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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
V. Modern English Drama
By Dr. Ernest Bernbaum
THE MODERN English drama is represented in The Harvard Classics by two comedies of the eighteenth century and by four tragedies of the seventeenth and the nineteenth. Since literary fashions change from age to age, and since the authors of these plays were, even when contemporaries, men of markedly different tastes, it is natural that the six dramas should be more or less conspicuously dissimilar. Each is great because it follows an ideal; each is great in a different way because its ideal is not that of the others. Which of these ideals is absolutely the best, is a question that critics have much debated, sometimes acrimoniously: Dryden has been pitted against Shakespeare, Goldsmith against Sheridan, Shelley against Browning, and so on. Interesting as such contentions may be, they tend to obscure rather than enlighten the mind of him who approaches these plays simply with the desire to enjoy each to the full. To him comparisons are odious because, instead of leading him to appreciate many plays of many kinds, they may confine his enjoyment to those of one school. Yet, though he may set aside the vexatious question of the relative worth of the purposes that inspired these dramatists, he will not gain the greatest possible delight from them until he understands what each of them was trying to do.  1

  Genial Goldsmith 1 delighted in the kind of humor that is characteristic of “the plain people” and that is spontaneously enjoyed by them. The accidental predicaments into which all of us stumble, to our embarrassment and the amusement of bystanders; the blunders of well-meaning but untrained servants; the practical jokes, without malice, that ever delight youth; the shy awkwardness of lovers; even the clownish tavern jest and joviality; these are in Goldsmith’s merry eyes sources of wholesome laughter. It troubles him not that Young Marlow continues to believe a country house an inn, and the host’s daughter a maidservant, nor that Mrs. Hardcastle mistakes her own garden for a distant heath; he ignores the improbability of such situations as arouse instinctive laughter. It is the unsophisticated human beings who blunder in and out of these straits that he wishes to depict; and he draws simple folk like Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, Tony Lumpkin, and Diggory, with extraordinary zest, fidelity, and kindly yet shrewd humor.

  Sheridan, the statesman, orator, and wit, wrote of the fashionable world, and for it. In conformity with its conventional existence and its taste for regularity, he admitted no improbabilities into the plot of “The School for Scandal.” 2 As men and women of fashion tried to be elegant, witty, or epigrammatic in speech, he aimed to bestow like graces upon the dialogue of his personages—to make Joseph Surface sententious, Charles sprightly, Lady Teazle invincible in repartee. To a society that was too fastidious to be entertained by naive simplicity, rude manners, and boisterous merriment, Sheridan wanted to reveal the comic aspects of its usual life. He laughed at the scandal mongers who, after tearing others’ reputations to tatters, departed without a shred of their own, at the foolish though innocent young wife who was fascinated by the perilous pleasures of a fast set, and at the affected young hypocrite whose devious schemes undid him. He was not without kindliness of heart, as the humor of the final scene between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle shows; but satire was his aim.

  Like most tragedies, Dryden’s “All for Love,” 3 shows the pitiable outcome of a struggle between good and evil. Among the innumerable manifestations of this eternal strife there are some which attract by their singularity, but these were not of interest to Dryden. To him the really important tragic conflicts were those which are frequent in human life, such as that between duty and passion. He chose the theme of Antony and Cleopatra, not because it was new or extraordinary, but because it was a noble illustration of a normal dilemma of human existence. He knew of course that the defeat in the decisive battle of Actium of the last kingdom of the Grecian empire by triumphant Rome was epoch making, 4 and offered superb opportunities for historical and scenic contrasts; but he did not wish to write a “world drama.” When he raises the curtain, Actium has already been fought and the destiny of nations decided; what remains is the personal fate of Antony and of Cleopatra, the former vainly though nobly endeavoring to reanimate his former manhood and loyalty, the latter trying amid the wreck to save her domination over him, and each tortured by lack of true faith in the other. Their emotions in the brief final crisis of their lives Dryden sought to trace with clearness and truth to nature, and to express with majestic simplicity.

  When Shelley in his preface to “The Cenci” 5 speaks of “teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself,” he expresses intentions not widely different from those of all dramatists, including Dryden; but when he mentions his desire to “make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart,” he indicates his own predilection. This he followed in choosing as his subject a “dark and secret” crime, the situation into which the monstrous Cenci forces Beatrice being unspeakable and abnormal. As suitable backgrounds, Shelley selects a sinister banquet, a gloomy castle at night, and a prison with instruments of torture. Yet he wishes not to fix attention upon physical horrors, but to use them to call forth in his characters extreme revelations of vice and virtue. He feels that only under such dread circumstances can the deepest potentialities of human nature be displayed. The very extremity of Beatrice’s plight lays bare the core of her womanhood, revealing to the full the sensitiveness of chastity and the courage of innocence.

  Byron, like Shelley, sought what lay beyond the commonplace, but found it in another aspect of life. His “Manfred” 6 succumbs not to man or society, but in a solitary struggle with the mysteries of Nature. From her he has wrested secrets, her forces he has learned to command; but his proud knowledge and power have been gained by stifling the social feelings of humanity, and his life is now a penitent search for oblivion, in which science, philosophy, and religion can give him no consolation. “I was,” he laments, “my own destroyer, and will be my own Hereafter!” Byron’s temperament enabled him to fathom a lonely soul like Manfred’s, and urged him to express its passions with fiery vigor. The subject offered almost insuperable obstacles to dramatic treatment, since most of the forces that acted upon Manfred were either abstractions or inanimate objects. Byron, however, felt, and used all the energy of his imagination to make us feel, that these physical phenomena and laws were not vague or dead things, but that earth and air, mountains and cataracts, were to the distracted wanderer real personalities, and exercised upon him an influence more intimate than that of any fellow man.

  With Browning’s “A Blot in the ’scutcheon” 7 we return to the kind of tragedy that arises amid normal conditions of life. Yet here again a peculiar aspect of the tragic is emphasized. Both Dryden’s Antony and Shelley’s Cenci know clearly that they are committing wrong. Browning perceived that there are tragic cases in which a character acts in accordance with his highest moral standard, and comes too late to realize that his standard is false or inapplicable. The personages in “A Blot in the ’scutcheon” are of admirable nobility, and among them Thorold is not the least scrupulously conscientious, but the code of honor which he loyally obeys becomes an instrument of fatal cruelty. The very intensity with which he looks up to a splendid ideal blinds his judgment regarding the apparent dishonor of his beloved sister, so that he fails to see “through the surface of crime a depth of purity unmovable.” It is thus a subtle as well as a natural course of events that Browning aims to trace, and only a rich and pregnant style could express the complex thoughts and feelings of so highly cultivated and exquisitely sensitive beings as his Thorold, Mildred, and Guendolen.
  The reader of these six dramas who understands their main purposes will surely admire the conscientious manner in which those aims are carried out. He will perceive that the plot, characterization, and dialogue of each are designed with remarkable skill to conform to its dominant ideal. In fact, the chief reason why these plays are among the very, very few dramatic masterpieces of their time is that their authors clearly knew what they wanted to do, and came about as near to doing it as human limitations permit. The different means they had to employ interestingly exhibit the varieties of dramatic technique; and the diverse views of human life that they held serve to enlarge the bounds of our sympathy with many sorts and conditions of men.  8
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xviii, 205. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xviii, 109. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xviii, 23. [back]
Note 4. “Lectures on Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” History, p. 7. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xviii, 281. [back]
Note 6. H. C., xviii, 407. [back]
Note 7. H. C., xviii, 359. [back]


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