"King Arthur" On the Stage
 (note 1 refers to the title) The Misfortunes of Arthur. Reduced into Tragical Notes by Thomas Hughes, one of the Society of Grayes Inn . . . Certaine Devises and Shewes presented to her Majestie by the Gentlemen of Grayes-Inne, at her Highnesse Court in Greenewich, the twenty-eighth day of Februarie in the thirtieth yeare of her Majestie's most happy Raigne. At London. Printed by Robert Robinson. 1587.
King Arthur; or the British Worthy. A Dramatic Opera. Performed at the Queen's Theatre by their Majesties' Servants. Written by Mr. Dryden...London. Printed for Jacob Tonson, at The Judge's Head in Chancery Lane, near Fleet Street. 1691.
King Arthur. A Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts. By J. Comyns Carr. London: Macmillan & Co., and New York. 1895...Produced at the Lyceum Theatre, 12th January, 1895.
 Le Romans de la Table Ronde. Mis en nouveau language par Paulin Paris. (Paris. 1877. 5 tom.)
 Sir Gawayne. A Collection of Ancient Romance Poems by Scottish and English Authors, relating to that celebrated Knight of the Round Table. With an Introduction, Notes, and Glossary.
 Geoffrey (xi. i.) says of Mordred that after his defeat at Rutupium "insequenti nocte Guintoniam ingressus est." It is Geoffrey and not Malory that Hughes chiefly follows, and though the Nuntius at the beginning of Act ii., on reaching the seat of government, hails it as the "Troynovant," this romantic name need not necessarily be applied, as in Spenser, to London.
 M. Paulin Paris attributes to Geoffrey (1147-1151) the Latin poem Vita Merlini, a development of his history which stands as the original of the Merlin romance. It contains the earliest suggestions of Arthur's last reception by Morgan, who is the cleverest leech of Nine Sisters, inhabiting "l'ile des Pommes autrement appelée Fortunée, the equivalent, that is, in Breton tradition of the Elysian Fields of the ancients.
"Inque suis thalamis posuit super aurea regem,
Strata, manuque altum detexit vulnus honesta,
Inspexitque diu, tandemque redire salutem
Posse sibi dixit, si secum tempore longo
The Historia Britonum (circa 1145) had only said, "Sed et inclytus ille rex Arturus letaliter vulneratus est, qui illine ad sananda vulnera sua in insulam Avallonis advectus....Constantino....diadema Britanniæ concessit."
 Shakespeare's Predecessors, p. 244.
 Fairie Queene, i. ix., 13-15.
"And Thou--O whether born of flame and wave,
Or Gorlois' son, or Uther's, blameless lord,
True knight, who died for those thou couldst not save
When the Round Table brake their plighted word,--
The lord of song has set thee in thy grace
And glory, rescued from the phantom world,
Before us face to face;
No more Avilion bowers the King detain;
The mystic child returns; the Arthur reigns again!"
So upon a day sang the Oxford Professor of Poetry, brooding over Britain's legendary past, and celebrating the shining treatment of it by our lost Laureate. And now that we can witness, or have but recently witnessed, that more vivid realisation of the "grey king" afforded by stage-presentment, it is natural to recur to the words. For, in truth, the King Arthur of Mr. Comyns Carr, the King Arthur of Mr. Henry Irving--however the dramatist may have striven to recombine, and reselect from, the accumulated material of the great myth--remains essentially Tennysonian. Freedom of choice and of combination in obedience to his dramatic instinct Mr. Carr has certainly shown; but, let him modify as he will, the temper and treatment of his piece as a whole are derived rather from the Idylls of the King than from "Geoffrey's book or Malleor's," or any of the prose romances that intervened; and the fact illustrates, as nothing else could, the triumphant domination of Tennyson's poem over the minds and hearts of contemporary Englishmen. In part, no doubt, this influence is due to the fact that here for the first time Englishmen found the great British legend infused with modern thought; and, if Mr. Carr were inclined to resent the imputation of indebtedness, he might, no doubt, urge that the Tennysonian air of his play is little more than the inevitable correspondence between two modern attempts to treat an old tale. The best answer to Mr. Andrew Lang's doubt "whether a poet is well advised when he deliberately treats the theme of another age in the spirit of today," is that if his treatment be really poetic, and not merely the archaeological treatment of Ben Jonson, he cannot help himself; and that if he could succeed in eliminating all of modern temper and in restoring the old-world thought along with the old-world trappings, his work would be ipso facto be less vital in itself, and would possess only an antiquarian interest for his contemporaries.For the subject we have chosen is none other than the romance of Arthur, told first long ago by Galfridus Monumatensis, and retold only some hundred and twenty years since by the good knight, Sir Thomas Malory, whose soul is with the saints, we trust. But if the subject be romantic, the treatment of it is severely classical. We are a learned society, catering for the amusement of a queen who still, in the intervals of her moves upon the European chess-board, turns to the classics she read years ago with Ascham; and if Ascham would have frowned on our choice of a subject, he would surely have been propitiated with the classical correctness of our manner. We feel a modest confidence that even that fine critic, Philisides, would have owned that here, at least, we climb to the very height of Seneca his style. It was Gorboduc that set us the example--Gorboduc, given before Her Majesty at Whitehall in 1561, and drawing its subject, as we ours, from the legendary history of Britain. Doubtless Sackville was inspired by Jasper Heywood's translations from the Roman tragedian--the Troades in 1559, the Thyestes in 1560, the Hercules Furens in 1561. The other seven have been completed since, and several English plays written in imitation thereof, in one of which, the Jocasta of 1566, Master Christopher Yelverton, here to-night and responsible for part of the dumb show, had a hand. It is to the Thystes and Hercules Furens that our present author, Thomas Hughes, harks back; many of his sentiments, indeed, will be recognised by our scholarly audience as old friends; and surely never did we so happily catch the strut of the classic buskin. It is to be hoped, too, that examples of really high-class drama, such as this, are not without their effect on those terrible sinners, the popular playwrights. The rogues know too well on which side their bread is buttered--know that their audience will not be over critical of the fare offered them, so it be noisy and bawdy, with plenty of bloodshed and a handsome garniture of oaths, so that the lines come tumbling in to a jingle at the close, and the clown have his fling unfettered, whether his butt be in the gallery or on the stage. But we noted with pleasure last year the success scored by the young fellow from Cambridge--Murloe d'ye call him?--with his Tamburlaine. He, at least, dropped much of the clownage, and wrote good stiff sonorous lines in the blank decasyllabon we have always maintained to be the proper dramatic thing. Yes, undoubtedly, our influence is beginning to be felt.
