History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/English Realist
The atmosphere surrounding late 19th century theatre was described in "Nona Vincent" (1893), Henry James' short story, in particular the reaction of a young playwright after acceptance of his first play: "For himself, he had never been so happy as since he had seen his way, as he fondly believed, to some sort of mastery of the scenic idea, which struck him as a very different matter now that he looked at it from within. He had had his early days of contempt for it, when it seemed to him a jewel, dim at the best, hidden in a dunghill, a taper burning low in an air thick with vulgarity. It was hedged about with sordid approaches, it was not worth sacrifice and suffering. The man of letters, in dealing with it, would have to put off all literature, which was like asking the bearer of a noble name to forego his immemorial heritage. Aspects change, however, with the point of view: Wayworth had waked up one morning in a different bed altogether. It is needless here to trace this accident to its source; it would have been much more interesting to a spectator of the young man’s life to follow some of the consequences. He had been made (as he felt) the subject of a special revelation, and he wore his hat like a man in love. An angel had taken him by the hand and guided him to the shabby door which opens, it appeared, into an interior both splendid and austere. The scenic idea was magnificent when once you had embraced it— the dramatic form had a purity which made some others look ingloriously rough. It had the high dignity of the exact sciences, it was mathematical and architectural. It was full of the refreshment of calculation and construction, the incorruptibility of line and law. It was bare, but it was erect, it was poor, but it was noble; it reminded him of some sovereign famed for justice who should have lived in a palace despoiled. There was a fearful amount of concession in it, but what you kept had a rare intensity. You were perpetually throwing over the cargo to save the ship, but what a motion you gave her when you made her ride the waves- a motion as rhythmic as the dance of a goddess! Wayworth took long London walks and thought of these things- London poured into his ears the mighty hum of its suggestion. His imagination glowed and melted down material, his intentions multiplied and made the air a golden haze. He saw not only the thing he should do, but the next and the next and the next; the future opened before him and he seemed to walk on marble slabs. The more he tried the dramatic form the more he loved it, the more he looked at it the more he perceived in it. What he perceived in it indeed he now perceived everywhere; if he stopped, in the London dusk, before some flaring shop-window, the place immediately constituted itself behind footlights, became a framed stage for his figures. He hammered at these figures in his lonely lodging, he shaped them and he shaped their tabernacle; he was like a goldsmith chiselling a casket, bent over with the passion for perfection."
George (1914) enumerated seven faults authors of realistic drama fought against melodrama: "the aside, the soliloquy, impersonation,eavesdropping, confidences, the losing of papers, and the wrongful assumption of guilt" (p 6). Jones (1895) criticized the limited imagination of character drawing in late 19th century theatre. “Nothing could better show the impotence and poverty of the modern English drama than the account it has rendered of modern English business life; nothing could better show how strangely far we are from sincerity and faithful insight in character-drawing, how fond the public is of what is superficial and conventional, than the type of business man that has been most popular on the stage in recent years...Indeed, this particular individual, under various aliases and constantly changing his trade, may be said in one sense to have been the great prop and mainstay of English comedy for some twenty years past. He is simply a peg to hang jokes upon. He invariably drops his H's and puts in superfluous aspirates. He is everlastingly making blunders upon his introduction into what passes upon the stage for polite society” (pp 29-30).
Although realism has been generally embraced for the last two centuries, others have bewailed its abuses. “In the drama of today, the leading male character- it would be profoundly absurd to dignify him with the title of 'hero'- is often little elevated above the level of the commonplace, and in many cases is little more or less than a fraud, an impostor, a bounder, a cad, an exemplar of the higher rascality or the new immorality...Today, the protagonist is profoundly concerned with the importance of the trivial; and his language- sometimes even his thought- barely suffices to elevate him above the mean level of the commonplace. The difference between the old epic poets and the modern realists is the whole difference 'between an age that fought with dragons and an age that fights with microbes'” (Henderson, 1914 pp 271-277). “The low-grade realism that prevails in our stage whittles down the dramatic stature of the individual until he becomes too trifling or banal to exhibit humanity or some appreciable elevation of mind and spirit. Ordinarily realistic drama presents him as altogether too passive or inept to engage in conflicts that engage our imagination and excite our passions” (Gassner, 1968 p 116). “The heroes are petty and colorless; the settings are drab; the language is lame. Thus, the ugliness of the form is complete” (McCarthy, 1966 p 118).
Celebrated English comedies of the late 19th century include "An ideal husband" (1895) and "The importance of being earnest" (1895) by Irish-born playwright, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
“The importance of being earnest” “is Wilde's nearest approach to the creation of an unique genre. It is characteristic of Wilde that his most important comedy was cast in the most frivolous form” (Henderson, 1913 p 306). "Here, such serious subjects as marriage and morals are lightly treated from the first scene between Algernon and his servant, Lane. Algernon: "’Is marriage so demoralizing as that?’ when Lane coolly replies: ‘I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir,’ and adds, by way of an explanation no less disconcerting by Victorian standards, ‘I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once.’ Which is followed by the explanation of the explanation. ‘That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.’ It cannot be said that marriage in this passage receives the ‘staggering blows’ which the ardent reformer is wont to administer. But does it not receive poisoned pin pricks that are just as effective? Are not the inversions and double inversions of standards managed with dexterous delicacy? ‘No, sir. It is not a very interesting subject.’ A delicious turn in the argument! And then the little moralistic summing-up of Algernon's: 'Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?' And so it ripples on...As the conversations in Alice in Wonderland hover on the frontier of sense without ever quite crossing it, so the dialogue in The Importance is forever on the frontier of satire, forever on the point of breaking into bitter criticism. It never breaks...The counterpoint or irony of Wilde's play expresses itself theatrically in the contrast between the elegance and savoir- faire of the actors and the absurdity of what they actually do. This contrast too can be dismissed as mere Oscarism and frivolity. Actually it is integral to an uncommonly rich play. The contrast between smooth, assured appearances and inner emptiness is, moreover, nothing more nor less than a fact of sociology and history” (Bentley, 1955 pp 143-144).
