( Originally Published 1912 )
IN an earlier chapter, I have tried to show that a certain tolerance for anticlimax, for a fourth or fifth act of calm after the storm of the penultimate act, is consonant with right reason, and is a practically inevitable result of a really intimate relation between drama and life. But it would be a complete misunderstanding of my argument to sup-pose that I deny the practical, and even the artistic, superiority of those themes in which the tension can be maintained and heightened to the very end.
The fact that tragedy has from of old been recognized as a higher form than comedy is partly due, no doubt, to the tragic poet's traditional right to round off a human destiny in death. " Call no man happy till his life be ended," said Sophocles, quoting from an earlier sage; and it needed no profundity of wisdom to recognize in the " happy ending " of comedy a conventional, ephemeral thing. But when, after all the peripeties of life, the hero " home has gone and ta'en his wages," we feel that, at any rate, we have looked destiny squarely in the face, without evasion or subterfuge. Perhaps the true justification of tragedy as a form of art is that, after this experience, we should feel life to be, not less worth living, but greater and more significant than before.
This is no place, however, for a discussion of the æsthetic basis of tragedy in general.' What is here required, from the point of view of craftsmanship, is not so much a glorification of the tragic ending, as a warning against its facile misuse. A very great play may, and often must, end in death; but you cannot make a play great by simply killing off your protagonist. Death is, after all, a very in-expensive means of avoiding anticlimax. Tension, as we saw, is symbolized in the sword of Damocles; and it can always be maintained, in a mechanical way, by letting your hero play about with a revolver, or placing an overdose of chloral well within your heroine's reach. At the time when the English drama was awaking from the lethargy of the 'seventies, an idea got abroad that a non-sanguinary ending was always and necessarily in-artistic, and that a self-respecting playwright must at all hazards kill somebody before dropping his curtain. This was an extravagant reaction against the purely commercial principle that the public would not, on any terms, accept a tragic ending. As a matter of fact, the mortality was not very great; for managers were resolute in the old belief, and few dramatists had the courage or authority to stand up against them. But I have often heard playwrights lamenting their inability to massacre the luckless children of their fancy, who, nine times out of ten, had done nothing to incur such a doom. The real trouble was that death seemed to be the only method of avoiding anticlimax.
It is a very sound rule that, before you deter-mine to write a tragedy, you should make sure that you have a really tragic theme : that you can place your hero at such odds with life that reconciliation, or mere endurance, would be morally base or psychologically improbable. Moreover, you must strike deep into character before you are justified in passing capital sentence on your personages. Death is a disproportionate close for a common-place and superficially-studied life. It is true that quite commonplace people do die; indeed, they preponderate in the bills of mortality; but death on the stage confers a sort of distinction which ought not to be accorded without due and sufficient cause. To one god in particular we may apply the Horatian maxim, " Nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus."
In German aesthetic theory, the conception of tragische Schuld —" tragic guilt " - plays a large part. It descends, no doubt, from the Aristotelian maxim that a tragic hero must neither be too good nor too bad; but it also belongs to a moralizing conception, which tacitly or explicitly assumes that the dramatist's aim ought to be " to justify the ways of God to man." In these days we look at drama more objectively, and do not insist on deciding in what degree a man has deserved death, if only we feel that he has necessarily or probably incurred it. But in order that we may be satisfied of this, we must know him intimately and feel with him intensely. We must, in other words, believe that he dies because he cannot live, and not merely to suit the playwright's convenience and help him to an effective " curtain."
As we review the series of Ibsen's modern plays, we cannot but feel that, though he did not shrink from death, he never employed it, except perhaps in his last melancholy effort, as a mere way of escape from a difficulty. In five out of his thirteen modern plays, no one dies at all.' One might even say six: for Oswald, in Ghosts, may live for years; but I hold it as only fair to count the death of his mind as more than equivalent to bodily death. Solness, on the plane of literal fact, dies by an accident; on the plane of symbolic interpretation, he dies of the over-great demands which Hilda makes upon his " sickly conscience." Little Eyolf's death can also be regarded from a symbolic point of view; but there is no substantial reason to think of it otherwise than as an accident. John Gabriel Borkman dies of heart seizure, resulting from sudden exposure to extreme cold.
