The Art of Theatre: 12 Scene a Faire: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

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NORA: You mean I would never have accepted such a sacrifice? No, of course not. But what would my word have been in opposition to yours? I so firmly believed that you would sacrifice yourself for me - 'don't listen to her,' you would say - 'she is not responsible; she is out of her senses' - you would move heaven and earth. I thought you would get Dr Rank to witness that I was mad, unhinged, distracted. I so firmly believed that you would ruin yourself to save me. That is what I dreaded, and therefore I wanted to die.

HELMER: Oh, Nora, Nora]

A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen

Act Three, first draft

NORA: You think that I should never have accepted a sacrifice like that from you? No, of course I shouldn't. But who would have taken my word against yours? That was the miracle I hoped for . . . and dreaded. It was to prevent that that I was ready to kill myself.

HELMER: Nora, I'd gladly work night and day for you, and endure poverty and sorrow for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.

NORA: Thousands of women have.

A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen

trs Peter Watts

Act Three, final draft

THIS IS the 'big' scene: the humdinger, the crunch, the clash the play's been building up to for the last two hours or so. Once it's happened, there's not much left to do bar the sweeping-up, so it always comes late. (David Hare calls it 'the 10 o'clock scene'.)

For most of the 19th century, it concerned itself merely with plot. 'I am her father?' 'Yes - and the man who drove her to the madhouse]' Ibsen's great innovation was that he took it seriously: that he made the scene a faire the point where the characters - now fully revealed - explore their conflict in moral terms, as opposed to simply bashing it out.

If you compare the first and final drafts of Nora and Helmer's confrontation, you see the inventor at work. Out go the lachrymose outpourings, in goes the clincher: 'Thousands of women have.' It still electrifies an audience: ever since it was written, the scene a faire has defined the moral nature of any good play it appears in.

It appears in plenty of bad ones too. Naturalistic American drama is a hotbed of frightful examples. Beware Pulitzer Prize-winners. 'What if you are all I have and you're not enough? What if I could take all the rest of it if only I didn't have you here? What if the only way I can get away from you for good is to kill myself? (Marsha Norman's Night Mother) 'I WANTED HIM TO RESPECT ME . . .' (That Championship Season by Jason Miller).

I guess this is the kind of writing Tom Stoppard was trying to avoid when someone suggested he put in a serious bit near the end. 'I've tried to write those serious bits,' he explained, 'but they tend to go off, like fruit.'

An interesting problem comes up when the plot seems to demand a scene a faire and the play doesn't. This happens in the third scene of David Mamet's Oleanna when the student has placed a formal charge of rape against her teacher. Cue for a big scene - except that the play's doing fine without it. What would happen? The teacher, of course, would respond with anguish and rage - but more than he feels already? Hard to imagine, unless he gets violent. But that would finish the play, and there's a way to go yet.

Tricky? Very. Mamet responds with a piece of ingenious footwork. The teacher (we now learn) is so distressed that, two days previously, he left home and checked into a hotel without telling his lawyer. The news that charges are pending still hasn't reached him. But the student assumes he knows.

And a long, brilliant scene of moral conflict ensues in which the charge is never mentioned. The bombshell hits the teacher - and us - moments before the final catastrophe; meanwhile, an unwanted scene a faire has been successfully ducked.

It's very like the last act of The Winslow Boy, where a courtroom verdict which has long ceased to be the point of the play is kept offstage by the simple means of having Pa Winslow - fed up with importunate journalists - take the phone off the hook. Links between Rattigan and Mamet (between Rattigan and most virtuosi, really) aren't hard to find.

Next week: Dialect

(Photograph omitted)

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