Tension and Its Suspension
( Originally Published 1912 )
IN the days of the five-act dogma, each act was supposed to have its special and pre-ordained function. Freytag assigns to the second act, as a rule, the Steigerung or heightening — the working-up, one might call it — of the interest. But the second act, in modern plays, has often to do all the work of the three middle acts under the older dispensation; wherefore the theory of their special functions has more of a historical than of a practical interest. For our present purposes, we may treat the interior section of a play as a unit, whether it consist of one, two, or three acts.
The first act may be regarded as the porch or vestibule through which we pass into the main fabric—solemn or joyous, fantastic or austere — of the actual drama. Sometimes, indeed, the vestibule is reduced to a mere threshold which can be crossed in two strides ; but normally the first act, or at any rate the greater part of it, is of an introductory character. Let us conceive, then, that we have passed the vestibule, and are now to study the principles on which the body of the structure is reared.
In the first place, is the architectural metaphor a just one? Is there, or ought there to be, any analogy between a drama and a finely-proportioned building? The question has already been touched on in the opening paragraphs of Chapter VIII; but we may now look into it a little more closely.
What is the characteristic of a fine piece of architecture? Manifestly an organic relation, a carefully-planned interdependence, between all its parts. A great building is a complete and rounded whole, just like a living organism. It is informed by an inner law of harmony and proportion, and cannot be run up at haphazard, with no definite and pre-determined design. Can we say the same of a great play?
I think we can. Even in those plays which present a picture rather than an action, we ought to recognize a principle of selection, proportion, composition, which, if not absolutely organic, is at any rate the reverse of haphazard. We may not always be able to define the principle, to put it clearly in words; but if we feel that the author has been guided by no principle, that he has proceeded on mere hand-to-mouth caprice, that there is no " inner law of harmony and proportion " in his work, then we instinctively relegate it to a low place in our esteem. Hauptmann's Weavers certainly cannot be called a piece of dramatic architecture, like Rosmersholrn or Iris; but that does not mean that it is a mere rambling series of tableaux. It is not easy to define the principle of unity in that brilliant comedy The Madras House; but we nevertheless feel that a principle of unity exists; or, if we do not, so much the worse for the play and its author.
There is, indeed, a large class of plays, often popular, and sometimes meritorious, in relation to which the architectural metaphor entirely breaks down. They are what may be called " running fire " plays. We have all seen children setting a number of wooden blocks on end, at equal intervals, and then tilting over the first so that it falls against the second, which in turn falls against the third, and so on, till the whole row, with a rapid clack-clack-clack, lies flat upon the table. This is called a " running fire "; and this is the structural principle of a good many plays. We feel that the playwright is, so to speak, inventing as he goes along — that the action, like the child's fantastic serpentine of blocks, might at any moment take a turn in any possible direction without falsifying its antecedents or our expectations. No part of it is necessarily involved in any other part. If the play were found too long or too short, an act might be cut out or written in without necessitating any considerable readjustments in the other acts. The play is really a series of episodes,
"Which might, odd bobs, sir ! in judicious hands, Extend from here to Mesopotamy."
The episodes may grow out of each other plausibly enough, but by no pre-ordained necessity, and with no far-reaching interdependence. We live, in such plays, from moment to moment, foreseeing nothing, desiring nothing; and though this frame of mind may be mildly agreeable, it involves none of that complexity of sensation with which we con-template a great piece of architecture, or follow the development of a finely-constructed drama. To this order belong many cape-and-sword plays and detective dramas — plays like The Adventure of Lady Ursula, The Red Robe, the Musketeer romances that were at one time so popular, and most plays of the Sherlock Holmes and Raffles type. But pieces of a more ambitious order have been known to follow the same formula — some of the works, for instance, of Mr. Charles McEvoy, to say nothing of Mr. Bernard Shaw.
We may take it, I think, that the architectural analogy holds good of every play which can properly be said to be " constructed." Construction means dramatic architecture, or in other words, a careful pre-arrangement of proportions and inter-dependencies. But to carry beyond this point the analogy between the two arts would be fantastic and unhelpful. The one exists in space, the other in time. The one seeks to beget in the spectator a state of placid, though it may be of aspiring, contemplation; the other, a state of more or less acute tension. The resemblances between music and architecture are, as is well known, much more extensive and illuminating. It might not be wholly fanciful to call music a sort of middle term between the two other arts.
