social suicide by
seeking out John Allingham; and we feel more than curiosity as to the
event--we feel active concern, almost anxiety, as though our own
personal interests were involved. Our anticipation is heightened, too,
when we see Sir Fletcher Portwood and Mrs. Cloys set off upon her track.
This gives us a definite point to which to look forward, while leaving
the actual course of events entirely undefined. It fulfils one of the
great ends of craftsmanship, in foreshadowing without forestalling an
intensely interesting conjuncture of affairs.

I have laid stress on the importance of carrying forward the interest of
the audience because it is a detail that is often overlooked. There is,
as a rule, no difficulty in the matter, always assuming that the theme
be not inherently devoid of interest. One could mention many plays in
which the author has, from sheer inadvertence, failed to carry forward
the interest of the first act, though a very little readjustment, or a
trifling exercise of invention, would have enabled him to do so.
_Pillars of Society_, indeed, may be taken as an instance, though not a
very flagrant one. Such interest as we feel at the end of the first act
is vague and unfocused. We are sure that something is to come of the
return of Lona and Johan, but we have no inkling as to what that
something may be. If we guess that the so-called black sheep of the
family will prove to be the white sheep, it is only because we know that
it is Ibsen's habit to attack respectability and criticize accepted
moral values--it is not because of anything that he has told us, or
hinted to us, in the play itself. In no other case does he leave our
interest at such a loose end as in this, his prentice-work in modern
drama. In _The League of Youth_, an earlier play, but of an altogether
lighter type, the interest is much more definitely carried forward at
the end of the first act. Stensgaard has attacked Chamberlain Bratsberg
in a rousing speech, and the Chamberlain has been induced to believe
that the attack was directed not against himself, but against his enemy
Monsen. Consequently he invites Stensgaard to his great dinner-party,
and this invitation Stensgaard regards as a cowardly attempt at
conciliation. We clearly see a crisis looming ahead, when this
misunderstanding shall be cleared up; and we consequently look forward
with lively interest to the dinner-party of the second act--which ends,
as a matter of fact, in a brilliant scene of comedy.

The principle, to recapitulate, is simply this: a good first act should
never end in a blank wall. There should always be a window in it, with
at least a glimpse of something attractive beyond. In _Pillars of
Society_ there is a window, indeed; but it is of ground glass.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: That great story-teller, Alexandra Dumas _pere,_ those a
straightforward way of carrying forward the interest at the end of the
first act of _Henri III et sa Cour._ The Due de Guise, insulted by
Saint-Mégrin, beckons to his henchman and says, as the curtain falls,
_"Qu'on me cherche les mêmes hommes qui ont assassiné Dugast!"_]

[Footnote 2: There are limits to the validity of this rule, as applied
to minor incidents. For example, it may sometimes be a point of art to
lead the audience to expect the appearance of one person, when in fact
another is about to enter. But it is exceedingly dangerous to baffle the
carefully fostered anticipation of an important scene. See Chapters
XVII and XXI.]





In the days of the five-act dogma, each act was supposed to have its
special and pre-ordained function. Freytag assigns to the second act, as
a rule, the _Steigerung_ or heightening--the working-up, one might call
it--of the interest. But the second act, in modern plays, has often to
do all the work of the three middle acts under the older dispensation;
wherefore the theory of their special functions has more of a historical
than of a practical interest. For our present purposes, we may treat the
interior section of a play as a unit, whether it consist of one, two, or
three acts.

The first act may be regarded as the porch or vestibule through which we
pass into the main fabric--solemn or joyous, fantastic or austere--of
the actual drama. Sometimes, indeed, the vestibule is reduced to a mere
threshold which can be crossed in two strides; but normally the first
act, or at any rate the greater part of it, is of an introductory
character. Let us conceive, then, that we have passed the vestibule, and
are now to study the principles on which the body of the structure
is reared.

In the first place, is the architectural metaphor a just one? Is there,
or ought there to be, any analogy between a drama and a
finely-proportioned building? The question has already been touched on
in the opening paragraphs of Chapter VIII; but we may now look into it a
little more closely.

What is the characteristic of a fine piece of architecture? Manifestly
an organic relation, a carefully-planned interdependence, between all
its parts. A great building is a complete and rounded whole, just like a
living organism. It is informed by an inner law of harmony and
proportion, and cannot be run up at haphazard, with no definite and
pre-determined design. Can we say the same of a great play?

I think we can. Even in those plays which present a picture rather than
an action, we ought to recognize a principle of selection, proportion,
composition, which, if not absolutely organic, is at any rate the
reverse of haphazard. We may not always be able to define the principle,
to put it clearly in words; but if we feel that the author has been
guided by no principle, that he has proceeded on mere hand-to-mouth
caprice, that there is no "inner law of harmony and proportion" in his
work, then we instinctively relegate it to a low place in our esteem.
Hauptmann's _Weavers_ certainly cannot be called a piece of dramatic
architecture, like _Rosmersholm_ or _Iris_; but that does not mean that
it is a mere rambling series of tableaux. It is not easy to define the
principle of unity in that brilliant comedy _The Madras House_; but we
nevertheless feel that a principle of unity exists; or, if we do not, so
much the worse for the play and its author.

There is, indeed, a large class of plays, often popular, and sometimes
meritorious, in relation to which the architectural metaphor entirely
breaks down. They are what may be called "running fire" plays. We have
all seen children setting a number of wooden blocks on end, at equal
intervals, and then tilting over the first so that it falls against the
second, which in turn falls against the third, and so on, till the whole
row, with a rapid clack-clack-clack, lies flat upon the table. This is
called a "running fire"; and this is the structural principle of a good
many plays. We feel that the playwright is, so to speak, inventing as he
goes along--that the action, like the child's fantastic serpentine of
blocks, might at any moment take a turn in any possible direction
without falsifying its antecedents or our expectations. No part of it is
necessarily involved in any other part. If the play were found too long
or too short, an act might be cut out or written in without
necessitating any considerable readjustments in the other acts. The play
is really a series of episodes,

  "Which might, odd bobs, sir! in judicious hands,
  Extend from here to Mesopotamy."

The episodes may grow out of each other plausibly enough, but by no
pre-ordained necessity, and with no far-reaching interdependence. We
live, in such plays, from moment to moment, foreseeing nothing, desiring
nothing; and though this frame of mind may be mildly agreeable, it
involves none of that complexity of sensation with which we contemplate
a great piece of architecture, or follow the development of a
finely-constructed drama. To this order belong many cape-and-sword plays
and detective dramas--plays like _The Adventure of Lady Ursula_, _The
Red Robe_, the Musketeer romances that were at one time so popular, and
most plays of the _Sherlock Holmes_ and _Raffles_ type. But pieces of a
more ambitious order have been known to follow the same formula--some of
the works, for instance, of Mr. Charles McEvoy, to say nothing of Mr.
Bernard Shaw.

We may take it, I think, that the architectural analogy holds good of
every play which can properly be said to be "constructed." Construction
means dramatic architecture, or in other words, a careful
pre-arrangement of proportions and interdependencies. But to carry
beyond this point the analogy between the two arts would be fantastic
and unhelpful. The one exists in space, the other in time. The one seeks
to beget in the spectator a state of placid, though it may be of
aspiring, contemplation; the other, a state of more or less acute
tension. The resemblances between music and architecture are, as is well
known, much more extensive and illuminating. It might not be wholly
fanciful to call music a sort of middle term between the two other arts.

A great part of the secret of dramatic architecture lies in the one word
"tension." To engender, maintain, suspend, heighten and resolve a state
of tension--that is the main object of the dramatist's craft.

What do we mean by tension? Clearly a stretching out, a stretching
forward, of the mind. That is the characteristic mental attitude of the
theatrical audience. If the mind is not stretching forward, the body
will soon weary of its immobility and constraint. Attention may be
called the momentary correlative of tension. When we are intent on what
is to come, we are attentive to what is there and then happening. The
term tension is sometimes applied, not to the mental state of the
audience, but to the relation of the characters on the stage. "A scene
of high tension" is primarily one in which the actors undergo a great
emotional strain. But this is, after all, only a means towards
heightening of the mental tension of the audience. In such a scene the
mind stretches forward, no longer to something vague and distant, but to
something instant and imminent.

In discussing what Freytag calls the _erregende Moment,_ we might have
defined it as the starting-point of the tension. A reasonable audience
will, if necessary, endure a certain amount of exposition, a certain
positing of character and circumstance, before the tension sets in; but
when it once has set in, the playwright must on no account suffer it to
relax until he deliberately resolves it just before the fall of the
curtain. There are, of course, minor rhythms of tension and resolution,
like the harmonic vibrations of a violin-string. That is implied when we
say that a play consists of a great crisis worked out through a series
of minor crises. But the main tension, once initiated, must never be
relaxed. If it is, the play is over, though the author may have omitted
to note the fact. Not infrequently, he begins a new play under the
impression that he is finishing the old one. That is what Shakespeare
did in _The Merchant of Venice._ The fifth act is an independent
afterpiece, though its independence is slightly disguised by the fact
that the _erregende Moment_ of the new play follows close upon the end
of the old one, with no interact between. A very exacting technical
criticism might accuse Ibsen of verging towards the same fault in _An
Enemy of the People._ There the tension is practically resolved with Dr.
Stockmann's ostracism at the end of the fourth act. At that point, if it
did not know that there was another act to come, an audience might go
home in perfect content. The fifth act is a sort of epilogue or sequel,
built out of the materials of the preceding drama, but not forming an
integral part of it. With a brief exposition to set forth the antecedent
circumstances, it would be quite possible to present the fifth act as an
independent comedietta.

But here a point of great importance calls for our notice. Though the
tension, once started, must never be relaxed: though it ought, on the
contrary, to be heightened or tightened (as you choose to put it) from
act to act; yet there are times when it may without disadvantage, or
even with marked advantage, be temporarily suspended. In other words,
the stretching-forward, without in any way slackening, may fall into the
background of our consciousness, while other matters, the relevance of
which may not be instantly apparent, are suffered to occupy the
foreground. We know all too well, in everyday experience, that tension
is not really relaxed by a temporary distraction. The dread of a coming
ordeal in the witness-box or on the operating-table may be forcibly
crushed down like a child's jack-in-the-box; but we are always conscious
of the effort to compress it, and we know that it will spring up again
the moment that effort ceases. Sir Arthur Pinero's play, _The
Profligate,_ was written at a time when it was the fashion to give each
act a sub-title; and one of its acts is headed "The Sword of Damocles."
That is, indeed, the inevitable symbol of dramatic tension: we see a
sword of Damocles (even though it be only a farcical blade of painted
lathe) impending over someone's head: and when once we are confident
that it will fall at the fated moment, we do not mind having our
attention momentarily diverted to other matters. A rather flagrant
example of suspended attention is afforded by Hamlet's advice to the
Players. We know that Hamlet has hung a sword of Damocles over the
King's head in the shape of the mimic murder-scene; and, while it is
preparing, we are quite willing to have our attention switched off to
certain abstract questions of dramatic criticism. The scene might have
been employed to heighten the tension. Instead of giving the Players (in
true princely fashion) a lesson in the general principles of their art,
Hamlet might have specially "coached" them in the "business" of the
scene to be enacted, and thus doubly impressed on the audience his
resolve to "tent" the King "to the quick." I am far from suggesting that
this would have been desirable; but it would obviously have been
possible.[1] Shakespeare, as the experience of three centuries has
shown, did right in judging that the audience was already sufficiently
intent on the coming ordeal, and would welcome an interlude of
aesthetic theory.

There are times, moreover, when it is not only permissible to suspend
the tension, but when, by so doing, a great artist can produce a
peculiar and admirable effect. A sudden interruption, on the very brink
of a crisis, may, as it were, whet the appetite of the audience for what
is to come. We see in the Porter scene in Macbeth a suspension of this
nature; but Shakespeare used it sparingly, unless, indeed, we are to
consider as a deliberate point of art the retardation of movement
commonly observable in the fourth acts of his tragedies. Ibsen, on the
other hand, deliberately employed this device on three conspicuous
occasions. The entrance of Dr. Rank in the last act of _A Doll's House_
is a wholly unnecessary interruption to the development of the crisis
between Nora and Helmer. The scene might be entirely omitted without
leaving a perceptible hiatus in the action; yet who does not feel that
this brief respite lends gathered impetus to the main action when it is
resumed? The other instances are offered by the two apparitions of Ulric
Brendel in _Rosmersholm._ The first occurs when Rosmer is on the very
verge of his momentous confession to Kroll, the second when Rosmer and
Rebecca are on the very verge of their last great resolve; and in each
case we feel a distinct value (apart from the inherent quality of the
Brendel scenes) in the very fact that the tension has been momentarily
suspended. Such a _rallentando_ effect is like the apparent pause in the
rush of a river before it thunders over a precipice.

The possibility of suspending tension is of wider import than may at
first sight appear. But for it, our dramas would have to be all bone and
muscle, like the figures in an anatomical textbook. As it is, we are
able, without relaxing tension, to shift it to various planes of
consciousness, and thus find leisure to reproduce the surface aspects of
life, with some of its accidents and irrelevances. For example, when the
playwright has, at the end of his first act, succeeded in carrying
onward the spectator's interest, and giving him something definite to
look forward to, it does not at all follow that the expected scene,
situation, revelation, or what not, should come at the beginning of the
second act. In some cases it must do so; when, as in _The Idyll_ above
cited, the spectator has been carefully induced to expect some imminent
conjuncture which cannot be postponed. But this can scarcely be called a
typical case. More commonly, when an author has enlisted the curiosity
of his audience of some definite point, he will be in no great hurry to
satisfy and dissipate it. He may devote the early part of the second act
to working-up the same line of interest to a higher pitch; or he may
hold it in suspense while he prepares some further development of the
action. The closeness with which a line of interest, once started, ought
to be followed up, must depend in some measure on the nature and tone of
the play. If it be a serious play, in which character and action are
very closely intertwined, any pause or break in the conjoint development
is to be avoided. If, on the other hand, it is a play of light and
graceful dialogue, in which the action is a pretext for setting the
characters in motion rather than the chief means towards their
manifestation, then the playwright can afford to relax the rate of his
progress, and even to wander a little from the straight line of advance.
In such a play, even the old institution of the "underplot" is not
inadmissible; though the underplot ought scarcely to be a "plot," but
only some very slight thread of interest, involving no strain on the
attention.[2] It may almost be called an established practice, on the
English stage, to let the dalliance of a pair of boy-and-girl lovers
relieve the main interest of a more or less serious comedy; and there is
no particular harm in such a convention, if it be not out of keeping
with the general character of the play. In some plays the substance--the
character-action, if one may so call it--is the main, and indeed the
only, thing. In others the substance, though never unimportant, is in
some degree subordinate to the embroideries; and it is for the
playwright to judge how far this subordination may safely be carried.

