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Climax and Anticlimax

( Originally Published 1912 )

IF it were as easy to write a good last act as a good first act, we should be able to reckon three masterpieces for every one that we can name at present. The reason why the last act should offer special difficulties is not far to seek. We have agreed to regard a play as essentially a crisis in the lives of one or more persons; and we all know that crises are much more apt to have a definite beginning than a definite end. We can almost always put our finger upon the moment — not, in-deed, when the crisis began — but when we clearly realized its presence or its imminence. A chance meeting, the receipt of a letter or a telegram, a particular turn given to a certain conversation, even the mere emergence into consciousness of a previously latent feeling or thought, may mark quite definitely the moment of germination, so to speak, of a given crisis; and it is comparatively easy to dramatize such a moment. But how few crises come to a definite or dramatic conclusion ! Nine times out of ten they end in some petty compromise, or do not end at all, but simply subside, like the waves of the sea when the storm has blown itself out. It is the playwright's chief difficulty to find a crisis with an ending which satisfies at once his artistic conscience and the requirements of dramatic effect.

And the difficulty becomes greater the nearer we approach to reality. In the days when tragedy and comedy were cast in fixed, conventional moulds, the playwright's task was much simpler. It was thoroughly understood that a tragedy ended with one or more deaths, a comedy with one or more marriages ; so that the question of a strong or a weak ending did not arise. The end might be strongly or weakly led up to, but, in itself, it was foreordained. Now that these moulds are broken, and both marriage and death may be said to have lost their prestige as the be-all and end-all of drama, the playwright's range of choice is unlimited, and the difficulty of choosing has become infinitely greater. Our comedies are much more apt to begin than to end with marriage, and death has come to be regarded as a rather cheap and conventional expedient for cutting the knots of life.

From the fact that " the difficulty becomes greater the nearer we approach to reality," it further follows that the higher the form of drama, the more probable is it that the demands of truth and the requirements of dramatic effect may be found to clash. In melodrama, the curtain falls of its own accord, so to speak, when the handcuffs are transferred from the hero's wrists to the villain's. In an adventure-play, whether farcical or romantic, when the adventure is over the play is done. The author's task is merely to keep the interest of the adventure afoot until he is ready to drop his curtain. This is a point of craftsmanship in which playwrights often fail; but it is a point of craftsmanship only. In plays of a higher order, on the other hand, the difficulty is often inherent in the theme, and not to be overcome by any feat of craftsmanship. If the dramatist were to eschew all crises that could not be made to resolve them-selves with specifically dramatic crispness and decisiveness, he would very seriously limit the domain of his art. Many excellent themes would be distorted and ruined by having an emphatic ending forced upon them. It is surely much better that they should be brought to their natural unemphatic ending, than that they should be either falsified or ignored.

I suggest, then, that the modern tendency to take lightly Aristotle's demand that the drama should have a " beginning, a middle, and an end," arises from the nature of things, and implies, not necessarily, nor even probably, a decline in craftsman-ship, but a new intimacy of relation to life, and a new sincerity of artistic conscience. I suggest that the " weak last act," of which critics so often complain, is a natural development from which authors ought not, on occasion, to shrink, and of which critics ought, on occasion, to recognize the necessity. To elevate it into a system is absurd. There is certainly no more reason for deliberately avoiding an emphatic ending than for mechanically forcing one. But authors and critics alike should learn to distinguish the themes which do, from the themes which do not, call for a definite, trenchant solution, and should handle them, and judge them, in accordance with their inherent quality.

Let us, however, define our terms, and be sure that we know what we are talking about. By an " unemphatic ending " I am far from meaning a makeshift ending, an ending carelessly and conventionally huddled up. Nor do I mean an indecisive ending, where the curtain falls, as the saying goes, on a note of interrogation. An unemphatic ending, as I understand it, is a deliberate anticlimax, an idyllic, or elegiac, or philosophic last act, following upon a penultimate act of very much higher tension. The disposition to condemn such an ending off-hand is what I am here pleading against. It is sometimes assumed that the playwright ought always to make his action conclude within five minutes of its culmination; but for such a hard-and-fast rule I can find no sufficient reason. The consequences of a great emotional or spiritual crisis cannot always be worked out, or even fore-shadowed, within so brief a space of time. If, after such a crisis, we are unwilling to keep our seats for another half-hour, in order to learn " what came of it all," the author has evidently failed to awaken in us any real interest in his characters.

A good instance of the unemphatic ending is the last act of Sir Arthur Pinero's Letty. This " epilogue " — so the author calls it — has been denounced as a concession to popular sentimentality, and an unpardonable anticlimax. An anticlimax it is, beyond all doubt; but it does not follow that it is an artistic blemish. Nothing would have been easier than not to write it — to make the play end with Letty's awakening from her dream, and her flight from Letchmere's rooms. But the author has set forth, not merely to interest us in an ad-venture, but to draw a character ; and it was essential to our full appreciation of Letty's character that we should know what, after all, she made of her life. When Iris, most hapless of women, went out into the dark, there was nothing more that we needed to know of her. We could guess the sequel only too easily. But the case of Letty was wholly different. Her exit was an act of will, triumphing over a form of temptation peculiarly alluring to her temperament. There was in her character precisely that grit which Iris lacked; and we wanted to know what it would do for her. This was not a case for an indecisive ending, a note of interrogation. The author felt no doubt as to Letty's destiny, and he wanted to leave his audience in no doubt. From Iris's fate we were only too willing to avert our eyes ; but it would have been a sensible discomfort to us to be left in the dark about Letty's.

