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Exposition

( Originally Published 1912 )



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 master-pieces 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 Rosmersholan, 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 de-scribe 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 up-bringing. 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 today. 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 " pas-sages omitted in representation." This is, how-ever, essentially an inartistic practice, and one can-not regret that it has gone out of fashion. An-other 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 vietory," 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.' 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.'

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 audience —

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, syphon 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.' 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 be-comes 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.' 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 stir-ring 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 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 school-fellows.

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 ad-vantage 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.



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