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Conversion

( Originally Published 1912 )



THE reader may have noticed, possibly with surprise, that some of the stock terms of dramatic criticism occur but rarely in these pages, or not at all. One of them is dénouement. According to orthodox theory, I ought to have made the dénouement the subject of a whole chapter, if not of a whole book. Why have I not done so?

For two reasons. The lesser, but not negligible, reason is that we possess no convenient English word for the unknotting or disentangling of a complication. Dénouement itself cannot be plausibly Anglicized, and no native word has as yet, by common consent, been accepted as its equivalent. I sometimes wish we could adopt, and print with-out italics, the excellent and expressive Greek word " lusis "; but I cannot, on my own responsibility, attempt so daring an innovation. The second and determining reason for not making the dénouement one of the heads of my argument, is that, the play of intrigue being no longer the dominant dramatic form, the image of disentangling has lost some of its special fitness. It is only in a somewhat strained and conventional sense that the term nodus, or knot, can be applied to the sort of crisis with which the modern drama normally deals ; and if we do not naturally think of the crisis as a knot, we naturally do not think of its close as an unknotting.

Nevertheless, there are frequent cases in which the end of a play depends on something very like the unravelling of a tangled skein; and still more often, perhaps, is it brought about through the loosening of some knot in the mind of one or more of the characters. This was the characteristic end of the old comedy. The heavy father, or cantankerous guardian, who for four acts and a half had stood between the lovers, suddenly changed his mind, and all was well. Even by our ancestors this was reckoned a rather too simple method of disentanglement. Lisideius, in Dryden's dialogue, in enumerating the points in which the French drama is superior to the English notes that —

You never see any of their plays end with a con-version, or simple change of will, which is the ordinary way which our poets use to end theirs. It shew little art in the conclusion of a dramatick poem, when they who have hindered the felicity during the four acts, desist from it in the fifth, without some powerful cause to take them off their design.

The remark of Lisideius is suggested by a pas-sage in Corneille, who instances, as an apt and artistic method of bringing about the conversion of a heavy father, that his daughter's lover should earn his gratitude by rescuing him from assassination !

Conversions, closely examined, will be found to fall into two classes : changes of volition, and changes of sentiment. It was the former class that Dryden had in mind; and, with reference to this class, the principle he indicates remains a sound one. A change of resolve should never be due to mere lapse of time — to the necessity for bringing the curtain down and letting the audience go home. It must always be rendered plausible by some new fact or new motive : some hitherto untried appeal to reason or emotion. This rule, however, is too obvious to require enforcement. It was not quite superfluous so long as the old convention of comedy endured. For a century and a half after Dryden's time, hard-hearted parents were apt to withdraw their opposition to their children's " felicity " for no better reason than that the fifth act was drawing to a close. But this formula is practically obsolete. Changes of will, on the modern stage, are not always adequately motived ; but that is because of individual inexpertness, not because of any failure to recognize theoretically the necessity for adequate motivation.

Changes of sentiment are much more important and more difficult to handle. A change of will can always manifest itself in action; but it is very difficult to externalize convincingly a mere change of heart. When the conclusion of a play hinges (as it frequently does) on a conversion of this nature, it becomes a matter of the first moment that it should not merely be asserted, but proved. Many a promising play has gone wrong because of the author's neglect, or inability, to comply with this condition.

It has often been observed that of all Ibsen's thoroughly mature works, from A Doll's House to John Gabriel Borkman, The Lady from the Sea is the loosest in texture, the least masterly in construction. The fact that it leaves this impression on the mind is largely due, I think, to a single fault. The conclusion of the play — Ellida's clinging to Wangel and rejection of the Stranger — depends entirely on a change in Wangel's mental attitude, of which we have no proof whatever beyond his bare assertion. Ellida, in her over-wrought mood, is evidently inclining to yield to the uncanny allurement of the Stranger's claim upon her, when Wangel, realizing that her sanity is threatened, says : —

WANGEL: It shall not come to that. There is no other way of deliverance for you — at least I see none. And therefore—therefore I — cancel our bargain on the spot. Now you can choose your own path, in full—full freedom.

ELLIDA (Gazes at him awhile, as if speechless) Is this true—true—what you say? Do you mean it — from your inmost heart?

WAGNEL : Yes — from the inmost depths of my tortured heart, I mean it. . . . Now your own true life can return to its — its right groove again. For now you can choose in freedom; and on your own responsibility, Ellida.

ELLIDA : In freedom — and on my own responsibility? Responsibility? This — this transforms everything.

