The Obligatory Scene
( Originally Published 1912 )
I DO not know whether it was Francisque Sarcey who invented the phrase scène à faire; but it certainly owes its currency to that valiant champion of the theatrical theatre, if I may so express it. Note that in this term I intend no disrespect. My conception of the theatrical theatre may not be exactly the same as M. Sarcey's; but at all events I share his abhorrence of the untheatrical theatre.
What is the scène à faire? Sarcey has used the phrase so often, and in so many contexts, that it is impossible to tie him down to any strict definition. Instead of trying to do so, I will give a typical example of the way in which he usually employs the term.
In Les Fourchambault, by Emile Augier, the first act introduces us to the household of a merchant, of Havre, who has married a wealthy, but extravagant woman, and has a son and daughter who are being gradually corrupted by their mother's worldliness. We learn that Fourchambault, senior, has, in his youth, betrayed a young woman who was a governess in his family. He wanted to marry her, but his relations maligned her character, and he cast her off ; nor does he know what has become of her and her child. In the second act we pass to the house of an energetic and successful young shipowner named Bernard, who lives alone with his mother. Bernard, as we divine, is secretly de-voted to a young lady named Marie Letellier, a guest in the Fourchambault house, to whom young Leopold Fourchambault is paying undesirable attentions. One day Bernard casually mentions to his mother that the house of Fourchambault is on the verge of bankruptcy; nothing less than a quarter of a million francs will enable it to tide over the crisis. Mme. Bernard, to her son's astonishment, begs him to lend the tottering firm the sum required. He objects that, unless the business is better managed, the loan will only postpone the inevitable disaster. " Well, then, my son," she replied, " you must go into partnership with M. Fourchambault." " I ! with that imbecile ! " he ex-claims. " My son," she says, gravely, and emphatically, " you must — it is your duty I demand it of you ! " " Ah ! " cries Bernard. " I understand — he is my father ! "
After ecstatically lauding this situation and the scenes which have led up to it, M. Sarcey continues —
When the curtain falls upon the words " He is my father," I at once see two scènes à faire, and I know that they will be faites: the scene between the son and the father whom he is to save, the scene between Bernard and his half-brother Leopold, who are in love with the same woman, the one dishonourably and the other secretly and nobly. What will they say to each other? I have no idea. But it is precisely this expectation mingled with uncertainty that is one of the charms of the theatre. I say to myself, " Ah, they will have an encounter ! What will come of it?" And that this is the state of mind of the whole audience is proved by the fact that when the two characters of the scène à faire stand face to face, a thrill of anticipation runs round the whole theatre.
This, then, is the obligatory scene as Sarcey generally understands it — a scene which, for one reason or another, an audience expects and ardently desires. I have italicized the phrase " expectation mingled with uncertainty because it expresses in other terms the idea which I have sought to convey in the formula " foreshadowing without forestalling." But before we can judge of the merits of M. Sarcey's theory, we must look into it a little more closely. I shall try, then, to state it in my own words, in what I believe to be its most rational and defensible form.
An obligatory scene is one which the audience (more or less clearly and consciously) foresees and desires, and the absence of which it may with reason resent. On a rough analysis, it will appear, I think, that there are five ways in which a scene may become, in this sense, obligatory : —
(1) It may be necessitated by the inherent logic of the theme.
(2) It may be demanded by the manifest exigencies of specifically dramatic effect.
(3) The author himself may have rendered it obligatory by seeming unmistakably to lead up to it.
(4) It may be required in order to justify some modification of character or alteration of will, too important to be taken for granted.
(5) It may be imposed by history or legend.
These five classes of obligatory scenes may be docketed, respectively, as the Logical, the Dramatic, the Structural, the Psychological, and the Historic. M. Sarcey generally employed the term in one of the first three senses, without clearly distinguishing between them. It is, indeed, not always easy to determine whether the compulsion (assuming it to exist at all) lies in the very essence of the theme or situation, or only in the author's manipulation of it.
Was Sarcey right in assuming such a compulsion to be a constant and dominant factor in the playwright's craft? I think we shall see reason to believe him right in holding that it frequently arises, but wrong if he went the length of maintaining that there can be no good play without a definite scène a faire — as eighteenth-century landscape painters are said to have held that no one could be a master of his art till he knew where to place " the brown tree." I remember no passage in which Sarcey explicitly lays down so hard and fast a rule, but several in which he seems to take it for granted.
