restricted access The Poetic Drama. A review of Cinnamon and Angelica: A Play, by John Middleton Murry
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240 ] The Poetic Drama1 A review of Cinnamon and Angelica: A Play by John Middleton Murry London: Cobden-Sanderson: 1920. Pp. 111. The Athenaeum, 4698 (14 May 1920) 635-36 The impotence of contemporary drama is a commonplace riddle of cultured pessimism. A convocation of dramatic enthusiasts recently revealed, that on the one hand there are plenty of writers who could compose good plays if anyone would stage them, and that on the other hand there are a dozen producers ready to snap up a good play if they could find one. Poetic dramas are not infrequently printed; we have abandoned the speculation of why they are so dull. But Mr. Murry is an interesting case – interesting enough to revive once more the whole discussion; for he is a writer who might be, or might in a happier age have been (according to our hopeful or pessimistic humours), a poetic dramatist. He has virtues which are his own, and vices which are general. It is therefore a real pleasure, an exceptional pleasure, to have a patient like Mr. Murry extended on the operating table; we need our sharpest instruments, and steadiest nerves, if we are to do him justice. Two possibilities we may exclude at once. A poetic drama may be simply bad, in which case the cause of its failure will not be worth further examination . Or it may be poetry which should have been cast in some form which is not dramatic. Plays of this sort are written at times when drama is decaying, but when no other form is at hand: Browning wrote dull plays, but invented the dramatic monologue or character.2 When the poetic drama has wholly disappeared, when it is, as at the present time, a lost art, this mistake is less frequently made. The natural evolution, for us, would be to proceed in the direction indicated by Browning; to distil the dramatic essences, if we can, and infuse them into some other liquor. The poet who now applies himself to the drama (I exclude, of course, those who are competent for nothing) will be one with a strong and (we may even say) philosophic conviction in favour of this form. He will be a very conscious poet, with an historical imagination; it is the consciousness, the construction of [ 241 The Poetic Drama the possible meaning, the possible value in feeling which a triumphant poetic drama might have for the sensibilities of the most sensitive contemporary , that has moved him. This poet will be a complex person: he is impelled both by a desire to give form to something in his mind, and by a desire that a certain desirable emotional state should be produced. He is troubled and hampered by the complexity of conscious motives which lay claim to his attention. Such, we believe, is Mr. Murry. The composition of a poetic drama is in fact the most difficult, the most exhausting task that a poet can set himself, and – this is the heart of the matter – it is infinitely more difficult for a poet of to-day than it was for a poet of no greater talent three hundred years ago. It is more difficult than it was for Shelley. Nor could Mr. Murry, for instance, content himself to plunge into Tudor literature and produce a Death’s Jest Book or a Duke of Gandia.3 He is too keenly aware of his precise place in time to care to perform any, however lovely, literary exercise. He wishes to do the difficult thing. It is interesting to consider why it is so difficult, and how far the difficulties disperse, and how far they direct, Mr. Murry’s energies. The difficulty is very baldly stated, as it has been stated so many times before, by saying that there is no audience. It will not do, of course, to leave the matter there. There is, “waiting” for poetry on the stage, a quite sufficient number of persons to fill a playhouse; there are even a few willing to subsidize the performance of any play of the mildest promise; there is enough effort on the part of both writers and the possible patrons and audiences. But what is needed is not sympathy or encouragement or appreciation – we need not assume that the best of the Athenian or the Elizabethan drama was “appreciated” by its audiences, relatively to the second -best – but a kind of unconscious co-operation. The ideal condition is that under which everything...