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besides - a personage who immeasurably outshines the noblest of his
insulters. Quieter, but not less telling, is the peripety in _The Little
Father of the Wilderness_, by Messrs. Lloyd Osbourne and Austin Strong.
The Père Marlotte, who, by his heroism and self-devotion, has added vast
territories to the French possessions in America, is summoned to the
court of Louis XV, and naturally concludes that the king has heard of
his services and wishes to reward them. He finds, on the contrary, that
he is wanted merely to decide a foolish bet; and he is treated with the
grossest insolence and contempt. Just as he is departing in humiliation,
the Governor-General of Canada arrives, with a suite of officers and
Indians. The moment they are aware of Père Marlotte's presence, they all
kneel to him and pay him deeper homage than they have paid to the king,
who accepts the rebuke and joins in their demonstration.

A famous peripety of the romantic order occurs in _H.M.S. Pinafore_,
where, on the discovery that Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw have
been changed at birth, Ralph instantly becomes captain of the ship,
while the captain declines into an able-bodied seaman. This is one of
the instances in which the idealism of art ekes out the imperfections
of reality.

* * * * *

[Footnote 1: That great spiritual drama known as the Book of Job opens,
after the Prologue in Heaven, with one of the most startling of

[Footnote 2: The first act of Mr. Gilbert Murray's _Carlyon Sahib_
contains an incident of this nature; but it can scarcely be called a
peripety, since the victim remains unconscious of his doom.]

[Footnote 3: For the benefit of American readers, it may be well to
state that the person who changes a Bank of England note is often asked
to write his or her name on the back of it. It must have been in a
moment of sheer aberration that the lady in question wrote her
own name.]

[Footnote 4: M. Bernstein, dishing up a similar theme with a piquant
sauce of sensuality, made but a vulgar and trivial piece of work of it.]

[Footnote 5: One of the most striking peripeties in recent English drama
occurs in the third act of The Builder of Bridges, by Mr. Alfred Sutro.]



Aristotle indulges in an often-quoted paradox to the effect that, in
drama, the probable impossible is to be preferred to the improbable
possible. With all respect, this seems to be a somewhat cumbrous way of
stating the fact that plausibility is of more importance on the stage
than what may be called demonstrable probability. There is no time, in
the rush of a dramatic action, for a mathematical calculation of the
chances for and against a given event, or for experimental proof that
such and such a thing can or cannot be done. If a thing seem plausible,
an audience will accept it without cavil; if it, seem incredible on the
face of it, no evidence of its credibility will be of much avail. This
is merely a corollary from the fundamental principle that the stage is
the realm of appearances; not of realities, where paste jewels are at
least as effective as real ones, and a painted forest is far more sylvan
than a few wilted and drooping saplings, insecurely planted upon
the boards.

That is why an improbable or otherwise inacceptable incident cannot be
validly defended on the plea that it actually happened: that it is on
record in history or in the newspapers. In the first place, the
dramatist can never put it on the stage as it happened. The bare fact
may be historical, but it is not the bare fact that matters. The
dramatist cannot restore it to its place in that intricate plexus of
cause and effect, which is the essence and meaning of reality. He can
only give his interpretation of the fact; and one knows not how to
calculate the chances that his interpretation may be a false one. But
even if this difficulty could be overcome; if the dramatist could prove
that he had reproduced the event with photographic and cinematographic
accuracy, his position would not thereby be improved. He would still
have failed in his peculiar task, which is precisely that of
interpretation. Not truth, but verisimilitude, is his aim; for the stage
is the realm of appearances, in which intrusive realities become unreal.
There are, as I have said, incalculable chances to one that the
playwright's version of a given event will not coincide with that of the
Recording Angel: but it may be true and convincing in relation to human
nature in general, in which case it will belong to the sphere of great
art; or, on a lower level, it may be agreeable and entertaining without
being conspicuously false to human nature, in which case it will do no
harm, since it makes no pretence to historic truth. It may be objected
that the sixteenth-century public, and even, in the next century, the
great Duke of Marlborough, got their knowledge of English history from
Shakespeare, and the other writers of chronicle-plays. Well, I leave it
to historians to determine whether this very defective and, in great
measure, false vision of the past was better or worse than none. The
danger at any rate, if danger there was, is now past and done with. Even
our generals no longer go to the theatre or to the First Folio for their
history. The dramatist may, with an easy conscience, interpret historic
fact in the light of his general insight into human nature, so long as
he does not so falsify the recorded event that common knowledge cries
out against him.[1]

