St. John Ervine’s early plays are good plays, strong and believable in their economy and in characters who force the viewer to accept plots that have become clichés. The deliberate simplicity of construction, the unity of tone and theme, the absolutely vital characters, make Ervine an important playwright. His plays are not complex or difficult to understand; their value lies precisely in their accessibility and believability.
Ervine’s early Irish plays are his finest, displaying the strengths characteristic of his best work in all genres. Mixed Marriage, Jane Clegg, John Ferguson, and The Ship are uniformly serious in plot and theme, realistic in subject matter, and economical in structure. Ervine’s virtues as a playwright are traditional ones; each play has a single, unified plot and an unambiguous, uncomplicated theme. Each play displays great economy of construction and a modest level of aspiration, and within this deliberately simple, unassuming framework, it succeeds because of certain very real strengths of structure and characterization.
In his drama criticism, Ervine’s touchstone is economy. In every important way, the early plays illustrate that Ervine believed in and followed his own theory. Economy is not a negative value of limiting, cutting, and leaving out; it is, rather, a positive principle. Good theater, to Ervine, is that which exhibits restraint and simplicity in cast size, subject matter, plot line, dialogue, and characterization.
The casts, for example, are uniformly small. John Ferguson has the largest cast; there are eleven characters. Jane Clegg has seven; The Ship, eight; and Mixed Marriage, six. There are simply no minor characters whose dramatic function may be described as merely decorative. Every character is important and necessary to the development of the action of the play.
The action of each play is also dictated in part by Ervine’s rule of economy. On a superficial level, his plays are devoid of luxuries such as tableau scenes, offstage voices, and unnecessary dramatic business. There is a minimum of exposition; for the most part, each play consists only of those events that are seen by the audience. The exposition in John Ferguson, for example, is limited to the information that the Fergusons are going to lose their farm unless they manage to pay the mortgage; the audience learns of the successive trials of John Ferguson’s faith in a just God as Ferguson himself experiences them. The exposition in Jane Clegg is limited to the information that Henry Clegg has been unfaithful to his wife in the past. This immediacy of action is present in all the early plays. Nothing has happened; everything happens onstage during the course of the play.
The plays are all limited to a single plot, which is usually a familiar one and which is uniformly serious. Each of the long plays consists of a single story whose content is that of everyday life. Jane Clegg deals with the failure of a marriage, John Ferguson with the loss of a farm and the destruction of a family through violence. The Ship is a study of the lack of communication between a strong-willed father and his son. Mixed Marriage deals with the public forces that destroy the private romance of a Protestant boy and a Catholic girl. The stories are familiar ones, and Ervine does not alter his material so that it appears to be anything other than what it essentially is—newspaper realism, known territory to everyone. At the same time, there is always a single sustained idea that informs and illuminates the play.
The dialogue of Ervine’s plays also exhibits his characteristic economy. The language of all the early plays is simple and easily understood and has as its function the furthering of the plot and the revelation of character. Dialogue, Ervine believed, should sound artlessly natural but should actually be an artful construct. None of Ervine’s characters chatters aimlessly; no one repeats himself or leaves a sentence or thought unfinished. Ervine eliminates those parts of ordinary talk that would produce conversation rather than dialogue. Even when his characters are supposed to be merely making conversation, there is no excess. Each seemingly meaningless sentence is working to establish character. Again, the principle of economy is used as a positive force to shape an element of Ervine’s plays.
The characters in Ervine’s plays are, like his...
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