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She is a good woman, the Heroine of the Problem Play, but accidents will happen, and other people were to blame.
Perhaps that is really the Problem: who was responsible for the heroine's past? Was it her father? She does not say so--not in so many words. That is not her way. It is not for her, the silently-suffering victim of complicated antecedent incidents, to purchase justice for herself by pointing the finger of accusation against him who, whatever his faults may be, was once, at all events, her father. That one fact in his favour she can never forget. Indeed she would not if she could. That one asset, for whatever it may be worth by the time the Day of Judgment arrives, he shall retain. It shall not be taken from him. "After all he was my father." She admits it, with the accent on the "was." That he is so no longer, he has only himself to blame. His subsequent behaviour has apparently rendered it necessary for her to sever the relationship.
"I love you," she has probably said to him, paraphrasing Othello's speech to Cassio; "it is my duty, and--as by this time you must be aware--it is my keen if occasionally somewhat involved, sense of duty that is the cause of almost all our troubles in this play. You will always remain the object of what I cannot help feeling is misplaced affection on my part, mingled with contempt. But never more be relative of mine."
Certain it is that but for her father she would never have had a past. Failing anyone else on whom to lay the blame for whatever the lady may have done, we can generally fall back upon the father. He becomes our sheet-anchor, so to speak. There are plays in which at first sight it would almost appear there was nobody to blame--nobody, except the heroine herself. It all seems to happen just because she is no better than she ought to be: clearly, the father's fault! for ever having had a daughter no better than she ought to be. As the Heroine of a certain Problem Play once put it neatly and succinctly to the old man himself: "It is you parents that make us children what we are." She had him there. He had not a word to answer for himself, but went off centre, leaving his hat behind him.
Sometimes, however, the father is merely a "Scientist"--which in Stageland is another term for helpless imbecile. In Stageland, if a gentleman has not got to have much brain and you do not know what else to make of him, you let him be a scientist--and then, of course, he is only to blame in a minor degree. If he had not been a scientist--thinking more of his silly old stars or beetles than of his intricate daughter, he might have done something. The heroine does not say precisely what: perhaps have taken her up stairs now and again, while she was still young and susceptible of improvement, and have spanked some sense into her.
The Stage Hero who, for once, had Justice done to him.
I remember witnessing long ago, in a country barn, a highly moral play. It was a Problem Play, now I come to think of it. At least, that is, it would have been a Problem Play but that the party with the past happened in this case to be merely a male thing. Stage life presents no problems to the man. The hero of the Problem Play has not got to wonder what to do; he has got to wonder only what the heroine will do next. The hero--he was not exactly the hero; he would have been the hero had he not been hanged in the last act. But for that he was rather a nice young man, full of sentiment and not ashamed of it. From the scaffold he pleaded for leave to embrace his mother just once more before he died. It was a pretty idea. The hangman himself was touched. The necessary leave was granted him. He descended the steps and flung his arms round the sobbing old lady, and--bit off her nose. After that he told her why he had bitten off her nose. It appeared that when he was a boy, he had returned home one evening with a rabbit in his pocket. Instead of putting him across her knee, and working into him the eighth commandment, she had said nothing; but that it seemed to be a fairly useful sort of rabbit, and had sent him out into the garden to pick onions. If she had done her duty by him then, he would not have been now in his present most unsatisfactory position, and she would still have had her nose. The fathers and mothers in the audience applauded, but the children, scenting addition to precedent, looked glum.
Maybe it is something of this kind the heroine is hinting at. Perhaps the Problem has nothing to do with the heroine herself, but with the heroine's parents: what is the best way of bringing up a daughter who shows the slightest sign of developing a tendency towards a Past? Can it be done by kindness? And, if not, how much?
Occasionally the parents attempt to solve the Problem, so far as they are concerned, by dying young--shortly after the heroine's birth. No doubt they argue to themselves this is their only chance of avoiding future blame. But they do not get out of it so easily.
"Ah, if I had only had a mother--or even a father!" cries the heroine: one feels how mean it was of them to slip away as they did.
The fact remains, however, that they are dead. One despises them for dying, but beyond that it is difficult to hold them personally responsible for the heroine's subsequent misdeeds. The argument takes to itself new shape. Is it Fate that is to blame? The lady herself would seem to favour this suggestion. It has always been her fate, she explains, to bring suffering and misery upon those she loves. At first, according to her own account, she rebelled against this cruel Fate--possibly instigated thereto by the people unfortunate enough to be loved by her. But of late she has come to accept this strange destiny of hers with touching resignation. It grieves her, when she thinks of it, that she is unable to imbue those she loves with her own patient spirit. They seem to be a fretful little band.