It is matter for regret that, in spite of exhaustive researches made of recent years in the field of Arthurian legend, the English student still looks in vain for any definite statement or brief compendium of results. Professor Rhys enables us to distinguish the historic king gathering into his hands the protective authority formerly wielded by Rome, and picks out among his men Kei (Sir Kay) and Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere); but his treatment wanders away from the literary question into the region of Celtic myth, reminding us of nothing so much as King Leodogran's dream:--"the hazeArthur becomes the Sun, more dazzling, yet more confusing than ever. Dr. Oskar Sommer can put his finger on the particular MS. version which Malory folowed in almost any part of the Morte Darthur: he distinguishes the Merlin, which presents the national story of Arthur, from the spiritual story of the Sangreal; and shows how the cycle has incorporated two other branches, the Lancelot and the Tristan: but his enormous industry has somewhat encumbered him. He sinks beneath the weight of his knowledge, like the mediæval knight in battle under his load of armour; and we grope vainly in the third volume of his splendid edition for a clear and concise account of the growth of the great myth. The nearest approach to such in English is to be found in the third volume of the late Professor Morley's English Writers, which, issued in 1888, is late enough to embody and discuss some of the results of recent French research. It is from the work of M. Paulin Paris, 2 with its introductions and closing observations, that we personally have derived most assistance, though his conclusions were in part anticipated by Sir Frederic Madden, in a volume published by the Bannatyne Club in 1889. 3 In spite of all that has been done, there seems still room for a clear, concise little treatise on the literary growth of the legend, which should aim rather at presenting achieved results than advancing original ideas. Such a treatise might give us Celtic suggestions from Professor Rhys; quote the passage from Nennius, the passages from Geoffery of Monmouth; distinguish the respective shares in the prose romances, and their originals, of Robert de Boron and Walter Map; present an order for these prose romances; detail the English or Scotch metrical and alliterative versions; and so pass through Malory to Spenser, Sir Richard Blackmore, and the Laureate, embodying the best results of M. Paulin Paris, M. Gaston Paris, Dr. Sommer, Dr. Zimmer, and other workers in the field: and we think that such a treatise would command a ready sale.
Descended, and the solid earth became
As nothing, but the king stood out in heaven
It is not, however, with the question of the growth of the legend that we are here concerned, but with the much smaller question of its treatment on the stage. Abandoning the operas of Wagner to the musical critic, we find the field narrowed practically to three pieces: a pseudo-classic play by Thomas Hughes, a masque or opera by Dryden, for which Purcell wrote the score, and the drama of Mr. Comyns Carr.
On the evening of the 28th of February, 1588, that astonishing woman, the Queen of England, took her state in the great hall of her palace of Greenwich, to witness "certaine devises and shewes presented to her Majestie by the Gentlemen of Grayes-Inne," and denominated, with a fitness perhaps not wholly sought, The Misfortunes of Arthur. Elizabeth's hands were pretty full; it hardly seems as if she could have cared very much about Arthur just then. For the last six months she had been in a fair way to lose at any time her realm and crown, perhaps her head, as an equivalent for that of Mary Stuart, which fell a year ago at Fotheringay. Since the preceding summer the opposite coast of Flanders had been lined with 30,000 troops under the Duke of Parma; and nothing but a series of accidents had prevented the approach of the dreaded fleet that was to swell the number with an additional 20,000, and command the Channel while they crossed. Had they come in September, as Philip had fixed, they would have found England with scarce a single seaworthy ship to oppose them; but the armament was delayed, by the non-arrival of some vessels from the Mediterranean, until the autumn gales set in. It was deemed more prudent to wait till next year; and before Christmas an efficient English fleet was in the Channel, under the command of the Lord Admiral.
