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Play Writing - Climax And The Ending

( Originally Published 1915 )

The climax must seem inevitable, though perhaps unexpected. The reader [the spectator, in the theatre] will almost surely look back and trace the movement of forces in the story which lead from the first causes up to the climax, and he demands that the climax be what its name implies—a ladder; and he is keen to note missing and unsafe rungs. It is important to remember that while one may slide down a ladder, he must ascend it step by step. The gradation toward the climax is no small matter.—J. BERG

ESENWEIN, Writing the Short-Story.

The "highest point" or "climax" of a typical drama marks the division of the two processes out of which the plot of a play is made. These processes are frequently described as the "complication "—the weaving together of the various threads of interest—and the "resolution"—the untangling of the threads again. "Tying" and "untying" are still simpler terms; and the French word for untying, the dénouement, has grown familiar to us, though it is often used for what is technically known as the "catastrophe," rather than as descriptive of the entire "falling action," of which the catastrophe is only the final stage.—BLISS

PERRY, A Study of Prose Fiction.

The tension of emotional interest in drama should be gradually increased from the beginning up to the highest point, known as the climax. To be sure, the rate of speed is not always the same. At first, the movement will necessarily be more leisurely; but as the summit is approached the pace should be quickened.

Nevertheless, as has been indicated, there are resting-points on the way—particularly at the end of the first act, in a three-act play, and also at the close of the second in a four-act play. As a rule, however, a sort of temporary spurt—a minor climax—just before each of these minor rests is attained, serves to compensate, as it were, for the short delay to come.

Naturally, such other minor pauses as occur during the acts must be skilfully handled lest they result in actual lapses of interest and that broken-backed effect produced where the attention is alternately gripped and relaxed. In proportion as the earlier, and therefore minor, climaxes are high, the danger of flat reactions becomes greater.

The climax is "the scene where the dramatic forces which are contending for the mastery are most evenly balanced. One cannot say whether the hero or the intriguer, the protagonist or the antagonist, will conquer. It is the point of greatest tension between the opposing powers." Generally speaking, it is the function of climax in a play to illustrate with accumulated and electrifying brilliancy the theme, or at least the central incident or character, by exhibiting it in the moments when the struggle can grow no more tense, but must be decided.

Climax and the Falling Movement

The climacteric moments at the ends of acts are often referred to as "curtains." Modern dramaturgy has shown a distinct dislike to "curtains" whose artificiality is glaringly apparent. "Formerly," Sarcey observes, in discussing the "Francillon of Dumas the younger, "the author tried to end an act on some effective speech which gave impetus to the piece and aroused curiosity as to the next act. In this business Dumas père was inimitable. At present we like to end with some trifle which, insignificant in itself, suggests the image of real life."

Radicals like Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Barker take special delight in closing their acts upon comparatively commonplace speeches or pantomime. Analysis in such cases, however, will generally show that there has merely been appended to the climax a little added dialogue, the effect of which, like the delayed final curtain of "The Thunderbolt," is intended to suggest this indefiniteness of reality. Of course, this is not an actual gain in truth, but simply the substitution of one artificial device for another. Dramatic structure, when it exhibits itself over-boldly, is doubtless reprehensible; its labored concealment, on the other hand, may prove equally repellent. Clyde Fitch, always on the lookout for the startling, was among the first to drop his curtains at unexpected moments. The greater the surprise, of course, the more effective the expedient. But, naturally, this device is not adapted to much repetition.

"In a tragedy the grand climax is usually preceded or followed by what is called the `tragic moment,' the event which makes a tragic outcome unavoidable and foredooms to failure every subsequent struggle of the hero against his fate. The speech of Mark Antony, the killing of Polonius, the escape of Fleance, are examples of the `tragic moment,' and-it will be seen how closely this is associated with what the Greeks named the `turn,'—the beginning of the `falling action.' " Usually it is after the climax that we find the falling movement, the catastrophe, the solution, the dénouement, the untying of the knot.

Modern plays in four acts, with the climax at the end of the third, devote Act IV, or at least the latter portion of it, to bringing matters to a conclusion. A moment's thought will show that this decline after the high point is a necessary part of most dramatic actions and is therefore not to be confused with the bungling anti-climax, or flattening of interest, against which a warning has just been uttered.

The Ending

Doubtless the simplest way to put an end to a fight is for one of the antagonists, human or otherwise, to withdraw—as it were, to "holler 'nuff." But it frequently happens that neither of the contestants is of the quitting kind, in which case one or the other must be definitely "knocked out," if there is to be any satisfactory termination of hostilities. In the old Greek drama the deus ex machina would sometimes descend from Olympus at the last moment and straighten out an apparently hopeless situation by superhuman means. Later on, the playwright himself all too frequently employed a supernatural power in making his characters belie their innate selves that the story might terminate, "happily" or otherwise. But eleventh-hour changes of heart on the part of hero, heroine, or antagonist are distinctly out of fashion on the stage today. Just as there is an effort to avoid even the semblance of artificiality in the matter of climaxes, so there is an even stronger—and far more praiseworthy—determination to abolish the unmotived and illogical about-facing that has made possible so many last-act reconciliations, marriages, and general rightings of wrongs.