Considered as a scapegoat, Fate, as compared with the father, has this advantage: it is always about: it cannot slip away and die before the real trouble begins: it cannot even plead a scientific head; it is there all the time. With care one can blame it for most everything. The vexing thing about it is, that it does not mind being blamed. One cannot make Fate feel small and mean. It affords no relief to our harrowed feelings to cry out indignantly to Fate: "look here, what you have done. Look at this sweet and well-proportioned lady, compelled to travel first- class, accompanied by an amount of luggage that must be a perpetual nightmare to her maid, from one fashionable European resort to another; forced to exist on a well-secured income of, apparently, five thousand a year, most of which has to go in clothes; beloved by only the best people in the play; talked about by everybody incessantly to the exclusion of everybody else--all the neighbours interested in her and in nobody else much; all the women envying her; all the men tumbling over one another after her--looks, in spite of all her worries, not a day older than twenty-three; and has discovered a dressmaker never yet known to have been an hour behind her promise! And all your fault, yours, Fate. Will nothing move you to shame?"
She has a way of mislaying her Husband.
It brings no satisfaction with it, speaking out one's mind to Fate. We want to see him before us, the thing of flesh and blood that has brought all this upon her. Was it that early husband--or rather the gentleman she thought was her husband. As a matter of fact, he was a husband. Only he did not happen to be hers. That naturally confused her. "Then who is my husband?" she seems to have said to herself; "I had a husband: I remember it distinctly."
"Difficult to know them apart from one another," says the lady with the past, "the way they dress them all alike nowadays. I suppose it does not really matter. They are much the same as one another when you get them home. Doesn't do to be too fussy."
She is a careless woman. She is always mislaying that early husband. And she has an unfortunate knack of finding him at the wrong moment. Perhaps that is the Problem: What is a lady to do with a husband for whom she has no further use? If she gives him away he is sure to come back, like the clever dog that is sent in a hamper to the other end of the kingdom, and three days afterwards is found gasping on the doorstep. If she leaves him in the middle of South Africa, with most of the heavy baggage and all the debts, she may reckon it a certainty that on her return from her next honeymoon he will be the first to greet her.
Her surprise at meeting him again is a little unreasonable. She seems to be under the impression that because she has forgotten him, he is for all practical purposes dead.
"Why I forgot all about him," she seems to be arguing to herself, "seven years ago at least. According to the laws of Nature there ought to be nothing left of him but just his bones."
She is indignant at finding he is still alive, and lets him know it--tells him he is a beast for turning up at his sister's party, and pleads to him for one last favour: that he will go away where neither she nor anybody else of any importance will ever see him or hear of him again. That's all she asks of him. If he make a point of it she will--though her costume is ill adapted to the exercise--go down upon her knees to ask it of him.
He brutally retorts that he doesn't know where to "get." The lady travels round a good deal and seems to be in most places. She accepts week-end invitations to the houses of his nearest relatives. She has married his first cousin, and is now getting up a bazaar with the help of his present wife. How he is to avoid her he does not quite see.
Perhaps, by the by, that is really the Problem: where is the early husband to disappear to? Even if every time he saw her coming he were to duck under the table, somebody would be sure to notice it and make remarks. Ought he to take himself out one dark night, tie a brick round his neck, and throw himself into a pond?
What is a Lady to do with a Husband when she has finished with him?
But men are so selfish. The idea does not even occur to him; and the lady herself is too generous to do more than just hint at it.
Maybe it is Society that is to blame. There comes a luminous moment when it is suddenly revealed to the Heroine of the Problem Play that it is Society that is at the bottom of this thing. She has felt all along there was something the matter. Why has she never thought of it before? Here all these years has she been going about blaming her poor old father; her mother for dying too soon; the remarkable circumstances attending her girlhood; that dear old stupid husband she thought was hers; and all the while the really culpable party has been existing unsuspected under her very nose. She clears away the furniture a bit, and tells Society exactly what she thinks of it--she is always good at that, telling people what she thinks of them. Other people's failings do not escape her, not for long. If Society would only step out for a moment, and look at itself with her eyes, something might be done. If Society, now that the thing has been pointed out to it, has still any lingering desire to live, let it look at her. This, that she is, Society has made her! Let Society have a walk round her, and then go home and reflect.
Could she--herself--have been to blame?
It lifts a load from us, fixing the blame on Society. There were periods in the play when we hardly knew what to think. The scientific father, the dead mother, the early husband! it was difficult to grasp the fact that they alone were to blame. One felt there was something to be said for even them. Ugly thoughts would cross our mind that perhaps the Heroine herself was not altogether irreproachable--that possibly there would have been less Problem, if, thinking a little less about her clothes, yearning a little less to do nothing all day long and be perfectly happy, she had pulled herself together, told herself that the world was not built exclusively for her, and settled down to the existence of an ordinary decent woman.
Looking at the thing all round, that is perhaps the best solution of the Problem: it is Society that is to blame. We had better keep to that.
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