The following analysis of The Cassilis Engagement was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 110-113.
The influence of Oscar Wilde is evident. Lady Remenham's "Engagements are such troublesome things. They sometimes even lead to marriage. But we'll hope it won't be as bad as that in this case," is decidedly reminiscent. The characters are mostly types; still, in most of Hankin's plays there is an effort to break away from the mere lay-figures of Wilde and infuse into them the breath of life. The prodigal in The Return of the Prodigal, Ethel and Mrs. Cassilis in the comedy under discussion, are human beings, even if Lady Rmenham, Mrs. Borridge, and Geoffrey are time-worn types.
Hankin has theorized on the writing of plays, and his words possess added interest and value in connection with the study of The Cassilis Engagement. He once said: "I select an episode in the life of one of my characters or a group of characters, when something of importance to their future has to be decided, and I ring up my curtain. Having shown how it was decided, and why it was decided, I ring it down again." This comedy is clear and unified -- quite in accordance with the dramatist's theory -- but it will be well to inquire into the exact methods whereby he attained the desired end.
What is the "episode" round which this play was built? Where is it first referred to -- that is, where is the theme announced? Is it made clear through a "raisonneur," or is it evolved in action or in apparently casual conversation? Are we asked to interest ourselves in a "character," or a "group of characters"? Which character, and which group of charactes?
Could the author have advantageously begun his play at an earlier or later time than he did? That is, was his curtain "rung up" at the most interesting and opportune moment of the episode?
How was the "something of importance to their future" decided? By what means has the dramatist worked out his stated central idea?
The "curtains" in this play deserve special attention: a crisp and pregnant phrase, an incident, a mysterious word -- each causes the audience to await impatiently the opening of the next act. Notice with what care, apparently artless, the first act is terminated. Mrs. Cassilis's "Marry her! -- Nonsense, my dear Margaret," instantly attracts our attention and directs our interest to the speaker. We wish to know precisely how Geoffrey and Ethel are to be "cured," and want to see how the (evidently) clever Mrs. Cassilis is to effect the cure. Plot interest, as distinguished from character interest, is here introduced.
In what way is the second act remarkable? The third?
It is as important to close a play without arousing further interest as to close each of the preceding acts in the reverse manner. There should be an air of finality which precludes further curiosity; we should have no definite wish to inquire into the future. To lead an audience to expect more, after the play is over, is as fatal as to deprive it of sufficient curiosity after the first act. The dramatist must know where to end his play. In a tragedy this particular point is not difficult to determine, for a tragedy usually ends in the death or failure of the protagonist. For centuries comedies have ended with the union of the lover and sweetheart, who had, during one, two, three, four, or five acts, been kept apart more or less skilfully by the hand of the dramatist. Of recent years, writers, even of comedy, have begun to discard the conventional notion that the united lovers married and lived happy ever after, and have sought a closer approximation to life. They have come to realize that, as Emile Faguet once remarked, the marriage is not the end but the beginning of trouble. To mention two random instances, Maurice Donnay's Lovers (Amants) and Henry Bataille's Poliche end with a scene where the lovers separate; they do this because only by an amicable breaking-off can they be assured of true and lasting happiness. Here the dramatists have repudiated marriage as the balm for wounded hearts.
Hankin disliked "happy endings." (See his article on this subject in the third volume of Dramatic Works.) Is the ending of The Cassilis Engagement satisfactory, psychologically and artistically?
Analyze the third act, and determine so far as possible, the following questions: How much of the story is carried on in pantomime through the stage-directions? Could, for example, the "Bye-play for Ethel's song," etc... have been worked out in dialogue? Is the dumb-show more effective than ordinary dialogue would be? Is Ethel's change of attitude likely and convincing?
Compare The Cassilis Engagement as a study in character and technique with the same author's The Return of the Prodigal.
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