Critical Evaluation

Henry Arthur Jones was one of the early modern dramatists, the school begun by Henrik Ibsen at the end of the nineteenth century. Mrs. Dane’s Defence belongs to the period of dramatic literature that saw the introduction of naturalism into the English theater. The attempt to portray people as they really are was coupled with another new tendency in drama—humanitarianism. Although Mrs. Dane’s sin was not condoned, her weakness was forgiven by those who were really her friends.

The realistic British “well-made play” provided the transition between the artificial, elaborate, pseudopoetic dramatic spectacles of the early nineteenth century and the realistic, iconoclastic theater of George Bernard Shaw and his successors. On the one hand, the genre brought realism to the English stage—recognizable domestic scenes with actual furniture, doors and windows that opened and closed, functional props, colloquial dialogue, and natural acting. On the other hand, for all its surface realism and apparent concern with serious social issues, the British well-made play typically reflected assumptions and attitudes that reinforced, rather than challenged, the middle-class Victorian society that supported it. If the best of these plays did not actually attack the prevalent social and moral values, they did posit interesting questions and, occasionally, suggested ambiguous difficulties beneath the smug, placid surface of Victorian society. There is perhaps no better example of the powers and limits of the British well-made play than Henry Arthur Jones’s Mrs. Dane’s Defence.

For the first three acts, Mrs. Dane’s Defence is a typical well-made play, although the action seems less contrived and the characters more natural than usual. As in most examples of the genre, the action turns on concealed information that is...

(The entire section is 762 words.)