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The Peripety

( Originally Published 1912 )

IN the Greek theatre, as every one knows, the peripeteia or reversal of fortune—the turning of the tables, as we might say — was a clearly-defined and recognized portion of the dramatic organism. It was often associated with the anagnorisis or recognition. Mr. Gilbert Murray has recently shown cause for believing that both these dramatic " forms" descended from the ritual in which Greek drama took its origin—the ritual celebrating the death and resurrection of the season of " mellow fruitfulness." If this theory be true, the peripeteia was at first a change from sorrow to joy — joy in the rebirth of the beneficent powers of nature. And to this day a sudden change from gloom to exhilaration is a popular and effective incident — as when, at the end of a melodrama, the handcuffs are transferred from the wrists of the virtuous naval lieutenant to those of the wicked baronet, and, through the disclosure of a strawberry-mark on his left arm, the lieutenant is recognized as the long-lost heir to a dukedom and 150,000 a year.

But when, as soon happened in Greece, the forms appropriate to a celebration of the death and resurrection of Dionysus came to be blent with the tomb-ritual of a hero, the term peripeteia acquired a special association with a sudden decline from prosperity into adversity. In the Middle Ages, this was thought to be the very essence and meaning of tragedy, as we may see from Chaucer's lines : —

" Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As oldë bokës maken us memorie,
Of him that stood in gret prosperitee,
And is y-fallen out of heigh degree
Into miserie, and endeth wrecchedly."

Aristotle cites a good instance of a peripety — to Anglicize the word — " where, in the Lynceus, the hero is led away to execution, followed by Danaus as executioner; but, as the effect of the antecedents, Danaus is executed and Lynceus escapes." But here, as in so many other contexts, we must turn for the classic example to the Oedipus Rex. Jocasta, hearing from the Corinthian stranger that Polybus, King of Corinth, the reputed father of Oedipus, is dead, sends for her husband to tell him that the oracle which doomed him to parricide is defeated, since Polybus has died a natural death. Oedipus exults in the news and triumphs over the oracles; but, as the scene proceeds, the further revelations made by the same stranger lead Jocasta to recognize in Oedipus her own child, who was exposed on Mount Kithairon ; and, in the subsequent scene, the evidence of the old Shepherd brings Oedipus himself to the same crushing realization. No completer case of anagnorisis and peripeteia could well be conceived — whatever we may have to say of the means by which it is led up to.'

Has the conception of the peripety, as an almost obligatory element in drama, any significance for the modern playwright? Obligatory, of course, it cannot be: it is easy to cite a hundred admirable plays in which it is impossible to discover any-thing that can reasonably be called a peripety. But this, I think, we may safely say : the dramatist is fortunate who finds in the development of his theme, without unnatural strain or too much preparation, opportunity for a great scene, highly-wrought, arresting, absorbing, wherein one or more of his characters shall experience a marked reversal either of inward soul-state or of outward fortune. The theory of the peripety, in short, practically re-solves itself for us into the theory of the " great scene." Plays there are, many and excellent plays, in which some one scene stands out from all the rest, impressing itself with peculiar vividness on the spectator's mind; and, nine times out of ten, this scene will be found to involve a peripety. It can do no harm, then, if the playwright should ask himself : " Can I, without any undue sacrifice, so develop my theme as to entail upon my leading characters, naturally and probably, an experience of this order? "

The peripeties of real life are frequent, though they are apt to be too small in scale, or else too fatally conclusive, to provide material for drama. One of the commonest, perhaps, is that of the man who enters a physician's consulting-room to seek advice in some trifling ailment, and comes out again, half an hour later, doomed either to death or to some calamity worse than death. This situation has been employed, not ineffectively, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the first act of a romantic drama, The Fires of Fate; but it is very difficult to find any dramatic sequel to a peripety involving mere physical disaster.' The moral peripety — the sudden dissipation of some illusion, or defeat of some imposture, or crumbling of some castle in the air — is a no less characteristic incident of real life, and much more amenable to the playwright's uses. Certainly there are few things more impressive in drama than to see a man or woman — or a man and woman — come upon the stage, radiant, confident, assured that

" God 's in his heaven,
All's right with the world,"

and leave it crushed and desperate, after a gradual and yet swift descent into Avernus. Such a scene is of the very marrow of drama. It is a play within a play; a concentrated, quintessentiated crisis.

