Sunday, April 24, 2016


I'll go anywhere I can to learn about writing, and tonight I was drawn to a play by someone I'd not read before: Henry Arthur Jones.

I was prompted by a statement of William Archer's, in his book, Play-Making, A Manual of Craftsmanship (1912):

"The first three acts of [Mrs Dane's Defence] may be cited as an excellent example of dexterous preparation and development. Our interest in the sequence of events is aroused, sustained, and worked up to a high tension with consummate skill. There is no feverish overcrowding of incident.... The action moves onwards, unhasting, unresting, and the finger-posts [the foreshadowing details] are placed just where they are wanted."

Out of curiosity, I read the play, and it was indeed well-handled. It held my attention from the first page to the last, which is more than I can say for too much of what I read these days, or try to read.

Beyond the craftsmanship, though, what struck me was the writer's attitude towards the conventional sexual morality of his day (1905). This play about a "fallen woman" does not lack compassion, but it does lack rebellion, or even perspective on the social and political nature of morality:

MRS. DANE: Good-bye, Sir Daniel. Don't you think the world is very hard on a woman?

SIR DANIEL: It isn't the world that's hard. It isn't men and women. Am I hard ? Call on me at any time, and you shall find me the truest friend to you and yours. Is Lady Eastney hard? She has been fighting all the week to save you.

MRS. DANE: Then who is it, what is it, drives me out?

SIR DANIEL: The law, the hard law that we didn't make, that we would break if we could, for we are all sinners at heart -- the law that is above us all, made for us all, that we can't escape from, that we must keep or perish.

I can just imagine Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, or Henrik Ibsen raising their eyebrows at this idea of "the hard law from above." But it does make me realize that almost every writer I've taken to heart over the decades has been oppositional, individualistic, skeptical, or humane enough to pick a fight with conventional ideas from his or her own time, to the point where I expect this opposition automatically.

I'm glad that I read Mrs. Dane's Defence, but not only because it's a well-crafted play; it also reminded me that rebellion, in art as in life, is exceptional, never the norm.

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