This, then, I regard as a typical instance of justified anticlimax. Another is the idyllic last act of The Princess and the Butterfly, in which, moreover, despite its comparatively subdued tone, the tension is maintained to the end. A very different matter is the third act of The Benefit of the Doubt, already alluded to. This is a pronounced case of the makeshift ending, inspired (to all appearance) simply by the fact that the play must end somehow, and that no better idea happens to present itself. Admirable as are the other acts, one is almost inclined to agree with Dumas that an author ought not to embark upon a theme unless he foresees a better way out of it than this. It should be noted, too, that The Benefit of the Doubt is a three-act play, and that, in a play laid out on this scale, a whole act of anticlimax is necessarily disproportionate. It is one thing to relax the tension in the last act out of four or five ; quite another thing in the last act out of three. In other words, the culminating point of a four- or five-act play may be placed in the penultimate act; in a three-act play, it should come, at earliest, in the penultimate scene.'

In the works of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones we find several instances of the unemphatic last act — some clearly justified, others much less so. Among the former I unhesitatingly reckon the fourth act of Mrs. Dane's Defence. It would not have been difficult, but surely most inartistic, to huddle up the action in five minutes after Mrs. Dane's tragic collapse under Sir Daniel Carteret's cross-examination. She might have taken poison and died in picturesque contortions on the sofa; or Lionel might have defied all counsels of prudence and gone off with her in spite of her past; or she might have placed Lionel's hand in Janet's, saying : " The game is up. Bless you, my children. I am going into the nearest nunnery." As a matter of fact, Mr. Jones brought his action to its natural close in a quiet, sufficiently adroit, last act; and I do not see that criticism has any just complaint to make.

In recent French drama, La Douloureuse, al-ready cited, affords an excellent instance of a quiet last act. After the violent and heartrending rupture between the lovers in the third act, we feel that, though this paroxysm of pain is justified by the circumstances, it will not last for ever, and Philippe and H้l่ne will come together again. This is also M. Donnay's view : and he devotes his whole last act, quite simply, to a duologue of reconciliation. It seems to me a fault of proportion, however, that he should shift his locality from Paris to the Riviera, and should place the brief duologue in a romantic woodland scene. An act of anticlimax should be treated, so to speak, as unpretentiously as possible. To invent an elaborate apparatus for it is to emphasize the anticlimax by throwing it into unnecessary relief.

This may be a convenient place for a few words on the modern fashion of eschewing emphasis, not only in last acts, but at every point where the old French dramaturgy demanded it, and especially in act-endings. Punch has a pleasant allusion to this tendency in two suggested examination-papers for an " Academy of Dramatists ": —


1. What is a " curtain"; and how should it be led up to?


1. What is a " curtain "; and how can it be avoided?

Some modern playwrights have fled in a sort of panic from the old " picture-poster situation " to the other extreme of always dropping their curtain when the audience least expects it. This is not a practice to be commended. One has often seen an audience quite unnecessarily chilled by a disconcerting " curtain." There should be moderation even in the shrinking from theatricality.

This shrinking is particularly marked, though I do not say it is carried too far, in the plays of Mr. Galsworthy. Even the most innocent tricks of emphasis are to him snares of the Evil One. He would sooner die than drop his curtain on a particularly effective line. It is his chief ambition that you should never discern any arrangement, any intention, in his work. As a rule, the only reason you can see for his doing thus or thus is his desire that you should see no reason for it. He does not carry this tendency, as some do, to the point of eccentricity; but he certainly goes as far as any one should be advised to follow. A little further, and you incur the danger of becoming affectedly unaffected, artificially inartificial.

I am far from pleading for the conventional tableau at the end of each act, with all the characters petrified, as it were, in penny-plain-twopence-coloured attitudes. But it is certainly desirable that the fall of the curtain should not take an audience entirely by surprise, and even that the spectator should feel the moment to be rightly chosen, though he might be unable to give any reason for his feeling. Moreover — this may seem a supersubtlety, but one has seen it neglected with notably bad effect — a playwright should never let his audience expect the fall of a curtain at a given point, and then balk their expectancy, unless he is sure that he holds in reserve a more than adequate compensation. There is nothing so dangerous as to let a play, or an act, drag on when the audience feels in its heart that it is really over, and that " the rest is silence " — or ought to be. The end of Mr. Granville Barker's fine play, The Voysey Inheritance, was injured by the fact that, several minutes before the curtain actually fell, he had given what seemed an obvious " cue for curtain." I do not say that what followed was superfluous; what I do say is that the author ought to have been careful not to let us imagine that the colloquy between Edward and Alice was over when in fact it had still some minutes to run.

An even more remarkable play, The Madras House, was ruined, on its first night, by a long final anti-climax. Here, however, the fault did not lie in awakening a premature expectation of the close, but in the fact that we somehow were more interested in the other characters of the play than in the pair who held the stage throughout the long concluding scene.

Once more I turn to La Douloureuse for an in-stance of an admirable act-ending of the quiet modern type. The third act — the terrible peripety in the love of Philippe and H้l่ne — has run its agonizing course, and worked itself out. The old dramaturgy would certainly have ended the scene with a bang, so to speak — a swoon or a scream, a tableau of desolation, or, at the very least, a piece of tearful rhetoric. M. Donnay does nothing of the sort. He lets his lovers unpack their hearts with words until they are exhausted, broken, dazed with misery, and have nothing more to say. Then H้l่ne asks : " What o'clock is it? " Philippe looks at his watch : " Nearly seven." " I must be going " — and she dries her eyes, smoothes her hair, pulls herself together, in a word, to face the world again. The mechanical round of life re-asserts its hold upon them. " Help me with my cloak," she says; and he holds her mantle for her, and tucks in the puffed sleeves of her blouse. Then he takes up the lamp and lights her out — and the curtain falls. A model " curtain "!

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