THE ART OF THEATRE / Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: 24 Endings

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ORESTES: Give no more orders. Go inside.

Where you killed my father, there you must die.

AEGISTHUS: The palace of the children of Atreus]

Must it see death after death, for evermore?

ORESTES: It will see yours. That much, at least, is sure.

AEGISTHUS: And what of your own death, if you kill me?

I die for your father - you will die for me.

ORESTES: Still you invent arguments] Go inside.

AEGISTHUS Lead the way.

ORESTES: No: you must go first.

AEGISTHUS In case I escape?

ORESTES: No. You must not know,

Or choose, the exact moment of your death.

You must suffer, and suffer to the end.

A sharp, sudden death: if that was the price

All criminals paid, there would soon be no more crime.


CHORUS: Children of Atreus, from great suffering

You have won freedom at last

By what has been done here, today.

ELECTRA by Sophocles, end of play

MRS HOLROYD: (moaning) Oh, what shall I do?

GRANDMOTHER: Why, go thee an' get his feet washed. He's setting stiff, and how shall we get him laid out?

(MRS HOLROYD, sobbing, goes, kneels at the miner's feet, and begins pulling off the great boots)

GRANDMOTHER: There's hardly a mark on him. Eh, what a man he is] I've had some fine sons, Lizzie, I've had some big men of sons.

MRS HOLROYD: He was always a lot whiter than me. And he used to chaff me.

GRANDMOTHER: But his poor hands] I used to thank God for my children, but they're rods o' trouble, Lizzie, they are. Unfasten his belt, child. We mun get his things off soon, or else we s'll have such a job.

(MRS HOLROYD, having dragged off the boots, rises. She is weeping.)

THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD by D H Lawrence, end of play

THE PARADOX about endings is that the neater they are the more they leave you unsatisfied. In life - until our own personal, private end - neat endings don't exist. Any number of moments feel final - the death of a friend, the death of love, leaving a house to which you know you'll never return. But there's always something left uneasily incomplete. You know - and time proves it true - that it will haunt you forever.

The best play-endings create, in the midst of whatever celebrations or disasters are littering the stage, the sense that none of these events is final: that whatever ambiguities inspired them will continue. In Electra, this is done through the personality of Aegisthus.

He arrives late in the play, having been characterised throughout by Electra and Orestes (whose father he'd murdered with an axe) as a mere cardboard villain. But the moment he's faced with death he disconcerts us. He's spunky, brave and perceptive: his vision of revenge repeating itself to the end of time is exactly what will happen unless the chain is broken. Orestes, who at the start of the play was our moral referee, is suddenly just another player. What seemed clear-cut is suddenly ambiguous - and continues to be so long after the curtain comes down.

Finding a second example was difficult: at this moment 20 or more plays lie open on my table, brandishing their fabulous final moments like drivers holding up those scrawled-on bits of cardboard at an airport: Long Day's Journey; A Doll's House, where the slam of a door closing is the sound of doors opening all over the world; Love's Labour's Lost or Twelfth Night, where aristocratic love is exposed to an unexpectedly chill wind; amazing silences (Godot, The Caretaker), or silent tableaux (Saved, The Government Inspector) . . .

All seem both final and provisional. So does the most profoundly moving end I've ever seen. Mrs Holroyd was on the verge of leaving home with a pleasant young engineer: he's nicer in every way than her brutal, contemptuous husband. Did the husband know what was going on? He might have overheard them through his drunken stupor, but we couldn't be sure . . .

In the last act we see him carried home dead from a mining accident. Curiously, as a workmate points out, ' 'E didna seem to ha' strived much to get out.' So, maybe, behind all that boozy muscularity, despair was raging. He's laid on the floor half-naked and his wife and mother - who don't get on - begin to wash him.

What stirs and then unites them is his torso. It's white - 'fair as a lily' - and extraordinarily beautiful. So the scene is both a classic one - mother and wife about their timeless task - and also subversively erotic. We begin to understand, which we never could do before, the sexuality of the marriage. Holroyd's mother is just as appreciative: 'And such arms on 'im]' she exclaims, unabashed. No bothersome guilt: this is what loving a beautiful man is like, be he son or husband.

Nothing could follow this devastating scene. But there's a lot we still don't know. Now that she can, will Mrs Holroyd go off with her engineer? Or will she never want to see him again? Either seems possible - and the 'either' creates a sense of future time.

This is the last in the present series of 'Art of Theatre'