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Plays - Climax

( Originally Published 1914 )



WITH the play properly introduced in act one, and the development carried forward upon that firm foundation in the following act or acts, the playwright approaches that part of his play which will, more than any-thing else, settle the fate of his work. As we have noted, if he have no such scene, he will not have a play at all. If on arrival it fail to seem indispensable and to be of dynamic quality, the play will be broken-winged, at best. The proof that he is a genuine playwright by rightful calling and not a literary person, producing books for closet reading, lies just here. The moment has come when, with his complication brought to the point where it must be solved, and all that has gone before waiting upon that solution, he must produce an effect with one skillful right-arm stroke which shall make the spectators a unit in the feeling that the evening has been well spent and his drama is true to the best tradition of the stage.

The stress has steadily increased to a degree at which it must be relieved. The strain is at the breaking point. The clash of characters or of circumstances operating upon characters is such that a crisis is at hand. By some ingenious interplay of word, action and scene, by an emotional crescendo crystallizing in a stage picture, by some unexpected reversion of incident or of human psychology (known in stage technic as peripety) or by an unforeseen accident in the fall of events, an electric change is exhibited, with the emotions of the dramatis personae at white heat and the consequent en-thraldom of the audience. Of all the varied pleasures of the playhouse, this moment, scene, turn of story, is that which appeals to the largest number and has made the theater most distinctive. This is not to say that a profound revelation of character, or a pungent reflection on life, made concrete in a situation, may not be a finer thing to do. It is merely to recognize a certain unique thing the stage can do in story telling, as against other forms, and to confess its universal attraction. While there is much in latter day play-making that seems to deaden the thrill of the obligatory scene, a clear comprehension of its central importance is basal in appreciation of the drama. A play may succeed without it, and a temporary school of psychologues may even pretend to pooh-pooh it as an outworn mode of cheap theatrics. The influence of Ibsen, and there is none more potent, has been cited as against the scène à faire, in the French sense; and it is true that his curtains are less obviously stressed and appear to aim not so much at the palpably heightened effects traditional of the development in French hands,—the most skillful hands in the world. But it remains true that this central and dominant scene is inherent in the very structure of dramatic writing. To repeat what was said before, the play that abandons climax may be good entertainment, but is by so much poorer drama. The best and most successful dramaturgy of our day therefore will seek to preserve the obligatory scene, but hide under more subtle technic the ways and means by which it is secured. The ways of the past became so open in the attempt to reach the result as to produce in many cases a feeling of bald artifice. This the later technic will do all in its power to avoid, while clinging persistently to the principle of climax, a principle of life just as truly as a principle of art. Physicians speak in a physiological sense of the grand climacteric of a man's age.

A test of any play may be found in the readiness with which it lends itself to a simple three-fold statement of its story; the proposition, as it is called by technicians. This tabloid summary of the essence of the play is valuable in that it reveals plainly two things : whether there is a play in hand, and what and where is its obligatory scene. All who wish to train them-selves to be critical rather than captious or silly in their estimate of drama, cannot be too strongly urged to practice this exercise of reducing a play to its lowest terms, its essential elements. It will serve to clarify much that might remain otherwise a muddle. And one of the sure tests of a good play may be found here; if it is not a workable drama, either it will not readily reduce to a proposition or else cannot be stated propositionally at all. Further, a play that is a real play in substance, and not a hopelessly undramatic piece of writing arbitrarily cut up into scenes or acts, and expressed in dialogue (like some of the dramas of the Bengalese Taghore) , can be stated clearly and simply in a brief paragraph. This matter of reduction to a skeleton which is structurally a sine qua non may be illustrated.

A proposition, to define it a little more care-fully, is a threefold statement of the essence of a play, so organically related that each successive part depends upon and issues from the other. It contains a condition (or situation), an action, and a result. For instance, the proposition of Macbeth may be expressed as follows :

I. A man, ambitious to be king, abetted by his wife, gains the throne through murder.

II. Remorse visits them both.

III. What will be the effect upon the pair?

Reflection upon this schematic summary will show that the interest of Shakespeare's great drama is not primarily a story interest; plot is not the chief thing, but character. The essential crux lies in the painful spectacle of the moral degeneration of husband and wife, sin working upon each according to their contrasted natures. Both have too much of the nobler elements in them not to experience regret and the prick of conscience. This makes the drama called Macbeth a fine example of psychologie tragedy in the true sense.

