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Keeping a Secret

( Originally Published 1912 )

IT has been often and authoritatively laid down that a dramatist must on no account keep a secret from his audience. Like most authoritative maxims, this one seems to require a good deal of qualification. Let us look into the matter a little more closely.

So far as I can see, the strongest reason against keeping a secret is that, try as you may, you cannot do it. This point has already been discussed in Chapter IX, where we saw that from only one audience can a secret be really hidden, a consider-able percentage of any subsequent audience being certain to know all about it in advance. The more striking and successful is the first-night effect of surprise, the more certainly and rapidly will the report of it circulate through all strata of the theatrical public. But for this fact, one could quite well conceive a fascinating melodrama constructed, like a detective story, with a view to keeping the audience in the dark as long as possible. A pistol shot might ring out just before the rise of the curtain: a man (or woman) might be discovered in an otherwise empty room, weltering in his (or her) gore : and the remainder of the play might consist in the tracking down of the murderer, who would, of course, prove to be the very last person to be suspected. Such a play might make a great first-night success; but the more the author relied upon the mystery for his effect, the more fatally would that effect be discounted at each successive repetition.

One author of distinction, M. Hervieu, has actually made the experiment of presenting an enigma — he calls the play L'Enigme — and reserving the solution to the very end. We know from the outset that one of two sisters-in-law is unfaithful to her husband, and the question is — which? The whole ingenuity of the author is centred on keeping the secret, and the spectator who does not know it in advance is all the time in the attitude of a detective questing for clues. He is challenged to guess which of the ladies is the frail one; and he is far too intent on this game to think or care about the emotional process of the play. I myself (I remember) guessed right, mainly because the name Giselle seemed to me more suggestive of flightiness than the staid and sober Léonore, wherefore I suspected that M. Hervieu, in order to throw dust in our eyes, had given it to the virtuous lady. But whether we guess right or wrong, this clue-hunting is an intellectual sport, not an artistic enjoyment. If there is any æsthetic quality in the play, it can only come home to us when we know the secret. And the same dilemma will present itself to any playwright who seeks to imitate M. Hervieu.

The actual keeping of a secret, then — the appeal to the primary curiosity of actual ignorance — may be ruled out as practically impossible, and, when possible, unworthy of serious art. But there is also, as we have seen, the secondary curiosity of the audience which, though more or less cognizant of the essential facts, instinctively assumes ignorance, and judges the development of a play from that point of view. We all realize that a dramatist has no right to trust to our previous knowledge, acquired from outside sources. We know that a play, like every other work of art, ought to be self-sufficient, and even if, at any given moment, we have, as a matter of fact, knowledge which supplements what the playwright has told us, we feel that he ought not to have taken for granted our possession of any such external and fortuitous in-formation. To put it briefly, the dramatist must formally assume ignorance in his audience, though he must not practically rely upon it. Therefore it becomes a point of real importance to determine how long a secret may be kept from an audience, assumed to have no outside knowledge, and at what point it ought to be revealed.

When Lady Windermere's Fan was first produced, no hint was given in the first act of the fact that Mrs. Erlynne was Lady Windermere's mother; so that Lord Windermere's insistence on inviting her to his wife's birthday reception remained wholly unexplained. But after a few nights the author made Lord Windermere exclaim, just as the curtain fell, " My God ! What shall I do? I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her." It was, of course, said that this change had been made in deference to newspaper criticism ; and Oscar Wilde, in a characteristic letter to the St. James's Gazette, promptly repelled this calumny. At a first-night supper-party, he said, —

" All of my friends without exception were of the opinion that the psychological interest of the second act would be greatly increased by the disclosure of the actual relationship existing between Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne — an opinion, I may add, that had previously been strongly held and urged by Mr. Alexander. . . . I determined, consequently, to make a change in the precise moment of revelation."

It is impossible to say whether Wilde seriously believed that " psychology " entered into the mat-ter at all, or whether he was laughing in his sleeve in putting forward this solemn plea. The truth is, I think, that this example cannot be cited either for or against the keeping of a secret, the essential fact being that the secret was such a bad and inacceptable one — inacceptable, I mean, as an explanation of Lord Windermere's conduct — that it was probably wise to make a clean breast of it as soon as possible, and get it over. It may be said with perfect confidence that it is useless to keep a secret which, when revealed, is certain to disappoint the audience, and to make it feel that it has been trifled with. That is an elementary dictate of prudence. But if the reason for Lord Windermere's conduct had been adequate, ingenious, such as to give us, when revealed, a little shock of pleasant surprise, the author need certainly have been in no hurry to disclose it. It is not improbable (though my memory is not clear on the point) that part of the strong interest we undoubtedly felt on the first night arose from the hope that Lord Windermere's seemingly unaccountable conduct might be satisfactorily accounted for. As this hope was futile, there was no reason, at subsequent performances, to keep up the pretence of preserving a secret which was probably known, as a matter of fact, to most of the audience, and which was worthless when revealed.

