Drama - The Climax
( Originally Published 1913 )
Illustrated by " Disraeli" BY LOUIS NAPOLEON PARKER
THERE are many devices that lead on and up to climactic effects in a play; but the most important is suspense, causing tension, and eventuating in something unexpected and surprising.
We have come to use the term " climax " as meaning the top round of a ladder, when in reality it means, now as always, the ladder itself.
The successive rungs in the dramatic ladder are a series of effects, similar in quality but of increasing power and impressiveness, creating suspense, and presently culminating in some effect more powerful than any other in the play. Suspense is, and ever will be, until human nature is revised and edited into something altogether different, the most potent spell that a drama can cast over an audience. " Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait," is good advice to the playwright. It is easy to recall great plays that never made an audience laugh, and others that never drew the tribute of a tear; but the play that never at any point made an audience wait would have to be sought for with diligence. It needs no argument to prove that tension is an effect which must be created as early as possible in a play, and then preserved as long as possible. All that is necessary is to show that dramatic suspense is different from suspense in general, and that, like every-thing else in the severe and exacting art of making plays, it is hard to manage.
We are always coming upon paradoxes in the study of dramatic technique ; but the most arresting paradox of all may be formulated after this fashion : The surprises of the stage must be long foreseen, and the unexpected events must be anticipated by the audience. This, obviously, is an invigorating trial of skill. Playwright and actor in closest conspiracy have all they can do to harmonize preparation for an event with tension while awaiting it, and knowledge of what is coming with surprise when at length it comes. It is not untried or experimental, this theory of dramatic suspense, or, more exactly, of dramatic irony. It is the experience of the ages. Observing it plays have lived, and as a penalty for disregarding it many plays have died. It is the source and spring and life of almost all successful dramatic effects, comedic as well as tragic.
Dramatic irony, like irony in general, says one thing and means another, the very opposite of what is said; and, like all irony, it needs interpretation. Something apart from the words must help us to understand what is meant. We must see something, or hear something, or divine something that will point the significance. In a play the actors are continually making speeches that have two meanings — one on the stage, the other off; one for the players in their assumed characters, the other for the spectators. The inhabitants of the mimic world deceive one another, entangle one another, and are duped, bewildered and baffled as in life; but the audience is thrilled or delighted by the deception or the bewilderment — not only understands it, but foresees it at almost every point. The most awful disasters may be hanging low over the heads of the unconscious dramatis persona, and the most ingenious traps may be set for their blundering feet, but the audience is in the secret of them all.
How, then, do the spectators see and foresee so much and so clearly? It is a distinctly contrived effect. The dramatist works continually with the audience and never against it. It has been said that the spectator is part author of the play. Certainly he is in the author's confidence, so that he may foresee the crises with a kind of clairvoyance, dread the disasters with awe and fear, anticipate the discomfitures with amusement, and indulge himself in that thoughtful laughter which we are told true comedy should always awaken.
There must, in the nature of things, be this prevision on the part of the audience. The seat in the theater is not the easy-chair by the reading lamp. The man at the play has no time to reason anything out for himself. He may not, like the reader of a novel, turn back to review earlier chapters or forward to snatch the out-come from the closing pages. The novelist works against the reader, but the dramatist is ever with the spectator.
The distribution, then, of the forces in the theater is — the audience and the playwright on one side of the footlights and the player folk on the other. The spectator objects to being puzzled. There is a wide variance between the gentle reader and the savage ticket buyer. The one, having perhaps borrowed his novel from a friend or from the nearest library, has no stakes on; the other, having paid his money at the box office, proposes to find fault if he is not able to seize promptly upon every point in the play. Sometimes he seems not to mind being fairly hemmed in and driven to an under-standing of the plot.
Having, then, by means of dramatic suspense, which is its own kind, reached the top of the ladder, what effects do we usually find worked out before we begin to come down? Two only may be mentioned. We often find reversal of the action, and involved with it, or at no far remove, the sudden recognition or revelation of some character. Reversal or recoil is merely the old device by which a train of events produces the opposite of the effect intended ; and recognition usually clears up a mistaken identity or unexpectedly brings upon the scene some one whose sudden appearance is momentous. These are powerful elements of emotional interest, and when they are brought together they are likely to make a dominating crisis.
There are various and interesting kinds, one might almost say classes, of dramatic recognition. The oldest and most fatigued of all is the kind that discovers the long lost, etc. Mistaken identities in prose fiction and in the drama ! A ponderous tome might be written on the subject. The drama has always been enamored of them, and is desperately clinging to them even now, though by all laws of common sense they belong to an earlier and darker age. However, the realist achieves an interesting variation by making a sudden recognition of some one's true nature take the place of the discovered masquerader or the returned prodigal. " Torvald," exclaims Nora, " in that moment it burst upon me that I had been living here these eight years with a strange man "; and so strong is the spiritual pressure back of these simple words that we find the situation quite as thrilling as the one, for example, which unmasks Hero to Claudio at the altar. Then, too, there is the sudden confrontation, which at any time and in any play may be used with honest dramatic effect.
