W. G. Wills' King Arthur

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W. G. Wills' King Arthur

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

    In 1878, Henry Irving produced W. G. Wills' Vanderdecken, a play which was well received among the British audiences. Due to this success, Irving returned to Wills and commissioned him to write an Arthurian play. Though the play was in fact purchased by Irving in 1890, it was never produced as Irving was dissatisfied by the overall work and turned to J. Comyns Carr to rewrite the play. Nonetheless, Wills' play does a rather good job condensing the Arthurian narrative into a coherent drama, and many of the narrative decisions that Wills made remain in Carr's final drama. Wills' play opens with Merlin prophesizing the doom which Guenever will bring to the court when she arrives:
. . . . Desolation comes.
War comes and ruin. So comes Guenever. (Wills, 236)
    Though Merlin's warning causes Arthur to delay bringing Guenever to court, the King decides that he would rather tempt fate than to live any longer without a queen. The act concludes with the character of Mordred (son of Arthur's sister Morgan) introduced by attempting to alert Arthur to the secret attraction between Launcelot and Guenever. Though Arthur ignores his accusation, Morgan advises Mordred how they can use the infidelity between the Queen and Launcelot to subvert Arthur's kingship and allow Kings Mark and Ryons to overthrow him. In his biography about his brother, Freeman Wills describes this first act: "All the elements of interest and suspense are thus awakened in this first act which . . . makes the King, in his hour of happiness, ruffled by forebodings of strife and danger, master of all our sympathies" (Wills, 240).

    The second act of Wills' drama centers on Arthur's investigation of the indiscretion between Launcelot and Guenever and concludes with a confused Arthur sending Launcelot away from court. The first scene opens with Guenever actually believing that she has gotten over her love for Launcelot:
Launcelot, I love thee not. Breathe not again.
A word of love to me, for I am changed.
I, too, did strive to drop a burden from me.
And I can gaze on thee indifferently. (Wills, 249)
Wills designs his story so that an injured Launcelot has been sent back from the war with King Mark and Ryons a month early and received healing from Guenever. Morgan and Mordred use this situation to convince Arthur that, during the month that he was away at war, the relationship between Launcelot and Guenever progressed significantly. Morgan then leads Elaine in front of the Queen in order to spark a jealousy that will prove her adulterous guilt. When Elaine arrives at the court, Arthur attempts to test Guenever by asking her to drink from the "tell-tale cup" and swear her loyalty. The Queen escapes guilt by accusing Mordred of poisoning the cup of wine, staying the pronouncement of her guilt. Though no crime is proven, Arthur now assumes the worst about the infidelity and has Launcelot sent off to Normandy.

    The third act of the play is titled "The Queen's Maying." Wills uses this scene to expose the relationship between Launcelot and Guenever. Upon returning from his banishment, Launcelot goes to Guenever to prove his love for her and quell any jealousy she had because of the arrival of Elaine. Wills sculpts his narrative so that Arthur is led to the couple by Morgan and Mordred just as Launcelot is delivering the most dramatic testimony of his devotion:
I have done all a leaf or straw could do:
Tost twirling in the torrent tide of passion.
Headlong I'm swept, my puny struggles o'er
With thee my Queen — I reck not whither.
. . . . You see me a devoted vanquished wretch,
Whose only law of life is love of thee,
Whose heaven or whose grave is in thine arms. (Wills, 249)
As Arthur comes upon the two of them, Launcelot tears his shirt off and bearing his chest declares, "I offer my unshielded breast" (Wills, 244), begging the King to strike him through the heart and end his life. Instead though, Arthur, heart-broken, delivers a long and despairing speech after which he bids farewell to his court and wanders into the woods alone. The final act begins with Arthur wandering through the woods begging Merlin to erase the memories that plague his mind:
Snatch from memory her lash of snakes
That false and fatal image branded on
My heart, oh let it vanish like a mirror vision.
Hast thou such a blessed spell? (Wills, 252)
Merlin agrees and casts a spell on Arthur's mind, which erases the memories of Guenever as well as of the rest of his court and the knowledge of his royal position. Meanwhile, Mordred has taken advantage of Arthur's absence and ascended to the throne with the help of King Mark. Refusing to share the throne with Mordred, Guenever is condemned to burn at the stake. In order to prevent her execution, Guenever pleads for a knight to be her champion and defend her innocence against her accusers. Arthur wanders back to the castle only to question the identity of Guenever now that he is under Merlin's spell. Guenever convinces Arthur to fight for her through her endless pleading, and after Morgan convinces Mordred that this is the only way to destroy Arthur's kingdom, the King and his nephew begin to fight. Mordred is slain, and according to a secret plan, Mark rushes in and wounds Arthur. Though the King is rescued by his knights, the wounds are fatal and he begins to die. The final scene shows the King sending Guenever to Launcelot and asking his old friend to protect his Queen when he is gone. After Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake, the play concludes with Guenever asking the King for forgiveness. Though Merlin has lifted the spell from his eyes and his heart is filled with a renewed anger towards Guenever, the end of his life causes Arthur's animosity to subside:
I pardon thee, full and unstinted pardon —
Wide as the sky above us — boundless pardon.
Take it and fill thy famished heart withal.
If any point at thee or taunt thy past,
Say Arthur loved thee so that he forgave thee,
And took thee to his inmost heart again,
Ere it grew cold. (Wills, 261)
Arthur dies and the three Queens take his body to Avalon at the conclusion of the play. Guenever is left on stage alone with outstretched arms.

    As I previously stated, Wills' play is a rather effective compression of the Arthurian legend, pulling from many sources, such as Malory, Tennyson, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and adding material from his own imagination. He dramatizes the romance of the legend with mediocre success, incorporating many characters that broaden the overall expanse of the drama but writing dialogue for them that does not necessarily do the characters justice. The exact reasons that Irving did not decide to produce the work are unclear, but the lack of strong character development probably played a large role in the rejection of Wills' work. Nonetheless, Wills' framework is partially reproduced in Carr's play, though the new adaptation was written with more dramatic dialogue and more action. Irving really wanted his production to be a nationalistic piece of art that many in Britain could associate with and be proud of. Wills' characters are unfortunately plagued with an antiquated dialect, which broadens the gap between the play and the audience. Furthermore, many of the speeches are unnatural rantings that serve more to alienate the audience than to pull them into the drama. An example of this would be Arthur's rather weak-hearted speech to Guevenver:
Aching compassion fills me at thy tears
Let sorrow sleep; and if to tell that tale
Which quivers on thy lips would give a pang
Then I will take thy sorrow upon trust.
But up and down the world I'll quest
To do thee worship and to solace thee. (Wills, 255)
Though Irving had a strong appreciation for the Gothic revival, he was looking for something that would speak to the masses. Wills' play, though a valiant effort at an Arthurian drama, did not quite cut it.
Bibliography
Goodman, Jennifer R. "The Last of Avalon: Henry Irving's King Arthur of 1895." Harvard Library Bulletin 32.3 (Summer 1984): 239-255.

Wills, Freeman. W.G. Wills: Dramatist and Painter. New York: Longmans, Green and Co, 1898.