McCarthy (1967) called it a “ferocious idyl” but criticized the apparent triviality and thinness of the plot. In her view of the play, “depravity is the hero and the only character.” She is morally affronted by the joke of the unwed mother when Worthing discovers the governess’ secret, by the “dowager dreadnought” being out-brazened by her “debutante daughter”, she in turn by the “country miss”, and she by the “spectacled governess”. “Insensibility is the comic “vice” of the characters,” McCarthy wrote, “it is also their charm and badge of prestige.” Of lesser importance, she criticized Wilde’s occasional use of repetitive jokes, as in “nothing can be said about the muffin that was not already said about the cucumber sandwich”. George Bernard Shaw (1967 reprint) criticized the perceived lack of humanity in “The importance of being earnest", whose comedy he characterized as mere “rib-tickling” of the Gilbert type, “for example the lies, the deceptions, the cross-purposes, the sham-mourning, the christening of the two grownup men, the muffin eating, and so forth. These could only have been raised from the farcical plane by making them occur to characters who had, like Don Quixote, convinced us of their reality and obtained some hold on our sympathy” (pp ?). Montague (1925) disagreed. "All of this comedy is instantly amusing; you laugh, or at least your mental interior beams, at almost every speech. Mr Shaw says it wastes your time because it does not touch you as well as amuse. But one may hold that laughter, like bread, is a thing that has worth in itself so far as it goes...This play is no mere rib-tickler, like some string of puns. All the early talk of Jack and Algernon is quite veracious social portraiture. Among a portion of the comfortable English unemployed, some years ago, there was current just that vein of chaff, a special blend of the knowing and the infantine, a kind of cynic simplicism. Perhaps it is extinct. If so, here is your document. Wilde catches the mental (not vocal) drawl, the pose of an adult egoism aping childlike naiveté in appetite, as cleverly as Swift, in his 'Polite Conversations', seems to have hit off the frank parade of imbecility and grossness common in some modish people of his time. Again, it has been said that there is too much of mere stock farcical mechanics in the play- the symmetrical lying and counterlying, the sham mourning, the dual christening, the fight for the muffins, and so on. But it is rather hard to say exactly when fun is mechanical and when it is not" (pp 184-185). In particular, Lady Bracknell appears as Morton's Mrs Grundy in the flesh, the voice of “social authority” (Bloom, 2005 p 154), not to be disputed except to our cost, not objected to by any in the play.
"An ideal husband" has been underrated by many critics, a feminist one, hating the sight of prolonged female deviousness, one may suspect, dismisses it as a play where “ancient shady financial dealings return to haunt a man on the brink of a brilliant political career; a letter is misunderstood; a blackmailer is foiled. The lessons of the French well-made play have been gleefully absorbed” (Chothia, 1996 pp 39-40). Henderson (1913) remarked that “the real difference between the spirit of Wilde and the spirit of Ibsen is exhibited in the denouement of 'An ideal husband' as contrasted with that of 'The pillars of society'. Ibsen's ‘hero’ ultimately confesses his moral delinquency in the most public way, and the curtain falls upon a self-humiliated and repentant man ready to ‘begin over again’ in order to work out his own salvation. Aside from a good scare, Sir Robert Chiltern is not only allowed to go scot-free, but is actually elevated to a vacant seat in the cabinet!” (pp 304-305).
In regard to Wilde's literary style, Lewisohn (1915) wrote "Wilde succeeds in lifting his comedies out of life- not, to be sure, above it- by the style of his dialogue. The noblest dramatic dialogue is that which creates the illusion of human speech; the basest that which pretends to create such an illusion and gives us the sentimental formulas of melodrama. Wilde neither succeeds nor fails upon such terms. His dialogue, like Congreve's, is an exercise in style. And for such an exercise he was admirably fitted by gifts and training. He has the icy glitter of sheer wit, the sparkling perfection of phrase, the ringing balance of rhythm. Nor is this all. He has moments of a larger and more subtly modulated eloquence. Assuredly the plea of Mrs Arbuthnot in the last act of "A Woman of no importance" is artificial, and so is Goring's reproof of Lady Chiltern in "An ideal husband". But the artifice is the legitimate artifice of fine oratory- calculated, of course, and consciously effective, but with a glow of real conviction, a throb of true feeling under the external flash and ring of its periods" (pp 190-191). Likewise, Grein (1902) summarized that in Wilde's plays: "Their greatest merit is their dialogue; the plot is of secondary importance, and the characterisation is such as one would expect from an observant man who has seen much and read more. In other words, Oscar Wilde did not dive very deeply below the surface of human nature, but found, to a certain extent rightly, that there is more on the surface of life than is seen by the eyes of most people- he believed as much in veneer as in deep, untarnishable colour" (p 80).
"The importance of being earnest"
Time: 1890s. Place: London, England.