One principle, however, may be emphasized as almost universally valid,
and that is that the end of an act should never leave the action just
where it stood at the beginning. An audience has an instinctive sense
of, and desire for, progress. It does not like to realize that things
have been merely marking time. Even if it has been thoroughly
entertained, from moment to moment, during the progress of an act, it
does not like to feel at the end that nothing has really happened. The
fall of the curtain gives time for reflection, and for the ordering of
impressions which, while the action was afoot, were more or less vague
and confused. It is therefore of great importance that each act should,
to put it briefly, bear looking back upon--that it should appear to
stand in due proportion to the general design of the play, and should
not be felt to have been empty, or irrelevant, or disappointing. This
is, indeed, a plain corollary from the principle of tension. Suspended
it may be, sometimes with positive advantage; but it must not be
suspended too long; and suspension for a whole act is equivalent to

To sum up: when once a play has begun to move, its movement ought to
proceed continuously, and with gathering momentum; or, if it stands
still for a space, the stoppage ought to be deliberate and purposeful.
It is fatal when the author thinks it is moving, while in fact it is
only revolving on its own axis.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: This method of heightening the tension would have been
somewhat analogous to that employed by Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere's
instructions to her butler, cited on p. 115.]

[Footnote 2: Dryden (_Of Dramatic Poesy_, p. 56, ed. Arnold, 1903) says:
"Our plays, besides the main design, have underplots or by-concernments,
of less considerable persons and intrigues, which are carried on with
the motion of the main plot; as they say the orb of the fixed stars, and
those of the planets, though they have motions of their own, are whirled
about by the motion of the _primum mobile_, in which they are
contained." This is an admirable description of the ideal underplot, as
conceived by our forefathers; but we find that two lines of tension jar
with and weaken each other.]



We shall find, on looking into it, that most of the technical maxims
that have any validity may be traced back, directly or indirectly, to
the great principle of tension. The art of construction is summed up,
first, in giving the mind of an audience something to which to stretch
forward, and, secondly, in not letting it feel that it has stretched
forward in vain. "You will find it infinitely pleasing," says Dryden,[1]
"to be led in a labyrinth of design, where you see some of your way
before you, yet discern not the end till you arrive at it." Or, he might
have added, "if you foresee the end, but not the means by which it is to
be reached." In drama, as in all art, the "how" is often more important
than the "what."

No technical maxim is more frequently cited than the remark of the
younger Dumas: "The art of the theatre is the art of preparations." This
is true in a larger sense than he intended; but at the same time there
are limits to its truth, which we must not fail to observe.

Dumas, as we know, was an inveterate preacher, using the stage as a
pulpit for the promulgation of moral and social ideas which were, in
their day, considered very advanced and daring. The primary meaning of
his maxim, then, was that a startling idea, or a scene wherein such an
idea was implied, ought not to be sprung upon an audience wholly
unprepared to accept it. For instance, in _Monsieur Alphonse,_ a
husband, on discovering that his wife has had an intrigue before their
marriage, and that a little girl whom she wishes to adopt is really her
daughter, instantly raises her from the ground where she lies grovelling
at his feet, and says: "Créature de Dieu, toi qui as failli et te
repens, relève toi, je te pardonne." This evangelical attitude on the
part of Admiral de Montaiglin was in itself very surprising, and perhaps
not wholly admirable, to the Parisian public of 1873; but Dumas had so
"prepared" the _coup de théâtre_ that it passed with very slight
difficulty on the first night, and with none at all at subsequent
performances and revivals. How had he "prepared" it? Why, by playing, in
a score of subtle ways, upon the sympathies and antipathies of the
audience. For instance, as Sarcey points out, he had made M. de
Montaiglin a sailor, "accustomed, during his distant voyages, to long
reveries in view of the boundless ocean, whence he had acquired a
mystical habit of mind.... Dumas certainly would never have placed this
pardon in the mouth of a stockbroker." So far so good; but
"preparation," in the sense of the word, is a device of rhetoric or of
propaganda rather than of dramatic craftsmanship. It is a method of
astutely undermining or outflanking prejudice. Desiring to enforce a
general principle, you invent a case which is specially favourable to
your argument, and insinuate it into the acceptance of the audience by
every possible subtlety of adjustment. You trust, it would seem, that
people who have applauded an act of pardon in an extreme case will be so
much the readier to exercise that high prerogative in the less carefully
"prepared" cases which present themselves in real life. This may or may
not be a sound principle of persuasion; as we are not here considering
the drama as an art of persuasion, we have not to decide between this
and the opposite, or Shawesque, principle of shocking and startling an
audience by the utmost violence of paradox. There is something to be
said for both methods--for conversion by pill-and-jelly and for
conversion by nitroglycerine.

Reverting, now, to the domain of pure craftsmanship, can it be said that
"the art of the theatre is the art of preparation"? Yes, it is very
largely the art of delicate and unobtrusive preparation, of helping an
audience to divine whither it is going, while leaving it to wonder how
it is to get there. On the other hand, it is also the art of avoiding
laborious, artificial and obvious preparations which lead to little or
nothing. A due proportion must always be observed between the
preparation and the result.

To illustrate the meaning of preparation, as the word is here employed,
I may perhaps be allowed to reprint a passage from a review of Mr.
Israel Zangwill's play _Children of the Ghetto_.[2]

  "... To those who have not read the novel, it must seem as though
  the mere illustrations of Jewish life entirely overlaid and
  overwhelmed the action. It is not so in reality. One who knows the
  story beforehand can often see that it is progressing even in scenes
  which seem purely episodic and unconnected either with each other or
  with the general scheme. But Mr. Zangwill has omitted to provide
  finger-posts, if I may so express it, to show those who do not know
  the story beforehand whither he is leading them. He has neglected
  the great art of forecasting, of keeping anticipation on the alert,
  which is half the secret of dramatic construction. To forecast,
  without discounting, your effects--that is all the Law and the
  Prophets. In the first act of _Children of the Ghetto_, for
  instance, we see the marriage in jest of Hannah to Sam Levine,
  followed by the instant divorce with all its curious ceremonies.
  This is amusing so far as it goes; but when the divorce is
  completed, the whole thing seems to be over and done with. We have
  seen some people, in whom as yet we take no particular interest,
  enmeshed in a difficulty arising from a strange and primitive
  formalism in the interpretation of law; and we have seen the meshes
  cut to the satisfaction of all parties, and the incident to all
  appearance closed. There is no finger-post to direct our
  anticipation on the way it should go; and those who have not read
  the book cannot possibly guess that this mock marriage, instantly
  and ceremoniously dissolved, can have any ulterior effect upon the
  fortunes of any one concerned. Thus, the whole scene, however
  curious in itself, seems motiveless and resultless. How the
  requisite finger-post was to be provided I cannot tell. That is not
  my business; but a skilful dramatist would have made it his. Then,
  in the second act, amid illustrations of social life in the Ghetto,
  we have the meeting of Hannah with David Brandon, a prettily-written
  scene of love-at-first-sight. But, so far as any one can see, there
  is every prospect that the course of true love will run absolutely
  smooth. Again we lack a finger-post to direct our interest forward;
  nor do we see anything that seems to bring this act into vital
  relation with its predecessor. Those who have read the book know
  that David Brandon is a 'Cohen,' a priest, a descendant of Aaron,
  and that a priest may not marry a divorced woman. Knowing this, we
  have a sense of irony, of impending disaster, which renders the
  love-scene of the second act dramatic. But to those, and they must
  always be a majority in any given audience, who do not know this,
  the scene has no more dramatic quality than lies in its actual
  substance, which, although pretty enough, is entirely commonplace.
  Not till the middle of the third act (out of four) is the obstacle
  revealed, and we see that the mighty maze was not without a plan.
  Here, then, the drama begins, after two acts and a half of
  preparation, during which we were vouchsafed no inkling of what was
  preparing. It is capital drama when we come to it, really human,
  really tragic. The arbitrary prohibitions of the Mosaic law have no
  religious or moral force either for David or for Hannah. They feel
  it to be their right, almost their duty, to cast off their shackles.
  In any community, save that of strict Judaism, they are perfectly
  free to marry. But in thus flouting the letter of the law, Hannah
  well knows that she will break her father's heart. Even as she
  struggles to shake them off, the traditions of her race take firmer
  hold on her; and in the highly dramatic last act (a not unskilful
  adaptation to the stage of the crucial scene of the book) she bows
  her neck beneath the yoke, and renounces love that the Law may be

To state the matter in other terms, we are conscious of no tension in
the earlier acts of this play, because we have not been permitted to see
the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Hannah and David
Brandon. For lack of preparation, of pointing-forward, we feel none of
that god-like superiority to the people of the mimic world which we have
recognized as the characteristic privilege of the spectator. We know no
more than they do of the implications of their acts, and the network of
embarrassments in which they are involving themselves. Indeed, we know
less than they do: for Hannah, as a well brought-up Jewess, is no doubt
vaguely aware of the disabilities attaching to a divorced woman. A
gentile audience, on the other hand, cannot possibly foresee how--

  "Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
  Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
  With this night's revels."

and, lacking that foreknowledge, it misses the specifically dramatic
effect of the scenes. The author invites it to play at blind-man's-buff
with the characters, instead of unsealing its eyes and enabling it to
watch the game from its Olympian coign of vantage.

Let the dramatist, then, never neglect to place the requisite
finger-posts on the road he would have us follow. It is not, of course,
necessary that we should be conscious of all the implications of any
given scene or incident, but we must know enough of them not only to
create the requisite tension, but to direct it towards the right quarter
of the compass. Retrospective elucidations are valueless and sometimes
irritating. It is in nowise to the author's interest that we should say,
"Ah, if we had only known this, or foreseen that, in time, the effect of
such-and-such a scene would have been entirely different!" We have no
use for finger-posts that point backwards.[3]

In the works of Sir Arthur Pinero I recall two cases in which the lack
of a finger-post impairs the desired effect: slightly, in the one
instance, in the other, very considerably. The third act of that
delightful comedy _The Princess and the Butterfly_ contains no
sufficient indication of Fay Zuliani's jealousy of the friendship
between Sir George Lamorant and the Princess Pannonia. We are rather at
a loss to account for the coldness of her attitude to the Princess, and
her perverse naughtiness in going off to the Opera Ball. This renders
the end of the act practically ineffective. We so little foresee what is
to come of Fay's midnight escapade, that we take no particular interest
in it, and are rather disconcerted by the care with which it is led up
to, and the prominence assigned to it. This, however, is a trifling
fault. Far different is the case in the last act of _The Benefit of the
Doubt_, which goes near to ruining what is otherwise a very fine play.
The defect, indeed, is not purely technical: on looking into it we find
that the author is not in fact working towards an ending which can be
called either inevitable or conspicuously desirable. His failure to
point forward is no doubt partly due to his having nothing very
satisfactory to point forward to. But it is only in retrospect that this
becomes apparent. What we feel while the act is in progress is simply
the lack of any finger-post to afford us an inkling of the end towards
which we are proceeding. Through scene after scene we appear to be
making no progress, but going round and round in a depressing circle.
The tension, in a word, is fatally relaxed. It may perhaps be suggested
as a maxim that when an author finds a difficulty in placing the
requisite finger-posts, as he nears the end of his play, he will do well
to suspect that the end he has in view is defective, and to try if he
cannot amend it.

In the ancient, and in the modern romantic, drama, oracles, portents,
prophecies, horoscopes and such-like intromissions of the supernatural
afforded a very convenient aid to the placing of the requisite
finger-posts--"foreshadowing without forestalling." It has often been
said that _Macbeth_ approaches the nearest of all Shakespeare's
tragedies to the antique model: and in nothing is the resemblance
clearer than in the employment of the Witches to point their skinny
fingers into the fated future. In _Romeo and Juliet_, inward foreboding
takes the place of outward prophecy. I have quoted above Romeo's
prevision of "Some consequence yet hanging in the stars"; and beside it
may be placed Juliet's--

  "I have no joy of this contract to-night;
  It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
  Too like the lightning which doth cease to be
  Ere one can say it lightens."

In _Othello,_ on the other hand, the most modern of all his plays,
Shakespeare had recourse neither to outward boding, nor to inward
foreboding, but planted a plain finger-post in the soil of human nature,
when he made Brabantio say--

  "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
  She has deceived her father, and may thee."

Mr. Stephen Phillips, in the first act of _Paolo and Francesca,_ outdoes
all his predecessors, ancient or modern, in his daring use of sibylline
prophecy. He makes Giovanni's blind foster-mother, Angela, foretell the
tragedy in almost every detail, save that, in her vision, she cannot see
the face of Francesca's lover. Mr. Phillips, I take it, is here
reinforcing ancient tradition by a reference to modern "psychical
research." He trusts to our conceiving such clairvoyance to be not
wholly impossible, and giving it what may be called provisional
credence. Whether the device be artistic or not we need not here
consider. I merely point to it as a conspicuous example of the use of
the finger-post.[4]

It need scarcely be said that a misleading finger-post is carefully to
be avoided, except in the rare cases where it may be advisable to beget
a momentary misapprehension on the part of the audience, which shall be
almost instantly corrected in some pleasant or otherwise effective
fashion.[5] It is naturally difficult to think of striking instances of
the misleading finger-posts; for plays which contain such a blunder are
not apt to survive, even in the memory. A small example occurs in a
clever play named _A Modern Aspasia_ by Mr. Hamilton Fyfe. Edward
Meredith has two households: a London house over which his lawful wife,
Muriel, presides; and a country cottage where dwells his mistress,
Margaret, with her two children. One day Muriel's automobile breaks down
near Margaret's cottage, and, while the tyre is being repaired, Margaret
gives her visitor tea, neither of them knowing the other. Throughout the
scene we are naturally wondering whether a revelation is to occur; and
when, towards the close, Muriel goes to Margaret's room, "to put her hat
straight," we have no longer any doubt on the subject. It is practically
inevitable that she should find in the room her husband's photograph, or
some object which she should instantly recognize as his, and should
return to the stage in full possession of the secret. This is so
probable that nothing but a miracle can prevent it: we mentally give the
author credit for bringing about his revelation in a very simple and
natural way; and we are proportionately disappointed when we find that
the miracle has occurred, and that Muriel returns to the sitting-room no
wiser than she left it. Very possibly the general economy of the play
demanded that the revelation should not take place at this juncture.
That question does not here concern us. The point is that, having
determined to reserve the revelation for his next act, the author ought
not, by sending Muriel into Margaret's bedroom, to have awakened in us a
confident anticipation of its occurring there and then. A romantic play
by Mr. J. B. Fagan, entitled _Under Which King?_ offers another small
instance of the same nature. The date is 1746; certain despatches of
vast importance have to be carried by a Hanoverian officer from Moidart
to Fort William. The Jacobites arrange to drug the officer; and, to make
assurance doubly sure, in case the drug should fail to act, they post a
Highland marksman in a narrow glen to pick him off as he passes. The
drug does act; but his lady-love, to save his military honour, assumes
male attire and rides off with the despatches. We hear her horse's hoofs
go clattering down the road; and then, as the curtain falls, we hear a
shot ring out into the night. This shot is a misleading finger-post.
Nothing comes of it: we find in the next act that the marksman has
missed! But marksmen, under such circumstances, have no business to
miss. It is a breach of the dramatic proprieties. We feel that the
author has been trifling with us in inflicting on us this purely
mechanical and momentary "scare." The case would be different if the
young lady knew that the marksman was lying in ambush, and determined to
run the gantlet. In that case the incident would be a trait of
character; but, unless my memory deceives me, that is not the case. On
the stage, every bullet should have its billet--not necessarily in the
person aimed at, but in the emotions or anticipations of the audience.
This bullet may, indeed, give us a momentary thrill of alarm; but it is
dearly bought at the expense of subsequent disillusionment.

