Plays - Method And Structure - Part 2
( Originally Published 1914 )
The first act has a definite aim and difficulties that belong to itself alone. Broadly speaking, its business is so to open the story as to leave the audience at the fall of the first curtain with a clear idea of what it is about; not knowing too much, wishing to know more, and having well in mind the antecedent conditions which made the story at its beginning possible. If, at the act's end, too much has been revealed, the interest projected forward sags; if too little, the audience fails to get the idea around which the story revolves, and so is not pleasurably anxious for its continuance. If the antecedent conditions have not clearly been made manifest, some omitted link may throw con-fusion upon all that follows. On the other hand, if too much time has been expended in setting forth the events that lead up to the story's start on the stage, with the rise of the curtain, not enough time may be left, within act limits, to hold the attention and fix interest so it may sustain the entr'act break and fasten upon the next act.
Thus it will be seen that a successful opening act is a considerable test of the dramatist's skill.
Another drawback complicates the matter. The playwright has at his disposal in the first act from half to three-quarters of an hour in which to effect his purpose. But he must lose from five to ten minutes of this precious time allotment, at the best very short, because, ac-cording to the detestable Anglo-Saxon convention, the audience is not fairly seated when the play begins, and general attention there-fore not riveted upon the stage action. Under ideal conditions, and they have never existed in all respects in any time or country, the audience will be in place at the curtain's rise, alert to catch every word and movement. As a matter of fact, this practically never occurs; particularly in America, where the drama has never been taken so seriously as an art as music; for some time now people have not been allowed, in a hall devoted to that gentle sister art, to straggle in during the performance of a composition, or the self-exploitation of a singer, thereby disturbing the more enlightened hearers who have come on time, and regard it, very properly, as part of their breeding to do so. But in the theater, as we all know, the barbarous custom obtains of admitting late comers, so that for the first few minutes of the performance a steady insult is thus offered to the play, the players, and the portion of the audience already in their seats. It may be hoped, parenthetically, that as our theater gradually becomes civilized this survival of the manners of bushmen may become purely historic. At present, however, the practical playwright accepts the existing conditions, as per-force he must, and writes his play accordingly. And so the first few minutes of a well-constructed drama, it may be noticed, are generally devoted to some incident, interesting or amusing in itself, preferably external so as to catch the eye, but not too vital, and involving, as a rule, minor characters, without revealing anything really crucial in the action. The matter presented thus is not so much important as action that leads up to what is important ; and its lack of importance must not be implied in too barefaced a way, lest attention be drawn to it. This part of the play marks time, and yet is by way of preparation for the entrance of the main character or characters.
Much skill is needed, and has been developed, in regard to the marshaling of the precedent conditions : to which the word exposition has been by common consent given. Exposition to-day is .by no means what it was in Shakespeare's ; indeed, it has been greatly refined and improved upon. In the earlier technic this prefatory material was introduced more frankly and openly in the shape of a prologue; or if the prologue was not used, at least the information was conveyed directly and at once to the audience by means of minor characters, stock figures like the servant or confidante, often employed mainly, or even solely, for that purpose. This made the device too obvious for modern taste, and such as to injure the illusion; the play lost its effect of presenting truthfully a piece of life, just when it was particularly important to seem such; that is, at the beginning. For with the coming of the subtler methods culminating in the deft technic of an Ibsen, which aims to draw ever closer to a real presentation of life on the stage, and so strove to find methods of depiction which should not obtrude artifice except when unavoidable, the stage artist has learned to interweave these antecedent circumstances with the story shown on the stage before the audience. And the result is that to-day the ex-position of an Ibsen, a Shaw, a Wilde, a Pinero or a Jones is so managed as hardly to be detected save by the expert in stage mechanics. The intelligent play-goer will derive pleasure and profit from a study of Ibsen's growth in this respect; observing, for example, how much more deftly exposition is hidden in a late work like Hedda Gabler than in a comparatively early one like Pillars of Society; and, again, how bald and obvious was this master's technic in this respect when he began in the middle of the nineteenth century to write his historical plays.
In general, it is well worth while to watch the handling of the first act on the part of acknowledged craftsmen with respect to the important matter of introducing into the framework of a two hours' spectacle all that has transpired before the picture is exhibited to the spectators.
One of the definite dangers of the first act is that of giving an audience a false lead as to character or turn of story. By some bit of dialogue, or even by an interpolated gesture on the part of an actor who transcends his rights (a misleading thing, as likely as not to be charged to the playwright), the auditor is put on a wrong scent, or there is aroused in him an expectation never to be realized. Thus the real issue is obscured, and later trouble follows as the true meaning is divulged. A French critic, commenting on the performance in Paris of a play by Bernard Shaw, says that its meaning was greatly confused because two of the characters took the unwarranted liberty of exchanging a kiss, for which, of course, there was no justification in the stage business as indicated by the author. All who know Shaw know that he has very little interest in stage kisses.
Closely associated with this mistake, and far more disastrous, is such a treatment of act one as to suggest a theme full of interest and there-fore welcome, which is then not carried through the remainder of the drama. Fitch's The City has been already referred to with this in mind. A more recent example may be found in Veiller's popular melodrama, Within the Law. The extraordinary vogue of this melodrama is sufficient proof that it possesses some of the main qualities of skillful theater craft: a strong, interesting fable, vital characterization, and considerable feeling for stage situation and climax, with the forthright hand of execution. Nevertheless, it distinctly fails to keep the promise of the first act, where, at the fall of the curtain, the audience has become particularly interested in a sociological problem, only to be asked in the succeeding acts to for-get it in favor of a conventional treatment of stock melodramatic material, with the usual thieves, detectives pitted against each other, and gunplay for the central scene of surprise and capture. That such current plays as The City and Within the Law can get an unusual hearing, in spite of these defects, suggests the uncritical nature of American audiences ; but quite as truly implies that drama may be very good, indeed, in most respects while falling short of the caliber we demand of masterpieces.
With the opening act, then, so handled as to avoid these pitfalls, the dramatist is ready to go on with his task. He has sufficiently aroused the interest of his audience to give it a pleasurable sense of entertainment ahead, without imparting so much knowledge as to leave too little for guesswork and lessen the curiosity necessary for one who must still spend an hour and a half in a place of bad air and too heated temperature. He has awakened attention and directed it upon a theme and story, yet left it tantalizingly but not confusingly incomplete. Now he has before him the problem of unfolding his play and making it center in the climactic scene which will make or mar the piece. We must observe, then, how he develops his story in that part of the play intermediate between the introduction and the crisis; the second act of a three-act drama or the third if the four-act form be chosen.