The Revival of Poetic Drama

IT is probably safe to say that since the days of Shirley, that is, since the experience of men who might have known Shakespeare, the present is the first occasion upon which two dramatic poems, of real and high literary merit, by the same author, have enjoyed runs of success at the same time upon the London stage. Even although Mr. Stephen Phillips should prove to be one of those swallows who do not make a summer, and although poetic drama should once more sink into desuetude, the vogue of his beautiful plays will remain a cheering landmark in the history of our literature. It will encourage us to go on hoping, even though such a triumph should not occur again for another two hundred and fifty years. But it is impossible in the flush of his very interesting experiments to take a view relatively so gloomy as this. We prefer to believe, and we are justified in hoping, that the perennial yearning for beauty and harmony and mystery, which is embodied in the heart even of the London playgoer, may be so fostered and fed by Ulysses and by Paolo and Francesca that it will not be content in future to be persistently snubbed and silenced as it has been in the past.

It seems worth while to consider, from a perfectly common-sense point of view, what is the reason of the difficulty which English poets have hitherto found in making their verse listened to with enjoyment on the stage. That in some countries poetry and large bodies of pleasure-seekers are able to shake hands across the footlights is absolutely certain. We have only to look at France, where the tragedies of Corneille and Racine — which are nothing if they are not poetry — have delighted successive generations, without intermission, since the very time, when we, in England, began to find stage poetry so difficult as to be practically impossible. If gay, social, and lively people, in large, recurrent numbers, can still be induced to sit, breathless, through five-act tragedies of elaborately rhymed poetry, like Le Cid and Phèdre, appreciating the drama thoroughly, and no whit impeded by the harmonies of the exquisite verse, it is plain that there can be no necessary divorce between a poem and the stage. But we are told that France, and Scandinavia with its saga-dramas, and Germany with its Schiller and Goethe, and Italy from Politian down to d’ Annunzio are not England or America, and that there is something radically offensive to the Anglo-Saxon playgoer in drama that has pure literary form. Well, then, let us keep our inquiry to England and see what the facts are.

Before we consider what actors like Betterton and Garrick and Macready did or tried to do in the ages which preceded Mr. Beerbohm Tree, and what struggles dramatic poetry made during the two centuries and a half while the greenroom waited for Mr. Phillips, it may be desirable to combat one or two fallacies. To the commonest argument against poetic drama, namely, that people go to the theatre for an amusement which is almost infantile in its simplicity, an entertainment which takes them out of themselves without strain or responsibility or effort of any kind, the reply which I would make is to resign the contention without a struggle. I would admit it to be true that eighty per cent of those who go to the play, go there because it is a “ play,” because the lights, and the music, and the pretty women, and the bright illusions help them to “ get through ” the evening ; because they have worked too hard and are worried, or have eaten too much food and are comatose, or have risked too much money and are anxious ; and because they want, not an intellectual stimulus, but a physical and moral sedative. This is a fact, and in our modern existence it is not likely to diminish in importance. There will always be this eighty per cent who take their theatre as if it were morphia, or at least as if it were a glass of champagne. When we ask for a revival of poetic drama, we do not forget the numerical importance of this class, or its limited powers of endurance. We propose that it should continue to be catered for. But we suggest that the residue, the twenty per cent, are now strong enough to insist on being catered for also.