It may be asked whether — and if so, why — the theory of the obligatory scene holds good for the dramatist and not for the novelist? Perhaps it has more application to the novel than is commonly supposed; but in so far as it applies peculiarly to the drama, the reason is pretty clear. It lies in the strict concentration imposed on the dramatist, and the high mental tension which is, or ought to be, characteristic of the theatrical audience. The leisurely and comparatively passive novel-reader may never miss a scene which an audience, with its instincts of logic and of economy keenly alert, may feel to be inevitable. The dramatist is bound to extract from his material the last particle of that particular order of effect which the stage, and the stage alone, can give us. If he fails to do so, we feel that there has been no adequate justification for setting in motion all the complex mechanism of the theatre. His play is like a badly-designed engine in which a large part of the potential energy is dissipated to no purpose. The novelist, with a far wider range of effects at his command, and employing no special mechanism to bring them home to us, is much more free to select and to reject. He is exempt from the law of rigid economy to which the dramatist must submit. Far from being bound to do things in the most dramatic way, he often does wisely in rejecting that course, as unsuited to his medium. Fundamentally, no doubt, the same principle applies to both arts, but with a wholly different stringency in the case of the drama. " Advisable " in the novelist's vocabulary is translated by " imperative " in the dramatist's. The one is playing a long-drawn game, in which the loss of a trick or two need not prove fatal; the other has staked his all on a single rubber.
Obligatory scenes of the first type — those necessitated by the inherent logic of the theme — can naturally arise only in plays to which a definite theme can be assigned. If we say that woman's claim to possess a soul of her own, even in marriage, is the theme of A Doll's House, then evidently the last great balancing of accounts between Nora and Helmer is an obligatory scene. It would have been quite possible for Ibsen to have completed the play without any such scene : he might, for instance, have let Nora fulfil her intention of drowning herself ; but in that case his play would have been merely a tragic anecdote with the point omitted. We should have felt vague intimations of a general idea hovering in the air, but it would have remained undefined and undeveloped. As we review, however, the series of Ibsen's plays, and notice how difficult it is to point to any individual scene and say, " This was clearly the scène à faire," we feel that, though the phrase may express a useful idea in a conveniently brief form, there is no possibility of making the presence or absence of a scène à faire a general test of dramatic merit. In The Wild Duck, who would not say that, theoretically, the scene in which Gregers opens Hialmar's eyes to the true history of his marriage was obligatory in the highest degree? Yet Ibsen, as a matter of fact, does not present it to us: he sends the two men off for " a long walk " together : and who does not feel that this is a stroke of con-summate art? In Rosmersholm, as we know, he has been accused of neglecting, not merely the scene, but the play, à faire; but who will now maintain that accusation? In John Gabriel Bork man, if we define the theme as the clash of two devouring egoisms, Ibsen has, in the third act, given us the obligatory scene; but he has done it, unfortunately, with an enfeebled hand; whereas the first and second acts, though largely expository, and even (in the Foldal scene) episodic, rank with his greatest achievements.
For abundant examples of scenes rendered obligatory by the logic of the theme, we have only to turn to the works of those remorseless dialecticians, MM. Hervieu and Brieux. In such a play as La Course du Flambeau, there is scarcely a scene that may not be called an obligatory deduction from the thesis duly enunciated, with no small parade of erudition, in the first ten minutes of the play. It is that, in handing on the vitai lampada, as Plato and " le bon poète Lucrèce " express it, the love of the parent for the child becomes a devouring mania, to which everything else is sacrificed, while the love of the child for the parent is a tame and essentially selfish emotion, absolutely powerless when it comes into competition with the passions which are concerned with the transmission of the vital flame. This theorem having been stated, what is the first obligatory scene? Evidently one in which a mother shall refuse a second marriage, with a man whom she loves, because it would injure the prospects and wound the feelings of her adored daughter. Then, when the adored daughter herself marries, the mother must make every possible sacrifice for her, and the daughter must accept them all with in-difference, as mere matters of course. But what is the final, triumphant proof of the theorem? Why, of course, the mother must kill her mother to save the daughter's life! And this ultra-obligatory scene M. Hervieu duly serves up to us. Marie-Jeanne (the daughter) is ordered to the Engadine ; Sabine (the mother) is warned that Madame Fontenais (the grandmother) must not go to that altitude on pain of death; but, by a series of violently artificial devices, things are so arranged that Marie-Jeanne cannot go unless Madame Fontenais goes too ; and Sabine, rather than endanger her daughter's recovery, does not hesitate to let her mother set forth, unwittingly, to her doom. In the last scene of all, Marie-Jeanne light-heartedly prepares to leave her mother and go off with her husband to the ends of the earth; Sabine learns that the man she loved and rejected for Marie-Jeanne's sake is for ever lost to her; and, to complete the demonstration, Madame Fontenais falls dead at her feet. These scenes are unmistakably scènes à faire, dictated by the logic of the theme; but they belong to a conception of art in which the free rhythms of life are ruthlessly sacrificed to the needs of a demonstration. Obligatory scenes of this order are mere diagrams drawn with ruler and compass — the obligatory illustrations of an extravagantly over-systematic lecture.
