Todhunter, John. The Black Cat. London: Henry & Co, 1893. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.
by Lashawn Joyner, Wendyliz Martinez, and Lena Matos
In the first act we are introduced to Undine, the young daughter of Arthur and Constance Denham, who is studying when her father enters. She complains about having trouble with a sum and being forced to study during the holiday. Mr. Denham quizzes Undine on math problems, which she has difficulty with and answers incorrectly. Mrs. Denham, who comes in to check on her daughter’s progress, notices that Undine’s clothes are dirty. The mother immediately screams at Undine for wasting time, making a mess, and disobeying her. The child’s confession to the fact that she has climbed a tree angers Mrs. Denham, so she shakes Undine until her daughter screams. Undine is sent out of the studio, and Mrs. Denham states that it would have been better if their daughter had never been born. She talks poorly about Undine, calling her an idiot. This scene leads to a long back-and-forth between Mr. and Mrs. Denham and their relationship as husband and wife. Mrs. Denham admits that she is aware of making Mr. Denham unhappy, but she blames him for always pushing her away. She believes that at heart her husband despises her because she is a modern woman. Mr. Denham retorts his beliefs of “la femme est une malade;” he explains that women generally are sick creatures who suffer a constant war between their instinct and rationality, and that the societal relationship of marriage is a necessary evil much like war and politics. Mrs. Denham wonders why her husband doesn’t leave her if he seems so unhappy with their marriage. Mr. Denham explains that there are only three possibilities of woman in the world: the Divine Mistress, the Divine Matron, and the Divine Virgin.
The Denham’s servant Jane interrupts this philosophical speech with a telegram. The note informs Mrs. Denham that her old friend, Blanche Tremaine, who is famous for her multiple marriages, is coming to pay her a visit. Mr. Denham’s friends, Fitzgerald and Cyril Vane, both of whom Mrs. Denham detests, arrive to look at his new work—a portrait of Brynhild. Both friends comment on Mr. Denham’s painting: Fitzgerald believes that passionate women like Brynhild always have a strong character and this character is ugly; Vane is offended that Mr. Denham foolishly attempted to make an epic painting with unnecessary meaning. After Vane’s negative comment about the painting, Mr. Denham destroys his work. Miss Macfarlane, a friend of the family, enters the studio, followed by Mrs. Tremaine. The women talk about Mrs. Tremaine’s scandals of romance and marriage: her running away from her first husband and being widowed of her second. Mrs. Tremaine has no children; she expresses her feelings on marriage: it is not suited for her due to its artificial bond that makes people too comfortable with one another. While Mrs. Denham and Miss Macfarlane leave to discuss the drawing-room’s refurbishment, Mr. Denham convinces Mrs. Tremaine that she has an art of persuading that she is beautiful; hence Mrs. Tremaine agrees to model. Mrs. Denham and Miss Macfarlane return, and Mrs. Denham disapprovingly points out Mr. Denham’s black cat walking about. She wants to get rid of the cat, but Mrs. Tremaine interjects that killing a black cat would incur bad luck. The Denhams are surprised at Mrs. Tremaine’s superstitious beliefs but allow her to keep the black cat for herself. When Mr. Denham takes Mrs. Tremaine for tea, Miss Macfarlane warns her friend about Mrs. Tremaine and Mr. Denham’s possible affair, because she’s a “woman that loves men.” Mrs. Denham reasons that since her husband doesn’t love her anyway, it doesn’t matter if he leaves. Miss Macfarlane disagrees with Mrs. Denham’s sentiment; she explains that Mr. Denham still loves her, but men are different than women in their interpretation and understanding of things, and for this Mrs. Denham should still guard her husband from Mrs. Tremaine.
