Stephen Phillips as a Writer of Tragedy


THE concord with which Mr. Stephen Phillips was, on the publication of his Poems, acclaimed a true singer was only less striking than the later clashing of polemics over his merits as a writer of tragedy; and even the most hopeful searcher after convincing literary verdicts would rise from the several score of reviews on my table with a despairing impression of the futility of criticism. Accordingly, in a rather pessimistic frame of mind, one blustering afternoon in late September, I sat down to read once more Paolo and Francesca with Romeo and Juliet. Doubtless this comparison has been instituted, more or less carefully, by every lover of poetry; for the features of resemblance are so numerous and striking that they must challenge the attention of even the casual reader.

Both plays belong to the earlier activity of their respective authors; in both, the story is frankly drawn from the open treasury of older literature; in the former, as in the latter, the scene is “the eternal Italy of passion, the time is the deathless spring of young desire; ” in either tragedy two youthful beings, who forget the world and all beside, pay the penalty, or win the guerdon, of a lover’s death, and the play ends " with a long deep sigh like the last breeze of an Italian evening; ” in short, there is almost as close a parallel as one could hope to find. In following the parallel one must not forget that Mr. Phillips expressly deprecates comparison with the Elizabethans, who sought for multiplicity of effect, whereas he aims at unity; but even over his protest some relative estimate will be made by every devotee of the drama, and, in the right spirit, it is essentially worth the making.

How, then, does the Paolo and Francesca emerge from the experiment ? The real answer can come only from the individual reader; but I cannot escape the conviction that, if he will read as I did, doing his best to put aside all preconceptions and yielding himself naturally to the pages in his hands and the general impression thereby produced, he will close the two plays with the feeling that, if there is not equality of concrete achievement, there is at leastreal kinship of spirit. Nay, I even fancy that not a few readers will feel the tugging at the heartstrings just a little stronger at the last words of Giovanni than at the closing speech of the Prince. If there “ never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her BRomeo,” yet by its side may stand the story of Paolo and Francesca, who wooed and loved unwillingly, whom we leave looking like children fast asleep. Naturally, there arises the objection that the experiment would be proposed, and the conclusion reached, only by a cloistered bookman. In this objection, however, I could not quite acquiesce; for I must believe that a comparison in the theatre would lead to no materially different decision. Mr. Irving’s production of the modern play I have never heard; but no unprejudiced auditor will ever forget or deny his emotions when Mr. George Alexander, approaching the litter with its bitter lading of youth and beauty, in whose company we have lived a fated hour, says very gently, —

Not easily have we three come to this —
We three who now are dead. Unwillingly
They loved, unwillingly I slew them. Now
I kiss them on the forehead quietly.

In my own experience I noted the same deep and general hush that I had felt shed itself over a Greek audience some six years before, at the not dissimilar close of the Antigone, which was presented by the students of the University of Athens. Of course the surface is only the surface; but the heart is the heart, and this tugging at its strings has something to do with judging a tragedy. The further I followed the thoughts suggested by the comparison, the more I was strengthened in the belief that Mr. Phillips was worth knowing. Shortly afterwards the Faust was placed in my hands, and I have ventured to make a simple estimate of Mr. Phillips’s actual achievements and of the grounds for hope or fear as to his future. With this modest aim before me, I have essayed a review of the six plays hitherto published, taking up in order our author’s choice of tragic material, treatment of plot and dramatic motive, depiction of character, poetic diction, and scenic presentment.


If we first cast a general glance over the dramas, we find that three of them may be called tragedies of love, one a tragic masque, the fifth a dramatic character study, while the latest is frankly an adaptation of Goethe’s masterpiece. In the earliest of the love-tragedies Mr. Phillips has gone to Dante for his story, and has chosen that aspect of the myriad-faced problem wherein the love of the principal characters appears as a phase of Fate, “ that god behind all gods.” From the moment when Paolo enters out of sunlight, leading Francesca, until in the gloomy hall the bodies are reverently covered over, we feel that in most solemn sooth “ his kiss was on her lips e’er she was born.” Their love was as inevitable as life or death. Indeed, it was at one with the love in the old Empedoclean or new Haeckelian scheme of the universe, the love that operates from the primordial atom to the enthralling of the earth by the sun, from the lowest protozoan to the loftiest soul of man with its godlike uprushing toward pure truth and pure beauty. Despite our conventions, we realize that the love of these twain does raise them above themselves; and the glorious allegorizing of Plato in the Phædrus and Symposium, along with Dante’s kindred vision, is immediately recalled by the scene in which we hear the glowing prayer of Paolo: —

Let me with kisses burn this body away,
That our two souls may dart together free
I fret at intervention of the flesh,
And I would clasp you — you that but inhabit This lovely house.

Howbeit, love of the spirit with absolutely no fretting intervention of the flesh is as impossible for us in our mortal houses as it is undesirable, until we rise to other levels; and it is strictly in accord with cosmic order, as well as cosmic passion, that youth goes toward youth. For their contravention of our recognized moral order they meet a punishment that is no punishment but merely one more ground for Heine’s decision that “ Die Liebe mit dem Tode verbunden ist unüberwindlich.”

