Review of J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur
So curiously blended and interwoven are the various legends incorporated by Sir Thomas Malory into the "Morte d'Arthur" that the work itself hardly seems more promising to the dramatist than the "Inferno" or the "Decameron." That the idea of an epic somewhat after the fashion of the "Orlando Innamorato" should have suggested itself to Milton is natural. A drama is, however, another matter, and the most inexperienced of dramatists alone have sought hitherto to fit to the stage the adventures of Arthur and his knights. At the bidding of Mr. Irving, Mr. Comyns Carr has been more bold, and has adapted for stage production a portion of the work dealing with the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere, the pursuit of the San Grail, the malignity of Morgan le Fay, and the treachery of Mordred, together with the ultimate "passing" and somewhat dubious apotheosis of the king. Practically it is but the closing scenes with which the drama is concerned. A prologue, short almost as "the posy of a ring," shows the revelation to Arthur by Merlin of the secret of his birth and the receipt of Excalibur from the spirit of the mere. This, together with the concluding scene, serves the purpose of a species of framework. Beginning, however, with the departure of the knights in search of the Grail, which may rank as the chief cause of the disruption of the brotherhood of the Round Table, the play practically deals only with the final action.
Mr. Comyns Carr's success is creditable. He has told in verse--respectable throughout, rising in passages to genuine power, and interwoven with lyrics of considerable merit--a striking story, has inspired a warm interest in the fortunes of some of his characters, and has employed in the conduct of the legend much ingenious and significant symbolism. His verse is thus more than the framework of a spectacle, though incidentally it is that also. As spectacle nothing more beautiful and suggestive has been seen on the stage. The opportunities afforded artists such as Sir E. Burne-Jones and Sir Arthur Sullivan have been exemplary, and many of the scenes have the shadowy mystic beauty which appeals directly to the imagination and constitutes the very atmosphere of the legends. There are, of course, in the "Morte d'Arthur" things all but justifying the condemnation of Ascham. Very far from ideal is the love depicted: the stories are rooted in incest, and marriage here, as in some modern French fiction, appears more of a whet to appetite than a restraint upon advance. The carnage is awful, not only among felon knights, but among those of irreproachable virtue. The manner in which brothers, such as Sir Balin and Sir Balan, kill each other recalls less the fierce joy of warriors in "foemen worthy of their steel" than the Hibernian instinct wherever you come upon a head to crack it. Still the whole is bathed in an air of poetry and imagination to which few are insensible, and it is on this account, in a great degree, that the collection of Malory known as the "Morte d'Arthur" claims to rank among the most memorable of English works. This atmosphere, thanks in some measure to the accessories of the piece, is partially preserved. Though full of suggestion of Faust and Marguerite, the opening scene, in which Arthur receives from the lake the sword Excalibur, has something of the atmosphere of old romance. The declaration of Arthur's "War" is real enough to transport the audience in imagination into the scenes depicted, and the knights, whether in their burnished armour or their robes of peace, are lifelike and picturesque. The appearance of Guinevere in a lustrous, flowing robe of indescribable beauty and sheen has marvellous witchery; and Elaine even might have stepped out of an illuminated missal, whence in fact, in defiance of anachronism, are drawn our ideas of the epoch. The architecture is appropriately Byzantine. No mere pageant is the play; yet it is as a sublimated pageant that it makes most direct appeal. Dramatic opportunities could not be numerous. The scenes of love-making between Lancelot and Guinevere are sentimental and idyllic, rather than dramatic and passionate. They are rendered with admirable delicacy by Miss Terry and Mr. Forbes Robertson. The combat between high ambition and unholy longing is finely shown by Mr. Forbes Robertson, whose delivery of the verse is melodious, limpid, delightful. Mr. Irving gives the scenes of arraignment of Lancelot and pardon of the Queen striking interpretation; but we pine vainly for the elocution once heard in Becket, and then apparently locked up as too precious for daily wear. There should, however, be no grudging in our acceptance of a treat so marvellous as Mr. Irving has provided. An Elizabethan masque can scarcely have exhibited more beauty, and we have in addition a superb interpretation of a stirring story.