Another fallacy, it appears to me, is that poetry on the stage must be so lofty and pompous a thing, so pharisaical, so dictatorial, that common ears are stunned by its sermons or glutted by its imagery and its diction. We have allowed ourselves to accept the notion that poetic drama must not be expected to give pleasure, but only instruction and intellectual stimulus. There is an idea that it is connected with “ examinations,” that it may involve a university professor holding forth on the stage between the acts. For my own part, I am one of those who are not averse to a serious moral purpose on the stage. Quite occasionally, I can listen to a sermon from the footlights, and I have never been able to understand why a “ problem ” play — which is purely and simply a play which excites difference of opinion regarding a moot point in morals — should be considered so detestable and make the critics so excessively angry. I confess I believe it to be these latter gentlemen, and not the real public, who bridle so much at the idea that some one is trying to preach to them in the theatre. But we are not dealing with “ problem ” plays to-day ; we are speaking of “ poetic ” dramas of love and adventure and romance, written in fine verse by distinguished poets, and able to be enjoyed as literature even in the absence of scenery and lights and the glamour of the actresses. It has certainly been our error to make this class of play too grandiloquent and too remote from human interests. Success awaits the poet who will bring on to the boards the real flush and glow of fancy, with perfect dignity, yet in such a simple fashion that every one can without difficulty follow and appreciate.

Until the closure of the theatres under the Commonwealth it may be said that no distinction between vulgar and poetic drama had been conceived. Whenever a play was at all carefully composed, it contained some concession to literary effect. For instance, the late and very popular comedy of The Wise Woman of Hogsdon, a piece quite on a level with a topical farce of our own day, is written in loose, colloquial prose without any ambition. Yet, even here, when a touch of sentiment is required, or the attention of the audience is to be concentrated, the language braces itself up, and falls into a blank verse march. In fact, so paramount was the literary tradition of the drama, that after the playhouses were shut up by the Puritans, plays went on being written and printed, in which everything was more and more recklessly sacrificed to what was supposed to be poetry, and by 1650 no one in England could any longer write a drama which a conceivable troupe of actors could have played. This, to my mind, was the origin of the deep-seated prejudice to poetic drama in England ; it was dimly felt to have been an element in the violent death of the stage.

When the theatres began to be opened again, just before the Restoration, something of the exterior form of poetic drama clung for a long time to the fashionable play. Taste has altered so completely that it is very difficult for us to realize that the full-bottomed tragedies and tragi-comedies of Dryden’s day, in pompous rhyme, with stately soliloquizings addressed to passive confidants, gave poetic pleasure. They give no sort of enjoyment to the majority of modern readers. But some fifteen years ago I had the great satisfaction of being present when Dryden’s Secret Love: or The Maiden Queen was very sympathetically and gracefully given, on a single night, by a company of young professional actors, and I was surprised to perceive how much of the perfume and dignity of poetry lingered around these old, rejected rhymes of 1668. Now, when everybody has been crowding to Mr. Phillips’s plays, it may seem odd to say that I recall no performance of which that of Herod has so sharply reminded me as this of Dryden’s Maiden Queen. In a sense — not our sense, indeed, but that of their own age — the playgoers of Charles II. and James II. were votaries of the poetic drama, and possessed, in a bastard and impure form, something of its magnificent tradition.

If I were reviewing Mr. Phillips’s talent, in detail, I should have something to say about what appears to me to be the invitation which it gives him to the composition of opera. I will here only pause to suggest that as the vulgarization of drama, at the close of the seventeenth century, became complete, it was only in the masques and operas written for the music of Purcell that poetry survived. We have seen the opera of Dido and Æneas performed in London within the last few months, and there has certainly appeared no other work on the recent stage with which Ulysses could be so fairly compared. It is true that the verse of Dido and Æneas is by Nahum Tate, and is mainly contemptible ; but here is the attitude, here the tradition, here the last breath of the Renaissance spirit of English poetic drama, and this was lost, as it seems to me, for two hundred years, to be restored, almost as it dropped from the hands of Dryden and Betterton and Purcell, by the combined talents of Mr. Beerbohm Tree and Mr. Stephen Phillips.

