Review of J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur

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Review of J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur

from: The Dial (Pp. 160 - 162)  March 16, 1896

     In selecting the old story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as a good subject for stage treatment, Sir Henry Irving has followed in the footsteps of many previous stage managers, including Garrick, Kemble, and Macready; and Mr. J. Comyns Carr, in writing the play, has had as predecessors William Rowley, John Dryden, and many less-known dramatists. How far back we should have to go in dramatic history to find the first play founded on this popular theme is something only to be conjectured. That there was an exhibition of mingled archery and pageantry called "Arthur's Show" in the time of Henry VIII. is known, and that it continued until Shakespeare's time and was seen by him is probable from his allusion to it in the Second Part of King Henry IV., where Justice Shallow says to Falstaff, "I remember at Mile End Green (when I lay at Clement's Inn) I was then Sir Dagonet in Arthur's Show." Mile End Green was a training-ground near London, and the troupe consisted of an association of archers who personated characters taken from the old romance of "Morte d'Arthur," a magnificent prose poem written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1461. But neither was Mallory himself the originator of these knightly tales. He wrought his narrative from old Welsh and Breton ballads and from the "Chansons de Geste,"--as Homer wrought his "Iliad" from the preceding warlike ballads, or as the unknown compiler of the "Niebelungenlied" wrought his poem from similar ancient sources. Living when men still wore armor, and so near to the actual age of chivalry as to be in full sympathy with the spirit of its fiction, the good knight gave to these stories an epic completeness which they lacked before, and created a group of real men and women, and not a series of lay figures on a background of romance, as were his originals. The characteristics with which he endowed these individualities have persisted throughout all the centuries since. Kay is still the man of satirical tongue, Lancelot is bold and chivalrous, Elaine tender and trusting, Arthur kingly but adventurous, Guinevere jealous but queenly, when they step upon the stage to-day as when they first received the breath of life from Mallory.

      To speak of Mr. Carr's new play as a dramatization of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," or to judge it, as many seem inclined to do, according as it follows or departs from that delightful poem, is to show a very inadequate understanding of the situation. The fact is that the mystical figures of Arthur and his knights have quite stepped out of the historic page and are recognized as the common property of all imaginative writers. It is no exaggeration when it is said of Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur" that "it is as truly the epic of the English mind as the 'Iliad' is the epic of the Greek mind." Whether there ever was an actual Arthur, King of Britain, or not is nothing to the purpose; but the truth remains that he has appealed to the imagination of English writers oftener, probably, than any other figure, real or fictitious. Milton long had in mind an epic with King Arthur as hero, but abandoned it for "Paradise Lost"; Spenser took his machinery for the "Faerie Queene" from the popular legends about King Arthur; Dryden wrote a drama and projected an epic on the theme; Bulwer wrote a heavy "King Arthur" which nobody reads; Tennyson wrote a series of splendid poems which everybody reads,--and thus to most people King Arthur is the Arthur of the "Idylls of the King."

     Mr. Carr, like his predecessors, has allowed his imagination to have its way with the old material, and has felt at liberty to use such portions as seemed to him best suited to his own purposes. This purpose being to make a good stage play, the proper test to apply to his work is his success or failure in this respect. At least this must be said of it, that it is much more satisfactory than the effort of any previous playwright, as may be seen by passing the others hastily in review.

      It is interesting to note that it is exactly 309 years ago--namely, on the 28th of February, 1587--that the earliest instance of which we have any record, a play called "The Misfortunes of Arthur (Uther Pendragon's Son)" was presented before Queen Elizabeth at the court in Greenwich. Then, as now, the cast included Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, and the train of valiant knights. The play was preceded by a prologue, and each act has an argument, a dumb show, and a chorus. A curious circumstance in connection therewith is that Francis Bacon's name occurs in the list of writers by whom the dumb shows and additional speeches were "partly devised." So, whatever may be assumed concerning the Baconian authorship of the Shakespeare plays, it is reasonably certain that Sir Francis had something to do with the production and composition of at least one Elizabethan play. During the same year, it was "reduced into tragicall notes" by Thomas Hughes, one of the Society of Gray's Inn by whom the play had been presented, and afterwards printed. Copies of this book are now extremely rare; a more accessible reprint may be found in the little volume edited by John Payne Collier, under the title "Five Old Plays." There is no indication that the play ever became popular; nor was Richard Hathaway's play, "The Life of Arthur, King of England," two years later, more successful.