A great part of the secret of dramatic architecture lies in the one word " tension." To engender, maintain, suspend, heighten and resolve a state of tension — that is the main object of the dramatist's craft.
What do we mean by tension ? Clearly a stretching out, a stretching forward, of the mind. That is the characteristic mental attitude of the theatrical audience. If the mind is not stretching forward, the body will soon weary of its immobility and constraint. Attention may be called the momentary correlative of tension. When we are intent on what is to come, we are attentive to what is there and then happening. The term tension is some-times applied, not to the mental state of the audience, but to the relation of the characters on the stage. " A scene of high tension " is primarily one in which the actors undergo a great emotional strain. But this is, after all, only a means towards heightening the mental tension of the audience. In such a scene the mind stretches forward, no longer to something vague and distant, but to something instant and imminent.
In discussing what Freytag calls the erregende Moment, we might have defined it as the starting-point of the tension. A reasonable audience will, if necessary, endure a certain amount of exposition, a certain positing of character and circumstance, before the tension sets in; but when it once has set in, the playwright must on no account suffer it to relax until he deliberately resolves it just before the fall of the curtain. There are, of course, minor rhythms of tension and resolution, like the harmonic vibrations of a violin-string. That is implied when we say that a play consists of a great crisis worked out through a series of minor crises. But the main tension, once initiated, must never be relaxed. If it is, the play is over, though the author may have omitted to note the fact. Not infrequently, he begins a new play under the impression that he is finishing the old one. That is what Shakespeare did in The Merchant of Venice. The fifth act is an independent afterpiece, though its independence is slightly disguised by the fact that the erregende Moment of the new play follows close upon the end of the old one, with no interact between. A very exacting technical criticism might accuse Ibsen of verging towards the same fault in An Enemy of the People. There the tension is practically resolved with Dr. Stockmann's ostracism at the end of the fourth act. At that point, if it did not know that there was another act to come, an audience might go home in perfect content. The fifth act is a sort of epilogue or sequel, built out of the materials of the preceding drama, but not forming an integral part of it. With a brief exposition to set forth the antecedent circumstances, it would be quite possible to present the fifth act as an independent comedietta.
But here a point of great importance calls for our notice. Though the tension, once started, must never be relaxed : though it ought, on the contrary, to be heightened or tightened (as you choose to put it) from act to act; yet there are times when it may without disadvantage, or even with marked advantage, be temporarily suspended. In other words, the stretching-forward, without in any way slackening, may fall into the background of our consciousness, while other matters, the relevance of which may not be instantly apparent, are suffered to occupy the foreground. We know all too well, in everyday experience, that tension is not really relaxed by a temporary distraction. The dread of a coming ordeal in the witness-box or on the operating-table may be forcibly crushed down like a child's jack-in-the-box; but we are always conscious of the effort to compress it, and we know that it will spring up again the moment that effort ceases. Sir Arthur Pinero's play, The Profligate, was written at a time when it was the fashion to give each act a sub-title; and one of its acts is headed " The Sword of Damocles." That is, in-deed, the inevitable symbol of dramatic tension : we see a sword of Damocles (even though it be only a farcical blade of painted lathe) impending over some one's head : and when once we are confident that it will fall at the fated moment, we do not mind having our attention momentarily diverted to other matters. A rather flagrant example of suspended attention is afforded by Hamlet's advice to the Players. We know that Hamlet has hung a sword of Damocles over the King's head in the shape of the mimic murder-scene; and, while it is preparing, we are quite willing to have our attention switched off to certain abstract questions of dramatic criticism. The scene might have been employed to heighten the tension. Instead of giving the Players (in true princely fashion) a lesson in the general principles of their art, Hamlet might have specially " coached " them in the " business " of the scene to be enacted, and thus doubly impressed on the audience his resolve to " tent " the King to the quick." I am far from suggesting that this would have been desirable; but it would obviously have been possible.' Shakespeare, as the experience of three centuries has shown, did right in judging that the audience was already sufficiently intent on the coming ordeal, and would welcome an interlude of aesthetic theory.
