Drama - The Exposition And The Exciting Force
( Originally Published 1913 )
Illustrated by " The Servant in the House" BY CHARLES RANN KENNEDY
IN modern dramatic art, the introduction or exposition of the action, incorporated as it is in the play and forming part of the first act, has become a most interesting study. Its function obviously is to form a link between outside events and those inclosed and set apart in the play.
It seems a simple matter merely to give the audience information enough to make the onset of the action intelligible; but to present the facts dramatically and economically is not so easy. It taxes the ingenuity of the dramatist to the uttermost. Fortunately, at the beginning of the play he has himself and his material in hand, and can do as he pleases. The action has not yet gained the impetus that sweeps everything before it.
Three purposes the exposition must always serve: It must look backward, clearing away the mists that hang over the creation of the little world on the stage; it must look forward, especially as the introduction begins to merge into the growth of the action, sa as to grapple this part firmly to the rest of the play and make it organic; and then it must be so interesting as to beguile and befool the audience into thinking that the action has begun, when it is merely getting ready to begin. At the opening every moment is precious. It is far easier to keep the attention of the audience from the first than to recover it after it has been lost.
In present-day plays, the looking backward is often done by the gossiping servant, who, on the rising of the curtain, is discovered dusting the furniture and talking about the family affairs as in Sardou's " Divorçons." The stage parlor maid, with her inefficient feather duster, is a frequent apparition. The re-turned traveller, asking for news, is also familiar to the theatergoer — as in Jones' " Whitewashing Julia." Then there are the two old friends who fall into a don't-you-remember mood and recite their reminiscences at the more or less impatient audience as in " Hedda Gabler." Sometimes a hotel proprietor describes his guests to a newcomer — as in " The Man From Home." Occasionally a newspaper reporter is employed to draw out useful information in an interview as in Pinero's " His House in Order." At this point in a play a great deal of information flies about that is more valuable to the audience than anyone can suppose it to be to the characters in the play ; but we put up with the transparent illusions, because we know that there is one thing in a play worse than artificiality, and that is obscurity.
The looking forward is usually accomplished by touches of description which make the audience curious, so that the chief characters may have good " enters " when they appear on the stage. Hints of what is about to happen are continually thrown out, and important arrivals are announced with great commotion. The audience must at all costs be made anticipatory.
By way of making sure that the attention does not for a moment flag, a little fictitious excitement is often created that comes to nothing at all so far as the real action is concerned. A ball may be in progress — in the wings, of course. A dinner party may have just broken up. A dispute may be going on that threatens to become a quarrel.
Sometimes, at the very outset, a speech is uttered or an incident happens that is inevitably recalled at the far close of the play, thus creating an effect of completeness — a return of the action upon itself. This helps to deepen the central dramatic impression.
Most artistic of all is the employment of some device to set the tone of the piece and put the audience at once into the right mood, serious, hilarious, meditative, apprehensive or poetic, as the case may be. It is the highest art to do this artlessly.
An Adequate Exposition
" The Servant hi the House " makes an adequate ex-position, so that the audience is not puzzled and left in the dark, nor is its attention overtaxed, as often is the case in the too ingenious modern play. It is interesting to note how, here as elsewhere in this play, the commonest of means are adapted to the most uncommon ends.
The curtain rises upon two servants, one of whom is new to the place. Nothing is more ordinary than that. For the first few speeches, Manson keeps his back to the audience, so that when he turns he may achieve something like an entrance. But even before he faces about, the keynote is struck with no uncertain sound. The page boy is sure that he has seen this new butler somewhere before thinks perhaps it 's the reincarnation the Daily Mail has been writing about. What could be more admirable than this suggestion of the mystical atmosphere that is to enwrap the whole play?
The scene between the servants gives the exposition a backward look which is prolonged in the colloquy between Mary (who is a variation upon the familiar ingénue of so many modern plays) and the new butler. This conversation between the young girl and the new-comer finally culminates in the first dramatic revelation of the piece — Mary's recognition of her long-lost uncle, the Bishop of India, in the person of the servant Manson. Thus the audience is fully prepared for the fine irony of many subsequent speeches.
By way of looking backward again, the boy throws out an intimation that his master has not always been so high in the world. At this moment the vicar comes in, and to give matters a forward movement, remarks that he is expecting a visitor. Then he starts in surprise at the new butler, and is sure that he has seen him somewhere before. By the time it is made clear that the expected guest is the vicar's brother, the Bishop of India, and incidentally, that Mary is the daughter of another brother, the audience is pretty well prepared for the opening of the action.
