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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Emphasis in the Drama
by Hamilton, Clayton


By applying the negative principle of economy of attention, the dramatist may, as we have noticed, prevent his auditors at any moment from diverting their attention to the subsidiary features of the scene; but it is necessary for him also to apply the positive principle of emphasis in order to force them to focus their attention on the one most important detail of the matter in hand. The principle of emphasis, which is applied in all the arts, is the principle whereby the artist contrives to throw into vivid relief those features of his work which incorporate the essence of the thing he has to say, while at the same time he gathers and groups within a scarcely noticed background those other features which merely contribute in a minor manner to the central purpose of his plan. This principle is, of course, especially important in the acted drama; and it may therefore be profitable to examine in detail some of the methods which dramatists employ to make their points effectively and bring out the salient features of their plays.

It is obviously easy to emphasise by position. The last moments in any act are of necessity emphatic because they are the last. During the intermission, the minds of the spectators will naturally dwell upon the scene that has been presented to them most recently. If they think back toward the beginning of the act, they must first think through the concluding dialogue. This lends to curtain-falls a special importance of which our modern dramatists never fail to take advantage.

It is interesting to remember that this simple form of emphasis by position was impossible in the Elizabethan theatre and was quite unknown to Shakespeare. His plays were produced on a platform without a curtain; his actors had to make an exit at the end of every scene; and usually his plays were acted from beginning to end without any intermission. It was therefore impossible for him to bring his acts to an emphatic close by a clever curtain-fall. We have gained this advantage only in recent times because of the improved physical conditions of our theatre.

A few years ago it was customary for dramatists to end every act with a bang that would reverberate in the ears of the audience throughout the entr'-acte. Recently our playwrights have shown a tendency toward more quiet curtain-falls. The exquisite close of the first act of The Admirable Crichton was merely dreamfully suggestive of the past and future of the action; and the second act ended pictorially, without a word. But whether a curtain-fall gains its effect actively or passively, it should, if possible, sum up the entire dramatic accomplishment of the act that it concludes and foreshadow the subsequent progress of the play.

Likewise, the first moments in an act are of necessity emphatic because they are the first. After an intermission, the audience is prepared to watch with renewed eagerness the resumption of the action. The close of the third act of Beau Brummel makes the audience long expectantly for the opening of the fourth; and whatever the dramatist may do after the raising of the curtain will be emphasised because he does it first. An exception must be made of the opening act of a play. A dramatist seldom sets forth anything of vital importance during the first ten minutes of his piece, because the action is likely to be interrupted by late-comers in the audience and other distractions incident to the early hour. But after an intermission, he is surer of attention, and may thrust important matter into the openings of his acts.

The last position, however, is more potent than the first. It is because of their finality that exit speeches are emphatic. It has become customary in the theatre to applaud a prominent actor nearly every time he leaves the stage; and this custom has made it necessary for the dramatist to precede an exit with some speech or action important enough to justify the interruption. Though Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew nothing of the curtain-fall, they at least understood fully the emphasis of exit speeches. They even tagged them with rhyme to give them greater prominence. An actor likes to take advantage of his last chance to move an audience. When he leaves the stage, he wants at least to be remembered.

In general it may be said that any pause in the action emphasises by position the speech or business that immediately preceded it. This is true not only of the long pause at the end of an act: the point is illustrated just as well by an interruption of the play in mid-career, like Mrs. Fiske's ominous and oppressive minute of silence in the last act of Hedda Gabler. The employment of pause as an aid to emphasis is of especial importance in the reading of lines.

It is also customary in the drama to emphasise by proportion. More time is given to significant scenes than to dialogues of subsidiary interest. The strongest characters in a play are given most to say and do; and the extent of the lines of the others is proportioned to their importance in the action. Hamlet says more and does more than any other character in the tragedy in which he figures. This is as it should be; but, on the other hand, Polonius, in the same play, seems to receive greater emphasis by proportion than he really deserves. The part is very fully written. Polonius is often on the stage, and talks incessantly whenever he is present; but, after all, he is a man of small importance and fulfils a minor purpose in the plot. He is, therefore, falsely emphasised. That is why the part of Polonius is what French actors call a faux bon rôle,—a part that seems better than it is.

