This analysis of The Pretenders was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 44-7.
A Gauntlet is one of the most clearly defined examples of the thesis play. The author wishes to show that a woman has the right to demand the same prenuptial chastity from her fiancé as he demands of her; it is a plea for the abolition of the "double standard." The fault with most thesis plays is that the thesis occupies too prominent a place, and that violence is done to the plot and characters, owing to the fact that the author must first of all establish and prove his case, at the expense of verisimilitude. A Gauntlet is open to this criticism. If a dramatist wishes to make his play prove something, he should conceal any conscious effort in so doing, and "bury his tools" when through with them. This is precisely what Brieux has done in his finest thesis play, The Red Robe. The evils incident to obtaining advancement in the French courts are what the French dramatist wishes to expose, but his crushing indictment is not fully realized until after the close of the lay, for everything happens so naturally that the attention of the audience is not distracted from the story and the people who are so intimately bound up in it. The thesis grows gradually and inevitably out of the action, and this does not seem to be merely a means, but an end in itself.
A Gauntlet, being written primarily for the sake of the "lesson," is unlike the [plays of fellow Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen]. Ibsen always put into his writings an idea, but rarely does he allow us to see that he wrote a play for the idea itself. In A Gauntlet everything points toward and supports the central idea, every scene stands independently as some phase of the theme, or else prepares the way for such a scene. Bear these facts in mind as you read the play, and judge of its effectiveness, both as a piece of dramatic art and a thesis play.
A consideration of this work is rendered doubly interesting if the two versions are compared. The second act, as it was originally written, ends with Svava's throwing of the glove in Alf's face, and Christensen's declaration of war. This climax is good, and it occurs where we might expect it to occur: at the end of the last act but one. The last act has to do with the result of Svava's challenge, and ends with her reconciliation with Alf. This seems fairly reasonable and human, but Björnson's thesis suffers: if he wished to preach the doctrine of the single standard, he has weakened his argument by making his strong character destroy it. Feeling that this was a weakness, Björnson re-wrote the play, and made his thesis stronger; he closes the second act with Svava's enlightenment regarding her father's relations with Mrs. North. This is a sufficiently dramatic climax in itself, but in that it creates greater tension -- because it leaves the outcome more doubtful -- than the first version, it is superior. The last act, therefore, of the new version is much better than that of the old, as the audience eagerly awaits the "big scene" between Svava and Alf. The throwing of the gauntlet constitutes the end of the play, and we are no longer in doubt as to Svava's feelings and the author's ultimate intention. Now the climax of the earlier play serves as the catastrophe -- so called -- of the later. But notice a still more unusual feature: while the climax is effective in both versions, that of the first is the more so, but the catastrophe is comparatively weak; the climax in the second is adequate, and the catastrophe powerful and wholly convincing. As a rule, it is more difficult to sustain interest in the last act than in any other, so that, dramaturgically, the second version of this play is incomparably better than the original.
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