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The English Well-Made-Play

In England, Bulwer-Lytton’s play entitled Money (1841) and Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863) are usually regarded as the English earliest attempt at the well-made-play. Although these plays handled certain affairs of the time in realistic fashion, “the genuine reform of the drama is usually credited to Wilton – Bancrofts production at the Prince-of-Wale’s theatre of T.W. Robertson’s Society in 1865” (Downer, 282). In other words, T.W. Robertson can arguably be said to be the father – figure of the English well-made-play. His works namely Society, Caste, School, Ours, and M.P demonstrate a significant step away from the older tradition of English playwriting. They are well-ordered in structure and realistic in their treatment of contemporary happenings. A remarkable thing about Robertson is that he tried to find a dramatic import of the small things of life, what one may call the trivia of life.

In his plays, characters are recognisable everyday people, “none superfluous and each carrying his full share of the whole action” (Downer, 283). Characters are made human to seem very much alive, the dialogue frequently “catches the flavour of contemporary speech” (283). Every bit of the stage property contributes enormously to the flow of dramatic action, none is decorative. Following the Anglicisation of the French well – made – play, the genre became the major staple of English drama, especially during the last two decades of the 19th century. According to Downer (1950: 287):

The well-made-play was so ideally adjusted to the Victorian and post – Victorian society, and to their preferred theatrical subjects, that it effectively eliminated the older forms as models for contemporary playwrights and, in fact, very neatly put an end even to the revival of the classic plays which had long been the backbone of the theatrical repertory. Audiences quickly developed an insatiable taste for the “new realism”, for seeing themselves and hearing their problems discussed upon the stage. That the problems were nearly always those growing out of love and marriage did not, of course, diminish the popularity of the form.

The well-made-play inaugurated an attack against the middle-class morality. It finds its mission as a tool of criticism of life. It shows that the middle-class that attacked the court never fared better morally. The middle-class is found to be guilty of preferring respectability to humanity. “Oscar Wilde was enamored by this and he devoted much of his life to administering shocks to the middle-class” (289).

His play, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) is used to demonstrate that the concept of “absolute right and wrong are impossible standards and that to compromise with the right and wrong is a human virtue” (Downer, 289). In the play, Lady Windermere who was taught not to live a life of compromise realised at the end when she was saved by a bad woman – Mrs. Erlynne, that, “There is a bitter irony in things, a bitter irony in the way we talk of good and bad women…

However, Arthur Pinero is regarded today as the most popular playwright of the well-made-play genre. His The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) is recognised as the best English well-made-play. In Pinero’s dramatic universe, no effort is made to mangle reality or to revise moral attitude. He believes in hard and fast rules on morality and this makes him to be dogmatic in approaching moral issues. According to Downer (1950):

Pinero is insistent upon reality. No effort is spared to make the audience comfortable in a recognisable world full of recognisable people behaving in a recognisable way.

Pinero believes in calling a spade, a spade. In The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, he attempts to demonstrate undoubtedly that “marriage of an honourable man and a profligate woman could not work” (Downer, 295).

Synopsis of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray

In the first Act, Aubrey Tanqueray, a handsome, young, rich, refined man, with “a winning manner, tells his friends of his intention to remarry in a dinner party. He informs them that he has decided to marry a woman not likely to satisfy society”. Cayley Drumnle who joined the company of friends later tells them that George Orreyed of their class, has married Mabel Harvey, a woman described as “everybody’s property”. The news is a bombshell to the group which sees George’s action as “diving into a social Dead Sea”. This makes Aubrey’s friends to become extremely worried about the woman their friend seeks to marry, especially as his first marriage to Miss Herriot was nothing to write home about.

When Misquith and Jayne leave the group, Aubrey after much plodding tells Cayley Drumnle that the lady he intends to marry the following day is Mrs. Jarman. The name jolts Drumnle, causing him to groan in the spirit because the lady is a well known artful woman who has lived with many men as both wife and concubine. Aubrey tells Drumnle that his action is a deliberate and defiant attempt to prove that it is possible to rear a happy life on a miserable foundation.