In certain special cases, it is advisable to emphasise a character by the ironical expedient of inverse proportion. Tartufe is so emphasised throughout the first two acts of the play that bears his name. Although he is withheld from the stage until the second scene of the third act, so much is said about him that we are made to feel fully his sinister dominance over the household of Orgon; and at his first appearance, we already know him better than we know any of the other characters. In Victor Hugo's Marion Delorme, the indomitable will of Cardinal Richelieu is the mainspring of the entire action, and the audience is led to feel that he may at any moment enter upon the stage. But he is withheld until the very final moment of the drama, and even then is merely carried mute across the scene in a sedan-chair. Similarly, in Paul Heyse's Mary of Magdala, the supreme person who guides and controls the souls of all the struggling characters is never introduced upon the scene, but is suggested merely through his effect on Mary, Judas, and the other visible figures in the action.

One of the easiest means of emphasis is the use of repetition; and this is a favorite device with Henrik Ibsen. Certain catch-words, which incorporate a recurrent mood of character or situation, are repeated over and over again throughout the course of his dialogue. The result is often similar to that attained by Wagner, in his music-dramas, through the iteration of a leit-motiv. Thus in Rosmersholm, whenever the action takes a turn that foreshadows the tragic catastrophe, allusion is made to the weird symbol of "white horses." Similarly, in Hedda Gabler—to take another instance—the emphasis of repetition is flung on certain leading phrases,—"Fancy that, Hedda!" "Wavy-haired Thea," "Vine-leaves in his hair," and "People don't do such things!"

Another obvious means of emphasis in the drama is the use of antithesis,—an expedient employed in every art. The design of a play is not so much to expound characters as to contrast them. People of varied views and opposing aims come nobly to the grapple in a struggle that vitally concerns them; and the tensity of the struggle will be augmented if the difference between the characters is marked. The comedies of Ben Jonson, which held the stage for two centuries after their author's death, owed their success largely to the fact that they presented a constant contrast of mutually foiling personalities. But the expedient of antithesis is most effectively employed in the balance of scene against scene. What is known as "comic relief" is introduced in various plays, not only, as the phrase suggests, to rest the sensibilities of the audience, but also to emphasise the solemn scenes that come before and after it. It is for this purpose that Shakespeare, in Macbeth, introduces a low-comic soliloquy into the midst of a murder scene. Hamlet's ranting over the grave of Ophelia is made more emphatic by antithesis with the foolish banter that precedes it.

This contrast of mood between scene and scene was unknown in ancient plays and in the imitations of them that flourished in the first great period of the French tragic stage. Although the ancient drama frequently violated the three unities of action, time, and place, it always preserved a fourth unity, which we may call unity of mood. It remained for the Spaniards and the Elizabethan English to grasp the dramatic value of the great antithesis between the humorous and the serious, the grotesque and the sublime, and to pass it on through Victor Hugo to the contemporary theatre.

A further means of emphasis is, of course, the use of climax. This principle is at the basis of the familiar method of working up an entrance. My lady's coach is heard clattering behind the scenes. A servant rushes to the window and tells us that his mistress is alighting. There is a ring at the entrance; we hear the sound of footsteps in the hall. At last the door is thrown open, and my lady enters, greeted by a salvo of applause.