There are times, moreover, when it is not only permissible to suspend the tension, but when, by so doing, a great artist can produce a peculiar and admirable effect. A sudden interruption, on the very brink of a crisis, may, as it were, whet the appetite of the audience for what is to come. We see in the Porter scene in Macbeth a suspension of this nature; but Shakespeare used it sparingly, unless, indeed, we are to consider as a deliberate point of art the retardation of movement commonly observable in the fourth acts of his tragedies. Ibsen, on the other hand, deliberately employed this device on three conspicuous occasions. The entrance of Dr. Rank in the last act of A Doll's House is a wholly unnecessary interruption to the development of the crisis between Nora and Helmer. The scene might be entirely omitted without leaving a perceptible hiatus in the action ; yet who does not feel that this brief respite lends gathered impetus to the main action when it is resumed? The other instances are offered by the two apparitions of Ulric Brendel in Rosmersholm. The first occurs when Rosmer is on the very verge of his momentous confession to Kroll, the second when Rosmer and Rebecca are on the very verge of their last great resolve; and in each case we feel a distinct value (apart from the inherent quality of the Brendel scenes) in the very fact that the tension has been momentarily suspended. Such a rallentando effect is like the apparent pause in the rush of a river before it thunders over a precipice.
The possibility of suspending tension is of wider import than may at first sight appear. But for it, our dramas would have to be all bone and muscle, like the figures in an anatomical text-book. As it is, we are able, without relaxing tension, to shift it to various planes of consciousness, and thus find leisure to reproduce the surface aspects of life, with some of its accidents and irrelevances. For example, when the playwright has, at the end of his first act, succeeded in carrying onward the spectator's interest, and giving him something definite to look forward to, it does not at all follow that the expected scene, situation, revelation, or what not, should come at the beginning of the second act. In some cases it must do so; when, as in The Idyll above cited, the spectator has been care-fully induced to expect some imminent conjuncture which cannot be postponed. But this can scarcely be called a typical case. More commonly, when an author has enlisted the curiosity of his audience of some definite point, he will be in no great hurry to satisfy and dissipate it. He may devote the early part of the second act to working-up the same line of interest to a .higher pitch; or he may hold it in suspense while he prepares some further development of the action. The closeness with which a line of interest, once started, ought to be followed up, must depend in some measure on the nature and tone of the play. If it be a serious play, in which character and action are very closely intertwined, any pause or break in the conjoint development is to be avoided. If, on the other hand, it is a play of light and graceful dialogue, in which the action is a pretext for setting the characters in motion rather than the chief means towards their manifestation, then the playwright can afford to relax the rate of his progress, and even to wander a little from the straight line of advance. In such a play, even the old institution of the " underplot " is not inadmissible; though the underplot ought scarcely to be a "plot," but only some very slight thread of interest, involving no strain on the attention.' It may almost be called an established practice, on the English stage, to let the dalliance of a pair of boy-and-girl lovers relieve the main interest of a more or less serious comedy; and there is no particular harm in such a convention, if it be not out of keeping with the general character of the play. In some plays the substance — the character-action, if one may so call it — is the main, and indeed the only, thing. In others the substance, though never unimportant, is in some degree subordinate to the embroideries; and it is for the playwright to judge how far this subordination may safely be carried.
One principle, however, may be emphasized as almost universally valid, and that is that the end of an act should never leave the action just where it stood at the beginning. An audience has an instinctive sense of, and desire for, progress. It does not like to realize that things have been merely marking time. Even if it has been thoroughly entertained, from moment to moment, during the progress of an act, it does not like to feel at the end that nothing has really happened. The fall of the curtain gives time for reflection, and for the ordering of impressions which, while the action was afoot, were more or less vague and confused. It is therefore of great importance that each act should, to put it briefly, bear looking back upon — that it should appear to stand in due proportion to the general design of the play, and should not be felt to have been empty, or irrelevant, or disappointing. This is, indeed, a plain corollary from the principle of tension. Suspended it may be, sometimes with positive advantage ; but it must not be suspended too long; and suspension for a whole act is equivalent to relaxation.
To sum up : when once a play has begun to move, its movement ought to proceed continuously, and with gathering momentum; or, if it stands still for a space, the stoppage ought to be deliberate and purposeful. It is fatal when the author thinks it is moving, while in fact it is only revolving on its own axis.