Text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Importance_of_Being_Earnest https://archive.org/details/twentyfivemodern001705mbp http://azactorsacademy.com/uploads/plays/importance_of_being_earnest_the.pdf
Algernon Moncrieff receives the visit of his friend, Ernest Worthing, who intends to propose marriage to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to consent unless Ernest explains why the inscription on his cigarette case bears a different name. Ernest explains that in the country he is known as the serious-minded Uncle Jack for the benefit of his ward, Cecily, and has invented a younger brother named Ernest, who lives a wastrel life in London. Gwendolen arrives with her mother, Lady Bracknell. Alone with Gwendolen, Ernest proposes marriage and is accepted, but Lady Bracknell refuses the match, due to the curious circumstance of his adoption after being discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station. Curious to meet Cecily, Algernon discovers the location of Ernest's country house and pretends to be Ernest Worthing, a ploy successful in his attempt to charm her. Wishing to abandon his double life, Uncle Jack arrives in mourning to announce Ernest's death, strangely at odds with the presence of the disguised Algernon. Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily, each indignantly declaring their engagement to Ernest, so that the men's tricks are exposed. Lady Bracknell then arrives in pursuit of her daughter and approves of Algernon's engagement, but now Ernest does not, until she consents to his. When Lady Bracknell sees Cicily's governess in passing, she recognizes her and suddenly asks: "Prism! Where is that baby?" It seems that many years ago, Miss Prism took Lady Bracknell's nephew for a walk and never returned. Miss Prism explains that she had absent-mindedly put a manuscript in the perambulator and the baby in a handbag and left him at Victoria Station, but could never find him again. Jack produces the handbag, proving he is the lost baby in question and thereby eligible as Gwendolen's suitor, all the more so, to satisfy his intended's infatuation with the name, when he discovers his real name has been Ernest all along.
"An ideal husband"
Time: 1890s. Place: London, England.
Advised by Baron Arnheim, Mrs Laura Cheveley has invested heavily in the Argentine Canal Company. She wishes to prevent Robert Chiltern, member of the House of Commons, to present the report of the commissioners before the House. "I want you to say a few words to the effect that the government is going to reconsider the question, and that you have reason to believe that the canal, if completed, will be of great international value," she says to him. She is willing to offer him money, but when he shows no interest, she blackmails him. "I realise that I am talking to a man who laid the foundation of his fortune by selling to a stock exchange speculator a cabinet secret," she tells him. She possesses the letter he wrote to Baron Arnheim as Lord Radley's secretary, "telling the baron to buy Suez Canal shares, a letter written three days before the government announced its own purchase," she specifies. Robert feels forced to agree. After they leave, Mabel, his sister, discovers a diamond brooch half hidden underneath a sofa cushion. Her friend and Robert's, Lord Arthur Goring, takes it from her. "I gave this brooch to somebody once, years ago," he explains. After Laura tells Robert's wife, Gertrude, what she expects from him, she mentions the matter to Lord Goring. "She is incapable of understanding an upright nature like my husband's!" Gertrude declares. But after Robert tells her that he has changed his mind out of "rational compromise", she pleads with him to remain steadfast. "To the world, as to myself, you have been an ideal always. Oh! be that ideal still," she says. Contrite, he writes Laura a letter informing her of his refusal to yield to her scheme. The next day, Laura returns to ask about her lost brooch, but Gertrude has not heard of any being found. When Robert enters, she repeats her threat, this time to both. Gertrude is devastatingly disappointed in her husband, who comments in much pain: "You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now... The sin of my youth, that I had thought was buried, rose up in front of me, hideous, horrible, with its hands at my throat. I could have killed it for ever, sent it back into its tomb, destroyed its record, burned the one witness against me. You prevented me." Gertrude writes Lord Goring a letter. While talking with his father, he asks his servant to conduct the visitor he is expecting in the drawing-room, but instead of Gertrude it is Laura who shows up and notices Gertrude's letter, slipping it under a blotting-book before being mistakenly conducted there. At his wit's end, Robert arrives to ask Lord Goring's help. Thinking Gertrude is in the next room, Lord Goring lies to Robert by saying there is no one, though both hear a chair falling there. Robert enters that room, comes back, and walks out angrily as Laura, amused, confronts Lord Goring. She proposes to give him Robert's letter if he consents to marry her. He declines. On learning that she lost her brooch, he clasps it on her arm, accusing her of having stolen it from a cousin several years ago. She is unable to remove it, so that, to avoid prosecution as a thief, she hands the letter over, but, before leaving, steals Gertrude's compromising letter. On the following day, Lord Goring is pleased to learn that Robert denounced the canal scheme before the House and also that Mabel accepts his marriage proposal. He tells Gertrude that Laura relinquished Robert's letter but stole her own. As a result, they worry over Robert's interpretation as he enters with it, not having noticed the name on the envelope. Gertrude informs him that he is safe, as Lord Goring possesses the incriminating letter. More good news arrive, a seat in the Cabinet for Robert for his speech! However, to please Gertrude, he wishes to abandon public life. As he writes his resignation letter in the next room, Lord Goring convinces her to refuse her husband's sacrifice, which she agrees to, so that he, relieved, accepts the nomination after all. Lord Goring then tells Robert of his marriage proposal, but he, having seen Laura in his drawing-room, is against it until Gertrude reveals that she, not Laura, was thought to be present in the room.
George Bernard Shaw
Also of importance in comedy is another Irish-born playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1854-1950), with "Arms and the man" (1894).
Allen (1957) marvelled at "Shaw’s astonishing ability to make us see familiar subjects in an entirely new light", but complained that "his buffoonery can be exasperating and is sometimes in very bad taste" (pp 149-151). Downer (1950) pointed out that as early as “Widowers' houses” (1892), Shaw wrote "a well-made play, but in the Ibsen tradition. That is to say, it follows the structure so popular in the period and employs the technique and dramatic devices of men like Pinero and Jones, but uses them to explore the evils of a contemporary problem: slum landlordism. It was the problem, not the form, that aroused the audience to protest” (p 301).