We have now to consider the subject of over-preparation, too obtrusive
preparation, mountainous preparation leading only to a mouse-like
effect. This is the characteristic error of the so-called "well-made
play," the play of elaborate and ingenious intrigue. The trouble with
the well-made play is that it is almost always, and of necessity,
ill-made. Very rarely does the playwright succeed in weaving a web which
is at once intricate, consistent, and clear. In nineteen cases out of
twenty there are glaring flaws that have to be overlooked; or else the
pattern is so involved that the mind's eye cannot follow it, and becomes
bewildered and fatigued. A classical example of both faults may be found
in Congreve's so-called comedy _The Double-Dealer_. This is, in fact, a
powerful drama, somewhat in the Sardou manner; but Congreve had none of
Sardou's deftness in manipulating an intrigue. Maskwell is not only a
double-dealer, but a triple--or quadruple-dealer; so that the brain soon
grows dizzy in the vortex of his villainies. The play, it may be noted,
was a failure.

There is a quite legitimate pleasure to be found, no doubt, in a complex
intrigue which is also perspicuous. Plays such as Alexandre Dumas's
_Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle_, or the pseudo-historical dramas of
Scribe-_Adrienne Lecouvreur, Bertrand et Raton, Un Verre d'Eau, Les
Trois Maupin,_ etc.--are amusing toys, like those social or military
tableaux, the figures of which you can set in motion by dropping a penny
in the slot. But the trick of this sort of "preparation" has long been
found out, and even unsophisticated audiences are scarcely to be
thrilled by it. We may accept it as a sound principle, based on common
sense and justified by experience, that an audience should never be
tempted to exclaim, "What a marvellously clever fellow is this
playwright! How infinitely cleverer than the dramatist who constructs
the tragi-comedy of life."

This is what we inevitably exclaim as we watch Victorien Sardou, in whom
French ingenuity culminated and caricatured itself, laying the
foundations of one of his labyrinthine intrigues. The absurdities of
"preparation" in this sense could scarcely be better satirized than in
the following page from Francisque Sarcey's criticism of _Nos Intimes_
(known in English as _Peril_)--a page which is intended, not as satire,
but as eulogy--

  At the sixth performance, I met, during the first interact, a man of
  infinite taste who ... complained of the lengthiness of this first
  act: "What a lot of details," he said, "which serve no purpose, and
  had better have been omitted! What is the use of that long story
  about the cactus with a flower that is unique in all the world? Why
  trouble us with that dahlia-root, which M. Caussade's neighbour has
  thrown over the garden wall? Was it necessary to inflict on us all
  that talk about the fox that plays havoc in the garden? What have we
  to do with that mischievous beast? And that Tolozan, with his
  endless digressions! What do we care about his ideas on love, on
  metempsychosis, on friendship, etc.? All this stuff only retards
  the action."

  "On the contrary," I replied, "all this is just what is going to
  interest you. You are impatient of these details, because you are
  looking out for the scenes of passion which have been promised you.
  But reflect that, without these preparations, the scenes of passion
  would not touch you. That cactus-flower will play its part, you may
  be sure; that dahlia-root is not there for nothing; that fox to
  which you object, and of which you will hear more talk during two
  more acts, will bring about the solution of one of the most
  entertaining situations in all drama."

M. Sarcey does not tell us what his interlocutor replied; but he might
have said, like the hero of _Le Réveillon_: "Are you sure there is no
mistake? Are you defending Sardou, or attacking him?"

For another example of ultra-complex preparation let me turn to a play
by Mr. Sydney Grundy, entitled _The Degenerates_. Mr. Grundy, though an
adept of the Scribe school, has done so much strong and original work
that I apologize for exhuming a play in which he almost burlesqued his
own method; but for that very reason it is difficult to find a more
convincing or more deterrent example of misdirected ingenuity. The
details of the plot need not be recited. It is sufficient to say that
the curtain has not been raised ten minutes before our attention has
been drawn to the fact that a certain Lady Saumarez has her monogram on
everything she wears, even to her gloves: whence we at once foresee that
she is destined to get into a compromising situation, to escape from it,
but to leave a glove behind her. In due time the compromising situation
arrives, and we find that it not only requires a room with three
doors,[6] but that a locksmith has to be specially called in to provide
two of these doors with peculiar locks, so that, when once shut, they
cannot be opened from inside except with a key! What interest can we
take in a situation turning on such contrivances? Sane technic laughs at
locksmiths. And after all this preparation, the situation proves to be a
familiar trick of theatrical thimble-rigging: you lift the thimble, and
instead of Pea A, behold Pea B!--instead of Lady Saumarez it is Mrs.
Trevelyan who is concealed in Isidore de Lorano's bedroom. Sir William
Saumarez must be an exceedingly simple-minded person to accept the
substitution, and exceedingly unfamiliar with the French drama of the
'seventies and 'eighties. If he had his wits about him he would say: "I
know this dodge: it comes from Sardou. Lady Saumarez has just slipped
out by that door, up R., and if I look about I shall certainly find her
fan, or her glove, or her handkerchief somewhere on the premises." The
author may object that such criticism would end in paralysing the
playwright, and that, if men always profited by the lessons of the
stage, the world would long ago have become so wise that there would be
no more room in it for drama, which lives on human folly. "You will tell
me next," he may say, "that I must not make groundless jealousy the
theme of a play, because every one who has seen Othello would at once
detect the machinations of an Iago!" The retort is logically specious,
but it mistakes the point. It would certainly be rash to put any limit
to human gullibility, or to deny that Sir William Saumarez, in the given
situation, might conceivably be hoodwinked. The question is not one of
psychology but of theatrical expediency: and the point is that when a
situation is at once highly improbable in real life and exceedingly
familiar on the stage, we cannot help mentally caricaturing it as it
proceeds, and are thus prevented from lending it the provisional
credence on which interest and emotion depend.

An instructive contrast to _The Degenerates_ may be found in a nearly
contemporary play, _Mrs. Dane's Defence_, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones. The
first three acts of this play may be cited as an excellent example of
dexterous preparation and development. Our interest in the sequence of
events is aroused, sustained, and worked up to a high tension with
consummate skill. There is no feverish overcrowding of incident, as is
so often the case in the great French story-plays--_Adrienne
Lecouvreur_, for example, or _Fédora_. The action moves onwards,
unhasting, unresting, and the finger-posts are placed just where they
are wanted.

The observance of a due proportion between preparation and result is a
matter of great moment. Even when the result achieved is in itself very
remarkable, it may be dearly purchased by a too long and too elaborate
process of preparation. A famous play which is justly chargeable with
this fault is _The Gay Lord Quex_. The third act is certainly one of the
most breathlessly absorbing scenes in modern drama; but by what long,
and serpentine, and gritty paths do we not approach it! The elaborate
series of trifling incidents by means of which Sophy Fullgarney is first
brought from New Bond Street to Fauncey Court, and then substituted for
the Duchess's maid, is at no point actually improbable; and yet we feel
that a vast effort has been made to attain an end which, owing to the
very length of the sequence of chances, at last assumes an air of
improbability. There is little doubt that the substructure of the great
scene might have been very much simpler. I imagine that Sir Arthur
Pinero was betrayed into complexity and over-elaboration by his desire
to use, as a background for his action, a study of that "curious phase
of modern life," the manicurist's parlour. To those who find this study
interesting, the disproportion between preliminaries and result may be
less apparent. It certainly did not interfere with the success of the
play in its novelty; but it may very probably curtail its lease of life.
What should we know of _The School for Scandal_ to-day, if it consisted
of nothing but the Screen Scene and two laborious acts of preparation?

A too obvious preparation is very apt to defeat its end by begetting a
perversely quizzical frame of mind in the audience. The desired effect
is discounted, like a conjuring trick in which the mechanism is too
transparent. Let me recall a trivial but instructive instance of this
error. The occasion was the first performance of _Pillars of Society_ at
the Gaiety Theatre, London--the first Ibsen performance ever given in
England. At the end of the third act, Krap, Consul Bernick's clerk,
knocks at the door of his master's office and says, "It is blowing up to
a stiff gale. Is the _Indian Girl_ to sail in spite of it?" Whereupon
Bernick, though he knows that the _Indian Girl_ is hopelessly
unseaworthy, replies, "The _Indian Girl_ is to sail in spite of it." It
had occurred to someone that the effect of this incident would be
heightened if Krap, before knocking at the Consul's door, were to
consult the barometer, and show by his demeanour that it was falling
rapidly. A barometer had accordingly been hung, up stage, near the
veranda entrance; and, as the scenic apparatus of a Gaiety matinée was
in those days always of the scantiest, it was practically the one
decoration of a room otherwise bare almost to indecency. It had stared
the audience full in the face through three long acts; and when, at the
end of the third, Krap went up to it and tapped it, a sigh of relief ran
through the house, as much as to say, "At last! so _that_ was what it
was for!"--to the no small detriment of the situation. Here the fault
lay in the obtrusiveness of the preparation. Had the barometer passed
practically unnoticed among the other details of a well-furnished hall,
it would at any rate have been innocent, and perhaps helpful. As it was,
it seemed to challenge the curiosity of the audience, saying, "I am
evidently here with some intention; guess, now, what the intention can
be!" The producer had failed in the art which conceals art.

Another little trait from a play of those far-past days illustrates the
same point. It was a drawing-room drama of the Scribe school. Near the
beginning of an act, some one spilt a bottle of red ink, and mopped it
up with his (or her) handkerchief, leaving the handkerchief on the
escritoire. The act proceeded from scene to scene, and the handkerchief
remained unnoticed; but every one in the audience who knew the rules of
the game, kept his eye on the escritoire, and was certain that that ink
had not been spilt for nothing. In due course a situation of great
intensity was reached, wherein the villain produced a pistol and fired
at the heroine, who fainted. As a matter of fact he had missed her; but
her quick-witted friend seized the gory handkerchief, and, waving it in
the air, persuaded the villain that the shot had taken deadly effect,
and that he must flee for his life. Even in those days, such an
unblushing piece of trickery was found more comic than impressive. It
was a case of preparation "giving itself away."

A somewhat later play, _The Mummy and the Humming Bird_, by Mr. Isaac
Henderson, contains a good example of over-elaborate preparation. The
Earl of Lumley, lost in his chemical studies with a more than Newtonian
absorption, suffers his young wife to form a sentimental friendship with
a scoundrel of an Italian novelist, Signor D'Orelli. Remaining at home
one evening, when Lady Lumley and a party of friends, including
D'Orelli, have gone off to dine at a restaurant, the Earl chances to
look out of the window, and observes an organ-grinder making doleful
music in the snow. His heart is touched, and he invites the music-monger
to join him in his study and share his informal dinner. The conversation
between them is carried on by means of signs, for the organ-grinder
knows no English, and the Earl is painfully and improbably ignorant of
Italian. He does not even know that Roma means Rome, and Londra, London.
This ignorance, however, is part of the author's ingenuity. It leads to
the establishment of a sort of object-speech, by aid of which the Earl
learns that his guest has come to England to prosecute a vendetta
against the man who ruined his happy Sicilian home. I need scarcely say
that this villain is none other than D'Orelli; and when at last he and
the Countess elope to Paris, the object-speech enables Giuseppe to
convey to the Earl, by aid of a brandy-bottle, a siphon, a broken plate,
and half-a-crown, not only the place of their destination, but the very
hotel to which they are going. This is a fair example of that ingenuity
for ingenuity's sake which was once thought the very essence of the
playwright's craft, but has long ago lost all attraction for intelligent

We may take it as a rule that any scene which requires an obviously
purposeful scenic arrangement is thereby discounted. It may be strong
enough to live down the disadvantage; but a disadvantage it is none the
less. In a play of Mr. Carton's, _The Home Secretary_, a paper of great
importance was known to be contained in an official despatch-box. When
the curtain rose on the last act, it revealed this despatch-box on a
table right opposite a French window, while at the other side of the
room a high-backed arm-chair discreetly averted its face. Every one
could see at a glance that the romantic Anarchist was going to sneak in
at the window and attempt to abstract the despatch-box, while the
heroine was to lie perdue in the high-backed chair; and when, at the
fated moment, all this punctually occurred, one could scarcely repress
an "Ah!" of sarcastic satisfaction. Similarly, in an able play named Mr.
and Mrs. Daventry, Mr. Frank Harris had conceived a situation which
required that the scene should be specially built for eavesdropping.[7]
As soon as the curtain rose, and revealed a screen drawn halfway down
the stage, with a sofa ensconced behind it, we knew what to expect. Of
course Mrs. Daventry was to lie on the sofa and overhear a duologue
between her husband and his mistress: the only puzzle was to understand
why the guilty pair should neglect the precaution of looking behind the
screen. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Daventry, before she lay down,
switched off the lights, and Daventry and Lady Langham, finding the room
dark, assumed it to be empty. With astounding foolhardiness, considering
that the house was full of guests, and this a much frequented public
room, Daventry proceeded to lock the door, and continue his conversation
with Lady Langham in the firelight. Thus, when the lady's husband came
knocking at the door, Mrs. Daventry was able to rescue the guilty pair
from an apparently hopeless predicament, by calmly switching on the
lights and opening the door to Sir John Langham. The situation was
undoubtedly a "strong" one; but the tendency of modern technic is to
hold "strength" too dearly purchased at such reckless expense of

There are, then, very clear limits to the validity of the Dumas maxim
that "The art of the theatre is the art of preparations." Certain it is
that over-preparation is the most fatal of errors. The clumsiest thing a
dramatist can possibly do is to lay a long and elaborate train for the
ignition of a squib. We take pleasure in an event which has been
"prepared" in the sense that we have been led to desire it, and have
wondered how it was to be brought about. But we scoff at an occurrence
which nothing but our knowledge of the tricks of the stage could
possibly lead us to expect, yet which, knowing these tricks, we have
foreseen from afar, and resented in advance.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: _Of Dramatic Poesy,_ ed. Arnold, 1903, p. 60.]

