Back to top

Review of J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur

   Mr. Irving is to be congratulated on the impulse which has led him to exclaim, on this occasion, "Let us get rid of that insufferably ignorant specialist, the dramatist, and try whether something fresh cannot be done by a man equipped with all the culture of the age." It was an inevitable step in the movement which is bringing the stage more and more into contact with life. When I was young, the banquets on the stage were made by the property man: his goblets and pasties, and epergnes laden with grapes, regaled guests who walked off and on through illusory wainscoting simulated by the precarious perspective of the wings. The scene-painter built the rooms; the constumier made the dresses: the armour was made apparently by dipping the legs of the knights into a solution of salt of spangles and precipitating the metal on their calves by some electro-process; the leader of the band made the music; and the author wrote the verse and invented the law, the morals, the religion, the art, the jurisprudence, and whatever else might be needed in the abstract department of the play. Since then we have seen great changes. Real walls, ceilings, and doors are made by real carpenters; real tailors and dressmakers clothe the performers; real armourers harness them; and real musicians write the music and have it performed with full orchestral honours at the Crystal Palace and the Philharmonic. All that remains is to get a real poet to write the verse, a real philosopher to do the morals, a real divine to put in the religion, a real lawyer to adjust the law, and a real painter to design the pictorial effects. This is too much to achieve at one blow; but Mr. Irving made a brave step towards it when he resolved to get rid of the author and put in his place his dear old friend Comyns Carr as an encyclopedic gentleman well up to date in most of these matters. And Mr. Comyns Carr, of course, was at once able to tell him that there was an immense mass of artistic and poetic tradition, accumulated by generations of poets and painter, lying at hand all ready for exploitation by any experienced dealer with ingenuity and literary faculty enough to focus it in a stage entertainment. Such a man would have to know, for instance, that educated people have ceased to believe that architecture means "ruins by moonlight" (style, ecclesiastical Gothic); that the once fashionable admiration of the Renascence and "the old masters" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been swept away by the growth of a genuine sense of the naïve dignity and charm of thirteenth-century work, and a passionate affection of the exquisite beauty of fifteenth-century work, so that nowadays ten acres of Carracci, Giulio Romano, Guido, Domenichino, and Pietro di Cortona will not buy an inch of Botticelli, or Lippi, or John Bellini--no, not even with a few yards of Raphael thrown in; and that the whole rhetorical school in English literature, from Shakespeare to Byron, appears to us in our present mood only another side of the terrible degringolade from Michael Angelo to Canova and Thorwaldsen, all of the whose works would not now tempt us to part with a single fragment by Donatello, or even a pretty foundling baby by Della Robbia. And yet this, which is the real art culture of England to-day, is only dimly known to our dramatic authors as a momentary bygone craze out of which a couple of successful pieces, "Patience" and "The Colonel," made some money in their day. Mr. Comyns Carr knows better. He knows that Burne-Jones had made himself the greatest among English decorative painters by picking up the tradition of his art where Lippi left it, and utterly ignoring "their Raphaels, Correggios, and stuff." He knows that William Morris has made himself the greatest living master of the English language, both in prose and verse, by picking up the tradition of the literary art where Chaucer left it, and that Morris and Burne-Jones, close friends and co-operators in many a masterpiece, form the highest aristocracy of English art to-day. And he knows exactly how far their culture has spread and penetrated, and how much simply noble beauty of Romanesque architecture, what touching loveliness and delicate splendor of fifteenth-century Italian dresses and armour, what blue from the hills around Florence and what sunset gloom deepening into splendid black shadow from the horizons of Giorgione will be recognized with delight on the stage if they be well counterfeited there; also what stories we long to have as the subject of these deeply desired pictures. Foremost among such stories stands that of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere; and what Mr. Comyns Carr has done is to contrive a play in which we have our heart's wish, and see these figures come to life, and move through halls and colonnades that might have been raised by the master-builders of San Zeno or San Ambrogio, out into the eternal beauty of the woodland spring, acting their legend just as we know it, in just such vestures and against just such backgrounds of blue hill and fiery sunset. No mere dramatic author could have wrought this miracle. Mr. Comyns Carr has done it with ease, by simply knowing whom to send for. His long business experience as a man of art and letters, and the contact with artists and poets which it has involved, have equipped him completely for the work. In Mr. Irving's theatre, with Burne-Jones to design for him, Harker and Hawes Craven to paint for him, and Malory and Tennyson and many another on his bookshelves, he has put out his hand cleverly on a ready-made success, and tasted the joy of victory without the terror of battle.