Or take a well-known modern play, Camille:

I. A young man loves and lives with a member of the demi-monde.

II. His father pleads with her to give him up, for his own sake.

III. What will she do?

It will be observed that the way the lady of the camellias answers the question is the revelation of her character; so that the play again, although its story interest is sufficient, is primarily a character study, surrounded by Dumas fils with a rich atmosphere of under-standing sympathy and with sentiment that to a later taste becomes sentimentality.

The School for Scandal might be stated in this way :

I. An old husband brings his gay but well-meaning wife to town.

II. Her innocent love of fun involves her in scandal.

III. Will the two be reconciled, and how?

Ibsen's A Doll's House may be thus expressed in a proposition :

I. A young wife has been babified by her husband.

II. Experiences open her eyes to the fact that she is not educated to be either wife or mother.

III. She leaves her husband until he can see what a woman should be in the home : a human being, not a doll.

These examples will serve to show what is meant by proposition and indicate more definitely the central purpose of the dramatic author and the technical demand made upon him. Be assured that under whatever varied garb of attraction in incident, scene and character, this underlying stern architectural necessity abides, and a drama's inability to reduce itself thus to a formula is a confession that in the structural sense the building is lop-sided and insecure, or, worse, that there is no structure there at all: nothing, so to put it, but a front elevation, a mere architect's suggestion.

As the spectator breathlessly enjoys the climax and watches to see that unknotting of the knot which gives the French word dénoue-ment (unknotting) its meaning, he will notice that the intensity of the climactic effect is not derived alone from action and word; but that largely effective in the total result is the picture made upon the stage, in front of the background of setting which in itself has pictorial quality, by the grouped characters as the curtain falls.

This effect, conventionally called a situation, is for the eye as well as for the ear and the brain,—better, the heart. It would be an unfortunate limitation to our theater culture if we did not comprehend to the full how large a part of the effect of a good play is due to the ever-changing series of artistic stage pictures furnished by the dramatist in collaboration with the actors and the stage manager. This principle is important throughout a play, but gets its most vivid illustration in the climax; hence, I enlarge upon it at this point.

Among the most novel, fruitful and interesting experiments now being made in the theater here and abroad may be mentioned the attempts to introduce more subtle and imaginative treatment of the possibilities of color and form in stage setting than have hitherto obtained. The reaction influenced by familiarity with the unadorned simplicity of the Elizabethans, the Gordon Craig symbolism, the frank attempt to substitute artistic suggestion for the stupid and expensive reproduction on the stage of what is called "real life," are phases of this movement, in which Germany and Russia have been prominent. The stage manager and scene deviser are daily becoming more important factors in the production of a play; and along with this goes a clearer perception of the values of grouping and regrouping on the part of the plastic elements behind the footlights. Many a scenic moment, many a climax, may be materially damaged by a failure to place the characters in such relative positions as shall visualize the dramatic feeling of the scene and reveal in terms of picture the dramatist's meaning. After all, the time-honored convention that the main character, or characters, should, at the moment when they are dominant in the story, take the center of the stage, is no empty convention; it is based on logic and geometry. There is a direct correspondence between the unity of emotion concentrated in a group of persons and the eye effect which reports that fact. I have seen so fine a climax as that in Jones's The Hypocrites—one of the very best in the modern repertory—well nigh ruined by a stock company, when, owing to the purely arbitrary demand that the leading man should have the center at a crucial moment, although in the logic of the action he did not belong there, the two young lovers who were dramatically central in the scene were shunted off to the side, and the leading man, whose true position was in the deep background, de-delivered his curtain speech close up to the footlights on a spot mathematically exact in its historic significance. True dramatic relations were sacrificed to relative salaries, and, as a result, a scene which naturally receives half a dozen curtain calls, went off with comparative tameness. It was a striking demonstration of the importance of picture on the stage as an externalization of dramatic facts.