As is frequently the case, however, the exposition over-laps the scene that introduces the exciting force. The audience has yet to learn that the vicar's wife's brother, the Bishop of Lancashire, is also expected to luncheon. This information is held back till after Mary and Man-son have had their confidential talk, in the course of which the child describes the noisome condition of that drain which is impairing the usefulness at once of the pulpit and the vicar's study, and which, since it has much to do with assembling the characters and giving the action a vigorous forward impulse, may be considered the strange, exciting force of the play.
All this time there is a slight bustle of preparation for that luncheon which, as the vicar's wife puts it, is to be quite a church congress, two bishops being expected. The fact that the play rounds itself to a conclusion just before luncheon time does not interfere with the enlivening effect of the preparations upon the expositional part of the action.
The speech at the beginning that is destined to be recalled at the end is Manson's " Then Brother ! " as he proffers his hand to be taken by the surprised vicar. The last speech of the play is in reply to the vicar's question : "In God's name, who are you?" Manson's answer is, " In God's name your brother." Then the vicar clasps his hand as before, but this time sinks to his knees.
Thus the wheel turns full circle, and the central idea of brotherhood is firmly emphasized.
The Exciting Force
It is a temptation to linger over the art of making the exposition, because what it chiefly employs is ingenuity ; and that is comparatively easy to explain and to understand. But when the action sets in, and events begin to happen inevitably, and the stress and strain begin to be felt, then even those who are fondest of taking the craftsman's view of a play are apt to be daunted, and to own themselves inadequate to do more than observe and wonder.
The exposition, however, must always be short and shortened, and there is no avoiding the plunge into the action.
Two points are always discoverable in a good play, no matter what other technicalities are slighted or dispensed with altogether. There must somewhere emerge from the complications an exciting force to set the action in motion, and a climactic point or scene for the culmination of the plot.
The exciting or disturbing force is anything that operates to change the condition of affairs from balance or repose to that action or struggle which makes the play. In a thoroughly unified plot the effect of the disturbing force is plainly to be seen upon each of the principal characters in turn, and upon all the events as they succeed one another in the rise or growth of the action. The most elaborate dramatic mechanism may thus be set in motion by one and the same impulse or series of impulses.
In " The Servant in the House " the condition of the drain beneath the church and the vicar's study may be considered the starting point of the action, although that hardly brings the disturbing force within the narrow time limit of the play. The sequence of events is something like this;
1. The old church has fallen into a terrible state of decay.
2. The vicar starts a restoration fund and tries everything — all his rich friends, bazaars, jumble sales, special intercessions — everything!
3. The vicar's appeal to the public brings a letter from the Bishop of India, who promises to restore the church if anyone will help him.
4. The proviso " if anyone will help me " inspires the vicar's wife to summon her brother, the rich Bishop of Lancashire, who, though he has always ignored the vicar, is now ambitious to be associated with the far-famed Bishop of India.
5. The vicar, meantime, has received another unexpected letter, this one from his reprobate brother Robert, who, after a silence of fifteen years, announces himself for a visit. The vicar telegraphs that he cannot entertain him (Robert), because the drains are up in the study. Robert inclines to believe it all a lie, but, since drains are in his line, comes to have a look at the vicarage in case there is really anything wrong.
So the bad drainage (which in its dramatic quality has, it must be admitted, an amusing side) not only starts up the action vigorously all through the play, but assembles the characters, by bringing upon the scene first Manson, then Robert and finally the Bishop of Lancashire.
It may be observed in passing that the outcome of the telegram to Robert is a perfect illustration of that reversal or recoil of action which has been a successful dramatic device ever since there were plays in the world. A time-honored means by which the action may be forced to rise toward a climax or swiftly fall to a catastrophe is to make a given expedient not only useless to bring about the result intended, but productive of exactly the opposite effect, thus recoiling upon itself. The vicar's excuse about the drains not only fails to stand off the undesirable brother, but serves to bring him speedily to the vicarage ; a typical case of dramatic reversal.
It is perhaps wide of the mark to add that the style of plumbing at the vicarage is unfamiliar and somewhat startling. Any method of repair that would require the sewer pipes to be dragged out and displayed upon the study carpet — however, it is probably a highly dramatic, not to say romantic, kind of plumbing, and that is doubtless better for stage purposes than any-thing more sanitary and convenient.