   But how am I to praise this deed when my own art, the art of literature, is left shabby and ashamed amid the triumph of the arts of the painter and the actor? I sometime wonder where Mr. Irving will go when the dies--whether he will dare to claim, as a master artist, to walk where he may any day meet Shakespeare whom he has mutilated, Goethe whom he has travestied, and the nameless creator of the hero-king out of whose mouth he has uttered jobbing verses. For in poetry Mr. Comyns Carr is frankly a jobber and nothing else. There is one scene in the play in which Mr. Irving rises to the height of his art, and impersonates, with the noblest feeling, and the most sensitive refinement of execution, the King Arthur of all our imaginations in the moment when he learns that his wife loves his friend instead of himself. And all the time, whilst the voice, the gesture, the emotion expressed are those of the hero-king, the talk is the talk of an angry and jealous costermonger, exalted by the abject submission of the other parties to a transport of magnanimity in refraining from reviling his wife and punching her lover's head. I do not suppose that Mr. Irving said to Mr. Comyns Carr in so many words, "Write what trash you like: I'll play the real King Arthur over the head of your stuff"; but that was what it came to. And the end of it was that Mr. Comyns Carr was too much for Mr. Irving. When King Arthur, having broken down in an attempt to hit Lancelot with his sword, Guinevere grovelling on the floor with her head within an inch of his toes, and stood plainly conveying to the numerous bystanders that this was the proper position for a female who had forgotten herself so far as to prefer another man to him, one's gorge rose at the Tappertitian vulgarity and infamy of the thing; and it was a relief when the scene ended with a fine old Richard the Third effect of Arthur leading his mail-clad knights off to battle. That vision of a fine figure of a woman, torn with sobs and remorse, stretched at the feet of a nobly superior and deeply wronged lord of creation, is no doubt still as popular with the men whose sentimental vanity it flatters as it was in the days of the "Idylls of the King." But since then we have been learning that a woman is something more than a piece of sweetstuff to fatten a man's emotions; and our amateur King Arthurs are beginning to realize, with shocked surprise, that the more generous the race grows, the stronger becomes its disposition to bring them to their senses with a stinging dose of wholesome ridicule. Mr. Comyns Carr miscalculated the spirit of the age on this point and the result was that he dragged Mr. Irving down from the height of the loftiest passage in his acting to the abyss of the lowest depth of the dialogue.

   Whilst not sparing my protest against this unpardonable scene, I can hardly blame Mr. Comyns Carr for the touch of human frailty which made him reserve to himself the honour of providing the "book of the words" for Burne-Jones's picture-opera. No doubt, since Mr. Carr is no more a poet than I am, the consistent course would have been to call in Mr. William Morris to provide the verse. Perhaps, if Mr. Irving, in his black harness, with his visor down and Excalibur ready to hand and well in view, were to present himself at the Kelmscott Press fortified with a propitiatory appeal from the great painter, the poet might, without absolutely swearing, listen to a proposal that he should condescend to touch up those little rhymed acrostics in which Merlin utters his prophesies, leaving the blank verse padding to Mr. Comyns Carr. For the blank verse is at all events accurately metrical, a fact which distinguishes the author sharply from most modern dramatists. The ideas are second-hand, and are dovetailed into a coherent structure instead of developing into one another by any life of their own; but they are sometimes very well chosen; and Mr. Carr is often guided to his choice of them by the strength and sincerity of their effect on his own feelings. At such moments, if he does not create, he reflects so well, and sometimes reflects such fine rays too, that one gladly admits that there are men whose originality might have been worse than his receptivity. 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 tested by it strongest link.