The last act, though it follow the climax, should sustain the interest to the end. Generally speaking, it should be brief and compact. In tragedy there will, of course, be the death-scene, or at least its modern equivalent—separation, or other recognition of the futility of the struggle. In comedy there will be the reconciliation, the rehabilitation, the betrothal, or perhaps simply the quiet termination of a contest or an intrigue now definitely ended. In any event, there should be a disentangling of the complication, but the untying of the knot should be so managed that suspense is continued, based on doubt as to the outcome, or the manner of its accomplishment, and, if possible, re-enforced by skilfully manipulated surprise.

As has lately been demonstrated in "Under Cover" and "On Trial," for instance, nothing gives a drama a more effective ending than an abrupt and resourceful, yet wholly probable, dénouement held practically till the last curtain.

In one farce that comes to mind, wherein two different persons have in turn pretended to be a certain noted foreigner, with seemingly insoluble resultant complications, the unexpected arrival upon the scene at the last moment of the foreigner in person straightens matters out in a jiffy. The two impersonators are simultaneously

unmasked and rendered agreeable to compromise. This is, of course, a trite form of the expedient.

Playwrights of today avoid antiquated solutions like the unexpected will that turns up at the last moment and leaves the estate to the hero, as in"The Lights o' London" and others of its ilk. Arbitrary conclusions are more tolerable in farce than elsewhere. We feel no resentment, for instance, when, in Mr. James Montgomery's "Ready Money," Stephen Baird's dubiously exploited mine ultimately turns out really rich in gold; but when in a play of serious comedy intent like Mr. Thompson Buchanan's "The Bridal Path" the heroine, having unmercifully flouted and ignored her newly acquired husband, about-faces at the very first intimation that even this worm might turn, we sense the puppet-master pulling his strings.

Sarceyl wrote in 1867: "Real life has no dénouements. Nothing in it ends, because nothing in it begins. Every-thing continues. Every happening reaches back at one end into the series of facts which preceded it, and passes on at the other end to lose itself in the series of facts which follow. The two extremities fade into the shadows and escape us. In the theatre one must cut at some definite point this interrupted stream of life, stop it at some accident du rivage."

Brunetière, on the other hand, regarded such a theory as a jest and not a very pleasing one. As an excuse for Molière's illogical "happy endings," it did not satisfy the author of Les Époques du Theatre. Mere concessions to popular demand,' which insists that comedies should end with marriages, were these terminations, asserts the second critic, adding, "If we are not incapable of comprehension, we shall have to postulate the contrary in order to have the true thought of the poet."

As for the termination that is neither of comedy nor of tragedy, but the "deliberate blank," according to Professor A. W. Ward it is a "confession of incompetence." The exponents of naturalism will, of course, quarrel with this dictum. They will insist that as life has no "endings" —other than death, and not even that—there may be none in a drama which aims at the closest possible approximation of life. They will continue the play for two hours and then chop it off in the midst of a speech, as Mr. Barker does with "The Madras House." Presumably a plotless play will no more require a conclusion than it will need a beginning. But it has not yet been generally agreed that an absolutely plotless play is a play at all, by the commonly accepted definitions of the term.

At all events, the rule in our day is that the playwright should by all means seek an ending that is an ending and at the same time the logical and convincing outcome of the facts of character and action that have preceded it.

Illustrating Climax and Ending

Purists are fond of reiterating that the word "climax" means only the series of gradations by which a culmination is reached, and not the culmination, or acme, or apex itself. Authoritative use and dictionary makers, however, fail to bear out the purists on this point. But since the top of a ladder is reached-as Dr. Esenwein suggests—only by means of the series of rungs leading up to it, these steps themselves are necessarily presupposed even when our reference is to the apex alone. A climax in drama is a high point of emotional interest that has been attained by climbing upward by degrees.

For the sake of illustration let us refer to "The Witching Hour," which we have already discussed with regard to its plot complication. To begin with, the student will note how in Act I the atmosphere is established, and the characters are introduced. Properly enough, both elements are inherently interesting. The gradual exposition is disguised, for the most part, in characterizing dialogue. The theme is first casually referred to and presently defined by Justice Prentice, whose visit also prepares us for the developments of Act II.

