This analysis of The Silver King was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 36-39.
The Silver King was declared by William Archer to be "quite the best of modern English melodramas." Many thousands of performances all over the Continent, in America, South Africa, and Australia [among others], have rendered the play celebrated. This universal appeal rests in the simplicity, sincerity, interest in the plot, and to a certain extent in the sympathetic characters, and above all, in the authors' grasp of the story, and their skill in conducting it from first to last without hesitation.
Melodrama as distinguished from tragedy is that form of drama in which the story is of more importance than the personages who are in it: the audience will remember the plot, the incidents, the big scenes in The Silver King longer than it will the characteristics of Denver. In Hamlet, on the other hand, it will discuss and ponder over Hamlet's character long after it has forgotten the story and incidents of the Prince of Denmark. The writer of melodrama invents a frame for his characters, the writer of tragedy will conceive a human being and allow a framework to form itself about him, imposing only such situations as will reveal the inmost soul of that character, and hold the interst of the audience at the same time. Briefly, the hero in tragedy, because he is as he is, brings down the tragedy upon himself, the hero in melodrama merely moves hither and thither until at last the author wills that he fall into the heroine's arms at the final curtain, and the villain be foiled, by fair means or foul.
Distinguish the elements of melodrama in The Silver King. In exactly what way does the author dictate the actions of the various personages? Are there any elements of true tragedy in the play? Of serious drama -- drama in the sense that Pinero's Iris is drama?
It will be observed that The Silver King is divided into seventeen scenes. Why is this? Does it tend to destroy the unity of the acts which are thus divided, or of the entire play? Or is it a confession of weakness on the part of the dramatists?
The essential difference between melodrama and tragedy -- or a serious play of any kind -- is exemplified in the last scene of the first act. Since in the former the dramatist directs the course of events, and the hero follows in their wake, chance plays an important part; but in the latter, in order that the audience may believe and eventually see that the hero's weakness or, it may be, strength, combined often with external circumstances, causes his downfall, nothing must be left to chance. His downfall must seem inevitable. In the third scene of the first act of The Silver King, Denver happens to arrive at Ware's home, at the precise moment when it is being robbed; Ware enters, the burglar shoots him, after applying the chloroform pad to Denver, across whose prostrate form he has stumbled, and the burglars leave. As Denver awakes to consciousness, he speaks the following soliloquy:
"... Where's my hat? (Gets up, takes candle, staggers, steadies himself, comes round table, sees Ware.) What's that? It's Geoffrey Ware! What's he doing here! Get up, will you? (Kneels down.) Ah, what's this? Blood! He's shot! My God, I've murdered him! No! No! Let me think. What happened? Ah yes, I remember now -- I came in at the door, he sprang at me and then we struggled. (Looking at revolver) My revolver. -- One barrel fired -- I've murdered him. No, he's not dead. Geoffrey Ware! Is he dead? (Eagerly feeling Ware's pulse) No, it doesn't beat. (Tears down Ware's waistcoat and shirt, puts his ear over Ware's heart.) No, no, quite still, quite still. He's dead! Dead! Dead! Oh, I've killed him -- I've killed him. . . ."
Although there is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Denver, the drunkard, believes himself to be the murderer of Ware, the various coincidences leading up to this scene, and the fact that Denver's tragedy hinges on a mistake, is too improbable for a serious play -- i.e., for any play not a melodrama or a farce. Tragedy demands that there be no accident, no coincidence, to hasten the end of the hero: each event in his downward path must be brought about either through his own fault, or through the implacable laws of fate. Hamlet is the victim of his own weakness, Romeo and Juliet are the victims of fate and circumstance over which they have no control. Denver is the victim of circumstances controlled by the dramatist.
Melodrama is a flexible form, yet in its numerous manifestations there are constantly recurring character-types; among these are the villain, hero, and heroine. The villain may be thought of as the force at variance with the hero and the heroine. Before the play reaches the end, the villain must be overpowered through the agency of the hero, who must be united with the heroine.
In The Silver King, who is the hero? The heroine? The villain? What is the struggle between the opposing forces? At what precise point does the decisive struggle take place? How does the hero overcome the villain? Does the heroine help to precipitate the catastrophe?
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