Skip to main content

Full text of "The_English_Drama"

See other formats

First published 1928 










II. BEN JONSON, HIS - - ' 2 9 




I. INTERREGNUM - - - - 63 







ENGLISH drama began as a labour of love, the product 
of simple piety. Probably the traditional mysteries 
St. George and Dragon mummeries, sword and may- 
pole dances and the like; games rather than plays, but 
none the less factors in the formation of the national 
taste for drama (and so eventually of the drama itself) 
originated in pre-Christian, pre-Roman local religious 
ceremonies. Certainly the earliest English plays proper, 
quite independently of these folk traditions, were pro- 
duced in the Church, by the Church, for the (higher) 
purposes of the Church. History could hardly have 
repeated itself more pointedly than in the parallel 
between the evolution of Greek tragedy out of primi- 
tive pagan ritual and the gradual emergence of our 
mystery plays out of the liturgical tropes of the early 
Christian Cnurch. It is no part of our present purpose 
to pursue the implications of this striking connection 
between religion and dramatic art, but it is important 
to emphasise that drama arose in England (as in 
Christendom generally for the practice began 
wherever the Latin tongue was spoken in prayer) as a 
spiritual, rather than a convivial, feature of communal 
life. The intrusion of profane influences on its exclu- 
sively spiritual properties was an inevitable matter of 
time. The representation of sacred history (in medieval 
Europe as in ancient Athens) provided material and 


scope for spectacles calculated to attract a congregation, 
as well on their own merits as from higher motives;* 
and indeed the Church, catholic in more than a 
technical sense, would not if it could have kept 
laughter indefinitely outside its precincts. For all its 
exacting discipline, there was a schoolboy spirit imma- 
nent throughout its personnel, and if, on this analogy, 
we regard the central ecclesiastical authorities 
generally unsympathetic to the development of 
dramatic activities as a kind of headmaster, severe 
and indulgent by turns, we may consider the periodical 
outbreaks of official " rags " such as the Feast of Fools 
(some of the excesses of which would probably have 
shocked the English-speaking habitues of the Folies- 
Bergeres) as no more than natural lapses in the dignity 
of the school prefect. Under such conditions, the 
Mystery drama, from a mere amplification of divine 
service, proceeded by stages to shed its essential 
mystery, and, as the vernacular English at long last 
came into its kingdom, characterisation and dialogue 
(awkwardly, in rhymed verse) began to break through 
the stiff Latin formulae, and prepare the way, indeed 
divers ways, for humanist development. The scope of 
the productions was gradually extended in respect of 
(a) subject-matter, from the representation of purely 
biblical or apocryphal scenes to " miracles " or episodes 
in the lives of the saints, (ti) accommodation, from the 
confines of the church to adjacent or neighbouring 
premises, and (c) participants; the admittance of 
" amateur " laymen supplementing what we may 

* A contemporary account of a Resurrection play in 
the churchyard of St. John's, Beverley, Yorkshire, in 
1220, refers (in Latin) to a large crowd assembled, 
" some for the sake of mere pleasure or wonder, others 
for the holy purpose of stimulating their devotional 
feelings" (quoted in Gayley's Plays of Our Fore- 


without offence describe as the professional eccle- 
siastical talent available. Plays for which orthodox 
festivals and saints' days provided the most convenient 
pretext began to assume an ever-larger place in the 
life of the people, expanding on occasion into cycles 
lasting four or five days, under royal patronage. 
Finally the institution of Corpus Christi Day (the 
original of our Whitsuntide Bank Holiday) in 1264 led 
to the inauguration of a definite annual dramatic 
festival throughout England, as in other countries. 

While the plays themselves, throughout the four- 
teenth century during which the movement attained 
its zenith remained confined to scriptural or sacred 
subject-matter, the organisation of the productions in 
the larger cities had come to be taken over by the 
town-guilds, or local trades unions, each of which 
would make itself responsible for an episode in a 
composite cycle comprising, for example, in York, in 
the year 1415, as many as fifty-four episodes. Of the 
village and parochial productions we know little save 
that they were prolific. Clerkenwell appears to have 
been the original Mecca of London playgoers. Some 
of the provincial records are fairly detailed, and we 
have picturesque accounts of the festival performances 
in Chester and York, doubtless typical of the larger 
cities generally. Deriving from a form of processional, 
each show was mounted on a wheeled car of two 
storeys (technically known as a " pageant "), which, at 
the end of a performance, moved, in the manner of 
our progressive games, from one pre-appointed station 
to the next, wealthy householders bidding against each 
other (in contributions to the expenses) for the honour 
of an allocation before their windows. Collected copies 
of three fairly complete processional cycles forty-nine 
York mysteries, twenty-five from Chester, thirty-two 
from Wakefield and of one non-processional cycle of 
forty-two Coventry plays, as well as various isolated 
pieces from other towns and villages, have been pre- 


served out of what must have been a prodigal output. 
Their authorship is anonymous, and was doubtless in 
many cases of a composite character. They are full 
of archaic touches of realism, snatches of comedy 
mingling not incongruously with their essentially 
devotional character. Five of the Wakefield plays 
stand in a class apart as the work of a definitely 
creative mind of trie first English dramatist. The so- 
called " second Shepherd's play " from this cycle 
(dating from about 1350) exhibits particular originality 
in its contrivance of a bogus nativity to precede the con- 
frontation of three homely rustics with the wonder 'of 
the authentic Virgin and babe. We are apt to think of 
our drama as an exclusively metropolitan concern, and 
of modern provincial repertory as a novel and slightly 
daring departure from immemorial custom. The York- 
shireman, in the centre of this new movement, by a 
throw-back to his natural inheritance, may be excused 
a smile at the Cockney cheek of our patronage. 

A tract of the late fourteenth century already sounds 
a note, too soon to become familiar, pregnant 
with evil omen for our story. An obscure Wycliffian, 
anticipating the later Puritans, protests against the 
demoralising effect of these public exhibitions. Cer- 
tainly at this period the religious-minded had little 
cause to lament the growing popularity of the drama. 
Untainted by commerce, with love interest yet to be 
discovered, plays were intimately identified with the 
cause of religion. The ultimate eclipse of the religious 
drama may indeed be said to be partly attributable to 
a growing propensity to " rub in " its message to 
assume a didactic role prohibitive of the emotional 
appeal which is the drama's safeguard. This tendency 
was facilitated by the development, out of mystery- 
miracle plays, of the Morality : in effect the dramatisa- 
tion of a sermon by means of personified allegorical 
abstractions Experience, Patience, Pride and the like 
development again in common with other Chris- 


tian countries, but peculiarly congenial to English 
taste, as we may judge from the prevalence of allegory 
in our cultural nistory from Piers Plowman to the 
vogue of Watts. The more enduring contributions of 
the Morality arc appreciable at a glance. Foremost, its 
stimulus to the invention of original plots, as distinct 
from the dramatisation of historical or mythical sagas; 
next, its system of characterisation by types a prin- 
ciple that, in comedy at any rate, persisted ostensibly, 
even to the retention of characteristic names for the 
dramatis personte, as late as Sheridan (with his Puffs, 
Surfaces, Backbites, etc.); finally, its simplification of 
ethical problems, its practice of rewarding virtue, and 
damning, while somenow endearing to us for all time, 
the Vice (part stage villain, part clown), who estab- 
lished himself as perhaps the most popular figure on 
both Tudor and Elizabethan stages, achieving a kind 
of transfiguration in lago, and found to this day, sans 
humour, swaggering along the trail of his latter-day 
Lyceum glories. Its artistic possibilities it would ill 
become the countrymen of Bunyan to decry, and we 
have at least one example of its power and beauty on 
the stage when handled with discretion and a degree 
of subtlety. Everyman (before 1495, whether we accord 
priority to the English or the Dutch version) is in the 
genuine tradition of tragedy, true to its genesis out of 
the Church as a specifically religious mystery, a matter 
of communion between man and his Maker. In a 
sense it is the last English play in that tradition, or at 
least the last pre- Victorian Play for Puritans. The 
Morality, in its historical relation, is important as 
marking a definite parting of the wavs. One road 
inclined upwards to Everyman and ended tfcere : the 
other, by an easy descent from the " moral interlude " 
to the " merry interlude," led to Ralph Roister Doister 
and thence along a hundred and one fruitful primrose 