— and she promptly gives the Stranger his dis-missal. Now this is inevitably felt to be a weak conclusion, because it turns entirely on a condition of Wangel's mind of which he gives no positive and convincing evidence. Nothing material is changed by his change of heart. He could not in any case have restrained Ellida by force; or, if the law gave him the abstract right to do so, he certainly never had the slightest intention of exercising it. Psychologically, indeed, the incident is acceptable enough. The saner part of Ellida's will was always on Wangel's side; and a merely verbal undoing of the " bargain " with which she reproached herself might quite naturally suffice to turn the scale decisively in his favour. But what may suffice for Ellida is not enough for the audience. Too much is made to hang upon a verbally announced conversion. The poet ought to have invented some material — or, at the very least, some impressively symbolic proof of Wangel's change of heart. Had he done so, The Lady from the Sea would assuredly have taken a higher rank among his works.

Let me further illustrate my point by comparing a very small thing with a very great. The late Captain Marshall wrote a " farcical romance " named The Duke of Killiecrankie, in which that nobleman, having been again and again rejected by the Lady Henrietta Addison, kidnapped the obdurate fair one, and imprisoned her in a crag-castle in the Highlands. Having kept her for a week in deferential durance, and shown her that he was not the inefficient nincompoop she had taken him for, he threw open the prison gate, and said to her: " Go ! I set you free!" The moment she saw the gate unlocked, and realized that she could indeed go when and where she pleased, she also realized that she had not the least wish to go, and flung herself into her captor's arms. Here we have Ibsen's situation transposed into the key of fantasy, and provided with the material " guarantee of good faith " which is lacking in The Lady from the Sea. The Duke's change of mind, his will to set the Lady Henrietta free, is visibly demonstrated by the actual opening of the prison gate, so that we believe in it, and believe that she believes in it. The play was a trivial affair, and is deservedly forgotten ; but the situation was effective because it obeyed the law that a change of will or of feeling, occurring at a crucial point in a dramatic action, must be certified by some external evidence, on pain of leaving the audience unimpressed.

This is a more important matter than it may at first sight appear. How to bring home to the audience a decisive change of heart is one of the ever-recurring problems of the playwright's craft.

In The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen failed to solve it : in Rosmersholm he solved it by heroic measures. The whole catastrophe is determined by Rosmer's inability to accept without proof Rebecca's declaration that Rosmershohn has " ennobled " her, and that she is no longer the same woman whose relentless egoism drove Beata into the mill-race. Rebecca herself puts it to him : " How can you believe me on my bare word after to-day ? " There is only one proof she can give — that of " going the way Beata went." She gives it: and Rosmer, who cannot believe her if she lives, and will not survive her if she dies, goes with her to her end. But the cases are not very frequent, fortunately, in which such drastic methods of proof are appropriate or possible. The dramatist must, as a rule, attain his end by less violent means; and often he fails to attain it at all.

A play by Mr. Haddon Chambers, The Awakening, turned on a sudden conversion — the " awakening," in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer, a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation, and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he " awakens " to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single-minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the heroine and the audience to be assured of the fact? That is just the difficulty; and the author takes no effectual measures to overcome it. The heroine, of course, is ultimately convinced; but the audience remains sceptical, to the detriment of the desired effect. " Sceptical," perhaps, is not quite the right word. The state of mind of a fictitious character is not a subject for actual belief or disbelief. We are bound to accept theoretically what the author tells us; but in this case he has failed to make us intimately feel and know that it is true.

In Mr. Alfred Sutro's play The Builder of Bridges, Dorothy Faringay, in her devotion to her forger brother, has conceived the rather disgraceful scheme of making one of his official superiors fall in love with her, in order to induce him to become practically an accomplice in her brother's crime. She succeeds beyond her hopes. Edward Thursfield does fall in love with her, and, at a great sacrifice, replaces the money the brother has stolen. But, in a very powerful peripety-scene in the third act, Thursfield learns that Dorothy has been deliberately beguiling him, while in fact she was engaged to another man. The truth is, however, that she has really come to love Thursfield passionately, and has broken her engagement with the other, for whom she never truly cared. So the author tells us, and so we are willing enough to believe — if he can devise any adequate method of making Thursfield believe it. Mr. Sutro's handling of the difficulty seems to me fairly, but not conspicuously, successful. I cite the case as a typical instance of the problem, apart from the merits or demerits of the solution.

It may be said that the difficulty of bringing home to us the reality of a revulsion of feeling, or a radical change of mental attitude, is only a particular case of the playwright's general problem of convincingly externalizing inward conditions and processes. That is true : but the special importance of a conversion which unties the knot and brings the curtain down seemed to render it worthy of special consideration.



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