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The Master Contriver -- by Rick Ellrod

Some stories—especially comedies—include a character who seems to have the job of making sure everything comes out right in the end.  Let’s call them the Master Contrivers.

“I manage things a little”

The Contriver doesn’t force things into place.  Rather, she pulls strings.  A good deal of finagling, a certain amount of chicanery, and a talent for talking people into things are generally involved.

Dolly Levi with waitersDolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! is a familiar example.  The show starts with an array of dissatisfied characters.  Horace Vandergelder wants a wife.  His niece Ermengarde wants to marry impecunious artist Ambrose Kemper.  Horace’s clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, want to escape their humble jobs for a day—and maybe fall in love.  Their opposite numbers, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, are also eager for a spree and a romance.  Dolly herself, a self-proclaimed meddlesome widow, is ready to settle down with a new husband.

With magnificent confidence, the ebullient Dolly takes on the task of resolving all these plotlines.  She suggests, cajoles, misdirects, confuses, and manipulates until everything works out.  We enjoy how all this frivolity and chaos converges magically to a neatly satisfying outcome, like a sleight-of-hand trick.

Hardly anyone else knows quite what they’re doing at any given time, but Dolly has everything under control.  Even where she lacks a specific plan, she is an expert improviser.  The other characters can safely rely on her to solve all problems.

Wodehouse’s Maestros

Steven Fry as JeevesThe Master Contriver frequently pops up in P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies.  The best-known example is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves.  No matter what sort of absurd scrape Bertie Wooster gets into, Jeeves can always find a way to get him out again.  Half the fun is watching to see exactly how Jeeves will pull it off this time.  (The other half is simply listening to Bertie narrate, which is a joy in itself.)

But Jeeves is far from the only Wodehouse example.  At Blandings Castle, the fiftyish but dapper Galahad Threepwood lives up to his name by spreading sweetness and light in the form of good fun, lovers united, and overbearing aunts thwarted.  The lively and irreverent Uncle Fred (Earl of Ickenham) plays a similar role in other tales, to the alarm and embarrassment of his nephew Pongo Twistleton; sometimes these adventures also take place at Blandings.  (It’s too bad Wodehouse never brought Gally and Uncle Fred onstage at the same time—ideally with Bertie and Jeeves as well.  The mind boggles at what wackiness might develop with three Master Contrivers simultaneously at work.)

All the above examples are middle-aged men or women.  The sublime Rupert Psmith (“The p . . . is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) represents a rare younger version of the merry manipulator.  He actually becomes a protagonist, with his own romantic plotline, in Leave It To Psmith (1923)—at Blandings, naturally.

SF Contrivers

Science fiction abounds in exceedingly clever manipulators, but most of them fit the mold of the trickster-hero rather than the master contriver:  they are frequently the protagonists, and their stories tend to be more serious.  Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, Salvor Hardin, Gandalf the Grey (in The Hobbit), and Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant are good examples.

But the comic contriver is not unknown.  In Heinlein’s rollicking family yarn The Rolling Stones (1952), Hazel Stone, the superficially crusty grandmother figure, is often the one who “arranges things”—including appearing in court to get her grandsons off the hook in a tax case on Mars.

Masters and Matchmakers

The Grand Sophy (cover)The Master Contriver is perhaps most at home in romantic comedies.  Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances feature a few such characters.  Sometimes they’re the romantic interests of female protagonists, since genre romances are fond of dominant “alpha male” heroes.  But one of the most enjoyable is the titular female lead in The Grand Sophy (1950).  Like Psmith and Dolly, young Sophy cheerfully arranges a romance for herself at the same time as she resolves other characters’ star-crossed affairs.

 In the musical Oklahoma! we have Aunt Eller, the spiritual counterpart of Uncle Fred.  She’s perfectly capable of pulling a gun to halt a burgeoning brawl (see this clip at about 3:05), but her main job is to guide her niece Laurey to a happy resolution of her uneven romance with the expansive cowboy Curly.

The Warrior's Apprentice, coverAs the third-party plot manager for a romantic comedy, the Master Contriver often functions as a matchmaker.  Hello Dolly! was based on a Thornton Wilder play literally titled The Matchmaker.  Even Miles Vorkosigan, in a gently comic scene in The Warrior’s Apprentice, briefly burlesques the role of a traditional Barrayaran matchmaker for his own lifelong crush Elena and the man she’s fallen in love with.  (Miles’ own romance does not develop until several novels later.)

The Character of the Contriver

A third-party Master Contriver naturally falls into the niche of the benevolent uncle or aunt—a kindly older person who isn’t typically a player himself, but an enabler of other characters’ fulfillment (though we’ve seen some counter-examples above).  In fact, this position is not unlike the role of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

The role resembles that of a mentor, although this mentor-manager is generally in the thick of the action.  Yet the Contriver is a little detached, not as directly involved as the principals; she can take things a little lightly.  She can thus be more jolly, less earnest.