When Clay questions Viola as to Hardmuth's proposal, we scent the battle. Soon thereafter the antagonists themselves clash before our eyes, and our emotional interest is fully aroused: we are taking sides, hoping and waiting. Then comes the abrupt, swift, upward step to the primary climax : Clay, taunted to the verge of madness, kills Denning—and we are left in suspense as to the con-sequences of his deed.

After the curtain has risen for the second time, there is some necessary explanation of interact developments by means of the conversation of the two Supreme Court justices. Pleasing surprise, with increased interest, results from the coincidence that Clay's fate now rests largely in Prentice's hands. The student will note the deft "atmosphere" and theme-emphasis introduced by the Bret Harte reference, which is at the same time by way of preparation for what is to follow. A much greater surprise, connected with the more significant coincidence, further absorbs us when Helen produces Prentice's old letter to her mother, telling of his cat's-eye duel. We are held in suspense for a time until the resentment of the Justice at this attempt to influence him is overcome. Then expectation leaps forward, when he promises a new trial and his own testimony in Clay's behalf. The act ending is extremely effective, with its moving and picturesque résumé of the theme.

In the beginning of Act III the suspense felt by the characters is passed over the footlights to add to that of the audience. Immediately the hand-to-hand fighting is resumed before our eyes, the combatants now in a death grapple. The hero who has so completely won our sympathies we now see in imminent danger of his life. We watch him fight on unflinchingly, battering down his opponent. Moment by moment more and more swiftly and certainly the good thought is driving out the bad. Suddenly, in a shock of welcome surprise, Clay bursts upon our sight, a free man. Then the main antagonism is bodied forth in a tense moment of climacteric conflict—and brute force is finally cowed by the power of mind.

With the climax of the play at the end of the third act, the author must exert his skill to hold complete interest throughout the "falling movement," the denouement, the "untying," of Act IV. Even here some further inter-act exposition is necessary, but it is swiftly conveyed and is made to serve the play's thesis now so freely and frequently in evidence. Act III has left at least Hardmuth's fate in some doubt, as it has left Clay still the victim of his own weakness and of a bitter hatred. Let the student observe how the playwright utilizes these few loose ends to create fresh suspense, first, when Brookfield forces Clay to look unflinchingly at the cat's-eye the influence of which had wrought so much evil; and especially—second —when Jack sends the boy to fetch his persecutor. What will Brookfield do with his conquered enemy? No danger of our not waiting to see! Meanwhile, by means of Ellinger, the author entertains us with some skilful character humor which is not only amusing but also intensely illuminating. As Prentice has summed up the play's thesis in serious terms, so Lew Ellinger presents it from the angle of epigrammatic whimsy: "God A'mighty gives you a mind like that, and you won't go with me to Cincinnati ! "

Then Clay returns with the fugitive Hardmuth; and we have the swift, telling, theses-clinching termination, definite, logical, and satisfying. Brookfield has shared in the evil thought, if not in the actual deed, that has put Scovil out of the world. Relentlessly abiding by his conviction as to telepathic responsibility, the ex-gambler determines to help Hardmuth flee the state—and the woman Jack loves, now also convinced, declares she will aid him in this act of generosity to the relentless prosecutor of her son.

The beginner will find it decidedly worth while to dissect out and study minutely the framework of many notable plays. He will readily see that methods of construction vary widely; that there is no rigid form of climax-building to be exactly followed in every instance; that plans differ according to the purpose involved, the period of the writing, the playwright's degree of orthodoxy, and many other considerations. Nevertheless, the student will observe, the trajectory or sky-rocket path is rarely neglected by any play that wins for itself a large measure of popular approval. And such a scheme of movement necessarily involves the onward, upward, culminating course of climax.


1. Formulate a definition for Climax.

2. Define Motivation.

3. Pick out the grand climax (a) in any play of the Elizabethan period; (b) in any modern play.

4. In a short sentence for each, trace the various minor climaxes, in any modern plays, by which the author step by step increases the tension of interest and expectation. This is an important question because it discloses one of the dramatist's most useful devices in bringing a story gradually to its high point.

5. Show, in any play, how a minor (lesser because only a contributory) climax is followed by a short period of easement.

6. Can you point out in any play a place where the dramatist lost his grip on his audience by too great a reversal of interest after such a minor climax?

7. Though climax and dénouement are never identical, point to a story or a play in which the resolution follows the climax so quickly that they are almost simultaneous in time?

8. What is the difference between a crisis and a climax?

9. Cite a play in which the ending is artificial because the dénouement has been forced—badly motivated.

10.What is your opinion of "the happy ending?"

11.In what sort of plays are we less insistent on a well motivated dénouement? Give examples, if you can.

12. Revise one of your old plots, in view of the principles of this chapter. In presenting it, show what changes you have made.

13. Briefly summarize the first two acts of an original comedy, farce-comedy, or farce, and then describe fully the grand climax and dénouement, without giving the dialogue in full form.


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