In The Sin of David the central conception of love is the same. Thus Lisle says to Miriam, in words that still carry an echo from Plato and Dante, —

No! for a revelation breaks from thee.
Thou hast unlocked the loveliness of earth,
Leading me through thy beauty to all beauty.
Thou hast admitted rue to mystery,
Taught me the different souls of all the stars ;
Through thee have I inherited this air,
Discovered sudden riches at my feet,
And now on eyes long blinded flames the world.

Here again unquenchable love is brought into conflict with the moral order, this time with the scarlet taint of blood-guiltiness; for Lisle, maddened by Miriam’s moonlit beauty, sends her husband to certain death, and watches him ride, dying, into the night. Upon this pair of lovers, even after they are sheltered in happy wedlock, breaks a storm of real punish ment in the loss of an idolized child. Nemesis with terrible grimness has caught up the earlier words of Lisle, and sending more than mere death, “ strikes at his heart, his hope, his home.”

In Herod the face of love is different. The Judæan soldier-king, who has lived forever half in lightning, half in gloom, is possessed by a consuming passion for his queen, whom he has wooed amid the crashing of cities. Mariamne, however, in whose veins there runs the blood of all the Maccabees, loves her stormy, brilliant husband mainly for his impetuous power: —

Those eyes that dimmed for me flamed in the breach ;
And you were scorched and scarred and dressed in spoils,
Magnificent in livery of ruin.

Stronger than her love for Herod, although it is of the sort which “ not time, absence, or age could ever touch,” is the love she bears her brother, who is more than flesh and blood to her, the incarnation of the spirit of her ancient race, the crown of its past and hope of its future.

O, thou art holy, child;
About thee is the sound of rushing wings,
And a breathing as of angels thro’ thy hair.

So, when Herod, in submission to what seems to be irresistible political need, causes the brother to be slain, her great love is quenched in a greater grief.

Herod, that love I did conceive for you,
And from you, it was even as a child —
More dear, indeed, than any child of flesh,
For all its blood was as a colour of dreams,
And it was veined with visions delicate.
Then came a sudden labour ere my time —
Terrible travail — and I bring it forth,
Dead, dead. And here I lay it at your feet.

Then the goads of grief and jealousy skillfully utilized by Herod’s scheming mother and sister drive him to the deed which fulfills the astrologer’s prediction that Herod should kill the thing that most he loved; for the dead brother demands his sister’s death. Finally, beneath the weight of sin and sorrow the king’s mind is maddened, and amid the wild foam of insanity he “ clasps only this rock, that Mariamne lives.” As to wealth and dominion and power, he has achieved more than his wildest dreams; but he has “ransomed outward victory with inward loss,” and his last words before being bound in catalepsy are a heartrending cry that he will recreate his beloved out of endless yearning. If Paolo seems to be punished for his love, if the punishment of Lisle is real and heavy indeed, Herod may be numbered with Othello and the few others whose retribution has become a part of the world’s moan of pain.

In Ulysses we have still another phase of love; but it no longer fills the stage as in the preceding plays. It is true that the storied fidelity of Penelope and the sacred hunger of her soul are sung once more in beautiful lines; and the drama ends effectively with husband and wife in silent embrace by the brightening hearth, while the voice of the minstrel is heard repeating the song, —

And she shall fall upon his breast
With never a spoken word.

Howbeit, the love of the wanderer for Penelope, deep and abiding though it proves, is not all that Calypso reads into it before she bids the Ithacan leave her island; it is essentially a part of his longing for home, one of the thousand calls ringing in his ears and summoning him across the deep. As to dramatic motive, the punishment of the suitors and the portrayal of the character of the waveworn, steadfast, wily king play quite as large a part as the love between husband and wife.

In Nero, love is only an incident, the emperor’s relations with Poppæa being treated as a feature of the conspiracy against Agrippina, a part of the policy of “ matching the mistress ’gainst the mother — the noon of beauty against the evening of authority.” The drama is primarily an exposition of the development of an “ æsthete made omnipotent,” of a dreamy, pampered youth, wdth a surface of polish and specious intentions, who changes into a crazy author-actormusician with all the world for his theatre. In opposition to him is drawn the imperious woman, who would give life to even the driest of annals; and if there is a central tragic point in the play it is her murder, which has been acquiesced in rather than promoted by the demented son. For this, however, he pays a wild atonement by giving her flaming Rome for a funeral pyre; and the curtain falls as Nero faints at the conclusion of his apostrophe to her spirit and the flames that appease its rage.

