Drama - The Fall And Close Of The Action

( Originally Published 1913 )

Variously Illustrated

IN all the older plays, and in most of the newer ones, he fourth division of the structure is that which extends from the climax to the close — or to the catastrophe, if there is an ultimatum distinctly set off at the end of the final act. This part of the play is variously called the fall, descent, return or diminuendo of the action; and it accomplishes the disentangling of the lines of plot and the resolution of the dramatic forces.

Climax further Considered

Its starting point, to repeat, is the climax; which furnishes an occasion for saying, first of all, that continued study of the framework of plays, on and off the stage, tends to make one not more, but rather less confident in the determination of the climactic point or scene. It is not merely that dramatic excitement often culminates in successive waves; but quite as frequently there are evolved out of the plot two different kinds of climax, one of action, the other of emotion. The maker of a play, recognizing the certainty that the more obvious climax will appeal to one class of spectators, and the more spiritual effect to another, does not always wish nor intend to make the two appeals at the same time. Another complication is caused by the fact that sometimes neither of these climaxes is placed at the exact point where the plot makes its most definitive turn. So that, in any drama, there may be three or even more places, each of which seems, to one order of intelligence or another, the very highest point of the action.

The best constructed of all Shakespeare's tragedies well illustrates the difficulty which, strictly speaking, is no difficulty at all -- in pointing out the climax. The plot of " Othello " manifestly turns in the central scene of the central act, almost precisely in the middle of the play, with Othello's last protestation to Desdemona " when I love thee not, chaos is come again." Up to that time his trust and devotion have grown ; from that time on his distrust and suspicion grow. At the moment, however, there is nothing about this avowal which makes it more impressive to the audience than some of the surrounding speeches. In the minds of the more thoughtful spectators the climax of the play is the point, wherever they may see it most plainly, at which it becomes evident to them that Othello's mind has been thoroughly poisoned by Iago. It is the poisoning process that makes the tragedy, and what it may sooner or later lead to is a minor consideration. On the other hand, to the more literal minded, and to those who like to sup full of horrors, the whole build of the play is catastrophic. From the first rise of the curtain there is disaster in the very air, and they consider that every-thing leads to the smothering scene. To them that is the most tremendous effect in the play. All of which is merely another way of saying that Shakespeare understood human nature and made practical use of his in-sight in his attitude toward the audience.

Now what is true of this, one of the greatest plays in the world, is equally true of lesser ones. To all but the most literal minded, dramatic climax may be a some-what debatable point, the play, in question, withal, gaining rather than losing by the uncertainty. As a consequence, then, it is not always clear just where the fall of the action may be said to begin.

The Fall of the Action

However, the grading toward the close must begin somewhere, and must have some continuity, even in the most abruptly ended play. And the study of this closing part of the action has its own special interest.

It is considered a critical and trying organic part of the play to create, and often the dramatist seems minded to shorten it by thrusting the climax as far as possible toward the finale. Tension must be conserved, though suspense is well-nigh over; and yet it is no place to introduce new expedients. A clumsy or too obvious de-vice is here more despoiling than elsewhere, and a false note in sentiment may destroy many honest effects created in earlier scenes. Lightness of touch is chiefly needed, and there is peculiar grace in staying the hand altogether. If the action in the up grade from exposition to climax has been allowed to develop by natural laws, without officious pushing and pulling on the part of the author, the descent need be little more than gradual undoing of what was successfully done in the ascent. The devices of retardation and delay must again be practiced, lest the end be too speedily reached; the obstacles to a prosperous or an unhappy ending must be removed one at a time ; and here, as elsewhere in the play, much of the colloquy must be dramatically ironic, the audience being still best pleased when allowed to foresee all the surprises and anticipate all the unexpected events.

In the midst of many difficulties the dramatist finds one real help, which, like all artistic easements, may be sadly abused. As the play draws to a close, the cumulation of interest makes all temporary suspense more exciting than usual. In the downward plunge of a tragedy, a moment of reaction or a slight gleam of hope will often be greeted with a sigh of relief all over the house; while humor, even of a somewhat common-place variety, will cause hysterical laughter. In comedy, a truly comedic turn in affairs is more excruciatingly funny toward the end than anywhere else in the play. The slightest hindrance or break in the final movement to the close is of exaggerated effect, no matter what the dramatic form.

It is apparent that here, more than elsewhere, the playwright is tempted to substitute explanation and description for action. The messenger speeches of Greek tragedy linger unaccountably, under one disguise or another; and often they go near to spoil a modern play by being intrusted (as they were not with the Greeks) to minor actors, who report the direst disasters with the effect of announcing that dinner is served.

