The First Act
( Originally Published 1912 )
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 un-determined 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. Even he, however, subjects the events which take place behind the scenes to a good deal of " ideal " compression.
Of course, when Mr. Shaw protests that, in Getting Married, he did not indulge in a " de-liberate 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 " per-forms 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 d้nouement!" 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, it faudrait l'in-venter"; but as a matter of fact it has existed wherever, in the Western world, the drama has developed beyond its rudest beginnings.
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, Francillon, 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.' 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, 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.' 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 reason-able 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 with-in 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 hap-pen 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, how-ever, 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 develop-ment 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 ex-ample, to Macbeth. The act headings might run somewhat as follows
ACT I. - TEMPTATION.
ACT II. MURDER AND USURPATION.
ACT III. - THE FRENZY OF CRIME AND THE HAUNTING OF REMORSE.
ACT IV. - GATHERING RETRIBUTION.
ACT V. - RETRIBUTION CONSUMMATED.
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 any-thing like them, were present to his consciousness, but merely that he " thought in acts," and men-tally 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.
ACT IV. - THE COMPACT MAJORITY ON THE WAR-PATH. The crowd, finding 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.
ACT V. - OPTIMISM DISILLUSIONED BUT INDOMITABLE. Dr. Stockmann, 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 relation-ships, 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 kin-ships. 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 T๖nnesen ; (c) a cousin, Hilmar Tonnesen. 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 mis-apprehend 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 sup-posing 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; 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 intro-duce 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 f, 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 Lemaitre, 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. Lemaitre'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.
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 pro-portion. It would be absurd to make one-third of the play merely introductory, and 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, be-fore 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 prenticework 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-TOnnesen 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 re-appearance 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 any-thing 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.