Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899
First produced: 1867
First published: 1878
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: Nineteenth century
The Honorable George d'Alroy, a young man of social position
Marquise de St. Maur, George D'Alroy's mother
Esther Eccles, an actress loved by George D'Alroy
Eccles, Esther's drunken father
Polly, Ester's sister
Captain Hawtree, George D'Alroy's friend
Sam Gerridge, Polly's fiance
Robertson is famous in the history of nineteenth-century British drama for his efforts to introduce naturalism in dialogue, feeling, and situation. He felt that British drama needed plays which would reflect the life of the times without artificialities of plot and violence of passion. Critics failed to appreciate his pioneering in realistic drama, but the contemporary theatergoers patronized productions of his dramas in large numbers. To the reader of today, accustomed to extreme realism in both fiction and drama, Robertson's plays seem rather conventional, unless one remembers that he was a pioneer and his work was revolutionary at the time. When compared to the drama of the 1920's and later, the realism of CASTE may seem questionable, the stage business lacking in finesse, and the dialogue stilted. But in a historical analysis, plays like this are important for the changes they mark in the development of the drama.
Captain George D'Alroy, whose mother was married to a French marquis, fell in love with a beautiful dancer named Esther Eccles. Despite his mother's pride in rank and family, he was resolved to marry the girl, but his good sense warned him that the marriage might result in his mother's unhappiness. In an effort to prove he was right in wishing to marry her, in spite of her place in a lower level of society, D'Alroy took his friend, Captain Hawtree, to see Esther at her home.
Hawtree agreed that Esther was a charming girl. Indeed, he himself was quite charmed with Esther's sister Polly. He warned D'Alroy, however, that the differences in social position and culture were too great to be bridged; he pointed out what D'Alroy wished to overlook—that Esther's father was a confirmed drunkard and loafer and that Polly was satisfied to marry a petty tradesman. Hawtree tried to make D'Alroy see that such people could never be acknowledged as the relatives of the daughter-in-law of the Marquise de St. Maur and the wife of an officer in a good regiment.
When Hawtree recommended that D'Alroy take a leave of absence from the regiment and travel to the West Indies in an effort to forget Esther, D'Alroy said that he had already tried unsuccessfully to stay away from her. He said also that he would rather be dead than give her up for good. D'Alroy pointed out that the girl's love for him was worth more than a title, at which statement Hawtree only smiled.
Captain D'Alroy, refusing to listen to his friend's well-intended advice, married Esther, and the newly married pair moved into good lodgings. A few weeks after the wedding D'Alroy's regiment was ordered to service in India. The captain did not know how to break the news to Esther. When the day of departure arrived, he still had not told her. To add to the complications, he had word that his mother, the marquise, was coming to bid him goodbye. Before he could tell Esther, his mother arrived. Afraid to let his mother meet Esther, D'Alroy had her hide in a bedroom. Overhearing the conversation, Esther learned that her husband would embark within a few hours. Unable to contain herself, she burst into the room. The marquise misunderstood at first and thought that Esther was her son's mistress. When she learned that the girl was his wife, however, she was only slightly mollified. Then Esther's drunken father came in, accompanied by Polly's tradesman-fiance, Sam Gerridge. The marquise was dismayed.
A few months after D'Alroy's departure for India, Esther gave birth to a son. While she was still convalescing, word came that D'Alroy had been captured by Sepoys and undoubtedly killed. In addition, Esther was in need of money. Her father, entrusted with the money D'Alroy had left to provide for her, had spent the funds on drink and horse-racing. Too proud to ask her mother-in-law for help, Esther lived in real poverty. When the marquise heard of Esther's sad straits, she offered to take the baby and rear it as a grandson of the nobility ought to be reared. Too spirited and loving to accept the offer, Esther indignantly showed the marquise to the door.
Esther then tried to get work as a dancer, but the theater managers, knowing her story, took advantage of her plight and refused to pay her even a living wage, so that she and the baby were forced to rely on financial help from Polly's fiance, who had but little money of his own, and on an unexpected check from Hawtree. Esther felt truly degraded when she found her father stealing the baby's gold necklace in order to pawn it for money to buy liquor.
Captain Hawtree, who had been promoted to a majority, returned from India and went to see what he might do to help his friend's widow. He had not even guessed the extent of Esther's difficulties. The sight of him was too much for her. She became ill and had to be put to bed. Polly then invited Hawtree to stay for tea with her and her fiance. While they sat at tea, D'Alroy himself, much to everyone's surprise, came to the house.
D'Alroy told that after his capture he had been befriended by a native whom he had helped some time before. With the assistance of the native and his own daring in killing a guard with his bare hands, D'Alroy had managed to escape not long after Hawtree left India.