If the theater-goer will keep an eye upon this aspect of the drama, he will add much of interest to the content of his pleasure and do justice to a very important and easily over looked phase of technic. It is common in criticism, often professional, to sneer at the tendency of modern actors, under the stage manager's guidance, continually to shift positions while the dialogue is under way; thus producing an unnecessarily uneasy effect of meaningless action. As a generalization, it may be said that this is done (though at times, no doubt, overdone) on a principle that is entirely sound : it expresses the desire for a new picture, a recognition of the law that, in drama, composition to the eye is as truly a principle as it is in painting. And with that consideration goes the additional fact that motion implies emotion; than which there is no surer law in psycho-physics. Abuse of the law, on the stage, is beyond question possible, and frequently met. But a redistribution of the positions of actors on the boards, when not abused, means they have moved under the compulsion of some stress of feeling and then the move-ment is an external symbol of an internal state of mind. The drama must express the things within by things without, in this way; that is its method. The audience is only properly irritated when a stage moment which, from the nature of its psychology, calls for the static, is injured by an unrelated, fussy, bodily activity. Motion in such a case becomes as foolish as the scene shifting in one of the highest colored and most phantasmagoric of our dreams. The wise stage director will not call for a change of picture unless it represents a psychologie fact.

Two men converse at a table ; one communicates to the other, quietly and in conversational tone, a fact of alarming nature. The other leaps to his feet with an exclamation and paces the floor as he talks about it; nothing is more fitting, because nothing is truer to life. The repressive style of acting today, which might try to express this situation purely by facial work, goes too far in abandoning the legitimate tools of the craft. Let me repeat that, despite all the refining upon older, more violent and crudely expressive methods of technic, the stage must, from its very nature, indicate the emotions of human beings by objective, concrete bodily reaction. The Greek word for drama means doing. To exhibit feeling is to do something.

Or let us take a more composite group : that which is seen in a drawing room, with various knots of people talking together just before dinner is announced. A shift in the groups, besides effecting the double purpose of pleasing the eye and allowing certain portions of . the dialogue to come forward and get the ear of the audience, also incidentally tells the truth: these groups in reality would shift and change more or less by the law of social convenience. The general greetings of such an occasion would call for it. In a word, then, the stage is, among other things, a plastic representation of life, forever making an appeal to the eye. The application of this to the climax shows how vastly important its pictorial side may be.

The climax that is prolonged is always in danger. Lead up to it slowly and surely, se-cure the effect, and then get away from it instantly by lowering the curtain. Do not fumble with it, or succumb to the insinuating temptation of clinging to what is so effective. The dramatist here is like a fond father loath to say farewell to his favorite child. But say the parting word he must, if he would have his offspring prosper and not, like many a father ere this, keep the child with him to its detriment. A second too much, and the whole thing will be imperiled. At the dénouement, every syllable must be weighed, nor found wanting; every extraneous word ruthlessly cut out, the feats of fine language so welcome in other forms of literary composition shunned as an arch enemy. Colloquialism, instead of literary speech, even bad grammar where more formal book-speech seems to dampen the fire, must be instinctively sought. And whenever the action itself, backed by the scenery, can convey what is aimed at, silence is best of all; for then, if ever, silence is indeed golden. All this the spectator will quietly note, sitting in his seat of judgment, ready to show his pleasure or displeasure, according to what is done.

A difficulty that blocks the path of every dramatist in proportion as its removal improves his piece, is that of graduating his earlier curtains so that the climax (third act or fourth, as it may) is obviously the outstanding, over-powering effect of the whole play. The curtain of the first act will do well to possess at least some slight heightening of the interest maintained progressively from the opening of the drama ; an added crispness perceptible to all who look and listen. And the crisis of the second act must be differentiated from that of the first in that it has a tenser emotional value, while yet it is distinctly below that of the climax, if the obligatory scene is to come later. Sad indeed the result if any curtain effect in appeal and power usurp the royal place of the climactic scene! And this skillful gradation of effects upon a rising scale of interest, while always aimed at, is by no means always secured. This may happen because the dramatist, with much good material in his hands, has believed he could use it prodigally, and been led to overlook the principle of relative values in his art. A third act climax may secure a tremendous sensation by the device of keeping the earlier effects leading up to it comparatively low-keyed and quiet. The tempest may be, in the abstract, only one in a teapot ; but a tempest in effect it is, all the same.

