Drama - The Rise Or Growth Of The Action

( Originally Published 1913 )

Illustrated by " El Gran Galeoto" BY JOSE ECHEGARAY

BEFORE the action begins to develop, the exposition is partly or entirely finished, the chief characters have made their " enters " upon the stage, and the exciting force has been exerted. The situation at this point may be summed up by saying " Something must be done about it!" The decks are cleared for action, and the excitement begins to mount.

This sounds interesting; but no organic part of a play is more difficult to handle from the craftsman's standpoint than that which extends from the exciting force to the climactic point or scene. Doubtless the fact that this is, as far as the dramatists have deposed and testified, the hardest part to write, may account for the difficulties which oppose themselves to even the most patient analysis. "The dreadful second act ! " cries the hapless wight who has a play on his mind, "If only I can manage that I shall be all right."

After William Archer's recent visit to this country he wrote : " I am credibly assured that at some universities the form of morning greeting among under-graduates is no longer 'How are you?' but 'How is your second act getting on?' I remarked that interest might better be centered on the welfare of the last act, and was told that the undergraduate play seldom got so far as that."

The exposition is made; then the action grows. Vast is the difference between construction and development, and fortunate the dramatist or the novelist whose play or novel, having been well born and well brought up, throws off restraint and gets away from him altogether. The good effect of such constructive independence upon the novel or the play itself we realize by contrast when we are bored to extinction by drama or fiction (and there is plenty of both) in which to the dreary end every character is pushed and pulled and dragged about by the officious author, and every incident is a contraption and a contrivance.

We have arrived, then, at one of the difficulties met by the critic in observing this part of a play — namely, that here the action has begun to grow by natural laws based deep in human nature, so that even the dramatist himself is a trifle extraneous to his own creation. How fearfully he must watch the work of his own hands as it begins to move of itself ! How he must dread to give the despoiling touch or make the awkward inter-position ! In fact, what he does, if he is honestly artistic, is mostly in the way of grading the movement, conserving the effect, and practicing the devices of retardation and delay, so that the climax may not be too quickly reached; for often the mere story from exposition to climax can be told in a few sentences.

To let the action go forward and yet hold it back, to spur it on and yet rein it in so that it may keep a natural pace — this it is, more than anything else in the making of a play, that stimulates the dramatic artist to his very highest endeavor.

In one sense it is more descriptive to say that the action repeatedly rises and falls than that it grows, because the advance is hardly ever steady. A zigzag line would represent the way in which the excitement now mounts and then is quieted, mounts still higher and is again restrained, till we have a series of situations and crises. All the time, too, there must be a cautious pre-vision of the later scenes in the play, in which it is always difficult to maintain the suspense. After the climax there must be a drawing together of all the loose threads in the earlier part of the play, else there will be at the close that impression of unfinished lines of action which distracts and antagonizes an audience, even though few people in the house may realize what is the matter.

It is perhaps overstatement to say that the growth of the action is more difficult to manage than the climax. It is, however, less inevitable; and then, in the modern play, which has forsworn the soliloquy and the tirade, the 'carrying power of the climax must depend very much upon the strength of the dramatic pressure back of it. The dénouement, too, which tries the very soul of the artist, depends closely upon the earlier scenes. It is far easier to untie a neatly made knot than to loosen and straighten out a wild tangle.

Then there is the mode of presentation — the direction or indirection with which the audience is made acquainted with the events that form the plot. This is a more intricate problem here than later in the play. The action cannot all take place on the stage. What parts then shall be acted before the audience, what parts shall be supposed to take place out of sight and then be related on the stage by some character, and what parts is it safe to let the audience guess at or infer? This, withal, precipitates the subtle question of values; because what the audience sees will necessarily have a higher dramatic value than what it hears or overhears at second hand. And the preservation of the right scale of values is complicated today as never before by the ambition to limit the number of characters, and make as few changes of scene as possible.