This was the kind of business toward on the evening in question; and the Queen, who has laughed at John Lyly's pretty loves of Gallathea and Phyllida on New Year's day, and perhaps frowned at the too obvious allusions to her dead "Robin" in Endimion on February 1st, is now to hear some weightier matter. Five gentlemen students of the Inn come forward, led captive by the Muses of Eloquence, Poetry, and History, and protest that they have been lured from the more useful and practical pursuits of law only to attempt some acceptable offering to the goddess to whose service all alike are dedicate. They are little skilled indeed, in these essays. Might they choose, they would prefer to give hard knocks on her behalf by land or sea."O that before our time the fleeting shipBut unfortunately, under our glorious sovereign, we enjoy a profound peace. "All tragedies are fled from state to stage,"-our sole excuse, indeed, for obtruding this serious matter, which
Ne'er wandered had in watery wilderness,
That we might first that venture undertake
In strange attempt t'approve our loyal hearts!
Be it soldiers, seamen, poets, or what else!"In tragic notes the plague of vice recounts."
Something such, perhaps, was the run of talk among the critics of the Inn when the prologue was over and the dumb show was proceeding; and, in truth, their self-complacency on the score of classical correctness was amply justified. In The Misfortunes of Arthur we have the very type and flower of that pseudo-classic drama which Marlowe and Shakespeare were finally to defeat and supersede. Here congregated together we find all the old devices. A Chorus occupies the stage during the whole performance, and comments on it at the close of every act. A Nuntius reports, and luxuriates in reporting, the violence of battles unfit to be represented on the stage. The unities of time and place, indeed, are not observed. The distance between Dover, where the first battle is fought, and Cornwall, the scene of the second, violates that of time; and, as regards place, though we might suppose a removal of Arthur's camp westward, so as to occupy the neighbourhood of Winchester 4 in Act iii., and his own return thither after the battle, yet the latter is an extravagant demand to make of a man mortally wounded, and we are probably intended to consider the scene as Winchester or London in Acts i., ii., and iv., country near Dover in Act iii., and Cornwall in Act v. But at least we have that partial observation of the unity of place which consists in what Corneille called "la liaison des scènes." Each act is held throughout in one and the self-same spot; and its dialogue, though nominally divided into scenes, is continuous, every new-comer having business with someone already on the stage, or being at least announced by someone who is just leaving it. Further, as in Seneca's Thyestes, and Euripides' Hecuba, the whole drama is heralded and its motive explained by a supernatural personage, the ghost of Gorlois; and the whole tragedy thrown into a classic mould by making the fate of Arthur and Mordred the expiation of the original wrong inflicted on Gorlois by Uther. The Megæra of the Thyestes, who sends the ghost of Tantalus on his mission, is replaced by Alecto and other infernal creatures in the speeches of Gorlois' ghost, at least, in those alternative speeches written by William Fulbecke, and actually delivered at the performance. Here, too, we have the moral sententiousness, the declamatory utterance, in which the classical drama delights, and which lifts every remark into the region of the abstract. Lastly, we have here the best and most continuous example in English dramatic work of the very trick of Greek dramatic dialogue,--that stichomuthia, or succession of single lines, where a speaker's last word is taken and twisted into something that may support his interlocutor's argument.
All these features are visible in The Misfortunes, and in no other play of the school in such number and perfection. But what of the dumb show? It is a modern graft on to the classic form, born of that mediæval taste for allegory which was fostered by the later Miracles and Moralities, and was still pretty strong, as is proved by its presence in Lyly's comedies, and still more in the Fairie Queene. The earliest dramatic instance preserved is in Gorboduc; but Stowe's Surrey makes mention of a pageant played for the entertainment of Richard of Bordeaux in 1377, where there was personification without any kind of interlocution. As adopted by the Elizabethan scholars, it was usually emblematic of the action of the piece--of such portion of it as was to be covered by the act immediately to follow. Even though its import was often, as Warton says, "too mysterious and obscure to forestal the future events with any degree of clearness and precision" yet we have Hamlet's witness to its popularity; a popularity which is itself witness to the impossibility of the method by which the savants were now attempting to fetter the rising English drama. That it should be necessary to fill up gaps in the story by such extraneous and non-classical means, even where the subject chosen was, as in Greece, an old national myth, still more that the audience should turn with relief, as they did, from the real personages and actual words of the play to the silent emblematic show between each act, is a fatal proof that they felt the whole thing dull and spiritless, that they missed the life and movement of their popular theatres, that they knew and felt the actors before them to be unreal beings, walking on metaphorical stilts and talking more or less absurd rhodomontade. Already the lame device is dropping out of use, as the dramatists assume full liberty of action in despite of Horace, and learn to make their characters tell their own tale. It occurs in but one play of Peele's, in but one of Lyly's, in but one of Greene's; while Marlowe does not employ it at all. Some twelve or fourteen years hence it will be used only to distinguish a "play within the play" from the real drama, or as a playful parody of an earlier fashion; while the question asked immediately after it by one of the real personages on that occasion, "Have you heard the argument? is there no offence in 't?" will also reflect that judicious neglect of it by the audience which must have paved the way for its general disuse. Meanwhile we have before us, though late, an elaborate example. Standing near the Queen is a young man of twenty-eight or so, who, though he only entered the Inn eight years since, is already a Bencher, sat in Parliament in 1584, and is this year member for Liverpool. His name is Francis Bacon, and these dumb shows are largely of his devising. Luckily jealous uncle Burleigh, whose Puritanism is inclined to fight shy of the drama, is absent; and so Francis is able to be on the spot, quick, obsequious, ready to expound any and every matter to his most gracious sovereign.
