The Revenger’s Tragedy: A Note by T. S. Eliot
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[ 463 The Revenger’s Tragedy: A Note by T. S. Eliot1 There was a rumour, started by Marcel Schwob, and, I regret to say, given currency by Professor Allardyce Nicoll, to the effect that Cyril Tourneur naquit de l’union d’un dieu inconnu avec une prostituée.2 If, however, we assume that Cyril Tourneur existed, and if he was the author of both of the two plays ascribed to him – and in the seventeenth century poets sometimes did have poetical names, e.g., Aurelian Townshend – then nothing better has been written about Tourneur than Churton Collins’s Introduction to his edition of the plays and poems.3 But I think that what we should do tonight is to forget all theories about the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy – andalltheimaginingsofthecharnel-vault-and-wormsschoolofElizabethan criticism – Churton Collins, Swinburne, Vernon Lee4 – and take advantage of this, the first opportunity in our time, of deciding for ourselves whether The Revenger’s Tragedy is a good play.I am sure that the author, whoever he was, was a great poet. As a poet, he has always seemed to me very near to two contemporaries: to the Middleton of Women beware Women and to the author of that great passage towards the end of The Witch of Edmonton (recently and beautifully rendered by Miss Edith Evans) where the witch abuses other kinds of “witch.”5 At least one critic has attributed The Revenger’s Tragedy to Middleton; and in a play admittedly so composite as The Witch of Edmonton, it is possible to make out a case for Middleton’s having taken a hand.6 But the feel of The Revenger’s Tragedy as a whole is to me different from that of a Middleton play: this is a kind of belief which requires to be tested by a performance of the play itself. If The Revenger’s Tragedy is as exciting to hear and see as it is to read, yet it remains a play of its own kind. The author is not, in the usual sense, a “dramatist”: he is a poet who had something to say, and whom the circumstances of the time forced to speak dramatically. It seems to me that the circumstances forced him to the stage for his own advantage, and forced him to an objectivity not natural to him. The Revenger’s Tragedy is not the play of a dramatist, but of a poet forced to take to the stage. The characters of the play are not, by Elizabethan or any other standards (and dramatic standards of reality of characters do not change) real people: their reality is due to the intensity with which the author discharges his own feeling Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1937 464 ] through them. The play, judged by dramatic standards, should be dull and monotonous, but it is exciting; the characters should be puppets, but they have a galvanic activity. If this play was the work of a contemporary, the modern dramatic critic, who knows all the rules of drama – in prose – and who thinks of verse as a kind of burden for a play to bear – a convention of speech in spite of which a play is sometimes good – would have not a good word for The Revenger’s Tragedy. But I think that it is evidence that a play may sometimes be a great play because of the poetry and not (as is the usual judgment upon Shakespeare) in spite of it. Your experience in seeing this play must be your test of whether I am right about it. Notes 1. As printed in the rare sixteen-page program for the ADC (Amateur Dramatic Society) and Marlowe Society presentation of Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy at the ADC Theatre, the playhouse of Cambridge University, 8-13 Mar 1937. TSE’s “Note” (6) was commissioned and titled “A Note by T. S. Eliot” by George Rylands, who also commissioned a note by Bonamy Dobrée, “Gangsters at the Globe” (10-11), for the same program. On 1 Feb 1970 Rylands, an English scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, and former director of the Marlowe Society, sent to the King’s library a copy of the program, TSE’s initialed two-page typescript, titled “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” with his holograph emendations, and Ryland’s review of the production in The Spectator of 12 Mar 1937, in which he states that “Mr. T. S. Eliot, who knows all...