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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

It is clear from the prologue to Night Must Fall that Dan is the culprit and that he has already been arrested, tried, and convicted for murder. Thus there is no true element of suspense; the emphasis falls rather on character development and motivation. As in all good dramas, however, the audience suspends its disbelief and remains interested in the way events unfold.

Dan’s entry into the action is delayed until act 1 is well under way and until the audience has already learned much about him. This device has the effect of making the audience just as curious about him as are the characters in the play. Williams employs other theatrical tricks from the school of the “well-made” play. Various pieces of information are carefully placed here and there to be used later at a crucial moment. Hence the bungalow is made of wood and paraffin is delivered—both essential elements for Dan’s planned conflagration. The suspected murderer of Mrs. Chalfont sang a particular song, which Dan also sings later, and each act ends with a “sensational” curtain which reminds the audience of the judge’s words in the prologue: “I cannot help thinking that the deplorable atmosphere of sentimental melodrama which has pervaded this trial has made the theatre a more fitting background for it than a court of law.” Nor should the famous hatbox in which Mrs. Chalfont’s head is hidden be forgotten.

A subtler theatrical device is the way in which each act is set later in the day: The play begins on a fine morning and ends at night. Subliminally, this device conveys a sense of inevitability and eventuality, that night must indeed fall. Rather like fine acting, this progression is not noticed until the play is over and the theatrical people have succeeded with their tricks. The bad actor’s devices are eventually penetrated, and he is caught out.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Borowitz, Albert.“‘The Sinister Behind the Ordinary’: Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall.” In A Gallery of Sinister Perspectives: Ten Crimes and a Scandal. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982.

Dale-Jones, Don. Emlyn Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1979.

Findlater, Richard. Emlyn Williams. London: Rockliff, 1956.

Harding, James. Emlyn Williams: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993.

O’Casey, Sean. “Murder in the Theatre.” In The Flying Wasp. London: Macmillan, 1937.

Stephens, John Russell. Emlyn Williams: The Making of a Dramatist. Chester Springs, Pa.: DuFour, 2000.