In the third act of Othello we have a peripety handled with consummate theatrical skill. To me — I confess it with bated breath — the craftsman-ship seems greatly superior to the psychology. Othello, when we look into it, succumbs with in-credible facility to Iago's poisoned pin-pricks; but no audience dreams of looking into it; and there lies the proof of Shakespeare's technical mastery. In the Trial Scene in The Merchant of Venice we have another great peripety. It illustrates the obvious principle that, where the drama consists in a conflict between two persons or parties, the peripety is generally a double one — the sudden collapse of Shylock's case implying an equally sudden restoration of Antonio's fortunes. Perhaps the most striking peripety in Ibsen is Stockmann's fall from jubilant self-confidence to defiant impotence in the third act of An Enemy of the People. Thinking that he has the " compact majority " at his back, he assumes the Burgomaster's insignia of office, and lords it over his incensed brother, only to learn, by blow on blow of disillusionment, that " the compact majority " has ratted, that he is to be deprived of his position and income, and that the commonest freedom of speech is to be denied him. In A Doll's House there are two peripeties : Nora's fall from elation to despair in the first scene with Krogstad, and the collapse of Helmer's illusions in the last scene of all.

A good instance of the " great scene " which in-volves a marked peripety occurs in Sardou's Dora, once famous in England under the title of Diplomacy. The " scene of the three men " shows how Tékli, a Hungarian exile, calls upon his old friend André de Maurillac, on the day of André's marriage, and congratulates him on having eluded the wiles of a dangerous adventuress, Dora de Rio-Zarès, by whom he had once seemed to be attracted. But it is precisely Dora whom André has married ; and, learning this, Tékli tries to withdraw, or minimize, his imputation. For a moment a duel seems imminent; but André's friend, Favrolles, adjures him to keep his head; and the three men proceed to thrash the matter out as calmly as possible, with the result that, in the course of half-an-hour or so, it seems to be proved beyond all doubt that the woman André adores, and whom he has just married, is a treacherous spy, who sells to tyrannical foreign governments the lives of political exiles and the honour of the men who fall into her toils. The crushing suspicion is ultimately disproved, by one of the tricks in which Sardou delighted; but that does not here concern us. Artificial as are its causes and its consequences, the " scene of the three men," while it lasts, holds us breathless and absorbed; and André's fall from the pinnacle of happiness to the depth of misery, is a typical peripety.

Equally typical and infinitely more tragic is another post-nuptial peripety — the scene of the mutual confession of Angel Clare and Tess in Mr. Hardy's great novel. As it stands on the printed page, this scene is a superb piece of drama. Its greatness has been obscured in the English theatre by the general unskilfulness of the dramatic version presented. One magnificent scene does not make a play. In America, on the other hand, the fine acting of Mrs. Fiske secured popularity for a version which was, perhaps, rather better than that which we saw in England.

I have said that dramatic peripeties are not infrequent in real life; and their scene, as is natural, is often laid in the law courts. It is unnecessary to recall the awful " reversal of fortune " that overtook one of the most brilliant of modern dramatists. About the same period, another drama of the English courts ended in a startling and terrible peripety. A young lady was staying as a guest with a half-pay officer and his wife. A valuable pearl belonging to the hostess disappeared ; and the hostess accused her guest of having stolen it. The young lady, who had meanwhile married, brought an action for slander against her quondam friend. For several days the case continued, and everything seemed to be going in the plain-tiff's favour. Major Blank, the defendant's husband, was ruthlessly cross-examined by Sir Charles Russell, afterwards Lord Chief Justice of England, with a view to showing that he was the real thief. He made a very bad witness, and things looked black against him. The end was nearing, and every one anticipated a verdict in the plaintiff's favour, when there came a sudden change of scene,

The stolen pearl had been sold to a firm of jewellers, who had recorded the numbers of the Bank of England notes with which they paid for it. One of these notes was produced in court, and lo! it was endorsed with the name of the plaintiff.' In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole edifice of mendacity and perjury fell to pieces. The thief was arrested and imprisoned; but the peripety for her was less terrible than for her husband, who had married her in chivalrous faith in her innocence.