We have to note that it is Geoffrey of Monmouth that our author follows rather than Malory. Mordred is still the son of Arthur's sister; but her name is Anna, as in Geoffrey, not Morghaus. Among Mordred's allies, in Act ii., is the "Cheldricus, Saxonum dux" (Cerdic) of Geoffrey, and Gillamor the Irishman. Among Arthur's, in Act iii., is Geoffrey's "Aschillus, rex Daeiæ," which our author corrects to "Denmark." Merlin disappeared from Geoffrey's narrative after the night adventure at Tintagil; and, accordingly, while that occurrence finds mention in the Argument, in the play itself there is not a word about him. Nor is any place allotted to Morgan-le-Fay, nor to Lancelot, nor to Percival, nor Galahad, nor the Grail. All these were the additions of the prose-romancers who founded on Geoffrey's popular History, incorporating in the growing myth additional Welsh or Breton legends and lays. 5 And, since there is no Lancelot, it is the Roman war, as in Geoffrey, which has taken Arthur from Britain, and in the prosecution of which he hears of Mordred's usurpation. Yet from Malory Hughes seems to have taken the suggestion, not found in Geoffrey, of Mordred's birth by incest between Arthur and his sister; making Arthur knowingly guilty of a crime which was in Malory unconscious. From Malory too, he borrows the name "Gawin," as a translation of Geoffrey's "Walguainus;" though, while Geoffrey and Malory alike kill Gawaine in the battle on Arthur's landing, Hughes preserves him to carry offers of peace to Mordred in Act ii. From Malory, again, he borrows the precise method of Mordred's death, how, by rushing on Arthur's sword and working himself along it,--
"He gains by death access to daunt his sire;"and adopts from Malory or elsewhere the undying tradition of the King's expected return.
Guenevera enters, distracted by the news of Arthur's return. Like Clytemnestra, she thinks of murder, trying to excuse herself under the plea of the nine years' absence of her lord. A few mild platitudes uttered by Fronia, a lady of the Court, are sufficient to decide her against this course, and she passes to the thought of suicide. Here Angharat, her sister, comes to the rescue with lines whose influence on the heroine surprise us less.
"Each where is death! the fates have well ordain'dGuenevera's conscience supplements any defects in Angharat's logic by suggesting that suicide is, after all, inadequate as a punishment.
That each man may bereave himself of life,
But none of death: death is so sure a doom,
A thousand ways do guide us to our graves.
Who then can ever come too late to that,
Whence, when he is come, he never can return?"
"Death is an end of pain, no pain itself.She decides rather on the living death of the cloister, in which her sister acquiesces. Mordred enters and endeavours to dissuade her. Arthur, he urges, is himself not blameless.
Is't meet a plague for such excessive wrong
Should be so short? Should one stroke answer all?"
"He will forgive that needs must be forgiven."Dispute brings on recriminations. Mordred has reaped the most profit; his sin, therefore, is the heavier: and to his ungenerous retort,
"Crime makes them equal whom it jointly stains,"
"Well should she seem most guiltless unto thee,and forthwith enters her nunnery, whence she never emerges. This disappearance of the heroine, and with her all of female interest, in the first act, is the great mistake of the play, and has a depressing effect upon the author. A councillor, Conan, with a singular failure to grasp the desperation of the position, advises submission; to defy Arthur would, he thinks, amount to a wrong action. Mordred's attitude, here as throughout, is clearly defined. Recognising that there is no place of repentance, he will make his crimes good by adding to them, one of many features in the play that suggests Macbeth.
Whate'er she be, that's guilty for thy sake--"
"Weak is the sceptre's hold that seeks but right:
a sovereign's hand
Is scantly safe, but while it smites. Let him
Usurp no crown, that likes a guiltless life."
But think of your reputation, fatuously argues Polonius.
"Fame goes not with our ghosts: the senseless soulAnd so ends the first act, where the lines have more sententious vigour, and are oftener broken, than in any part of the play.
Once gone, neglects what vulgar bruit reports."
The second act contains a Nuntius' report of Arthur's wars with Rome and victory at Dover; some further proofs of Conan's extreme old age with fresh illustrations of his sovereign's patience; Gawin's mission from Arthur with offers of truce and composition; their rejection by Mordred and the arrival of his allies, Saxons, Irish, Picts, and Scots. The most noticeable lines in a tedious act are those in which Mordred expresses his imperious desire for supremacy, and betrays the opinion that self-restraint in a ruler is evidence of weakness. In the third act we have to watch the victorious Arthur suffering from an excessively ill-timed fit of compassion for his country, his soldiers, his foe, and himself:--
"Fame's but a blast that sounds awhilean attitude which betrays the dramatist's necessity of making talk about nothing,--of throwing up a theme on which moral maxims may be strung,--and which is ended by a message of insolent defiance from Mordred that stings him into renewed activity. Yet some excuse is offered near the close of the act in Arthur's conscience-stricken sense of the sin that resulted in Mordred's birth. Then comes the Chorus, more aptly than its wont, with lines on the sad effects of a lofty position; lines which Shakespeare surely noticed, drawn partly from Seneca, and in some of which a vein of genuine poetry makes itself felt through weakness of execution and that abuse of alliteration in which the play abounds.