Another complication arises from the fact that, al-ways when a play has four or five acts, and sometimes when it has only three, one entire act is comprised in the growth of the plot. That is, the action generally gets under way in the first act and does not come to a climax till somewhere in the third or later; and so its " reach " completely overspreads the second act. Now, an act must achieve, for ends more theatrical than dramatic, some arrangement of its own, irrespective of its relation to the play. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end ; and the end must have a certain cumulative effect. To preserve these constructive qualities within the act, and yet not allow it to obstruct or divert the pressure toward the climax, is another difficulty.

It goes without saying that the true craftsman, knowing, as he usually does, everything about his art, and something about everything else under the sun, has a serene mastery over this, as over all other parts of his work. But it is easy to figure to oneself the distraction of the mere dramatic tinker while he is knocking together this first half of his unsteady construction.

It is an endless theme, this growth of the earlier parts of a play; and only a few points can be illustrated.

Growth of Action Illustrated

In " The Great Galeoto " we have the familiar Paoloami-Francesca or Launcelot-and-Guinevere situation, involving the elderly husband, the young wife and the young lover, between whom and the husband there is a strong attachment. The old material seems to have undying interest, perhaps because it mingles so inextricably the direst tragedy and the deepest pathos. It makes the exposition rather easy, although the usual preliminaries are always necessary, whether the story be old or new. Moreover, in the present play the point of departure is not quite that of the old legends. We are given to understand that the young wife and the adopted son are not only innocent of any thought of evil, but would have remained so had they not been driven to desperation by the torture of the merest small talk — not slander, but listless, aimless, dispassionate gossip.

In this connection it must be observed that no play has more adroitly achieved the difficult task to which the modern drama so often addresses itself — that of keeping the world out, and yet letting it come in. The interest is narrowed and centered, and the attention of the audience is strictly economized ; for even in the new version there are only seven characters, and two stage settings. It is all very different from the old plays, in which the characters swarmed, or roamed in and out on the slightest pretense, and where there was a new setting for every scene. Yet there is none of the vague feeling of isolation, of being swung out into space away from all social environment, which detracts from so many works of the Ibsenic school. The world presses in on all sides, and the atmosphere is deep and rich and vital — deplorably vital, it is true ; but that is unavoidable with the chosen motive. It is high art to create a complex effect by means so simple and uncomplicated.

Aside from the idle gossip there is almost no exciting force, unless the plan of the secretaryship may be said to give a forward impulse. The action, then, begins with a situation of perfect balance and repose, in which the principal characters (described as an innocent woman and two honest men) are quite harmonious. In less than two acts it culminates in the total wreck of the household. Two lives are blighted and the third is terminated in a duel. What could be a finer effect than to give this rapid and stupendous growth any appearance of probability, any semblance of the inevitable? It is too long to trace the steps; but there are forward and backward movements even in the swiftness of its stealthy advance. Seldom is dramatic art, in this part of a play, so severely tested and tried.

But strangest and best of all, considering the southern origin of the play, is the indirection of the action. The two duels, both of which result fatally, are kept off the stage. Even the café scene (it would mean a crowd), with its quarrel and challenge, is present in description merely. There is no villain, for Don Severo, who comes nearest, is not at all the old stage type, in mantle and sombrero.

Now when a Spanish dramatist resolutely banishes the cloak-and-dagger scenes of his play to the wings, and denies himself the consolation of creating a black browed villain, he is bound to do something desperate to make up for it.

It is a thrilling outcome of this artistic self-denial in keeping the crowds and fights out of view of the audience, that the restrained power of the tragic force falls upon gossip, the despicable Galeoto of the play. So intensely catastrophic is the culmination that it over-tops all earlier effects. To give a mere abstraction like idle talk such potency of life, to make it terrible enough in its might to turn the action of a convincing tragedy, and then to pursue it swiftly and vindictively to a direful catastrophe — this is to triumph over difficulties.

The one tragedy of gossip in dramatic literature — mark how it stands midway between comedy of gossip and tragedy of slander — is the work of Echegaray. Perhaps it was providential that this material fell into the hands of a Spanish dramatist. Who else could force such an action to rise so swiftly and magnificently?

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