The Spike or Victoria University College Review June 1918
A Glance at the Drama
A Glance at the Drama
Is the drama gradually dying" out ? True enough the bearded satyr no longer wildly revels round the altar of Dionysius; nor does this archetype of man, sublime as a genii of Nature and as a sufferer near to his god, reveal, as once he was wont to do, in words alike beautiful and artistic, the visionary conception of the dramatic art. The voice of Sophocles the coryphaeus is lulled, and to that mass before raised to the height of Dionysian enthusiasm, the mockery of Jocasta, the pride of Oedipus, the ravages of Philoctetes, and the sinful scorn of Aias mean nothing but horror upon horror. Yet from the self-inflicted blindness of Oedipus comes to him humility, reverence and contentment; the tortures of the Lernaean hydra, the love-charm that crushed the soul of Heracles, give rise to the filial devotion of Hyllos, his son; and out of the fratricidal strife of Eteoeles and Polynices, there rises, in Antigone, the noblest heroism of womanhood that the poets of Greece or Rome have represented—such a type as Shakespeare may well have taken for his Cordelia or Dante for his Beatrice.
The drama, in its present form, has not come to us directly from the Greek, and in its many transitions beginning about the end of the Middle Ages, it has shed more and more of its pristine grandeur. In this age, where everything is ridiculous, and nothing, in the estimation of everybody, really sensible, true enough it is that we are apt to laugh at the old English Miracle Plays in which we have the whole history of silly Eve, the Magi and the comic wife of Noah confused in a style to which even G. K. Chesterton could hardly do justice. Though the plays infringed all unity of time, and the characters passed over a thousand years in a single act, going from heaven to earth, and then down to hell (rarely, strange to say, the page 33 other way) and kings, shepherds, high priests and executioners appeared in a manner truly socialistic—nevertheless, from the liturgical ritual of the Church these mysteries derived solemnity, majesty and dramatic force.
From the germ of these sprang the Moralities in which most of the ethical abstracts received a habitation and a name. Bold Imagination, Stout Perseverance, Vice the Buffoon and Humankind are a few of the representations, the last being always a weak, vacillating kind of creature.
In the Interludes, of which John Heywood was the master, we have the connecting link with the drama proper. A man who could write a good interlude which would amuse the King stood as good a chance of obtaining a title as one who nowadays can make a sufficient number of thousands by abusing the general public. We can never, however, really forgive Heywood for omitting from his work that universal favorite, the Devil. He was the Chaplin of the age. "My husband, Timothy Tattle, God rest his poor soul!" says good Gossip Tattle, "was wont to say, there was no play without a fool or a devil in't; he was for the Devil still, God bless him! The Devil for his money, would he say, I would fain see the Devil!"
Chief amongst the minor Elizabethian dramatists stands Christopher Marlowe, His poetic genius, his glorious outbursts thrill us with the intensity of his scenes. The lips of his men he touched with a live coal from the altar of his Muse, so that their words fire the heart with their flaming zeal or sear it with their despair. Never to be forgotten is that terrible outcry of Faustus when, at the fatal hour, he comes face to face with the claimant of his soul, or those wonderful lines which Edward II, into whose weak nature he infuses a wonderful personality, says to Winchester:—
Now, Sweet God of Heaven,
Make me despise this transitory pomp,
And sit for aye enthronised in Heaven!
Come, Death, and with thy fingers close my eyes,
Or, if I live, let me forget myself.
Between Marlowe and Shakespeare, however, there is, at least, one difference. The former makes his villains so vile and so atrocious that we feel, especially in the case of Barabas, Fate has delayed too long. In the latter we are made to feel an almost too human sympathy, and to realise that if it had not been for a father's death or a single act of folly, ambition or jealousy, the tragic careers of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Othello might have had a far different conclusion. Grimness and awe-inspiring infelicity are not the only aspects of the drama. Its mission is to interpret the beauty of Fate. It seeks, as Aristotle puts it, to purify the emotions by a healthy exercise. It does with human experience what Painting does with external Nature. There are landmarks in which the beauty is obvious to all; but it is the privilege of the artist to reveal the charm that lies in the scenery, until the ideal can be recognised and Nature becomes Art. The Teuton, perhaps paving the way for us, undertakes to make out that Lady Macbeth was a loving spouse, while the Frenchman dwells not on the speeches of Hamlet—the beauty of which he does not comprehend—but on the greatness of his immortal soul, its vivid sympathy, its tenderness page 34 born of sadness, and its potentiality, heightened rather than weakened by horrible punishments and conjectures. No doubt the Elizabethans laughed, and were intended to laugh, at his madness, just as Moliere's patrons laughed, and were intended to laugh, at the venomous malice of Tartuffe, the stiff unworldliness of Alceste, and the terrible sufferings of George Daudin. This objective view of the drama is compounded of two colors, but it is the tragic which remains. Comedy can never and will never last. Years hence, when the world has sobered itself after the orgy of farce-comedy that now permeates the atmosphere of the stage, the public, brooding over the paucity of its drama, will realise that the comic is but an incident, while the tragic is an event.
Neitzsche analyses the failure of the modern drama when he asks: "Why should the artist be under obligations to accommodate himself to a power whose strength is merely in numbers? And if by virtue of his endowments and aspirations, he feels himself superior to everyone of the spectators, how could he feel greater respect for these collective capacities than for the relatively highestendowed spectator.—If this genius, Euripides, had the slightest reverence for the pandemonium of the public, he would have broken down long before by the weight of his own failures." How bitterly did Dryden repent, in the closing days of his life, of his wasting his wonderful genius by pandering to the public. He who sacrifices his soul, his spirit, Himself to the popular demands of an age is no better than he who escapes temptation by succumbing to it. More and more, alas, is man merging what little personality he has into an automaton. For the most part, he speaks in stereotyped phrases, seeking to be intelligible rather han intelligent; he has, in a sense, certain religious and moral views to which all adhere except those who really think at all about them, and he acts up to those conventions which give him a standing among members of his own class. Our dramatists, if we can call them such, are clearly a product of the age. Pinero throws his great intellect and penetrating philosophy to the winds in order that his endings may be happy; Galsworthy, on the other hand, in striving to be gruesome, merely conceals art and reveals the artist; and Shaw, too serious a trifler ever to regard the public as anything but a mechanical plaything, uses drama as a medium for his Fabianistic propaganda just as Browning found in poetry a medium for his great prose. But Bernard Shaw would be an exception in any age. He is certainly not a dramatist, and none of his plays are dramas properly so-called. They are nothing more or less than debates. Each character has something to say, and the hero and heroine, being mover and opposer, naturally say the most. His prefaces either explain his plots or apologise for them.
Our present-day drama is suffering from an artistic miasma—a distinct tendency towards the unwholesome. "A perfect work of art," says Goethe, "is a work of human intellect, and in this sense a work of Nature." Art must seek inspiration from Nature. At the meeting-place of Art and Life stands Drama. It deals with man in his relation to God and to Humanity. In the Grecian schools of dramatic art, Life was the supreme tragedy, the situations of Life being the dramatic possibilities of it. Their greatness lies in the fact that horror was used not as an illustrative medium for horror as is exemplified in "Les Avaries" of Brieux or Ibsen'spage break
Rhodes' Scholar, 1917
"Ghosts," but as a crucible through which the sinners passed before emerging purified with a spirit of good and beauty. Never, in the history of the world, has there been the overwhelming embarrassment of material that is now offered to the dramatist. Let him rift asunder the murky clouds of War, and allow a new light to pour in upon the world. Let him set down to posterity how a nation always great realised that its greatness could never die.