In the second Act, Ellean, Aubrey’s daughter by his first wife quits the convent and joins the family. Ellean’s first impression of Paula his father new wife is that she is a bad woman and this leads to her poor reception of the lady. This cold reception in addition to Aubrey’s fondness for Ellean as well as his lifestyle of reading newspapers and novels, make Paula restless, resulting to incessant quarrel between her and Aubrey. This leads her to begin to annoy Aubrey by doing the sort of things he does not like such as corresponding with Mabel Orreyed and inviting the Orreyeds to their house without first discussing such idea with him. The matter worsens when Ellean decides to follow Mrs. Cortelyon to Paris.

In the third Act, the Orreyeds as planned by Paula are already guests to the Tanquerays with George’s disquisting attitude. Paula has been intercepting Mrs. Cortelyon and Ellean’s letters to Aubrey in which they seek to inform him of Ellean’s relationship with Captain Hugh Ardale – a man who once kept house together with Paula in London. Not hearing from Aubrey, Mrs. Cortelyon and Ellean come home with Captain Ardale for formal introduction. This causes Hugh Ardale and Paula to meet face to face. Paula’s insistence on telling Aubrey everything compels Ardale to write her and to travel back to Paris immediately.

In the fourth Act, Aubrey learns about Paula’s past relationship with Captain Hugh Ardale. This throws him into a paroxysm of distress, leading him to curse Hugh Ardale for bringing misery to him and Ellean. He advises his daughter to keep the young man out of her mind but she tells him that she has already forgiven Ardale for his past indecent life. Incapable of swallowing again a big dose of misery in marriage, Paula kills herself in spite of Aubrey’s suggestion that they go abroad to avoid the scandal.

Critical Analysis of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray

The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is a thesis play. The thesis of the play is spelt out by the playwright in Cayley Drumnle’s discussion with Aubrey Tanqueray in the first act of the play. In that discussion Drumnle who is opposed to Aubrey’s intention to marry Paula Ray, an artful woman, is told by Aubrey thus:

I have a temperate honourable affection for Mrs. Jarman. She has never met a man who has treated her well. I intend to treat her well. That’s all. In few years Cayley, if you’ve not quite forsaken me, I’ll prove to you that it’s possible to rear a life of happiness, of good repute, on a – miserable foundation (Act 1).

Aubrey’s action is deliberate and defiant. He wants to prove society wrong, to show that marriage between an honourable man and a lecherous woman can work, if the man becomes temperate and accommodating to the woman. His choice of woman is Paula Ray who at twenty-seven years has married Dartry and Jarman at different times, and has lived with Ethurst and Hugh Ardale as concubine.

However, the sign that the marriage will not work is demonstrated, very early, in the play. Paula’s visit to Aubrey at the eve of their marriage shows that Paula has not freed herself completely of her past life. Her coming to Aubrey very late in the night is quite unsettling for Aubrey. Paula who is used to keeping late nights is not worried about Aubrey’s unacceptability of such late visit. Instead, to show that she no longer feels for anything, she tells Aubrey to ignore what servants say, as for her, servants are mere “machines made to wait upon people – and to give evidence in the divorce court” (Act 1).

Paula’s effort to make Aubrey to be fully acquainted with men she has had affairs with in the past, is rebuffed by Aubrey when he burns her letter containing such information without reading them. He tells Paula that focusing on the future, for him, is more important than ruminating over past experiences. He hardly believes that the past can influence the future.

However, during the spring time of their marriage, he discovers shockingly that the past cannot be totally ignored. He sees Paula’s correspondence with Mrs. Mabel Orreyed as reviving her old ways of life. His effort to stop the relationship is resisted by Paula who is already sad about Audrey’s middle class way of life, reading of morals and newspapers, as well as his fondness for his daughter. All this makes Paula to be horribly restless.

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