The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The prologue to Night Must Fall begins in darkness, and there is solemn music. As the lights gradually come up, the Lord Chief Justice is revealed in the imposing robes of his office. He has reached the peroration of his summing up and declares that there are no grounds for interfering with the sentence of the appellant, a young man convicted of two brutal murders. The solemn music is heard again and the stage darkens.

Act 1, set in the sitting room of Mrs. Bramson’s bungalow in a forest in Essex on a fine October morning, begins with Olivia reading from the melodramatic novel East Lynne (1861) to her aunt, Mrs. Bramson. The latter is a selfish, parsimonious hypochondriac who controls the lives of those around her, although she gains little sympathy from the cheerful Nurse Libby and is frequently insulted by her cook, Mrs. Terence. Olivia is tied to Mrs. Bramson financially, but continues to reject Hubert Laurie’s continual offers of marriage. Dora, the maid, reveals that there are several men poking about in the neighboring woods. Hubert renews his courtship of Laura, who declares that he is a bore but promises him an answer soon.

Dora incurs Mrs. Bramson’s wrath when she breaks some Derby china and then reveals she is pregnant. The father is Dan, a page boy at the Tallboys, a nearby hotel. Mrs. Bramson agrees to speak with Dan so that he will marry Dora. Shortly afterward Inspector Belsize calls, inquiring whether anyone in the household has noticed anything unusual. He tells them that Mrs. Chalfont, a guest at the Tallboys, is missing and might have been murdered. Olivia muses on how murder can suddenly intrude into ordinary life and how the murderer can be “a man walking about somewhere, and talking, like us.”

Dan enters wearing his hotel uniform. He smokes frequently, speaks with a rough accent (which could be Welsh), and possesses a variable personality which only the discerning can perceive. Mrs. Bramson interrogates him about his relationship with Dora, which was based only on momentary lust. Dan is also questioned about his knowledge of Mrs. Chalfont and reveals his observational powers in his description of her. Alone with Dan, Olivia is both fascinated and repelled by him. His attempts to seduce Olivia fail, but he does ingratiate himself with Mrs. Bramson by playing on her hypochondria. When Dan says she reminds him of his...

(The entire section is 981 words.)