History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/English Realist
In his short story, "Nona Vincent" (1893), Henry James described the atmosphere surrounding late 19th century theatre, 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."
Realism has been generally embraced by 20th century critics. Others bewail its abuses. “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).
McCarthy (1967) calls “The importance of being earnest” a “ferocious idyl” but criticizes 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,” she writes, “it is also their charm and badge of prestige”. Of lesser importance, McCarthy criticizes 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) also 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.”
Oscar Wilde also wrote "A woman of no importance" (1893).
Of this author, Lewisohn (1915) says: "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."
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."
"The importance of being earnest"
Time: 1890s. Place: London, England.
Algernon Moncrieff receives the visit of Ernest Worthing, who intends to propose to his cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to consent unless his friend 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 know 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. Instead, she says to him: "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 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 is 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, explaining: "I gave this brooch to somebody once, years ago." After Robert's wife, Gertrude, is told by Laura what she expects from him, she comments to Lord Goring: "She is incapable of understanding an upright nature like my husband's!" But after being told by her husband that he has changed his mind out of "rational compromise", she pleads: "To the world, as to myself, you have been an ideal always. Oh! be that ideal still." Contrite, he writes a letter to Laura, 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." Meanwhile, Lord Goring receives a letter from Gertrude. While talking with his father, he asks his servant to conduct the visitor he is expecting in the drawing-room, but instead Laura shows up, who notices Gertrude's letter and slips 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 going away, 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 become worried about Robert's interpretation as he enters with it, not having noticed the name on the envelope. Gertrude informs him 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 him 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). Bentley (1967) pointed out that in “Arms and the man” and other Shaw 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 Downer's (1950) view, “Arms and the man” “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.” (p 303)
Downer (1950) also points 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"
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 on hearing that Bluntschli carries chocolates instead of cartridges, but is scandalized on 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 is seen flirting 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 understanding the hollowness of her romantic ideals. Before Raina can do anything, the major discovers her portrait in the coat pocket, but 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 a 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). Dickinson (1917) comments: “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."” Downer (1950) praises its anti-sentimanetal sentiments. “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 explains to 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!" cries Minnie, unaware that the man in question is her bridegroom. Meanwhile, Belawney is still in despair for having lost Belinda, 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," retorts Belawney, for "it's not certain whether the cottage was in England or Scotland." When Cheviot goes 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 pice 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 is willing 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 truly married and Angus is free to marry Maggie.
Arthur Wing Pinero
"Trelawny of the Wells" (1898) by Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) continues the tradition of English light comedies. Dickinson (1907) remarks that "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." (129)
Pinero also wrote “The second Mrs Tanqueray” (1893), "The gay Lord Quex", "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 concinced that her friend, Muriel, should marry Captain Bastling rather than Lord Quex because of his 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.
“Pinero was a superb craftsman and a master of stage technique,” wrote Wilson (1951), “ 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.”
"Trelawny of the Wells"
Time: 1860s. Place: London, England.
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, Trafalgar is confident: "We shall shape her to be a fitting wife for our rash and unfortunate Arthur," she declares. She proposes the "disagreeable duty" of playing cards. During the course of the conversation, William thinks it 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 says, "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 admits to his sister: "I fear this is no longer a comfortable home for ye, Trafalgar; no longer the home for a gentlewoman. 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 theatre 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. 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, along with the equally bewildered William. Arthur seeks to re-enter into his grandfather's good graces by asking: "May I, when rehearsal is over, venture to call in Cavendish Square?" "Call!" exclaims William. "Just to see Aunt Trafalgar, sir? I hope Aunt Trafalgar is well, sir," ventures Arthur. "Your great-aunt Trafalgar? Ugh, yes, I suppose she will consent to see ye," says William.
Henry Arthur Jones
As early as “Saints and sinners” (1884), Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) criticizes 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) says 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 is "Mrs Dane's Defence" (1900). Downer (1950) comments: “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) contrasts 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.”
"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 is worried over his father's disapproval of the match. "He won't wish to part us when he knows how much I love you," affirms Lionel. 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 does not wish 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. 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 Easterley, 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?" asks Daniel. "Of course, sir," Lionel affirms. Meanwhile, against her husband's wishes, Henrietta has hired a private detective, Mr Fendick, to seek the truth in Vienna. Lady Easterley 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 not to reveal them 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?" queries a nervous Mrs Dane. "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." Though shaken, he asks her: "There are, of course, people in Montreal who knew you intimately as Mrs. Dane and can identify you?" "Oh, yes, of course," she answers uncomfortably. In view of her statements to that effect, he reasons: "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. Disappointed and exhausted, Lionel lies on the sofa in the moonlight and falls asleep. Janet enters, bends over, and kisses him.