Plausibility, then, not abstract or concrete probability, and still less
literal faithfulness to recorded fact, is what the dramatist is bound to
aim at. To understand this as a belittling of his art is to
misunderstand the nature of art in general. The plausibility of bad art
is doubtless contemptible and may be harmful. But to say that good art
must be plausible is only to say that not every sort of truth, or every
aspect of truth, is equally suitable for artistic representation - or, in
more general terms, that the artist, without prejudice to his allegiance
to nature, must respect the conditions of the medium in which he works.

Our standards of plausibility, however, are far from being invariable.
To each separate form of art, a different standard is applicable. In
what may roughly be called realistic art, the terms plausible and
probable are very nearly interchangeable. Where the dramatist appeals to
the sanction of our own experience and knowledge, he must not introduce
matter against which our experience and knowledge cry out. A very small
inaccuracy in a picture which is otherwise photographic will often have
a very disturbing effect. In plays of society in particular, the
criticism "No one does such things," is held by a large class of
playgoers to be conclusive and destructive. One has known people despise
a play because Lady So-and-so's manner of speaking to her servants was
not what they (the cavillers) were accustomed to. On the other hand, one
has heard a whole production highly applauded because the buttons on a
particular uniform were absolutely right. This merely means that when an
effort after literal accuracy is apparent, the attention of the audience
seizes on the most trifling details and is apt to magnify their
importance. Niceties of language in especial are keenly, and often
unjustly, criticized. If a particular expression does not happen to be
current in the critic's own circle, he concludes that nobody uses it,
and that the author is a pedant or a vulgarian. In view of this
inevitable tendency, the prudent dramatist will try to keep out of his
dialogue expressions that are peculiar to his own circle, and to use
only what may be called everybody's English, or the language undoubtedly
current throughout the whole class to which his personage belongs.

It may be here pointed out that there are three different planes on
which plausibility may or may not, be achieved. There is first the
purely external plane, which concerns the producer almost as much as the
playwright. On this plane we look for plausibility of costume, of
manners, of dialect, of general environment. Then we have plausibility
of what may be called uncharacteristic event - of such events as are
independent of the will of the characters, and are not conditioned by
their psychology. On this plane we have to deal with chance and
accident, coincidence, and all "circumstances over which we have no
control." For instance, the playwright who makes the "Marseillaise"
become popular throughout Paris within half-an-hour of its having left
the composer's desk, is guilty of a breach of plausibility on this
plane. So, too, if I were to make my hero enter Parliament for the first
time, and rise in a single session to be Prime Minister of
England - there would be no absolute impossibility in the feat, but it
would be a rather gross improbability of the second order. On the third
plane we come to psychological plausibility, the plausibility of events
dependent mainly or entirely on character. For example - to cite a much
disputed instance - is it plausible that Nora, in _A Doll's House_,
should suddenly develop the mastery of dialectics with which she crushes
Helmer in the final scene, and should desert her husband and children,
slamming the door behind her?

