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an analysis of the play by Henry Becque

This analysis of The Crows was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 131-4.

The first act of The Crows is mainly exposition, and this is, with its long speeches, asides, and soliloquies, what we should term today very old fashioned ... yet in this particular play Becque is not concerned with the finer touches incident to the handling of his plot, his interest is centered in the characters, and admirable pictures he paints in this first rather clumsy act! Vigneron's opinions on music, and his wife's kindly patronage of Merckens -- she knows "he is only an artist, but doesn't want to make him feel his inferiority" -- are touches that "place" the bourgeois and his wife at a single stroke.

The death of Vigneron, announced just as the curtain falls on the first act, is a little unprepared for, but the author wished it to shock his audience. This is also merely exposition, in that it is preparation for the important business of the play, which has not yet begun; the play does not properly begin until the beginning of the second act. As a matter of fact, the whole first act could be put into a page or two of exposition and placed at the beginning of what is now the second. But Becque, knowing what he was about, wished to prepare the "milieu" with all possible care, and there is little question that the method he adopted was the best.

There is one striking difference in the manner of treatment between this play and what is most representative of the French drama [that would follow]. Such playwrights as Lavedan, Donnay, and Capus are "finished" writers, as to style and construction; Becque is brutal and direct, unpolished, and since the people he for the most part portrays are not in "society," they are frequently more life-like than if they were.

The transition from scene to scene is abrupt, especially in the first act, too abrupt to give the illusion even of that rhythm of life which is so great an asset in all representations of life. [In only a few pages] there are parts of three distinct episodes, and yet there are no modulation, no blending, no "bridging sections." More skilled, though perhaps less inspired dramatists, would have welded these incidents, blended them into a harmonious section of transition: Donnay has done this with signal success in most of his plays, in La Douloureuse repeatedly.

The second act is typical of Becque; although it shows the influence of Molière, it has a savage note of satire, and a brusque and peremptory movement all its own. The three "crows" scene is one of the most bitterly ironical in the realm of modern drama. After reading this act, one is led to believe that no other than the uncouth and unrhythmical treatment employed by Becque could be better adapted to the subject-matter. The act is that of a cynical Molière.

It is in the third act that we find a good deal of this sort of material that was developed later by Hervieu and Brieux. Becque throws out a suggestion -- the injustice of the law and its abuse -- and Hervieu later develops it in The Nippers (Les Tenailles); or he shows the impossibility of an unmarried woman's making an honest living, and Brieux writes Blanchette and The Independent Woman (La Femme Seule). This is what the critics mean when they speak of The Crows as being the Bible of [those Naturalists who followed Becque.]

The play has what is known as an unemphatic ending. Conventional plays of the school of Scribe and Sardou end with what in America is called a "punch," -- a "big" scene. This is effective, but the other method is no less so, merely because of its unobtrusiveness. Often, the unemphatic ending contains a sting, a satirical touch that sums up the act, or, in some instances, the theme of the entire play. Galsworthy's Strife is a case in question; Tench says to Harness, "D'you know sir -- these terms, they're the very same we drew up together, you and I, and put to both sides before the fight began? All this -- all this -- and -- what for?" and Harness answers, "That's where the fun comes in!" and the curtain drops. In Louis N. Parker's pseudo-historical comedy Disraeli, the first act is another example of the unemphatic ending. This is quite a common practice nowadays, and the reason for it is chiefly that it heightens the illusion. In life, the exciting is mingled with the commonplace, and one of the most interesting and dramatic things in life is the strange contrast between the sublime and the commonplace, between the tragic and the comic. Therefore, in place of ending his act or his play with a scene of great tension or high emotion, the dramatist seeks to reproduce parts of life, makes a still more lifelike and exciting scene, and places one of these contrasted moments at one of the most critical points of his act or play: the last.

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