From the end of the seventeenth century onward, what we observe in the history of the English stage is the growing determination of audiences to be given what they like rather than what the author likes, and an equally steady decline of the level of popular taste until the author is utterly discouraged, and cares no longer to do his best. But it is very interesting to note how, again and again, one group of persons of taste, strenuously working together, has contrived for a moment to force poetic drama on the boards again. The earliest and the most remarkable instance of this in the eighteenth century was the performance of Addison’s Cato. Again I must repeat that in this consideration we must not be affected by our twentieth-century attitude toward a particular work. We cannot read Cato with enjoyment, we do not, in fact, read Cato at all, but in the sense in which we are now using the phrase it was, to its own time, “ poetic drama ” precisely as Midsummer Night’s Dream was to the age of Elizabeth or Paolo and Francesca to the age of Edward VII. What contemporaries said that they admired in it was the “ beauty of poetry which shines through the whole.” They accepted it as a protest against the humdrum vulgarity into which stage-writing had fallen. Here, at least, in Cato nothing was sacrificed to the groundlings; here, at least, was the dignity of versified literature supported as completely as the genius of a most elegant writer could contrive. Yet, with all its prestige, with all the thunders of applause, with all the political and literary influence concentrated on its encouragement, Cato proved, in the long run, a colossal failure.

The reasons why Cato failed should, I think, be studied by any one who seeks to understand why poetic drama has been doomed so long to penitence and exile. It is absolutely useless — it was useless in 1713, it will be useless in 1913 — to invite a well-dressed crowd, of both sexes, who have dined, to sit through a whole evening listening to declamatory dialogue in which “ chill philosophy ” is discussed in terms of “ unaffecting elegance.” Even when Addison’s tragedy was first produced, under the auspices of such a claque as modern times have never seen, of such a crowd of illustrious and servile admirers as might turn our most practiced “ log-roller ” green with envy, — even then criticism uttered the fatal judgment, “ deficiency of dramatic business.” We shall find, if we examine in succession all the splendid failures which lie, like wrecked carracks laden with spice and pearl, on the shores of our dramatic literature, that this is the reef on which, one after the other, each of them has struck. They have been convinced that fine sentiments, showy literature, melodious versification, a fund of brilliant fancy, would save their credit if they could only secure an audience of sympathetic and cultivated people, and not one has understood that all the poetic ornament in the world will not redeem that fatal deficiency, the lack of “ dramatic business.”

The example of Cato was followed at intervals, and with the closest exactitude, all down the eighteenth century. The next effort at first-class “ poetic ” drama was that which culminated in the Sophonisba of Thomson. The history of this play reads like a solemn burlesque of what we see repeated at least once in every generation. The tone of the playhouses had sunk to triviality and nonsense ; lovers of literature looked round to try to find somebody to redeem it; and the young and brilliant poet of The Seasons was discovered. He was urged forward to do his best; it was whispered that the result of his efforts was extraordinary. The very rehearsals of Sophonisba were “ dignified ” by audiences of the élite, “ collected to anticipate the delight that was preparing for the public.” Alas, when the event which was to mark the year 1730 forever in white on the façade of the Temple of Fame came off at length in a perfect furore of taste and expectancy, — “ it was observed,that nobody was much affected, and that the company rose as from a moral lecture ” ! Thomson was an excellent poet, and there was nothing amiss with his sentiments or his versification, but he had no idea of “ dramatic business.” The disappointed public chanted, “ Oh ! Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson Oh ! ” and went about its affairs.

A quarter of a century later it was the turn of the Rev. John Home and his glorious and immortal tragedy of Douglas. Delirious eulogy paved the way for the performance of this piece, which reflected with no little cleverness the new romantic feeling that was daily forcing itself into popularity.

“ The angry spirit of the water shriek’d,”—

one realizes with what rapture, mingled with a fear that imagination was really going “ too far,” that would be received in 1756. So delicate a critic as Gray wrote that the author of Douglas “ seems to me to have retrieved the true language of the stage, which had been lost for these hundred years.” During the first performance at Edinburgh, a youthful and perfervid Scot leaped to his legs in the pit, flung up his bonnet, and shrieked, “ Where’s your Wully Shakespeare noo ? ” One hears the melancholy patter still: —

“ My name is Norval; on the Grampian hills
My father feeds his flocks.”