"Arms and the man" "opens in an atmosphere of military melodrama; the dashing officer of cavalry going off to death in an attitude, the lovely heroine left in tearful rapture; the brass band, the noise of guns and the red fire. Into all this enters Bluntschli, the little sturdy crop-haired Swiss professional soldier, a man without a country but with a trade. He tells the army-adoring heroine frankly that she is a humbug; and she, after a moment's reflection, appears to agree with him. The play is like nearly all Shaw's plays, the dialogue of a conversion. By the end of it the young lady has lost all her military illusions and admires this mercenary soldier not because he faces guns, but because he faces facts" (Chesterton, 1914 pp 120-121). Behind its humor lay the serious purpose of stripping war of its glamour, but it is the humor that actually matters. It bubbles when the antiheroic Swiss officer of the routed Serbian army, Captain Bluntschli, appears on the scene with his preference for chocolates instead of bullets and his theory that a soldier’s first duty is to save his own skin. Romanticism is deflated in the person of the Bulgarian hero Sergius whose cavalry charge would have been fatal if the enemy's artillery had not been supplied with the wrong ammunition, as well as in the character of his fiancee, Raina, who adopts romantic verbiage because it is supposed to be proper. Ultimately they both shed their nonsense and let their natural instinct lead them where it will, Raina into the arms of her pragmatic chocolate soldier and Sergius into the claws of her maid, Louka, who is the first of Shaw's mighty huntresses. The play, then, pricks two bubbles simultaneously— the “romance" of arms and the “romance” of love" (Gassner, 1954a p 601). The play “is littered with the detritus of a thousand romantic operettas. The setting is that Middle Europe of gaudy costumes and quaint notions of honor and social behavior. The characters are a romantically moonstruck young heroine, a dashing cavalry officer, a mysterious stranger. As the result of the opening situation the heroine finds that her love has been transferred from her fellow countryman to her enemy, a romantic 'problem' which had been the major concern of the authors of untold numbers of melodramas” (Downer, 1950 p 303).
Among the Bulgarian characters, Tchaprazov (2011) described Major Petkoff as "childishly gullible- his wife tricks him into agreeing that his favorite coat was in the 'blue closet', while he had seen with his own eyes that it was not— and has questionable hygienic habits. He finds washing on a daily basis 'disgusting', and, even worse, a health hazard...To Bluntschli, Sergius is nothing but a madman, whose incompetence and ignorance are singular in nature; he is the 'maddest' among 'all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle’"...Louka is portrayed as 'scheming and manipulative'...[Nicola's] greed goes so far as to lead him to ask Louka, to whom he is engaged, to find a way to marry Sergius and thus become 'one of [his] grandest customers, instead of only being [his] wife and costing [him] money'...A skeptical thinker, a methodical, logical worker, and most of all, a realist, Bluntschli (the Western European] is the complete opposite of the ignorant, inefficient, pathetically romantic Bulgarians...Shaw effectively exploits the gap between Bluntschli and the Bulgarians to create comedy and, more important for him, deconstruct military courage and political idealism...as the ending of the play suggests— where Bluntschli basically becomes the head of the Petkoff household and everyone in the household is in awe of him— the Bulgarians can only be thankful that a Western man has graced their doorstep. Shaw thus ascribes to the Bulgarians a behavior that postcolonial theory identifies as indigenous servility: after realizing the Westerner’s superiority, the natives bow to him and exhibit a sincere desire to serve and follow him. In Arms and the Man, the Bulgarians need Bluntschli, the Westerner, whose confidence, methodical and organized work ethic, and, most of all, realistic point of view are indispensable to the straightening of the otherwise dysfunctional Petkoff household" (pp 73-84).
“The allegation that Shaw's plays are "without action" is...wrong. Most of the plays..entail every bit as much action as other authors' plays...The misapprehension comes about because Shaw toys with the plots...and because of the interpenetration of action with discussion” (Bentley, 1955 p 121). Yet Bentley (1967) pointed out that in “Arms and the man” and other plays, results occur from dialogue alone, not from action, for example, when Raina has been found out by Bluntschli. The same scene illustrates Shaw’s puritanical pattern of “romance transcended by a higher than erotic purpose”. In contrast, Archer (1894) considered that the lack of sensual instincts in the characters is a weakness in this and other plays: "it is all very well for Mr Shaw to be sceptical as to the reality of much of the emotion which passes by the name of love, and over which so much fuss is made both in fiction and in life. For my part, I quite agree with him that a great deal of foolish and useless unhappiness is caused by our habit of idealising and eternalizing this emotion, under all circumstances and at all hazards. But it is one thing to argue that the exultations and agonies of love are apt to be morbid, factitious, deliberately exaggerated and overwrought, and quite another to represent life as if these exultations and agonies had no existence whatever" (p 116).
Of historical interest, Satran (2008) wrote that “the closing decades of the nineteenth century saw two interrelated developments in the British chocolate industry (one related to supply and the other to demand): these were the proliferation of chocolate forms and brands and the broadening of the commodity's social market to include the middle and then working classes. While some chocolate products, like cocoa, came to be accessible to a wide class constituency for the first time, others, like chocolate creams, remained beyond the means of the working classes...and associated with romance” (pp 13-14).
"Arms and the man"
Time: 1885. Place: Bulgaria.
