(last edited September 23, 2008)

William Archer/Blind Alley Themes And Others

Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer (1912)







  • CHAPTER XX Blind-Alley Themes and Others



A blind-alley theme, as its name imports, is one from which there is no exit. It is a problem incapable of solution, or, rather, of which all possible solutions are equally unsatisfactory and undesirable. The playwright cannot too soon make sure that he has not strayed into such a no-thoroughfare. Whether an end be comic or tragic, romantic or ironic, happy or disastrous, it should satisfy something within us -- our sense of truth, or of beauty, or of sublimity, or of justice, or of humour, or, at the least or lowest, our cynical sense of the baseness of human nature, and the vanity of human aspirations. But a play which satisfies neither our higher nor our lower instincts, baffles our sympathies, and leaves our desires at fault between equally inacceptable alternatives -- such a play, whatever beauties of detail it may possess, is a weariness of the spirit, and an artistic blunder.

There are in literature two conspicuous examples of the blind-alley theme -- two famous plays, wherein two heroines are placed in somewhat similar dilemmas, which merely paralyse our sympathies and inhibit our moral judgment. The first of these is Measure for Measure. If ever there was an insoluble problem in casuistry, it is that which Shakespeare has here chosen to present to us. Isabella is forced to choose between what we can only describe as two detestable evils. If she resists Angelo, and lets her brother die, she recoils from an act of self-sacrifice; and, although we may coldly approve, we cannot admire or take pleasure in her action. If, on the other hand, she determines at all costs to save her brother's life, her sacrifice is a thing from which we want only to avert the mind: it belongs to the region of what Aristotle calls to miaron, the odious and intolerable. Shakespeare, indeed, confesses the problem insoluble in the fact that he leaves it unsolved -- evading it by means of a mediaeval trick. But where, then, was the use of presenting it? What is the artistic profit of letting the imagination play around a problem which merely baffles and repels it? Sardou, indeed, presented the same problem, not as the theme of a whole play, but only of a single act; and he solved it by making Floria Tosca kill Scarpia. This is a solution which, at any rate, satisfies our craving for crude justice, and is melodramatically effective. Shakespeare probably ignored it, partly because it was not in his sources, partly because, for some obscure reason, he supposed himself to be writing a comedy. The result is that, though the play contains some wonderful poetry, and has been from time to time revived, it has never taken any real hold upon popular esteem.

The second glaring instance of a blind-alley theme is that of Monna Vanna. We have all of us, I suppose, stumbled, either as actors or onlookers, into painful situations, which not even a miracle of tact could possibly save. As a rule, of course, they are comic, and the agony they cause may find a safety-valve in laughter. But sometimes there occurs some detestable incident, over which it is equally impossible to laugh and to weep. The wisest words, the most graceful acts, are of no avail. One longs only to sink into the earth, or vanish into thin air. Such a situation, on the largest possible scale, is that presented in Monna Vanna. It differs from that of Measure for Measure in the fact that there can be no doubt as to the moral aspect of the case. It is quite clear that Giovanna ought to sacrifice herself to save, not one puling Claudio, but a whole city full of men, women, and children. What she does is absolutely right; but the conjuncture is none the less a grotesque and detestable one, which ought to be talked about and thought about as little as possible. Every word that is uttered is a failure in tact. Guido, the husband, behaves, in the first act, with a violent egoism, which is certainly lacking in dignity; but will any one tell me what would be a dignified course for him to pursue under the circumstances? The sage old Marco, too -- that fifteenth-century Renan -- flounders just as painfully as the hot-headed Guido. It is the fatality of the case that "he cannot open his mouth without putting his foot in it"; and a theme which exposes a well-meaning old gentleman to this painful necessity is one by all means to be avoided. The fact that it is a false alarm, and that there is no rational explanation for Prinzivalle's wanton insult to a woman whom he reverently idolizes, in no way makes matters better.1 Not the least grotesque thing in the play is Giovanna's expectation that Guido will receive Prinzivalle with open arms because he has -- changed his mind. We can feel neither approval nor disapproval, sympathy nor antipathy, in such a deplorable conjunction of circumstances. All we wish is that we had not been called upon to contemplate it.2 Maeterlinck, like Shakespeare, was simply dallying with the idea of a squalid heroism -- so squalid, indeed, that neither he nor his predecessor had the courage to carry it through.

Pray observe that the defect of these two themes is not merely that they are "unpleasant." It is that there is no possible way out of them which is not worse than unpleasant: humiliating, and distressing. Let the playwright, then, before embarking on a theme, make sure that he has some sort of satisfaction to offer us at the end, if it be only the pessimistic pleasure of realizing some part of "the bitter, old and wrinkled truth" about life. The crimes of destiny there is some profit in contemplating; but its stupid vulgarities minister neither to profit nor delight.