It is like the sound of a hurdy-gurdy far away. Ah! “Where’s your Douglas noo ? ” He had in all the body of his sentimentality no fibre of “ dramatic business.”

It would be tedious to pursue the relation of these failures. The manner of them is so uniform that one is amazed at its regularity, at the mechanical futility of successive generations of very clever men. Obviously the eighteenth-century patrons were searching for the wrong quality, and, oddly enough, we went on almost down the nineteenth century making the same mistake. We have seen that Addison and Thomson and “ Douglas ” Home were supposed to have done all that was necessary when they redeemed the diction of the theatre from mediocrity. It was taken for granted that all that was required of a poet was that he should " retrieve the true language of the stage.” But what was not seen, in spite of failure upon failure, what was understood by Tennyson as little as it had been understood by Addison, was that before you can put on the embroidery of language you must have a sound theatrical business as a basis and a framework. The would be dramatic poets were willing to turn the stage into a platform or a pulpit or a concert-room ; the one thing they would not do was to treat it simply as a stage.

At the romantic revolution, one hundred years ago, the theatre had a great chance of reviving. In The Fall of Robespierre in 1794, Coleridge and Southey put forward, in dramatic form, a simple representation of a recent fact. In The Borderers, in 1795, Wordsworth attempted, with unusual boldness, to deal with an incident of fierce, illicit passion. But these efforts did not even reach the stage, and they continue to be mere curiosities of literature. It is a very odd fact, and one which has escaped general attention, that the romantic movement made an abortive attempt to work through the theatre before it found its true field of action in lyrical poetry. If Wordsworth and Coleridge had happened to be brought into closer relations of friendship with some enterprising young manager in 1796, it is conceivable that our literature might have been reformed on purely theatrical lines, as German literature in the dramas of Schiller. But no encouragement was given them to appear before the footlights, and Coleridge’s subsequent experiments on German bases, his Wallenstein, his Zapolya, even his moderately dramatic and not too poetic Remorse give us no certainty that a heaven-made playwright was crushed when nobody would act his tragedy of Osorio.

We pass over twenty years more in our swift survey, and we find, in 1815, the most popular poet of the day made a member of the Managing Committee of Drury Lane Theatre. This was Byron, through whose influence, indeed, Coleridge’s Remorse had been produced some years earlier. It might have been expected that now, if ever, the poetic drama would have flourished in England. But the business side of Byron’s character, his curious shrewdness and practical judgment, asserted themselves. He had accepted the responsibility as a matter of affairs, and by no means with the intention of being played tricks upon by the Muses. We therefore search his correspondence of this period in vain for any proposals that his solemn compeers should contribute high-flown poems to his theatre. He is found occupied, like a merchant, “in such complicated and extensive interests as the Drury Lane proprietary ” may offer, and if he rather faintly suggests that Tom Moore should write an opera for him, what he really is eager about is some melodrama translated by Concanen from the French, or some flashy drama in which the charms of Fanny Kelly could be advertised.

In the very curious Detached Thoughts which Byron put down in 1821, and which were fully printed for the first time in 1900, Byron makes some interesting remarks about his own conduct as a theatrical manager. He evidently feels that he ought to have done something to encourage the poetic drama, and, as people are apt to do in looking back, he thinks that he did a good deal. He had recourse, “in hope and in despair,” to Sir Walter Scott; he “tried Coleridge, too ; ” he dallied with Maturin, and sank back upon Sir James Bland Burgess. On the whole, one realizes that he was foiled in faintly good intentions by his colleagues, that he was not greatly interested (at that time) in dramatic literature, that Drury Lane occupied his thoughts simply in connection with its opportunities of business and pleasure. Byron’s experience as the manager of a great theatre was brief; it was washed away in the catastrophe of his domestic fortunes. When he began to write plays himself, he profited little by what experience he had enjoyed. After frenzied efforts to prevent his own old theatre of Drury Lane from acting Marino Faliero in 1821, Byron sullenly withdrew the injunction at the last, but the tragedy was coldly received. Of the rest of his dramas, not one was put on the boards until long after the poet’s death, nor has one, in later representations, contrived to hold public attention. I record only a personal impression when I say that there is a blank verse tragedy of Byron’s — the half - forgotten Sardanapalus — which I can imagine forming an agreeable spectacle in the hands of Mr. Beerbohm Tree. It was played in 1834 by Macready, and in 1853 by Kean, with some positive credit and advantage; it may be looked upon as perhaps the least unsuccessful of nineteenth-century “ poetic ” plays.