And quickly stints, and then is quite forgot.
Look, whatsoe'er our virtues have achieved,
The chaos, vast and greedy Time, devours.
To-day all Europe rings with Arthur's praise:
'Twill be as hush'd as I ne'er had been--"
"My slender bark shall creep anenst the shore,The chief feature in the fourth act is the Nuntius' narrative, in two hundred lines of swelling alliterative bombast, of the encounter in Cornwall, which was preceded by a terrible thunderstorm. Such a battle, where--
And shun the winds that sweep the weltering waves.
Proud fortune overslips the safest roads,
And seeks amidst the surging seas those keels
Whose lofty tops and tacklings touch the clouds.
"O base, yet happy boors! O gift of gods
Scant yet perceived! When powder'd ermine robes
With secret sighs, mistrusting their extremes,
In baleful breast forecast their foultering fates,
And stir, and strive, and storm, and all in vain;
Behold the peasant poor with tattered coat,
Whose eyes a meaner fortune feeds with sleep,
How safe and sound the careless snudge doth snore!
Low-roofed lurks the house of slender hap,
Costless, not gay without, scant clean within,
Yet safe; and oftener shrouds the hoary hairs,
Than haughty turrets, rear'd with curious art,
To harbour heads that wield the golden crest."
"Boisterous bangs with thumping thwacks fall thick,"may well prove fatal not only to the act, but to almost everybody engaged, including the usurper--
"All fury-like frounc'd up with frantic frets:"and Arthur, mortally wounded, hardly survives. In other scenes, Gildas, a British nobleman, who has evidently taken Conan's measure, most unreasonably accuses the councillor as responsible for the war; or both lament the ruin of Britain. In the fifth act the dying Arthur enters, supported by Cador, Duke of Cornwall, to lament the disaster and be consoled by the Chorus. In spite of the stiffness and want of art in the execution, there is nobility in the conception of Arthur's character, in his compassion for Mordred and his people, in his blame of himself in this scene, in his sorrow over the extinction of his line, tempered by the proud sense that his arm has wrought its share of great deeds.
"Yet go we not inglorious to the ground:And the bringing of Mordred's body upon the stage, with Arthur's desire for the vizor to be lifted that he may gaze on the loved features of his dead son, has dramatic appropriateness, though the poetic opportunity is but ill seized.
Set wish apart, we have perform'd enough."
Let us not again consign The Misfortunes of Arthur to the dust, which is now but rarely disturbed, without briefly acknowledging the service rendered to our drama by this piece and its fellows. We are accustomed, and rightly, to rejoice in the triumph of the romantic over the classical school, but we must not forget that the vanquished conferred undoubted boons upon their conquerors. No one can turn from the hopeless metrical irregularity, the rudeness of treatment, the dull obscenity, which mark many of the later moralities and the rough chronicle plays of the time, to contemplate the comparative order and artistic skill seen in the work of Greene and Shakespeare, without becoming sensible of this debt. As was said by Mr. J.A. Symonds, the pseudo-classic writers "forced principles of careful composition, gravity of diction, and harmonious construction, on the attention of contemporary playwrights." 6 They set a standard of form which the popular writers were bound to follow; they compelled them to add strength of thought and beauty of language to that vigour of action which they possessed already. In spite of such instances of grave treatment as are afforded by Everyman, by The Nice Wanton, and The Disobedient Child, one may well have doubts whether, without this intervention of classical example, writers would ever have attained to true tragic dignity at all. More than this. In reading the earlier historical work of Shakespeare, we are struck by a certain stiffness and formality of style, a tendency to repeat and play upon phrases, which Mr. Hudson, the American critic, has called his "rhetorical" manner. As instances, might be taken the Duchess' speech in the first scene of the second act of Richard II., and Margaret's curse in Richard III (i., 3). There is something of the same kind in Marlowe's Edward II., and in Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and Soliman and Perseda; but one cannot but feel that the manner in question has a stronger resemblance to the lines in The Misfortune, or Gorboduc, or Damon and Pithias, and that it was from these court-plays that it was borrowed by Marlowe and Shakespeare alike. Both infused poetry into it, and strengthened the diction; but the sententious and moral force was borrowed. Even the wit-combats, the continual play upon words, which abound in Shakespeare's early work, and are found to 1600 at least, though they had a more direct and obvious example in Lyly's euphuism, may yet owe something to the stichomuthia of the Court tragedies. Lastly, it is to the Court poets that our drama owes its great vehicle of blank verse. The metrical disorder which preceded its general adoption is well illustrated in the case of Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra, written in or before 1578, where we find, side by side, the old fourteen-syllable Alexandrine into which the irregular doggerel of Roister Doister had subsided, the short dactylic lines of four accents which had been used by John Heywood, the decasyllable line rhymed sometimes alternately sometimes in couplets, lastly, some blank verse. Lyly recognised the superiority of this last, and was the first to employ it exclusively in a comedy, The Woman in the Moone, which there is reason to regard as his earliest play, written about 1851-2. Peele wrote some good blank verse in his Arraignment of Paris (1584), and later, in his Edward I; and Marlowe set his definitive seal upon it in 1587. But the varied cadences which Marlowe introduces, some of which, in spite of Collier's exaggerated praise, are far from appealing to a modern ear, had in several cases been unconsciously anticipated; and it is to the Court poets that our drama really owes this metre--to Norton and Sackville, to Gascoigne and Kinwelmersh, to the authors of Tancred and Giamunda, to John Lyly, to Thomas Hughes.
