J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur: A Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts

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J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur: A Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts

by: David Howland (Author)
from: The Camelot Project  2001

THE COMPANY

 Henry Irving

 Ellen Terry

 Edward Burne-Jones

 Arthur Sullivan

 

 

 

THE PLAY

 Full Text of Carr's Play

 Souvenir Program

 Analysis of Carr's Play

 W. G. Wills' Attempt

 

 

 

REVIEWS

 G. B. Shaw
 in The Saturday Review

 Anonymous review
 in The Athenæum

 Anna Benneson McMahan
 in The Dial

 R. Warwick Bond
 in The Fortnightly Review


 




      Joseph Comyns Carr wrote the final script of the play King Arthur, which Henry Irving chose to produce in 1895. At the time that Irving had approached him about the job, Carr was specializing in Pre-Raphaelite art as the director of the Grosvenor Gallery (Goodman, 242). His extensive knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings aided Carr as he had many visual images of the Arthurian legends painted during that era to draw from in the development of his drama. His play was successful where W.G. Wills' was not; it had both a structure that was much tighter than the original play and dialogue that was much easier for the general public to understand. For these reasons, Irving chose Carr's rendition and produced it in the Lyceum Theater in 1895. For that production, Edward Burne-Jones undertook the artistic design and Arthur Sullivan composed the music to fit the lyrics that Carr wrote into his script. From the number of separate set changes that are inherent in Carr's script (virtually every scene takes place in a different location), one can only assume that he was working very closely with Burne-Jones throughout the production leaving plenty of room for the designer to paint the various Pre-Raphaelite images that Carr no doubt had floating around in his head. The play, largely due to Carr's contribution, was very successful, and although his writing career diminished significantly after King Arthur, his reputation was secured by that play.
      Carr had at his disposal a vast array of Arthurian literature on which he could base his story. In the end, though, Carr drew almost exclusively from Sir Thomas Malory's and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's works in combination with his own imaginative adjustments to complete the drama. Burne-Jones was a great admirer of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, and that may have pushed Carr to announce that he would be relying almost exclusively on that version of the story (Goodman, 242). When all of the narrative elements of the story are considered, though, it is obvious that he actually used quite a bit of Tennyson's more modern conception of the tale. In essence, Carr was attempting to wrap all of the separate Arthurian tales into one drama, which would represent the vast Arthurian literary history and become a national emblem under which England could unite.
      The opening scene of Carr's narrative presents some of the earliest and most evident examples of the nationalistic emphasis:
Sword, no mortal shall withstand,
Fashioned by no mortal hand,
Long we wait the hour shall bring,
England's sword to England's King;
    He shall wield Excalibur. (Carr, 237)
The concept of a kingdom lost without a king was meant to appeal to a country whose power as an imperialistic nation was quickly depleting. Burne-Jones' disgust with the nationalistic identity is recorded in Penelope Fitzgerald's biography; she reports that he criticized the: "jingo bits about the sea and England which Carr should be ashamed of" (Fitzgerald, 166-67). Nevertheless, Carr's mystical atmosphere allowed the designer to create some incredibly beautiful images, and they ended up working together rather well. Carr's opening scene shows Merlin teaching Arthur, amidst a thick mist and fog, the way to find redemption by listening to song and prophecy handed over by the spirits of the lake. In an anonymous review written in the January 19, 1895 issue of The Athenæum, the author notes the physical mystique about the production:
Many of the scenes have the shadowy mystic beauty
which appeals directly to the imagination and constitutes
the very atmosphere of the legends. (Athenæum, 93)
Carr's language helps to bring the myth into focus. Using this prologue to introduce the mysticism of Arthur's world, Carr also focuses the drama from the start on the danger of Guinevere.
