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We must not forget, of course, that the accepted dramatic formula or ideal of that age was widely different from that which is now dominant. Unity of action, or at any rate of theme, is to our mind indispensable in any play which pretends to rank as a work of art.

The dramatist seizes upon a crisis in the lives of his characters, states its conditions, and follows its evolution to an end, comic or tragic, ironic or sentimental, as the case may be. We start from a state of calm which contains in it the elements of a dramatic conflict; we see these elements rush together and effervesce; and we watch the effervescence die back again into calm, whether it be that of triumph or disaster, of serenity or despair. No dramatist of the smallest skill will introduce a character that is wholly unnecessary to the advancement of the action, or a conversation that has no bearing on the theme. In a second-rate order of plays, indeed, a certain amount of “comic” (or sentimental)“relief” may be admitted; but even if, for instance, a pair of young lovers is suffered to lighten the gloom of a tragic story, an effort is always made to weave them into the main fabric and give them an efficient part in it. This conception of a play as the logical working-out of a given subject has had for its necessary consequence the total abandonment of the old five-act convention. The main crisis of which the action consists falls naturally and almost inevitably into a series of sub-crises, to each of which an act is devoted. Five acts are still the limit which can scarcely be exceeded in the three hours to which a representation is confined; but a four-act distribution of the subject is far commoner, while three acts - a beginning, middle, and end –


may almost be called the normal and logical modern form.

In Congreve's day, on the other hand, the dramatist's problem was, not to give his action an organic unity, but to fill a predetermined mould, so large that one action seldom or never sufficed for it. The underplot, therefore, was an established institution; and sometimes a play would consist of two or three loosely interwoven actions, so nearly equal in extent and importance that it was hard to say which was the main plot and which the underplots. The result of this mingling of heterogeneous matters was to render doubly difficult the manipulation of a complex intrigue. Audiences, indeed, were not so exacting on the score of probability as they now are. But though they would accept a good deal that we should now reject as extravagant, they wanted to understand what they were accepting; and that they could not do when a chain of events demanding close and continuous attention was being constantly interrupted by the humours and intrigues of subsidiary characters. Both from internal and external evidence, we can see that Congreve's keen intellect was dissatisfied with the loosely-knit patchwork play of the period. In the preface to The Double-Dealer he says: “I made the plot as strong as I could, because it was single; and I made it single, because I would avoid confusion, and was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama.” In the preface to The Way of the World,

' again, he complains of the spectators “who come with expectation to laugh at the last act of a play, and are better entertained with two or three unseasonable jests, than with the artful solution of the fable.These remarks show a technical ideal far in advance of his time; but whenever he essayed to realize that ideal, he met with misfortune; partly because his manipulative skill was inadequate to the tasks he set himself, partly because the five-act form, forbidding continuity and concentration, unduly handicapped what skill he possessed.

Such, at least, is my solution of the seeming paradox presented by the success of his less elaborate, and the comparative failure of his more elaborate, comedies. Let us look a little more closely into their texture.

In The Old Bachelor we have three or four concurrent plots, which become interwoven, indeed, at the end, but up to that point present no complexity. The Bellmour-Fondlewife-Lætitia plot may at once be set aside as independent of all the others. It is the traditional farce of the citizen befooled by the courtier, a legacy from Jacobean times, a piece of conventional, imitative cynicism, characteristic of the boy beginner. It is loosely attached to the main action at the beginning and at the end: at the beginning, by the fact that Vainlove illustrates his character by handing on the adventure to Bellmour; at the end, by the chance that Bellmour's adoption of the clerical habit suggests the device of the mock-marriage between Heartwell and Sylvia. Otherwise the episode might be bodily lifted out of the play, and presented as what we should now call a one-act curtain-raiser.

The Wittol-Bluffe-Sharper scenes another commonplace of the Jacobean stage, an interlude of what, in the days before the War, had been called coney-catching.” Wittol and Bluffe came in use

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ful in the last act as the victims of the masked-marriage hoax which was such a popular solution of the imbroglios of the period; but otherwise they too might have dropped out of the action and left no sensible gap.

Bellmour and Belinda, again, are mere foils to Vainlove and Araminta; their amorous bickerings could be suppressed without injury to the structure of the comedy. There remain, then, the HeartwellSylvia and Vainlove-Araminta episodes, loosely connected by the fact that Sylvia, in her jealousy, tries to make mischief between her seducer and his new flame. In neither of these episodes is there any complexity: they proceed side by side, simply and straightforwardly, until the last act is reached.

Then the mock-marriage of Heartwell and Sylvia, and the masked marriages of Sylvia and Lucy to Wittol and Bluffe, put a certain tax not only on the credulity of the audience but on its power of keeping clear the threads of an intricate series of deceptions. But this was a form of complexity to which the public was thoroughly inured; and the trick, from first to last, occupied only some ten or fifteen minutes, thus placing no strain upon the attention. The comedy ended in a burst of cynical merriment; and it is recorded that the successive unmasking of four beautiful women (Mrs. Leigh,' Mrs. Bracegirdle, Mrs. Mountford, and Mrs. Bowman) gave the audience such delight that they burst into a thunder of applause.

Here, then, was a play compounded of quite familiar elements, and attempting nothing in the least new or ambitious in technic. It was the reverse of "well-made”; it was a mere bundle of different ac-, tions without any necessary interdependence. But each of the actions was clear, spirited, and suited to the taste of the day; and the familiarity of the material was redeemed by the novel vivacity of the author's wit. No wonder the young playwright, said to be regarded by Dryden as the rising hope of the stage, was greeted with general acclaim.

1 Davies, who records the fact, made Mrs. Barry one of the four, and omitted Mrs. Leigh. But Mrs. Barry, who played Lætitia, was not “on” in the last act.

The character of his next play was as different as its fate; and the difference is so full of instruction, even for the modern playwright, that I must beg the reader's indulgence if I analyze The Double-Dealer at some length. This remarkable melodrama — for a comedy it

can scarcely be called — might serve as a typical specimen of an ill-made “well-made play”; or, in other words, a standing example of the dangers of misdirected ingenuity. Its title-character, Maskwell, the Double-Dealer, is its ruin. The incredible daring of his turpitude he shares with Iago and with a thousand villains of melodrama. But Iago's intrigues are perfectly clear and comprehensible; whereas Maskwell's are so involved and obscure that it is almost impossible to unravel their tangled skein. I propose, however, to make the attempt.

First, the reader (or the audience) has to master a complex set of relationships — always a defect in drama. Lord Touchwood, an elderly nobleman, has married the sister (the much younger sister, we must assume) of one Sir Paul Plyant. Sir Paul by his first wife has had a daughter named Cynthia, now grown up; and he has married a second wife, the Lady

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