As to Faust there is little need of words. Here is matter for the dramatic poets of all ages; each changing era of thought will justify a new presentation of this eternal theme. At some not very distant day we may have a Faust almost as different from Goethe’s as his was different from the mediaeval puppetshow to which we trace its origin. The great new play may be no better; but it will be fundamentally different. If we are honest, we must admit that the sage of Weimar, despite his efforts to convince us that Faust worked out his own salvation, is ultimately driven to “ salvation by grace.” This solution was proper enough at one stage in occidental development; but it will hardly be acceptable much longer. It is too mediæval and formal. In our Faust of the future, the problem will be the same, but the solution must be along the lines the younger Goethe doubtless intended. On earth the skein is tangled; and on earth, not in heaven, must it be unraveled. This is no presumptuous arraignment of one of the world’s greatest classics; it is simply an obvious assertion that man’s attitude toward the fundamental moral problems of the universe is not fixed beyond the possibility of movement. In the months intervening since the announcement of Mr. Phillips’s new play, I had hoped that he might essay the Olympian task of treating this inexhaustible theme in a new spirit; but he and Mr. Carr have preferred the lowlier, easier work of adding to the innumerable adaptations of the greatest drama in German literature.

Utilizing this brief review to recall the tragedies, we can hardly fail to conclude that in the first three outlined above Mr. Phillips has chosen thoroughly suitable material, unless we are ail to desert to Mr. Bernard Shaw and allow the “ sentimentalists ” to weep alone. In the story of Ulysses there is appropriate and even beautiful material for a tragic masque, which is practically what Mr. Phillips has given us. In Nero, I think, there is stuff for a certain sort of tragedy, although not for the sort our author has written; but of this I shall speak again. Faust is an undying theme with unlimited possibilities.


With this dramatic material our author’s treatment of plot is naturally connected very closely. In Paolo and Francesca, for instance, in view of the long precedent literary tradition attaching to these names, Mr. Phillips had little room left for choice save as between so-called idealizing and realistic treatments. That he is to be congratulated on choosing the former, several critics have denied; but if these had stumbled upon the same chance for comparison as was thrust upon me by a kindly fortune, I cannot but fancy that a few of them would have modified their decision. It happened by the sheerest luck that the last play I attended in Paris, the week before seeing Paolo and Francesca presented in London, was Marion Crawford’s realistic version of the same story. History was adhered to with brain-satisfying accuracy, and Madame Bernhardt, although I had seen her when she appeared to better advantage, acted with genuine power; but the contrast between that presentation and Mr. George Alexander’s production of the less historical version by Mr. Phillips would have given pause to the most aggressive advocates of realism. The Parisian play was, after all, only a tragedy of blood flowing across a picture of muddy passion, which all the witchery of the supremely gifted actress and the magic of the incomparable scenic presentment could not raise above the commonplace; whereas, on the London stage, was a tragedy of human souls with a background of ineluctable Fate. Even when one admits the existence of certain vulnerable points, this background saves the plot, and the final impression is one of inevitability.

Passing to Ulysses, we may borrow from Aristotle. “ A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a wretched plight — suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he arrives and reveals his true self; he attacks his enemies, destroys them, and is himself preserved. This is the essence of the plot; the rest is episode.” Even the play’s warmest admirers, Mr. Stephen Gwynne for instance, are inclined to slight the question of plot and to emphasize other aspects, such as “the beauty of sight and sound, the grace of gesture, the melody of verse, the glory of splendid words; ” or, “the fire and force, that lift out of the commonplace a common motive or a common thought.” There is a weakness as to impelling and unifying dramatic motive, which the noble forms of Athena and Poseidon may cloak, but cannot altogether hide; and the weakness may as well be admitted without contention.

As to The Sin of David, it is safe to assume that any reader will repeat in large part whatever verdict he has passed upon the question of plot in Paolo and Francesca, which it resembles in so many ways; although there is one important weakness, which will be considered in connection with the author’s treatment of Lisle’s character.

When we come to the Herod, however, we find ourselves in a position to decide definitely that Mr. Phillips can construct a plot. It is true that he was once more using material from an open source, and that other plays had been written on the same subject; but, even so, there was more room for stretching of the wings, and our poet has achieved a notable flight. Early in the first act the author sets before us the masterful passion of Herod for his bride, which is the central theme; the critical position of Judæa before the all-engulfing tide of Roman conquest; the menace of Aristobulus’s existence to Herod’s supremacy over a discontented people, whom he alone can save; the almost idolatrous devotion of Mariamne to her brother; and the jealous intriguing of Cypros and Salome. Across the scene there flit the whispered prophecies of a coming king, — reminding us of Christ in Hades, — who shall rule in gentleness and take terror from the grave. For one clear, if awful, moment we are allowed to pierce the veil of the future, when Cypros repeats the astrologer’s prediction, —

Herod shall famous be o’er all the world,
But he shall kill that thing which most he loves.

Just before the fall of the curtain, when Mariamne discovers that Herod has brought about her brother’s death, we see a little more clearly beyond the veil.

