Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981
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 mother, he wins her over completely. Shortly afterward, a newspaper story reveals that a man with the missing Mrs. Chalfont was heard singing a song, “Mighty Lak a Rose.” The act closes with Dan singing the same song and Olivia’s strong suspicion that he may be the murderer.
Scene 1 of the second act begins twelve days later; it is afternoon, and the weather is duller. Mrs. Bramson’s appearance is remarkably improved and Dan, now working for her, is obviously her favorite. There is a sensational moment when Dora discovers a belt which could have belonged to the murdered woman; instead, it belongs to Olivia (although this device does serve to draw the audience’s attention to parallels between Mrs. Chalfont and Olivia). While Dan is out “walking” Mrs. Bramson in her wheelchair, Olivia and Hubert have a chance to discuss how well Dan has ingratiated himself with Mrs. Bramson. Olivia realizes that Dan acts all the time, disguising his thoughts very well.
Olivia interrogates other members of the household (Mrs. Terence and Dora) to gauge their reactions to Dan. They know that Dan is far from honest but are not troubled greatly. Dora, however, declares that Dan is...
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vain, prompting Olivia to remark that murderers characteristically possess “incredible vanity.” She is now sure that Dan has murdered Mrs. Chalfont and, with Hubert, Dora, and Mrs. Terence, searches Dan’s luggage looking for evidence. Apart from a photograph of Mrs. Chalfont, they find nothing incriminating. They are about to examine an extraordinary hatbox when Dan returns unexpectedly. He toys with them until he notices the hatbox, and they begin to grill him about Mrs. Chalfont; he manages to deflect their questions. Left alone with Dan, Olivia tells him she thinks that he is acting all the time, that he is living in “a world of [his] own imagination.” The scene finishes dramatically with news that a hand is sticking out of the garbage pile and with Olivia staring at Dan in horror.
By act 2, scene 2, the area is attracting sightseers, especially since Mrs. Chalfont was decapitated. Hubert presses Olivia to marry him; Dan is even more Mrs. Bramson’s favorite, calling her mother. Another duologue between Olivia and Dan reveals they both resent their dull lives, though Dan becomes wildly excited when he talks about his life and fears. Inspector Belsize returns and extracts a confession from Dan that he was having an affair with Mrs. Chalfont. He also wants to examine the hatbox, but Olivia claims it is hers. The curtain falls as Dan faints.
Dan has recovered at the beginning of act 3, scene 1, while Olivia is now too frightened to stay in the bungalow overnight. She fails to alert Mrs. Bramson to her suspicions, and the latter is left alone as the other employees also leave for the night. Mrs. Bramson reveals momentarily that she is not confined to her wheelchair. Dan returns, reads the Bible to her, and then prepares to smother her with a cushion.
Act 3, scene 2 opens with Dan taking Mrs. Bramson’s cash box and preparing to burn the evidence of his latest crime after dousing everything in paraffin. Olivia returns and is surprised to discover how “ordinary” murder is. Dan enjoys another outburst of vain self-confidence and threatens to make Olivia another victim. Inspector Belsize arrives and, despite an effort by Olivia to protect Dan, arrests him, alluring him with all the attention and notoriety a murder trial will bring.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 317
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.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86
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.