The Mystery-Miracle drama declined to a slow death 


as a result of the Reformation. The Morality as such 
was killed more abruptly by excess of zeal arising out 
of the same spiritual upheaval. Under the fillip of the 
frenzied religious controversies of the Tudor regime 
it degenerated into a mere vehicle for doctrinal propa- 
ganda. The temptation to confute the enemy publicly 
and authoritatively, as in The Three Laws (1538), 
through the mouthpiece of a Christian Faith, who 
does not mince his words * 

"In no case follow the ways of Reginald Pole, 
To his damnation he, doubtless, playeth the fool " 

was more than the human nature of an ardent and 
gifted theologian could resist. The theologian in ques- 
tion, " bilious " Bishop Bale (1495-1563), for all that 
the five surviving specimens of his twenty-two plays 
exhibit considerable dramatic sense, was hardly a 
" natural born mountebank," and could not stave off 
the extinction of this early discussion-drama. The ex- 
tension of the field of discussion to civil politics (a 
necessary consequence of the new inter-dependence of 
Church and State) hastened the inevitable end. To 
find a counterpart to Respublica (1553) with its 
" Oppression (alias Reformation)," " Avarice (alias 
Policy),'* its plain-speaking People, and its dictatorial 
if unproletarian Nemesis, we must turn to Soviet 
Russia, where the uses of this species of drama have 
been officially explored and exploited. Rcspublica 
appeared in trie " First Year of the Most Prosperous 

* Leaving nothing to chance, the author appends to 
the printed play the following concise directions as to 
" the apparelling of the six vices, or fruits of Infi- 
delity : Let Idolatry be decked like an old witch, 
Sodomy like a monk of all sects, Ambition like a 
bishop, Covetousness like a pharisee or spiritual 
lawyer, False Doctrine like a Popish doctor, and 
Hypocrisy like a grey friar." 


Reign of Queen Mary." In the first year of the reign 
of Queen Elizabeth a royal edict prohibited dramatic 
treatment of " either matters of religion or of the 
governauncc of the estate of the common weale." We 
may find something sinister in this initiation of 
dramatic censorship, or with our eyes still on Russia 
we may smile at the naivete of a ruler who was 
content to suppress counter-revolutionary propaganda 
without attempting to utilise the growing resources of 
dramatic publicity for her own political ends. The 
historical fact likewise, for what it is worth, the 
so-called Elizabethan drama remains.* 


We have been following the development of the 
" legitimate " English stage. It here becomes neces- 
sary to glance aside at the sister institution, " variety," 
the origin of which extends to a considerably remoter 
past and, by bar sinister, to a highly distinguished 
connection. The pedigree of the modern music-hall 
may, indeed, be traced as far back as the great 
classical drama of Athens, through its degenerate 
Roman offshoot. In the twilight of the ancient world, 
when tragedy had declined into ballet or pantomime, 
and comedy into the obscene buffoonery called miming, 
our friend the free-lance artiste made his first bow; 
and he emerged out of the ruins of that old world, 
still smiling, to " keep the pot boiling " throughout 
the dark ages, contriving, whether singly or in small 
troupes, to earn more kicks than halfpence in an 
endless tour of the European road. In medieval 

* For convenience, the term " Elizabethan " will be 
employed frequently in the pages that follow, to 
denote an epoch which extended roughly down to the 
Civil War, comprising the reigns of James I. and 
Charles I. as well as that of Elizabeth. 


England we find him hob-nob&ing with the native 
minstrel, equally fallen on evil days, casual protege's 
of the sporting nobility, bugbears of the " highbrow " 
prelatry, hail-fellow-well-met of town and country- 
side. For an adequate consideration of the possible 
influence of the " turns " of these and sundry other 
independent " outsiders " on the technique of drama, 
the reader must refer to the encyclopaedic The 
Medieval Stage of Sir E. K. Chambers. We are 
here concerned with the definite and tremendous 
social effect of the absorption of the more enterprising 
of these strolling players into the developing art of 
the theatre; for as morality superseded miracle in 
popular favour, individual players here and there 
would lend an expert hand, until later, interludes 
becoming ever more common, whole bodies of pro- 
fessionals, often under distinguished patronage, took 
the plunge, with consequences which, for good or 
evil, completely revolutionised the status of drama. 
The outlawry of all unlicensed "Fencers, Beare- 
wardes, Comon Players in Enterludes and Minstrels, 
not belonging to any Baron or other honorable per- 
sonage of greater Degree " as " Roges Vagaboundes 
and Sturdy Beggars," in the year 1572, illuminating 
as it is for our purposes, was in effect hardly more 
than an incident in the long ding-dong warfare 
between these old stagers and the civic authorities. 
Of more radical significance was the resultant clean- 
cut breach between the dramatists and a body that, 
having conceived and given birth to the English 
drama a matter of mutual advantage was for three 
centuries and more to set its countenance and its 
influence against plays in any shape or form. That 
body, the Church, stands as a symbol for the vast 
middle-class population for whom, throughout the 
period under discussion, the study of the Bible and 
a resultant preoccupation with the problems of good 
and evil provided an interest at least as intense, if 


not as ostentatious, as the craze for drama. When 
we allude to the " national drama " of Elizabethan 
England, we should remember that it was never 
wholly representative of the subjects of the Tudor 
and Stuart regimes. Of the Puritans and Puritanism 
it spoke with no little feeling. It never spoke for the 
movement derided under that designation a move- 
in^ that, working obscurely behind the scenes, was 
yet powerful enough in its own time to produce a 
Milton and a Bunyan, as well as an Oliver Cromwell. 
The emancipation of drama from its religious or 
ethical purpose was proceeding by degrees, before the 
combined effect of the extinction in bathos of the 
didactic morality, and the invasion of the professional 
actor, precipitated the tendency, sharply dividing 
the rival camps. The period of transition is marked 
in the work of a group of men associated with Sir 
Thomas More, whose personal enthusiasm for the 
budding secular art* was aptly celebrated some 
fifty years later in the biographical play bearing his 
name (more famous for the three pages of a unique 
manuscript copy now generally believed to be in the 
handwriting of Shakespeare). Foremost among these 
pioneer playwrights was John Hey wood (1497-*:. 1580), 
v4iose lively mind was doubtless stimulated by 
familiarity with the soties or farces of the contemporary 
French authors (represented at their best in the world- 
famed Maitre Pathcliri), as well as by the spirit of 
Chaucer. His Play of the Wether and The Foure P's 
(palmer, pardoner, 'pothecary and pedlar), while full 
of fun, are, as neo-moralities, formally edifying and 
long-winded. " A mery flay between Johan Johan 
the Husbande, Tyb his tvyfe, and Sir Jhan the freest " 

* And let us remember that this great English- 
man the author of Utopia was to oHe (in 1575) a 
martyr in the cause of enlightenment, himself a figure 
in the true sacred tradition. 


(attributed to him) shows more clearly which way 
the wind is blowing. It is alike a-moralising and 
a-moral. Henry Medwall's earlier play Fulgens and 
Lucres, written probably before the close of the 
fifteenth century, is actually the first conventionally 
" romantic " play known to us, but as it was only 
brought to light by chance in 1919, it is possible that 
some missing link will ultimately displace it from 
that precedence. Its story is borrowed, directly or 
indirectly, from one of trie Italian humanists. 

Other external influences were beginning to com- 
plicate the development of our comedy. The recovery 
of the twelve lost plays of Plautus (1427) had, by 
repercussion from the Continent, produced something 
of a vogue for translations and crude adaptations 
from the Latin in pedagogic circles. The anonymous 
author of Gammer Gurton's Needle (c. 1550) carried 
the process a stage further, by adapting the Latin 
form, with its elaborate development of plot, to a 
simple and racy comedy of English rural life, in the 
spirit of Johan Johan, to be followed a year or two 
later by Nicholas Udall (1505-1556) with a second 
notable achievement in this genre, Ralph Roister 
Doister. The former play was produced at Christ's Col- 
lege, Cambridge, the latter (probably) by the boys of 
Eton, of which school Udall was for seven years Head- 
master. Whence, perhaps, the absence from Roister 
Doister of the coarseness which in Gammer Gurton 
we find present ad libitum, and which we must 
expect to find, sometimes ad nauseam, in the popular 
comedy developed out of the form and spirit of these 
two pieces. In both alike, the traces of the old 
Morality have been all but obliterated. Much of the 
characterisation is fresh (a good deal is conventional), 
but the dialogue is constrained in the unwieldy 
rhymed metre from which as yet no master's hand 
had risen to deliver our comedy. The creator of the 
first dramatic prose style, -John Lyly, was born prob- 


ably in 1554, possibly the same year that saw the 
production of Roister Doistcr. 

