restricted access Cyril Tourneur
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[ 197 Cyril Tourneur1 Although the tragedies which make immortal the name of Cyril Tourneur are accessible to everyone in the Mermaid edition, it is still an event to have a new edition of the “work” of this strange poet.2 Fifty-two years have passed since the edition in two volumes by Churton Collins. And this sumptuous critical edition of Professor Nicoll’s reminds us that it is time to revalue the work of Tourneur.3 None of the Elizabethan dramatists is more puzzling; none offers less foothold for the scholarly investigator; and none is more dangerous for the literary critic. We know almost nothing of his life; we trace his hand in no collaboration.4 He has left only two plays; and it has been doubted even whether the same man wrote both; and if he did, as most scholars agree, there is still some doubt as to which he wrote first. Yet in no plays by any minor Elizabethan is a more positive personality revealed than in The Revenger’s Tragedy. No Elizabethan dramatist offers greater temptation: to the scholar, to hazard conjecture of fact; and to the critic, to hazard conjecture of significance. We may be sure that what Mr. Nicoll does not know is unknown to anybody; and it is no disrespect to his scholarship and diligence to remark how little, in the fifty-two years of Elizabethan research since Collins, has been added to our knowledge of the singular poet with the delightful name. Churton Collins, in his admirable introduction, really knows nothing at all about the man’s life; and all that later students have been able to do is to piece together several probable shreds.5 That there was a family of Tourneurs is certain; the precise place in it of Cyril is, as Mr. Nicoll freely admits, a matter of speculation. And, with all the plausible guesses possible, Mr. Nicoll tells us that Tourneur’s “whole early life is a complete blank” [8]. What he does give us is good reason for believing that Tourneur, with perhaps other members of the family, was a servant of the Cecils; and he adds to our knowledge a prose piece, “The Character of Robert Earl of Salisbury.”6 Besides the two tragedies, he also gives “The Transformed Metamorphosis,” the “Funeral Poem upon the Death of Sir Francis Vere,” and the Elegy on the death of Prince Henry, already canonically attributed to Tourneur; and “Laugh and Lie Down,” a satirical pamphlet , no better and no worse than dozens of others, which is probably Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 198 ] Tourneur’s – at least, it is attributed to him, and there is no particular reason why he should not be the author.7 The information of fifty years is meagre and probably will never be improved. It is astonishingly incongruous with what we feel we know about Tourneur after reading the two plays: two plays as different from all plays by known Elizabethans as they are from each other. In Elizabethan drama, the critic is rash who will assert boldly that any play is by a single hand. But with each of these, The Atheist’s Tragedy and The Revenger’s Tragedy, the literary critic feels that, even were there some collaboration, one mind guided the whole work; and feels that the mind was not that of one of the other well-known dramatic writers. Certainly, Tourneur has made a very deep impression upon the minds of those critics who have admired him. It is to be regretted, however, that Professor Nicoll, at the beginning of his otherwise sober and just introduction, has quoted the hysterical phrases of Marcel Schwob’s vie imaginaire of Tourneur. To say that Tourneur naquit de l’union d’un dieu inconnu avec une prostituée is a pardonable excess of a romantic period, a pardonable excess on the part of a poet discovering a foreign poet.8 But this is not criticism; and it is a misleading introduction to the work of a man who was a great English poet; and it produces an impression which is increased by the excellent but too macabre decorations of Mr. Carter.9 What matters first is the beauty of the verse and the unity of the dramatic pattern in the two plays. The author of The Atheist’s Tragedy and The Revenger’s Tragedy belongs critically among the earlier of the followers of Shakespeare. If Ford and Shirley and Fletcher represent the decadence, and...