Mr. Parker's " Disraeli," a popular dramatization of certain episodes in the great Jew's career, well illustrates the skill needed in arranging the materials of a play so that events may be intelligible, and the interest may move steadily toward a controlling and dramatic climax. Slight as this play is, in the matter of constructive preparation and careful direction of lines of plot toward approaching crises, it is worthy of Sardou or Augier. And its technical points are perhaps more easily observed than if its theme were of deeper import and significance.
First it may be noted that the author disavows any attempt to make an historical play, claiming only to show " a picture of the days — not so very long ago — in which Disraeli lived, and some of the racial, social, and political prejudices he fought against and conquered."
To be exact, the play is plotted in 1875, and pictures only a few weeks out of Disraeli's later life, about six years before his death.
The reason for choosing this period is evident enough. The young Disraeli, with his brocaded waistcoats, his brooches and massy chains, his morning cane and his evening cane, was a picturesque figure; but there was nothing dramatic about him. The Disraeli of middle life, playing opposite to Gladstone (they seem created for dramatic purposes) against a complicated political and social background, may one day be the hero of historical drama at its greatest; but the time is not yet.
As for the Disraeli of the Suez Canal scheme, he is an alluring hero for high comedy. He dreams in empires, merely to give the public an occasional sensation. He dickers with the Khedive of Egypt and buys the key to India amid roars of popular applause, though nothing in particular comes of the bargain in the end. With infinite flourish he bedecks his queen with her new title, Empress of India, though as soon as the excitement sub-sides the whole nation feels such addition superfluous to the ancient style of the English sovereigns. He ex-torts concession from Russia by menace which has nothing back of it. His triumphs often prove, when stripped of his own grandiloquent phrasing, clear cases of much ado about nothing.
The play is made after the approved fashion in historic drama, with an outer action and an inner action, the outer plot being a setting or frame of authentic history, while the inner plot is invented or created. In workmanlike fashion, too, the smaller plot reaches out to the larger, and the larger draws in upon the smaller, to the enlivenment and enrichment of both.
The outside or enveloping plot is concerned with Disraeli's struggle to outwit the Russian government and be first to make terms with Ismail of Egypt for his controlling interest in the Suez Canal. But such a conflict to be interesting in a theater must be focused to some personal issue that can work itself out in the narrow limits of the modern stage. Hence we have among the characters Mrs. Travers, a beautiful and brilliant intrigante acting as spy for Russia, and Lord Deeford, a stolid young Briton, whom Disraeli, having broken to his uses, sends post-haste to overtake the Russian embassy on its way to Egypt.
The inside or enveloped plot is the love affair of Lord Deeford and Lady Clarissa, which, to be saved from commonplace romanticism, must be interwoven with the larger interest so that its points of suspense may coincide with the crises in affairs of state.
Needless to say, it is the capable Dizzy who holds the threads of outer and inner plot in his hands and ties them neatly in the same knot.
In other words, having the childless man's interest in young people's lovemaking, Disraeli plays fairy god father to bring Deeford and Clarissa together; but having also the diplomat's eye for men who may be useful, he makes the hope of winning Clarissa spur Charles to superhuman effort in his expedition to Egypt.
This framework, adroitly elaborated as to details, holds up three of the four acts.
It is clear that the climax must directly involve Disraeli and Mrs. Travers, and indirectly affect the amusing lovers who have been so irresistibly drawn into the whirlpool of Disraeli's machinations.
As there are four acts altogether, the audience expects a culmination somewhere in the third. But before the first act is half over, we are informed in unequivocal terms what events are working toward a climax. Witness this dialogue between Disraeli and Sir Michael Probert, manager of the Bank of England.
Probert. Do you seriously mean you are thinking of purchasing the Suez Canal?
Disraeli. I have seldom meant anything half so seriously. . . .
Probert. Why in such a hurry?
Disraeli. Because Russia knows of this opportunity to purchase the highroad to India.
Probert. Then why hasn't she purchased it?
Disraeli. She's not ready she has no fleet ; but she is watching us. She is watching me (Mrs. Travers opens a small casement in the French window and listens.) Later in the act, after Probert, pronouncing the scheme hair brained, contemptuously refuses all assistance, the end is even more plainly prefigured.
Disraeli. Nothing is final, Sir Michael. I may send for you again.
Further on, in a colloquy between Dizzy and his faithful Mary, occurs this significant plot line:
Disraeli. I have been searching for a young man. With such a prize as Clarissa, Deeford may become just what I need.