In the second act of The Devil's Disciple, by Mr. Bernard Shaw, we have an instance of wholly in-artistic secrecy, which would certainly be condemned in the work of any author who was not accepted in advance as a law unto himself. Richard Dudgeon has been arrested by the British soldiers, who mistake him for the Reverend Anthony Anderson. When Anderson comes home, it takes a very long time for his silly wife, Judith, to acquaint him with a situation that might have been explained in three words ; and when, at last, he does under-stand it, he calls for a horse and his boots, and rushes off in mad haste, as though his one desire were to escape from the British and leave Dudgeon to his fate. In reality his purpose is to bring up a body of Continental troops to the rescue of Dudgeon; and this also he might (and certainly would) have conveyed in three words. But Mr. Shaw was so bent on letting Judith continue to conduct herself idiotically, that he made her sensible husband act no less idiotically, in order to throw dust in her eyes, and (incidentally) in the eyes of the audience. In the work of any other man, we should call this not only an injudicious, but a purposeless and foolish, keeping of a secret. Mr. Shaw may say that in order to develop the character of Judith as he had conceived it, he was forced to make her misunderstand her husband's motives. A development of character obtained by such artificial means cannot be of much worth; but even granting this plea, one cannot but point out that it would have been easy to keep Judith in the dark as to Anderson's purpose, without keeping the audience also in the dark, and making him be-have like a fool. All that was required was to get Judith off the stage for a few moments, just before the true state of matters burst upon Anthony. It would then have been perfectly natural and probable that, not foreseeing her misunderstanding, he should hurry off without waiting to explain matters to her. But that he should deliberately leave her in her delusion, and even use phrases carefully calculated to deceive both her and the audience, would be, in a writer who professed to place reason above caprice, a rather gross fault of art.

Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's light comedy, White-washing Julia, proves that it is possible, without incurring disaster, to keep a secret throughout a play, and never reveal it at all. More accurately, what Mr. Jones does is to pretend that there is some explanation of Mrs. Julia Wren's relations with the Duke of Savona, other than the simple explanation that she was his mistress, and to keep us waiting for this " whitewashing " disclosure, when in fact he has nothing of the sort up his sleeve, and the plain truth is precisely what the gossips of Shanctonbury surmise. Julia does not even explain or justify her conduct from her own point of view. She gives out that " an explanation will be forth-coming at the right moment "; but the right moment never arrives. All we are told is that she, Julia, considers that there was never anything de-grading in her conduct; and this we are asked to accept as sufficient. It was a daring policy to dangle before our eyes an explanation, which always receded as we advanced towards it, and proved in the end to be wholly unexplanatory. The success of the play, however, was sufficient to show that, in light comedy, at any rate, a secret may with impunity be kept, even to the point of tantalization.

Let us now look at a couple of cases in which the keeping of a secret seems pretty clearly wrong, inasmuch as it diminishes tension, and deprives the audience of that superior knowledge in which lies the irony of drama. In a play named Her Advocate, by Mr. Walter Frith (founded on one of Grenville Murray's French Pictures in English Chalk), a K.C. has fallen madly in love with a woman whose defence he has undertaken. He believes passionately in her innocence, and, never doubting that she loves him in return, he is deter-mined to secure for her a triumphant acquittal. Just at the crucial moment, however, he learns that she loves another man ; and, overwhelmed by this disillusion, he has still to face the ordeal and plead her cause. The conjuncture would be still more dramatic if the revelation of this love were to put a different complexion on the murder, and, by introducing a new motive, shake the advocate's faith in his client's innocence. But that is another matter; the question here to be considered is whether the author did right in reserving the revelation to the last possible moment. In my opinion he would have done better to have given us an earlier inkling of the true state of affairs. To keep the secret, in this case, was to place the audience as well as the advocate on a false trail, and to deprive it of the sense of superiority it would have felt in seeing him marching confidently towards a happiness which it knew to be illusory.