* * * * *

It may not be superfluous to give at this point a little list of subjects which, though not blind-alley themes, are equally to be avoided. Some of them, indeed, are the reverse of blind-alley themes, their drawback lying in the fact that the way out of them is too tediously apparent.

At the head of this list I would place what may be called the "white marriage" theme: not because it is ineffective, but because its effectiveness is very cheap and has been sadly overdone. It occurs in two varieties: either a proud but penniless damsel is married to a wealthy parvenu, or a woman of culture and refinement is married to a "rough diamond." In both cases the action consists of the transformation of a nominal into a real marriage; and it is almost impossible, in these days, to lend any novelty to the process. In the good old Lady of Lyons the theme was decked in trappings of romantic absurdity, which somehow harmonized with it. One could hear in it a far-off echo of revolutionary rodomontade. The social aspect of the matter was emphasized, and the satire on middle-class snobbery was cruelly effective. The personal aspect, on the other hand -- the unfulfilment of the nominal marriage -- was lightly and discreetly handled, according to early-Victorian convention. In later days -- from the time of M. George Ohnet's Maître de Forges onwards -- this is the aspect on which playwrights have preferred to dwell. Usually, the theme shades off into the almost equally hackneyed Still Waters Run Deep theme; for there is apt to be an aristocratic lover whom the unpolished but formidable husband threatens to shoot or horsewhip, and thereby overcomes the last remnant of repugnance in the breast of his haughty spouse. In The Ironmaster the lover was called the Duc de Bligny, or, more commonly, the Dook de Bleeny; but he has appeared under many aliases. In the chief American version of the theme, Mr. Vaughn Moody's Great Divide, the lover is dispensed with altogether, being inconsistent, no doubt, with the austere manners of Milford Corners, Mass. In one of the recent French versions, on the other hand -- M. Bernstein's Samson -- the aristocratic lover is almost as important a character as the virile, masterful, plebeian husband. It appears from this survey -- which might be largely extended -- that there are several ways of handling the theme; but there is no way of renewing and deconventionalizing it. No doubt it has a long life before it on the plane of popular melodrama, but scarcely, one hopes, on any higher plane.

Another theme which ought to be relegated to the theatrical lumber-room is that of patient, inveterate revenge. This form of vindictiveness is, from a dramatic point of view, an outworn passion. It is too obviously irrational and anti-social to pass muster in modern costume. The actual vendetta may possibly survive in some semi-barbarous regions, and Grangerfords and Shepherdsons (as in Mark Twain's immortal romance) may still be shooting each other at sight. But these things are relics of the past; they do not belong to the normal, typical life of our time. It is useless to say that human nature is the same in all ages. That is one of the facile axioms of psychological incompetence. Far be it from me to deny that malice, hatred, spite, and the spirit of retaliation are, and will be until the millennium, among the most active forces in human nature. But most people are coming to recognize that life is too short for deliberate, elaborate, cold-drawn revenge. They will hit back when they conveniently can; they will cherish for half a lifetime a passive, an obstructive, ill-will; they will even await for years an opportunity of "getting their knife into" an enemy. But they have grown chary of "cutting off their nose to spite their face"; they will very rarely sacrifice their own comfort in life to the mere joy of protracted, elaborate reprisals. Vitriol and the revolver -- an outburst of rage, culminating in a "short, sharp shock" -- these belong, if you will, to modern life. But long-drawn, unhasting, unresting machination, with no end in view beyond an ultimate unmasking, a turn of the tables -- in a word, a strong situation -- this, I take it, belongs to a phase of existence more leisurely than ours. There is no room in our crowded century for such large and sustained passions. One could mention plays -- but they are happily forgotten -- in which retribution was delayed for some thirty or forty years, during which the unconscious object of it enjoyed a happy and prosperous existence. These, no doubt, are extreme instances; but cold-storage revenge, as a whole, ought to be as rare on the stage as it is in real life. The serious playwright will do well to leave it to the melodramatists.