Academic circles and (by some queer association) 
the Inns of Court had by this time become veritable 
hives of dramatic industry. While one group was 
experimenting with Terence and Plautus, another 
with equal zest applied itself to the formidable task 
of making an English tragedy out of Seneca. An 
English tragedy divorced from its religious associa- 
tions and married to a corpse was hardly an 
auspicious foundation for fruitful activity. It was 
soon found desirable to gild the pill (if we may vary 
the metaphor) with a coating of romantic treacle, 
and the coating became thicker as the taste for treacle 
in that form developed into a craving. Purists put up 
a fight for the pill, the whole pill, and nothing but 
the pill, claiming for it the properties of Aristotle's 
recipe for a spiritual purgative. The public was not 
interested in Aristotle and continued to swallow the 
new conception, which, known as Tragi-comedy, was 
gradually discarding every pretence of fidelity to the 
cause enshrined in the classic unities of time, space 
and action. Gorboduc (1562), the joint- work of 
Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, is actually 
the earliest extant specimen of this form of dramatic 
exercise, and has accordingly been hailed as the first 
English tragedy. It also furnishes the earliest example 
of how blank verse ought not to be written. We 
might describe it as the first appearance of 
" Savonarola Brown " in English letters. Of the dis- 
ciples of Norton and Sackville the name is Legion. 
Shakespeare was not among them. 

Towards the end of the fifteen-sixties and through- 
out the seventies, monstrosities by tragi-comedy out 
of Seneca, with their garrulous ghosts, their extrava- 
gances of rhetoric, their excruciating platitudes and 
their fantastic horrors, became the rage, not only in 
the halls of the classes educated up to their preten- 


sions, but also among the general populace whose 
taste for drama was moving with the times and 
adjusting itself to the new conditions. The accom- 
modation of the rapidly multiplying troops of players 
(nominally attached to some Honorable Personage of 
the requisite degree) who catered for this public, pre- 
sented a problem to the actor-manager if we may 
so call him as well as to the municipal authorities. 
Al fresco performances in public inn-yards with their 
surrounding galleries had served well enough in the 
days of the Miracles and the earlier Interludes; but 
the new kind of play demanded more scope, and, 
moreover, attracted a new kind of audience whose 
mood was not exactly calculated to enhance the inn- 
keeper's reputation. On the other hand, the new 
kind of play was highly congenial to the old kind 
of stage, the projecting rostrum, whence with 
adequate material for rant and physical violence, the 
actor could conveniently address himself to the busi- 
ness of putting the fear of bloody tyrants or, alter- 
natively equipped, insinuating obscenity into the 
surrounding assemblage. " Wyll not a fylthye playe 
wyth the blast of a trumpette sooner call tnyther a 
thousande than an houres tolling of a bell bring to 
the sermon a hundred?" thundered the preacher (John 
Stockwood) at Paul's Cross on August 24, 1578. He 
was referring to an unobtrusive but specially con- 
structed circular enclosure around the first fixed 
apron-stage, styled simply The Theatre, that had, 
some years earlier, slipped casually into the routine 
of London life. 


From this point we become more interested, 
perhaps, in tracing early intimations of Shakespeare 
than in following the development of the drama 
generally. The same year in which Stockwood's 


denunciation of The Theatre shook the air, John Lyly 
published his Eufhues, the Anatomy of Wit, prior to 
launching upon tne stage his "euphuistic" drama, from 
which the first great manner of Shakespeare derived 
its impulse and no little of its art. Lyly was about 
twenty-five at this time. It is noteworthy that the 
immediate predecessors of Shakespeare, the cluster of 
writers with whose enterprise we are now concerned 
(Lyly, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, Kyd) flash across the 
scene as young men, and (apart from Lyly) as a group 
of young men, producing their characteristic work 
much as, of recent times, successive coteries have 
been responsible for movements like impressionism, 
futurism, vorticism, etc. Lyly, a dilettante of genius, 
stands aloof from and, in a sense, above the group. 
Born a decade before Shakespeare, he survived till 
1606, although his creative output appears to have 
ceased after 1591 when he was thirty-seven. Kyd, 
Greene and Peele, all born about 1558, died at the 
ages of thirty-six, thirty-four and forty-one respectively. 
Marlowe (b. 1564) died at twenty-nine. If Shakespeare 
had written nothing after thirty-six (their average 
effective age) we should have had no Hamlet, probably 
no Twelfth Night, none of the supreme plays and 
there would have been a different tale to tell. Marlowe 
was twenty-four when his Doctor Faustus was given, 
and he wrote Edward the Second (his last and most 
satisfying play) at an age when Shakespeare was not 
ashamed to identify his name with Titus Andronicus. 
The ways of genius are beyond calculation, but it is 
only fair to the memory or men who gave so much 
more to the world than they got from it, that these 
facts should be remembered. 

This band of young enthusiasts, with some of 
whom Shakespeare was later to associate, were, with 
the exception of Kyd, all University men. That does 
not mean, as probably it would mean to-day, that 
their parents belonged to the well-to-do classes. The 


Universities were founded for the sons of poor men, 
and in the sixteenth century the wealthy under- 
graduate was still the exception rather than, as now, 
the rule. Lyly was persona grata in Court circles : 
Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. 
There seems to have been, however, no lack of 
camaraderie (or, for that matter as Shakespeare was 
to learn -of snobbishness) among the University wits, 
and indeed a glorious time they must have had in 
their undergraduate days, savouring the late fruits of 
the Renaissance as they were passed from one centre 
of learning to the next. A very different manner of 
career awaited them in the university of life. What 
does that matter to us? Lyly gave us eight plays, one 
(Campaspe) more or less historical, another (Mother 
Bombie) more or less realistic, three of them more or 
less pastoral, all more or less allegorical. FJis main 
contribution to English drama was a prose style, 
Italianate in origin, compound of the verbal quibbles, 
puns and allusions of a subtle intellect not very 
fastidious, but refined by an ear for word-music : what 
we should call art for art's sake. 

STELLIO : Riscio, my daughter is passing amiable, 
but very silly. 

RISCIO (his servant) : You meane a foole, sir. 

STELLIO : Faith, I implie so much. 

RISCIO : Then I applie it fit : the one shee takes of 
her father, the other of her mother : now you may be 
sure she is your owne . . . 

STELLIO : Dost thou thinke she tooke her foolish- 
nesse of mee? 

RISCIO : I, and so cunningly, that she took it not 
from you. 

STELLIO : Well, quod natura dedit, tollere nemo 

RISCIO : A good evidence to prove the fee simple of 
your daughter's follic. 


RISCIO : It came by nature, and if none can take it 
away, it is perpetual!. 

STELLIO : Nay, Riscio, shee is no naturall foole 

and so on. It is the idiom in which Love's Labour s 
Lost is steeped, and to which Shakespeare resorts 
throughout his early works, and here and there in the 
later ones. Its influence did not stop there, but has 
persisted in our comedy dialogue, to be echoed as late 
as in the affectations or Oscar Wilde (to be superseded 
eventually, but not finally, by the clean cut and thrust 
of Shavian plain English). The plays themselves are 
mere pretexts for these architectonics of language, 
classical in form (in so far as they have any form), 
an incoherent complex of satire and sycophancy in 
matter; but, with their occasional lyrics (another 
feature adopted by Shakespeare), they were found 
irresistible by the best minds of the day, to which 
they were addressed. Lyly's associates were not so 
particular. Among the surviving plays of Peele we 
find a mythological, probably satirical Arraignment of 
Paris, a promising Edward the First, a romantic- 
biblical David and Bethsabe, and an exquisite romantic- 
fantastic-pastoral Old Wives' Tale. They contain 
occasional bursts of felicitous imagery legitimately 
comparable to the poetic touch we call Shakespearean. 
Greene, in a Scottish History of James the Fourth 
and a bucolic History of Friar Bacon and Friar 
Bungay, developed the technique of the old horseplay 
comedy and humanised characterisation, particularly 
the characterisation of women. He was the first 
English dramatist to give us what might be described 
as one of Nature's ladies, and, through her agency, a 
romance that is not an insult to the modern intelli- 
gence. Shakespeare was the second. A collaboration 
between Lyly and Greene might have given us a 
comedy of the quality of As you Li\e It. 