M. Brieux in some of his plays (not in all) is no less logic-ridden than M. Hervieu. Take, for in-stance, Les Trois Filles de M. Dupont: every character is a term in a syllogism, every scene is dictated by an imperious craving for symmetry. The main theorem may be stated in some such terms as these : " The French marriage system is immoral and abominable; yet the married woman is, on the whole, less pitiable than her unmarried sisters." In order to prove this thesis in due form, we begin at the beginning, and show how the marriage of Antonin Mairaut and Julie Dupont is brought about by the dishonest cupidity of the parents on both sides. The Duponts flatter themselves that they have cheated the Mairauts, the Mairauts that they have swindled the Duponts ; while Antonin deliberately simulates artistic tastes to deceive Julie, and Julie as deliberately makes a show of business capacity in order to take in Antonin. Every scene between father and daughter is balanced by a corresponding scene between mother and son. Every touch of hypocrisy on the one side is scrupulously set off against a trait of dishonesty on the other. Julie's passion for children is emphasized, Antonin's aversion from them is underlined. But lest he should be accused of seeing everything in black, M. Brieux will not make the parents altogether detestable. Still holding the balance true, he lets M. Mairaut on the one side, and Madame Dupont on the other, develop amiable impulses, and protest, at a given moment, against the infamies committed and countenanced by their respective spouses. And in the second and third acts, the edifice of deception symmetrically built up in the first act is no less symmetrically demolished. The parents expose and denounce each other's villainies; Julie and Antonin, in a great scene of conjugal recrimination, lay bare the hypocrisies of allurement that have brought them together. Julie then determines to escape from the loathsome prison-house of her marriage ; and this brings us to the second part of the theorem. The title shows that Julie has two sisters ; but hitherto they have remained in the background. Why do they exist at all? Why has Providence blessed M. Dupont with " three fair daughters and no more " ? Because Providence foresaw exactly the number M. Brieux would re-quire for his demonstration. Are there not three courses open to a penniless woman in our social system — marriage, wage-earning industry, and wage-earning profligacy? Well, M. Dupont must have one daughter to represent each of these contingencies. Julie has illustrated the miseries of marriage; Caroline and Angèle shall illustrate respectively the still greater miseries of unmarried virtue and unmarried vice. When Julie declares her intention of breaking away from the house of bondage, her sisters rise up symmetrically, one on either hand, and implore her rather to bear the ills she has than fly to others that she knows not of. " Symmetry of symmetries, all is symmetry " in the poetics of M. Brieux. But life does not fall into such obvious patterns. The obligatory scene which is imposed upon us, not by the logic of life, but by the logic of demonstration, is not a scène à faire, but a scène à fuir.
Mr. Bernard Shaw, in some sense the Brieux of the English theatre, is not a man to be dominated by logic, or by anything. else under the sun. He has, however, given us one or two excellent ex-amples of the obligatory scene in the true and really artistic sense of the term. The scene of Candida's choice between Eugene and Morell crowns the edifice of Candida as nothing else could. Given the characters and their respective attitudes towards life, this sententious thrashing-out of the situation was inevitable. So, too, in Mrs. Warren's Profession, the great scene of the second act between Vivie and her mother is a superb example of a scene imposed by the logic of the theme. On the other hand, in Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's finely conceived, though unequal, play, Michael and his Lost Angel, we miss what was surely an obligatory scene. The play is in fact a contest between the paganism of Audrie Lesden and the ascetic, sacerdotal idealism of Michael Feversham. In the second act, paganism snatches a momentary victory; and we confidently expect, in the third act, a set and strenuous effort on Audrie's part to break down in theory the ascetic ideal which has collapsed in practice. It is probable enough that she might not succeed in dragging her lover forth from what she regards as the prison-house of a superstition; but the logic of the theme absolutely demands that she should make the attempt. Mr. Jones has preferred to go astray after some comparatively irrelevant and commonplace matter, and has thus left his play incomplete. So, too, in The Triumph of the Philistines, Mr. Jones makes the mistake of expecting us to take a tender interest in a pair of lovers who have had never a love-scene to set our interest agoing. They are introduced to each other in the first act, and we shrewdly suspect (for in the theatre we are all inveterate match-makers) that they are going to fall in love; but we have not the smallest positive evidence of the fact before we find, in the second act, that mis-understandings have arisen, and the lady declines to look at the gentleman. The actress who played the part at the St. James's Theatre was blamed for failing to enlist our sympathies in this romance; but what actress can make much of a love part which, up to the very last moment, is all suspicion and jealousy? Fancy Romeo and Juliet with the love-scenes omitted, "by special request ! "
In a second class, according to our analysis, we place the obligatory scene which is imposed by " the manifest exigencies of specifically dramatic effect." Here it must of course be noted that the conception of " specifically dramatic effect " varies in some degree, from age to age, from generation to generation, and even, one may almost say, from theatre to theatre. Scenes of violence and slaughter were banished from the Greek theatre, mainly, no doubt, because rapid movement was rendered difficult by the hieratic trappings of the actors, and was altogether foreign to the spirit of tragedy; but it can scarcely be doubted that the tragic poets were the less inclined to rebel against this convention, because they extracted " specifically dramatic effects " of a very high order out of their "messenger-scenes." Even in the modern theatre we are thrilled by the description of Hippolytus dragged at his own chariot wheel, or Creusa and Creon devoured by Medea's veil of fire. On the Elizabethan stage, the murder of Agamemnon would no doubt have been " subjected to our faithful eyes " like the blinding of Gloucester or the suffocation of Edward II; but who shall say that there is less " specifically dramatic effect " in Aeschylus's method of mirroring the scene in the clairvoyant ecstasy of Cassandra? I am much inclined to think that the dramatic effect of highly emotional narrative is underrated in the modern theatre.