In the case of Solness and Borkman, death is a quite natural and probable result of the antecedent conditions; and in the case of Eyolf, it is not a way out of the action, but rather the way into it. There remain the three cases of suicide : Rebecca and Rosmer, Hedda Gabler, and Hedvig. I have already, in Chapter XIX, shown how the death of Rebecca was the inevitable outcome of the situation—the one conclusive proof of her " ennoblement " —and how it was almost equally inevitable that Rosmer should accompany her to her end. Hedda Gabler was constitutionally fated to suicide : a woman of low vitality, overmastering egoism, and acute supersensitiveness, placed in a predicament which left her nothing to expect from life but tedium and humiliation. The one case left—that of Hedvig—is the only one in which Ibsen can possibly be accused of wanton bloodshed. Bjornson, in a very moving passage in his novel, The Paths of God, did actually, though indirectly, make that accusation. Certainly, there is no more heartrending incident in fiction ; and certainly it is a thing that only consummate genius can justify. Ibsen happened to possess that genius, and I am not far from agreeing with those who hold The Wild Duck to be his greatest work. But for playwrights who are tempted to seek for effects of pathos by similar means, one may without hesitation lay down this maxim : Be sure you are an Ibsen before you kill your Hedvig.
This analysis of Ibsen's practice points to the fact — for such I believe it to be — that what the modern playwright has chiefly to guard against is the temptation to overdo suicide as a means of cutting the dramatic knot. In France and Germany there is another temptation, that of the duel; but in Anglo-Saxon countries it scarcely presents itself. Death, other than self-inflicted, is much less tempting, and less apt to be resorted to in and out of season. The heroine, whether virtuous or erring, who dies of consumption, has gone greatly out of vogue. A broken heart is no longer held to be necessarily fatal. The veriest tyro realizes that death by crude accident is inadmissible as a determining factor in serious drama; and murder is practically (though not absolutely) relegated to the melodramatic domain. The one urgent question, then, is that of the artistic use and abuse of suicide.
The principle is pretty plain, I think, that it ought to be the artist's, as it is the man's, last resort. We know that, in most civilized countries, suicide is greatly on the increase. It cannot be called an infrequent incident in daily life. It is certain, too, that the motives impelling to it are apt to be of a dramatic nature, and therefore suited to the playwright's purposes. But it is, on the other hand, such a crude and unreasoning means of exit from the tangle of existence that a playwright of delicate instincts will certainly employ it only under the strongest compulsion from his artistic conscience.
Sir Arthur Pinero has three suicides on his record, though one of them was, so to speak, nipped in the bud. In The Profligate, as presented on the stage, Dunstan Renshaw changed his mind before draining the fatal goblet; and in this case the stage version was surely the right one. The suicide, to which the author still clings in the printed text, practically dates the play as belonging to the above-mentioned period of rebellion against the conventional " happy ending," when the ambitious British dramatist felt that honour required him to kill his man on the smallest provocation.' Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then, and the disproportion between such a play and such a catastrophe is now apparent to every one. It is not that we judge Renshaw's delinquencies to be over-punished by death — that is not the question. The fact is simply that the characters are not large enough, true enough, living enough — that the play does not probe deep enough into human experience — to make the au-gust intervention of death seem other than an incongruity. The suicide of Paula Tanqueray, though it, too, has been much criticized, is a very different matter. Inevitable it cannot be called : if the play had been written within the past ten years, Sir Arthur would very likely have contrived to do without it. But it is, in itself, probable enough : both the good and the bad in Paula's character might easily make her feel that only the dregs of life remained to her, and they not worth drinking. The worst one can say of it is that it sins against the canon of practical convenience which enjoins on the prudent dramatist strict economy in suicide. The third case, Zoe Blundell's leap to nothingness, in that harsh and ruthless masterpiece, Mid-Channel, is as inevitable as anything can well be in human destiny. Zoe has made a miserable and hopeless muddle of her life. In spite of her goodness of heart, she has no interests and no ideals, apart from the personal satisfactions which have now been poisoned at their source. She has intervened disastrously in the destinies of others. She is ill; her nerves are all on edge; and she is, as it were, driven into a corner, from which there is but one easy and rapid exit. Here is a case, if ever there was one, where the end is imposed upon the artist by the whole drift of his action. It may be said that chance plays a large part in the concatenation of events — that, for instance, if Leonard Ferris had not happened to live at the top of a very high building, Zoe would not have encountered the sudden temptation to which she yields. But this, as I have tried to show above, is a baseless complaint. Chance is a constant factor in life, now aiding, now thwarting, the will. To eliminate it altogether would be to produce a most unlifelike world. It is only when the playwright so manipulates and reduplicates chance as to make it seem no longer chance, but purposeful arrangement, that we have the right to protest.
