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Ending A Play

( Originally Published 1914 )



TO one who is watchful in his theater seat, it must have become evident that many plays, which in the main give pleasure and seem successful, have something wrong with the last act. The play-goer may feel this, although he never has analyzed the cause or more than dimly been aware of the artistic problem involved. An effect of anti-climax is produced by it, interest flags or utterly disappears ; the final act seems to lag superfluous on the stage, like Johnson's player.

Several reasons combine to make this no un-common experience. One may have emerged from the discussion of the climax. It is the hard fortune of the last act to follow the great scene and to suffer by contrast; even if the last part of the play be all that such an act should be, there is in the nature of the case a likelihood that the auditor, reacting from his excitement, may find this concluding section of the drama stale, flat and unprofitable. To overcome this disadvantage, to make the last act palatable without giving it so much attraction as to detract from the scène à faire and throw the latter out of its due position in the center of interest, offers the playwright a very definite labor and taxes his ingenuity to the utmost. The proof of this is that so many dramas, up to the final act complete successes and excellent examples of sound technic, go to pieces here. I am of the opinion that in no one particular of construction do plays with matter in them and some right of existence come to grief more frequently than in this successful handling of the act which closes the drama. It may even be doubted if the inexperienced dramatist has so much trouble with his climax as with this final problem. If he had no scène à faire he would hardly have written a play t all. But this tricky ultimate portion of the drama, seemingly so minor, may prove terror inspired by the main theme; as, for instance, Shakespeare alleviates the deaths of the lovers in Romeo and Juliet by the reconciliation of the estranged families over their fair young bodies. A better mood for leaving the playhouse is thus created, without any lying about life. The Greeks did this by the use of lyric song t the end of their tragedies; melodrama does it by an often violent wresting of events to smooth out the trouble, as well as by lessening our interest in character as such.

Also, and here is, I believe, its prime function, the last act can show the logical outflow of the situation already laid down and brought to its issue in the preceding acts of the drama. Another danger lurks in this for the technician, as may be shown. It would almost seem that, in view of the largely supererogatory character of this final act, inasmuch as the play seems practically over with the scène à faire, it might be best honestly to end the piece with its most exciting, arresting scene and cut out the final half hour altogether.

But there is an artistic reason for keeping it as a feature of good play-making to the end of the years; I have just referred to it. I mean the instinctive desire on the part of the dramatic artist and his cooperative auditors so to handle the cross-section of life which has been exhibited upon the stage as to make the transition from stage scene to real life so gradual, so plausible, as to be pleasant to one's sense of esthetic vraisemblance. To see how true this is, watch the effect upon yourself made by a play which rings down the last curtain upon a sensational moment, leaving you dazed and dumb as the lights go up and the orchestra renders its final banality. Somehow, you feel that this sudden, violent change from life fictive and imaginative to the life actual of garish streets, clanging trolleys, tooting motor cars and theater suppers is jarring and wrong. Art, you whisper to yourself, should not be so completely t variance with life; the good artist should find some other better way to dismiss you. The Greeks, as I said, sensitive to this demand, mitigated the terrible happenings of their colossal legendary tragedies by closing with lofty lyric choruses. Turn to the last pages of Sophocles's OEdipus Tyrannus, perhaps the most drastic of them all, for an example. I should venture to go so far as to suggest it as possible that in an apparent exception like Othello, where the drama closes harshly upon the murder of the ewe lamb of a wife, Shakespeare might have introduced the alleviation of a final scene, had he ever prepared this play, or his plays in general, after the modern method of revision and final form, for the Argus-eyed scrutiny they were to receive in after-time. However, that his instinct in this matter, in general, led him to seek the artistic consolation which removes the spectator from too close and unrelieved proximity to the horrible is beyond cavil. If he do furnish a tragic scene, there goes with it a passage, a strain of music, an unforgettable phrase, which, beauty being its own excuse for being, is as balm to the soul harrowed up by the agony of a protagonist. Horatio, over the body of his dear friend, speaks words so lovely that they seem the one rubric for sorrow since. And, still further removing us from the solemn sadness of the moment, enters Fortinbras, to take over the cares of kingdom and, in so doing, to remind us that beyond the individual fate of Hamlet lies the great outer world of which, after all, he is but a small part; and that the ordered cosmos must go on, though the Ophelias and Hamlets of the world die. The mere horrible, with this alleviation of beauty, becomes a very different thing, the terrible ; the terrible is the horrible, plus beauty, and the terrible lifts us to a lofty mood of searching seriousness that has its pleasure, where the horrible repels and dispirits. Thus, the sympathetic recipient gets a certain austere satisfaction, yes, why not call it pleasure, from noble tragedy. But he asks that the last act pour the oil of peace, of beauty and of philosophic vision upon the troubled waters of life.

