The following analysis of Hyacinth Halvey was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 237-42.
In common with Clyde Fitch, Alfred Capus, and Sir Arthur Pinero, Augustus Thomas always kept abreast of the times in the matter of modes, customs, and ideas. Probably his early journalistic career taught him the value of being "alive," and he ever recognized the advantage of producing a play the basic idea of which [was] in the public mind. It is said that The Witching Hour was kept for ten years "until the time was opportune." Montrose J. Moses in his American Dramatist quotes Thomas as saying: "The Witching Hour is a seizure of the general attention that is given to telepathy and allied topics. And under all that, lies my own theory, expressed on more than one occasion, that the theater is a place for the visualizing of ideas -- that the theater is vital only when it is visualizing some idea then and at the time in the public mind. The theater is a vital part of everyday life; it is an institution, and as an institution it has a claim upon the popular attention principally in that fact. When it becomes a thing preservative, a museum for certain literary forms, or a laboratory for galvanizing archaic ideas, it is almost useless, and seldom successful as a business enterprise."
For a number of years Thomas refused to allow The Witching Hour to appear in print; apart from certain practical reasons, he justly feared that a vehicle intended for production on the stage by actors, supported by scenery and "props" and lights, in which there was no attempt at "galvanizing archaic ideas," would not well survive the ordeal of being read. Very often good dialogue will suffer when perused in the library -- dialogue that is interesting and effective on the boards; it is very doubtful whether George Cohan's Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford or Broadway Jones would be half so amusing in a book as they are in the theater. However, The Witching Hour may now be judged independently of the footlights. Few plays [of Thomas's day] sound so natural, so "everyday" as this. Note the very opening:
- JO: Massar Brookfield.
- JACK: Well, Jo?
- JO: Mr. Denning, sah.
- JACK: Ask Mr. Denning to come up.
- JO: Yes, sah.
- (Exit center. More talk and laughter, left.)
- (JACK enters left....)
- JACK: (at door) Lew! I say -- Lew -- you ladies excuse Mr. Ellinger a moment?
- HELEN, ALICE, VIOLA: (outside) -- Oh -- yes. Certainly.
Nothing could be more casual, yet there is an underlying art -- skilfully concealing itself -- which is typical of much of Thomas's best work. Rarely does he attempt to be "literary," often he tries to be the reverse, apparently through fear of being thought "literary." Compare this dialogue with that of Young Mrs. Winthrop and of The Liars.
Thomas wished to write a play about telepathic phenomena and superstition; and the exact form into which he was to cast his play must have suggested itself to him when he was thinking of the incidents which would illustrate his ideas. Since these situations would necessarily be of a startling and novel nature, it seemed inevitable that the play should fall into the category of melodrama. The data [on telepathy is] too scarce to allow us to accept as matters of course Justice Prentice's "guessing" the price of the Corot, or Clay's superstition about Tom's scarf-pin and the resultant murder. The melodramatic form was inevitable.
At what exact point in this first act are you aware that the play is to be a melodrama? What incident or incidents prove this?
The Witching Hour is thoroughly American in spirit: the good and bad qualities of American drama are easily distinguished from page to page. Generalizations in matters theatrical are especially fallible, yet it will not be amiss to say that the drama in the United States [of Thomas's day was] as a rule conventional, over-sentimental, puritanical in that it rarely [dared] go to the root of life and comment on it with fearless and outspoken sincerity; it [was], on the other hand, "live," moving, interesting as a transcript of the everyday externals of life. The dialogue [was] usually good, idiomatic, and clever, although it rarely [revealed] character. It [was] nearly always violent, extreme: melodrama and farce [seemed] to be the favorite forms, and happy endings [were] practically indispensable. The American dramatist [was] a sentimentalist, although he seldom [sentimentalized] over the deepest things in life -- as the Frenchmen [did] -- love-scenes [were] usually short and "snappy" - an American [disliked] showing his feelings -- while little children, old mothers, and "pals" in "crooked deals," [supplied] more sentimental material than half a dozen love-affairs to a Frenchman or a deserted mistress to Schnitzler.
Notice the first love-scene in The Witching Hour: the actual proposal and its casual announcement:
- CLAY: Always you when I think about a real house, you bet -- a house for me -- and you'll be there, won't you? (Takes her in his arms.)
- VIOLA: Will I?
- CLAY: Yes -- say, "I will."
- VIOLA: I will.
- (Re-enter Alice and Helen.)
- ALICE: (astonished) -- Viola!
- (Alice goes left.)
- CLAY: I've asked her -- mother.
- ALICE: Helen, you knew?
- HELEN: Yes.
- CLAY: (to Alice) -- And I askedk Jack, too.
- ALICE: You mean--
- CLAY: We're engaged -- if you say it's all right.
- ALICE: And you -- Viola?
- VIOLA: (nodding) -- Yes----
Here are the barest outlines; not a trace of passion, and what feeling there is must be expressed by the actors. How different from the long pages of Donnay's Lovers or Schnitzler's Liebelei! If the love-making of the average American on the stage [of this day was] strange, the other sort of sentimentalizing [was] none the less unaccountable. [Later in the play], where there should be none of the poetry and passion of youth, we find another proposal -- twenty years after the first -- where the lover appears to be retrospectively sentimental:
- JACK: Wouldn't it be a pretty finish if you took my hand and I could walk right up to the camera and say, "I told you so"--? You know I always felt that you were coming back.
- HELEN: Oh, did you?
- JACK: (playfully, and going right center) Had a candle burning in the window every night.
- HELEN: You're sure it wasn't a red light?
- JACK: (remonstrating) Dear Helen! have some poetry in your composition. Literally "red light," of course -- but the real flame was here -- (hand on breast) -- a flickering hope that somewhere -- somehow -- somewhen I should be at rest -- with the proud Helen that loved and -- rode away.
- HELEN: (almost accusingly) I -- believe -- you.
- JACK: Of course you believe me.
There are many episodes, incidents, and plots begun in the first act. Study this act carefully and trace each of the important references to superstition and telepathy, each of the "love-scenes," the murder, etc..., and notice how each is further developed in the play. Is the first act too crowded? What is its unity? Who is the villain?
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