Foreshadowing, Not Forestalling
( Originally Published 1912 )
WE return now to the point at which the foregoing disquisition — it is not a digression became necessary. We had arrived at the general principle that the playwright's chief aim in his first act ought to be to arouse and carry forward the interest of the audience. This may seem a tolerably obvious statement; but it is worth while to examine a little more closely into its implications.
As to arousing the interest of the audience, it is clear that very little specific advice can be given. One can only say, " Find an interesting theme, state its preliminaries clearly and crisply, and let issue be joined without too much delay." There can be no rules for finding an interesting theme, any more than for catching the Blue Bird. At a later stage we may perhaps attempt a summary enumeration of themes which are not interesting, which have exhausted any interest they ever possessed, and " repay careful avoidance." But such an enumeration would be out of place here, where we are studying principles of form apart from details of matter.
The arousing of interest, however, is one thing, the carrying-forward of interest is another; and on the latter point there are one or two things that may profitably be said. Each act, as we have seen, should consist of, or at all events contain, a subordinate crisis, contributory to the main crisis of the play; and the art of act-construction lies in giving to each act an individuality and interest of its own, without so rounding it off as to obscure even for a moment its subsidiary, and, in the case of the first act, its introductory, relation to the whole. This is a point which many dramatists ignore or undervalue. Very often, when the curtain falls on a first or a second act, one says, " This is a fairly good act in itself ; but whither does it lead? what is to come of it all? " It awakens no definite anticipation, and for two pins one would take up one's hat and go home. The author has neglected the art of carrying-forward the interest.
It is curious to note that in the most unsophisticated forms of melodrama this art is deliberately ignored. In plays of the type of The Worst Woman in London, it appears to be an absolute canon of art that every act must have a " happy ending " — that the curtain must always fall on the hero, or, preferably, the comic man, in an attitude of triumph, while the villain and villainess cower before him in baffled impotence. We have perfect faith, of course, that the villain will come up smiling in the next act, and proceed with his nefarious practices; but, for the moment, virtue has it all its own way. This, however, is a very artless formula which has somehow developed of recent years; and it, is doubtful whether even the audiences to which these plays appeal would not in reality prefer something a little less inept in the matter of construction. As soon as we get above this level, at all events, the fostering of anticipation becomes' a matter of the first importance. The problem is, not to cut short the spectator's interest, or to leave it fluttering at a loose end, but to provide it either with a clearly-foreseen point in the next act towards which it can reach onwards, or with a definite enigma, the solution of which is impatiently ,awaited. In general terms, a bridge should be provided between one act and an-other, along which the spectator's mind cannot but travel with eager anticipation. And this is particularly important, or particularly apt to be neglected, at the end of the first act. At a later point, if the interest does not naturally and inevitably carry itself forward, the case is hopeless indeed.
To illustrate what is meant by the carrying-forward of interest, let me cite one or two instances in which it is achieved with conspicuous success.
In Oscar Wilde's first modern comedy, Lady Windermere's Fan, the heroine, Lady Windermere, has learnt that her husband has of late been seen to call very frequently at the house of a certain Mrs. Erlynne, whom nobody knows. Her suspicions thus aroused, she searches her husband's desk, discovers a private and locked bank-book, cuts it open, and finds that one large cheque after another has been drawn in favour of the lady in question. At this inopportune moment, Lord Windermere appears with a request that Mrs. Erlynne shall be invited to their reception that evening. Lady Windermere indignantly refuses, her husband insists, and, finally, with his own hand, fills in an invitation-card and sends it by messenger to Mrs. Erlynne. Here some playwrights might have been content to finish the act. It is sufficiently evident that Lady Windermere will not submit to the apparent insult, and that something exciting may be looked for at the reception in the following act. But Oscar Wilde was not content with this vague expectancy. He first defined it, and then he underlined the definition, in a perfectly natural and yet ingenious and skilful way. The day hap-pens to be Lady Windermere's birthday, and at the beginning of the act her husband has given her a beautiful ostrich-feather fan. When he sends off the invitation, she turns upon him and says, " If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with this fan." Here, again, many a dramatist might be content to bring down his curtain. The announcement of Lady Windermere's resolve carries forward the interest quite clearly enough for all practical purposes. But even this did not satisfy Wilde. He imagined a refinement, simple, probable, and yet immensely effective, which put an extraordinarily keen edge upon the expectancy of the audience. He made Lady Windermere ring for her butler, and say :
" Parker, be sure you pronounce the names of the guests very distinctly to-night. Sometimes you speak so fast that I miss them. I am particularly anxious to hear the names quite clearly, so as to make no mistake." I well remember the effect which this little touch produced on the first night. The situation was, in itself, open to grave objections. There is no plausible excuse for Lord Windermere's obstinacy in forcing Mrs. Erlynne upon his wife, and risking'' a violent scandal in order to postpone an explanation which he must know to be ultimately inevitable. Though one had not as yet learnt the precise facts of the case, one felt pretty confident that his lordship's conduct would scarcely justify itself. But interest is largely independent of critical judgment, and, for my own part, I can aver that, when the curtain fell on the first act, a five-pound note would not have bribed me to leave the theatre without assisting at Lady Windermere's reception in the second act. That is the frame of mind which the author should try to beget in his audience; and Oscar Wilde, then almost a novice, had, in this one little passage between Lady Windermere and the butler, shown himself a master of the art of dramatic story-telling. The dramatist has higher functions than mere story-telling; but this is fundamental, and the true artist is the last to despise it.