During the Serbo-Bulgarian war, Raina Petkoff's mother announces to her daughter happy news: Sergius Saranoff, her intended, has led a great cavalry charge and won a battle against the Serbian army. They jubilate. Raina says that before this event she had some doubts about whether her lover could achieve heroic deeds, doubts now happily dispelled. As she retires for the night, Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian army, enters inside her room to hide. He first threatens, then pleads, at last gives up, when Raina, in a fit of female heroism, hides him in any case and lies to soldiers sent to investigate. In apparent security, Bluntschli tells her of the cavalry charge, how men "pull back their horses" as they charge to avoid being first under enemy fire. Raina frowns on hearing such unheroic details, smiles how Bluntschli carries chocolates instead of cartridges, but is scandalized after hearing that Sergius was laughed at by the Serbians as he headed the charge, and only won the battle because the enemy had the wrong ammunition to fire. After 48 hours without sleep, Bluntschli at last succumbs. Raina calls her mother, and both sneak Bluntschli out of the house, hidden under Major Petkoff's housecoat. After the war, Sergius returns and soon starts to flirt with the insolent servant, Louka, though both are engaged to be married, he to Raina, she to another servant, Nicola. Bluntschli surprisingly returns to give back the coat and to see Raina. Both she and her mother are dismayed and nervous at his return, more so when Petkoff and Sergius reveal that they have met Bluntschli before, inviting him to stay for lunch and help them with troop movements. While Bluntschli and Raina talk in private, she tells him she had left her portrait inside the coat pocket, inscribed "To my chocolate-cream soldier", but Bluntschli never looked, and so she must retrieve the coat. Bluntschli leaves on being informed of his father's death, making him a rich man. Louka, in a fit of jealousy and revenge, informs Sergius that Bluntschli was protected by Raina during the war and that she loves him, not the man to whom she is betrothed. Angry and wounded in his honor, Sergius challenges Bluntschli to a duel, quickly dismissed on both sides, but with the engagement broken off, Raina understands the hollowness of her romantic ideals. Before she can do anything, the major discovers Bluntschli's portrait in Sergius' coat pocket. However, she and her mother convince him that his mind is wandering. When Bluntschli reveals the entire truth, he becomes engaged to Raina and Sergius to Louka, the latter to Mrs Petkoff's dismay, Nicola quietly letting her go to accept a favorable position as manager in one of Bluntschli's hotels.
William Schwenk Gilbert
A notable example of English light comedy, akin to French Boulevard Theatre, is "Engaged" (1876) by William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911).
"'Engaged'...is a melodramatic farce made up of train wrecks, elopements to Gretna Green, and legacies left on hard conditions. None of the characters is misled by an emotion or a principle. All understand each other. The play shreds to pieces the clap-trap of stage romantic love. Vows are exchanged in cold reckoning. Affections are transferred as interest dictates. Cheviot Hill is of the family of Shaw's hard, conscienceless heroes. 'I never loved three girls as I loved those three,' he says. And Matilda goes him one better. Like Shaw's self-confident heroines she has worked out the budget of her life: 'If you would be truly happy in the married state be sure you have your own way in everything. Brook no contradictions. Never yield to outside pressure. Give in to no argument. Admit no appeal. However wrong you may be, maintain a firm, resolute, and determined front.'" (Dickinson, 1917 pp 78-79).
"Mr Gilbert's satire is strong and trenchant. Its obvious butt is less the intrinsic baseness of human nature than the falsehood of our social pretences. The one, in truth, includes the other. None except beings influenced by poor and pitiful motives would seek to present themselves to the world as other than they are, and the prolonged existence of social shams affords proof how weak is the society in which they pass current. It is principally by implication, however, that Mr Gilbert attacks human nature in general. What he seeks to do is to supply the kind of reservation we unconsciously place upon our gifts. A man offers a distressed and defenceless woman his assistance. He does not, however, mean in so doing to be out of pocket by his chivalry. Mr Gilbert makes him speak his full thought. 'Count upon an assistance, madam, short of pecuniary aid, that I am able to offer.' The woman proclaims the passion she feels for her lover, and will be his through time and eternity, if he will give her the home and the comforts she regards as indispensable to her position. With equal frankness every character unburdens his mind, the result being to afford a picture of humanity more cynical than has perhaps been painted since the days of Swift" (Knight, 1893 pp 193-194).
Morris (1882) approved of the satire but not the grotesque as follows. "Many of his critics urge against him his cynicism and his satire, and talk of bitter tastes, unwholesome impressions, and so forth. But, really, this has so little to do with the question. No doubt Mr Gilbert has a keen eye for 'folly as it flies', but there is a good deal of folly flying about, and it is as well that some of it should be occasionally brought down. The grotesque is the rock on which he splits...Even at its best the grotesque effects only by surprising, and it is not in human nature to go on being surprised at the same thing for ever" (p 28-30). In contrast, Downer (1950) approved of the grotesque. “One after another the sentimental clichés of the theater are exploited and turned topsy-turvy. When the romantic hero is revealed as a man who falls in love with and becomes engaged to every woman he meets, the most cherished convention not only of the theater but of the Victorian audience, the sacredness of romantic love, is grotesquely parodied” (p 286).
Time: 1870s. Place: Near Gretna and in London.