The mention of Byron’s tragedies seems to remind us that Shelley said to Leigh Hunt, “ Certainly, if Marino Faliero is a drama, The Cenci is not.” Since 1820, literary criticism has been engaged in reversing these clauses. It would probably be admitted that The Cenci is not merely in the truest sense dramatic, but the most brilliant example of purely poetic drama written by an English poet in the nineteenth century. Yet no one sees it on the boards ; no one has been found with courage enough to accept the complicated infamy of its personages. The character of Count Francesco Cenci is extremely theatrical; its elements are calculated in the highest degree to excite pity and terror on the stage ; Shelley has imbued the scheme of the intrigues which surround it with an amount of dramatic business which is surprising in a poet with no practical knowledge of the requirements of the stage. It is the subject — the awful and revolting scheme — forever present in the beholder’s mind, that appalling subject which cannot be ignored or put aside without sacrifice of significance to every scene and every speech, which excludes The Cenci from the theatre. We have here an instance of the peculiar conditions of dramatic art. We can read Shelley’s tragedy, with all its wicked coil of passions, without more emotion than can be endured ; but if it were set out before us on the public stage, visually and systematically, we should rise from our seats and fly the house in horror.

Even if the subject of The Cenci were one which the theatre could bear, there would be other objections to it. It is well contrived, but not well enough. An actress of great genius would doubtless make the speech of Beatrice to the guests, “ I do entreat you, go not! ” extremely effective, and her part, in general, has plenty of “ business ” in it. But it would need marvelous powers of elocution to prevent an audience from fretting at Orsino’s unbroken soliloquy of sixty lines toward the end of the second act, at Giacomo’s complicated descriptions, at Cenci’s long-drawn ravings. And these are matters in the green tree of Shelley’s extremely passionate, adroit, and skillful drama, which is still full of intellectual life. What, then, is to be said of the dry ? What of the scene of Maturin and Sheil, of Sheridan Knowles and Talfourd, of all that the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century took for poetic drama? What, indeed, — if not that, absolutely without exception, it was founded upon a wrong conception of art, theatrical and poetic alike ?

The one significant fact in the earlier half of the century was the attitude of Macready to the theatre. He was the one manager of his age who genuinely preferred “ poetic ” drama, and desired to encourage and promote it. To his ardor, from 1825 to 1840, a certain revival of romantic plays was due. He commissioned various writers, BulwerLytton and Browning among them, to compose tragedies for him in blank verse, and he continued with extraordinary pertinacity to produce the bourgeois versified plays, in imitation of Massinger, which were poured forth by the excellent Sheridan Knowles before he left the “ loathed stage ” and became a Baptist minister. We are quaintly told that Macready withdrew from the management, first of Covent Garden, then of Drury Lane, because he “ found his designs for the elevation of the stage hampered and finally frustrated by the sordid aims of the proprietors and the absence of adequate public support.” But it is odd that it did not occur to him that of course the public would not support what did not amuse it, and, equally of course, that the aims of the proprietors of the theatre must include a decent return on the money they expended. How a very clever actor and a sensible person like Macready could go on hopelessly producing objects of dreary diversion such as Virginius and Ion, and plays far more wooden than these, it passes the mind of man to conjecture.