In the second act Herod is led by a complex of motives, convincing in the sum, to order the death of the wife whose murdered love he cannot revive. “ Fate is upon him with the hour, the word.” To make more deeply pathetic his helplessness before Fate and Mariamne, we are shown his mastery over the Judæan mob, and his promotion by Cæsar to undreamed-of power. In the third act, where some ambitious reviewers have complained of a lack of action, the drama “ lies in the fateful suspense that hangs over the issue; in the shifting tempestuous movements of the half-mad king’s mind, and the echo which they find in the corresponding movements of hope and confidence, alarmed sympathy, consternation, dismay, and finally solemn resignation, in the minds of his hearers.”

With the whole play before an intelligent reader, I do not see how he could possibly dissent from the following verdict of one of the keenest and most open-minded literary judges in England, writing under the nom de plume of “ Senex: ” “ The plot is so contrived that all the action passes after the manner of French tragedy, and with no great violence done to probability, in a single scene — the hall of audience in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. An Elizabethan breadth and daring of imaginative treatment, with a Greek parsimony of characters and issues, and a French observation of the unities at least of place, — such are the main structural characteristics of the new tragedy; and it is needless to say that they make it from the outset quite unlike any other modern English work of stagecraft.”

In Nero the plot, to voice a candid personal opinion, is not handled with any real mastery. That a character-study can be made a great play, has been shown by Hamlet and other examples; but there is almost as much difference between the treatments of Shakespeare and Mr, Phillips as there is between the characters of the Danish prince and the Roman emperor. In the Elizabethan play the drama grows, in the modern it is forced, — a feeling from which one rarely escapes, even under the charm of the author’s many beautiful passages and skillful scenic auxiliaries. What plot there is must find its centre in Agrippina, and perhaps the mere adopting of her name for the drama would have made us less captious in our criticism. Racine was wise enough to call his play on the period Britannicus ; but in the drama of Mr. Phillips the character-study deals primarily with the eponymous persona while the plot-interest centres about another. If Agrippina had been given just a trifle more prominence and her name had appeared as the title, we should have felt that the play had a beginning, a middle, and an end; whereas even the most friendly critics must confess that the present play hardly fulfills this modest requirement. We are not through with Nero when he apostrophizes burning Rome. In the play of the same name by Mr. Robert Bridges, these words are spoken by Seneca, —

If any were to make a tragedy
Of these events, how would it pass or please
If Nero lived on at the end unpunished,
Triumphing still o’er good ?

And despite Thrasea’s rejoinder that “the god that mends all comes not in pat at his cue, as a machine,” we feel that Seneca was right. Pagans or Puritans, we will have Nemesis or the avenging God; we do not ask that virtue be happy, or even that natural evil be chastised; but withal those of us least poetical in our justice do demand that abnormal vice shall not be flaringly triumphant at the end. Moreover, in the ease of Nero history has recorded his punishment; and, in fact, the punishment of such a character in such an environment is inevitable. It would seem that a great tragedy on the picturesque actor-emperor could be written as a sort of Greek play in which all the overweening pride of the Ahenobarbi should be punished in Nero by his fantastic madness and abject death; or that a successful tragedy could be constructed, on the lines of a modern drama, half way between Mr. Phillips’s Nero and a French study of pathology, terminating on the wild avenging night that brings death to the tyrant madman with the truly tragic figure of Acte by his side.

Of the plot of Faust, we need speak only in so far as Mr. Phillips and his collaborator have modified their original. Much of Goethe’s text has long been discarded on the ordinary stage, nor can we make serious complaint about many of the omissions. The manifest striving of our present adapters is toward simplicity and unity.

In the Prologue, on a range of mountains between heaven and earth, Mephistopheles obtains permission to win the soul of Faust if he can. Into the first act are condensed the appearance of the Earth-Spirit, the conversation with Wagner, the phial scene, the invocation of the Spirit of Evil, the compact with Mephistopheles, the latter’s conference with the earnest student, and the visit to the witches’ cavern.

In the first scene of the second act the foolery in Auerbach’s Keller is connected with the Margaret episode, the students being represented as friends of Valentine, who is leaving for the war. From the drinking bout, Faust and Mephistopheles go to watch the faithful returning from mass, and they meet Margaret, who has been praying to the \ irgin for her brother’s safety. The next three scenes follow the old version more closely, although with many omissions and minor changes; also with one unimportant but annoying inconsistency, which we have not space to discuss. In the fifth scene Mephistopheles urges Faust to “ finish what is begun,” and gives him the potion. The sixth scene closes with the entry of Faust into Margaret’s dwelling. In Act III the order of events is decidedly modified. From the gossip of the village girls at the fountain, Margaret turns to the church, where she is tormented at her prayers by the mockery of Mephistopheles. Outside the cathedral the student friends converse about Margaret’s guilt. Valentine comes proudly in at the head of Ills troop, to be told of his sister’s shame. Faust and his ally appear and the duel occurs, followed by the heart-breaking interview between brother and sister. Act IV contains a brief Brocken scene, wherein Faust is shown Helen, Cleopatra, and Messalina. Just as lie is yielding, however, the witch who presented the rejuvenating potion in Act I causes him to see Margaret in her misery with her dead babe at her feet. The second scene takes us to the prison cell and deathbed of Margaret.