At the border between Scotland and England, Angus has found a way to increase the income of his future mother-in-law: derailing trains, for Mrs MacFarlane, as the owner of the local inn, is supplied by such means with new customers. Much shaken by just such a train wreck, Belawney and Belinda are welcomed by Maggie, Angus' love. Belawney tells Belinda that his only source of income is provided by the father of his friend, Cheviot. His 1,000 pounds per year will disappear once Cheviot yields to an undesirable marriage, all the more difficult to maintain since his friend "has contracted a habit of proposing marriage, as a matter of course, to every woman he meets". By contrast, Symperson will obtain that same sum provided his nephew marry, and he has in his mind the perfect wife for him: his daughter, Minnie. These plans are put in jeopardy when Cheviot meets Maggie, for he is instantly smitten with her and promises her marriage, to Angus' despair, but this plan is also impeded when Cheviot meets Belinda, for he is instantly smitten with her and promises her marriage as well, to Maggie and Belawney's despair. Yet before any form of ceremony occurs, Symperson guides Cheviot towards London, where he is to marry Minnie, who receives the visit of her old friend, Belinda, who explains that she has lost track of her husband, for by the marriage laws of Scotland, the mere intention to marry by verbal means is binding. "What fun!" Minnie cries out, unaware that the man in question is her bridegroom. Meanwhile, Belawney still despairs for having lost Belinda, even more so when he learns of Cheviot's imminent marriage to Minnie. To stall for time, he defends Belinda's view of the legitimacy of their marriage. They are interrupted by Mrs MacFarlane, Maggie, and Angus, who arrive in answer to Cheviot's advertisement of hired help, and then by Symperson, who, on learning of the Scotch marriage, declares he has obtained Belawney's income. "Not yet," Belawney retorts, for "it's not certain whether the cottage was in England or Scotland." While Cheviot travels to Scotland to obtain this information, they learn that the relevant authority might not be available for six years. Meanwhile, Symperson learns that Cheviot's shares have plummeted, so that he is now penniless. On learning this piece of news, Minnie immediately throws him over. Crushed, Cheviot considers suicide, approved of by Symperson, who will obtain the 1,000 pounds in the case of either marriage or suicide. To prevent this, a desperate Belawney agrees to sacrifice Belinda on his behalf, then is forced to admit he invented the statement of Cheviot's financial ruin. Overjoyed, Cheviot turns towards Belinda, but Belawney, too quick for him, marries Belinda before he has a chance to see her. However, that marriage is annulled when they learn that the verbal contract occurred in Scotland, and so Cheviot and Belinda are already married and so Angus is free to marry Maggie.
Arthur Wing Pinero
"Trelawny of the Wells" (1898) by Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) continued the tradition of English light comedies. Pinero also wrote “The second Mrs Tanqueray” (1893), "The gay Lord Quex" (1899), "Iris” (1901), and “His house in order” (1906). In “The second Mrs Tanqueray”, the widower Mr Tanqueray marries Paula Jarman, a lower class woman with a deplorable past in the view of his friends. Mrs Tanqueray learns that her stepdaughter's intended is the one who ruined her socially. When she reveals this information to her husband, he prevents the marriage but alienates the family against him and against each other. In "The gay Lord Quex", Sophy is convinced that her friend, Muriel, should marry Captain Bastling rather than Lord Quex because of the latter's reputation as a philanderer. To trap the supposed seducer, she flirts with him and then spies on his final farewell to his previous mistress, the duchess of Stroud. But Quex shows he has reformed. When he discovers Muriel has changed her mind and agreed to marry the captain instead, Sophie flirts with the captain and succeeds in drawing his interest in front of the dismayed Muriel, who returns to Quex. In “Iris”, Laurence goes to Canada to earn enough money to marry Iris, but when he returns to England, he discovers she has been unable to resist the temptation of living in rich circumstances with Frederick. Laurence is unable to continue their relation and after discovering she still loves Laurence neither is Frederick. In “His house in order”, a member of parliament’s second wife, unable to maintain his establishment adequately, enters into conflict with his first wife’s family until she declines to reveal the first wife’s adultery.
“A curious picture of life in the early sixties is presented by the ingenious play, which, if rather remarkably slight in subject, is wonderfully rich in quaint, comic detail; and the picture of life is the more fantastic because of the crinolines, Swiss belts, white stockings, beaded nets for hair, elastic-side boots, and other component parts of the ladies’ costumes ￼which only a lady or a Mr Mantalini could describe. The piece may not present the author at his best, but everyone will be interested by his wonderful types of actors and touched by the tender human notes, used, alas! rather too sparingly in the play” (Agate, 1947 pp 73-74). "The play is a loving picture of the life of actors in the days of the breaking up of the circuit. In the character of the young dramatist, Tom Wrench, Pinero gives clear expression to the ideals that were remaking the drama of England" (Dickinson, 1907 p 129). Grein (1899) praised the depiction of most of the dramatic characters: "Pinero, whose eyes dwell as keenly on the past as they do on modern society, has drawn a wonderfully vivid picture of the simple-minded, kind-hearted, rough-and-ready 'cabotins' who flourished at the 'Wells', and of the fossilized gentlefolk who lived in cold monotony in fashionable squares. This Rose, who, like 'bon chien chasse de race', is not happy when she is taken from the stage to the noble mansion- of her fiance's grandfather, to see how she would acclimatise; this Tom Wrench, sick of stiltedness and convention, and yearning to give something of his simple, natural self in a play of unconventional form; this Avonia, common little creature, wont to please the lowly crowd with her freaks and funny little ways, yet warm-blooded and kind of heart as the best of women; these mummers all, whose H's rise and fall like the tide, are no mere puppets of the author's conceit. No; they are sketched from life, and, perhaps, a little rouged and made up for the purpose of the stage; but, if we try to imderstand them, we can feel for them, and live with them. The author is not quite so happy in his portraiture of the non-theatrical folk; here the satirist is uppermost, and, if young Gower, who wooed Rose, is a normal type of a young gentleman of the sixties, the vice-chancellor, Sir William Gower, his sister, and his friends, are more or less caricatures, obviously overdrawn for the purpose of contrast, but, for this reason, the weaker part of the play" (p 33).