A third theme to be handled with the greatest caution, if at all, is that of heroic self-sacrifice. Not that self-sacrifice, like revenge, is an outworn passion. It still rages in daily life; but no audience of average intelligence will to-day accept it with the uncritical admiration which it used to excite in the sentimental dramas of last century. Even then -- even in 1869 -- Meilhac and Halévy, in their ever-memorable Froufrou, showed what disasters often result from it; but it retained its prestige with the average playwright -- and with some who were above the average -- for many a day after that. I can recall a play, by a living English author, in which a Colonel in the Indian Army pleaded guilty to a damning charge of cowardice rather than allow a lady whom he chivalrously adored to learn that it was her husband who was the real coward and traitor. He knew that the lady detested her husband; he knew that they had no children to suffer by the husband's disgrace; he knew that there was a quite probable way by which he might have cleared his own character without casting any imputation on the other man. But in a sheer frenzy of self-sacrifice he blasted his own career, and thereby inflicted far greater pain upon the woman he loved than if he had told the truth or suffered it to be told. And twenty years afterwards, when the villain was dead, the hero still resolutely refused to clear his own character, lest the villain's widow should learn the truth about her wholly unlamented husband. This was an extravagant and childish case; but the superstition of heroic self-sacrifice still lingers in certain quarters, and cannot be too soon eradicated. I do not mean, of course, that self-sacrifice is never admirable, but only that it can no longer be accepted as a thing inherently noble, apart from its circumstances and its consequences. An excellent play might be written with the express design of placing the ethics of self-sacrifice in their true light. Perhaps the upshot might be the recognition of the simple principle that it is immoral to make a sacrifice which the person supposed to benefit by it has no right to accept.

Another motive against which it is perhaps not quite superfluous to warn the aspiring playwright is the "voix du sang." It is only a few years since this miraculous voice was heard speaking loud and long in His Majesty's Theatre, London, and in a play by a no less modern-minded author than the late Clyde Fitch. It was called The Last of the Dandies,3 and its hero was Count D'Orsay. At a given moment, D'Orsay learned that a young man known as Lord Raoul Ardale was in reality his son. Instantly the man of the world, the squire of dames, went off into a deliquium of tender emotion. For "my bo-ô-oy" he would do anything and everything. He would go down to Crockford's and win a pot of money to pay "my boy's" debts -- Fortune could not but be kind to a doting parent. In the beautiful simplicity of his soul, he looked forward with eager delight to telling Raoul that the mother he adored was no better than she should be, and that he had no right to his name or title. Not for a moment did he doubt that the young man would share his transports. When the mother opposed his purpose of betraying her secret, he wept with disappointment. "All day," he said, "I have been saying to myself: When that sun sets, I shall hear him say, 'Good-night, Father!'" He postulated in so many words the "voix du sang," trusting that, even if the revelation were not formally made, "Nature would send the boy some impulse" of filial affection. It is hard to believe -- but it is the fact -- that, well within the present century, such ingenuous nonsense as this was gravely presented to the public of a leading theatre, by an author of keen intelligence, who, but for an unhappy accident, would now be at the zenith of his career. There are few more foolish conventions than that of the "voix du sang." Perhaps, however, the rising generation of playwrights has more need to be warned against the opposite or Shawesque convention, that kinship utters itself mainly in wrangling and mutual dislike.

Among inherently feeble and greatly overdone expedients may be reckoned the oath or promise of secrecy, exacted for no sufficient reason, and kept in defiance of common sense and common humanity. Lord Windermere's conduct in Oscar Wilde's play is a case in point, though he has not even an oath to excuse his insensate secretiveness. A still clearer instance is afforded by Clyde Fitch's play The Girl with the Green Eyes. In other respects a very able play, it is vitiated by the certainty that Austin ought to have, and would have, told the truth ten times over, rather than subject his wife's jealous disposition to the strain he puts upon it.

It would not be difficult to prolong this catalogue of themes and motives that have come down in the world, and are no longer presentable in any society that pretends to intelligence. But it is needless to enter into further details. There is a general rule, of sovereign efficacy, for avoiding such anachronisms: "Go to life for your themes, and not to the theatre." Observe that rule, and you are safe. But it is easier said than done.

Footnote 1: I have good reason for believing that, in M. Maeterlinck's original scheme, Prinzivalle imposed no such humiliating condition. Giovanna went of her own motive to appeal to his clemency; and her success was so complete that her husband, on her return, could not believe that it had been won by avowable means. This is a really fine conception -- what a pity that the poet departed from it!

Footnote 2: Much has been made of the Censor's refusal to license Monna Vanna; but I think there is more to be said for his action in this than in many other cases. In those countries where the play has succeeded, I cannot but suspect that the appeal it made was not wholly to the higher instincts of the public.

Footnote 3: I am not sure what was the precise relationship of this play to the same author's Beau Brummel. D'Orsay's death scene was certainly a repetition of Brummel's.

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Edited September 23, 2008 (diff)