Since the Contriver is generally working toward other characters’ happy endings, not her own, she lends the story a sense of generosity.  This is why we don’t mind a character who might otherwise seem manipulative.  We typically think of “manipulative” as a troublesome trait, not an appealing one.  But an avuncular figure who can be trusted to manipulate people only for their own good becomes an asset rather than a problem.

The Atmosphere of the Story

It helps make a comedy pleasant when there are people disinterestedly spreading sweetness and light.  This is why the Contrivers play so well in comedies of manners and romantic comedies, where the plots have to be intricate, but light-hearted.

Since we’re typically dealing with interpersonal relations, not slam-bang action plots, Master Contrivers achieve much of their effectiveness by influencing other people.  For this reason, they generally possess considerable personal magnetism or “charisma.”  This, again, adds to the general air of genial good-fellowship in a comedy.

But the greatest effect on the atmosphere of the story, I think, is that it’s reassuring to have someone around who can be trusted to untangle all plotlines to a happy ending:  “till by turning, turning we come 'round right.”  We come into a comedy expecting things to turn out well.  The more the happy ending is in question, the more the story begins to look like a thriller rather than a comedy.  If Dolly or Gally is on the scene, we can rest easy on that score, and enjoy the ride.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 20 Jan 2018 at 01:25
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Responses to this blog

Tarag 22 Jan 2018 at 18:25  
wow, what a range of books and genres!
Rellrod 23 Jan 2018 at 03:05  
lol . . . It's interesting to see a trope that sweeps across a wide range of genres.
Blandcorp 23 Jan 2018 at 10:35  
Interesting the comparison with the Mentor type, as I feel there is indeed some sort of gradation/hierarchy of certain tropes at work here.

Two examples of not-quite Contrivers, but eerily close to the type: Father Brown and Miss Marple. All the more interesting since imo an obvious addition, Hercule Poirot, doesn't quite belong on this list, even as an eerie close-but-not-quite Master Contriver.

All three mentioned characters come from the Mystery genre (so yet another one to add to the list in the post ), and of course their chief purpose in the plot is to restore order after it has been shattered. They're there to catch the bad guy, in a simple reading of the genre.

But I think Agatha Christie, and certainly G.K. Chesterton, had the idea that the order was worth restoring because it was healthy and joyful. There's often more than just the crime that is wrong in a setting where one of these detectives drops by, and more than once they act to enable other characters to get their happiness in each other, not just to solve the crime.

Father Brown in particular is very charitable to the people he meets, even the criminals. It's not that he acts to prevent their punishment, for justice thwarted is not happiness. Redemption is.

Miss Marple seems more of a Nemesis figure, in that I don't recall her being often charitable towards murderers. They've crossed a moral event horizon, as far as she's concerned, and forfeited any right to sympathy. But she's ok with interfering so as to make the others, the mostly innocent, happy.

Both Father Brown and Miss Marple are a kind of intuition/imagination powered detective. This isn't to say they aren't logical, it's just that they don't think in purely evidential terms. Both try to get inside the criminal's head and then see the tracks they lay, quite the opposite from the Holmesian approach of trying to guess the beast by its tracks. And it's here I think where the difference comes and Hercule Poirot doesn't make the list of eerie almost-Contrivers. Poirot is too Holmesian.

And it seems that an attribute of the Contriver is their intuitiveness. They are not reasoners when they understand the others they scheme about.


Rellrod 25 Jan 2018 at 03:19  
Blandcorp — fascinating set of observations.

I'm not familiar with Miss Marple, but I know Father Brown fairly well, and I think I can see what you mean there. His main function is not to maneuver people around toward a happy ending, but he does have something in common with a Master Contriver. What is it?

Maybe it's partly a matter of being slightly distanced from the social relations that they affect. Father Brown, an ordained celibate, is somewhat set apart. Like Galahad Threepwood (though unlike Dolly Levi), he isn't going to participate in any of the romances himself. But he does frequently enable them for others. He does so not by cleverly manipulating people, but by cleverly solving a mystery that otherwise might blight a romance (in, say, "The Doom of the Darnaways").

At the same time, Brown has a curious intimacy with everyone on the scene, even the criminal: he understands them. (Which may be the "intuitiveness" you suggest.) And he has everyone's best interests at heart — even the criminal's — which is not, as you point out, to exclude the demands of justice. This also he has in common with an Uncle Fred or a Grand Sophy.
Glitterpen 30 Jan 2018 at 23:10  
Great blog!

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