But these speeches, like all strongly structural lines, accomplish several ends. They not only look forward, but meantime bring on the stressed scene of the first act, with the audience fully in the secret. When Disraeli, in the longest speech of the play, makes his spectacular and rhetorical appeal to Deeford, urging him to pass from the Parish to the Empire, the dazed young man but partially understands what is meant. The audience, however, gets the full effect of Disraeli's pyrotechnical speech and Deeford's slowly brightening imagination. This sends down a good curtain.
In the second act there is deliberate preparation for the recognition, which in time-honored fashion is to form part of the climax. It is Disraeli who first realizes that Foljambe, one of his clerks, is in league with Mrs. Travers. But his revelation of this discovery to Dee-ford and Clarissa is pointed at the audience, so that when Mrs. Travers' last disguise is thrown off, the irony of the situation may be sharpened, and her de-feat may come with full dramatic force.
Disraeli. Foljambe and Mrs. Travers are agents spies sent here by Russia.
Then comes the culmination of the second act, always difficult to manage. Deeford, spurred on by the masterful Dizzy, undertakes to follow Folj ambe on his flight to Egypt. First he plans to leave " the day after to-morrow," then " tomorrow," then he thinks it possible that he might make ready to go by the night mail, and finally he rushes off at the end of ten minutes.
Deeford. But my luggage! I sha'n't have even a clean collar !
Disraeli. Damn your collar! Catch the Dover Express at eleven from Charing Cross. You will be in Marseilles tomorrow morning, and in Cairo a day ahead of Foljambe a day ahead!
Soon after the opening of the third act we are conscious that the action is moving in the familiar dramatic zigzag, falling and rising, falling again still lower, and rising again a little higher, till it reaches its highest point. First is indicated the tiresome suspense and discouragement, as Disraeli and Clarissa wait for the cable from Deeford. Then arrives the cable, " The Suez Canal purchase is completed and the check accepted." Deeford is expected to arrive with trumpets blowing, drums beating, flags flying and wedding bells ringing.
Then comes the sharpest turn in the play. Enter Hugh Myers, the banker who has stood behind Disraeli in this transaction. To the horror of everyone, he announces that he has gone bankrupt, that Russia has ruined him, and that his check drawn on the Bank of England is waste paper. (Exit Myers in the depth of despair.)
(Enter then Lady Beaconsfield.)
Disraeli. Mary, you have stood by me in many predicaments. I am in the worst I was ever in. It 's horrible. I am tied hand and foot.
The lowest point has now been reached, and everything is ready for the swiftly mounting climax.
Then follows an effective comedic reversal. Mrs. Travers is announced. To deceive her into thinking that nothing momentous is happening, Disraeli hastily ties himself into his dressing-gown, falls upon a sofa, and feigns to be very weak and ill. Gradually, as he feebly converses, he leads up to a full recognition of Mrs. Travers as a spy whom he knew in Switzerland years before; and finally, by pretending to exult over the cable from Deeford, he surprises from her a boastful assertion that it is she who has plotted to bankrupt Myers.
All this provides a striking setting for the desperate climactic expedient. Probert, who meantime has been peremptorily summoned, arrives in a suspicious and obstinate frame of mind. Disraeli is determined upon a last brilliant coup to force the Bank of England to honor Myers' check. He bears down upon Probert so suddenly and powerfully, threatening to smash the Bank and disgrace the board of directors, that the Manager is fairly swept off his feet; and signs the note almost before he realizes what he is doing.
Probert. There, take your paper. I have signed it. I have signed it to save the Bank. It is outrageous that a man like you should have such power. (Exit.)
Clarissa (with joyous enthusiasm). Oh, Mr. Disraeli, thank God you have such power !
Then comes the whimsical tag so frequently appended to the close of a strenuous act in high comedy. In this case it happens to be extremely characteristic of the great Tory minister, who more than once in his career forced an issue by boldly assuming power when he had it not.
Disraeli. I haven't, dear child; but he doesn't know that.
It is praise to say that the figure of the great Tory minister is transferred from the pages of history to the pages of the play. It is higher praise to say that the society of his time is so revived as to form a harmonious background for his every appearance. But, greatest achievement of all, the colloquy is kept so perfectly in key that when Disraeli utters an epigram it is given a fine spontaneity. This makes the play worthy to be called dramatic literature.
Of the last act we are perhaps unduly critical, having become accustomed to the indeterminate endings in problematic drama. Such a play as this, being historic or semi-historic, can hardly be expected to raise questions, psychological or otherwise. Not closing with an interrogation point, then, it must close with a period. Act III comes to an admirable comedy climax, it is true — so good, indeed, that no reader will regret the change from the original version. But if it brought down the final curtain the audience would be likely to go away dissatisfied. The worst that can be said of Act IV is that Mr. Parker therein takes occasion to gratify his lifelong fondness for pageantry.