Again, at one class of theatre, the author of a sporting play is bound to exhibit a horserace on the stage, or he is held to have shirked his obligatory scene. At another class of theatre, we shall have a scene, perhaps, in a box in the Grand Stand, where some Lady Gay Spanker shall breathlessly depict, from start to finish, the race which is visible to her, but invisible to the audience. At a third class of the theatre, the " specifically dramatic effect " to be extracted from a horserace is found in a scene in a Black-Country slum, where a group of workingmen and women are feverishly awaiting the evening paper which shall bring them the result of the St. Leger, involving for some of them opulence — to the extent, perhaps, of a £5 note — and for others ruin.
The difficulty of deciding that any one form of scene is predestined by the laws of dramatic effect is illustrated in Tolstoy's grisly drama, The Power of Darkness. The scene in which Nikita kills Akoulina's child was felt to be too horrible for representation ; whereupon the author wrote an alternative scene between Mitritch and Anna, which passes simultaneously with the murder scene, in an adjoining room. The two scenes fulfil exactly the same function in the economy of the play; it can be acted with either of them, it might be acted with both; and it is impossible to say which produces the intenser or more " specifically dramatic effect."
The fact remains, however, that there is almost always a dramatic and undramatic, a more dramatic and a less dramatic, way of doing a thing; and an author who allows us to foresee and expect a dramatic way of attaining a given end, and then chooses an undramatic or less dramatic way, is guilty of having missed the obligatory scene. For a general discussion of what we mean by the terms " dramatic " and " undramatic " the reader may refer back to Chapter III. Here I need only give one or two particular illustrations.
It will be remembered that one of the scènes à faire which M. Sarcey foresaw in Les Fourchambault was the encounter between the two brothers; the illegitimate Bernard and the legitimate Leopold. It would have been quite possible, and quite natural, to let the action of the play work itself out without any such encounter; or to let the encounter take place behind the scenes ; but this would have been a patent ignoring of dramatic possibilities, and M. Sarcey would have had ample reason to pour the vials of his wrath on Augier's head. He was right, however, in his confidence that Augier would not fail to " make " the scene. And how did he " make " it? The one thing inevitable about it was that the truth should be revealed to Leopold; but there were a dozen different ways in which that might have been effected. Perhaps, in real life, Bernard would have said something to this effect : " Young man, you are making questionable advances to a lady in whom I am interested. I beg that you will cease to persecute her; and if you ask by what right I do so, I reply that I am in fact your elder brother, that I have saved our father from ruin, that I am henceforth the predominant partner in his business, and that, if you do not be-have yourself, I shall see that your allowance is withdrawn, and that you have no longer the means to lead an idle and dissolute life." This would have been an ungracious but not unnatural way of going about the business. Had Augier chosen it, we should have had no right to complain on the score of probability; but it would have been evident to the least imaginative that he had left the specifically dramatic opportunities of the scene entirely undeveloped. Let us now see what he actually did. Marie Letellier, compromised by Leopold's conduct, has left the Fourchambault house and taken refuge with Mme. Bernard. Bernard loves her devotedly, but does not dream that she can see anything in his uncouth personality, and imagines that she loves Leopold. Accordingly, he determines that Leopold shall marry her, and tells him so. Leopold scoffs at the idea; Bernard insists; and little by little the conflict rises to a tone of personal altercation. At last Leopold says something slighting of Mlle. Letellier, and Bernard
who, be it noted, has begun with no intention of revealing the kinship between them — loses his self-control and cries, " Ah, there speaks the blood of the man who slandered a woman in order to prevent his son from keeping his word to her. I recognize in you your grandfather, who was a miserable calumniator." " Repeat that word ! " says Leopold. Bernard does so, and the other strikes him across the face with his glove. For a perceptible interval Bernard struggles with his rage in silence, and then : " It is well for you," he cries, " that you are my brother ! "
We need not follow the scene in the sentimental turning which it then takes, whereby it comes about, of course, that Bernard, not Leopold, marries Mlle. Letellier. The point is that Augier has justified Sarcey's confidence by making the scene thoroughly and specifically dramatic : in other words, by charging it with emotion, and working up the tension to a very high pitch. And Sarcey was no doubt right in holding that this was what the whole audience instinctively expected, and that they would have been more or less consciously disappointed had the author baulked their expectation.