Kyd made history with a first-class thriller, The 
Spanish Tragedy, wnerein, besides supplying the last 
word in obnoxious ghosts, and arranging no less than 
ten violent deaths, he contrived as piece de resistance 
the spectacle of the hero biting his tongue out and 
flinging it from him with a gesture. He also wrote a 
play (unfortunately lost) called Hamlet, which seems 
to have interested Shakespeare. Kyd and Marlowe, 
between them, created " Shakespearean " blank verse. 

Marlowe's individual service cannot be so summarily 
defined. His blank verse is relatively a detail. He first 
imported genius into English drama. That genius we 
cannot measure, but of its quality we can say this : 
no man before or since had more profoundly in him 
the stuff of tragedy infinite aspiration combined with 
an insatiable thirst for truth. Fearless in thought as 
the mariners of Elizabethan England in action, his 
very heart's blood is in Dr. Faustus (incidentally the 
first piece of self-portraiture in English imaginative 
literature), the man who sold his soul to the devil not, 
as the mob would see it, for vulgar voluptuousness, 
but, as Goethe was apt to recognise, for a power that 
pertains essentially to the ends of evolution : 

" Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please, 
Resolve me of all ambiguities, 
Perform what desperate enterprise I will? 
I'll have them fly to India for gold . . . 
I'll have them read me strange philosophy, 
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings. . . ." 

and later (a revealing and pathetic afterthought) : 

" I'll have them fill the public schools with silk 
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad." 

In the age of ^Eschylus, Marlowe would have been 
a heretic perhaps, but a heretic after the manner of 
Euripides, master none the less of a tragedy that 


ministered, as a matter of course, to the spiritual 
development of the community at large. In a very 
different theatre, Marlowe received credit for his 
" mighty line " (a mere instrument), and, for the 
tragic genius in him, was, as he is still by many, 
dismissed as a notorious atheist. Autre temps, autrc 

One would suppose that this galaxy of dramatic 
adventurers, turned loose in London on the resources 
of their proved wits, might have had successful careers 
for the asking. Certainly there was no lack of employ- 
ment for their pens. Plays had caught on with a 
vengeance. There was money in plays. And there was 
competition for that money. The theatre, called into 
being by the activities of their predecessors, had, in 
its turn, given birth to a veritable monster, that now 
lured them into a seething vortex, at the peril of their 
souls. James Burbage, who had built the original 
Theatre circumspectly in the fields of Shoreditch (out- 
side the jurisdiction of the civic authorities), appears 
himself, as our first actor-manager, to have been no 
better and no worse than the run of genial despots 
who follow in his wake to-day. A rival impresario, 
Philip Henslowe, pawnbroker by vocation, was the 
man who really made the pace in the new industry. 
Establishing his Rose Theatre, without any false 
modesty, within the liberty of the Clink, on the 
Surrey or Bank side of the Thames (the quarters of 
the old stew-houses), alongside amphitheatres devoted 
to the mysteries of bear- and bull-baiting, he set him- 
self, in association with Edward Alleyn, to make this 
traditional haunt of impious pleasure-seekers the 
spiritual home of English drama. He was so far 
successful that Burbage, migrating from Shoreditch in 
1599, put up his Globe Theatre beside the Rose, 
drawing thitner all those who may have wished to 
attend first productions of Shakespeare's greatest plays. 
Actors and poets alike were enlisted in a furious 


campaign to " keep the pot boiling " by fair means 
or foul. Most of the numerous plays produced under 
these conditions, and known to us only (if as much 
as) by name, were probably as little worth preserving 
on their merits as most or the successes of the con- 
temporary commercial drama, and we may consider 
ourselves amply compensated for their loss by the 
chance survival of the actual Diary kept by Henslowe 
between the years 1592 and 1609, which throws 
abundant light as well upon his motives in calling 
the tune as upon his methods of paying the piper. A 
sensational plot (for preference, a familiar one from 
Bible or history, with a strong love interest), butchery 
for tragedy, bawdery for comedy, these were the 
simple rules of the dramatic Stews in which the 
University wits, among the other hacks, were thrown 
indiscriminately to the scum of the city. In the soil of 
the Rose no bed of roses Marlowe pushed upwards, 
blaspheming, only to be cut down in his heyday. 
Greene, a year before him, had died theatrically 
cursing the theatre and all its filthy works and 
workers, including an " upstart crow oeautiful with 
our feathers, that with his tygers head, wrapt in a 
flayer s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast 
out a blank verse, as the best of you; and being an 
absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the 
only Shake-scene in a country." William Shakespeare, 
guilty of a line : "Oh Tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's 
hide " (from the third part of Henry VL\ aged 
twenty-eight, had come to London, six years earlier 
(in 1592), to make good, it would seem, after a not 
very auspicious opening to his career at Stratford-on- 
Avon. From holding horses outside Burbage's old 
theatre (according to tradition) he had become a 
Jack-of -all-trades under Henslowe,* making himself 

* To desert him mysteriously and join Burbage in 
a co-operative venture when the spirit moved him. 


useful as actor and play-tinker, making himself agree- 
able to aristocratic patrons who might be useful to 
him, and in his spare time, presumably, making him- 
self familiar with the ways of the world, when he was 
not experimenting with his pen. He kept his head, 
and he made good in his own time. Greene lost his 
head and succumbed in hysterics. Marlowe died of a 
chance stab in a tavern brawl. We may at least surmise 
that, but for this stroke of bad luck, his genius would 
have carried him undefiled out of the mire as Shake- 
speare was carried. Of his art Henslowe certainly got 
more than he bargained (probably haggled) for. Any 
journalist can pander to me baser passions. Marlowe 
pandered to them for a living, with his tongue in his 
cheek (in The Jew of Malta), with his soul trans- 
figured (in patches of Tamburlaine, in Dr. Faustus, 
in Edward 77.). The atmosphere of Henslowe's theatre 
never extinguished the flame of his aspiration, nor 
stifled his terrific imagination, nor disturbed the swell 
of his utterance, nor could it prevent that sudden out- 
burst, amidst the hectic braggadocio of Tamburlaine, 
of a solemn, tremendous and unalterable conviction : 

" If all the pens that ever poets held 
Had fed the feeling of tneir masters' thoughts, 
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts, 
Their minds and muses on admired themes; 
If all the heavenly quintessence they distil 
From their immortal powers of poesy, 
Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive 
The highest reaches of a human art; 
If these had made one poem's period, 
And all combined in beauty's worthiness, 
Yet should there hover in their restless heads 
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least, 
Which into words no virtue can digest." 

Whether Marlowe would have achieved success 
personally is, perhaps, beside the point. He saw to it 


that English drama made good. As a man, he is 
sufficiently honoured for us in Shakespeare's afiect- 
tionate tribute to his " dead shepherd " (As You Life 
It, Act III., Scene 5). And Shakespeare knew. 



To reflect that not much more than three decades 
elapsed between the relatively barbaric Gammer 
Gurton's Needle (1566) and Hamlet (c. 1601) gives 
one a sense of wonderment such as might have been 
experienced fifty years ago at the idea of a human 
being traversing the Atlantic in thirty-six hours. A 
kind of wireless-electric mental energy was evidently 
at work throughout renascent Europe, but all our 
learned explanation, plausible up to a point, of this 
influence and that inspiration, does not really amount 
to much more than a recording of the circumstance 
that the kiss of the Prince did in fact awaken the 
Sleeping Beauty. At the back of History is always the 
Fairy Tale. 

