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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Happy Ending in the Theatre
by Hamilton, Clayton


The question whether or not a given play should have a so-called happy ending is one that requires more thorough consideration than is usually accorded to it. It is nearly always discussed from one point of view, and one only,—that of the box-office; but the experience of ages goes to show that it cannot rightly be decided, even as a matter of business expediency, without being considered also from two other points of view,—that of art, and that of human interest. For in the long run, the plays that pay the best are those in which a self-respecting art is employed to satisfy the human longing of the audience.

When we look at the matter from the point of view of art, we notice first of all that in any question of an ending, whether happy or unhappy, art is doomed to satisfy itself and is denied the recourse of an appeal to nature. Life itself presents a continuous sequence of causation, stretching on; and nature abhors an ending as it abhors a vacuum. If experience teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that nothing in life is terminal, nothing is conclusive. Marriage is not an end, as we presume in books; but rather a beginning. Not even death is final. We find our graves not in the ground but in the hearts of our survivors, and our slightest actions vibrate in ever-widening circles through incalculable time. Any end, therefore, to a novel or a play, must be in the nature of an artifice; and an ending must be planned not in accordance with life, which is lawless and illogical, but in accordance with art, whose soul is harmony. It must be a strictly logical result of all that has preceded it. Having begun with a certain intention, the true artist must complete his pattern, in accordance with laws more rigid than those of life; and he must not disrupt his design by an illogical intervention of the long arm of coincidence. Stevenson has stated this point in a letter to Mr. Sidney Colvin: "Make another end to it? Ah, yes, but that's not the way I write; the whole tale is implied; I never use an effect when I can help it, unless it prepares the effects that are to follow; that's what a story consists in. To make another end, that is to make the beginning all wrong." In this passage the whole question is considered merely from the point of view of art. It is the only point of view which is valid for the novelist; for him the question is comparatively simple, and Stevenson's answer, emphatic as it is, may be accepted as final. But the dramatist has yet another factor to consider,—the factor of his audience.

The drama is a more popular art than the novel, in the sense that it makes its appeal not to the individual but to the populace. It sets a contest of human wills before a multitude gathered together for the purpose of witnessing the struggle; and it must rely for its interest largely upon the crowd's instinctive sense of partisanship. As Marlowe said, in Hero and Leander,—
When two are stripped, long e'er the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
The audience takes sides with certain characters against certain others; and in most cases it is better pleased if the play ends in a victory for the characters it favors. The question therefore arises whether the dramatist is not justified in cogging the dice of chance and intervening arbitrarily to insure a happy outcome to the action, even though that outcome violate the rigid logic of the art of narrative. This is a very important question; and it must not be answered dogmatically. It is safest, without arguing ex cathedra, to accept the answer of the very greatest dramatists. Their practice goes to show that such a violation of the strict logic of art is justifiable in comedy, but is not justifiable in what we may broadly call the serious drama. Molière, for instance, nearly always gave an arbitrary happy ending to his comedies. Frequently, in the last act, he introduced a long lost uncle, who arrived upon the scene just in time to endow the hero and heroine with a fortune and to say "Bless you, my children!" as the curtain fell. Molière evidently took the attitude that since any ending whatsoever must be in the nature of an artifice, and contrary to the laws of life, he might as well falsify upon the pleasant side and send his auditors happy to their homes. Shakespeare took the same attitude in many comedies, of which As You Like It may be chosen as an illustration. The sudden reform of Oliver and the tardy repentance of the usurping duke are both untrue to life and illogical as art; but Shakespeare decided to throw probability and logic to the winds in order to close his comedy with a general feeling of good-will. But this easy answer to the question cannot be accepted in the case of the serious drama; for—and this is a point that is very often missed—in proportion as the dramatic struggle becomes more vital and momentous, the audience demands more and more that it shall be fought out fairly, and that even the characters it favors shall receive no undeserved assistance from the dramatist. This instinct of the crowd—the instinct by which its demand for fairness is proportioned to the importance of the struggle—may be studied by any follower of professional base-ball. The spectators at a ball-game are violently partisan and always want the home team to win. In any unimportant game—if the opposing teams, for instance, have no chance to win the pennant—the crowd is glad of any questionable decision by the umpires that favors the home team. But in any game in which the pennant is at stake, a false or bad decision, even though it be rendered in favor of the home team, will be received with hoots of disapproval. The crowd feels, in such a case, that it cannot fully enjoy the sense of victory unless the victory be fairly won. For the same reason, when any important play which sets out to end unhappily is given a sudden twist which brings about an arbitrary happy ending, the audience is likely to be displeased. And there is yet another reason for this displeasure. An audience may enjoy both farce and comedy without believing them; but it cannot fully enjoy a serious play unless it believes the story. In the serious drama, an ending, to be enjoyable, must be credible; in other words, it must, for the sake of human interest, satisfy the strict logic of art. We arrive, therefore, at the paradox that although, in the final act, the comic dramatist may achieve popularity by renouncing the laws of art, the serious dramatist can achieve popularity only by adhering rigidly to a pattern of artistic truth.

This is a point that is rarely understood by people who look at the general question from the point of view of the box-office; they seldom appreciate the fact that a serious play which logically demands an unhappy ending will make more money if it is planned in accordance with the sternest laws of art than if it is given an arbitrary happy ending in which the audience cannot easily believe. The public wants to be pleased, but it wants even more to be satisfied. In the early eighteenth century both King Lear and Romeo and Juliet were played with fabricated happy endings; but the history of these plays, before and after, proves that the alteration, considered solely from the business standpoint, was an error. And yet, after all these centuries of experience, our modern managers still remain afraid of serious plays which lead logically to unhappy terminations, and, because of the power of their position, exercise an influence over writers for the stage which is detrimental to art and even contrary to the demands of human interest.

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