A first entrance unannounced is rarely seen upon the modern stage. Shakespeare's King John opens very simply. The stage direction reads, "Enter King John, Queen Elinor, Pembroke, Essex, Salisbury and others, with Chatillon"; and then the king speaks the opening line of the play. Yet when Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree revived this drama at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1899, he devised an elaborate opening to give a climacteric effect to the entrance of the king. The curtain rose upon a vaulted room of state, impressive in its bare magnificence. A throne was set upon a dais to the left, and several noblemen in splendid costumes were lingering about the room. At the back was a Norman corridor approached by a flight of lofty steps which led upward from the level of the stage. There was a peal of trumpets from without, and soon to a stately music the royal guards marched upon the scene. They were followed by ladies with gorgeous dresses sweeping away in long trains borne by pretty pages, and great lords walking with dignity to the music of the regal measure. At last Mr. Tree appeared and stood for a moment at the top of the steps, every inch a king. Then he strode majestically to the dais, ascended to the throne, and turning about with measured majesty spoke the first line of the play, some minutes after the raising of the curtain.

But not only in the details of a drama is the use of climax necessary. The whole action should sweep upward in intensity until the highest point is reached. In the Shakespearean drama the highest point came somewhat early in the piece, usually in the third act of the five that Shakespeare wrote; but in contemporary plays the climax is almost always placed at the end of the penultimate act,—the fourth act if there are five, and the third act if there are four. Nowadays the four-act form with a strong climax at the end of the third act seems to be most often used. This is the form, for instance, of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, of Mr. Jones's Mrs. Dane's Defense, and of Sir Arthur Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, and The Gay Lord Quex. Each begins with an act of exposition, followed by an act of rising interest. Then the whole action of the play rushes upward toward the curtain-fall of the third act, after which an act is used to bring the play to a terrible or a happy conclusion.

A less familiar means of emphasis is that which owes its origin to surprise. This expedient must be used with great delicacy, because a sudden and startling shock of surprise is likely to diseconomise the attention of the spectators and flurry them out of a sane conception of the scene. But if a moment of surprise has been carefully led up to by anticipatory suggestion, it may be used to throw into sharp and sudden relief an important point in the play. No one knows that Cyrano de Bergerac is on the stage until he rises in the midst of the crowd in the Hôtel de Bourgogne and shakes his cane at Montfleury. When Sir Herbert Tree played D'Artagnan in The Musketeers, he emerged suddenly in the midst of a scene from a suit of old armor standing monumental at the back of the stage,—a deus ex machina to dominate the situation. American playgoers will remember the disguise of Sherlock Holmes in the last act of Mr. Gillette's admirable melodrama. The appearance of the ghost in the closet scene of Hamlet is made emphatic by its unexpectedness.

But perhaps the most effective form of emphasis in the drama is emphasis by suspense. Wilkie Collins, who with all his faults as a critic of life remains the most skilful maker of plots in English fiction, used to say that the secret of holding the attention of one's readers lay in the ability to do three things: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em weep; make 'em wait." There is no use in making an audience wait, however, unless you first give them an inkling of what they are waiting for. The dramatist must play with his spectators as we play with a kitten when we trail a ball of yarn before its eyes, only to snatch it away just as the kitten leaps for it.

This method of emphasising by suspense gives force to what are known technically as the scènes à faire of a drama. A scène à faire—the phrase was devised by Francisque Sarcey—is a scene late in a play that is demanded absolutely by the previous progress of the plot. The audience knows that the scene must come sooner or later, and if the element of suspense be ably managed, is made to long for it some time before it comes. In Hamlet, for instance, the killing of the king by the hero is of course a scène à faire. The audience knows before the first act is over that such a scene is surely coming. When the king is caught praying in his closet and Hamlet stands over him with naked sword, the spectators think at last that the scène à faire has arrived; but Shakespeare "makes 'em wait" for two acts more, until the very ending of the play.

In comedy the commonest scènes à faire are love scenes that the audience anticipates and longs to see. Perhaps the young folks are frequently on the stage, but the desired scene is prevented by the presence of other characters. Only after many movements are the lovers left alone; and when at last the pretty moment comes, the audience glows with long-awaited enjoyment.

It is always dangerous for a dramatist to omit a scène à faire,—to raise in the minds of his audience an expectation that is never satisfied. Sheridan did this in The School for Scandal when he failed to introduce a love scene between Charles and Maria, and Mr. Jones did it in Whitewashing Julia when he made the audience expect throughout the play a revelation of the truth about the puff-box and then left them disappointed in the end. But these cases are exceptional. In general it may be said that an unsatisfied suspense is no suspense at all.