Perhaps the outstanding practical significance of 
Shakespeare's achievement lies in his establishment 
in a sense, his rescue of the respectability of the 
drama as a profession, as well as an art. In the hands 
of the pedants, a certain literary dignity had attached 
to it. Reduced to the level of an opposition side-show 
to the bear-garden, there would seem to have been 
nothing to prevent its degradation to the status at 
which it reposed (for it could sink no lower) in the 
latter days of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare was 
not to become the Shakespeare of the class-room and 
of the literary society without incredibly hard work 
and irresistible force of character. 

We like to think of the " spacious days " as a time 
of happy-go-lucky joie de vivrc. We remember the 
glorious exploits of Raleigh and Drake, the defeat of 


the Armada, the brilliant social pageant, the genius of 
Merrie England. There was another side to the 
picture : 

" Tired with all these, for restful death I cry, 
As to behold desert a beggar born, 
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity, 
And purest faith unhappily forsworn, 
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced, 
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, 
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced, 
And strength by limping sway disabled, 
And art made tongue-tied by authority, 
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill, 
And simple truth miscaird simplicity, 
And captive good attending captain ill : 
Tired with all these " 

And, abruptly, Shakespeare would round it off with 
a banal compliment to his friend and patron, grit his 
teeth, and proceed to write his play. 

The most comprehensive study of Shakespeare's life 
and work, in the opinion of the present writer, is that 
of the late Georg Brandes. 

Of the facts of his life, " all we know with any 
degree of certainty is that he was born at Stratford- 
upon-Avon, married and had children there; went to 
London, where he commenced as actor, and wrote 
poems and plays; returned to Stratford, made his will, 
died, and was buried."* There is no man that ever 
lived of whom quintessentially we know more, from 
whose intimate personal experience (whether actual or 
imaginative matters not a whit) more is to be learnt. 
Already in his first " original " play (Love's Labour's 
Lost, c. 1592), he has noted the fallacy in the then- 
fashionable philosophy of taking life for granted. 

* George Steevens. 


Biron the irresponsible is put in his place with the 
severity of a guilty conscience : 

". . . the world's large tongue 
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks . . . 
To weed mis wormwood from your fruitful brain . . . 
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day 
Visit the speechless sick. . . . 

. . . and your task shall be 
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit 
To enforce the pained impotent to smile." 

In the earliest of his " refined " comedies (As You 
Li1{ It, c m . 1599) he warns us against the other extreme. 
There is a point at which earnestness becomes ridicu- 
lous it is marked by " the melancholy Jacques "; and 
the lesson is pressed home in the succeeding comedy 
(Twelfth Night), wherein Olivia and Orsino are seen 
to have grown morbid through taking life too 
seriously. And so we may trace Shakespeare's pro- 
gress or reaction from phase to phase through 
Hamlet to Timon, and out of that cul de sac, till " At 
last " to follow the imaginary apostrophe of a young 
poet confronted with the master at New Place, Strat- 
ford-on-Avon, in 1616, the year of his death " in The 
Tempest I watch you making peace with your fellows, 
forgiving them their evil, and looking out on the 
world with a lantern of wonder in your hand." We 
know Shakespeare in relation to how many other 
things: his country and its history, great ambitions 
and mean ambitions, nature and art. We know the 
man in him, but, in addition and it is this which 
lifts him above his fellows, so that when we speak of 
Elizabethan drama, we tacitly exclude the thirty-six 
odd plays in which this unique Elizabethan will live 
for ever we know the God in him. There are moods 
in which, as a loyal man of the theatre, he is as airily 
facetious at the expense of the official enemy in the 


" ra gg m g " f Malvolio, for instance as Ben Jonson 
or Fletcher, or the anonymous author of that scathing 
satire The Puritan, at one time attributed to him. 
There arc other moods the mood of Brutus, moods 
of Hamlet (" Get thee to a nunnery : why wouldst 
thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent 
honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things 
. . ."), and of Prospero, moods in which a humble 
man follows the light of his conscience, and has love 
for all other men. That light and that love im- 
personal things raise him above his own multiform 
now Pagan, now Pantheist personality. And from 
this standpoint, finding a fitness in the tradition that 
in his latter days he entertained a Puritan preacher at 
his own home at Stratford, we may esteem it his 
especial distinction, alone among his fellow-pariahs 
from the Church, to have returned good for evil, to 
have given us the essential tragedy as well as the 
comedy and the history of the world, of the two 
worlds, we live in. 

Of all but universal appeal (Tolstoy, for one, was 
insensible to it), responsive at one or another of his 
" periods " to practically every perceptible nuance in 
the gamut of human nature, he developed the English 
language, in verse from Marlowe, in prose from Lyly, 
to attain a mastery without parallel in either medium, 
to express a vaster and a deeper and a richer spirit 
than has issued from any other mind in any art. 

We may " ask and ask," analyse and reanalyse, 
classify (so far as we are able to classify) his technical 
devices, admiring this masterly preparation for a s&ne 
h jaire or that infinitely subtle effect of characterisa- 
tion, marvelling at his inexhaustible resources for 
holding the spectator's interest, and, when all is said, 
and we have noted every brick in the mighty edifice, 
the fabric of his vision is not " melted into air." 

Shakespeare's place in our drama need not de- 
tain us. 



" I remember, the players have often mentioned 
it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing 
(whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a 
line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted 
a thousand." " RARE " BEN JONSON (1573-1637). 

Nowadays it may seem strange that a mere mortal 
could have pretended to the rank of Shakespeare's 
rival in any capacity. As dramatists, it would be 
patently ridiculous to make a comparison between the 
author of King Lear and the author of The Silent 
Woman, although we may concede that The Silent 
Woman was probably as far above the powers of any 
other dramatist of that time as it is below the 
standard of Shakespeare at his best.* As a person- 
ality, Ben Jonson was almost certainly the more 
successful, the more winning of the two men. He 
was what we should call a " character." Shakespeare 
might be loved by the discriminating in his day as in 
ours, but Jonson was universally felt, even when he 
was feared, as a dynamic force, a person to be 
reckoned with. And he was good company. We 
recognise him as the spiritual ancestor of Dr. Johnson 
and of our own G. K. Chesterton, autocrats of the 
Coffee House and the Bar of Fleet Street as he was of 
the Mermaid, a little to the north-east. His person- 

* To preserve our perspective of the period, we 
should remember that not only was Jonson, in the 
estimation of many besides himself, the better artist 
of the two, but that yet another poet, whose rivalry 
would appear from the Sonnets to have given Shake- 
speare sleepless nights, has been identified with that 
lesser Jonson (dramatically speaking), George Chap- 


ality, like theirs, stands four square against all 
vicissitudes of fortune pedant cum volcano cum wit 
cum creator on a basis of that essential integrity 
that we call character. In Dr. Johnson's day, social 
life was an end in itself, and the force of his person- 
ality achieved the paradox of making his daily con- 
versation undying. Chesterton has never really 
troubled to break himself of the habit of journalistic 
controversy, but once, by chance to amuse Shaw, it 
is said he wrote a play, and Magic is not quite like 
any other play, while it is uncannily like G. K. 
Chesterton : it is pedantry made palatable by wit and 
imagination and a sort of bad temper. In that respect 
it is like the plays of Ben Jonson. Only to Jonson 
playwriting became second nature, and the vehicle 
for conveying the full force of that enragement at 
the follies of the rest of mankind that made him the 
terror of his age, and would have made him the pet 
of ours. He delighted to talk about himself which 
is the reason we have so much more information 
about him than about Shakespeare and a good 
talker never had a better subject. He was in turn 
bricklayer and soldier (seeing active service) before a 
zest for learning, irrepressible high spirits and 
poverty (with " a shrew, though honest," as he calls 
nis wife, and children to maintain) drove him in- 
evitably into the charmed circle of Henslowe's hacks. 
In 1598 he fought a fellow-actor in -Hoxton Fields, 
and, profiting from Marlowe's fate, took care to kill 
his man in self-defence, to Henslowe's intense annoy- 
ance (apparently the deceased was the more useful 
servant). The consequent branding of " T " (for 
Tyburn) on his left thumb, and the forfeiture of his 
(probably negligible) goods, appear in no wise to 
have curbed his inveterate pugnacity. After the 
success of his first characteristic comedy, Every Man 
in his Humour (1598), he threw his whole weight 
into a furious literary quarrel or poetamachia, the 


whys and wherefores of which have never to this day 
been rightly determined, but which provoked him to 
waste three years' creative work on three massive con- 
troversial plays, of which only one, The Poetaster, a 
marvellous reconstruction of the Roman Augustan 
age, is just not ruined by its copious unintelligible 
scurrilities. As with Shakespeare, his personality 
pervades his work : unlike Shakespeare, he never rises 
above it save in occasional lyrics, and in the 
fragmentary pastoral, The Sad Shepherd, which he 
wrote near his end. Throughout the main body of 
his work the style is consistently the man. For the 
conventional, deferential epilogue, he substituted a 
more robust note : 

" By 'tis good, and if you like 't, you may," 

and this sturdy, uncompromising spirit lends an 
English gusto to his prose, that sweeps away the 
cobwebs and the continental fal-lals of euphuism : 

CLERMONT : Why, what should a man do? 