      Carr soon abandons the influence of both Malory and Tennyson and introduces his own imaginative ideas into the script. The first act is entitled, "The Holy Grail," and here Carr appears to draw his material from Tennyson. Carr, like Tennyson, has Percival be the first to volunteer for the quest once the Grail is seen. Unlike Tennyson, Carr has Lancelot stay in Camelot rather than questing with his companions. In doing so, Carr has made sure that he introduces the very important Grail Quest into his play, while at the same time setting the stage for the Lancelot/Guinevere conflict to begin immediately. In her article about Carr's play, Jennifer Goodman analyzes his decision about the Grail myth thus:
The effect of Carr's decision is to make Lancelot a much less complex figure than he is in Carr's sources. The play's handling
of the Grail quest overall seems to reflect the Pre-Raphaelites' reverence for Galahad and his fellows. (Goodman, 244)
      The character of Elaine becomes a figure of controversy from the start of the play. In the beginning of the first act, Elaine of Astalot enters the court to disrupt the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. Carr makes the infidelity between Lancelot and Guinevere the focal point for his narrative. Using the character of Elaine, Carr increases her impact on the narrative in order to provide a complementary character for Arthur. Now Lancelot and Guinevere are both battling their emotions for each other against those with whom their affections should lie (Elaine and Arthur). By the end of the act, Lancelot is already filled with guilt as he can see his inevitable downfall:
The dear remembrance of thy loyal love
I once deserved. But now that too has gone,
For thou wouldst wring the secret from my lips,
That brands me traitor. (Carr, 268)
Having set up the conflict that will finally destroy the kingdom, Carr ends the act with high tensions between the lead characters. Having set up the conflict so rapidly, Carr proceeds with greater caution in designing the last three acts to bring about the destruction of Camelot and the death of Arthur.
      The second act, titled "The Queen's Maying," relies heavily on Malory who focused on the link between spring and true love. In a very nice juxtaposition, Carr chooses the one moment in which everything seems to be perfect in Camelot to trigger the destruction of the court. For the downfall of Arthur, Carr relies heavily on the characters of Mordred and his mother Morgan la Fey. Lancelot and Guinevere's relationship is exploited by the two evil characters, who are bent on destroying Camelot. They are in the scene as the villainous antagonists watching as Lancelot and Guinevere pledge their love to one another, and in the process, seal their fates and the doom of the kingdom:
GUINEVERE . . . Hold me closer, closer still,
That so my heart may catch the fearless tune
Of thy heart's steadfast music . . .
Ah, I do tease thee; 'tis but this once more--
Tell me, whate'er befall, that thou art mine!
LANCELOT. For ever and for ever I am thine. (Carr, 269)
Goodman cites Carr's variance from Tennyson's narrative as another reflection of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who often focused on Guinevere and Lancelot kissing in the spring-time. Apparently this scene was also one of the most moving dramatically for the London audience that saw the original production. In his article in The Saturday Review, George Bernard Shaw writes:
There are excellent moments in the love scenes: indeed Lancelot's confession of his love to Guinevere
all but earns for the author the poet's privilege of having his chain be tested by the strongest link. (Shaw, 94)
In the Athenæum, the reviewer writes:
The scenes of love-making between Lancelot and Guinevere are sentimental and idyllic, rather than
dramatic and passionate. (Athenæum, 93)
As one can see through the comments of both reviewers, Carr focused on a much more poetical love in his play. In effect this justifies the infidelity as their speeches and actions are dictated by the love they feel. By juxtaposing the poetical love of Lancelot and Guinevere with the essentially non-existent relationship between Arthur and the Queen, Carr avoids any suggestion that Guinevere has a choice about whom she loves. Her language tells the audience that she loves Lancelot; therefore the choice becomes whether she acts for herself or for the good of the country. The speeches of the two lovers professing their affections for one another serve as the fuse for Carr's plot, and as soon as the second act ends, one can already anticipate destruction of Arthur's kingdom.
      The third act, which is titled "The Black Barge," opens with the body of Elaine being brought onstage. She has just died because Lancelot no longer loves her, and her body remains on the stage. Herein lies one of Shaw's main complaints with Carr's plot construction:
. . . when the body of Elaine is done with, it should be taken off the stage and not put in the corner like a