At this point comes the great departure from Goethe, and, in my humble opinion, an absolutely fatal mistake. No man can ever forget the impressive ending of the first part of Faust. The voice from above declares that Margaret is saved; Mephistopheles disappears with Faust; the dying voice from within is heard faintly calling the lover’s cherished name. There is final tragedy. But this will not do for Mr. Phillips and Mr. Carr. Faust declares that he will follow his lost love:—

Margaret, Margaret! after thee I come And rush behind thee in thy headlong flight.

Then the hero and the arch-fiend argue, in four pages of really fine verse, about the former’s fate. Finally, while Margaret is seen at the feet of Raphael, Mephistopheles claims his wager won; but an angel from the Prologue declares that Faust has been ennobled by a higher, holier love springing from his sin. During his speech “ angels are seen bearing the soul of Faust upward towards Margaret.” In the last two lines Mephistopheles says, with almost touching patness and piety:

Still to the same result I war with God:
I will the evil, I achieve the good.

In the name of Life, what mockery is this ? When the voice from above declares that Margaret is saved, we believe, because our own hearts have decided that she was no more guilty than a trampled flower. But what about Faust? Goethe tried, at any rate, to make him expiate his sin by service and suffering; bitter years of struggle and writhing upward preceded the end; even the angels admit the limitations of their saving power: —

Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
Den können wir erlösen.

But our new Faust is suddenly transported to heavenly joys in a moment of wild agony and self-reproach, which, for all the evidence before us, is much more likely to be the drunkard’s morning misery than the dawning of a new spiritual day within his heart. It is as idle to put the assurance on the authoritative lips of an accredited angel as it is to have it supported by the Devil; we are left absolutely unconvinced and rebellious. This man has chosen the easiest of preys; has dragged a maiden to a grave of shame; has been responsible for the murder of her mother, the drowning of her child, the death of her brother; and he shall be saved because of the nobility of her self-immolation, because of a bitter repentance enduring at least a moment, and a grandiloquent declaration that still he fights upward and battles to the skies. It may be transcendent mastery of dramatic effect; it may be exalted emotion-mongering; but it is alien to the best spirit of the age in which we live, it is contrary to the eternal verities. Faust must live and suffer and serve his fellow men. If the final solution is to be in heaven rather than on earth, if he is to find rest in the unfathomable grace of God, it must be after he has wrought some little alleviation in the groping misery of mankind.


Over the historic question of the relative importance of plot and character, we need delay only long enough to note that the great dramatist will make the two interpenetrate and fuse until they become one, and the question disappears. In this welding, I think, we must concede that Mr. Phillips has not betrayed a weak hand. As a matter of fact, it is a shade less difficult to bring about a satisfying union of plot and character if the author chooses to represent the figure we call Fate ever hanging over the stage, than if he chooses to insist on the persistent but perishing distinction between tragedies of character and tragedies of Fate, and endeavors to dispense with the appearance of this ultimate force.

Mr. Phillips has been true enough to his Greek training to elect in all frankness the former course, and has thereby incurred the charge of putting only “ wire-controlled ” puppets upon the stage. To this charge the obvious answer is that they are no more “ wire-controlled ” than we are, who prate so soundingly about being masters of our fate. In criticism, as in everyday life, one must adopt a common-sense compromise between an academic freedom of the will and an iron-

bound determinism. If Francesca, who had just spread out her hands to the warm sun, could have wedded Paolo, they must still have known sorrow, for that is the lot of mortals; but their lives would have been different, to say the least, although they would have been just as truly subject to environment. And in his treatment of Herod, Mr. Phillips seems deliberately to suggest his appreciation of the truth that drama must not be a mere study of character, but of the action of time and hap and place upon character fitted for other deeds; for, in the purest of Greek irony, our author has placed the following passage on the very verge of the catastrophe: —

Herod. The towered world ;
And we, we two will grasp it, we will burst
Out of the East unto the setting sun Mariamne. Thou art a man.
Herod. With thee will be a god;
Now stand we on the hill in red sunrise.
Mariamne. Now hand in hand into the morning.
Herod. Ever
Upward and upward — ever hand in hand.

Here is the pity of it. This seems a living possibility, which Herod slays by the same stroke with which he slays Aristobulus; and whereas, under conceivable circumstances, he might have moved into the morning with Mariamne at his side, he is engulfed in a fearsome night, groping vainly for a vanished hand. And yet, even while we see this possibility, we understand that he could not have dwelt in the morning to the end; for his character and his fate were too closely allied.

In The Sin of David, on the other hand, one discovers a real weakness, inasmuch as there has been set forth absolutely nothing in Lisle’s character or actions to prepare us for his instantaneous conception of a love that he was bound to regard as alike unhallowed and impossible. Here, certainly, plot and character have not been welded. The explanation is probably to be found in the change from David to Lisle, due to the interference of the English arbiter of dramatic morals. If David had been in question, we should have been thoroughly prepared for his prompt surrender to his passion; but in the case of Lisle there is a distinct jar, and, since this is the turning-point of the whole drama, the defect is a serious one.