[Footnote 2: _The World_, December 20, 1899.]

[Footnote 3: At the end of the first act of _Lady Inger of Ostraat_,
Ibsen evidently intends to produce a startling effect through the sudden
appearance of Olaf Skaktavl in Lady Inger's hall. But as he has totally
omitted to tell us who the strange man is, the incident has no meaning
for us. In 1855 Ibsen had all his technical lessons yet to learn.]

[Footnote 4: The fact that Mr. Phillips should have deemed such a
foreshadowing necessary shows how instinctively a dramatist feels that
the logic of his art requires him to assume that his audience is
ignorant of his fable. In reality, very few members of the first-night
audience, or of any other, can have depended on old Angela's
vaticination for the requisite foresight of events. But this does not
prove Angela to be artistically superfluous.]

[Footnote 5: See pp. 118, 240.]

[Footnote 6: There is no special harm in this: the question of exits and
entrances and their mechanism is discussed in Chapter XXIII.]

[Footnote 7: This might be said of the scene of the second act of _The
Benefit of the Doubt_; but here the actual stage-topography is natural
enough. The author, however, is rather over-anxious to emphasize the
acoustic relations of the two rooms.]



I do not know whether it was Francisque Sarcey who invented the phrase
_scène à faire_; but it certainly owes its currency to that valiant
champion of the theatrical theatre, if I may so express it. Note that in
this term I intend no disrespect. My conception of the theatrical
theatre may not be exactly the same as M. Sarcey's; but at all events I
share his abhorrence of the untheatrical theatre.

What is the _scène à faire_? Sarcey has used the phrase so often, and in
so many contexts, that it is impossible to tie him down to any strict
definition. Instead of trying to do so, I will give a typical example of
the way in which he usually employs the term.

In _Les Fourchambault_, by Emile Augier, the first act introduces us to
the household of a merchant, of Havre, who has married a wealthy, but
extravagant woman, and has a son and daughter who are being gradually
corrupted by their mother's worldliness. We learn that Fourchambault,
senior, has, in his youth, betrayed a young woman who was a governess in
his family. He wanted to marry her, but his relations maligned her
character, and he cast her off; nor does he know what has become of her
and her child. In the second act we pass to the house of an energetic
and successful young shipowner named Bernard, who lives alone with his
mother. Bernard, as we divine, is secretly devoted to a young lady named
Marie Letellier, a guest in the Fourchambault house, to whom young
Leopold Fourchambault is paying undesirable attentions. One day Bernard
casually mentions to his mother that the house of Fourchambault is on
the verge of bankruptcy; nothing less than a quarter of a million francs
will enable it to tide over the crisis. Mme. Bernard, to her son's
astonishment, begs him to lend the tottering firm the sum required. He
objects that, unless the business is better managed, the loan will only
postpone the inevitable disaster. "Well, then, my son," she replied,
"you must go into partnership with M. Fourchambault." "I! with that
imbecile!" he exclaims. "My son," she says gravely, and emphatically,
"you must--it is your duty--I demand it of you!" "Ah!" cries Bernard. "I
understand--he is my father!"

After ecstatically lauding this situation and the scenes which have led
up to it, M. Sarcey continues--

  When the curtain falls upon the words "He is my father," I at once
  see two _scènes à faire_, and I know that they will be _faites_: the
  scene between the son and the father whom he is to save, the scene
  between Bernard and his half-brother Leopold, who are in love with
  the same woman, the one dishonourably and the other secretly and
  nobly. What will they say to each other? I have no idea. But it is
  precisely this _expectation mingled with uncertainly_ that is one of
  the charms of the theatre. I say to myself, "Ah, they will have an
  encounter! What will come of it?" And that this is the state of mind
  of the whole audience is proved by the fact that when the two
  characters of the _scènes à faire_ stand face to face, a thrill of
  anticipation runs round the whole theatre.

This, then, is the obligatory scene as Sarcey generally understands
it--a scene which, for one reason or another, an audience expects and
ardently desires. I have italicized the phrase "expectation mingled with
uncertainty" because it expresses in other terms the idea which I have
sought to convey in the formula "foreshadowing without forestalling."
But before we can judge of the merits of M. Sarcey's theory, we must
look into it a little more closely. I shall try, then, to state it in my
own words, in what I believe to be its most rational and
defensible form.

An obligatory scene is one which the audience (more or less clearly and
consciously) foresees and desires, and the absence of which it may with
reason resent. On a rough analysis, it will appear, I think, that there
are five ways in which a scene may become, in this sense, obligatory:

(1) It may be necessitated by the inherent logic of the theme.

(2) It may be demanded by the manifest exigencies of specifically
dramatic effect.

(3) The author himself may have rendered it obligatory by seeming
unmistakably to lead up to it.

(4) It may be required in order to justify some modification of
character or alteration of will, too important to be taken for granted.

(5) It may be imposed by history or legend.

These five classes of obligatory scenes may be docketed, respectively,
as the Logical, the Dramatic, the Structural, the Psychological, and the
Historic. M. Sarcey generally employed the term in one of the first
three senses, without clearly distinguishing between them. It is,
indeed, not always easy to determine whether the compulsion (assuming it
to exist at all) lies in the very essence of the theme or situation, or
only in the author's manipulation of it.

Was Sarcey right in assuming such a compulsion to be a constant and
dominant factor in the playwright's craft? I think we shall see reason
to believe him right in holding that it frequently arises, but wrong if
he went the length of maintaining that there can be no good play without
a definite _scène à faire_--as eighteenth-century landscape painters are
said to have held that no one could be a master of his art till he knew
where to place "the brown tree." I remember no passage in which Sarcey
explicitly lays down so hard and fast a rule, but several in which he
seems to take it for granted.[1]

It may be asked whether--and if so, why--the theory of the obligatory
scene holds good for the dramatist and not for the novelist? Perhaps it
has more application to the novel than is commonly supposed; but in so
far as it applies peculiarly to the drama, the reason is pretty clear.
It lies in the strict concentration imposed on the dramatist, and the
high mental tension which is, or ought to be, characteristic of the
theatrical audience. The leisurely and comparatively passive
novel-reader may never miss a scene which an audience, with its
instincts of logic and of economy keenly alert, may feel to be
inevitable. The dramatist is bound to extract from his material the last
particle of that particular order of effect which the stage, and the
stage alone, can give us. If he fails to do so, we feel that there has
been no adequate justification for setting in motion all the complex
mechanism of the theatre. His play is like a badly-designed engine in
which a large part of the potential energy is dissipated to no purpose.
The novelist, with a far wider range of effects at his command, and
employing no special mechanism to bring them home to us, is much more
free to select and to reject. He is exempt from the law of rigid economy
to which the dramatist must submit. Far from being bound to do things in
the most dramatic way, he often does wisely in rejecting that course, as
unsuited to his medium. Fundamentally, no doubt, the same principle
applies to both arts, but with a wholly different stringency in the case
of the drama. "Advisable" in the novelist's vocabulary is translated by
"imperative" in the dramatist's. The one is playing a long-drawn game,
in which the loss of a trick or two need not prove fatal; the other has
staked his all on a single rubber.

       *       *       *       *       *

Obligatory scenes of the first type--those necessitated by the inherent
logic of the theme--can naturally arise only in plays to which a
definite theme can be assigned. If we say that woman's claim to possess
a soul of her own, even in marriage, is the theme of _A Doll's House_,
then evidently the last great balancing of accounts between Nora and
Helmer is an obligatory scene. It would have been quite possible for
Ibsen to have completed the play without any such scene: he might, for
instance, have let Nora fulfil her intention of drowning herself; but in
that case his play would have been merely a tragic anecdote with the
point omitted. We should have felt vague intimations of a general idea
hovering in the air, but it would have remained undefined and
undeveloped. As we review, however, the series of Ibsen's plays, and
notice how difficult it is to point to any individual scene and say,
"This was clearly the _scène à faire_," we feel that, though the phrase
may express a useful idea in a conveniently brief form, there is no
possibility of making the presence or absence of a _scène à faire_ a
general test of dramatic merit. In _The Wild Duck_, who would not say
that, theoretically, the scene in which Gregers opens Hialmar's eyes to
the true history of his marriage was obligatory in the highest degree?
Yet Ibsen, as a matter of fact, does not present it to us: he sends the
two men off for "a long walk" together: and who does not feel that this
is a stroke of consummate art? In _Rosmersholm_, as we know, he has
been accused of neglecting, not merely the scene, but the play, _à
faire_; but who will now maintain that accusation? In _John Gabriel
Borhman_, if we define the theme as the clash of two devouring egoisms,
Ibsen has, in the third act, given us the obligatory scene; but he has
done it, unfortunately, with an enfeebled hand; whereas the first and
second acts, though largely expository, and even (in the Foldal scene)
episodic, rank with his greatest achievements.

For abundant examples of scenes rendered obligatory by the logic of the
theme, we have only to turn to the works of those remorseless
dialecticians, MM. Hervieu and Brieux. In such a play as _La Course du
Flambeau_, there is scarcely a scene that may not be called an
obligatory deduction from the thesis duly enunciated, with no small
parade of erudition, in the first ten minutes of the play. It is that,
in handing on the _vital lampada_, as Plato and "le bon poète Lucrèce"
express it, the love of the parent for the child becomes a devouring
mania, to which everything else is sacrificed, while the love of the
child for the parent is a tame and essentially selfish emotion,
absolutely powerless when it comes into competition with the passions
which are concerned with the transmission of the vital flame. This
theorem having been stated, what is the first obligatory scene?
Evidently one in which a mother shall refuse a second marriage, with a
man whom she loves, because it would injure the prospects and wound the
feelings of her adored daughter. Then, when the adored daughter herself
marries, the mother must make every possible sacrifice for her, and the
daughter must accept them all with indifference, as mere matters of
course. But what is the final, triumphant proof of the theorem? Why, of
course, the mother must kill her mother to save the daughter's life! And
this ultra-obligatory scene M. Hervieu duly serves up to us.
Marie-Jeanne (the daughter) is ordered to the Engadine; Sabine (the
mother) is warned that Madame Fontenais (the grandmother) must not go to
that altitude on pain of death; but, by a series of violently artificial
devices, things are so arranged that Marie-Jeanne cannot go unless
Madame Fontenais goes too; and Sabine, rather than endanger her
daughter's recovery, does not hesitate to let her mother set forth,
unwittingly, to her doom. In the last scene of all, Marie-Jeanne
light-heartedly prepares to leave her mother and go off with her husband
to the ends of the earth; Sabine learns that the man she loved and
rejected for Marie-Jeanne's sake is for ever lost to her; and, to
complete the demonstration, Madame Fontenais falls dead at her feet.
These scenes are unmistakably _scènes à faire_, dictated by the logic of
the theme; but they belong to a conception of art in which the free
rhythms of life are ruthlessly sacrificed to the needs of a
demonstration. Obligatory scenes of this order are mere diagrams drawn
with ruler and compass--the obligatory illustrations of an extravagantly
over-systematic lecture.

M. Brieux in some of his plays (not in all) is no less logic-ridden than
M. Hervieu. Take, for instance, _Les Trois Filles de M. Dupont_: every
character is a term in a syllogism, every scene is dictated by an
imperious craving for symmetry. The main theorem may be stated in some
such terms as these: "The French marriage system is immoral and
abominable; yet the married woman is, on the whole, less pitiable than
her unmarried sisters." In order to prove this thesis in due form, we
begin at the beginning, and show how the marriage of Antonin Mairaut and
Julie Dupont is brought about by the dishonest cupidity of the parents
on both sides. The Duponts flatter themselves that they have cheated the
Mairauts, the Mairauts that they have swindled the Duponts; while
Antonin deliberately simulates artistic tastes to deceive Julie, and
Julie as deliberately makes a show of business capacity in order to take
in Antonin. Every scene between father and daughter is balanced by a
corresponding scene between mother and son. Every touch of hypocrisy on
the one side is scrupulously set off against a trait of dishonesty on
the other. Julie's passion for children is emphasized, Antonin's
aversion from them is underlined. But lest he should be accused of
seeing everything in black, M. Brieux will not make the parents
altogether detestable. Still holding the balance true, he lets M.
Mairaut on the one side, and Madame Dupont on the other, develop amiable
impulses, and protest, at a given moment, against the infamies committed
and countenanced by their respective spouses. And in the second and
third acts, the edifice of deception symmetrically built up in the first
act is no less symmetrically demolished. The parents expose and denounce
each other's villainies; Julie and Antonin, in a great scene of conjugal
recrimination, lay bare the hypocrisies of allurement that have brought
them together. Julie then determines to escape from the loathsome
prison-house of her marriage; and this brings us to the second part of
the theorem. The title shows that Julie has two sisters; but hitherto
they have remained in the background. Why do they exist at all? Why has
Providence blessed M. Dupont with "three fair daughters and no more"?
Because Providence foresaw exactly the number M. Brieux would require
for his demonstration. Are there not three courses open to a penniless
woman in our social system--marriage, wage-earning industry, and
wage-earning profligacy? Well, M. Dupont must have one daughter to
represent each of these contingencies. Julie has illustrated the
miseries of marriage; Caroline and Angèle shall illustrate respectively
the still greater miseries of unmarried virtue and unmarried vice. When
Julie declares her intention of breaking away from the house of bondage,
her sisters rise up symmetrically, one on either hand, and implore her
rather to bear the ills she has than to fly to others that she knows not
of. "Symmetry of symmetries, all is symmetry" in the poetics of M.
Brieux. But life does not fall into such obvious patterns. The
obligatory scene which is imposed upon us, not by the logic of life, but
by the logic of demonstration, is not a _scène à faire_, but a _scène
à fuir_.