Finally, about a quarter of a century ago, a fresh effort to revive poetic drama was made by Mr. (now Sir) Henry Irving. Of this, also, it is not now possible to speak without some depression of spirits. One thing, indeed, must always be remembered greatly to Mr. Irving’s credit. His famous revival of Hamlet in 1874 reintroduced Shakespeare to the London playgoer, and accustomed our ears to the finest language presented in a tragic manner, which was not always inadequate, and was frequently intelligent. But of encouragement to living literature much was said during this Lyceum period and remarkably little done. Mr. Irving was fascinated by the opportunities which romantic melodrama offered to the picturesque richness of the performances which he liked to give, and all the talk about poetry evaporated in such plays as those of W. G. Wills, whose unliterary and almost illiterate Charles I. and Faust (the latter a really shameful travesty of a masterpiece) did much to lower the level of popular taste. Meanwhile, Mr. Irving had some communication with Browning, but the poet would write nothing new, while the actor-manager refused to perform The Return of the Druses, — as, indeed, he well might. Encouragement of poetic drama confined itself to the performance of one or two plays by Tennyson, of which Becket was the least insignificant. But Irving grew less and less inclined, as years went on, to adventure upon a new play of any description.

It was necessary to recount, thus rapidly, the experience of the last two centuries, to show how incessantly the desire for poetic drama has reasserted itself, and how completely it has been rejected by successive generations of theatre-goers. On the eve of considering what is at least a very curious and interesting recrudescence of this effort, it is worth while looking back again to the eighteenth century and asking ourselves what has led to this constant failure. Why is it that all the talent of Betterton and Garrick and Kean and Macready, aided by all the talent of Addison and Thomson and Byron and Browning, has been able to make precisely nothing at all of poetic drama in England ? If we can only discover the reason, the cankerworm at the root of this, we may possibly be able to deal more intelligently with the future. If we cannot discover it, the present hopeful gleam of revival will sink and be quenched like all its predecessors. My belief is that it is possible to suggest the principal, the most ubiquitous and most fatal danger, but to indicate it, it is necessary for me to wear the white sheet of penitence for an error of judgment in the past.

Mr. William Archer, certainly the most competent of our living theatrical critics, suggested several years ago that the customary mode of approaching such a poem as Webster’s Duchess of Malfy was not correct as regards the stage. It required some courage to suggest that the tragedy on which every critic, from Charles Lamb and Mr. Swinburne downwards, had lavished eulogy for its power to move the emotions and its intense dramatic effect was really, for stage purposes, a very bad play, and its “ dreadful apparatus,” as Elia calls it, the silly terror of a bogy-man. I forget in what connection Mr. Archer advanced these censures ; I read them, much incensed, since our holiest poetic shibboleth, the Elizabethan Tradition, seemed to be questioned and undermined. Successive generations of analysts have dwelt more and more occultly on the splendor of the crowd of tragic poets who wrote from the times of Kyd and Marlowe to the times of Ford and Shirley. Not only has the imagination, the literary passion, of these playwrights been considered something above all censure, but it has come to be a matter of faith that their stagecraft was equally faultless. In short, the universal opinion of the higher criticism has been that nothing but the vulgarity and ignorance of modern audiences prevented Middleton and Tourneur and the rest from being entirely enjoyable on the boards to-day. With this went the corollary that to produce a tragedy worthy to be acted, you must write as much as possible in the mode of Tourneur and Middleton.

Whether Mr. Archer, whose dealings are mainly with the living drama, has pushed his audacities further than to question the value of the horror scenes in The Duchess of Malfy, I do not know. His remark, however, sunk deep into my own breast, and (I have to confess) has wrought a revolution there. I have been reading the old “ impressive scenes ” of the seventeenth-century dramatists over again from the stage point of view, and while I admire their poetry no less than ever, I am bound to say that I can no longer hold the faith of our fathers as to their stage quality. In reading these plays, and rediscovering them, a hundred years ago, Charles Lamb found in them “ an exquisitiveness of moral sensibility, making one to gush out tears of delight,” and we may still find it there. But these are closet beauties, and we may be sure that half of them would be imperceptible on the stage, and half of the rest repulsive.