Another instance of indisputably justified suicide may be found in Mr. Galsworthy's Justice. The whole theme of the play is nothing but the hounding to his end of a luckless youth, who has got on the wrong side of the law, and finds all the forces of society leagued against him. In Mr. Granville Barker's Waste, the artistic justification for Trebell's self-effacement is less clear and compulsive. It is true that the play was suggested by the actual suicide, not of a politician, but of a soldier, who found his career ruined by some pitiful scandal. But the author has made no at-tempt to reproduce the actual circumstances of that case; and even if he had reproduced the external circumstances, the psychological conditions would clearly have eluded him. Thus the appeal to fact is, as it always must be, barred. In two cases, indeed, much more closely analogous to Trebell's than that which actually suggested it — two famous cases in which a scandal cut short a brilliant political career — suicide played no part in the catastrophe. These real-life instances are, I repeat, irrelevant. The only question is whether Mr. Barker has made us feel that a man of Trebell's character would certainly not survive the paralyzing of his energies; and that question every spectator must answer for himself. I am far from answering it in the negative. I merely suggest that the playwright may one day come across a theme for which there is no conceivable ending but suicide, and may wish that he had let Trebell live, lest people should come to regard him as a spendthrift of self-slaughter.
The suicide which brings to a close Mr. Clyde Fitch's very able play, The Climbers, stands on a somewhat different level. Here it is not the protagonist who makes away with himself, nor is his destiny the main theme of the play. Mr. Fitch has painted a broad social picture, in which, if there is any concentration of interest, it is upon Blanche and Warden. Sterling's suicide, then, though it does in fact cut the chief knot of the play, is to be regarded rather as a characteristic and probable incident of a certain phase of life, than as the culmination of a spiritual tragedy. It has not the artistic significance, either good or bad, that it would have if the character and destiny of Sterling were our main concernment.
The happy playwright, one may say, is he whose theme does not force upon him either a sanguinary or a tame last act, but enables him, without troubling the coroner, to sustain and increase the tension up to the very close. Such themes are not too common, but they do occur. Dumas found one in Denise, and another in Francillon, where the famous " Il en a menti ! " comes within two minutes of the fall of the curtain. In Heimat (Magda) and in Johannisfeuer, Sudermann keeps the tension at its height up to the fall of the curtain. Sir Arthur Pinero's Iris is a case in point; so are Mr. Shaw's Candida and The Devil's Disciple; so is Mr. Galsworthy's Strife. Other in-stances will no doubt occur to the reader; yet he will probably be surprised to find that it is not very easy to recall them.
For this is not, in fact, the typical modern formula. In plays which do not end in death, it will generally be found that the culminating scene occurs in the penultimate act, and that, if anti-climax is avoided, it is not by the maintenance of an unbroken tension, by its skilful renewal and reinforcement in the last act. This is a resource which the playwright will do well to bear in mind. Where he cannot place his " great scene " in his last act, he should always consider whether it be not possible to hold some development in reserve whereby the tension may be screwed up again — if unexpectedly, so much the better. Some of the most successful plays within my recollection have been those in which the last act came upon us as a pleasant surprise. An anticlimax had seemed inevitable; and behold! the author had found a way out of it.
An Enemy of the People may perhaps be placed in this class, though, as before remarked, the last act is almost an independent comedy. Had the play ended with the fourth act, no one would have felt that anything was lacking; so that in his fifth act, Ibsen was not so much grappling with an urgent technical problem, as amusing himself by wringing the last drop of humour out of the given situation. A more strictly apposite example may be found in Sir Arthur Pinero's play, His House in Order. Here the action undoubtedly culminates in the great scene between Nina and Hilary Jesson in the third act; yet we await with eager anticipation the discomfiture of the Ridgeley family; and when we realize that it is to be brought about by the disclosure to Filmer of Annabel's secret, the manifest rightness of the proceeding gives us a little shock of pleasure. Mr. Somerset Maugham, again, in the last act of Grace, employs an ingenious device to keep the tension at a high pitch. The matter of the act consists mainly of a debate as to whether Grace Insole ought, or ought not, to make a certain painful avowal to her husband. As the negative opinion was to carry the day, Mr. Maugham saw that there was grave danger that the final scene might appear an almost ludicrous anticlimax. To obviate this, he made Grace, at the beginning of the act, write a letter of confession, and address it to Claude ; so that all through the discussion we had at the back of our mind the question " Will the letter reach his hands? Will the sword of Damocles fall? " This may seem like a leaf from the book of Sardou; but in reality it was a perfectly natural and justified expedient. It kept the tension alive throughout a scene of ethical discussion, interesting in itself, but pretty clearly des-tined to lead up to the undramatic alternative — a policy of silence and inaction. Mr. Clyde Fitch, in the last act of The Truth, made an elaborate and daring endeavour to relieve the mawkishness of the clearly-foreseen reconciliation between War-der and Becky. He let Becky fall in with her father's mad idea of working upon Warder's compassion by pretending that she had tried to kill herself. Only at the last moment did she abandon the sordid comedy, and so prove herself (as we are asked to suppose) cured for ever of the habit of fibbing. Mr. Fitch here showed good technical insight marred by over-hasty execution. That Becky should be tempted to employ her old methods, and should overcome the temptation, was entirely right; but the actual deception attempted was so crude and hopeless that there was no plausibility in her consenting to it, and no merit in her desisting from it.