Mr. Bernard Shaw, in some sense the Brieux of the English theatre, is
not a man to be dominated by logic, or by anything else under the sun.
He has, however, given us one or two excellent examples of the
obligatory scene in the true and really artistic sense of the term. The
scene of Candida's choice between Eugene and Morell crowns the edifice
of _Candida_ as nothing else could. Given the characters and their
respective attitudes towards life, this sententious thrashing-out of the
situation was inevitable. So, too, in _Mrs. Warren's Profession_, the
great scene of the second act between Vivie and her mother is a superb
example of a scene imposed by the logic of the theme. On the other hand,
in Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's finely conceived, though unequal, play,
_Michael and his Lost Angel_, we miss what was surely an obligatory
scene. The play is in fact a contest between the paganism of Audrie
Lesden and the ascetic, sacerdotal idealism of Michael Feversham. In the
second act, paganism snatches a momentary victory; and we confidently
expect, in the third act, a set and strenuous effort on Audrie's part to
break down in theory the ascetic ideal which has collapsed in practice.
It is probable enough that she might not succeed in dragging her lover
forth from what she regards as the prison-house of a superstition; but
the logic of the theme absolutely demands that she should make the
attempt. Mr. Jones has preferred to go astray after some comparatively
irrelevant and commonplace matter, and has thus left his play
incomplete. So, too, in _The Triumph of the Philistines_, Mr. Jones
makes the mistake of expecting us to take a tender interest in a pair of
lovers who have had never a love-scene to set our interest agoing. They
are introduced to each other in the first act, and we shrewdly suspect
(for in the theatre we are all inveterate match-makers) that they are
going to fall in love; but we have not the smallest positive evidence of
the fact before we find, in the second act, that misunderstandings have
arisen, and the lady declines to look at the gentleman. The actress who
played the part at the St. James's Theatre was blamed for failing to
enlist our sympathies in this romance; but what actress can make much of
a love part which, up to the very last moment, is all suspicion and
jealousy? Fancy _Romeo and Juliet_ with the love-scenes omitted, "by
special request!"

       *       *       *       *       *

In a second class, according to our analysis, we place the obligatory
scene which is imposed by "the manifest exigencies of specifically
dramatic effect." Here it must of course be noted that the conception of
"specifically dramatic effect" varies in some degree, from age to age,
from generation to generation, and even, one may almost say, from
theatre to theatre. Scenes of violence and slaughter were banished from
the Greek theatre, mainly, no doubt, because rapid movement was rendered
difficult by the hieratic trappings of the actors, and was altogether
foreign to the spirit of tragedy; but it can scarcely be doubted that
the tragic poets were the less inclined to rebel against this
convention, because they extracted "specifically dramatic effects" of a
very high order out of their "messenger-scenes." Even in the modern
theatre we are thrilled by the description of Hippolytus dragged at his
own chariot wheel, or Creusa and Creon devoured by Medea's veil of
fire.[2] On the Elizabethan stage, the murder of Agamemnon would no
doubt have been "subjected to our faithful eyes" like the blinding of
Gloucester or the suffocation of Edward II; but who shall say that there
is less "specifically dramatic effect" in Aeschylus's method of
mirroring the scene in the clairvoyant ecstasy of Cassandra? I am much
inclined to think that the dramatic effect of highly emotional narrative
is underrated in the modern theatre.

Again, at one class of theatre, the author of a sporting play--is bound
to exhibit a horse-race on the stage, or he is held to have shirked his
obligatory scene. At another class of theatre, we shall have a scene,
perhaps, in a box in the Grand Stand, where some Lady Gay Spanker shall
breathlessly depict, from start to finish, the race which is visible to
her, but invisible to the audience. At a third class of the theatre, the
"specifically dramatic effect" to be extracted from a horse-race is
found in a scene in a Black-Country slum, where a group of working-men
and women are feverishly awaiting the evening paper which shall bring
them the result of the St. Leger, involving for some of them
opulence--to the extent, perhaps, of a £5 note--and for others ruin.[3]

The difficulty of deciding that any one form of scene is predestined by
the laws of dramatic effect is illustrated in Tolstoy's grisly drama,
_The Power of Darkness_. The scene in which Nikita kills Akoulina's
child was felt to be too horrible for representation; whereupon the
author wrote an alternative scene between Mitritch and Anna, which
passes simultaneously with the murder scene, in an adjoining room. The
two scenes fulfil exactly the same function in the economy of the play;
it can be acted with either of them, it might be acted with both; and it
is impossible to say which produces the intenser or more "specifically
dramatic effect."

The fact remains, however, that there is almost always a dramatic and
undramatic, a more dramatic and a less dramatic, way of doing a thing;
and an author who allows us to foresee and expect a dramatic way of
attaining a given end, and then chooses an undramatic or less dramatic
way, is guilty of having missed the obligatory scene. For a general
discussion of what we mean by the terms "dramatic" and "undramatic" the
reader may refer back to Chapter III. Here I need only give one or two
particular illustrations.

It will be remembered that one of the _scènes à faire_ which M. Sarcey
foresaw in _Les Fourchambault_ was the encounter between the two
brothers; the illegitimate Bernard and the legitimate Leopold. It would
have been quite possible, and quite natural, to let the action of the
play work itself out without any such encounter; or to let the encounter
take place behind the scenes; but this would have been a patent ignoring
of dramatic possibilities, and M. Sarcey would have had ample reason to
pour the vials of his wrath on Augier's head. He was right, however, in
his confidence that Augier would not fail to "make" the scene. And how
did he "make" it? The one thing inevitable about it was that the truth
should be revealed to Leopold; but there were a dozen different ways in
which that might have been effected. Perhaps, in real life, Bernard
would have said something to this effect: "Young man, you are making
questionable advances to a lady in whom I am interested. I beg that you
will cease to persecute her; and if you ask by what right I do so, I
reply that I am in fact your elder brother, that I have saved our father
from ruin, that I am henceforth the predominant partner in his business,
and that, if you do not behave yourself, I shall see that your allowance
is withdrawn, and that you have no longer the means to lead an idle and
dissolute life." This would have been an ungracious but not unnatural
way of going about the business. Had Augier chosen it, we should have
had no right to complain on the score of probability; but it would have
been evident to the least imaginative that he had left the specifically
dramatic opportunities of the scene entirely undeveloped. Let us now see
what he actually did. Marie Letellier, compromised by Leopold's conduct,
has left the Fourchambault house and taken refuge with Mme. Bernard.
Bernard loves her devotedly, but does not dream that she can see
anything in his uncouth personality, and imagines that she loves
Leopold. Accordingly, he determines that Leopold shall marry her, and
tells him so. Leopold scoffs at the idea; Bernard insists; and little by
little the conflict rises to a tone of personal altercation. At last
Leopold says something slighting of Mile. Letellier, and Bernard--who,
be it noted, has begun with no intention of revealing the kinship
between them--loses his self-control and cries, "Ah, there speaks the
blood of the man who slandered a woman in order to prevent his son from
keeping his word to her. I recognize in you your grandfather, who was a
miserable calumniator." "Repeat that word!" says Leopold. Bernard does
so, and the other strikes him across the face with his glove. For a
perceptible interval Bernard struggles with his rage in silence, and
then: "It is well for you," he cries, "that you are my brother!"

We need not follow the scene in the sentimental turning which it then
takes, whereby it comes about, of course, that Bernard, not Leopold,
marries Mile. Letellier. The point is that Augier has justified Sarcey's
confidence by making the scene thoroughly and specifically dramatic; in
other words, by charging it with emotion, and working up the tension to
a very high pitch. And Sarcey was no doubt right in holding that this
was what the whole audience instinctively expected, and that they would
have been more or less consciously disappointed had the author baulked
their expectation.

An instructive example of the failure to "make" a dramatically
obligatory scene may be found in _Agatha_ by Mrs. Humphry Ward and Mr.
Louis Parker. Agatha is believed to be the child of Sir Richard and Lady
Fancourt; but at a given point she learns that a gentleman whom she has
known all her life as "Cousin Ralph" is in reality her father. She has a
middle-aged suitor, Colonel Ford, whom she is very willing to marry; but
at the end of the second act she refuses him, because she shrinks from
the idea, on the one hand, of concealing the truth from him, on the
other hand, of revealing her mother's trespass. This is not, in itself,
a very strong situation, for we feel the barrier between the lovers to
be unreal. Colonel Ford is a man of sense. The secret of Agatha's
parentage can make no real difference to him. Nothing material--no point
of law or of honour--depends on it. He will learn the truth, and all
will come right between them. The only point on which our interest can
centre is the question how he is to learn the truth; and here the
authors go very far astray. There are two, and only two, really dramatic
ways in which Colonel Ford can be enlightened. Lady Fancourt must
realize that Agatha is wrecking her life to keep her mother's secret,
and must either herself reveal it to Colonel Ford, or must encourage and
enjoin Agatha to do so. Now, the authors choose neither of these ways:
the secret slips out, through a chance misunderstanding in a
conversation between Sir Richard Fancourt and the Colonel. This is a
typical instance of an error of construction; and why?--because it
leaves to chance what should be an act of will. Drama means a thing
done, not merely a thing that happens; and the playwright who lets
accident effect what might naturally and probably be a result of
volition, or, in other words, of character, sins against the fundamental
law of his craft. In the case before us, Lady Fancourt and Agatha--the
two characters on whom our interest is centred--are deprived of all
share in one of the crucial moments of the action. Whether the actual
disclosure was made by the mother or by the daughter, there ought to
have been a great scene between the two, in which the mother should have
insisted that, by one or other, the truth must be told. It would have
been a painful, a delicate, a difficult scene, but it was the obligatory
scene of the play; and had we been allowed clearly to foresee it at the
end of the second act, our interest would have been decisively carried
forward. The scene, too, might have given the play a moral relevance
which in fact it lacks. The readjustment of Agatha's scheme of things,
so as to make room for her mother's history, might have been made
explicit and partly intellectual, instead of implicit, inarticulate and
wholly emotional.

This case, then, clearly falls under our second heading. We cannot say
that it is the logic of the theme which demands the scene, for no thesis
or abstract idea is enunciated. Nor can we say that the course of events
is unnatural or improbable; our complaint is that, without being at all
less natural, they might have been highly dramatic, and that in fact
they are not so.

In a very different type of play, we find another example of the
ignoring of a dramatically obligatory scene. The author of that charming
fantasy, _The Passing of the Third Floor Back_, was long ago guilty of a
play named _The Rise of Dick Halward_, chiefly memorable for having
elicited from Mr. Bernard Shaw one of the most brilliant pages in
English dramatic criticism. The hero of this play, after an adventurous
youth in Mexico, has gone to the bar, but gets no briefs, and is
therefore unable to marry a lady who announces that no suitor need apply
who has less than £5000 a year. One fine day Dick receives from Mexico
the will of an old comrade, which purports to leave to him, absolutely,
half a million dollars, gold; but the will is accompanied by a letter,
in which the old comrade states that the property is really left to him
only in trust for the testator's long-lost son, whom Dick is enjoined to
search out and endow with a capital which, at 5 per cent, represents
accurately the desiderated £5000 a year. As a matter of fact (but this
is not to our present purpose), the long-lost son is actually, at that
moment, sharing Dick's chambers in the Temple. Dick, however, does not
know this, and cannot resist the temptation to destroy the old miner's
letter, and grab the property. We know, of course, that retribution is
bound to descend upon him; but does not dramatic effect imperatively
require that, for a brief space at any rate, he should be seen--with
whatever qualms of conscience his nature might dictate--enjoying his
ill-gotten wealth? Mr. Jerome, however, baulks us of this just
expectation. In the very first scene of the second act we find that the
game is up. The deceased miner wrote his letter to Dick seated in the
doorway of a hut; a chance photographer took a snap-shot at him; and on
returning to England, the chance photographer has nothing more pressing
to do than to chance upon the one man who knows the long-lost son, and
to show him the photograph of the dying miner, whom he at once
recognizes. By aid of a microscope, the letter he is writing can be
deciphered, and thus Dick's fraud is brought home to him. Now one would
suppose that an author who had invented this monstrous and staggering
concatenation of chances, must hope to justify it by some highly
dramatic situation, in the obvious and commonplace sense of the word. It
is not difficult, indeed, to foresee such a situation, in which Dick
Halward should be confronted, as if by magic, with the very words of the
letter he has so carefully destroyed. I am far from saying that this
scene would, in fact, have justified its amazing antecedents; but it
would have shown a realization on the author's part that he must at any
rate attempt some effect proportionate to the strain he had placed upon
our credulity. Mr. Jerome showed no such realization. He made the man
who handed Dick the copy of the letter explain beforehand how it had
been obtained; so that Dick, though doubtless surprised and disgusted,
was not in the least thunderstruck, and manifested no emotion. Here,
then, Mr. Jerome evidently missed a scene rendered obligatory by the law
of the maximum of specifically dramatic effect.

       *       *       *       *       *

The third, or structural, class of obligatory scenes may be more briefly
dealt with, seeing that we have already, in the last chapter, discussed
the principle involved. In this class we have placed, by definition,
scenes which the author himself has rendered obligatory by seeming
unmistakably to lead up to them--or, in other words, scenes indicated,
or seeming to be indicated, by deliberately-planted finger-posts. It may
appear as though the case of Dick Halward, which we have just been
examining, in reality came under this heading. But it cannot actually be
said that Mr. Jerome either did, or seemed to, point by finger-posts
towards the obligatory scene. He rather appears to have been blankly
unconscious of its possibility.

We have noted in the foregoing chapter the unwisdom of planting
misleading finger-posts; here we have only to deal with the particular
case in which they seem to point to a definite and crucial scene. An
example given by M. Sarcey himself will, I think, make the matter
quite clear.

M. Jules Lemaître's play, _Révoltée_, tells the story of a would-be
intellectual, ill-conditioned young woman, married to a plain and
ungainly professor of mathematics, whom she despises. We know that she
is in danger of yielding to the fascinations of a seductive
man-about-town; and having shown us this danger, the author proceeds to
emphasize the manly and sterling character of the husband. He has the
gentleness that goes with strength; but where his affections or his
honour is concerned, he is not a man to be trifled with. This having
been several times impressed upon us, we naturally expect that the wife
is to be rescued by some striking manifestation of the husband's
masterful virility. But no such matter! Rescued she is, indeed; but it
is by the intervention of her half-brother, who fights a duel on her
behalf, and is brought back wounded to restore peace to the
mathematician's household: that man of science having been quite passive
throughout, save for some ineffectual remonstrances. It happens that in
this case we know just where the author went astray. Hélène (the wife)
is the unacknowledged daughter of a great lady, Mme. de Voves; and the
subject of the play, as the author first conceived it, was the relation
between the mother, the illegitimate daughter, and the legitimate son;
the daughter's husband taking only a subordinate place. But Lemaître
chose as a model for the husband a man whom he had known and admired;
and he allowed himself to depict in vivid colours his strong and
sympathetic character, without noticing that he was thereby upsetting
the economy of his play, and giving his audience reason to anticipate a
line of development quite different from that which he had in mind.
Inadvertently, in fact, he planted, not one, but two or three,
misleading finger-posts.

