Four Elizabethan Dramatists: A Preface to an Unwritten Book
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[ 503 Four Elizabethan Dramatists: A Preface to an Unwritten Book1 ToattempttosupplementthecriticismofLamb,Coleridge,andSwinburne on these four Elizabethan dramatists – Webster, Tourneur, Middleton, and Chapman – is a task for which I now believe the time has gone by.2 What I wish to do is to define and illustrate a point of view toward the Elizabethan drama, which is different from that of the nineteenth-century tradition. There are two accepted and apparently opposed critical attitudes toward Elizabethan drama, and what I shall endeavour to show is that these attitudes are identical, and that another attitude is possible. Furthermore, I believe that this alternative critical attitude is not merely a possible difference of personal bias, but that it is the inevitable attitude for our time. The statement and explication of a conviction about such an important body of dramatic literature, toward what is in fact the only distinct form of dramatic literature that England has produced, should be something more than an exercise in mental ingenuity or in refinement of taste: it should be somethingofrevolutionaryinfluenceonthefutureofdrama.Contemporary literature, like contemporary politics, is confused by the moment-tomoment struggle for existence; but the time arrives when an examination of principles is necessary. I believe that the theatre has reached a point at which a revolution in principles should take place. The accepted attitude toward Elizabethan drama was established on the publication of Charles Lamb’s Specimens.3† By publishing these selections, Lamb set in motion the enthusiasm for poetic drama which still persists, and at the same time encouraged the formation of a distinction which is, I believe, the ruin of modern drama – the distinction between drama and literature. For the Specimens made it possible to read the plays as poetry while neglecting their function on the stage.4 It is for this reason that all modern opinion of the Elizabethans seems to spring from Lamb,5† for all modern opinion rests upon the admission that poetry and drama are two separate things, which can only be combined by a writer of exceptional genius. The difference between the people who prefer Elizabethan drama, in spite of what they admit to be its dramatic defects, and the people who prefer modern drama although acknowledging that it is never good poetry, 1924 504 ] is comparatively unimportant. For in either case, you are committed to the opinion that a play can be good literature but a bad play and that it may be a good play and bad literature – or else that it may be outside of literature altogether. On the one hand we have Swinburne, representative of the opinion that plays exist as literature, and on the other hand Mr. William Archer, who with great lucidity and consistency maintains the view that a play need not be literature at all.6 No two critics of Elizabethan drama could appear to be more opposed than Swinburne and Mr. William Archer; yet their assumptions are fundamentally the same, for the distinction between poetry and drama,whichMr.Archermakesexplicit,isimplicitintheviewofSwinburne; and Swinburne as well as Mr. Archer allows us to entertain the belief that the difference between modern drama and Elizabethan drama is represented by a gain of dramatic technique and the loss of poetry. Mr. Archer in his brilliant and stimulating book, succeeded in making quite clear all of the dramatic faults of Elizabethan drama.7† * What vitiates his analysis is his failure to see why these faults are faults, and not simply differentconventions.AndhegainshisapparentvictoryovertheElizabethans for this reason, that the Elizabethans themselves admit the same criteria of realism that Mr. Archer asserts. The great vice of English drama from Kyd to Galsworthy has been that its aim of realism was unlimited.8 In one play, Everyman, and perhaps in that one play only, we have a drama within the limitations of art; since Kyd, since Arden of Feversham, since The Yorkshire Tragedy, there has been no form to arrest, so to speak, the flow of spirit at any particular point before it expands and ends its course in the desert of exact likeness to the reality which is perceived by the most commonplace mind.9 Mr. Archer confuses faults with conventions; the Elizabethans committed faults and muddled their conventions. In their plays there are faults of inconsistency, faults of incoherency, faults of taste, there are nearly everywhere faults of carelessness. But their great weakness is the same weaknessasthatofmoderndrama,itisthelackofaconvention.Mr.Archer facilitates his own task of destruction, and avoids offending popular opinion , by making an exception of Shakespeare: but...