It need scarcely be said that plausibility on the third plane is vastly
the most important. A very austere criticism might even call it the one
thing worth consideration. But, as a matter of fact, when we speak of
plausibility, it is almost always the second plane - the plane of
uncharacteristic circumstance - that we have in mind. To plausibility of
the third order we give a more imposing name - we call it truth. We say
that Nora's action is true - or untrue - to nature. We speak of the truth
with which the madness of Lear, the malignity of Iago, the race hatred
of Shylock, is portrayed. Truth, in fact, is the term which we use in
cases where the tests to be applied are those of introspection,
intuition, or knowledge sub-consciously garnered from spiritual
experience. Where the tests are external, and matters of common
knowledge or tangible evidence, we speak of plausibility.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that because plausibility of
the third degree, or truth, is the noblest attribute of drama, it is
therefore the one thing needful. In some forms of drama it is greatly
impaired, or absolutely nullified, if plausibility of the second degree,
its necessary preliminary, be not carefully secured. In the case above
imagined, for instance, of the young politician who should become Prime
Minister immediately on entering Parliament: it would matter nothing
with what profundity of knowledge or subtlety of skill the character was
drawn: we should none the less decline to believe in him. Some
dramatists, as a matter of fact, find it much easier to attain truth of
character than plausibility of incident. Every one who is in the habit
of reading manuscript plays, must have come across the would-be
playwright who has a good deal of general ability and a considerable
power of characterization, but seems to be congenitally deficient in the
sense of external reality, so that the one thing he (or she) can by no
means do is to invent or conduct an action that shall be in the least
like any sequence of events in real life. It is naturally difficult to
give examples, for the plays composed under this curious limitation are
apt to remain in manuscript, or to be produced for one performance, and
forgotten. There is, however, one recent play of this order which holds
a certain place in dramatic literature. I do not know that Mr. Granville
Barker was well-advised in printing _The Marrying of Anne Leete_ along
with such immeasurably maturer and saner productions as _The Voysey
Inheritance_ and _Waste_; but by doing so he has served my present purpose
in providing me with a perfect example of a play as to which we cannot
tell whether it possesses plausibility of the third degree, so
absolutely does it lack that plausibility of the second degree which is
its indispensable condition precedent.

Francisque Sarcey was fond of insisting that an audience would generally
accept without cavil any postulates in reason which an author chose to
impose upon it, with regard to events supposed to have occurred before
the rise of the curtain; always provided that the consequences deduced
from them within the limits of the play were logical, plausible, and
entertaining. The public will swallow a camel, he would maintain, in the
past, though they will strain at a gnat in the present. A classical
example of this principle is (once more) the _Oedipus Rex_, in which
several of the initial postulates are wildly improbable: for instance,
that Oedipus should never have inquired into the circumstances of the
death of Laius, and that, having been warned by an oracle that he was
doomed to marry his mother, he should not have been careful, before
marrying any woman, to ascertain that she was younger than himself.
There is at least so much justification for Sarcey's favourite
principle, that we are less apt to scrutinize things merely narrated to
us than events which take place before our eyes. It is simply a special
instance of the well-worn

"Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem
Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus."

But the principle is of very limited artistic validity. No one would
nowadays think of justifying a gross improbability in the antecedents of
a play by Ibsen or Sir Arthur Pinero, by Mr. Galsworthy or Mr. Granville
Barker, on the plea that it occurred outside the frame of the picture.
Such a plea might, indeed, secure a mitigation of sentence, but never a
verdict of acquittal. Sarcey, on the other hand, brought up in the
school of the "well-made" play, would rather have held it a feather in
the playwright's cap that he should have known just where, and just how,
he might safely outrage probability [2]. The inference is that we now
take the dramatist's art more seriously than did the generation of the
Second Empire in France.

This brings us, however, to an important fact, which must by no means be
overlooked. There is a large class of plays - or rather, there are
several classes of plays, some of them not at all to be despised - the
charm of which resides, not in probability, but in ingenious and
delightful improbability. I am, of course, not thinking of sheer
fantasies, like _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, or _Peter Pan_, or _The
Blue Bird_. They may, indeed, possess plausibility of the third order,
but plausibility of the second order has no application to them. Its
writs do not run on their extramundane plane. The plays which appeal to
us in virtue of their pleasant departures from probability are romances,
farces, a certain order of light comedies and semi-comic melodramas - in
short, the thousand and one plays in which the author, without
altogether despising and abjuring truth, makes it on principle
subsidiary to delightfulness. Plays of the _Prisoner of Zenda_ type
would come under this head: so would Sir Arthur Pinero's farces, _The
Magistrate_, _The Schoolmistress_, _Dandy Dick_; so would Mr. Carton's
light comedies, _Lord and Lady Algy_, _Wheels within Wheels_, _Lady
Huntworth's Experiment_; so would most of Mr. Barrie's comedies; so
would Mr. Arnold Bennett's play, _The Honeymoon_. In a previous chapter
I have sketched the opening act of Mr. Carton's _Wheels within Wheels_,
which is a typical example of this style of work. Its charm lies in a
subtle, all-pervading improbability, an infusion of fantasy so delicate
that, while at no point can one say, "This is impossible," the total
effect is far more entertaining than that of any probable sequence of
events in real life. The whole atmosphere of such a play should be
impregnated with humour, without reaching that gross supersaturation
which we find in the lower order of farce-plays of the type of
_Charlie's Aunt_ or _Niobe_.