For another example of a first act brought to what one may call a judiciously tantalizing conclusion, I turn to Mr. R. C. Carton's comedy Wheels within Wheels. Lord Eric Chantrell has just returned from abroad after many years' absence. He drives straight to the bachelor flat of his old chum, Egerton Vartrey. At the flat he finds only his friend's valet. Vartrey himself has been summoned to Scotland that very evening, and the valet is on the point of following him. He knows, however, that his master would wish his old friend to make himself at home in the flat; so he presently goes off, leaving the newcomer in-stalled for the night. Lord Eric goes to the bed-room to change his clothes ; and, the stage being thus left vacant, we hear a latch-key turning in the outer door. A lady in evening dress enters, goes up to the bureau at the back of the stage, and calmly proceeds to break it open and ransack it. While she is thus burglariously employed, Lord Eric enters, and cannot refrain from a slight ex-pression of surprise. The lady takes the situation with humorous calmness, they fall into conversation, and it is manifest that at every word Lord Eric is more and more fascinated by the fair house-breaker. She learns who he is, and evidently knows all about him; but she is careful to give him no inkling of her own identity. At last she takes her leave, and he expresses such an eager hope of being allowed to renew their acquaintance, that it amounts to a declaration of a peculiar interest in her. Thereupon she addresses him to this effect : " Has it occurred to you to wonder how I got into your friend's rooms? I will show you how "— and, producing the latch-key, she holds it up, with all its questionable implications, before his eyes. Then she lays it on the table, says : " I leave you to draw your own conclusions " —and departs. A better opening for a light social comedy could scarcely be devised. We have no difficulty in guessing that the lady, who is not quite young, and has clearly a strong sense of humour, is freakishly turning appearances against herself, by way of throwing a dash of cold water on Lord Eric's sudden flame of devotion. But we long for a clear explanation of the whole quaint little episode; and here, again, no reasonable offer would tempt us to leave the theatre before our curiosity is satisfied. The remainder of the play, though amusing, is unfortunately not up to the level of the first act; else Wheels within Wheels would be a little classic of light comedy.
For a third example of interest carefully carried forward, I turn to a recent Norwegian play, The Idyll, by Peter Egge. At the very rise of the curtain, we find Inga Gar, wife of an author and journalist, Dr. Gar, reading, with evident tokens of annoyance and distaste, a new book of poems by one Rolfe Ringve. Before her marriage, Inga was an actress of no great talent; Ringve made himself conspicuous by praising her far beyond her merits ; and when, at last, an engagement between them was announced, people shrugged their shoulders and said : " They are going to regularize the situation." As a matter of fact (of this we have early assurance), though Ringve has been her ardent lover, Inga has neither loved him nor been his mistress. Ringve being called abroad, she has, during his absence, broken off her engagement to him, and has then, about a year before the play opens, married Dr. Gar, to whom she is devoted. While Gar is away on a short lecture tour, Ringve has published the book of love-poems which we find her reading. They are very remarkable poems; they have already made a great stir in the literary world; and interest is all the keener for the fact that they are evidently inspired by his passion for Inga, and are couched in such a tone of intimacy as to create a highly injurious impression of the relations between them. Gar, having just come home, has no suspicion of the nature of the book; and when an editor, who cherishes a grudge against him, conceives the malicious idea of asking him to review Ringve's masterpiece, he consents with alacrity. One or two small incidents have in the meantime shown us that there is a little rift in the idyllic happiness of Inga and Gar, arising from her inveterate habit of telling trifling fibs to avoid facing the petty annoyances of life. For instance, when Gar asks her casually whether she has read Ringve's poems, a foolish denial slips out, though she knows that the cut pages of the book will give her the lie. These incidents point to a state of unstable equilibrium in the relations between husband and wife; wherefore, when we see Gar, at the end of the act, preparing to read Ringve's poems, our curiosity is very keen as to how he will take them. We feel the next hour to be big with fate for these two people; and we long for the curtain to rise again upon the threatened household. The fuse has been fired; we are all agog for the explosion.