One of the most effective instances of suspense in the modern drama is offered in the opening of John Gabriel Borkman, one of Ibsen's later plays. Many years before the drama opens, the hero has been sent to jail for misusing the funds of a bank of which he was director. After five years of imprisonment, he has been released, eight years before the opening of the play. During these eight years, he has lived alone in the great gallery of his house, never going forth even in the dark of night, and seeing only two people who come to call upon him. One of these, a young girl, sometimes plays for him on the piano while he paces moodily up and down the gallery. These facts are expounded to the audience in a dialogue between Mrs. Borkman and her sister that takes place in a lower room below Borkman's quarters; and all the while, in the pauses of the conversation, the hero is heard walking overhead, pacing incessantly up and down. As the act advances, the audience expects at any moment that the hero will appear. The front door is thrown open; two minor characters enter; and still Borkman is heard walking up and down. There is more talk about him on the stage; the act is far advanced, and soon it seems that he must show himself. From the upper room is heard the music of the Dance of Death that his young girl friend is playing for him. Now to the dismal measures of the dance the dialogue on the stage swells to a climax. Borkman is still heard pacing in the gallery. And the curtain falls. Ten minutes later the raising of the curtain discloses John Gabriel Borkman standing with his hands behind his back, looking at the girl who has been playing for him. The moment is trebly emphatic,—by position at the opening of an act, by surprise, and most of all by suspense. When the hero is at last discovered, the audience looks at him.

Of course there are many minor means of emphasis in the theatre, but most of these are artificial and mechanical. The proverbial lime-light is one of the most effective. The intensity of the dream scene in Sir Henry Irving's performance of The Bells was due largely to the way in which the single figure of Mathias was silhouetted by a ray of light against a shadowy and inscrutable background ominous with voices.

In this materialistic age, actors even resort to blandishments of costume to give their parts a special emphasis. Our leading ladies are more richly clad than the minor members of their companies. Even the great Mansfield resorted in his performance of Brutus to the indefensible expedient of changing his costume act by act and dressing always in exquisite and subtle colors, while the other Romans, Cassius included, wore the same togas of unaffected white throughout the play. This was a fault in emphasis.

A novel and interesting device of emphasis in stage-direction was introduced by Mr. Forbes-Robertson in his production of The Passing of the Third Floor Back. This dramatic parable by Mr. Jerome K. Jerome deals with the moral regeneration of eleven people, who are living in a Bloomsbury boarding-house, through the personal influence of a Passer-by, who is the Spirit of Love incarnate; and this effect is accomplished in a succession of dialogues, in which the Stranger talks at length with one boarder after another. It is necessary, for reasons of reality, that in each of the dialogues the Passer-by and his interlocutor should be seated at their ease. It is also necessary, for reasons of effectiveness in presentation, that the faces of both parties to the conversation should be kept clearly visible to the audience. In actual life, the two people would most naturally sit before a fire; but if a fireplace should be set in either the right or the left wall of the stage and two actors should be seated in front of it, the face of one of them would be obscured from the audience. The producer therefore adopted the expedient of imagining a fireplace in the fourth wall of the room,—the wall that is supposed to stretch across the stage at the line of the footlights. A red-glow from the central lamps of the string of footlights was cast up over a brass railing such as usually bounds a hearth, and behind this, far forward in the direct centre of the stage, two chairs were drawn up for the use of the actors. The right wall showed a window opening on the street, the rear wall a door opening on an entrance hall, and the left wall a door opening on a room adjacent; and in none of these could the fireplace have been logically set. The unusual device of stage-direction, therefore, contributed to the verisimilitude of the set as well as to the convenience of the action. The experiment was successful for the purposes of this particular piece; it did not seem to disrupt the attention of the audience; and the question, therefore, is suggested whether it might not, in many other plays, be advantageous to make imaginary use of the invisible fourth wall.

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