     One other Elizabethan dramatist--William Rowley--was attracted by the Arthurian legends. He called his play "The Birth of Merlin." For many years this play was attributed to Shakespeare. Translated into German, it may be found in the Newberry Library, Chicago, included in the first volume of the complete works of Shakespeare in German.

     The first of the King Arthur plays to become really popular was the "dramatic opera" of John Dryden in 1691, called "King Arthur, or the British Worthy." It was received with great applause at its first appearance, was often repeated, and held its place on the stage longer than any other of Dryden's numerous plays. Doubtless a considerable part of its success on its first presentation was due to the fact that its cast included such actors as Betterton, Kynaston, and Mrs. Bracegirdle, and that the music was written by the foremost composer of his time. Henry Purcell. Dr. Burney in his "History of Music" says of this work of Purcell's, "A century has not injured it, and especially the duet of Sirens in the enchanted forest, 'Two Daughters of this Aged Stream,' and the 'Fairest Isle all Isles Excelling,' contain not a single passage that the best composers of the present times, if it presented itself to their imaginations, would reject."

     Strange as it seems, although the text of the play was published in 1691, this delightful music, with the exception of a few songs, remained unpublished until 1843, when all that could be collected was issued by the Musical Antiquarian Society. A copy of this volume, which includes text, music, and history of the play, is in the Newberry Library.
     The most important revivals of the play have been, in 1770, under Garrick, with Bannister, Mrs. Baddeley, and Thomas Jefferson (ancestor of our much-loved actor) in the cast, and with additional music by another eminent composer, Dr. Arne; in 1784, under Kemble, with Mr. Kemble as King Arthur and Miss Farren as leading lady; in 1842, under Macready, when it had a run of thirty-three successive nights at Drury Lane Theatre.

     As for the play itself, it has little to do with the king and his knights. The scene is laid in Kent, and the story resembles a fairy extravaganza; there is an enchanted wood with a Saxon magician and a British enchanter, an "airy" spirit and an "earthly" spirit, and many dances.

     In 1776, William Hilton, a poet of little merit, wrote a tragedy called "Arthur, Monarch of the Britens," which he never succeeded in getting accepted at any theatre, and there is a record of a tragedy by E. J. Riethmuller, published in London in 1841, which seems to have been equally unfortunate.

     Thus the "King Arthur" of Mr. Carr, first presented at the Lyceum Theatre in London on Jan. 15, 1895, and with the cast much the same as now playing in America, is easily chief among the stage King Arthurs. He is a flesh-and-blood hero, surrounded by knights and ladies clearly individualized, who, while moving in a world whose manners are remote from our own, yet appeal to our modern taste and serve to make us realize why this chivalric romance was the favorite fictitious literature of Europe during the three or four mediæval centuries, and why it has been such a favorite theme from those days until now. The action is conceived on true dramatic principles. There are no anti-climaxes, no superfluous lines, but all the incidents bear upon the development of the story and push it towards a conclusion which is both unexpected and thoroughly effective. It sweeps through a wide range of passions; love, jealousy, falsehood, revenge, a manly and heroic forgiveness, are deftly woven together and compel the interest from start to finish. Less satisfactory poetically than dramatically, it yet contains many fine passages, and the last scene between Arthur and Guinevere will even bear comparison with Tennyson's treatment of their parting. Guinevere having called for a champion to do battle against Mordred, her accuser, Arthur, who is supposed to have been killed, enters with lowered helm. Disclosing himself to Mordred, they fight, and Arthur falls wounded to the earth. Guinevere re-enters, sees the face of Arthur, and falls at his feet, crying, "My lord! my lord!"

          Arth. Whose face was there? I pray you some one say,
          For all grows dark: I know not where I am.
          Guin. Her name was Guinevere.
          Arth.                                         What sirs? why then,
          This should be Cameliard.
                                        (Rousing himself with sudden energy.)
                                                  See, 'tis the spring!
          Down in the vale the blossoms of the May
          Are swinging in the sun! and there she stands
          That shall be England's Queen!
                                                          Far up I hear
          The ceaseless beating of Death's restless wing,
          And round mine eyes the circling veil of night
          Grows deeper as it falls. Henceforth my sword
          Rests in its scabbard. What remains is peace.
                                                            (He falls back dead.)
          Guin. He's gone, the light of all the world lies dead.

 

ANNA BENNESON McMAHAN.