“It was one of the failings of pseudo-modern Victorian playwrights, whether in England or France, that they treated respectable society as though its standards lay at the very heart of the principles of Western civilization, instead of simply manifestations of its superficial materialism and complacency...Shaw, writing in 1895, correctly described Pinero’s kind of playwriting...as ‘the barest art of theatrical sensation...[with] no idea beyond that of doing something daring and bringing down the house by running away from the consequences’ (Gassner, 1956 p 88). “Pinero was a superb craftsman and a master of stage technique and he was the most skilled inventor of the 'well-made' play of the Sardouesque kind that the English stage had known up to his period. He was too intelligent a writer not to be aware of current trends and influences and he did seriously attempt to range himself with those who were introducing new ideas into the theatre, replacing artificiality and convention with a more realistic treatment. But he was not able to free himself wholly from the bonds of the fashionable drama. His best plays, however earnest in theme and intention, were all skilfully contrived to introduce the 'scène à faire', an emotional climax to fit the needs of the star artistes. However much disguised as natural outcome of events, such scenes were obviously there because that was what the public expected when there were artistes like George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh in the casts...Pinero’s greatest defect was that he was curiously lacking in a perceptive ear for colloquial English. His male characters were too prone to express themselves in portentous, polysyllabic speech. Too frequently there were passages in his dialogue which sounded as though they had been written by a Daily Telegraph leader-writer of the period” (Wilson, 1951 pp 131-132).
"Trelawny of the Wells"
Time: 1860s. Place: London, England.
Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/47561 http://archive.org/details/cu31924013536713 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/arthur-w-pinero/trelawny-of-the-wells-a-comedietta-in-four-acts-hci.shtml
Rose Trelawny is to quit the stage at the Wells Theatre as a successful 19-year old actress because of her engagement to Arthur Gower, a gentleman of wealth, grandson of Sir William Gower. It is agreed that to adjust herself to the West End she will live with William and his sister, Trafalgar. Rose finds the place dull. As she listens to a barrel-organ playing on the street, the man is chased away by Clara, Arthur's sister. Despite William's qualms about the marriage, Trafalgar is confident. "We shall shape her to be a fitting wife for our rash and unfortunate Arthur," she declares and proposes the "disagreeable duty" of playing cards. During the course of the conversation, William thinks fit to object to Arthur's habit of gazing up at his intended's window on his way towards Clara's house. "They are the manners and practices of a troubadour," he announces. Although Arthur tries to soothe her, Rose is affronted by the domineering tone of the petty household tyrants. "They are killing me," she affirms, "like Agnes in 'The Specter of St Ives'. She expires, in the fourth act, as I shall die in Cavendish Square, painfully, of no recognized disorder." While hearing Rose play the piano and sing in the adjoining room, William now worries over his sister. "I fear this is no longer a comfortable home for ye, Trafalgar, no longer the home for a gentlewoman," he says. "I apprehend that in these days my house approaches somewhat closely to a Pandemonium." Later that night, thanks to the connivance of a servant, Rose lets her theater friends inside the house, but they are discovered by William and Trafalgar, the former exclaiming: "A set of garish, dissolute gypsies! Begone!" Rose gives up the game. "Indeed, I am very sorry, Sir William," she says, "but you are right - gypsies - gypsies! Yes, Arthur, if you were a gypsy, as I am, as these friends o' mine are, we might be happy together. But I've seen enough of your life, my dear boy, to know that I'm no wife for you. I should only be wretched, and would make you wretched; and the end, when it arrived, as it very soon would, would be much as it is tonight." Rose returns to theater life, but, because of her experience inside a wealthy family, is dissatisfied with her roles, loses her audience appeal, and suffers a salary cut. In the course of a few months, William has second thoughts about his treatment of Rose, all the more so since Arthur has left the house to an unknown destination. He is further dismayed on learning that she is to lose her position at the Wells. To make amends, he decides to provide the funds needed for producing a play written by one of her friends, Tom. During rehearsals, Rose is stunned on seeing the role of her lover in the piece played by Arthur, now an actor, and so is the equally bewildered William. Arthur seeks to re-enter into his grandfather's good graces. "May I, when rehearsal is over, venture to call in Cavendish Square?" he inquires. "Call!" William exclaims. "Just to see Aunt Trafalgar, sir? I hope Aunt Trafalgar is well, sir," Arthur ventures. "Your great-aunt Trafalgar? Ugh, yes, I suppose she will consent to see ye," William answers.
Henry Arthur Jones
As early as “Saints and sinners” (1884), Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) criticized Victorian society. In Downer’s (1950) view, the play "contained the first glimmerings of the attack on middle-class morality and respectability which was to be the preoccupation of the new domestic drama” (p 288). Dickinson (1917) wrote of Jones that in general: "The world he presents is a show world. Its doctrine is appearances. Its punishments are meted out to those who violate the code of front. It is not hypocrisy that he attacks but the assumption that anything else is the code. Hypocrisy is the means by which the ideal is kept alive” (p 95).
His most notable drama was "Mrs Dane's Defence" (1900). Downer (1950) commented that, like other of Jones' plays, “the same rigid code operates in 'Mrs Dane's defense' (1900) in which, once again, the woman with a past is ruthlessly shoved aside when she attempts to re-establish herself in a society which is not, as Jones pictures it, entirely spotless. The first act of this play should be studied as a model of economy in dramatic exposition and concentration in developing its theme. There are few scenes in the modern drama more thrilling than the masterly cross-examination in the third act in which the skillful lawyer traps the heroine into inadvertent confession. Yet the theme is, as before, a moral so often repeated that it begins to sound almost like a biological law: once fallen, no redemption” (p 297).