TRUEWIT : Why, nothing : or that which, when 'tis 
done, is as idle. Hearken after the next horse-race or 
hunting-match, lay wagers, praise Puppy, or Pepper- 
corn, Whitefoot, Franklin; swear upon Whitemane's 
party; speak aloud that my lords may hear you; visit 
my ladies at night, and be able to give them the 
character of every bowler or better on the green. 
These be the things wherein your fashionable men 
exercise themselves, and I for company. 

A little toning-down, and we are in the stylised 
plain speech of the later Comedy of Manners. The 
Comedy of Humours Jonson's darling invention 
in principle as well as in form, was its parent, and, 
some may think, its better. It was perhaps not quite 
as novel as it appeared in his own fond eyes. Strip 


the old Morality of its ecclesiastical atmosphere, and 
you have the scheme in embryo the interplay of 
types representing conflicting elements in human 
nature. In Jonson's philosophy, Every Man is the 
subject of a pathological bias that determines his 
addiction to one or other of the common human 
weaknesses. From this satirical standpoint it re- 
mained for him to contrive appropriate settings in 
which assortments of caricatured " humours " might 
be released for the edification of a world of ignor- 
amuses. After great straining and labouring such 
labour that one is almost hypnotised into admiring 
an abortion like Every Man Out of His Humour 
he achieved by inspiration a sort of crystallised 
brilliance in three masterpieces, The Fox (1605), The 
Silent Woman (1609) and The Alchemist (1610). The 
sheer virtuosity of each of these dizzy flights of comic 
fancy almost takes one's breath away, but elates one 
in the process, unless the nerves quail before an 
absoluteness of comedy that might in these days be 
mistaken for rank inhumanity. Here and there we 
are reminded of Aristophanes, but in the perfect 
balance of the action flowing steadily from divers 
points to be united and carried in one torrential sweep 
towards the catastrophe, they are not only unsur- 
passed, they stand in a class apart. Bartholomew Fair 
(1614) is Jonson's second best, realistic where the big 
three are wildly fantastic, but conspicuously superior 
to the numerous similarly Hogarthian pictures of 
London manners executed by minor Elizabethans, 
and consummate in its comic portraiture, thanks to a 
flexibility of language that marks the culminating 
point 01 its author's stylistic development. 


DAME PURECRAFT : O Brother Busy ! Your help here, 
to edify and raise us up in a scruple : my daughter 
Win-the-fight is visited with a natural disease of 


women, called a longing to eat pig. . . . And I 
would be satisfied from you, religiously-wise, whether 
a widow of the sanctified assembly, or a widow's 
daughter, may commit the act without offence to the 
weaker sisters. 

BUSY: Verily, for the disease of longing, it is a 
disease, a carnal disease or appetite, incident to 
women; and as it is carnal and incident, it is natural, 
very natural : now, pig, it is a meat, and a meat that 
is nourishing and may be longed for, and so con- 
sequently eaten; it may be eaten; very exceeding 
well eaten; but in the Fair, and as a Bartholomew 
pig, it cannot be eaten; for the very calling it a 
Bartholomew pig, and to eat it so, is a spice of 
idolatry, and you make the Fair no better than one 
of the high-places. This, I take it, is the state of the 
question : a high-place. 

The " Humour," be it observed, has undergone a 
subtle metamorphosis into something very like a 
human being. Note again the individual note in the 
Rabbi's relentment.* 

BUSY : In the way of comfort to the weak, I will 
go and eat. I will eat exceedingly, and prophesy; 
there may be a good use made of it too, now I think 
on' t : by the puolic eating of swine's flesh, to profess 
our hate ana loathing of Judaism, whereof the 
brethren stand tax'd. I will therefore eat, yea, I will 
eat exceedingly. 

Not content with comic laurels, the bricklayer-poet, 
equipped with another kind of formula, historical 
fidelity, sought to hew his way to the summit of 
tragedy, producing in Scjanus (1603) and Catiline 

* Zeal-of-the-land-Busy was created exactly fifty 
years before Moliere's Tartuffe. 


(1611) two monuments of erudition and wasted 
energy. That way was not open to his will. Certainly 
he could lay down the law convincingly enough, but 
in applying it, all too faithfully the pedant stifles the 
volcano. Tragic exaltation we could never have ex- 
pected : Jonson had not the entree into that Holy of 
Holies, nor would he have thought of looking for a 
key that is to be found only in the heart of every 
man in the appropriate " humour." 

The volcano gradually declined in force, but there 
were minor eruptions almost to the end, chiefly in 
the form of the Masque, or rather of libretti for that 
exotic entertainment. Jonson had thrown off some 
of these pieces d'occasion at intervals after the 
accession of James L, and, with the waning of his 
dramatic power, was glad to fall back on the reputa- 
tion they had gained for him not to speak of the 
perquisites. In virtual collaboration with Inigo Jones, 
whose elaborate dtcor provided the major attraction 
of the show, he finally liberates from almost inveterate 
inhibition the lyric side of his. genius; but, chafing 
against the misalliance, interrupts his own swan- 
song to enter into a furious squabble with the scenic 
artist, remaining intransigent to the end. 

We began by quoting Jonson's strictures on the art 
of his greater contemporary. Let us recall as equally 
characteristic, that he " had not told posterity " these 
lamentable truths concerning Shakespeare, but, among 
other reasons, " to justify mine own candour : for I 
loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this 
side idolatry, as much as any." 

May we not, mutatis mutandis, return the honest 

* Imported from. Italy in early Tudor days to be 
cultivated in the hot-house of successive Court 



" Shakespeare apart, was it really an age of 
great drama? . . . Shakespeare apart, what 
playwright . . . would compare in point of 
intellect with half-a-dozen men who are now 
writing for the stage? Ben Jonson will, of 
course, be thrust into the breach . . . but a 
thinker he was not . . . Thus the days of 
Elizabeth and James present the surprising spec- 
tacle of one towering world-genius rubbing 
shoulders with, and scarcely, if at all, distin- 
guished from, a group of writers . . . deplor- 
ably infested with the crudities and brutalities 
of their period. ... I do not see how any un- 
prejudiced student can deny that the minor 
Elizabethan drama ... is an essentially bar- 
barous product." (WILLIAM ARCHER, in The 
Old Drama and the New.) 

William Archer was, by general consent, the 
greatest of modern English dramatic critics. He was 
what the Elizabethans would have called a Puritan. 
We have been at some pains to give expression to 
the point of view he represented, because Puritanical 
sentiment, in some degree, is to-day, as it has been 
from time immemorial, an element that counts 
that counts more than it* shows in England. For 
close upon a century after the decline of the Restora- 
tion Theatre, the body of Elizabethan drama 
remained under a cloud, alike for the purposes of 
the study and of the stage. The cloud lifted under 
Elia's gentle persuasion (in 1808), and a new vogue 
was fostered in literary circles; but it had hardly 
extended bevond, despite Swinburne's pcrfcrvid 
advocacy, before a new reaction set in against what 
William Archer called "the Elizabethan legend." 
That reaction is still operative. 


