The Happy Ending


AT college I was taught that a comedy is a play that ends happily and a tragedy one that ends unhappily. I have wondered since whether all plays actually end when the curtain falls on the last act. An author may think when he has written Curtain or Finis to his play or novel that he has settled his characters’ problems. But if the story has any veracity it must go on, and what the author believes to be the achievement of happiness may turn out to be a prelude to calamity.

We must remember that the playwright is compelled by the limitations of his medium to select arbitrarily a point in the history of his characters where he must stop his narrative. Vice is thwarted and virtue triumphs; the lights on the marquee go out; and the audience, which has identified itself with the fortunes of the dramatis personae, departs in a glow of complete but. temporary satisfaction or with a feeling of poignant grief, both of which are equally gratifying or else there would be no sense in going to the theater at all.

But if he has created authentic people and not lay figures, the lovers will not remain forever locked in each other’s arms behind the fallen curtain. They will marry and have babies who will in the fullness of time have measles, croup, whooping cough, and braces on their teeth. There will be mortgages, tradesmen’s bills, and all the inevitable attritions of domesticity. It might be well to reserve judgment about these endings.

Take The Merchant of Venice, for instance, which is included in my collection of Shakespeare’s comedies and must therefore unquestionably be a comedy. That is true enough if we accept the final curtain as really final. But I have wondered recently with misgiving about Bassanio’s subsequent life with Portia. Bassanio, you will recall, was a fine, upstanding fellow who was cheerfully willing to ruin his dearest friend in order to finance his courtship. Some people I know would have insisted upon risking a pound of their own flesh under the circumstances, but not Bassanio. If a slice off the chest of his friend Antonio was to be the price of winning a bride, he was gallantly ready to risk it. Such an amiable character hardly deserved the fate of marrying Portia.

It is depressing to think of him bound in wedlock to a lady of such virile personality that she could successfully impersonate a man by merely putting on a silk robe, and who had the exquisite effrontery to plunge into the complications of a contested litigation without even a first-year law school training. The episode of the ring, while it showed a certain spirit of heavy-handed playfulness on Portia’s part, occurring as it did during the engagement, also hardly augured well for a happy married life.

But it was her weakness for sententious soliloquy in blank verse that was the most foreboding omen of domestic unhappiness. Bassanio had a tendency in that direction himself, but nevertheless I hate to think of him coming home after a hard day of trying to borrow money from Antonio to be greeted by his fond wife at the doorway of Belmont in cold, measured iambic pentameters: —

“The quality of our soup tonight is not strained.
It tasteth like the gentle rain from Heaven . . .”

That and her fondness for practical joking must have caused him oft in the stilly night to think with wistful envy of Shylock, who, as a compensation for his other misfortunes, at least got rid of Jessica.

I once saw a performance of The Taming of the Shrew in which Katherina, in the final scene in which she proclaims her submission to her husband, turned and gaveasly, revealing wink to the audience. That was no happy ending, although Petruchio undoubtedly thought it was. There is little essential difference between Petruchio and Bill Sikes except that Sikes was a surly, unequivocal brute whereas Petruchio’s sadism was in a spirit of exuberant playfulness. I might ask my female readers whether, if we accept the ending of the play as final, a dramatic demonstration of masculine superiority is, according to contemporary standards, a comedy or tragedy. In any event, whether Katherina’s spirit was actually broken or whether she was merely simulating submission, I can see nothing but misery ahead for that marriage.

Hamlet is the greatest tragedy in the English language and perhaps in any language. I was told so by a professor I had at college, a man of unquestioned veracity and probity, and I have never had occasion to question the accuracy of his judgment. He used to enliven his talks with what he heard Mr. Emerson say at Amherst, and obviously no one who had heard Emerson lecture at Amherst could be far wrong about the pre-eminence of Hamlet as a tragedy.

Try, then, to imagine what would have happened to Denmark had Hamlet lived to become king. History is filled with psychotics who wielded absolute power, and the tragedy is that the curtain never falls upon the aftermath of their psychoses. Any ending, happy or unhappy, would be desirable. Had Hamlet lived he would, in due time, have succeeded to the throne and we should have had another mad monarch to add to the depressing catalogue. It is quite evident that at that particular moment of history the death of Hamlet and the accession of Fortinbras were quite the luckiest thing for the Danes that could have happened.

We are primarily concerned, however, with Hamlet’s personal history, and I shudder to think of the consequences of a union between Hamlet, with his propensity to melancholia, and Ophelia, with her predisposition to dementia. A marital alliance between the Jukes and the Kallikaks would have been far more desirable eugenically than the union that was averted by what, for centuries, has been mistakenly regarded as a tragedy.

It is conceivable that Hamlet might have stayed out of an asylum for a few years and Ophelia out of adjacent lakes and ponds; but even so, the family situation was scarcely such as to warrant undue optimism. The tough-minded Queen Gertrude would have had slight sympathy with her weak-minded daughter-in-law, and King Claudius, with his fondness for settling vexing domestic problems by assassination, would not have been a conciliatory influence. And Polonius would have been the sort of father-in-law who would drive a far more stable person than Hamlet out of his mind.

There may have been a streak of cruelty in me during my childhood, but I never witnessed the death of Little Eva without a feeling of glee. I am inclined to believe that the St. Clares must privately have felt the same way about it. Perhaps I was influenced slightly by the always entertaining spectacle of her ascent to Heaven to the accompaniment of close harmony off stage, but I am sure that I should have been equally delighted had her journey been in the opposite direction.

When authors eliminate such unpleasant characters as Little Eva, Little Nell, and Paul Dombey, they may imagine they are depicting poignant tragedy, but it has occurred to me that the subconscious artist in them is actually sharing the gratification of their readers and audiences. Even Mrs. Stowe must have enjoyed killing Little Eva, and I am sure that Dickens was as eager as I was to get rid of Dora so that David Copperfield could marry Agnes, whom he should have married in the first place.

Dickens was the supreme exponent in English literature of the happy ending, and in his case the practice seemed to me to be less incongruous than in most other writers. The reason can be found in an observation Chesterton made somewhere, that Dickens did not create people, he created a mythology. We can imagine Portia’s growing old, but cannot imagine Mrs. Gamp’s having been young. There is pathos in Falstaff’s betrayal by his former crony, Prince Hal, for Falstaff is among the most human of all characters in literature and therefore mortal; but we are never grieved for Micawber, because we know that he is ageless and something will always turn up for him as long as English letters endure.

This concern with the fate of literary characters beyond the final curtain or the last chapter is a measure, perhaps, of their artistic worth. It is illustrative of the pleasant nuances of the English language that there is a vast difference between the play that has ended happily and the play that has happily ended. But when we say of an author that he has created characters that will live (the highest praise we can give him) we should remember that if they live they must grow old.