In Faust, Ulysses, and Nero the problem hardly presents itself; for in the two first-named both plot and character are fixed in the hearer’s mind before the curtain rises, and the third, as we have said, is essentially a character-study.

On the whole, the major personages are adequately depicted. We have neither photographic realism on the one hand, nor mere impressionistic adumbration on the other. Miriam, for instance, is a real woman, set before us in clear, essential portraiture, even if we are not told the color of her eyes.

She is a daughter of France, born in the sun’s lap, transferred to the drear fenland at her father’s death and to the guardianship of the benumbing Puritan, who, after wedding her without wooing, “ locks her spirit up and keeps the key.” Her misery is faithful to the loathed yoke until the appearance of Lisle. Even after his coming she is willing to struggle; but the ruthless husband, confusing a diligent wife and quiet house with unnatural sacrifice and self-starvation, drives her to her fate. The very hour of surrender is “a deep inheriting, and as the solemn coming to a kingdom.” In her new abode, this time a home, she is the spirit of motherhood. All that “ wanders in her and is wild,” having broken in one wave on Lisle, has been gathered up with all else that is in her to be poured out in love for her child and the father of her child. With the boy’s taking off comes rebellion against the causeless theft, and a prayer for heaven’s ire sooner than heaven’s indifference. This is followed by the thought that she is being punished for having rushed into Lisle’s arms in headlong passion.

Finally, her husband confesses his crime, and the wracked heart rebels against his sin and her contagion; the body that wooed him to murder conceived her boy, adjudged to death before his birth. Her agony begets a gradual calm, the calm of hopelessness. “ O I am stone to human life henceforth.” In this mood she notes in her husband the eyes that shone from her dead boy’s face, and Lisle grasps the opportunity to suggest that by the loss of their beloved they have paid the penalty of fleshly sin; that now may begin a marriage everlasting, whose sacrament shall be their deep and mutual wound, whose witnesses the shadowy throngs. Then the same woman we came to know in the first act, craving light and love, clasps the plea he offers and falls on the heart of the man who five years ago had led her from gloom to sunshine. But in the dreary fenland we met her, and in a sort of spiritual fenland we bid her farewell; for we know that ever in her heart will be the cry, “ I want the little hands and feet of him.” About her in the future will flit irrecoverable dreams, with memory and repentance, — never deep, confident happiness again.

That the character of Lisle is adequately drawn, few would maintain; but Miriam attests that our author can depict a woman. A review of Herod would be still more convincing as to his ability to depict a man who is fitted to be a hero of tragedy. In the characters of Miriam and the Judæan king, Mr. Phillips was less bound than in the major personages of his other plays, and his success with these must in fairness be remembered against his failures. Indeed, as to this particular point ont finds much encouragement in the Roman play; for the author’s treatment of the emperor and of Agrippina shows a touch that is growing in skill, if not in strength.

In the minor characters it can hardly be maintained that he has achieved equal success, although Antinous in his insolence and splendor, Lucrezia with her thwarted woman thoughts, and Poppæa with the merciless calculation of her witching beauty, stand forth to challenge any sweeping condemnation. The fact is that Mr. Phillips, in his desire to avoid multiplicity of effect, has deliberately minimized the importance of his minor personages, and has depicted them accordingly, so that with the three characters named above to attest his power it would be thoroughly unsafe to decide that he will not achieve more satisfactory results in the future. That there is room for improvement should be frankly conceded; for our ideal tragedy, without sacrificing the stamp of perfect unity, may include a number of important personages strongly portrayed and contributing to the main action.


In entering upon the field of Mr. Phillips’s language and verse, we find fewest differences of opinion. It is true that an occasional line is dismally prosaic. For instance, in the new play, as a translation of “ Schnell und unbegreiflich schnelle,” said of the circling earth, we have “ Swift, beyond understanding quite,” probably because the line has to rhyme with night; and in the earlier plays it has been easy for the reviewers to point out similar defects. We actually encounter one tall statement that he is”careless and slipshod in his literary methods; ” but even the more acrimonious fault-finders concede the faint praise that he is a successful “ phrase-maker.” And with that one word who shall quarrel ? It is strange to find so often the pseudo-philosophical delusion that limpid language and glowing imagery and polished verse are a small part of poetic drama; yet from many of our critics one would be forced to conclude that these are non-essential trappings, and that Shakespeare, for instance, would still be Shakespeare if stripped thereof. In the nature of things, poetic drama cannot live without these three elements; for here, at least, the raiment is a part of the body, and the more lustrous and luminous the raiment, the greater must be the body’s vitality and beauty.