The great reason, then, in my humble and converted opinion, why poetic drama since the seventeenth century has inevitably failed in England, is that it has remained faithful to the Elizabethan Tradition. This has been followed by every writer of a play in verse. It haunts us, it oppresses us, it destroys us. On the merits of the seventeenth-century drama, it is no longer needful to insist. The silver trumpets of Mr. Swinburne’s praise are ever in our ears ; he ceases not from celebrating “ the dawn-enkindled quire ” of starry playwrights. But, on the other hand, why is it forbidden to point out how violent and excessive they are, how wearisome in their iterations, how confused, wordy, and incoherent ? These are faults which the reader of a dramatic poem easily skips over and forgets ; but these are what ruin a play upon the stage. These violences and verbosities, this lack of thought for narrative evolution, this absence of consideration for the eye and ear of the audience, have come to be accepted as essential characteristics of poetic drama. This is the unshaken Elizabethan faith, and it is this that has wrecked play after play on the English stage. If poetry, in the future, is to speak from the footlights, it must avoid the Elizabethan Tradition as it would the plague.

The great hope of the newest revival of poetic drama in England lies, to my mind, in the fact that it is more independent of the Elizabethan Tradition than any previous movement of the kind has been. Neither Mr. Yeats in his Irish folk - plays, nor Mr. Stephen Phillips in his three remarkably successful experiments, has permitted himself to be bound down by the mannerisms which so grievously handicapped, to speak of no others, such illustrious predecessors of theirs as Tennyson, Browning, and Mr. Swinburne. Mr. Yeats, in common with M. Maeterlinck and certain other Continental playwrights of the latest school, obtains new effects by plunging deeper than the dramatist has hitherto been expected to plunge into the agitations and exigencies of the soul. He uses the symbol to awaken the mystical sense ; he works before our eyes the psychological phenomena of mystery, and excites our curiosity with regard to those “invisible principles ” on which the author of La Princesse Maleine delights to insist. In this species of drama, with its incessant suggestion of the unseen, the unknown, there is something childlike. It takes us back to the infancy of feeling, to the May-time of the world. It does not pretend and would not desire to obtain gross successes in the popular theatres of large world centres.

The dramatic poetry of Mr. Stephen Phillips, on the other hand, does make that pretension, and it is difficult not to believe that the performances of Herod in 1901 and of Ulysses and Paolo and Francesca in 1902 will take an interesting place in the history of theatrical literature. For it is important to notice that Mr. Phillips does not separate himself, as M. Maeterlinck and Mr. Yeats do, from the common observations of mankind. In his plays we discover no effort to deal with any but the superficial aspects of life and passion. He confines himself, in a remarkable degree, to the obvious characteristics of emotion. It is these, indeed, which most appeal to the modern playgoer, and when Mr. Phillips succeeds in pleasing alike the seeker after delicate literary sensations and the average sensual person in the stalls, he achieves a remarkable triumph of tact. That he does it without recourse to the Elizabethan Tradition is another proof of his adroitness. His theatrical pretensions are the more easy to deal with because in all other respects he is in no sense an inaugurator. Like M. Rostand in France — whose career has in some ways curiously resembled his — Mr. Pliillips is so little of an innovator in his essential dramatic aesthetics, that the extreme school deny to him the merit of being a dramatic poet at all, his genius — except in its tact and adroitness — being entirely conservative and reproductive.