An instructive example of the failure to " make " a dramatically obligatory scene may be found in Agatha by Mrs. Humphry Ward and Mr. Louis Parker. Agatha is believed to be the child of Sir Richard and Lady Fancourt; but at a given point she learns that a gentleman whom she has known all her life as " Cousin Ralph " is in reality her father. She has a middle-aged suitor, Colonel Ford, whom she is very willing to marry; but at the end of the second act she refuses him, be-cause she shrinks from the idea, on the one hand, of concealing the truth from him, on the other hand, of revealing her mother's trespass. This is not, in itself, a very strong situation, for we feel the barrier between the lovers to be unreal. Colonel Ford is a man of sense. The secret of Agatha's parentage can make no real difference to him. ' Nothing material — no point of law or of honour — depends on it. He will learn the truth, and all will come right between them. The only point on which our interest can centre is the question how he is to learn the truth ; and here the authors go very far astray. There are two, and only two, really dramatic ways in which Colonel Ford can be enlightened. Lady Fancourt must realize that Agatha is wrecking her life to keep her mother's secret, and must either herself reveal it to Colonel Ford, or must encourage and enjoin Agatha to do so. .Now, the authors choose neither of these ways : the secret slips out, through a chance misunderstanding in a conversation between Sir Richand Fancourt and the Colonel. This is a typical instance of an error of construction; and why? — because it leaves to chance what should be an act of will. Drama means a thing done, not merely a thing that happens ; and the playwright who lets accident effect what might naturally and probably be a result of volition, or, in other words, of character, sins against the fundamental law of his craft. In the case before us, Lady Fancourt and Agatha — the two characters on whom our interest is centred — are deprived of all share in one of the crucial moments of the action. Whether the actual disclosure was made by the mother or by the daughter, there ought to have been a great scene between the two, in which the mother should have insisted that, by one or other, the truth must be told. It would have been a painful, a delicate, a difficult scene, but it was the obligatory scene of the play; and had we been allowed clearly to fore-see it at the end of the second act, our interest would have been decisively carried forward. The scene, too, might have given the play a moral relevance which in fact it lacks. The readjustment of Agatha's scheme of things, so as to make room for her mother's history, might have been made explicit and partly intellectual, instead of implicit, inarticulate and wholly emotional.
This case, then, clearly falls under our second heading. We cannot say that it is the logic of the theme which demands the scene, for no thesis or abstract idea is enunciated. Nor can we say that the course of events is unnatural or improbable; our complaint is that, without being at all less natural, they might have been highly dramatic, and that in fact they are not so.
In a very different type of play, we find another example of the ignoring of a dramatically obligatory scene. The author of that charming fantasy, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, was long ago guilty of a play named The Rise of Dick Halward, chiefly memorable for having elicited from Mr. Bernard Shaw one of the most brilliant pages in English dramatic criticism. The hero of this play, after an adventurous youth in Mexico, has gone to the bar, but gets no briefs, and is therefore unable to marry a lady who announces that no suitor need apply who has less than 15000 a year. One fine day Dick receives from Mexico the will of an old comrade, which purports to leave to him, absolutely, half a million dollars, gold; but the will is accompanied by a letter, in which the old comrade states that the property is really left to him only in trust for the testator's long-lost son, whom Dick is enjoined to search out and endow with a capital which, at 5 per cent, represents accurately the desiderated 15000 a year. As a matter of fact (but this is not to our present purpose), the long-lost son is actually, at that moment, sharing Dick's chambers in the Temple. Dick, however, does not know this, and cannot resist the temptation to destroy the old miner's letter, and grab the property. We know, of course, that retribution is bound to descend upon him; but does not dramatic effect imperatively require that, for a brief space at any rate, he should be seen — with whatever qualms of conscience his nature might dictate — enjoying his ill-gotten wealth? Mr. Jerome, how-ever, baulks us of this just expectation. In the very first scene of the second act we find that the game is up. The deceased miner wrote his letter to Dick seated in the doorway of a hut; a chance photographer took a snap-shot at him; and on re-turning to England, the chance photographer has nothing more pressing to do than to chance upon the one man who knows the long-lost son, and to show him the photograph of the dying miner, whom he at once recognizes. By aid of a microscope, the letter he is writing can be deciphered, and thus Dick's fraud is brought home to him. Now one would suppose that an author who had invented this monstrous and staggering concatenation of chances, must hope to justify it by some highly dramatic situation, in the obvious and common-place sense of the word. It is not difficult, indeed, to foresee such a situation, in which Dick Halward should be confronted, as if by magic, with the very words of the letter he has so carefully destroyed. I am far from saying that this scene would, in fact, have justified its amazing antecedents; but it would have shown a realization on the author's part that he must at any rate attempt some effect proportionate to the strain he had placed upon our credulity. Mr. Jerome showed no such realization.
He made the man who handed Dick the copy of the letter explain beforehand how it had been obtained; so that Dick, though doubtless surprised and disgusted, was not in the least thunderstruck, and manifested no emotion. Here, then, Mr. Jerome evidently missed a scene rendered obligatory by the law of the maximum of specifically dramatic effect.
The third, or structural, class of obligatory scenes may be more briefly dealt with, seeing that we have already, in the last chapter, discussed the principle involved. In this class we have placed, by definition, scenes which the author himself has rendered obligatory by seeming unmistakably to lead up to them — or, in other words, scenes indicated, or seeming to be indicated, by deliberately-planted finger-posts. It may appear as though the case of Dick Halward, which we have just been examining, in reality came under this heading. But it cannot actually be said that Mr. Jerome either did, or seemed to, point by finger-posts towards the obligatory scene. He rather appears to have been blankly unconscious of its possibility.