A hundred years have passed away before Arthur again, in 1691, treads the English stage, a century more momentous than any in our history. The Armada has been scattered and the naval supremacy of Britain established. The Stuarts have come and gone; and England, mistress of herself, allows her sovereigns such tether as she deems consistent with her own interests. The great wave of Puritanism which deluged the country, retired some thirty years ago, leaving behind it a deposit of mud. But ere this we have swept and shovelled it largely out of sight, or at least have allowed a fair growth of social and political vegetation to curtain it; and all the marsh flies that buzzed and swarmed over its surface have had their little day and disappeared. Gone are the Castlemaine and the queer Duchesses, the lovely Jennings and the mischievous Hamilton, the obliging Miss Stewart and the other lady who, in the judgment of his Royal Highness, beat her almost on the post, or by the single pip of green silk stockings. Dryden, who had basked in the moist heat and tepid airs of that post-fluvial epoch, has felt since then the east wind of the Revolution. With the transference to the despised Shadwell of his salaried posts of post-laureate and historiographer, he has been thrown almost entirely on his own literary efforts for support. Barred by prudence from the exercise of his satirical gift against a Government which tolerated while it deprived him, yet himself exposed to the irritating gnat-bites of every petty lampooner who envied his fame, he has turned grimly to the task of translating Persius and Juvenal, and to the illustration of a ripe critical power by his Discourse on Satire.
But his literary empire could never be wholly lost; and a recent fresh attempt in the in the dramatic direction, the Amphitruan had some what revived his popularity. It was in order to take advantage of this that he resuscitated his uncompleted opera, King Arthur, or The British Worthy, a piece conceived originally to be, as sequel to Albion and Albanius, the vehicle of political compliment to Charles II. The coincidence of the revival of the latter piece with Monmouth's rebellion had caused its withdrawal from the boards; and King Arthur, the destined sequel, went back into its drawer. Reproduced now, it had to be considerably modified to suit the changed conditions. Its political bearing is not so much altered as effaced, and the author laments the sacrifice of certain attendant literary beauties. Yet the restriction must have improved his chance of doing justice to the subject. It was one whose treatment had been with him a long-cherished dream. Like Milton before him, he had designed it to take shape in a great epic poem; and the Discourse on Satire admits us to a glimpse of some of the supernatural machinery he had intended to employ. But lack of leisure caused by pecuniary pressure and later, the events of the revolution, had damped his intended wing; and he sadly abandons the great task, narrowing his effort to the completion of an opera, where lofty poetic aim must be subordinated to the needs of Dr. Purcell's music and the desire to please eye as well as ear.
To the supernatural agencies before thought of, and partly to the connection with Merlin, must be attributed the fairy or magic element on which he largely relies. It was "King Arthur conquering the Saxons" that he had wished to write of; and so, in this meagre fulfilment of his loftier scheme, it is Arthur, the national champion against these foreign foes, not Arthur, the wronged husband and father, to whom we are introduced. The intrigue between Lancelot and Guinevere, on which we should have expected Dryden to expend his skill most willingly, finds no place; neither character even appears in the cast. The personal and amatory interest is, however, far from neglected; indeed, it predominates over the national. Instead of the frail Guinevere we have, as heroine, the blind girl Emmeline, who hails, like her predecessor, from Cornwall, being the daughter of its duke, and whose beauty, if it equalled her innocence, must have been rare indeed. She is also an object of desire to Oswald, Arthur's Saxon rival and King of Kent. Oswald is assisted by a Saxon magician, Osmond, who has control over certain devils headed by "Grimbald, an Earthly Spirit." Arthur's purveyor of magic is, of course, Merlin; and his party receives further opportune aid from "Philidel, an Airy Spirit," who, having been reluctantly involved in the fall of the angels, is striving, not without hope, to regain by virtuous conduct his lost status. It is he who thwarts Grimbald's mission to lead the victorious Arthur and his soldiers into a marsh; he who, when Emmeline has been surprised by Oswald and immured by Osmond in an enchanted grove, is empowered by Merlin with overruling spells, conducts Arthur to an interview with his love, and heals her blindness. Merlin's omission to effect this cure before Emmeline left home is not explained. It comes at least in time to emphasise the undesirability of the attentions of Osmond, the enemy's magic-man, who, playing his master false in this respect, entertains the captive heroine in the wood with the show of an arctic landscape, where a freezing population celebrate a masque of Cupid. Merlin discovers the secret of the enchanted grove; and, acting under his advice, Arthur makes a second attempt to break the spell. He is met this time by blandishments of sirens borrowed from Tasso; and his subsequent attempt to hew down one of the trees of the wood calls forth a stream of blood and cries, apparently from Emmeline, who represents herself as imprisoned in the trunk. He is on the point of desisting and disarming, when Philidel discovers to him, in the supposed fair, the fiend Grimbald. The grove is then destroyed, Grimbald made captive, and Emmeline delivered. In the last act the strife between Oswald and Arthur is decided by single combat, and Arthur's victory followed by a series of songs. The connection between the martial and the amatory interest is, perhaps, hardly stringent enough; though the surprises of the piece were doubtless effective on the stage. There is something of a genuine, natural touch in the scene where Emmeline recovers her sight: but the lines, written in the blank verse to which Dryden's latest plays resort, if generally less absurd, are not so often strong, as those of The Misfortunes; the characterization is left to be filled in chiefly in the tiring-room; and the hero of Geoffrey and Malory becomes the tinselled amorist of a pantomime. If the piece can be said to exhibit external influence at all, it is that of Comus, which is slightly perceived in one or two places. But the opera as a whole won immediate popularity. It was revived in 1736, with allusions to the Horse of Hanover; and in a somewhat altered and compressed form in 1784, with additional music by Dr. Arne. When Sir Walter published his edition of Dryden in 1808, this alone among all his plays was still occasionally performed; and some of Purcell's music, notably the song in the first act, "Come, if you dare," lingers in modern recollection yet.