One criticism, however, is both pertinent and instructive: that he is greater as a poet than as a dramatist. Herein he seems to follow a long line of honorable predecessors, from Æschylus to Shakespeare; for the law of progress seems to be that tragic poets shall be poets before developing into great writers of tragedy. “Their lips must have power to sing before their hands have skill to paint or carve figures from life.” In whatever points the author of Marpessa might fail when he advanced to the composition of tragedy, he could not fail to write poetry; and from the opening act of the Rimini drama to the closing speech in Nero our expectation is not disappointed. In Faust, some of the translations fall short of our demands. The vigorous curse, for instance, lacks the spear-like, penetrating power of the original, and the haunting spinningwheel song sinks to verse like this: —

Gone is my peace, and with heart so sore I shall find it again nevermore.
If he be not near me, the world is a grave And bitter as is the sea-wave.
My bosom is aching for him alone —
Might I make him my very own !
Might I kiss but his lips till my mouth were fire,
And then on his kisses expire !

On the whole, however, it would be fair to say that in the latest, as in the earlier plays, complete lucidity of meaning is expressed in varied beauty of language and verse. It is true that he is most successful in the lyric moments; but he is scarcely less effective in the moments which are otherwise highly impassioned, and his weakness is discovered chiefly in the lighter portions of the dialogue. In other words, while he has not yet achieved complete mastery he is weak where weakness is least fatal, and strong wherever strength is most indispensable. This general conclusion as to his poetic diction is, I think, indisputable, so we need not bring forward any considerable number of illustrative excerpts. When a metrical passage makes itself a beautiful concomitant of one’s thoughts on a great theme, it is safe to speak of it as high poetry, and what one of the readers of our plays wTill think of the passing of a young life from a sheltered haven to sorrow’s sea without recalling such lines as these ?

And yet, Nita, and yet — can any tell
How sorrow first doth come ? Is there a step,
A light step, or a dreamy drip of oars ?
Is there a stirring of leaves, or ruffle of wings ?
For it seems to me that softly, without hand,
Surely she touches me.

Or who will think of death’s part in life without recalling the stimulating rejection by Ulysses of Calypso’s offer of immortality ?

I would not take life hut on terms of death,
That sting in the wine of being, salt of its feast.
To me what rapture in the ocean path
Save in the white leap and the dance of doom?
O death, thou hast a beckon to the brave,
Thou last sea of the navigator, last
Plunge of the diver, and last hunter’s leap.

Again, there are few more poignant exclamations than this of Herod, when his dazed mind half grasps the possibility that there has been mischance to Mariarane: —

I ’ll re-create her out of endless yearning,
And flesh shall cleave to hone, and biood shall ruit.
Do I not know her, every vein? Can I
Not imitate in furious ecstasy
What God hath coldly made ? I’ll re-create
My love with boue for hone, and vein for vein.
The eyes, the eyes again, the hands, the hair,
And that which I have made, O that shall love me.

In striking contrast to the brokenness ol this cry stands Acte’s flowing description of Poppeea, which will always be worth quoting once more on the theme of soulless beauty:—

A woman without pity, beautiful.
She makes the earth we tread on false, the heaven
A merest mist, a vapour. Yet her face
Is as the face of a child uplifted, pure ;
But plead with lightning rather than those eyes,
Or earthquake rather than that gentle bosom
Rising and falling near thy heart. Her voice
Comes running on the ear as a rivulet;
Yet if you hearken, you shall hear behind
The breaking of a sea whose waves are souls
That break upon a human-crying beach.
Ever she smileth, yet hath never smiled,
And in her lovely laughter is no joy.
Yet hath none fairer strayed into the world
Or wandered in more witchery through the air
Since she who drew the dreaming keels of Greece
After her over the Ionian foam.

Iii the foregoing, and more clearly in several other passages, one catches now and then an echo from some of the great teachers at whose feet our poet lias sat in patient learning; but there is absolutely no sign of the mere copyist. Indeed, in this, as in his dramatic structure and atmosphere, he represents exactly the laudable attitude described by Swinburne as " that faithful and fruitful discipleship of love with which the highest among workmen have naturally been always the first to study, and the most earnest to follow, the footsteps of their greatest predecessors.” It would be well if this form of discipleship were more widely in vogue with aspiring dramatists; and the serious critic will be little inclined to speak harshly of this feature of our author’s style.


As to scenic presentment, we need detain our reader only a moment. In the composition of the plays, as has been pointed out, Mr. Phillips wisely kept the actor and the spoken word constantly in mind. In fact, so eminent and kindly a critic of Herod as Mr. W. D. Howells said that in reading the play he had an uncomfortable sense as of the presence of a third party, which upon closer examination of his consciousness appeared to be the actor. That this becomes a real defect very few will be convinced. In any event, such a criticism leads us to expect that an author so attentive to the acted play would be strong in scenic presentment. This expectation Mr. Phillips unquestionably justifies. The Italian palazzo, the royal home of Odysseus, — perhaps, as actually presented, adhering too faithfully to golden Mycenæ to be quite accurate for gaunt Ithaca, — the Judæan hall of audience, and the imperial scenes at Rome offer a striking spectacle to the eye. The countless presentations of Goethe’s Faust have naturally made it very easy to achieve stupendous and finished spectacular effects, and the devices in Mr. Phillips’s new play at once recall and comply with the injunction of the director in the “ Prolog im Himmel: ” —

Drum schonet mir an diesem Tag
Prospekte nicht und nicht Maschinen.