In light comedy and farce it is even more desirable than in serious drama to avoid a tame and perfunctory last act. Very often a seemingly trivial invention will work wonders in keeping the interest afoot. In Mr. Anstey's delightful farce, The Brass Bottle, one looked forward rather dolefully to a flat conclusion; but by the simple device of letting the Jinny omit to include Pringle in his " act of oblivion," the author is enabled to make his last scene quite as amusing as any of its predecessors. Mr. Arnold Bennett, in The Honey-moon, had the audacity to play a deliberate trick on the audience, in order to evade an anticlimax. Seeing that his third act could not at best be very good, he purposely put the audience on a false scent, made it expect an absolutely commonplace ending (the marriage of Flora to Charles Haslam) , and then substituted one which, if not very brilliant, was at least ingenious and unforeseen. Thus, by defeating the expectation of a superlatively bad act, he made a positively insignificant act seem comparatively good. Such feats of craftsmanship are entertaining, but too dangerous to be commended for imitation.
In some modern plays a full close is achieved by the simple expedient of altogether omitting the last act, or last scene, and leaving the end of the play to the imagination. This method is boldly and (I understand) successfully employed by Mr. Edward Sheldon in his powerful play, The Nigger. Philip Morrow, the popular Governor of one of the Southern States, has learnt that his grand-mother was a quadroon, and that consequently he has in him a much-attenuated strain of African blood. In the Southern States, attenuation matters nothing: if the remotest filament of a man's ancestry runs back to Africa, he is " a nigger all right." Philip has just suppressed a race-riot in the city, and, from the balcony of the State Capitol, is to address the troops who have aided him, and the assembled multitude. Having resolutely parted from the woman he adores, but can no longer marry, he steps out upon the balcony to announce that he is a negro, that he resigns the Governorship, and that henceforth he casts in his lot with his black brethren. The stage-direction runs thus —
The afternoon sun strikes his figure. At his appearance a shout goes up — long, steady, enthusiastic cheering; and, after a moment, the big regimental band begins playing, very slowly, " My Country, 't is of Thee." . . . All the people in the room are smiling and applauding enthusiastically ; and—as Phil in vain raises his hand for silence, and the band crashes through the National Anthem, and the roar of voices still rises from below —
THE CURTAIN FALLS.
One does not know whether to praise Mr. Sheldon for having adroitly avoided an anticlimax, or to reproach him with having unblushingly shirked a difficulty. To my sense, the play has somewhat the air of a hexameter line with the spondee cut off.' One does want to see the peripety through. But if the audience is content to imagine the sequel, Mr. Sheldon's craftsmanship is justified, and there is no more to be said.
M. Brieux experienced some difficulty in bringing his early play, Blanchette, to a satisfactory close. The third act which he originally wrote was found unendurably cynical; a more agreeable third act was condemned as an anticlimax; and for some time the play was presented with no third act at all. It did not end, but simply left off. No doubt it is better that a play should stop in the middle than that it should drag on tediously and ineffectually. But it would be foolish to make a system of such an expedient. It is, after all, an evasion, not a solution, of the artist's problem.
An incident which occurred during the rehearsals for the first production of A Doll's House, at the Novelty Theatre, London, illustrates the difference between the old, and what was then the new, fashion of ending a play. The business manager of the company, a man of ripe theatrical experience, happened to be present one day when Miss Achurch and Mr. Waring were rehearsing the last great scene between Nora and Helmar. At the end of it, he came up to me, in a state of high excitement. " This is a fine play ! " he said. " This is sure to be a big thing!" I was greatly pleased. " If this scene, of all others," I thought, " carries a man like Mr. Smith off his feet, it cannot fail to hold the British public." But I was somewhat dashed when, a day or two later, Mr. Smith came up to me again, in much less buoyant spirits. " I made a mistake about that scene," he said. " They tell me it 's the end of the last act — I thought it was the end of the first!"