Would it have been — or may it some day prove to be — possible to transfer this " well-made" drama of real life bodily to the stage? I am inclined to think not. It looks to me very much like one of those " blind alley themes of which mention has been made. There is matter, indeed, for most painful drama in the relations of the husband and wife, both before and after the trial; but, from the psychological point of view, one can see nothing in the case but a distressing and inexplicable anomaly.' At the same time, the bare fact of the sudden and tremendous peripety is irresistibly dramatic; and Mr. Henry Arthur Jones has admitted that it suggested to him the great scene of the unmasking of Felicia Hindemarsh in Mrs. Dane's Defence.

It is instructive to note the delicate adjustment which Mr. Jones found necessary in order to adapt the theme to dramatic uses. In the first place, not wishing to plunge into the depths of tragedy, he left the heroine unmarried, though on the point of marriage. In the second place, he made the blot on her past, not a theft followed by an attempt to shift the guilt on to other shoulders, but an error of conduct, due to youth and inexperience, serious in itself, but rendered disastrous by tragic consequences over which she, Felicia, had no control. Thus Mr. Jones raised a real and fairly sufficient obstacle between his lovers, without rendering his heroine entirely unsympathetic, or presenting her in the guise of a bewildering moral anomaly. Thirdly, he transferred the scene of the peripety from a court of justice, with its difficult adjuncts and tedious procedure, to the private study of a great lawyer. At the opening of the scene between Mrs. Dane and Sir Daniel Carteret, she is, no doubt, still anxious and ill-at-ease, but reason-ably confident of having averted all danger of exposure. Sir Daniel, too (like Sir Charles Russell in the pearl suit), is practically convinced of her innocence. He merely wants to get the case absolutely clear, for the final confounding of her accusers. At first, all goes smoothly. Mrs. Dane's answers to his questions are pat and plausible. Then she makes a single, almost imperceptible, slip of the tongue : she says, " We had governesses," instead of " I had governesses." Sir Daniel pricks up his ears : " We? You say you were an only child. Who 's we ? " " My cousin and I," she answers. Sir Daniel thinks it odd that he has not heard of this cousin before; but he continues his interrogatory without serious suspicion. Then it occurs to him to look up, in a topographical dictionary, the little town of Tawhampton, where Mrs. Dane spent her youth. He reads the bald account of it, ending thus, " The living is a Vicar-age, net yearly value £376, and has been held since 1875 by " -- and he turns round upon her —" by the Rev. Francis Hindemarsh ! Hindemarsh ? "

MRS. DANE : He was my uncle.

SIR DANIEL: Your uncle?

MRS. DANE : Sir Daniel, I 've done wrong to hide from you that Felicia Hindemarsh was my cousin.

SIR DANIEL : Felicia Hindemarsh was your cousin !

MRS. DANE: Can't you understand why I have hidden it? The whole affair was so terrible.

And so she stumbles on, from one inevitable ad-mission to another, until the damning truth is clear that she herself is Felicia Hindemarsh, the central, though not the most guilty, figure in a horrible scandal.

This scene is worthy of study as an excellent type of what may be called the judicial peripety, the crushing cross-examination, in which it is possible to combine the tension of the detective story with no small psychological subtlety. In Mr. Jones's scene, the psychology is obvious enough; but it is an admirable example of nice adjustment without any obtrusive ingenuity. The whole drama, in short, up to the last act is, in the exact sense of the word, a well-made play — complex yet clear, ingenious yet natural. In the comparative weakness of the last act we have a common characteristic of latter-day drama, which will have to be discussed in due course.

In this case we have a peripety of external for-tune. For a clearly-marked moral peripety we may turn to the great scene between Vivie and her mother in the second act of Mrs. Warren's Profession. Whatever may be thought of the matter of this scene, its movement is excellent. After a short, sharp opening, which reveals to Mrs. Warren the unfilial dispositions of her daughter, and reduces her to whimpering dismay, the following little passage occurs :

MRS. WARREN : YOU 're very rough with me, Vivie.