The second act opens with Mr. Denham painting Mrs. Tremaine in his studio. Mr. Denham complains about his wife being a poor painting model due to her overall pessimism and irritability. This turns into a conversation about love, marriage, men, women and living in “sin.” Mr. Denham reveals to Mrs. Tremaine that her arrival made him happy again, and Mrs. Tremaine confesses that being in the studio posing for his painting is like an oasis compared to the “desert” of the outside world. At the same time, Mrs. Tremaine receives a letter that notifies her about a new job: she is signed on to sing for a private house in the capital. Therefore, she informs Mr. Denham that she will be unable to continue to pose for him. Mr. Denham shows Mrs. Tremaine the painting and she loves it. When Mrs. Denham momentarily comes in for money from Mr. Denham, however, she does not show similar enthusiasm and support for the painting when her husband asks her opinion. Realizing that their time together is near an end, Mr. Denham asks Mrs. Tremaine to sit in a chair, which he calls a “throne,” and listen to his poem titled “To a beautiful woman,” dedicated to her. After Mr. Denham has recited his poetry, he reveals his true feelings for Mrs. Tremaine: he is in love with her. Mrs. Tremaine does not feel the same way towards Mr. Denham. She calls him just a friend and takes the flattery with vague discomfort. Nevertheless, Mr. Denham does not accept this answer; he tries to convince her to open up and not fear her true feelings. Mrs. Tremaine does not want to entertain this love, because it would be dishonest to his marriage and their reputations. As Mr. Denham is increasingly persistent, Mrs. Tremaine finally accedes and says she loves him too.
Mrs. Denham walks into the room while her husband is kissing her friend. The situation escalates, and Mrs. Denham refuses to hear Mrs. Tremaine’s side of the story. After Mrs. Tremaine leaves, the spouses argue. Mrs. Denham blames her husband for his dishonesty; she is disappointed that her husband never showed her any love. Mr. Denham responds that he wouldn’t leave her and Undine simply because he loves another woman, and that marriage is not always based on love, therefore they can still try to be friends. Mr. Denham’s request–“to leave the things as they are,” because “love is just a dream”–makes Mrs. Denham even angrier. Mrs. Denham doesn’t want his compromise, and she tells him he should leave her and go to Mrs. Tremaine. They are interrupted by Miss Macfarlane, who consoles Mrs. Denham and berates Mr. Denham for feeling entitled to his impulses and hurting his wife as no gentleman would. Mr. Denham tries to defend himself, saying he is not a gentleman because a gentleman would be discrete with his flirtations. Miss Macfarlane tells him: “if ye can’t have good morals, at least have good manners.” Mr. Denham exits, and Mrs. Denham admits that she is miserable and her marriage is over. Miss Macfarlane says, “A thunderstorm is not a Day of Judgment” and calls Mrs. Tremaine the “Black Cat” that Mrs. Denham needs to get rid of. Nevertheless, Mrs. Denham still feels that her marriage is hopeless, believing that “a good tragedy is better than a bad comedy.”
At the beginning of act three, Mr. Denham finds his wife in his studio, lying on the sofa with her face buried in her hands. He inquires about their daughter. Soon enough, the father discovers that Undine has escaped out of the window by using a skipping rope. By questioning his wife about the reason behind Undine’s running away, Mrs. Denham confesses that she beat Undine up for her disobedience. While Mr. Denham is preparing to look for Undine, Fitzgerald arrives into the studio with good news: he has found Undine and brought her home. The parents are shocked to hear that their daughter ran away with the intention of drowning herself in the River Thames. The explanation behind Undine’s actions is even more disturbing; Mrs. Denham promised to kill her. Feeling guilty, Mrs. Denham consoles Undine by telling her that she is sorry for saying things she does not mean when she is angry. Although Undine forgives her, Mrs. Denham is very troubled and believes that she has been a poor mother. Undine is put to bed, and Mrs. Denham talks about the situation with her husband, though he seems more occupied with his drawing than with their daughter’s attempted suicide and Mrs. Denham’s emotional state. Mrs. Denham begins to believe she is going mad. Mr. Denham tells her he will return shortly, and he goes to see Fitzgerald about his drawing. While he is gone, Mrs. Denham writes a note for Jane to deliver to Mrs. Tremaine saying she must come to their home at once. Mrs. Denham is overwhelmed with the sequence of terrible events in her life and debates what to do, torn between killing herself and staying alive. Believing that her life is no longer worth living, she puts poison in a tea cup and drinks it. Mr. Denham and Mrs. Tremaine walk in, discussing the difficulty of their situation. With regard to Mr. Denham’s decision to stay with his wife, Mrs. Tremaine reacts aggressively, calling him a “limp coward.” They finally discover Mrs. Denham’s dead body on the floor. Mr. Denham asks Mrs. Tremaine to leave him alone with his wife. Before exiting, Mrs. Tremaine wonders whether Mr. Denham will end up hating her. The play ends with Mr. Denham’s lasts words of despair, because he always meant