With Mr. Comyns Carr's King Arthur; a Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts, we approach the last and most congenial portion of our task. We said at the outset that his play was essentially Tennysonian. It is so in the general air and turn of the verses, no less than in the treatment of the theme, in the fuller psychology, in the speech and feeling assigned to the three chief actors in the story. Yet the drama does not merely reflect from the Idylls those traits which differentiate the nineteenth century from the distant age of Malory. The effect of that vast gap of time was seen in Tennyson chiefly in the development of the mind and conscience of Guinevere, in the qualifying of Lancelot's halo of invincible prowess and chivalric manliness by the distinct shadow of guilt and remorse, in the emphasising in Arthur his love for and absolute trust in his wife before the crisis, his mercy for her and his deep melancholy after it. In all three characters the Laureate made large departures from Malory; but in all Mr. Carr may be said to have gone a step further still. In the case of Guinevere, while we have recurrence to Malory in giving her sight of Arthur first, we have the modern psychological explanation of her subsequent conduct, an explanation whose modernity is triumphantly established by her discovery in Act iv. that it was a self-deception.
"Oft when we kneel and pray
Before God's image bleeding on the Cross,
We cheat our souls, for our vain hearts still seek
The manhood, not the God: 'twas so with me.
That hour when Arthur came, it seemed as though
Christ's hand had beckoned, and I knelt to him,
And, in the midst of worship, thought I saw
The winged heart of love. But when you came,
His great ambassador from Camelot,
I saw love's heart indeed, and knew I loved--
But not the King." (Act i.)
It might be natural to suppose that the rise of Guinevere in our esteem would increase our willingness to excuse her lover, yet this is not the case. The elevation of character given to Arthur in the Idylls had seemed to require the utmost effort to maintain Lancelot in hopes of success as his rival; yet in the play, where the mystic in Arthur is largely suppressed, Lancelot becomes even less possible. Not only are all his warlike achievements in the far background, and his prowess and chivalry in tournament excluded from the actual picture, but he is represented as false to a love he has vowed before the Queen's coming. Not even his baring of his breast to Arthur's stroke, in the third act, nor his final reported rescue of Guinevere from Mordred and the fire in the fourth, seem at all to redeem him. The glamour, somehow, is quite gone from Lancelot; in spite of modesty, of piety, of tenderness and solicitude for the Queen, he remains something of a carpet-knight, with a taste for fine phrases, who has seduced his friend's wife.
The advance on the Idylls in Arthur's case is rather that he is less of the "blameless prig" of the parody. Tennyson had set himself to embody in the King an allegory of the human soul,--
"The conscience of a saintMr. Carr was under no such limitations. He shows us in the prologue a man actuated by the ambition to do great deeds and rule the world; in the first act a husband who tenderly loves and cherishes his fair wife, and a king who accords but a grudging assent to a purely religious enterprise which mundane wisdom disapproves. His best knight, at least, must not, shall not, go.
Among his warring senses."
"This request is not for thee:In the third act we see, first, the incredulity; secondly, the alternate stupor and sting of the wrong; thirdly, the just resentment with the wife and the scorn of her seducer, that are natural and fitting in the wronged husband and king, and tend to make Mr. Carr's Arthur more human that the archangel who, in the Idylls, visits Almesbury to deliver an interval between two wars. Yet love is mixed with the sternness and self-vindication of the last act, and we are touched by the fancy that wanders back to Cameliard in the last moments of consciousness. We may note that for the vision of Guinevere seen by Arthur, first in dream and later at the mere, the dramatist seems indebted to Spenser. 7
For thy rich manhood hath a holier task--
Here, by thy King, to fight for this poor world...."