   The only great bit of acting in the piece is that passage of Mr. Irving's to which I have already alluded--a masterly fulfillment of the promise of one or two quiet but eloquent touches in his scene with Guinevere in the second act. Popularly speaking, Mr. Forbes Robertson as Lancelot is the hero of the piece. He has a beautiful costume, mostly of plate-armour of Burne-Jonesian design; and he wears it beautifully, like a fifteenth-century St. George, the spiritual, interesting face completing a rarely attractive living picture. He was more than applauded on his entrance; he was positively adored. His voice is an organ with only one stop on it; to the musician it suggests a clarionet in A, played only in the chalumeau register; but then the chalumeau, sympathetically sounded, has a richly melancholy and noble effect. The one tune he had to play throughout suited it perfectly: its subdued passion, both in love and devotion, affected the house deeply; and the crowning moment of the drama for most of those present was his clasping of Guinevere's waist as he knelt at her feet when she intoxicated him by answering his confession with her own. As to Miss Ellen Terry, it was the old story, a born actress of real women's parts condemned to figure as a mere artist's model in costume plays which, form the woman's point of view, are foolish flatteries written by gentlemen for gentlemen. It is pathetic to see Miss Terry snatching at some fleeting touch of nature in her part, and playing it not only to perfection, but often with a parting caress that brings it beyond that for an instant as she relinquishes, very loth, and passes on to the next length of arid sham-feminine twaddle in blank verse, which she pumps out in little rhythmic strokes in a desperate and all too obvious effort to make music of it. I should prove myself void of the true critic's passion if I could pass with polite commonplace over what seems to me a heartless waste of an exquisite talent. What a theatre for a woman of genius to be attached to! Obsolete tomfooleries like "Robert Macaire," school-girl charades like "Nance Oldfeld," blank verse by Wills, Comyns Carr, and Calmour, with intervals of hashed Shakespeare; and all the time a stream of splendid women's parts pouring from the Ibsen volcano and minor craters, and being snapped up by the rising generation. Strange, under these circumstances, that it is Mr. Irving and not Miss Terry who feels the want of a municipal theatre. He has certainly done his best to make everyone else feel it.

   The rest of the acting is the merest stock company routine, there being only three real parts in the play. Sir Arthur Sullivan (who, in the playbill, drops his knighthood whilst Burne-Jones parades his baronetcy) sweetens the sentiment of the scenes here and there by penn'orths of orchestral sugarstick, for which the dramatic critics, in their soft-eared innocence, praise him above Wagner. The overture and the vocal pieces are pretty specimens of his best late work. Some awkwardness in the construction of the play towards the end has led the stage manager into a couple of absurdities. For instance, 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 a railway station. I do not know what is supposed to happen in the last act--whether Guinevere is alive or a ghost when she comes in at Arthur's death (I understood she was being burnt behind the scenes), or what becomes of Lancelot and Mordred, or who on earth the two gentlemen are who come in successively to interview the dying Arthur, or why the funeral barge should leave Mr. Irving lying on the stage and bear off to bliss an imposter with a strikingly different nose. In fact I understood nothing that happened after the sudden blossoming out of Arthur into Lohengrin, Guinevere into Elsa, Mordred into Telramund, and Morgan la Fey into Ortuda in the combat scene, in which, by the way, Mr. Comyns Carr kills the wrong man, probably from having read Wagner carelessly. But I certainly think something might be done to relieve the shock of the whole court suddenly bolting and leaving the mortally wounded King floundering on the floor without a soul to look after him. These trifles are mere specks of dust on a splendid picture; but they could easily be brushed off.