       *       *       *       *       *

We come now to the fourth, or psychological, class of obligatory
scenes--those which are "required in order to justify some modification
of character or alteration of will, too important to be taken
for granted."

An obvious example of an obligatory scene of this class may be found in
the third act of _Othello_. The poet is bound to show us the process by
which Iago instils his poison into Othello's mind. He has backed
himself, so to speak, to make this process credible to us; and, by a
masterpiece of dexterity and daring, he wins his wager. Had he omitted
this scene--had he shown us Othello at one moment full of serene
confidence, and at his next appearance already convinced of Desdemona's
guilt--he would have omitted the pivot and turning--point of the whole
structure. It may seem fantastic to conceive that any dramatist could
blunder so grossly; but there are not a few plays in which we observe a
scarcely less glaring hiatus.

A case in point may be found in Lord Tennyson's _Becket_. I am not one
of those who hold Tennyson merely contemptible as a dramatist. I believe
that, had he taken to playwriting nearly half-a-century earlier, and
studied the root principles of craftsmanship, instead of blindly
accepting the Elizabethan conventions, he might have done work as fine
in the mass as are the best moments of _Queen Mary_ and _Harold_. As a
whole, _Becket_ is one of his weakest productions; but the Prologue and
the first act would have formed an excellent first and third act for a
play of wholly different sequel, had he interposed, in a second act, the
obligatory scene required to elucidate Becket's character. The historic
and psychological problem of Thomas Becket is his startling
transformation from an easy-going, luxurious, worldly statesman into a
gaunt ecclesiastic, fanatically fighting for the rights of his see, of
his order, and of Rome. In any drama which professes to deal (as this
does) with his whole career, the intellectual interest cannot but centre
in an analysis of the forces that brought about this seeming new-birth
of his soul. It would have been open to the poet, no doubt, to take up
his history at a later point, when he was already the full-fledged
clerical and ultramontane. But this Tennyson does not do. He is at pains
to present to us the magnificent Chancellor, the bosom friend of the
King, and mild reprover of his vices; and then, without the smallest
transition, hey presto! he is the intransigent priest, bitterly
combating the Constitutions of Clarendon. It is true that in the
Prologue the poet places one or two finger-posts--small, conventional
foreshadowings of coming trouble. For instance, the game of chess
between King and Chancellor ends with a victory for Becket, who says--

  "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.[4] 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 più 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.[5] 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

The last paragraph reminds us that the accomplished playwright shows his
accomplishment quite as much in his recognition and avoidance of the
_scène à 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 Maître 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
_scène à 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 _scène à 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 _scène à 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 Théâtre_, VI, p. 364), he tells how, at the end of the
second act, one of his neighbours said to him, "Eh! bien, vous voilà
bien attrapé! Où est la _scène à faire_?" "I freely admit," he
continues, "that there is no _scène à 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 _scène à 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 _scène à 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 £50,000 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 oldë bokës 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.[1]

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.[2] 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 Tékli, a Hungarian
exile, calls upon his old friend André de Maurillac, on the day of
André's marriage, and congratulates him on having eluded the wiles of a
dangerous adventuress, Dora de Rio-Zarès, by whom he had once seemed to
be attracted. But it is precisely Dora whom André has married; and,
learning this, Tékli tries to withdraw, or minimize, his imputation. For
a moment a duel seems imminent; but André'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 André 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 André'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.[3] 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.[4] 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 £376, 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.[5]

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


  Dieu qui donne le sceptre et qui te le donna
  M'a fait duc de Segorbe et duc de Cardona,
  Marquis de Monroy, comte Albatéra, vicomte
  De Gor, seigneur de lieux dont j'ignore le compte.
  Je suis Jean d'Aragon, grand maître d'Avis, né
  Dans l'exil, fils proscrit d'un père assassiné
  Par sentence du tien, roi Carlos de Castille.

       *       *       *       *       *

    (_Aux autres conjurés_)
  Couvrons nous, grands d'Espagnol
    (_Tous les Espagnols se couvrent_)
      Oui, nos têtes, ô 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'Orléans, 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 Père 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 Père 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

[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.]



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.[1]

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 [2]. 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[3] 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!"[4]
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'hôte_; 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 _n_th 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_.

       *       *       *       *       *

[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 Théâtre_, 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 séance 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.[1]

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_.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: I am here writing from memory, having been unable to obtain
a copy of _The City_; but my memory is pretty clear.]



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

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,[1] would be, in a writer who professed to place reason
above caprice, a rather gross fault of art.

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.[2]

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 Hélène 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. Hélène'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, Hélène'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. Hélène 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 Hélène'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 Hélène 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 Hélène's secret; he tells Hélène 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. Hélène 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.

  LETCHMERE: Qualified?

  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

"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.]





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.[1]

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 Hélène 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":

    1. What is a "curtain"; and how should it be led up to?

    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 Hélène--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 Hélène 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 _dénouement_. According to orthodox theory, I
ought to have made the _dénouement_ 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. Dénouement 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 _dénouement_ 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

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,[1] 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

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

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.[2]

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.]



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.[1] 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.[2] 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 _Maître 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 Halévy, 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_,[3] 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-ô-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.]



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.[1] 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

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.[2] 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. Björnson, 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;[3] 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.[4] 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--


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.[5] 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
_Héloïse 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'Etrangère_, had disposed of his "vibrion," the Duc de Septmonts, by
making Clarkson kill him in a duel. Perhaps he did not reckon
_L'Etrangère_ 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





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.[1] 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[2]--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.

Have we not here, then, the distinction between character-drawing and
psychology? Character-drawing is the presentment of human nature in its
commonly-recognized, understood, and accepted aspects; psychology is, as
it were, the exploration of character, the bringing of hitherto
unsurveyed tracts within the circle of our knowledge and comprehension.
In other words, character-drawing is synthetic, psychology analytic.
This does not mean that the one is necessarily inferior to the other.
Some of the greatest masterpieces of creative art have been achieved by
the synthesis of known elements. Falstaff, for example--there is no more
brilliant or more living character in all fiction; yet it is impossible
to say that Shakespeare has here taken us into previously unplumbed
depths of human nature, as he has in Hamlet, or in Lear. No doubt it is
often very hard to decide whether a given personage is a mere projection
of the known or a divination of the unknown. What are we to say, for
example, of Cleopatra, or of Shylock, or of Macbeth? Richard II, on the
other hand, is as clearly a piece of psychology as the Nurse in _Romeo
and Juliet_ is a piece of character-drawing. The comedy of types
necessarily tends to keep within the limits of the known, and
Molière--in spite of Alceste and Don Juan--is characteristically a
character-drawer, as Racine is characteristically a psychologist. Ibsen
is a psychologist or he is nothing. Earl Skule and Bishop Nicholas,
Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkman are daring explorations of
hitherto uncharted regions of the human soul. But Ibsen, too, was a
character-drawer when it suited him. One is tempted to say that there is
no psychology in Brand--he is a mere incarnation of intransigent
idealism--while Peer Gynt is as brilliant a psychological inspiration as
Don Quixote. Dr. Stockmann is a vigorously-projected character, Hialmar
Ekdal a piece of searching psychology. Finally, my point could scarcely
be better illustrated than by a comparison--cruel but instructive
--between Rebecca in _Rosmersholm_ and the heroine in _Bella
Donna_. Each is, in effect, a murderess, though it was a moral, not a
mineral, poison that Rebecca employed. But while we know nothing
whatever of Mrs. Armine's mental processes, Rebecca's temptations,
struggles, sophistries, hesitations, resolves, and revulsions of feeling
are all laid bare to us, so that we feel her to be no monster, but a
living woman, comprehensible to our intelligence, and, however
blameworthy, not wholly beyond the range of our sympathies. There are
few greater achievements of psychology.

Among the playwrights of to-day, I should call Mr. Granville Barker
above all things a psychologist. It is his instinct to venture into
untrodden fields of character, or, at any rate, to probe deeply into
phenomena which others have noted but superficially, if at all. Hence
the occasional obscurity of his dialogue. Mr. Shaw is not, primarily,
either a character-drawer or a psychologist, but a dealer in personified
ideas. His leading figures are, as a rule, either his mouthpieces or his
butts. When he gives us a piece of real character-drawing, it is
generally in some subordinate personage. Mr. Galsworthy, I should say,
shows himself a psychologist in _Strife_, a character-drawer in _The
Silver Box_ and _Justice_. Sir Arthur Pinero, a character-drawer of
great versatility, becomes a psychologist in some of his studies of
feminine types--in Iris, in Letty, in the luckless heroine of
_Mid-Channel_. Mr. Clyde Fitch had, at least, laudable ambitions in the
direction of psychology. Becky in _The Truth_, and Jinny in _The Girl
with the Green Eyes_, in so far as they are successfully drawn, really
do mean a certain advance on our knowledge of feminine human nature.
Unfortunately, owing to the author's over-facile and over-hasty method
of work, they are now and then a little out of drawing. The most
striking piece of psychology known to me in American drama is the Faith
Healer in William Vaughn Moody's drama of that name. If the last act of
_The Faith Healer_ were as good as the rest of it, one might safely call
it the finest play ever written, at any rate in the English language,
beyond the Atlantic. The psychologists of the modern French stage, I
take it, are M. de Curel and M. de Porto-Riche. MM. Brieux and Hervieu
are, like Mr. Shaw, too much concerned with ideas to probe very deep
into character. In Germany, Hauptmann, and, so far as I understand him,
Wedekind, are psychologists, Sudermann, a vigorous character-drawer.

It is pretty clear that, if this distinction were accepted, it would be
of use to the critic, inasmuch as we should have two terms for two
ideas, instead of one popular term with a rather pedantic synonym. But
what would be its practical use to the artist, the craftsman? Simply
this, that if the word "psychology" took on for him a clear and definite
meaning, it might stimulate at once his imagination and his ambition.
Messrs. Hichens and Fagan, for example, might have asked themselves--or
each other--"Are we getting beneath the surface of this woman's nature?
Are we plucking the heart out of her mystery? Cannot we make the
specific processes of a murderess's mind clearer to ourselves and to our
audiences?" Whether they would have been capable of rising to the
opportunity, I cannot tell; but in the case of other authors one not
infrequently feels: "This man could have taken us deeper into this
problem if he had only thought of it." I do not for a moment mean that
every serious dramatist should always be aiming at psychological
exploration. The character-drawer's appeal to common knowledge and
instant recognition is often all that is required, or that would be in
place. But there are also occasions not a few when the dramatist shows
himself unequal to his opportunities if he does not at least attempt to
bring hitherto unrecorded or unscrutinized phases of character within
the scope of our understanding and our sympathies.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: If this runs counter to the latest biological orthodoxy, I
am sorry. Habits are at any rate transmissible by imitation, if not

[Footnote 2: Chapter XIX.]



The extraordinary progress made by the drama of the English language
during the past quarter of a century is in nothing more apparent than in
the average quality of modern dialogue. Tolerably well-written dialogue
is nowadays the rule rather than the exception. Thirty years ago, the
idea that it was possible to combine naturalness with vivacity and
vigour had scarcely dawned upon the playwright's mind. He passed and
repassed from stilted pathos to strained and verbal wit (often mere
punning); and when a reformer like T.W. Robertson tried to come a little
nearer to the truth of life, he was apt to fall into babyish simplicity
or flat commonness.

Criticism has not given sufficient weight to the fact that English
dramatic writing laboured for centuries--and still labours to some
degree--under a historic misfortune. It has never wholly recovered from
the euphuism--to use the word in its widest sense--of the late sixteenth
century. The influence of John Lyly and his tribe is still traceable,
despite a hundred metamorphoses, in some of the plays of to-day and in
many of the plays of yesterday. From the very beginnings of English
comedy, it was accepted as almost self-evident that "wit"--a factitious,
supererogatory sparkle--was indispensable to all dialogue of a
non-tragic order. Language was a newly discovered and irresistibly
fascinating playground for the fancy. Conversation must be thick-strewn
with verbal quibbles, similes, figures, and flourishes of every
description, else it was unworthy to be spoken on the stage. We all know
how freely Shakespeare yielded to this convention, and so helped to
establish it. Sometimes, not always, his genius enabled him to render it
delightful; but in most of the Elizabethans--though it be heresy to say
so--it is an extremely tedious mannerism. After the Restoration, when
modern light talk came into being in the coffee-houses, the fashion of
the day, no doubt, favoured a straining after wit; so that the
playwrights were in some measure following nature--that very small
corner of nature which they called "the town"--in accepting and making a
law of the Elizabethan convention. The leading characters of Restoration
comedy, from Etherege to Vanbrugh, are consciously and almost
professionally wits. Simile and repartee are as indispensable a part of
a gentleman's social outfit as his wig or his rapier. In Congreve the
word "wit" is almost as common as the thing. When Farquhar made some
movement towards a return to nature, he was rewarded with Pope's line,
which clings like a burr to his memory--

  "What pert, low dialogue has Farquhar writ."

If eighteenth-century comedy, as a whole, is not brilliantly written, it
is for lack of talent in the playwrights, not for lack of desire or
intention. Goldsmith, like Farquhar and Steele, vaguely realized the
superiority of humour to wit; but he died too early to exercise much
influence on his successors. In Sheridan the convention of wit
reasserted itself triumphantly, and the scene in which Lady Teazle, Mrs.
Candour, and the rest of the scandalous college sit in a semicircle and
cap malicious similes, came to be regarded as an unapproachable model of
comedy dialogue. The convention maintained itself firmly down to the
days of _Money_ and _London Assurance_, the dullness of the intervening
period being due, not to any change of theory, but to sheer impotence of
practice. T.W. Robertson, as above mentioned, attempted a return to
nature, with occasional and very partial success; but wit, with a dash
of fanciful sentiment, reasserted itself in James Albery; while in H.J.
Byron it degenerated into mere punning and verbal horse-play. I should
not be surprised if the historian of the future were to find in the
plays of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones the first marked symptoms of a
reaction--of a tendency to reject extrinsic and fanciful ornament in
dialogue, and to rely for its effect upon its vivid appropriateness to
character and situation. In the early plays of Sir Arthur Pinero there
is a great deal of extrinsic ornament; especially of that
metaphor-hunting which was one of the characteristic forms of euphuism.
Take this, for example, from _The Profligate_. Dunstan Renshaw has
expressed to Hugh Murray the opinion that "marriages of contentment are
the reward of husbands who have taken the precaution to sow their wild
oats rather thickly"; whereupon the Scotch solicitor replies--

  HUGH MURRAY: Contentment! Renshaw, do you imagine that there is no
  autumn in the life of a profligate? Do you think there is no moment
  when the accursed crop begins to rear its millions of heads above
  ground; when the rich man would give his wealth to be able to tread
  them back into the earth which rejects the foul load? To-day you
  have robbed some honest man of a sweet companion!