* * * * *

Plausibility of development, as distinct from plausibility of theme or
of character, depends very largely on the judicious handling of chance,
and the exclusion, or very sparing employment, of coincidence. This is a
matter of importance, into which we shall find it worth while to look
somewhat closely.

It is not always clearly recognized that chance and coincidence are by
no means the same thing. Coincidence is a special and complex form of
chance, which ought by no means to be confounded with the everyday
variety. We need not here analyse chance, or discuss the philosophic
value of the term. It is enough that we all know what we mean by it in
common parlance. It may be well, however, to look into the etymology of
the two words we are considering. They both come ultimately, from the
Latin "cadere," to fall. Chance is a falling-out, like that of a die
from the dice-box; and coincidence signifies one falling-out on the top
of another, the concurrent happening of two or more chances which
resemble or somehow fit into each other. If you rattle six dice in a box
and throw them, and they turn up at haphazard - say, two aces, a deuce,
two fours, and a six - there is nothing remarkable in this falling out.
But if they all turn up sixes, you at once suspect that the dice are
cogged; and if that be not so - if there be no sufficient cause behind
the phenomenon - you say that this identical falling-out of six separate
possibilities was a remarkable coincidence. Now, applying the
illustration to drama, I should say that the playwright is perfectly
justified in letting chance play its probable and even inevitable part
in the affairs of his characters; but that, the moment we suspect him of
cogging the dice, we feel that he is taking an unfair advantage of us,
and our imagination either cries, "I won't play!" or continues the game
under protest.

Some critics have considered it a flaw in Shakespeare's art that the
catastrophe of _Romeo and Juliet_ should depend upon a series of
chances, and especially on the miscarriage of the Friar's letter to
Romeo. This is not, I think, a valid criticism. We may, if we are so
minded, pick to pieces the course of action which brought these chances
into play. The device of the potion - even if such a drug were known to
the pharmacopoeia - is certainly a very clumsy method of escape from the
position in which Juliet is placed by her father's obstinacy. But when
once we have accepted that integral part of the legend, the intervention
of chance in the catastrophe is entirely natural and probable. Observe
that there is no coincidence in the matter, no interlinking or
dovetailing of chances. The catastrophe results from the hot-headed
impetuosity of all the characters, which so hurries events that there is
no time for the elimination of the results of chance. Letters do
constantly go astray, even under our highly-organized system of
conveyance; but their delay or disappearance seldom leads to tragic
results, because most of us have learnt to take things calmly and wait
for the next post. Yet if we could survey the world at large, it is
highly probable that every day or every hour we should somewhere or
other find some Romeo on the verge of committing suicide because of a
chance misunderstanding with regard to his Juliet; and in a certain
percentage of cases the explanatory letter or telegram would doubtless
arrive too late.

