This analysis of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 14-18.
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray marked a decided step in advance of the drama of its day. To realize just how far in advance one must read some of its predecessors. One critic spoke of it as epoch-making, and William Archer, always reserved and careful in his judgments, disagreed with him only so far as to state that no single play could make that pretension, but that this one was a work "which Dumas might sign without blush." The admirable construction, deep insight, and philosophical import of the theme, if not the characters, make of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray one of the finest dramatic achievements of [its time].
The exposition has often been admired. Each step is prepared with the utmost skill, and the story of Aubrey's venture is unfolded before our eyes in a manner that is interesting and amusing. The first point to notice is that there is none of the obvious mannered conversation which is to be found in Sweet Lavender. Pinero has left behind him those threadbare devices which introduced the history of his characters in a few lines: "... I, Edmund Bulger, widower, have loved you, Mrs. Ruth Rolt, widow, ever since you fust set foot in the Temple, fifteen years ago, a-bearing your two-year-old baby in your arms, ma'am." But, in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, by means of an apparently casual conversation, taking place at a natural meeting of Aubrey's friends, his past, his intentions, the relationship among the men and their wives, -- all is made unmistakably clear.
If this exposition is in many ways admirable, and if The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was an important milestone technically, it is necessary to compare but one play of the past five years -- Galsworthy's Justice -- to realize the advance made since 1893. Or, turning to Pinero's own later work: The Thunderbolt, or Mid-Channel. In The Thunderbolt, the exposition is the more remarkable in that it not only seems casual, but inevitable. Mid-Channel, on the other hand, is conventional in its opening, but the exposition is briefer and more to the point than in the play now under discussion.
Compare the expositions in these three plays with that of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Galsworthy's play has scarcely any, but is one required? Could that of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray be summarily disposed of as is that of Mid-Channel?
Pinero always kept well abreast of the times in theatrical wares. A severe but usally just critic [P.P. Howe in Dramatic Portraits] said of him: "No other hand ... could supply so efficiently the actual demand. When in the fullness of time and honors, Sir Arthur Pinero has need of an epitaph, it may well be this: He kept the theaters open." Certain it is that his early plays were influenced by Robertson and Gilbert, that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and the half-dozen plays of its sort that followed, were more or less influenced by Ibsen, and the critic above quoted adds that "perhaps it would not have been possible ... to have achieved the first act of The Thunderbolt if the third act of The Voysey Inheritance had not shown him the way." Nevertheless Pinero, like Augustus Thomas, [was] quick to detect the trend of public thought and feeling, and no less alert to take advantage of it and write a "play of the hour."
This timeliness is perhaps one of the most important elements of successful plays. In 1893, Ibsen was a new name in England; his plays were beginning to be translated, discussed, produced. The Independent Theater, under J.T. Grein, had produced Ghosts in 1891, and invoked a storm of invective from the press; Bernard Shaw was hurling thunderbolts at the British public in the columns of the Saturday Review; Henry Arthur Jones was lecturing on the "Renascence of the Drama." It was the day of the New Woman. And Pinero wrote a powerful play around a woman with a past; five years previously, it is safe to say that the play would not have been successful. As it was, the time was ripe.
There is nothing reprehensible in the practice: the theater must attempt to treat of people, customs, and ideas of the day. In America it is indeniable that timeliness is carried to an extreme. After some sensational trial we may expect a welter of plays dealing with the subject, just as after the production of Brieux's Damaged Goods, a number of plays concerned more or less directly with the same theme, made their appearance. Let a play like The Yellow Jacket or Alias Jimmy Valentine enjoy a long run, and it is but a question of a few months before the market is likely to be glutted with Chinese and crook plays.
In his lecture on "R.L. Stevenson: the Dramatist," Pinero said: "What is dramatic talent? Is it not the power to project characters, and to cause them to tell an interesting story through the medium of dialogue? This is dramatic talent; and dramatic talent, if I may so express it, is the raw material of theatrical talent. Dramatic, like poetic talent is born, not made; if it is to achieve success on the stage, it must be developed into theatrical talent by hard study, and generally by long practice. For theatrical talent consists in the power of making your characters not only tell a story by means of dialogue, but to tell it in such skillfully devised form and order as shall, within the limits of an ordinary theatrical representation, give rise to the greatest possible amount of that peculiar kind of emotional effect the production of which is the one great function of the theater." Pinero is precisely the dramatist who developed his dramatic into a thoroughly theatrical talent, by "hard study" and by "long practice." The transition may be best observed by comparing the "dramatic" Sweet Lavender with the "theatrical" Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
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