portmanteau at the railway station. (Shaw, 94)
His complaints while logical are actually contradictory to the opinions expressed by some of the actors who performed in the production. Lena Ashwell, for example, who played Elaine said that she loved to spend the majority of the third act on stage (as a dead corpse) so that she could feel the energy and hear the speeches delivered by Irving (Ashwell, 329).
      Following the death of Elaine, Carr has Mordred reveal his plan for taking over the throne with the help of King Mark and Ryons. The major implication that Carr makes at this point in the play is that both Lancelot and Guinevere were ignorant of the repercussions of their actions. Once their infidelity has compromised the security of Camelot, Carr wipes out Arthur's kingdom in one fell swoop. In this act, Carr becomes very focused on the metaphor of Excalibur as a representation of Arthur's reign. Morgan steals the scabbard from Arthur, signaling a return to the violence and disorder that existed before Excalibur was sheathed after the founding of Camelot. Upon realizing the truth of Lancelot and Guinevere's adulterous relationship, Arthur turns to battle to escape his emotions. Though this section is vastly different from both Malory and Tennyson, the brevity of it provides for a lot of dramatic action that keeps the audience interested. It also effectively juxtaposes the current situation with that of the peace and tranquility before Guinevere came, fulfilling the prophecy that was given in the prologue.
      Carr concludes his drama with his fourth act entitled: "The Passing of Arthur." In this final, rapid act, the death of Arthur and the rescue of Guinevere all take place over the course of about seven pages. This is in keeping with Carr's previous style of concentrating on action and leaving deep character development to the audience's imagination. An interesting decision that Carr makes here is having Lancelot and Mordred kill each other in battle. This departure from both of the popular versions of the story perhaps serves to create a strong sense of closure for the play as opposed to leaving the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere open. The conclusion of the play focuses on the returning of Excalibur to the lake. As Carr has used the image of the sword to represent the power which is given from the people of England to their monarch, he concentrated on Arthur's returning his mystical sword back to the Lady of the Lake before he died. In looking at this play on a larger scale, one might view this production as Carr and Irving returning the power of the Arthurian legend to the people of England as well.
      In her analysis of the play, Goodman concluded that "Carr's play depends far more on Tennyson than Malory" (Goodman, 249). She cites for her examples the way that Arthur is an essentially blameless character throughout the play, as opposed to Malory's Arthur, who was very human and therefore sinful--flaws, which made him in part responsible for his downfall. While I agree with Goodman's point that, like Tennyson, Carr focused the blame of the destruction of Camelot on Guinevere's seduction of Lancelot, I must argue that his drama is a rather creative script that presents Arthur as a completely fate-bound creature, brought down by events that were beyond his control. Carr never leaves Arthur any room to be indecisive. His plot moves much too quickly in carrying the King as well as the other characters along through the mystical world that he has created.
Bibliography
Carr, J. Comyns. King Arthur: A Drama in Four Acts with a Prologue. In Modern Arthurian Literature. Ed. Alan Lupack. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

"Drama: This Week." The Athenæum. 19 January 1895: 93.

Goodman, Jennifer R. "The Last of Avalon: Henry Irving's King Arthur of 1895." Harvard Library Bulletin 32.3 (Summer 1984): 239-255.

Poulson, Christine. "Costume Designs by Burne-Jones for Irving’s Production of 'King Arthur'." Burlington Magazine 128.994 (January 1986): 18-24.

Shaw, George Bernard. "King Arthur." The Saturday Review. 19 January 1895: 93-95.
Additional Information:
This website was designed for an Internship Project for the Robbins Library of the University of Rochester during the Spring semester of 2001. David Howland is an undergraduate student (Class of 2002) working towards a degree in English with a minor in Theater. The purpose of this internship was to complete intensive literary research and gain experience in web design under the guidance of Professor Alan Lupack, director of the Robbins Library. Additonal assistance was received from the Department of Rare Books at the University of Rochester and Anne Zanzucchi of the Robbins Library.