  DUNSTAN RENSHAW: Look here, Mr. Murray--!

  HUGH MURRAY: To-morrow, next week, next month, you may be happy--but
  what of the time when those wild oats thrust their ears through the
  very seams of the floor trodden by the wife whose respect you will
  have learned to covet! You may drag her into the crowded
  streets--there is the same vile growth springing up from the chinks
  of the pavement! In your house or in the open, the scent of the
  mildewed grain always in your nostrils, and in your ears no music
  but the wind's rustle amongst the fat sheaves! And, worst of all,
  your wife's heart a granary bursting with the load of shame your
  profligacy has stored there! I warn you--Mr. Lawrence Kenward!

If we compare this passage with any page taken at random from
_Mid-Channel_, we might think that a century of evolution lay between
them, instead of barely twenty years.

The convention of wit-at-any-price is, indeed, moribund; but it is
perhaps not quite superfluous, even now, to emphasize the difference
between what the French call the "mot d'auteur" and the "mot de
situation." The terms practically explain themselves; but a third class
ought to be added--the "mot de caractère." The "mot d'auteur" is the
distinguishing mark of the Congreve-Sheridan convention. It survives in
full vigour--or, shall one say, it sings its swan-song?--in the works of
Oscar Wilde. For instance, the scene of the five men in the third act of
_Lady Windermere's Fan_ is a veritable running-fire of epigrams wholly
unconnected with the situation, and very slightly related, if at all, to
the characters of the speakers. The mark of the "mot d'auteur" is that
it can with perfect ease be detached from its context. I could fill this
page with sayings from the scene in question, all perfectly
comprehensible without any account of the situation. Among them would be
one of those; profound sayings which Wilde now and then threw off in his
lightest moods, like opals among soap-bubbles. "In the world," says
Dumby, "there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and
the other is getting it." This may rank with Lord Illingworth's speech
in _A Woman of No Importance_: "All thought is immoral. Its very essence
is destruction. If you think of anything you kill it. Nothing survives
being thought of." When we hear such sayings as these--or the immortal
"Vulgarity is the behaviour of other people"--we do not enquire too
curiously into their appropriateness to character or situation; but none
the less do they belong to an antiquated conception of drama.

It is useless to begin to give specimens of the "mot de caractère" and
"mot de situation." All really dramatic dialogue falls under one head or
the other. One could easily pick out a few brilliantly effective
examples of each class: but as their characteristic is to fade when
uprooted from the soil in which they grow, they would take up space to
very little purpose.

But there is another historic influence, besides that of euphuism, which
has been hurtful, though in a minor degree, to the development of a
sound style in dialogue. Some of the later Elizabethans, and notably
Webster and Ford, cultivated a fashion of abrupt utterance, whereby an
immensity of spiritual significance--generally tragic--was supposed to
be concentrated into a few brief words. The classic example is
Ferdinand's "Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young," in _The
Duchess of Malfy_. Charles Lamb celebrated the virtues of this pregnant,
staccato style with somewhat immoderate admiration, and thus helped to
set a fashion of spasmodic pithiness in dialogue, which too often
resulted in dense obscurity. Not many plays composed under this
influence have reached the stage; not one has held it. But we find in
some recent writing a qualified recrudescence of the spasmodic manner,
with a touch of euphuism thrown in. This is mainly due, I think, to the
influence of George Meredith, who accepted the convention of wit as the
informing spirit of comedy dialogue, and whose abnormally rapid faculty
of association led him to delight in a sort of intellectual shorthand
which the normal mind finds very difficult to decipher. Meredith was a
man of brilliant genius, which lent a fascination to his very
mannerisms; but when these mannerisms are transferred by lesser men to a
medium much less suited to them--that of the stage--the result is apt to
be disastrous. I need not go into particulars; for no play of which the
dialogue places a constant strain on the intellectual muscles of the
audience ever has held, or ever will hold, a place in living dramatic
literature. I will merely note the curious fact that English--my own
language--is the only language out of the three or four known to me in
which I have ever come across an entirely incomprehensible play. I could
name English plays, both pre-Meredithian and post-Meredithian, which
might almost as well be written in Chinese for all that I can make
of them.

Obscurity and precocity are generally symptoms of an exaggerated dread
of the commonplace. The writer of dramatic prose has, indeed, a very
difficult task if he is to achieve style without deserting nature.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the difficulty lies in
getting criticism to give him credit for the possession of style,
without incurring the reproach of mannerism. How is one to give
concentration and distinction to ordinary talk, while making it still
seem ordinary? Either the distinction will strike the critics, and they
will call it pompous and unreal, or the ordinariness will come home to
them, and they will deny the distinction. This is the dramatist's
constant dilemma. One can only comfort him with the assurance that if he
has given his dialogue the necessary concentration, and has yet kept it
plausibly near to the language of life, he has achieved style, and may
snap his fingers at the critics. Style, in prose drama, is the sifting
of common speech.

It is true, however, that, with equal concentration and equal
naturalness, one man may give his work a beauty of cadence and phrasing
which another man may entirely miss. Two recent writers of English
dramatic prose have stood out from their fellows in respect of the sheer
beauty of their style--I need scarcely name Oscar Wilde and J.M. Synge.
But Wilde's dialogue can by no means be called free from mannerism,[1]
while Synge wrote in a language which had a music of its own, even
before his genius took hold of it.

It does not seem very profitable to try to concentrate into a definition
the distinctive qualities of dramatic dialogue. The late Mrs. Craigie
("John Oliver Hobbes") attempted to do so in the preface to a charming
play, _The Ambassador_; and the result at any rate the sequel--was that
her next play, _The Wisdom of the Wise_, was singularly self-conscious
and artificial. She found in "emotion" the test of dramatic quality in
any given utterance. "Stage dialogue," she says, "may or may not have
many qualities, but it must be emotional." Here we have a statement
which is true in a vague and general sense, untrue in the definite and
particular sense in which alone it could afford any practical guidance.
"My lord, the carriage waits," may be, in its right place, a highly
dramatic speech, even though it be uttered with no emotion, and arouse
no emotion in the person addressed. What Mrs. Craigie meant, I take it,
was that, to be really dramatic, every speech must have some bearing,
direct or indirect, prospective, present, or retrospective, upon
individual human destinies. The dull play, the dull scene, the dull
speech, is that in which we do not perceive this connection; but when
once we are interested in the individuals concerned, we are so quick to
perceive the connection, even though it be exceedingly distant and
indirect, that the dramatist who should always hold the fear of Mrs.
Craigie's aphorism consciously before his eyes would unnecessarily
fetter and restrict himself. Even the driest scientific proposition may,
under special circumstances, become electrical with drama. The statement
that the earth moves round the sun does not, in itself, stir our pulses;
yet what playwright has ever invented a more dramatic utterance than
that which some one invented for Galileo: "E pur si muove!"? In all
this, to be sure, I am illustrating, not confuting, Mrs. Craigie's
maxim. I have no wish to confute it, for, in the largest interpretation,
it is true; but I suggest that it is true only when attenuated almost
beyond recognition, and quite beyond the point at which it can be of any
practical help to the practical dramatist. He must rely on his instinct,
not numb and bewilder it by constantly subjecting it to the dictates of
hard-and-fast aesthetic theory.

We shall scarcely come much nearer to helpful truth than the point we
have already reached, in the principle that all dialogue, except the
merely mechanical parts--the connective tissue of the play--should
consist either of "mots de caractère" or of "mots de situation." But if
we go to French critics for this principle, do not let us go to French
dramatists for models of practice. It is part of the abiding insularity
of our criticism that the same writers who cannot forgive an English
dramatist what they conceive to be a stilted turn of phrase, will pass
without remark, if not with positive admiration, the outrageously
rhetorical style which is still prevalent in French drama. Here, for
instance, is a quite typical passage from _Le Duel_, by M. Henri
Lavedan, an author of no small repute; and it would be easy to find even
more magniloquent tirades in the works of almost any of his
contemporaries. I translate from the concluding scene between the Abbé
and the Duchess:

  THE ABBÉ: "In our strange life, there are sometimes unexpected and
  decisive moments, sovereign, though we know not why. We feel it,
  that is all!--fulgurant moments, which throw, as it were, a flash of
  lightning upon our destinies, like those meteors which shine forth
  from time to time in the heavens, and of which none can say what
  their purple signifies, whether it be a cataclysm or an apotheosis.
  Well, it appears to me that we, you and I, are now face to face with
  one of these moments!"

  THE DUCHESS: "So I, too, believe."

  THE ABBÉ: "We must take care, then, that it be an apotheosis. That
  is why I want--Mon Dieu, madame! how shall I say it to you? Where
  shall I go to find the chosen words, the words of pure gold, of
  diamonds, the immaculate words that are worthy of us? All that you
  are, all that you are worth, I know, and I alone know. You have
  opened, that I might read it, the book of hours that is your mind. I
  am in no wise disquieted about you or your future; yet, that I may
  be fully reassured before we part, I wish, I wish you to tell me, to
  declare to me, that you are at this very moment in absolute repose,
  calm as a lake."

And so Monsieur l'Abbé goes on for another page. If it be said that this
ornate eloquence is merely professional, I reply that his brother, the
atheist doctor, and the Duchess herself, are quite as copious in their
rhetoric, and scarcely less ornate.

It is a mistake to suppose that "literary merit" can be imparted to
drama by such flagrant departures from nature; though some critics have
not yet outgrown that superstition. Let the playwright take to heart an
anecdote told by Professor Matthews in his _Inquiries and Opinions_--an
anecdote of a New England farmer, who, being asked who was the architect
of his house, replied: "Oh, I built that house myself; but there's a man
coming down from Boston next week to put on the architecture." Better no
style at all than style thus plastered on.

       *       *       *       *       *

What is to be said of the possibilities of blank verse as a dramatic
medium? This is a thorny question, to be handled with caution. One can
say with perfect assurance, however, that its possibilities are
problematical, its difficulties and dangers certain.

To discuss the question whether drama in verse is in its very nature
nobler than drama in prose would lead us away from craftsmanship into
the realm of pure aesthetics. For my own part, I doubt it. I suspect
that the drama, like all literature, took its rise in verse, for the
simple reason that verse is easier to make--and to memorize--than prose.
Primitive peoples felt with Goethe--though not quite in the same
sense--that "art is art because it is not nature." Not merely for
emotional, but for all sorts of literary, expression, they demanded a
medium clearly marked off from the speech of everyday life. The drama
"lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." Even of so modern a writer
(comparatively) as Shakespeare, it would scarcely be true to say that he
"chose" verse as his medium, in the same sense in which Ibsen chose
prose. He accepted it just as he accepted the other traditions and
methods of the theatre of his time. In familiar passages he broke away
from it; but on the whole it provided (among other advantages) a
convenient and even necessary means of differentiation between the mimic
personage and the audience, from whom he was not marked off by the
proscenium arch and the artificial lights which make a world apart of
the modern stage.

And Shakespeare so glorified this metrical medium as to give it an
overwhelming prestige. It was extremely easy to write blank verse after
a fashion; and playwrights who found it flow almost spontaneously from
their pens were only too ready to overlook the world-wide difference
between their verse and that of the really great Elizabethans. Just
after the Restoration, there was an attempt to introduce the rhymed
couplet as the medium for heroic plays; but that, on the other hand, was
too difficult to establish itself in general use. Tragedy soon fell back
upon the fatally facile unrhymed iambic, and a reign of stilted, stodgy
mediocrity set in. There is nothing drearier in literature than the
century-and-a-half of English tragedy, from Otway to Sheridan Knowles.
One is lost in wonder at the genius of the actors who could infuse life
and passion into those masterpieces of turgid conventionality. The
worship of the minor Elizabethans, which began with Lamb and culminated
in Swinburne, brought into fashion (as we have seen) a spasmodic rather
than a smoothly rhetorical way of writing, but did not really put new
life into the outworn form. It may almost be called an appalling fact
that for at least two centuries--from 1700 to 1900--not a single
blank-verse play was produced which lives, or deserves to live,[2] on
the stage of to-day.

I have thus glanced at the history of the blank-verse play because I
believe that it can never revive until we clearly realize and admit that
it is, and has been for a century, thoroughly dead, while, for a century
before that again, it was only galvanized into a semblance of life by a
great school of rhetorical acting. The playwright who sets forth with
the idea that, in writing a poetical drama, he is going to continue the
great Elizabethan tradition, is starting on a wild-goose chase. The
great Elizabethan tradition is an incubus to be exorcised. It was
because Mr. Stephen Phillips was not Elizabethanizing, but clothing a
vital and personal conception of drama in verse of very appealing
lyrical quality, that some of us thought we saw in _Paolo and Francesca_
the dawn of a new art. Apparently it was a false dawn; but I still
believe that our orientation was right when we looked for the daybreak
in the lyric quarter of the heavens. The very summits of Shakespeare's
achievement are his glorious lyrical passages. Think of the exquisite
elegiacs of Macbeth! Think of the immortal death-song of Cleopatra! If
verse has any function on the stage, it is that of imparting lyric
beauty to passionate speech. For the mere rhetorical "elevation" of
blank verse we have no use whatever. It consists in saying simple things
with verbose pomposity. But should there arise a man who combines
highly-developed dramatic faculty with great lyric genius, it is quite
possible that he may give us the new poetic drama for which our
idealists are sighing. He will choose his themes, I take it, from
legend, or from the domain of pure fantasy--themes which can be steeped
from first to last in an atmosphere of poetry, as _Tristan und Isolde_
is steeped in an atmosphere of music. Of historic themes, I would
counsel this hypothetical genius to beware. If there are any which can
fittingly be steeped in a lyric atmosphere, they are to be sought on the
outskirts of history, or in the debatable land between history and
legend. The formula of Schiller can no more be revived than the formula
of Chapman or of Rowe. That a new historic drama awaits us in the
future, I have little doubt; but it will be written in prose. The idea
that the poetry of drama is to be sought specifically in verse has long
ago been exploded by Ibsen and Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio and Synge. But
there are, no doubt, themes which peculiarly lend themselves to
lyrico-dramatic treatment, and we shall all welcome the poet who
discovers and develops them.