In Herr Egge's place, I should have been inclined to have dropped my curtain upon Gar, with the light of his reading-lamp full upon him, in the act of opening the book, and then to have shown him, at the beginning of the second act, in exactly the same position. With more delicate art, perhaps, the author interposes a little domestic incident at the end of the first act, while leaving it clearly impressed on our minds that the reading of the poems is only postponed by a few minutes. That is the essential point: the actual moment upon which the curtain falls is of minor importance. What is of vast importance, on the other hand, is that the expectation of the audience should not be baffled, and that the curtain should rise upon the immediate sequel to the reading of the poems. This is, in the exact sense of the words, a scène à faire — an obligatory scene. The author has aroused in us a reasonable expectation of it, and should he choose to balk us — to raise his cur-tain, say, a week, or a month, later — we should feel that we had been trifled with. The general theory of the scène à faire will presently come up for discussion. In the meantime, I merely make the obvious remark that it is worse than useless to awaken a definite expectation in the breast of the audience, and then to disappoint it.'
The works of Sir Arthur Pinero afford many examples of interest very skilfully carried forward. In his farces — let no one despise the technical les-sons to be learnt from a good farce — there is always an adventure afoot, whose development we eagerly anticipate. When the curtain falls on the first act of The Magistrate, we foresee the meeting of all the characters at the Hôtel des Princes, and are impatient to assist at it. In The Schoolmistress, we would not for worlds miss Peggy Hesseltine's party, which we know awaits us in Act II. An excellent example, of a more serious order, is to be found in The Benefit of the Doubt. When poor Theo, rebuffed by her husband's chilly scepticism, goes off on some manifestly harebrained errand, we divine, as do her relatives, that she is about to commit social suicide by seeking out John Allingham; and we feel more than curiosity as to the event — we feel active concern, almost anxiety, as though our own personal interests were involved. Our anticipation is heightened, too, when we see Sir Fletcher Portwood and Mrs. Cloys set off upon her track. This gives us a definite point to which to look forward, while leaving the actual course of events entirely undefined. It fulfils one of the great ends of craftsmanship, in foreshadowing without forestalling an intensely interesting conjuncture of affairs.
I have laid stress on the importance of carrying forward the interest of the audience because it is a detail that is often overlooked. There is, as a rule, no difficulty in the matter, always assuming that the theme be not inherently devoid of interest. One could mention many plays in which the author has, from sheer inadvertence, failed to carry for-ward the interest of the first act, though a very little readjustment, or a trifling exercise of invention, would have enabled him to do so. Pillars of Society, indeed, may be taken as an instance, though not a very flagrant one. Such interest as we feel at the end of the first act is vague and unfocussed. We are sure that something is to come of the return of Lona and Johan, but we have no inkling as to what that something may be. If we guess that the so-called black sheep of the family will prove to be the white sheep, it is only because we know that it is Ibsen's habit to attack respectability and criticize accepted moral values — it is not because of anything that he has told us, or hinted to us, in the play itself. In no other case does he leave our interest at such a loose end as in this, his prentice-work in modern drama. In The League of Youth, an earlier play, but of an altogether lighter type, the interest is much more definitely carried forward at the end of the first act. Stensgaard has attacked Chamberlain Brats-berg in a rousing speech, and the Chamberlain has been induced to believe that the attack was directed not against himself, but against his enemy Monsen. Consequently he invites Stensgaard to his great dinner-party, and this invitation Stensgaard regards as a cowardly attempt at conciliation. We clearly see a crisis looming ahead, when this misunderstanding shall be cleared up; and we consequently look forward with lively interest to the dinner-party of the second act — which ends, as a matter of fact, in a brilliant scene of comedy.
The principle, to recapitulate, is simply this : a good first act should never end in a blank wall. There should always be a window in it, with at least a glimpse of something attractive beyond. In Pillars of Society there is a window, indeed; but it is of ground glass.