There is then an artistic justification, if I am right, for the act following the climax, quite aside from the conventional demand for it as a time filler, and its convenience too in the way of binding up loose ends.

As the function of the great scene is to develop and bring to a head the principal things of the play, so that of this final act would seem to be the taking care of the lesser things, to an effect of harmonious artistry. And whenever a playwright, confronting these difficulties and dangers, triumphs over them, whenever your comment is to the effect that, since it all appears to be over, it is hard to see what a last act can offer to justify it, and yet if that act prove interesting, freshly invented, unexpectedly worth while, you will, if you care to do your part in the Triple Alliance made up of actors, playwright and audience, express a sentiment of gratitude, and admiration as well, for the theater artist who has manipulated his material to such good result.

The last act of Thomas's The Witching Hour can be studied with much profit with this in mind. It is a masterly example of added interest when the things vital to the story have been taken care of. Another, and very different, example is Louis Parker's charming play, Rosemary, where t the climax a middle-aged man parts from the young girl who loves him and whom he loves, because he does not realize she returns the feeling, and, moreover, she is engaged to another, and, from the con-ventions of age, the match is not desirable. The story is over, surely, and it is a sad ending; nothing can ever change that, unless the dramatist tells some awful lies about life. Had he violently twisted the drama into a "pleasant ending" in the last act he would have given us an example of an outrageous disturbance of key and ruined his piece. What does he do, indeed, what can he do? By a bold stroke of the imagination, he projects the final scene fifty years forward, and shows the man of forty an old man of ninety. He learns, by the finding of the girl's diary, that she loved him ; and, as the curtain descends, he thanks God for a beautiful memory. Time has plucked out the sting and left only the flower-like fragrance. This is a fine illustration of an addendum that is congruous. It lifts the play to a higher category. I believe it is true to say that this unusual last act was the work of Mr. Murray Carson, Mr. Parker's collaborator in the play.

One more example may be given, for these illustrations will bring out more clearly a phase of dramatic writing which has not received overmuch attention in criticism. The recent clever comedy, Years of Discretion, by the Hattons, conducts the story to a conventional end, when the middle-aged lovers, who have flirted, danced and motored themselves into an engagement and marriage, are on the eve of their wedding tour. If the story be a love story, and it is in essence, it ought to be over. The staid Boston widow has been metamoraphosed by gay New York, her maneuvers have resulted in the traditional end; she has got her man. What else can be offered to hold the interest?

And just here is where the authors have been able, passing beyond the conventional limits of story, to introduce, in a lightly touched, pleasing fashion, a bit of philosophy that underlies the drama and gives it an enjoyable fillip at the close. We see the newly wed pair, facing that wedding tour at fifty, and secretly longing to give it up and settle down comfortably at home. They have been playing young during the New York whirl, why not be natural now and enjoy life in the decade to which they belong? So, in the charming garden scene they confess, and agree to grow old grace-fully together. It is excellent comedy and sound psychology; to some, the last act is the best of all. Yet, regarded from the act pre-ceding, it seemed superfluous.

Still another trouble confronts the playwright as he comes at grapples with the final act. He falls under the temptation to make a conventionally desirable conclusion, the "pleas-ant ending" already animadverted against, which is supposed to be the constant petition of the theater Philistine. Here, it will be observed, the pleasant ending becomes part of the constructive problem. Shall the playwright carry out the story in a way to make it harmonious with what has gone before, both psychologically and in the logic of events? Shall he make the conclusion congruous with the climax, a properly deduced result from the situation therein shown? If he do, his play will be a work of art, tonal in a totality whose respective parts are keyed to this effect. Or shall he, adopting the tag line familiar to us in fairy tales, "and so they lived happily ever after," wrest and distort his material in order to give this supposed-to-be-prayed-for condiment that the grown-up babes in front are crying for? Every dramatist meets this question face to face in his last act, unless his plan has been to throw his most dramtic moment at the play's very end. A large percentage of all dramas weaken or spoil the effect by this handling of the last part of the play. The ending either is ineffective because unbelievable ; or unnecessary, because what it shows had better be left to the imagination.