In The Sin of David, too, the original plan would have presented a staging akin to its fellows and fundamentally different from the final form. Throughout the plays, beautiful architecture, rich and tasteful robes, effective grouping of figures, and similar features, appeal most winningly to the audience. Mr. Phillips had the initial advantage of a cultured taste and an actor’s experience; but he had also the invaluable coöperation of two such masters of stage management as Mr. George Alexander and Mr. Beerbohm Tree, so that comment becomes rather superfluous. The stage effects are invariably as happy and brilliant as modern scenic art and long experience can make them. In truth, the danger is that they may be too successful, and I have fancied that a little of the weakness of Nero may be due to scenic temptation.

In passing, we may recall that if Mr. Phillips has been fortunate in his stage managers, he has been not less fortunate in having the Benson school of actors to deliver some of his best blank verse. While poor staging may inflict a serious wound on a drama, poor acting deals the death blow, leaving only a corpse for the bookmen to galvanize into a merely literary existence. A poetic drama must be well staged and well acted, or, in a certain sense, it remains poetry rather than drama.


Herewith it would seem that this article must conclude without any serious foreboding ; for the writer, while emphasizing certain defects, has admitted that Mr. Phillips can choose excellent dramatic material, that he can weave a strong plot, that he can make a character live, that he can write beautiful verse, and that he is a thorough master of stagecraft. Manifestly little remains save apparently unimportant details; but it is exactly from these trifles that one’s foreboding may spring. For instance, great tragedians have often used some such device as oracle, dream, or prophecy to declare the future with unmistakable significance, and the dramatic effect is frequently strong, occasionally tremendous; but Mr. Phillips resorts thereto with dangerous freedom. In Paolo and Francesca, we have the vaticinations of Angela and the reiterated warnings of Lucrezia; in Ulysses, the decision of the Olympian council; in Herod, the prediction of the astrologer; in The Sin of David, it is the self-righteous prayer of Lisle after he condemns Joyce to death; in Nero, it is again an astrologer. Moreover, in addition to utilizing these more or less general predictions, Mr. Phillips fairly toys with the future at every turn. Thus he drops lurking suggestions such as we find in the avowal of Francesca: —

I have wept but on the pages of a book,
And I have longed for sorrow of my own.

So Herod hints at his coming fate when he says: -

And I, if she were dead, I too would die,
Or linger in the sunlight without life.

In the same category belongs the abrupt decision of Ulysses: —

I ’d go down into hell, if hell led home !

Most striking instance of all, he inserts in an early part of Faust a parting scene between Valentine and Margaret: —

Beneath War’s thunder skies where’er I go
I ’ll think of thee the whitest flower of all.

This is followed by a toast drunk with his student friends: “Well then, here’s to my sister Margaret; and he who has the worth to win her shall then toast the purest maid in our city.” And examples could be multiplied without end. It must be admitted that this tossing about of the ball of the future is always employed skillfully, even artistically; but its constant recurrence in six consecutive plays is not without disturbing significance.

Still more minute points give rise to thought, as the repeated sympathy of atmospheric conditions with the psychological situation, or the fact that Marpessa, Francesca, and Miriam are obviously created by the same hand. Again, Giovanni speaks of a second wedding when Paolo and Francesca are united in death; and Lisle speaks of a second wedding when he and Miriam are reunited after their punishment. One may concede unhesitatingly the non-essentiality of most of these points and still feel that they are discomforting. Inexhaustibility is a large part of the difference between talent and genius, and inexhaustibility is exactly what these detailed considerations do not suggest. That they afford grounds for anything more substantial than a foreboding, few would care to maintain; but from the foreboding I, for one, cannot escape. Furthermore, it is disquieting to recall that his earliest play is decidedly his best, even if there are signs of improvement in particular phases. Nor can the failure to essay a new Faust, instead of acquiescing in an adaptation, increase the hopefulness of his admirers. That Mr. Phillips has never gone into novel fields for his subjects need not concern us. An author may produce immortal works without seeking the glaringly new or startlingly strange, as Greek tragedy alone would prove; but in each new treatment of an old theme we have a right to expect some profound criticism of life, some lifting of a tiny corner of the great veil.

Finally, there has grown up within me an unreasoned fear that our author has deserved and found almost too ready a success, that he may not get his full share of the buffeting of life. While nobody will question the value of “ shelter to grow ripe and leisure to grow wise,” there is a strange potency in the dust and the heat, and I find myself tempted to pray that the gods will be kind to him by treating him unkindly. Howbeit, my forebodings are at bitter war with my hopes; for the future of Mr. Phillips is of real moment for poetic drama, perhaps the highest form of literature.