D'Alroy was surprised to learn that he was the father of a son. Overjoyed, he swore that he would buy the boy a pony the next day. As soon as his first rapture at seeing his child was over, D'Alroy wanted to see his wife, but Polly was afraid that the shock of seeing her supposedly dead husband might kill Esther. Polly asked D'Alroy to leave the room until she could break the good news gently to her sister.
Esther was a sensitive woman, and it took only a hint from Polly to let her know the news was about D'Alroy. As soon as she guessed, D'Alroy rushed into the room and took her in his arms. Scarcely a minute afterward, D'Alroy's mother also arrived. Pleased with D'Alroy's return, she forgave him his marriage to a commoner and agreed to accept her son's wife and the child without further regard for Esther's inferior social rank.
Highly pleased with his mother's change of heart and the splendid way in which Esther had cared for herself and the child during his absence, despite the many terrible difficulties she had faced, D'Alroy told Hawtree that Esther had proved caste of no importance. He said Esther had proved that a woman with brains could surmount a crude and vulgar background and make herself capable of being accepted by the highest classes of society.
In her own happiness Esther felt somewhat sorry for her sister, who was content to marry a tradesman. Polly thought, on the other hand, that she would be happier than Esther could possibly be.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
T. W. Robertson was one of those rare, fortunate writers who was hailed as a "revolutionary" innovator in his genre, and at the same time, achieved great popular and commercial success. He was able to realize both of these frequently contradictory goals because his theatrical approach was novel, stimulating, and in sharp contrast to prevalent dramatic styles and assumptions, while the plot substance and ideological implications of his plays were essentially conventional, conservative, and well suited to the needs and expectations of his Victorian middle-class audience. This combination of theatrical effectiveness and thematic propriety is, perhaps, best illustrated in his most famous play, CASTE.
If the "realism" of CASTE seems quaint, contrived, and occasionally crude today, it must be remembered that Robertson was reacting against the ornate, excessive, "stagey," theatrical style of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which was characterized by extravagant spectacle, unfettered emotionalism, overwrought acting, and pseudo-poetic speech. Robertson rightly believed that, with ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, such "aristocratic" trappings were obsolete and that the public was ready for a solid dose of realism. He was the first modern British playwright who had his characters sit in real chairs, drink out of real teacups, open and close real doors and windows—in short, Robertson more or less brought the "fourth-wall convention" to the Victorian stage, although he did so imperfectly. But even if soliloquies, asides, and many other relics of the melodramatic stage remained, the impression of contemporary reality, a sense of "environment," was new to the British theater.
This physical realism was enhanced by Robertson's attitude toward dialogue and acting. The dialogue in his best plays is quick, colloquial, witty, and intimate. The long rhetorical set pieces were out; snappy exchanges between characters became the rule. The acting style Robertson imposed, both through his scripts and his directing, was simple, natural, and relatively underplayed. The new stress was, therefore, on ensemble performance rather than individual histrionics, and this shift in emphasis has been crucial to the modern stage.
In terms of plot and character, CASTE seems today to be absurdly contrived. However, one of Robertson's most important contributions to English drama was his adaptation of the French "piece bien faite"—or "well-made play"—as popularized on the Continent by Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou, to the middle-class Victorian environment, thus creating a distinctive genre: the British realistic well-made play.
The characterizations in CASTE are shallow and stereotypical, but they are nicely orchestrated. The "noble" couple, George D'Alroy and Esther Eccles, is juxtaposed against the "common" one, Sam Gerridge and Polly Eccles; the haughty, aristocratic mother, Marquise de St. Maur, is opposed to the lazy, worthless father, Eccles; the honest worker, Sam, who understands his place in society, is measured against the jobless sponger, Eccles, who does not. Each character, therefore, acts as a representative of his social class and demonstrates the validity of that social arrangement. Eccles proves that he belongs at the bottom of the social heap. The Marquise is unpleasant, but her last-scene conversion to understanding, triggered by the miraculous return of her son, vindicates her character and social class. Esther, by sheer nobility of character, demonstrates herself to be the exception that proves the social rule. Sam and Polly are going up the ladder the only generally acceptable way, one rung at a time. George D'Alroy makes the play's thematic statement:George:Oh, Caste's all right. Caste is a good thing, if it's notcarried too far. It shuts the door on the pretentious and thevulgar; but it should open the door very wide for exceptionalmerit. Let brains break through its barriers, and what brains canbreak through love may leap over.
Thus, T. W. Robertson discovered and fixed the form, the "well-made" play, that was to serve as the model for most "serious" English theater for the succeeding fifty years, and he wedded it to a Victorian ideology that was to permeate the British stage until the onslaught of George Bernard Shaw.