An attractive and deservedly successful drama by Mr. Zangwill, Merely Mary Ann, may be cited to illustrate the first mistake. Up to the last act its handling of the relation of the gentleman lodger and the quaint little slavey is pitched in the key of truth and has a Dickens-like sympathy in it which is the main element in its charm. But in the final scene, where Mary Ann has become a fashionable young woman, meets her whilom man friend, and a match results, the improbability is such (to say nothing about the impossibility) as to destroy the previous illusion of reality; the auditor, if intelligent, feels that he has paid too high a price for such a union. I am not arguing that the improbable may not be legitimate on the stage; but only trying to point out that, in this particular case, the key of the play, established in previous acts, is the key of probability ; and hence the change is a sin against artistic probity. The key of improbability, as in some excellent farces, Baby Mine, Seven Days, Seven Keys to Baldpate, and their kind—where it is basal that we grant certain conditions or happenings not at all likely in life—is quite another matter and not of necessity reprehensible in the least. But Merely Mary Ann is too true in its homely fashion to fob us off with lies at the end; we believed it at first and so are shocked at its mendacity.

One of the best melodramas of recent years is Mr. McLellan's Leah Kleschna. Its psychology, founded on the assumption that a woman whose higher nature is appealed to, will respond to the appeal, is as sound as it is fine and encouraging. She is a criminal who is caught opening a safe by the French statesman whose house she has entered. His conversation with her is so effective that she breaks with her fellow thieves and starts in on another and better life in a foreign country, where the statesman secures for her honest employment.

It is in the last act that the playwright gets into trouble, and illustrates the second possibility just mentioned; unnecessary information which can readily be filled in by the spectator, without the addition of a superfluous act to show it. The woman has broken with her gang, she is saved; arrangement has been made for her to go to Austria (if my memory locates the land), there to work out her change of heart. Really, there is nothing else to tell. The essential interest of the play lay in the reclaiming of Leah ; she is reclaimed ! Why not dismiss the audience? But the author, perhaps led astray by the principle of showing things on the stage, even if the things shown lie beyond the limits of the story proper, exhibits the girl in her new quarters, aided and abetted by the scene painter who places behind her a very expensive background of Nature; and then caps his unnecessary work by bringing the statesman on a visit to see how his protégée is getting along. Meanwhile, the knowing spectator murmurs in his set (let us hope) and kicks against the pricks of convention.

These examples indicate some of the problems centering in an act which for the very reason that it is, or seems, comparatively unimportant, is all the more likely to trip up a dramatist who, buoyed up by his victory in a fine and effective scene of climactic force, comes to the final act in a state of reaction, and forgetful of the fact that pride goeth before a fall—the fall of the curtain! No wonder that, in order to dodge all such difficulties, playwrights sometimes project their climax for-ward into the last act and so shorten what is left to do thereafter; or, going further, place it at the play's terminal point. But the artistic objections to this have been explained. Some treatment of the falling action after the climax, longer or shorter, is advisable; and the dramatist must sharpen his wits upon this technical demand and make it part of the satisfaction of his art to meet it.

The fundamental business of the last act of a play, let it be repeated, is to show the general results of a situation presented in the crucial scene, in so far as those results are pertinent to a satisfactory grasp of story and idea on the part of the auditor. These results must be in harmony with the beginning, growth and crisis of the story and must either be demanded in advance by the audience, or gladly received as pleasant and helpful, when presented. The citation of such plays as Rosemary and Years of Discretion raises the interesting question whether a peculiar function of the final act may not lie in not only rounding out the story as such, but in bringing home the underlying idea of the piece to the audience. Surely a rich opportunity, as yet but little utilized, is here. Yet again danger lurks in the opportunity. The last act might take on the nature of a philosophic tag, a preachment not organically related to the preceding parts. This, of course, would be a sad misuse of the chance to give the drama a wider application and finer bloom. But if the playwright have the skill and inventive power to merge the two elements of story and idea in a final act which adds stimulting material while it brings out clearly the underlying theme, then he will have performed a kind of double function of the drama. In the new technic of to-day and to-morrow this may come to be, more and more, the accepted aim of the resourceful, thoughtful maker of plays.

The intelligent auditor in the playhouse with this aspect of technic before him will be able to assist in his cooperation with worthy plays by noticing particularly if the closing treatment of the material in hand seem germane to the subject; if it avoid anti-climax and keep the key; and if it demonstrates skill in over-coming such obstacles as have been indicated. Such a play-goer will not slight the final act as of only technical importance, but will be alertly on the watch to see if his friend the playwright successfully grapples with the last of the successive problems which arise during the complex and very difficult business of telling a stage story with clearness, effectiveness and charm.



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