The profuseness of the minor Elizabethan drama 
positively bewilders the unprejudiced student who is 
fortunate enough to appreciate its dramatic quality 
and its imaginative grandeur. Was it a batrbarous 
age? Ben Jonson was yet a thinker on a colossal 
scale. We are all of us miserable sinners, or, if you 
prefer it, deplorably infected with the crudities and 
brutalities of our animal nature. Even a barbarous 
product a lion, for example, or a palm tree may 
stimulate the imagination, if it serve no higher pur- 
pose. And great drama is always great drama. 

Let us make no pretence or apology. Let us name 
names. Chapman (?-i634), Defyer (1570 ?-i637 - ? )> 
Middlcton (1570 ?-i627), (Thomas) Heywood (?- 
1650 ?), Fletcher (1579-1625), Massinger (1583-1640), 
Beaumont (1584-1616), Tourneur (1575 ?-i626), 
Webster (1580 ?-i625 ?), Ford (?-?) all these men, 
and some half-dozen more, bequeathed, as it were, a 
deposit of the Elizabethan spirit in a few hundred 
plays distinguished in general (naturally, in varying 
degrees) for brilliantly colourful atmosphere, intense 
psychological interest, fascinating craftsmanship, and, 
above all, superbly fluent and vivid dialogue. The 
prospect of compressing even their salient character- 
istics into the compass of this volume sufficiently 
brings home to the writer the immensity of their 
common achievement. To consider the contribution 
of each man singly and comparatively is out of the 
question. A kind of impressionistic survey must be 
attempted with an acute consciousness of its inevit- 
able shortcomings. 

Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson was the real leader 
even a real representative of the movement now- 
adays, hardly conceivable apart from their names a 
movement that, from its sordid associations in the 
days of Marlowe, passed rapidly into the forefront of 
fashionable social activity, becoming increasingly 
bound up with the gay life of the Court, until, in the 


eyes of its Roundhead opponents, it was identified 
with the whole cause of the monarchy, Shakespeare, 
as we have seen, was not really an anti-Puritan. Ben 
Jonson was essentially an intellectual snob. This is 
not to say that either of them was a prig, or stood 
socially aloof from his fellows; on the contrary, they 
participated freely and humanly in the wear and tear 
of the common life, with its cliques and feuds and 
its haphazard collaborations; and by allegiance at 
any rate, Shakespeare, like Jonson, was as thorough- 
going a Royalist as the worst of them. But the really 
typical Elizabethan, or rather, as we may more fairly 
call him in retrospect, the complete Cavalier, was as 
far removed from the sensitive spiritual essence of the 
one, as he was from the high-horseplay of the other, 
and it was reserved for John Fletcner, the most 
prolific as well as the freest (alike from moral and 
artistic scruples) of the circle, to do fullest justice to 
the genius that, for good or ill, made England what 
she once was. Light-hearted and stout-hearted, 
romantic (in the sense of approving all fair in love 
and war) by whim, as casually and characteristically 
matter-of-fact, he rises at the crest of the wave, and 
rides it triumphantly to its fall. The technique at his 
finger-ends, he dashes of! plays with the sporadic 
intensity of a Drake embarking on a new exploit in 
the Western Main, or scotching the Spanish Armada, 
or (as the case may be) finishing his game of bowls. 
His forte was the tragi-comedy with no nonsense 
about it, that, after the decline of Shakespeare's great 
tragic period, won and for long held the first place 
in the playgoer's favour. Unlike lesser practitioners in 
this genre, however, he has no taste for mere sound 
and fury, never indulges in " sob-stuff " (well, hardly 
ever), and wears his poetry straightforwardly as he 
lived. Shakespeare's later and longer blank verse, in 
his hands, runs often into a bubbling overflow of 
rhythmic prose, in which, again, we seem to catch 


the true accent of the age. If we must call his vices 
Cavalier vices, let us give due credit to the same 
national party for his no less conspicuous, though 
largely unacknowledged, virtues. "Give me dying," 
cries the Duke in The Chances, 

" As dying ought to be, upon mine enemy, 
Parting with man-kind, by a man that's manly : 
Let 'em be the world, and bring along 
Cain's envy witn 'em, I will on!" 

Was the gay Cavalier's philosophy ever more 
happily expressed? Or more wittily than in this 
snippet from the same play? 

DON FREDERICK : If she be not found we must 

DON JOHN: I am glad on 't. I have not fought a 

great while. 

DON FREDERICK : If we dye 

DON JOHN : There's so much money saved in 


Barbaric, maybe; but in its magnificent response to 
the eternal challenger, in its frank fearlessness and 
essential zest for life, docs it carry no lesson for us 
of this generation? 

It was a sure instinct that led Fletcher to set so 
many of his quasi-heroic comedies in the colourful 
countries of Southern Europe, of Spain in particular. 
The English cavalier derived no little of his code 
from the chivalrous Don of the best Habsburg 
period. Spain at this time was cultivating a drama 
of her own, with Lope de Vega at the height of his 
glory, and the great Calderon preparing to put him 
in tnc shade. Fletcher, who probably knew the lan- 
guage, helped himself freely from this as from native 
sources, demonstrating (with Beaumont) in The 


Knight of the Burning Pestle, that Cervantes' ridicule 
of the excesses of chivalry was as congenial to English 
ears as in the home of the original Don Quixote. 
But in the most vital social relation his attitude 
towards his womankind Fletcher's Englishman was 
a law unto himself. With all his virile manhood 
(and he could hardly be accused of effeminacy) he 
was anything but a " Sheik." Nor, per contra, was 
his lady a mere Shrieking Sister. We attach, perhaps, 
the wrong kind of significance, in this connection, to 
the " moral " of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. 
We have no warrant for regarding Petruchio's brutal 
treatment of Katharine so disconcerting to the 
devotees of gentle Shakespeare as illustrating a 
common or even a recognisable feature of the domestic 
conventions of the period.* Is not the whole point 
of the tour de force precisely the extravagance of the 
idea of an Elizabethan shrew submitting to the 
domination of a mere male? If so, Fletcher rather 
unkindly skims the cream of the joke in his " dramatic 
sequel " (as St. John Hankin called his own experi- 
ments of this kind), The Tamer Tamed, wherein the 
same Petruchio, embarking on a second marriage, 
finds his match in " a chaste witty lady " of no un- 
certain humour: 

MARIA : By the faith I have 
In mine own noble will, that childish woman 
That lives a prisoner to her husband's pleasure, 
Has lost her making, and becomes a beast 
Created for his use, not fellowship. * 

LIVIA : His first wife said as much. 

* In Shakespeare generally, as most commentators 
have noted, the " hero " cuts a poor figure beside the 
" heroine," but Shakespeare's women idealised 
whether as Cleopatra or Miranda must have been 
" caviare to the general." 


MARIA: She was a fool, 
-And took a scurvy course; let her be nam'd 
'Mongst those that wish for things, but dare not 

do 'em; 
I have a new dance for him. 

And the hussy is as good as her word, her creator 
being manifestly unacquainted with that " state of 
marked social inequality of the sexes " predicated in 
Meredith's famous Essay as one of the handicaps of 
the comic poet. Middleton's and Dekker's Roaring 
Girl of Cheapside was drawn from a real character of 
the period, suggesting that this breezy feminism was 
at least as likely to have derived from the Gloriana of 
history as from any poet's imaginings. Fletcher is 
whole-hearted in the cause, and if his women, like 
his men, are distinctly aware of their bodies, they 
are probably no more obsessed with sex than the Vic- 
torian ingenue, while their manners, which so scan- 
dalised Coleridge, may perhaps be set on a par with 
those of our latest Georgian dramatic models. 