The second case is that of La Douloureuse, by M. Maurice Donnay. Through two acts out of the four an important secret is so carefully kept that there seems to be no obstacle between the lovers with whom (from the author's point of view) we are supposed to sympathize. The first act is de-voted to an elaborate painting of a somewhat revolting phase of parvenu society in Paris. Towards the end of the act we learn that the sculptor, Philippe Lauberthie, is the lover of Hélène Ardan, a married woman ; and at the very end her husband, Ardan, commits suicide. This act, therefore, is devoted, not, as the orthodox formula goes, to raising an obstacle between the lovers, but rather to destroying one. In the second act there still seems to be no obstacle of any sort. Hélène's year of widowhood is nearly over; she and Philippe are presently to be married ; all is harmony, adoration, and security. In the last scene of the act, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appears on the horizon. We find that Gotte des Trembles, Hélène's bosom friend, is also in love with Philippe, and is deter-mined to let him know it. But Philippe resists her blandishments with melancholy austerity, and when the curtain falls on the second act, things seem to be perfectly safe and in order. Hélène a widow, and Philippe austere — what harm can Gotte possibly do?

The fact is, M. Donnay is carefully keeping a secret from us. Philippe is not Hélène's first lover; her son, Georges, is not the child of her late husband; and Gotte, and Gotte alone, knows the truth. Had we also been initiated from the outset (and nothing would have been easier or more natural — three words exchanged between Gotte and Hélène would have done it) we should have been at no loss to foresee the impending drama, and the sense of irony would have tripled the interest of the intervening scenes. The effect of M. Donnay's third act is not a whit more forcible because it comes upon us unprepared. We learn at the beginning that Philippe's austerity has not after all been proof against Gotte's seductions ; but it has now returned upon him embittered by remorse, and he treats Gotte with sternness approaching to contumely. She takes her revenge by revealing Hélène's secret ; he tells Hélène that he knows it; and she, putting two and two together, divines how it has come to his knowledge. This long scene of mutual reproach and remorseful misery is, in reality, the whole drama, and might have been cited in Chap-ter XIV as a fine example of a peripety. Hélène enters Philippe's studio happy and serene, she leaves it broken-hearted; but the effect of the scene is not a whit greater because, in the two previous acts, we have been studiously deprived of the information that would have led us vaguely to anticipate it.

To sum up this question of secrecy : the current maxim, " Never keep a secret from your audience," would appear to be an over-simplification of a somewhat difficult question of craftsmanship. We may agree that it is often dangerous and some-times manifestly foolish to keep a secret; but, on the other hand, there is certainly no reason why the playwright should blurt out all his secrets at the first possible opportunity. The true art lies in knowing just how long to keep silent, and just the right time to speak. In the first act of Letty, Sir Arthur Pinero gains a memorable effect by keeping a secret, not very long, indeed, but long enough and carefully enough to show that he knew very clearly what he was doing. We are introduced to Nevill Letchmere's bachelor apartments. Animated scenes occur between Letchmere and his brother-in-law, Letchmere and his sister, Letchmere and Letty, Marion and Hilda Gunning. It is evident that Letty dreams of marriage with Letchmere; and for aught that we see or hear, there is no just cause or impediment to the contrary. It is only, at the end of the very admirable scene between Letchmere and Mandeville that the following little passage occurs: —

MANDEVILLE: . . . At all events I am qualified to tell her I 'm fairly gone on her — honourably gone on her— if I choose to do it.

LETCHMERE: Qualified?

MANDEVILLE: Which is more than you are, Mr. Letchmere. I am a single man; you ain't, bear in mind.

LETCHMERE (imperturbably) : Very true.

This one little touch is a masterpiece of craftsman-ship. It would have been the most natural thing in the world for either the sister or the brother-in-law, concerned about their own matrimonial difficulties, to let fall some passing allusion to Letchmere's separation from his wife; but the author carefully avoided this, carefully allowed us to make our first acquaintance with Letty in ignorance of the irony of her position, and then allowed the truth to slip out just in time to let us feel the whole force of that irony during the last scene of the act and the greater part of the second act. A finer instance of the delicate grading of tension it would be difficult to cite.

One thing is certain ; namely, that if a secret is to be kept at all, it must be worth the keeping ; if a riddle is propounded, its answer must be pleasing and ingenious, or the audience will resent having been led to cudgel its brains for nothing. This is simply a part of the larger principle, before insisted on, that when a reasonable expectation is aroused, it can be baffled only at the author's peril. If the crux of a scene or of a whole play lie in the solution of some material difficulty or moral problem, it must on no account be solved by a mere trick or evasion. The dramatist is very ill-advised who sets forth with pomp and circumstance to per-form some intellectual or technical feat, and then merely skirts round it or runs away from it. A fair proportion should always be observed between effort and effect, between promise and performance.

" But if the audience happens to misread the playwright's design, and form exaggerated and irrational expectations ? " That merely means that the playwright does not know his business, or, at any rate, does not know his audience. It is his business to play upon the collective mind of his audience as upon a keyboard — to arouse just the right order and measure of anticipation, and fulfil it, or outdo it, in just the right way at just the right time. The skill of the dramatist, as distinct from his genius or inspiration, lies in the correctness of his insight into the mind of his audience.

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