One warning let me add, in no uncertain voice. If you choose to write a
blank-verse play, write it in blank verse, and not in some nondescript
rhythm which is one long series of jolts and pitfalls to the sensitive
ear. Many playwrights have thought by this means to escape from the
monotony of blank verse; not one (that I ever heard of) has achieved
even temporary success. If you cannot save your blank verse from
monotony without breaking it on the wheel, that merely means that you
cannot write blank verse, and had better let it alone. Again, in spite
of Elizabethan precedent, there is nothing more irritating on the modern
stage than a play which keeps on changing from verse to prose and back
again. It gives the verse-passages an air of pompous self-consciousness.
We seem to hear the author saying, as he shifts his gear, "Look you now!
I am going to be eloquent and impressive!" The most destructive fault a
dramatist can commit, in my judgment, is to pass, in the same work of
art, from one plane of convention to another.[3]

       *       *       *       *       *

We must now consider for a moment the question--if question it can be
called--of the soliloquy and the aside. The example of Ibsen has gone
far towards expelling these slovenlinesses from the work of all
self-respecting playwrights. But theorists spring up every now and then
to defend them. "The stage is the realm of convention," they argue. "If
you accept a room with its fourth wall removed, which nothing short of
an earthquake could render possible in real life, why should you jib at
the idea--in which, after all, there is nothing absolutely
impossible--that a man should utter aloud the thoughts that are passing
through his mind?"

It is all a question, once more, of planes of convention. No doubt there
is an irreducible minimum of convention in all drama; but how strange is
the logic which leaps from that postulate to the assertion that, if we
admit a minimum, we cannot, or ought not to, exclude a maximum! There
are plays which do not, and there are plays which do, set forth to give
as nearly as possible an exact reproduction of the visual and auditory
realities of life. In the Elizabethan theatre, with its platform stage
under the open sky, any pictorial exactness of reproduction was clearly
impossible. Its fundamental conditions necessitated very nearly[4] a
maximum of convention; therefore such conventions as blank verse and the
soliloquy were simply of a piece with all the rest. In the theatre of
the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, the proscenium arch--the
frame of the picture--made pictorial realism theoretically possible. But
no one recognized the possibility; and indeed, on a candle-lit stage, it
would have been extremely difficult. As a matter of fact, the
Elizabethan platform survived in the shape of a long "apron," projecting
in front of the proscenium, on which the most important parts of the
action took place. The characters, that is to say, were constantly
stepping out of the frame of the picture; and while this visual
convention maintained itself, there was nothing inconsistent or jarring
in the auditory convention of the soliloquy. Only in the last quarter of
the nineteenth century did new methods of lighting, combined with new
literary and artistic influences, complete the evolutionary process, and
lead to the withdrawal of the whole stage--the whole dramatic
domain--within the frame of the picture. It was thus possible to reduce
visual convention to a minimum so trifling that in a well-set "interior"
it needs a distinct effort of attention to be conscious of it at all. In
fact, if we come to think of it, the removal of the fourth wall is
scarcely to be classed as a convention; for in real life, as we do not
happen to have eyes in the back of our heads, we are never visually
conscious of all four walls of a room at once. If, then, in a room that
is absolutely real, we see a man who (in all other respects) strives to
be equally real, suddenly begin to expound himself aloud, in good, set
terms, his own emotions, motives, or purposes, we instantly plump down
from one plane of convention to another, and receive a disagreeable jar
to our sense of reality. Up to that moment, all the efforts of author,
producer, and actor have centred in begetting in us a particular order
of illusion; and lo! the effort is suddenly abandoned, and the illusion
shattered by a crying unreality. In modern serious drama, therefore, the
soliloquy can only be regarded as a disturbing anachronism.[5]

The physical conditions which tended to banish it from the stage were
reinforced by the growing perception of its artistic slovenliness. It
was found that the most delicate analyses could be achieved without its
aid; and it became a point of honour with the self-respecting artist to
accept a condition which rendered his material somewhat harder of
manipulation, indeed, but all the more tempting to wrestle with and
overcome. A drama with soliloquies and asides is like a picture with
inscribed labels issuing from the mouths of the figures. In that way,
any bungler can reveal what is passing in the minds of his personages.
But the glorious problem of the modern playwright is to make his
characters reveal the inmost workings of their souls without saying or
doing anything that they would not say or do in the real world.[6]

There are degrees, however, even in the makeshift and the slovenly; and
not all lapses into anachronism are equally to be condemned. One thing
is so patent as to call for no demonstration: to wit, that the aside is
ten times worse than the soliloquy. It is always possible that a man
might speak his thought, but it is glaringly impossible that he should
speak it so as to be heard by the audience and not heard by others on
the stage. In French light comedy and farce of the mid-nineteenth
century, the aside is abused beyond even the license of fantasy. A man
will speak an aside of several lines over the shoulder of another person
whom he is embracing. Not infrequently in a conversation between two
characters, each will comment aside on every utterance of the other,
before replying to it. The convenience of this method of proceeding is
manifest. It is as though the author stood by and delivered a running
commentary on the secret motives and designs of his characters. But it
is such a crying confession of unreality that, on the English-speaking
stage, at any rate, it would scarcely be tolerated to-day, even in
farce. In serious modern drama the aside is now practically unknown. It
is so obsolete, indeed, that actors are puzzled how to handle it, and
audiences what to make of it. In an ambitious play produced at a leading
London theatre about ten years ago, a lady, on leaving the stage,
announced, in an aside, her intention of drowning herself, and several
critics, the next day, not understanding that she was speaking aside,
severely blamed the gentleman who was on the stage with her for not
frustrating her intention. About the same time, there occurred one of
the most glaring instances within my recollection of inept
conventionalism. The hero of the play was Eugene Aram. Alone in his room
at dead of night, Aram heard Houseman breaking open the outside shutters
of the window. Designing to entrap the robber, what did he do? He went
up to the window and drew back the curtains, with a noise loud enough to
be heard in the next parish. It was inaudible, however, to Houseman on
the other side of the shutters. He proceeded with his work, opened the
window, and slipped in, Aram hiding in the shadow. Then, while Houseman
peered about him with his lantern, not six feet from Aram, and actually
between him and the audience, Aram indulged in a long and loud monologue
as to whether he should shoot Houseman or not, ending with a prayer to
heaven to save him from more blood-guiltiness! Such are the childish
excesses to which a playwright will presently descend when once he
begins to dally with facile convention.

An aside is intolerable because it is _not_ heard by the other person on
the stage: it outrages physical possibility. An overheard soliloquy, on
the other hand, is intolerable because it _is_ heard. It keeps within
the bounds of physical possibility, but it stultifies the only logical
excuse for the soliloquy, namely, that it is an externalization of
thought which would in reality remain unuttered. This point is so clear
that I need not insist upon it.

Are there, in modern drama, any admissible soliloquies? A few brief
ejaculations of joy, or despair, are, of course, natural enough, and no
one will cavil at them. The approach of mental disease is often marked
by a tendency to unrestrained loquacity, which goes on even while the
sufferer is alone; and this distressing symptom may, on rare occasions,
be put to artistic use. Short of actual derangement, however, there are
certain states of nervous surexcitation which cause even healthy people
to talk to themselves; and if an author has the skill to make us realize
that his character is passing through such a crisis, he may risk a
soliloquy, not only without reproach, but with conspicuous psychological
justification. In the third act of Clyde Fitch's play, _The Girl with
the Green Eyes_, there is a daring attempt at such a soliloquy, where
Jinny says: "Good Heavens! why am I maudling on like this to myself out
loud? It's really nothing--Jack will explain once more that he can't
explain"--and so on. Whether the attempt justified itself or not would
depend largely on the acting. In any case, it is clear that the author,
though as a rule somewhat lax in his craftsmanship, was here aiming at
psychological truth.

A word must be said as to a special case of the soliloquy--the letter
which a person speaks aloud as he writes it, or reads over to himself
aloud. This is a convention to be employed as sparingly as possible; but
it is not exactly on a level with the ordinary soliloquy. A letter has
an actual objective existence. The words are formulated in the
character's mind and are supposed to be externalized, even though the
actor may not really write them on the paper. Thus the letter has, so to
speak, the same right to come to the knowledge of the audience as any
other utterance. It is, in fact, part of the dialogue of the play, only
that it happens to be inaudible. A soliloquy, on the other hand, has no
real existence. It is a purely artificial unravelling of motive or
emotion, which, nine times out of ten, would not become articulate at
all, even in the speaker's brain or heart. Thus it is by many degrees a
greater infraction of the surface texture of life than the spoken
letter, which we may call inadvisable rather than inadmissible.

Some theorists carry their solicitude for surface reality to such an
extreme as to object to any communication between two characters which
is not audible to every one on the stage. This is a very idle pedantry.
The difference between a conversation in undertones and a soliloquy or
aside is abundantly plain: the one occurs every hour of the day, the
other never occurs at all. When two people, or a group, are talking
among themselves, unheard by the others on the stage, it requires a
special effort to remember that, as a matter of fact, the others
probably do hear them. Even if the scene be unskilfully arranged, it is
not the audibility of one group, but the inaudibility of the others,
that is apt to strike us as unreal.

       *       *       *       *       *

This is not the only form of technical pedantry that one occasionally
encounters. Some years ago, a little band of playwrights and would-be
playwrights, in fanatical reaction against the Sardou technique, tried
to lay down a rule that no room on the stage must ever have more than
one door, and that no letter must ever enter into the mechanism of a
play. I do not know which contention was the more ridiculous.

Nothing is commoner in modern house-planning than rooms which have at
least two doors and a French window. We constantly see rooms or halls
which, if transported to the stage, would provide three or four
entrances and exits; and this is even more true of the "central heated"
houses of America than of English houses. The technical purists used
especially to despise the French window--a harmless, agreeable and very
common device. Why the playwright should make "one room one door" an
inexorable canon of art is more than human reason can divine. There are
cases, no doubt, in which probability demands that the dramatist should
be content with one practicable opening to his scene, and should plan
his entrances and exits accordingly. This is no such great feat as might
be imagined. Indeed a playwright will sometimes deliberately place a
particular act in a room with one door, because it happens to facilitate
the movement he desires. It is absurd to lay down any rule in the
matter, other than that the scene should provide a probable locality for
whatever action is to take place in it. I am the last to defend the old
French farce with its ten or a dozen doors through which the characters
kept scuttling in and out like rabbits in a warren. But the fact that we
are tired of conventional laxity is no good reason for rushing to the
other extreme of conventional and hampering austerity.

Similarly, because the forged will and the lost "marriage lines" have
been rightly relegated to melodrama, is there any reason why we should
banish from the stage every form of written document? Mr. Bernard Shaw,
in an article celebrating the advent of the new technique, once wrote,
"Nowadays an actor cannot open a letter or toss off somebody else's
glass of poison without having to face a brutal outburst of jeering."
What an extravagance to bracket as equally exploded absurdities the
opening of a letter and the tossing off of the wrong glass of poison!
Letters--more's the pity--play a gigantic part in the economy of modern
life. The General Post Office is a vast mechanism for the distribution
of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce throughout the country and
throughout the world. To whose door has not Destiny come in the disguise
of a postman, and slipped its decree, with a double rat-tat, into the
letter-box? Whose heart has not sickened as he heard the postman's
footstep pass his door without pausing? Whose hand has not trembled as
he opened a letter? Whose face has not blanched as he took in its
import, almost without reading the words? Why, I would fain know, should
our stage-picture of life be falsified by the banishment of the postman?
Even the revelation brought about by the discovery of a forgotten letter
or bundle of letters is not an infrequent incident of daily life. Why
should it be tabu on the stage? Because the French dramatist, forty
years ago, would sometimes construct a Chinese-puzzle play around some
stolen letter or hidden document, are we to suffer no "scrap of paper"
to play any part whatever in English drama? Even the Hebrew sense of
justice would recoil from such a conclusion. It would be a case of "The
fathers have eaten sour grapes, and other people's children must pay the
penalty." Against such whimsies of reactionary purism, the playwright's
sole and sufficient safeguard is a moderate exercise of common sense.

       *       *       *       *       *

[Footnote 1: So, too, with the style of Congreve. It is much, and
justly, admired; but who does not feel more than a touch of mannerism in
such a passage as this?--

  MILLAMANT: "... Let us never visit together, nor go to a play
  together; but let us be very strange and well-bred: let us be as
  strange as if we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as
  if we were not married at all."

  MIRABELL: "Have you any more conditions to offer? Hitherto your
  demands are pretty reasonable."

  MILLAMANT: "Trifles!--as liberty to pay and receive visits to and
  from whom I please; to write and receive letters, without
  interrogatories or wry faces on your part; to wear what I please;
  and choose conversation with regard only to my own taste; to have no
  obligation upon me to converse with wits that I don't like because
  they are your acquaintances; or to be intimate with fools because
  they may be your relatives.... These articles subscribed, if I
  continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle
  into a wife."

This is very pretty prose, granted; but it is the prose of literature,
not of life.]

[Footnote 2: From the fact that I do not make an exception in favour of
_The Blot in the Scutcheon_ or _Stratford_, I must leave the reader to
draw what inference he pleases. On the other hand, I believe that a
reconstruction of Tennyson's _Queen Mary_, with a few connecting links
written in, might take a permanent place in the theatre.]

[Footnote 3: Mr. Israel Zangwill, in his symbolic play, _The War-God_,
has put blank verse to what I believe to be a new use, with noteworthy
success. He writes in very strict measure, but without the least
inversion or inflation, without a touch of Elizabethan, or
conventionally poetic, diction. He is thus enabled to use the most
modern expressions, and even slang, without incongruity; while at the
same time he can give rhetorical movement to the speeches of his
symbolic personages, and, in passages of argument, can achieve that
clash of measured phrase against measured phrase which the Greeks called
"stichomythy," and which the French dramatist sometimes produces in
rapid rapier play with the Alexandrine. Mr. Zangwill's practice is in
absolute contradiction of the principle above suggested that blank
verse, to be justified in drama, ought to be lyrical. His verse is a
product of pure intellect and wit, without a single lyric accent. It is
measured prose; if it ever tries to be more, it fails. I think, then,
that he has shown a new use for blank verse, in rhetorico-symbolic
drama. But it is no small literary feat to handle the measure as
he does.]

[Footnote 4: Not quite. The drama of some Oriental peoples recognizes
conventions which the Elizabethans did not admit.]

[Footnote 5: A conversation on the telephone often provides a convenient
and up-to-date substitute for a soliloquy; but that is an expedient
which ought not to be abused.]

[Footnote 6: The soliloquy is often not only slovenly, but a gratuitous
and unnecessary slovenliness. In _Les Corbeaux_, by Henry Becque,
produced in 1889, there occur two soliloquies--one by Teissier (Act ii,
Scene 3), the other by Madame de Saint-Genis (Act in, Scene 10)--either
or both of which could be omitted without leaving any sensible gap. The
latter is wholly superfluous, the former conveys some information which
might have been taken for granted, and could, in any case, have been
conveyed without difficulty in some other way. Yet Becque was, in his
day, regarded as a quite advanced technician.]

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