We all remember how, in Mr. Hardy's _Tess_, the main trouble arises from
the fact that the letter pushed under Angel Clare's door slips also
under the carpet of his room, and so is never discovered. This is an
entirely probable chance; and the sternest criticism would hardly call
it a flaw in the structure of the fable. But take another case: Madame X
has had a child, of whom she has lost sight for more than twenty years,
during which she has lived abroad. She returns to France, and
immediately on landing at Bordeaux she kills a man who accompanies her.
The court assigns her defence to a young advocate, and this young
advocate happens to be her son. We have here a piling of chance upon
chance, in which the long arm of coincidence[3] is very apparent. The
coincidence would have been less startling had she returned to the place
where she left her son and where she believed him to be. But no! she
left him in Paris, and it is only by a series of pure chances that he
happens to be in Bordeaux, where she happens to land, and happens to
shoot a man. For the sake of a certain order of emotional effect, a
certain order of audience is willing to accept this piling up of
chances; but it relegates the play to a low and childish plane of art.
The _Oedipus Rex_, indeed - which meets us at every turn - is founded on
an absolutely astounding series of coincidences; but here the conception
of fate comes in, and we vaguely figure to ourselves some malignant
power deliberately pulling the strings which guide its puppets into such
abhorrent tangles. On the modern view that "character is destiny," the
conception of supernatural wire-pulling is excluded. It is true that
amazing coincidences do occur in life; but when they are invented to
serve an artist's purposes, we feel that he is simplifying his task
altogether beyond reason, and substituting for normal and probable
development an irrelevant plunge into the merely marvellous.

Of the abuse of coincidence, I have already given a specimen in speaking
of _The Rise of Dick Halward_ (Chapter XII). One or two more examples
may not be out of place. I need not dwell on the significance of the
fact that most of them occur in forgotten plays.

In _The Man of Forty_, by Mr. Walter Frith, we find the following
conjuncture of circumstances: Mr. Lewis Dunster has a long-lost wife and
a long-lost brother. He has been for years in South Africa; they have
meanwhile lived in London, but they do not know each other, and have
held no communication. Lewis, returning from Africa, arrives in London.
He does not know where to find either wife or brother, and has not the
slightest wish to look for them; yet in the first house he goes to, the
home of a lady whose acquaintance he chanced to make on the voyage, he
encounters both his wife and his brother! Not quite so startling is the
coincidence on which _Mrs. Willoughby's Kiss_, by Mr. Frank Stayton, is
founded. An upper and lower flat in West Kensington are inhabited,
respectively, by Mrs. Brandram and Mrs. Willoughby, whose husbands have
both been many years absent in India. By pure chance the two husbands
come home in the same ship; the two wives go to Plymouth to meet them,
and by pure chance, for they are totally unacquainted with each other,
they go to the same hotel; whence it happens that Mrs. Willoughby,
meeting Mr. Brandram in a half-lighted room, takes him for her husband,
flies to his arms and kisses him. More elaborate than either of these is
the tangle of coincidences in Mr. Stuart Ogilvie's play, _The
White Knight_ -

Giulietta, the ward of David Pennycuick, goes to study singing at Milan.
Mr. Harry Rook, Pennycuick's most intimate friend, meets her by chance
in Milan, and she becomes his mistress, neither having the least idea
that the other knows Pennycuick. Then Viscount Hintlesham, like
Pennycuick, a dupe of Rook's, meets her by chance at Monte Carlo and
falls in love with her. He does not know that she knows Rook or
Pennycuick, and she does not know that he knows them. Arriving in
England, she finds in the manager, the promoter, and the chairman of the
Electric White Lead Company her guardian, her seducer, and her lover.
When she comes to see her guardian, the first person she meets is her
seducer, and she learns that her lover has just left the house. Up to
that moment, I repeat, she did not know that any one of these men knew
any other; yet she does not even say, "How small the world is!"[4]
Surely some such observation was obligatory under the circumstances.

Let us turn now to a more memorable piece of work; that interesting play
of Sir Arthur Pinero's transition period, _The Profligate_. Here the
great situation of the third act is brought about by a chain of
coincidences which would be utterly unthinkable in the author's maturer
work. Leslie Brudenell, the heroine, is the ward of Mr. Cheal, a
solicitor. She is to be married to Dunstan Renshaw; and, as she has no
home, the bridal party meets at Mr. Cheal's office before proceeding to
the registrar's. No sooner have they departed than Janet Preece, who has
been betrayed and deserted by Dunstan Renshaw (under an assumed name)

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Online LibraryWilliam ArcherPlay-Making A Manual of Craftsmanship → online text (page 17 of 24)