The literary success of Mr. Stephen Phillips is bound up in a remarkable degree with practical knowledge of stage requirements. The poet is himself an actor, — he played with applause the dignified and pleasing role of the Ghost in Hamlet, — and he has all that acquaintance with the necessities and impossibilities of stage movement which greater poets than he have utterly failed for the want of. He has also, it would seem, placed himself more unreservedly than the writers of the old tradition were willing to do in the hands of the actormanager. In particular, to refuse to acknowledge the part of Mr. Beerbohm Tree in this revival of poetic drama would be to commit an act of flagrant injustice. Mr. Tree believed in the possibility of bringing poetry out across the footlights when the chasm between verse and the people seemed to be at its widest. His productions of Shakespeare, tinctured as they all have been with something too flamboyant and redundant for an austere taste, curiously indicative — as we look back upon them — of the brocaded and embroidered side of his own genius as a manager, brought him into close relations with romantic verse, and with the treatment of what we call “ purple passages.” He felt, as we cannot but surmise, that the total disregard of purity of enunciation, which was the malady of the Lyceum school of acting twenty years ago, must be fatal to poetry, since, whatever the splendor of ornament and whatever the subtlety of acting, if the language of the piece is inaudible the purpose of the poet must be frustrated. Mr. Tree deserves no little commendation for the clearness and dignity of utterance upon which he insists.

In working out this cardinal reform, — the clear and correct pronunciation of English, — Mr. Beerbohm Tree, and indeed the whole London stage, owes much to the Oxford company of beginners trained so patiently and unobtrusively by Mr. F. R. Benson. This troupe, in fact, supplies the English stage to-day with its most cultivated and, we may say, its most academic actors. From this school, by the way, Mr. Phillips himself proceeded. The company with which Mr. Alexander plays Paolo and Francesca is recruited from the same source, and it is charming to see with what gravity, with what reverence for the text, they pronounce Mr. Phillips’s romantic blank verse, as if their object were to give as much of its beauty as possible, and not as little, which was the earlier traditional plan. Our actors and managers, in fact, have at last accepted poetic drama as a possible treasure to boast of, not as a thing to be apologized for and to be hidden as much as possible out of sight.

Mr. Stephen Phillips, then, would seem to have succeeded in producing one of those revivals of poetic drama which occur in our history three or four times in every century. Whether he will do more than this, whether he will inaugurate a new epoch of dramatic literature remains to be experienced. We have seen that the difficulty is not so much to get a poem acted, amid the plaudits of a clique, as to persuade the general public to like it and to continue to support it. At present, our advices are that the London audiences liked Herod better than could be expected, and are liking Paolo and Francesca better still. In the long run it is not by silly personal friends of the author " claiming his kinship with Sophocles and with Dante ” that a new writer for the stage is supported. The poetic inventor who writes for the stage has to learn that he cannot trust to the flattery of his associates. For him the severest tests alone are prepared ; he must descend, like Ulysses,

“ to gather tidings of his land
There, in the dark world, and win back his way.”

Mr. Stephen Phillips has been the victim of more injudicious praise than is often poured out upon young writers even in this crude and impetuous age. But he has shown qualities of power and reserve which give us hope that he will survive the honeyed poison of his friends. He possesses a high sense of beauty, and great skill in preserving this under the vulgar glare of the theatre. He can tell a story theatrically so as to excite curiosity, and lead it steadily forward to the close. He is fond of those familiar types which are consecrated to romantic ideas in the minds of all cultivated people, and which relieve them of the strain of following an unknown fable. He realizes that modern audiences will not think after dinner, and he is most adroit in presenting to them romantic images, rich costumes, and vivid emotions, without offering to their intellects the smallest strain. He does not attempt, like his predecessors, to dictate to the actors impossible and unscenic tasks, but bends his ambition to the habits and requirements of a practicable modern stage. In short, he seems to represent the essence of common sense applied to the difficult task of reviving poetic drama upon the boards where it flourished until two hundred and fifty years ago, and where it has never flourished since. We need not talk rubbish about Sophocles, but we ought, surely, to offer every reasonable welcome to an experiment so graceful, so civilizing, and so intelligent.

Edmund Gosse.