We have noted in the foregoing chapter the unwisdom of planting misleading finger-posts; here we have only to deal with the particular case in which they seem to point to a definite and crucial scene. An example given by M. Sarcey himself will, I think, make the matter quite clear.
M. Jules Lemaître's play, Révoltée, tells the story of a would-be intellectual, ill-conditioned young woman, married to a plain and ungainly professor of mathematics, whom she despises. We know that she is in danger of yielding to the fascinations of a seductive man-about-town; and having shown us this danger, the author proceeds to emphasize the manly and sterling character of the husband. He has the gentleness that goes with strength ; but where his affections or his honour is concerned, he is not a man to be trifled with. This having been several times impressed upon us, we naturally expect that the wife is to be rescued by some striking manifestation of the husband's masterful virility. But no such matter! Rescued she is, indeed; but it is by the intervention of her half-brother, who fights a duel on her behalf, and is brought back wounded to restore peace to the mathematician's household : that man of science having been quite passive throughout, save for some ineffectual remonstrances. It happens that in this case we know just where the author went astray. Hélène (the wife) is the unacknowledged daughter of a great lady, Mme. de Voves; and the subject of the play, as the author first conceived it, was the relation between the mother, the illegitimate daughter, and the legitimate son ; the daughter's husband taking only a subordinate place. But Lemaitre chose as a model for the husband a man whom he had known and admired; and he allowed himself to depict in vivid colours his strong and sympathetic character, without noticing that he was thereby upsetting the economy of his play, and giving his audience reason to anticipate a line of development quite different from that which he had in mind. Inadvertently, in fact, he planted, not one, but two or three, misleading finger-posts.
We come now to the fourth, or psychological, class of obligatory scenes — those which are " required in order to justify some modification of character or alteration of will, too important to be taken for granted."
An obvious example of an obligatory scene of this class may be found in the third act of Othello. The poet is bound to show us the process by which Iago instils his poison into Othello's mind. He has backed himself, so to speak, to make this process credible to us; and, by a masterpiece of dexterity and daring, he wins his wager. Had he omitted this scene — had he shown us Othello at one moment full of serene confidence, and at his next appearance already convinced of Desdemona's guilt -- he would have omitted the pivot and turning-point of the whole structure. It may seem fantastic to conceive that any dramatist could blunder so grossly; but there are not a few plays in which we observe a scarcely less glaring hiatus.
A case in point may be found in Lord Tennyson's Becket. I am not one of those who hold Tennyson merely contemptible as a dramatist. I believe that, had he taken to playwriting nearly half-a-century earlier, and studied the root principles of craftsmanship, instead of blindly accepting the Elizabethan conventions, he might have done work as fine in the mass as are the best moments of Queen Mary and Harold. As a whole, Becket is one of his weakest productions; but the Prologue and the first act would have formed an excellent first and third act for a play of wholly different sequel, had he interposed, in a second act, the obligatory scene required to elucidate Becket's character. The historic and psychological problem of Thomas Becket is his startling transformation from an easy-going, luxurious, worldly statesman into a gaunt ecclesiastic, fanatically fighting for the rights of his see, of his order, and of Rome. In any drama which professes to deal (as this does) with his whole career, the intellectual interest cannot but centre in an analysis of the forces that brought about this seeming new-birth of his soul. It would have been open to the poet, no doubt, to take up his history at a later point, when he was already the full-fledged clerical and ultramontane. But this Tennyson does not do. He is at pains to present to us the magnificent Chancellor, the bosom friend of the King, and mild reprover of his vices ; and then, without the smallest transition, hey presto ! he is the intransigeant priest, bitterly combating the Constitutions of Clarendon. It is true that in the Prologue the poet places one or two finger-posts — small, conventional foreshadowings of coming trouble. For instance, the game of chess between King and Chancellor ends with a victory for Becket, who says —
" You see my bishop Hath brought your king to a standstill. You are beaten."
The symbolical game of chess is a well-worn dramatic device. Becket, moreover, seems to feel some vague disquietude as to what may happen if he accepts the archbishopric; but there is nothing to show that he is conscious of any bias towards the intransigeant clericalism of the later act. The character-problem, in fact, is not only not solved, but is ignored. The obligatory scene is skipped over, in the interval between the Prologue and the first act.