The Close of the Play

But this brings us to the catastrophic or conclusive point, which is of far greater interest than any other in the latter part of a play, and far more dangerous to manage. Over the methods of winding up the action the romanticists and the realists have fought many pitched battles and are skirmishing to the present day. The criticism which the newer school brings to bear upon the older is that the conventional romantic endings were too final to carry conviction with them. It is not merely that old tragedy often closed with universal slaughter, in which it was plain that some of the characters were involved merely because that was the easiest way to dispose of them; but the happy ending is apt to be quite as mechanical. Often the curtain descends upon reward, retribution, fruition and achievement so far beyond earthly experience that the characters might as well be overwhelmed in an earthquake, for all the interest that the audience feels in their subsequent fortunes. The attitude of the dramatist toward his material seemed, until recently, to be wrong and out of the normal. So the realist took counsel with himself after this wise: In making a play it is necessary to choose a certain action or series of actions extending over a given space of time; and in order to use this material the playwright is compelled to separate it from the ceaseless stream of events of which it forms a part. But it is most untruthful and inartistic to treat the piece of life that he has chosen as if it existed by itself and had no relation to the world at large. In making the beginning of his play he must recognize that what gives the for-ward impulse to his plot forms the close of much that has happened before. In bringing his play to a conclusion he must convey the impression that the world continues to move. If it is possible to do so he must allow his audience to depart, realizing that even though mistaken identities are cleared up, virtues rewarded, crimes punished and betrothals celebrated, the dramatic characters are after all neither more nor less than human beings, who, if they are to remain in this vale of friction, will probably find other joys and sorrows in store for them.

Unquestionably the older plays managed their opening far better than their closing scenes. It is not difficult to recall old tragedies and comedies in which the expositions are made with the utmost adroitness, showing many glimpses of the past, and drawing lines of action from various quarters to converge at the point where the plot must make its beginning. But the endings are apt to be tremendously conclusive, without any reaching out toward the future, as if all the world had come to an end with the fall of the curtain upon the little world of the stage.

It was chiefly in revolt against the romanticistic conclusion that the realist began to experiment in his own kind of construction. In fiction, he abandoned the chronicle and the biographic and autobiographic form, and substituted the cross section of life, shortening the time very greatly, and using an ingenuity of mechanism unknown to his predecessors. In the drama, he foreswore the old processional form, in which events happened in order of time, and endeavored to bring all the resources of his art to the creation of a situation, which should be so vividly set before the spectators that it might safely be left with them, without involving itself in the crudity of an absolute conclusion. In both novel and play, having left behind the old story-telling form, he was compelled to introduce his characters under new auspices, strengthen the action by new effects, and create and preserve the illusion by new hints and suggestions.

There is space for only one illustration. Compare, for example, the dénouement of " The Lady of Lyons " with that of "A Doll's House." The former old favorite is certainly much worse at the end than at the beginning. At the close of the fifth act, after it has been inserted into Pauline's head that Claude is not Morier and is Melnotte, the debt is paid, Beauseant is defeated, divorce proceedings are given over, and Claude and Pauline are reunited. They still live, but to the audience they are as dead as Romeo and Juliet. Life seems to mean nothing more to them. Really, although " A Doll's House " may not be a model play, it seems by contrast more than ever a stroke of genius that the closing of the door at the end of it should have set the world to talking, and kept it talking for a generation. Poor little Nora has perhaps been overmuch worried by the critics, but it should be some consolation to her that she has even now a potency of life such as Pauline could not boast in the days of her pristine glory.

The Foolish Old Ending

It is discouraging to observe that the appetite of the public for ultimate sentimentality and untruthful moralistic effects seems to be almost as robust as ever. It is still popular to make the prodigal return unexpectedly at holiday time, when the snow is piled against the window without, and the turkey is steaming on the dinner table within. Mistaken identities are not yet consigned to the limbo of unrealism, though it is becoming more and more difficult for anybody to disappear anywhere without being detected and brought back. As the dean of American letters remarked some years ago, people still enjoy being melted and horrified and astonished and blood-curdled and goose-fleshed, especially if they are comfortably chippered-up at the end. But the realists never set out to be reformers. They merely claim that life and human nature are worth studying with a patience and self-abnegation which refuses to do more than observe and wonder. They know that it is useless to add anything to nature to embellish it, or take anything away from it to refine it. And if they can correct the old methods a little here, and adjust them a little there, they are very well satisfied.

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