Three Dramatic Studies

WHATEVER trepidation may attend the opening of Mr. Yeats’s second volume or Plays for an Irish Theatre 1 will be happily dispatched by a glance. One may be equally grateful for what these little plays are not and for what they are. They contain none of the air-drawn pseudo-Maeterlinckian fantasy which made so puzzling an affair of Where There is Nothing, the first play in the series. It may be that a symbol now and then shows its head, but it is not encouraged to occupy the foreground. Indeed, Mr. Yeats seems here to have deliberately betaken himself to allegory, which in one of his prose essays he so sharply distinguishes from symbolism ; “ dramatic fables ” is the phrase he uses for these plays in his Dedication. They are written in simple prose, Irish in fibre rather than in dress. The Hour-Glass is a Morality which superficially reminds one of Everyman. “ The Wise Man ” is suddenly warned of approaching death. He perceives that his wisdom has been folly, but his repentance comes too late. The best bargain he can make with the Angel of Death is the promise of eventual salvation if in the hour that remains he can find one who believes. His wife and children, his pupils and neighbors fail him ; they have learned their lesson from him far too well. At last, as the final grains drop from the hour-glass, the Fool, of whom nothing is expected, proves the wisest of all, and the Wise Man is saved : “ I understand it all now. One sinks in on God; we do not see the truth ; God sees the truth in us.” . . . All this appears to suggest not only a universal truth, but a specific condition. It is a vindication of faith as against reason, and of Irish priestcraft as against Irish skepticism.

Cathleen ni Hoolihan makes a direct appeal to the devotion of Young Ireland for Old Ireland; not in the name of the shillalah, but gently, with much pathos and much simplicity. “ One night,” reads the Dedication, “ I had a dream, almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Hoolihan, for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death.” She takes the bridegroom with her when she goes ; there is work for him to do: —

“ BRIDGET [laying her hand on Patrick’s arm]. Did you see an old woman going down the path ?

“ PATRICK. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.”

The third sketch seems to be pure kindly satire upon Irish simplicity, upon Irish cunning.

In the Dedication Mr. Yeats expresses gratitude to a friend who has helped him “ down out of that high window of dramatic verse,” to a renewed acquaintance with “ the country speech.” The resulting “dramatic fables” have been successfully produced in Dublin and London. They would be a boon to our stage, upon which the Irishman has roared in farce quite long enough.

Meanwhile the “ high window of dramatic verse ” continues to be occupied, not always happily. Mr. Hardy’s present volume, we note with concern, is only the first installment of a work of imposing proportions.2 Several hundred speaking human characters are promised for the whole Drama, not to speak of an Ancient Spirit of the Years, a Spirit of the Pities, Spirits Sinister and Ironic, etc. Obviously this is not to be a drama of the practical sort. In his Preface the author goes so far as to speculate “whether mental performance alone may not eventually be the fate of all drama other than that of contemporary or frivolous life.” He admits, however, that this work is rather a “ panoramic show ” than in any strict sense a drama. A panoramic show, one supposes somewhat vaguely, ought to possess lucidity, mobility, the color and the flow of life in the mass. The multitudinous scenes in the present effort are full of information, comment, and proper names; they are empty of persons and of poetry. They have logical continuity, but no creative unity whatever. They do not flow into one another; they are stuck up side by side, like photographs on a wall. They are, in short, the work of a master of realistic fiction in a field altogether alien to his powers. Mr. Hardy has never proved himself a poet in a small way; he here scores a failure in the colossal style. His verse is for the most part an achievement of elaborate mischance : —

A verbiage marked by nothing more of weight
Than ignorant irregularity,

as he makes Sheridan say in the course of a remarkable versified report of a parliamentary debate. The Spirits have a particularly crabbed and toplofty habit of speech. It is the Ancient Spirit of the Years (and not Ancient Pistol) who emits this extraordinary couplet: —

So may ye judge Earth’s jackaclocks to be
Not fugled by one Will, but function-free.

Mr. Hardy has, one discovers after some exercise of patience, succeeded in throwing emphasis upon England’s part in the Napoleonic struggle, and in expressing a healthy British scorn for Napoleon and other foreign persons.

Mr. William Vaughn Moody has a true instinct not only for poetry but for dramatic poetry, as readers of his Masque of Judgment have cause to know. That is to stand, it appears, as the second number of a dramatic trilogy, in which The Fire-Bringer3 is to hold first place. No more promising, no more exacting theme than the Promethean myth could be chosen for such a sequence. No American poet of the present generation is better qualified to deal with it than Mr. Moody. The present dramatic study is in no way inferior to that which antedated it in publication ; and this is high praise. Mr. Moody’s versification is altogether free from meretriciousness. It is of classical directness and purity. The same qualities belong to the larger treatment of his theme. An occasional chorus of irregular metre suggests the Greek dramatic habit; but only suggests it.

The opening dialogue between Deukalion and Pyrrha acquaints the imagined auditor with the situation. The aged pair, preserved by the warning of Prometheus from the flood by which Zeus had determined to destroy the race of men, have from stones and earth magically created a new but helpless and hopeless race, lacking the boon of human love, of which, with the boon of fire, Zeus has bereft the world. Their only gleam of cheer is in the lyrical presence of Pandora, their only hope in the continued magnanimity of Prometheus. The specific action concerns that prodigious theft of fire, brought “ secretly in a fennelstalk,” and the consequent restoration of happiness to the world. There are many passages which one would like to quote, — that description of Pandora singing to the Stone Men and the Earth Women:

There by the pool they sat, with faces lift
And brows of harsh attention; in their midst
Pandora bowed, and sang a doubtful song,
Its meaning faint or none, but mingled up
Of all that nests and housekeeps in the heart,
Or puts out in lone passion toward the vast
And cannot choose but go.

Or that first entrance of Prometheus : —

Pyrrha.

O swift-comer, it is thou !
None other, thou, wind-ranger, bringer-in !
Child, be awake ! Prometheus !
Prometheus (entering, lifts Pyrrha).
Do not so ;
These hands come poor ; these feet bring nothing back.

Pyrrha.
Thy hands come filled with thee, thy feet from
thence Have brought thee hither ; it is gifts enough.
Or the Fire-Bringer’s account of his first attempt at the mighty theft : —
Soft as light I passed
The perilous gates that are acquainted forth,
The walls of starry safety and alarm,
The pillars and the awful roofs of song,
The stairs and colonnades whose marble work
Is spirit, and the joinings spirit also, —
And from the well-brink of his central court
Dipped vital fire of fire, flooding my vase,
Glutting it arm-deep in the keen element.
Then backward swifter than the osprey dips
Down the green slide of the sea. . . .

At the end the punishment of Prometheus is hardly more than presaged ; the third member of the trilogy, therefore, is to deal with that part of the myth which has been turned oftenest into poetry. We are promised it in the course of a year or two, and have reason for looking forward to its appearance with lively interest, and with not a little confidence.

  1. The Hour-Glass and Other Plays: Being Volume Two of Plays for an Irish Theatre. By W. B, YEATS. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1904.
  2. The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars, in Three Parts, Nineteen Acts, and One Hundred and Thirty Scenes. Part First. By THOMAS HARDY. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1904.
  3. The Fire-Bringer. By WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.