One of the finest plays of our time — Sir Arthur Pinero's Iris — lacks, in my judgment, an obligatory scene. The character of Iris is admirably true, so far as it goes ; but it is incomplete. The author seems to have evaded the crucial point of his play — the scene of her installation in Maldonado's flat. To perfect his psychological study, he was bound to bridge the chasm. between the Iris of the third act and the Iris of the fourth. He builds two ends of the bridge, in the incident of the cheque-book at the close of the one act, and in the state of hebetude in which we find her at the opening of the other; but there remains a great gap at which the imagination boggles. The author has tried to throw a retrospective footway across it in Iris's confession to Trenwith in the fifth act; but I do not find that it quite meets the case. It would no doubt have been very difficult to keep the action within reasonable limits had a new act taken the place of the existing fourth; but Sir Arthur Pinero would probably have produced a completer work of art had he faced this difficulty, and contrived to compress into a single last act something like the matter of the existing fourth and fifth. It may be that he deliberately preferred that Iris should give in narrative the history of her decline; but I do not consider this a case in support of that slight plea for impassioned narrative which I ventured to put forth a few pages back. Her confession to Trenwith would have been far more dramatic and moving had it been about one-fourth part as long and one-fourth part as articulate.
Of the scene imposed by history or legend it is unnecessary to say very much. We saw in Chapter IX that the theatre is not the place for expounding the results of original research, which cast a new light on historic character. It is not the place for whitewashing Richard III, or representing him as a man of erect and graceful figure. It is not the place for proving that Guy Fawkes was an earnest Presbyterian, that Nell Gwynn was a lady of the strictest morals, or that George Washington was incapable of telling the truth. The playwright who deals with Henry VIII is bound to present him, in the schoolboy's phrase, as " a great widower."
William the Silent must not be a chatterbox, Torquemada a humanitarian, Ivan the Terrible a conscientious opponent of capital punishment. And legend has its fixed points no less than history. In the theatre, indeed, there is little distinction between them : history is legend, and legend history. A dramatist may, if he pleases (though it is a difficult task), break wholly unfamiliar ground in the past; but where a historic legend exists he must respect it at his peril.
From all this it is a simple deduction that where legend (historic or otherwise) associates a particular character with a particular scene that is by any means presentable on the stage, that scene becomes obligatory in a drama of which he is the leading figure. The fact that Shakespeare could write a play about King John, and say nothing about Runnymede and Magna Charta, shows that that incident in constitutional history had not yet passed into popular legend. When Sir Herbert Tree revived the play, he repaired the poet's omission by means of an inserted tableau. Even Shakespeare had not the hardihood to let Caesar fall without saying, " The Ides of March are come and " Et tu, Brute ! " Nero is bound to fiddle while Rome burns, or the audience will know the reason why. Historic criticism will not hear of the " Thou hast conquered, Galilean ! " which legend attributes to Julian the Apostate; yet Ibsen not only makes him say it, but may almost be said to find in the phrase the keynote of his world-historic drama. Tristram and Iseult must drink a love-philtre or they are not Tristram and Iseult. It would be the extreme of paradox to write a Paolo-and-Francesca play and omit the scene of " Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante."
The cases are not very frequent, however, in which an individual incident is thus imposed by history or legend. The practical point to be noted is rather that, when an author introduces a strongly-marked historical character, he must be prepared to give him at least one good opportunity of acting up to the character which legend — the best of evidence in the theatre — assigns to him. When such a personage is presented to us, it ought to be at his highest potency. We do not want to see —
"From Marlborough's eyes the tears of dotage flow, And Swift expire, a driveller and a show."
If you deal with Napoleon, for instance, it is perfectly clear that he must dominate the stage. As soon as you bring in the name, the idea, of Napoleon Bonaparte, men have eyes and ears for nothing else; and they demand to see him, in a general way, acting up to their general conception of him. That was what Messrs. Lloyd Osbourne and Austin Strong forgot in their other-wise clever play, The Exile. It is useless to prove, historically, that at a given moment he was passive, supine, unconscious, while people around him were eagerly plotting his escape and restoration. That may have been so ; but it is not what an audience wants to see. It wants to see Napoleon Napoleonizing. For anomalies and uncharacteristic episodes in Napoleon's career we must go to books ; the play-house is not the place for them. It is true that a dramatist like Mr. Bernard Shaw may, at his own risk and peril, set forth to give us a new reading of Caesar or of Napoleon, which may or may not be dramatically acceptable.' But this is not what Messrs. Osbourne and Strong tried to do. Their Napoleon was the Napoleon of tradition — only he failed to act in a concatenation according."
There are a few figures in history — and Napoleon is one of them — which so thrill the imagination that their mere name can dominate the stage, better, perhaps, than their bodily presence. In L'Aiglon, by M. Rostand, Napoleon is in fact the hero, though he lies dead in his far-off island, under the Southern Cross. Another such figure is Abraham Lincoln. In James Herne's sadly under-rated play, Griffith Davenport, we were always conscious of " Mr. Lincoln " in the background ; and the act in which Governor Morton of Indiana brought the President's instructions to Davenport might fairly be called an obligatory scene, inasmuch as it gave us the requisite sense of personal nearness to the master-spirit, without involving any risk of belittlement through imperfections of representation. There is a popular melodrama, passing in Palestine under the Romans, throughout the course of which we constantly feel the influence of a strange new prophet, unseen but wonder-working, who, if I remember rightly, is personally presented to us only in a final tableau, wherein he appears riding into Jerusalem amid the hosannas of the multitude. The execution of Ben Hur is crude and commonplace, but the conception is by no means inartistic. Historical figures of the highest rank may perhaps be best adumbrated in this fashion, with or without one personal appearance, so brief that there shall be no danger of anti-climax.