Ibsen's plays often illustrate and justify this statement, as do the plays of the younger British school, Barker, Baker, McDonald, Houghton, Hankin. And the reverse is equally true : a really fine climax may be made pale and ineffective by too much of sensational material introduced earlier in the play.

The climax of the drama is also the best place to illustrate the fact that the stage appeal is primarily emotional. If this central scene be not of emotional value, it is safe to say that the play is doomed; or will at the most have a languishing life in special performances and be cherished by the élite. The stage story, we have seen, comes to the auditor warm and vibrant in terms of feeling. The idea which should be there, as we saw, must come by way of the heart, whence, as George Meredith declares, all great thoughts come. Herein lies another privilege and pitfall of the dramatist. Privilege, because teaching by emotion will always be most popular; yet a pitfall, because it sets up a temptation to play upon the unthinking emotions which, once aroused, sweep conviction along to a goal perhaps specious and undesirable. To say that the theater is a place for the exercise of the emotions, is not to say or mean that it is well for it to be a place for the display and influence of the unregulated emotions. Legitimate drama takes an idea of the brain, or an inspiration of the imaginative faculties, and conveys it by the ruddy road of the feelings to the stirred heart of the audience; it should be, and is in its finest examples, the happy union of the head and heart, so blended as best to conserve the purpose of entertainment and popular instruction; popular, for the reason that it is emotional, concrete, vital; and instructive, because it sinks deeper in and stays longer (being more keenly felt) than any mere exercise of the intellect in the world.

The student, whether at home with the book of the play in hand or in his seat at the theater, will scrutinize the skilled effects of climax, seeking principles and understanding more clearly his pleasure therein. In reading Shakespeare, for example,' he will see that the obligatory scene of The Merchant of Venice is the trial scene and the exact moment when the height is reached and the fall away from it begins, that where Portia tells the Jew to take his pound of flesh without the letting of blood. In modern drama, he will think of the scene in Sudemann's powerful drama, Magda, in which Magda's past is revealed to her fine old father as the climax of the action; and in Pinero's strongest piece, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, will put his finger on the scene of the return of Paula's lover as the crucial thing to show. And so with the scene of the cross-examination of the woman in Jones's Mrs. Dane's Defense, and the scene in Lord Darlington's rooms in Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, and the final scene in Shaw's Candida, where the playwright throws forward the scène à faire to the end, and makes his heroine choose between husband and lover. These, and many like them, will furnish ample food for reflection and prove helpful in clarifying the mind in the essentials of this most important of all the phenomena of play-building.

It is with the climax, as with everything else in art or in life: honesty of purpose is at the bottom of the success that is admirable. Mere effectivism is to be avoided, because it is insincere. In its place must be effectiveness, which is at once sincere and dramatic.

The climax, let it be now assumed, has been successfully brought off. The curtain falls on the familiar and pleasant buzz of conversation which is the sign infallible that the dramatist's dearest ambition has been attained. Could we, but listen to the many detached bits of talk that fly about the house, or are heard in the lobby, we might hazard a shrewd guess at the success of the piece. If the talk be favorable, and the immediate reception of the obligatory scene has been hearty, it would appear as if the playwright's troubles were over. But hardly so. Even with his climax a success, he is not quite out of the woods. A task, difficult and hedged in with the possibilities of mistake, awaits him; for the last act is just ahead, and it may diminish, even nullify the favorable impression he has just won by his manipulation of the scène à faire. And so, girding himself for the last battle, he enters the arena, where many a good man before him has unexpectedly fallen before the enemy.



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