VIVIE: Nonsense. What about bed? It 's past ten.

MRS. WARREN (passionately) : What 's the use of my going to bed? Do you think I could sleep? VIVIE : Why not? I shall.

Then the mother turns upon the daughter's stony self-righteousness, and pours forth her sordid history in such a way as to throw a searchlight on the conditions which make such histories possible; until, exhausted by her outburst, she says, " Oh dear ! I do believe I am getting sleepy after all," and Vivie replies, " I believe it is I who will not be able to sleep now." Mr. Shaw, we see, is at pains to emphasize his peripety.

Some " great scenes " consist, not of one decisive turning of the tables, but of a whole series of minor vicissitudes of fortune. Such a scene is the third act of The Gay Lord Quex, a pro-longed and thrilling duel, in which Sophy Fullgarney passes by degrees from impertinent exultation to abject surrender and then springs up again to a mood of reckless defiance. In the "great scene " of The Thunderbolt, on the other hand — the scene of Thaddeus's false confession of having destroyed his brother's will — though there is, in fact, a great peripety, it is not that which attracts and absorbs our interest. All the greedy Mortimore family fall from the height of jubilant confidence in their new-found wealth to the depth of disappointment and exasperation. But this is not the aspect of the scene which grips and moves us. Our attention is centred on Thaddeus's struggle to take his wife's misdeed upon himself ; and his failure cannot be described as a peripety, seeing that it sinks him only one degree lower in the slough of despair. Like the scene in Mrs. Dane's Defence, this is practically a piece of judicial drama — a hard-fought cross-examination. But as there is no reversal of fortune for the character in whom we are chiefly interested, it scarcely ranks as a scene of peripety.

Before leaving this subject, we may note that a favourite effect of romantic drama is an upward reversal of fortune through the recognition — the anagnorisis — of some great personage in disguise. Victor Hugo excelled in the superb gestures appropriate to such a scene : witness the passage in Hernani, before the tomb of Charlemagne, where the obscure bandit claims the right to take his place at the head of the princes and nobles whom the newly-elected Emperor has ordered off to execution :


Dieu qui donne le sceptre et qui te le donna
M'a fait duc de Segorbe et duc de Cardona,
Marquis de Monroy, comte Albatéra, vicomte
De Gor, seigneur de lieux dont j'ignore le compte.
Je suis Jean d'Aragon, grand maître d'Avis, né
Dans l'exil, fils proscrit d'un père assassiné
Par sentence du tien, roi Carlos de Castille.

(Aux autres conjurés)

Couvrons nous, grands d'Espagne!

(Tous les Espagnols se couvrent)

Oui, nos têtes, ô roi !

Ont le droit de tomber couvertes devant toi !

An effective scene of this type occurs in Monsieur Beaucaire, where the supposed hairdresser is on the point of being ejected with contumely from the pump-room at Bath, when the French Ambassador enters, drops on his knee, kisses the young man's hand, and presents him to the astounded company as the Duc d'Orléans, Comte de Valois, and I know not what besides — a personage who immeasurably outshines the noblest of his insulters. Quieter, but not less telling, is the peripety in The Little Father of the Wilderness, by Messrs. Lloyd Osbourne and Austin Strong. The Père Marlotte, who, by his heroism and self-devotion, has added vast terri-tories to the French possessions in America, is summoned to the court of Louis XV, and naturally concludes that the king has heard of his services and wishes to reward them. He finds, on the contrary, that he. is wanted merely to decide a foolish bet; and he is treated with the grossest insolence and contempt. Just as he is departing in humiliation, the Governor-General of Canada arrives, with a suite of officers and Indians. The moment they are aware of Père Marlotte's presence, they all kneel to him and pay him deeper homage than they have paid to the king, who accepts the rebuke and joins in their demonstration.

A famous peripety of the romantic order occurs in H.M.S. Pinafore, where, on the discovery that Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw have been changed at birth, Ralph instantly becomes captain of the ship, while the captain declines into an able-bodied seaman. This is one of the instances in which the idealism of art ekes out the imperfections of reality.

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