restricted access The Duchess of Malfi at the Lyric: and Poetic Drama
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170 ] The Duchess of Malfi at the Lyric: and Poetic Drama1 Art & Letters, 3 (Winter 1920) 36-39 It was a triumph, several weeks ago, for Mr. William Archer, Sir Leo Chiozza Money, and that majority of the British public which sincerely hates the whole of the English literature antecedent to Cowper’s Task.2 It was a triumph of considerable magnitude. Years of patient labour have so purified, transmogrified, and debased Shakespeare that several of his plays can be produced before audiences of the most civilized householders and shareholdersintheworld.And,ofcourse,everyoneknowsthatShakespeare is not responsible for Pericles. He is dull, of course, but it is an interesting and useful exercise for our great actors and actresses to see what they can make of a few of his roles. But Webster remained unacceptable. And now some of our very best cultured Shakespearian actors had devoted most of their spare time for some weeks to getting up The Duchess of Malfi; it was staged with almost Shakespearian scenery and a real traverse; scholarly people had collaborated; intelligentsia attended.3 Yet the result was not only dull: it was ridiculous. Such was the nature of the triumph of Mr. Archer and the modern stage. A few people, however, will read the result in quite a different sense; will recognize that if it was not a triumph for Webster, it was on the other hand a most damning indictment of the modern stage. In the first place, anyone who has read a great number of plays, ancient and modern, becomes acutely aware of the difference between an acting play and what the nineteenth century produced as “closet drama.” Acting plays may be good, or defective , or hopelessly dull; but their dulness has a wholly different tone from the dulness of the closet drama. The dullest, the most theatrically inept, of acting plays will be readable if it only has a few good lines, but the closet drama is wholly unreadable. Between the lines, even the second best lines, ofTheDuchessofMalfiandthebestlinesofaplaybyTennysonorBrowning or Swinburne there is an absolute difference. The former were meant to be spoken, the latter were not; they only pretend to mean to be spoken. The significance of the best poetry in The Duchess of Malfi is that it is dramatic poetry; and the significance of the performance which we witnessed under the auspices of the Phoenix Society is that precisely in dealing with the [ 171 The Duchess of Malfi at the Lyric finest poetry the actors were patently most ill at ease. The dressing-room scene, in which Antonio and Cariola withdraw and Ferdinand enters unperceived, is not only a scene of fine poetry, but a scene for the stage. Miss Nesbitt is evidently a conscientious and dignified actress, and I doubt whether there is any very successful living actress who would have played the part better.4 But there was never a moment when she was the Duchess: she was, at every moment, Miss Catherine Nesbitt “making” a part. And when she came to the lines . . . . does not my hair ’gin to change? When I grow old, I shall have all the court Powder their hair with arras, to be like me.5 she continued to make the part, and ruined the lines. We required only that she should transmit the lines, but to transmit lines is beyond the selfcontrol of a modern actor, and so she did what the modern actor does: she “interpreted” them. She had to throw in a little titter, a feminine gesture or two, a hint of archness, and she became, not the Duchess, but somelike the respondent in a drama of divorce. The scene was demolished; the dominant atmosphere in which the author wraps it was dissipated. There are other clues which fall into place. A scene of minor intensity, not merely less poetic intensity but less dramatic intensity, was far better played. (I am inclined to believe that any poetic intensity, in a play, will be dramatic intensity as well, but that is for later consideration). The first scene between the Cardinal and his mistress was well done.6 It was perhaps too well done in its way. We were again reminded of respondents and corespondents . It was well done, by two quite competent and quite professional actors, because it is a place in the play where the dominant tone is relaxed. It was simply the scene which most closely resembled a modern social comedy, and the actors were on more familiar and easy...