The last paragraph reminds us that the accomplished playwright shows his accomplishment quite as much in his recognition and avoidance of the scène à ne pas faire as in his divination of the obligatory scene. There is always the chance that no one may miss a scene demanded by logic or psychology; but an audience knows too well when it has been bored or distressed by a superfluous, or inconsequent, or wantonly painful scene.
Some twenty years ago, in criticizing a play named Le Maître d'Armes, M. Sarcey took the authors gravely to task, in the name of " Aristotle and common sense," for following the modern and reprehensible tendency to present " slices of life " rather than constructed and developed dramas. Especially he reproached them with deliberately omitting the scène à faire. A young lady is seduced, he says, and, for the sake of her child, implores her betrayer to keep his promise of marriage. He renews the promise, without the slightest intention of fulfilling it, and goes on board his yacht in order to make his escape. She discovers his purpose and follows him on board the yacht. " What is the scene," asks M. Sarcey — here I translate literally — " which you expect, you, the public? It is the scene between the abandoned fair one and her seducer. The author may make it in a hundred ways, but make it he must ! " In-stead of which, the critic proceeds, we are fobbed off with a storm-scene, a rescue, and other sensational incidents, and hear no word of what passes between the villain and his victim. Here, I think, M. Sarcey is mistaken in his application of his pet principle. Words cannot express our unconcern as to what passes between the heroine and the villain on board the yacht — nay, more, our gratitude for being spared that painful and threadbare scene of recrimination. The plot demands, observe, that the villain shall not relent. We know quite well that he cannot, for if he did the play would fall to pieces. Why, then, should we expect or demand a sordid squabble which can lead to nothing? We— and by " we " I mean the public which relishes such plays — cannot possibly have any keen appetite for copious re-hashes of such very cold mutton as the appeals of the penitent heroine to the recalcitrant villain. And the moral seems to be that in this class of play — the drama, if one may call it so, of foregone character — the scène à faire is precisely the scene to be omitted.
In plays of a more ambitious class, skill is often shown by the indication, in place of the formal presentment, even of an important scene which the audience may, or might, have expected to witness in full. We have already noted such a case in The Wild Duck: Ibsen knew that what we really required to witness was not the actual process of Gregers's disclosure to Hialmar, but its effects. A small, but quite noticeable, example of a scene thus rightly left to the imagination occurred in Mr. Somerset Maugham's first play, A Man of Honour. In the first act, Jack Halliwell, his wife, and his sister-in-law call upon his friend Basil Kent. The sister-in-law, Hilda Murray, is a rich widow; and she and Kent presently go out on the balcony together and are lost to view. Then it appears, in a scene between the Halliwells, that they fully believe that Kent is in love with Mrs. Murray and is now proposing to her. But when the two re-enter from the balcony, it is evident from their mien that, whatever may have passed between them, they are not affianced lovers; and we presently learn that though Kent is in fact strongly attracted to Mrs. Murray, he considers himself bound in honour to marry a certain Jenny Bush, a Fleet Street barmaid, with whom he has become entangled. Many playwrights would, so to speak, have dotted the i's of the situation by giving us the scene between Kent and Mrs. Murray; but Mr. Maugham has done exactly right in leaving us to divine it. We know all that, at this point, we require to know of the relation between them; to have told us more would have been to anticipate and discount the course of events.
A more striking instance of a scene rightly placed behind the scenes occurs in M. de Curel's terrible drama Les Fossiles. I need not go into the singularly unpleasing details of the plot. Suffice it to say that a very peculiar condition of things exists in the family of the Duc de Chantemelle. It has been fully discussed in the second act between the Duke and his daughter Claire, who has been induced to accept it for the sake of the family name. But a person more immediately concerned is Robert de Chantemelle, the only son of the house — will he also accept it quietly? A nurse, who is acquainted with the black secret, misbehaves her-self, and is to be packed off. As she is a violent woman, Robert insists on dismissing her himself, and leaves the room. to do so. The rest of the family are sure that, in her rage, she will blurt out the whole story; and they wait, in breathless anxiety, for Robert's return. What follows need not be told : the point is that this scene — the scene of tense expectancy as to the result of a crisis which is taking place in another room of the same house — is really far more dramatic than the crisis itself would be. The audience already knows all that the angry virago can say to her master; and of course no discussion of the merits of the case is possible between these two. Therefore M. de Cure] is conspicuously right in sparing us the scene of vulgar violence, and giving us the scene of far higher tension in which Robert's father, wife and sister expect his return, their apprehension deepening with every moment that he delays.
We see, then, that there is such a thing as a false scène à faire — a scene which at first sight seems obligatory, but is in fact much better taken for granted. It may be absolutely indispensable that it should be suggested to the mind of the audience, but neither indispensable nor advisable that it should be presented to their eyes. The judicious playwright will often ask himself, " Is it the actual substance of this scene that I require, or only its repercussion? "