Mr. Carr's treatment of the fair Elaine is one of two points where, in a partial return from Tennyson to Malory, he finds suggestion for important dramatic modification. Malory represents Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, as mother of Galahad by Lancelot, who, in Book xi. ch. 9, reproaches Guinevere with robbing her of Lancelot's love; while her namesake, "Elaine le Blank," is never, either in Malory or Tennyson, confronted with her great rival, nor has she ever, in either, been mistress of Lancelot's heart. Mr. Carr, fusing these two Elaines into one, brings the maid of Astolat to Court to entreat the Queen's aid in regaining the love which Lancelot owns that he once felt and vowed to her. This not only secures the admirable dramatic scene between the two women, but leads directly to the declaration of love between the Queen and Lancelot, and to the capital curtain where Guinevere, urged alike by Arthur and Elaine, yields, after a struggle, to her temptation, and grants to both the prayer that will destroy their happiness, by bidding Lancelot abjure the Quest.
Another point in which the tale is modified is the elimination of the Roman war of the The Misfortunes, and of the war with Lancelot which, in the French Mort d'Artus, in the Morte Darthur, and in Tennyson, precedes Mordred's rebellion; and the development of the somewhat passive attitude of watchful hate assigned to Mordred in the Idylls into an active conspiracy against his uncle's throne, whose progress we are allowed to watch. This conspiracy strengthens the unity and interest of the whole play. We hear the first low mutterings of the storm in the opening words of the first act, at the very time when the King is about to be shorn of half his strength by the departure of the Knights of the Grail. Spies have been captured lurking about Caerleon, and Mordred tells his mother--
"The gathered hosts of Cornwall and of WalesBetween the first and second acts that sign has been given. Caerleon, closely besieged, must yield, until immediate succour is sent; while Mordred's men keep watch on every road to intercept all messengers to the unconscious Arthur at Camelot. One such, Sir Morys, a Knight of the Round Table, has but just been silenced by Mordred's sword. Lancelot's chivalrous friendship for the King was the one obstacle that Mordred feared; but in this same interval has been consummated the fatal sin which is to tie Lancelot's hands, and in the second act Morgan is able to lead her scheming son where he may witness the lovers' embraces beneath the may-white woods.
Wait but my sign."
The interval between Acts ii. and iii. is short, if any. Morys' death has been discovered: Lancelot, going to inform the king, is confronted by Mordred, who, confident of his hold upon him through the menace publicity bears for Guinevere, boldly avows his own treachery and invites complicity. Another passionate scene between the lovers, and there follows the arrival of the barge bearing the dead Elaine. Her dying message, and the queen's swoon on hearing it, give Mordred his opportunity of discrediting Lancelot's threatened discovery of himself by revealing the intrigue. Lancelot's attempt to shield Guinevere by denial is unsupported by the conscience-stricken queen; he offers himself to Arthur's sword, but something unnerves the king's hand, and he is dismissed with a bitter adjournment of the death-stroke till they meet in arms. Then follows the Tennysonian reproach of Guinevere as she lies grovelling at the king's feet, a scene which sacrifices something of dignity to the exigencies of space, and something of pathetic force to that more humanised conception of Arthur already noted. It is broken by the inrush of the knights with news of the danger of Caerleon; and as we watch the impressive tableau where Arthur and his knighthood stand, with uplifted swords, in a stern assumption of martial purpose, we are shaken for a moment from our modern dream of silken comfort to hear the echo of an heroic conflict and catch the gleam of celestial weapons.
It is in the closing act, where the lines already laid down lead the dramatist most apart from his predecessors, that we feel him least impressive. It is precisely in the conclusion of the tale that Malory is at his best; it is in the Morte d'Arthur, written first and following closely in Malory's steps, that Tennyson touched the maximum of power. Any departure here was obviously attended with danger; and Mordred's suit, indignantly repelled by the imprisoned and repentant Guinevere, in spite of some good lines, strikes us as a little cheap and melodramatic. Mordred, left as Arthur's representative, on the arrival of news of his death assumes the kingdom; and when later tidings announce his victory he determines, relying on Merlin's prophecy, to make his usurpation good. In revenge for Guinevere's rejection of him, he arraigns her, on the charge of causing her husband's death, before a council of subservient followers, who condemn her to suffer the penalty of fire, unless some knight can be found to do battle in her behalf. In a scene slightly reminiscent of that between Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, the wronged Arthur answers, with vizored face, the challenge of the herald, hears the queen's pathetic acknowledgment of his recovered empire in her heart, reveals himself, when she is gone, to the usurper, and is mortally wounded by him in the ensuing combat. Urged by his mother, Mordred hurries off to the execution of Guinevere; but Arthur's dying hour is lightened by the news that the sword of Lancelot has avenged him, and by the reappearance of Guinevere herself, which recalls him, amid the gathering haze of death, to the May-time of his love. The act closes with Merlin's prophecy of his immortality, and a vision of the mystic barge and the three queens.
We must, however, acknowledge the superior judgment which sought to unite the legend with the present by pointing to Arthur as the founder of our national sense, and connecting him, through the restoration of the conquering blade to its parent waters, with the naval supremacy of his country in after ages. The prologue, too, where the national idea is embodied, affords the dramatist opportunity for the best lines in a play whose blank line verse has no small share of dignity and beauty.
"He who would rule the day must greet the dawn.
There is no hour to lose; give me my sword!
For echoing through the night, I too can hear
The voices of England, like a sobbing child
That longs for day; and gathering in night's sky,
I see that throng of England's unborn sons,
Whose glory is her glory-prisoned souls
With faces pressed against the bars of Time,
Waiting their destined hour. Give me my sword!"