Wilson (1951) contrasted Jones with Pinero. “His ear for the niceties of speech was more accurate than that of Pinero though his technique was less expert. It is hard to find in his dialogue that portentousness of expression that is Pinero’s occasional defect. He could wring the last drop of drama out of a situation and even Pinero never devised a more effective scene than that in the famous third act of Mrs Dane's Defence wherein Sir Daniel Carteret by merciless questioning wrings the confession from the hapless Mrs Dane...Jones took himself and his profession very seriously. He deemed himself a thinker, but though he engaged in controversy and was apt to make forthright pronouncements on many questions he was not a thinker of very great profundity or originality, and with his conservative outlook he failed to keep abreast of the times and with the vast social changes around him. Nor did he ever entirely rid himself of the conventions of the theatre of his earlier days. There was a smack of melodrama and of the contrived situation in most of what he wrote. Such artificiality, however, was often redeemed by vigour in writing and the effectiveness of his satire” (p 136).
"Mrs Dane's defence"
Time: 1900s. Place: Sunningwater, near London, England.
Mrs Henrietta Bulsom-Porter has heard of a scandal which occurred five years ago in Vienna concerning a governess named Felicia Hindemarsh, a girl of fifteen seduced by a married man, whose wife had discovered that relation and had killed herself, whereby the man went mad. She asks for particulars from Mr Risby, who says that although at first he thought he recognized Mrs Dane as the governess in question, he now feels sure he was mistaken. Mrs Dane is a supposed widow who intends to marry Lionel, the son of an eminent lawyer, Sir Daniel, but worries over his father's disapproval of the match. "He won't wish to part us when he knows how much I love you," Lionel affirms. But because of her modest background, Daniel wastes no time in seeking to end the matter. He announces to his son that he has spoken to an engineer friend to accept him as an assistant for the new railway in Egypt, but Lionel refuses to go. He had intended to marry another woman, Janet, but is adamant in staying true to Mrs Dane. Meanwhile, ugly rumors have spread among Daniel's elite guests concerning Mrs Dane. Hearing of these, Daniel presses his son a second time to forget her: "The lady knows that her reputation is being torn to rags" he states. "She doesn't put the matter in her lawyer's hands. She avoids, or seems to avoid, meeting me; she gives you a few very vague details of her past life and then wraps herself in a mantle of injured innocence." Lionel is indignant at his father's attitude, but their disagreement is smoothed over by Lady Eastney, who makes them join hands. "But - don't be angry with me - if I find it true, of course there's an end to everything between you and her?" Daniel asks. "Of course, sir," Lionel assures him. Meanwhile, against her husband's wishes, Henrietta hires a private detective, Mr Fendick, to seek the truth in Vienna. Lady Eastney informs Mrs Dane of Daniel's intentions to hear about her past life, obtains evidence for it, and forces an apology from Henrietta. Before Fendick has a chance to announce his discoveries to Henrietta, Mrs Dane intercepts him and begs him to keep the matter quiet in exchange for a large sum of money, which he accepts. In view of Fendick's denial that Mrs Dane is Hindemarsh, Daniel requests Henrietta to write her a written apology, short of which a libel suit would make the matter very expensive. Later, Mrs Dane meets Risby and is relieved to learn that he, too, will keep silent. Daniel informs Risby that he has given Henrietta a few days to decide between an apology and a lawsuit and requests him to make a statement about what he knows. When Risby sees Mrs Dane a second time, she informs him that she has taken her cousin's name, Lucy Hindemarsh, as her own, following that woman's death in Montreal, Canada. Thinking the matter about to be cleared up, Daniel welcomes Mrs Dane in his family. Nevertheless, he declares to her a shortcoming on their side about the impending lawsuit. "I have no evidence whatever to prove who you are," he says. "I have Risby's and Fendick's evidence to prove that you are not Felicia Hindemarsh." "Isn't that enough?" a nervous Mrs Dane queries. "Not if the matter comes into court," he pronounces. He recommends her to visit her native town and seek out people she once knew as evidence in her favor. On further interrogation, he discovers she has omitted to mention the existence of a cousin, whom she certifies as being dead. Wishing to know more, he takes down from his bookshelf "The topographical dictionary of England and Wales" and discovers that the vicarage is held by the Reverend Francis Hindemarsh. "Hindemarsh?" he asks, stunned at the name. "He was my uncle," she declares. "Sir Daniel, I've done wrong, very wrong to hide from you that Felicia Hindemarsh was my cousin." Shaken, he pursues the interrogation. "There are, of course, people in Montreal who knew you intimately as Mrs Dane and can identify you?" he asks hopefully. "Oh, yes, of course," she answers uncomfortably. In view of her statements to that effect, he reasons as follows. "If Felicia Hindemarsh was a pupil teacher at a school on the south coast, we shall doubtless be able to find out where it was, and someone who remembers her." He then offers to accompany her to her native town. On further interrogation, she inadvertently mentions that Risby knows she is Felicia Hindemarsh's cousin. "You told Risby, a mere acquaintance, that Felicia Hindemarsh was your cousin, and you didn't tell Lionel, you didn't tell me?" he asks, astounded. She breaks down and is now forced to admit her name is Felicia Hindemarsh, but begs him to accede to his son's wishes. He refuses. On informing his son of her lies, Lionel drops her at once. Disappointed and exhausted, Lionel lies on the sofa in the moonlight and falls asleep. Janet enters, bends over, and kisses him.