We return to Fletcher, to glance off in another direc- 
tion. A capacious sponge in his absorption of subject- 
matter, he was equally impartial in his methods of 
discharging the overflowing fluid-stuff of drama so 
accumulated. If his work teems with Shakespearean 
tit-bits, Shakespeare may be said to have returned the 
compliment by trespassing on his preserves in the 
tragi-comedies of his last period, as well as by actually 
collaborating with him in Henry VIII and (probably) 
in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fletcher was not tied 
to tragicomedy, and was game for an experiment at 
anv time in company with any man. He was the 
collaborator par excellence. The half-dozen plays in 
which he lent a hand to the more sophisticated Beau- 
mont form so matchless a blend that, from their 
popularity, the legend "Beaumont and Fletcher" 
was automatically assigned, and has attached ever 


since, to the whole of his output,* of fifty odd plays. 
Four of these joint productions are in the tragic vein, 
and if we say that, after Shakespeare, they are as 
great plays and as nearly good tragedies as the limi- 
tations or the Elizabethan drama permit, we are using 
words advisedly, and not necessarily qualifying 
admiration. In the matter of tragedy, not all the vast 
possibilities of poetic expression bequeathed by Mar- 
lowe, not all the inspiration of Shakespeare's conver- 
sion of those possibilities into impossibilities, could 
compensate for the absence of the soil in which alone, 
saving miracles, anything essentially justifying the 
name could be expected to spring. Of this soil, as we 
have noted, the anti-Theatre party had a monopoly. 
The principles governing the motivation of the 
Thames-side drama remained to the end" the simple 
economic laws of demand and supply. The demand 
was for entertainment, and while tne provision of 
entertainment is consistent as a matter of course with 
a comedy of any school and any standard, it is by 
no means as a matter of course consistent with the 
aim of tragedy, which is spiritual enlightenment. The 
Elizabethan playgoer had no wish to be spiritually 
enlightened. Tne entertainment sought in, and 
derived from, his tragic drama corresponded at bottom 
to the attraction of the popular thriller of the present 
day, with a difference (as between a masterpiece like 
The Maid's Tragedy and the latest Edgar Wallace), 
that, shall we say, is all but fundamental. It is a 
difference of taste rather than of temper. Flesh and 
blood are the principal constituents of the newer as 
of the older brew. (True tragedy transcends flesh and 
blood.) The quality of flesh varies in degree of 
sublimation. The *' Wood " interest has changed with 
the years almost beyond identification. An Eliza- 

* To find Fletcher in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 
one must refer to " Beaumont and Fletcher." 


bcthan audience, from groundlings upwards, de- 
manded blood for blood's sake blood neat in physical 
action, heart's-blood in " sob-stuff," blood in lan- 
guage (which is poetry). It was one of the tricks of 
the trade of Beaumontj Fletcher and Co., to contrive, 
as a grand finale to the evening's sensation, a general 
holocaust of guilty and innocent this constituting, 
in their journalese, a " tragic " in ours, a " Sadistic " 
ending. " Sadistic " is certainly nearer the mark. 
Granted that these are not tragedies, let us give due 
thanks for the major bloody-ending plays of the minor 
Elizabethans. We have noticed Ben Jonson's heavy 
Roman histories in this vein. A similar quality of 
laboured pedantry mars, for us, the " proud full sail " 
of the great verse of his disciple Chapman, although 
his Bussy D'Ambois and his two topical plays about 
the French Duke Byron were great favourites in their 
day. The serious plays of Beaumont and Fletcher are, 
of their kind, supreme. If only they could have fol- 
lowed Shakespeare a little further but the little more 
. . . and when we come to Philaster, which has been 
compared with Hamlet, we are reminded how much 
it is. The spirit of Shakespeare, indeed, is doomed to 
walk through the quasi-tragedies of Beaumont, 
Fletcher, Massinger, Middleton, and their followers, 
with devastating effect. For one first-rate lago (De 
Flores in Middleton's Changeling) we must suffer how 
many second-rate Othellos and Brutuses, and corrupt 
imitations of Viola and Isabella, and echoes of choice 
passages such as the quarrel-scene from Julius Caesar. 
The two parts of The Honest Whore by Dekker 
(with incidental assistance from Middleton) stand out 
with an unaffected tenderness as sharply distinct from 
the elaborate brilliance of this school as a Pre- 
Raphaelite from the elegant art of the Pitti Palace. 
The work is perhaps too uneven to justify the tide 
of masterpiece, but, if we may qualify our own 
generalisation, we would hail as a unique minor 

Elizabethan tragedy a play which perversely does not 
claim to be more than a romantic comedy. 

It is important to bear in mind, when we pass 
judgment on these plays, that many of the incidents 
that appear so extravagant to us were suggested by, if 
not directly founded on, events of current social 
history. If Seneca was responsible for most of the 
horrors of the earlier pieces, the Court intrigues of 
the latter years of Queen Elizabeth typified in the 
Essex conspiracy, with its sanguinary denouement 
and the wholesale corruption and depravity of the 
Stuart menage furnish facts as hair-raising as any old- 
world fictions, and conveniently adaptable to the 
routine of the more picturesque Borgia and Medici 
palaces. It would seem, indeed, that mere lust and 
violence, with their train of seductions and adulteries 
and vendettas, gradually became stale news, and that 
a popular demand for more novel sensations inspired 
the subtler shocks of the school associated primarily 
with the names of Webster, Ford, and Tourneur. It 
is a far cry from Titus Andronicus, with its straight- 
forward rapes and limb-chopping, and its inevitable 
ghosts, to Webster's Duchess of Malfi, where the 
horrors of the madhouse are exploited with every 
device of ultra-sophisticated Grand Guignol, and 
Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, a variation on the 
theme of Romeo and Juliet, with a brother and sister 
as the ill-fated paramours. These men achieved a 
definite intensification of interest, not only by special- 
ising in abnormal vices and crimes, but by a closer 
approximation to naturalism in their art, which, as 
art, reaches the high-water mark of the dramatic 
development of the period. The trial scene from 
Webster's The White Devil remains the perfect poetic 
idealisation of a sordid cause cclcbrc, of a spectacle as 
familiar to us as to Webster's contemporaries a 
thoroughbred lady arraigned before a masculine court 
of justice, her woman's wit pitted against all the 


resources of the trained intellect, holding her own 
gamely to the end. The following excerpts may give 
some idea of the quality of these " decadent " post- 
Shakespeareans : 

MONTICELSO : Stand to the table, gentlewoman. 

Now, Signior, 
Fall to your plea. 

LAWYER : Domine ]udex, convene oculos in hanc 
pcstem, mulierum corruptissimam. 

VITTORIA : What's he? 

FRANCISCO DE MEDICI : A lawyer that pleads against 

VITTORIA : Pray, my lord, let him speak his usual 

tongue : 
I'll make no answer else. 

FRANCISCO : Why, you understand Latin. 

VITTORIA : I do, sir; but amongst this auditory 
Which come to hear my cause, the half or more 
May be ignorant in 't. 

FRANCISCO (to the lawyer) : Go on, sir. 

VITTORIA (persisting) : By your favour, 
I will not have my accusation clouded 
In a strange tongue; all this assembly 
Shall hear what you can charge me with. 

She gains her point. The lawyer is ordered to 
change his language. 

LAWYER (furious) : Well,' then, have at you ! 
VITTORIA : I am at the mark, sir : I'll give aim to 

And tell you how near you shoot. 

He immediately over-shoots the mark, and is glad 
enough, before long, to give place to the Cardinal. 

MONTICELSO : I shall be plainer with you, and point 


Your follies in more natural red and white 
Than that upon your cheek. . . . 

VITTORIA : Honourable my lord, 
It does not suit a reverend Cardinal 
To play the lawyer thus 

MONTICELSO : O, your trade instructs your language. 
You see, my lords, what goodly fruit she seems; 
Yet like those apples travellers report 
To grow where Sodom and Gomorrah stood 
I will but touch her and you straight shall see 
She'll fall to soot and ashes. 

VITTORIA : O poor charity ! 

Thou art seldom found in scarlet. 

MONTICELSO : Who knows not how, when several 

night by night 

Her gates were choked with coaches, and her rooms 
Outbraved the stars with several kind of lights; 
When she did counterfeit a prince's court 
In music, bouquets, and most riotous surfeits? 
This whore, forsooth, was holy. 

VITTORIA : Ha ! Whore ! What's that ! 

MONTICELSO : Shall I expound whore to you ? Sure, 

I shall; 
I'll give their perfect character. 

He proceeds to do so forcibly in a matter of twenty- 
four lines. 

VITTORIA : This character scapes me. . . . 
MONTICELSO : You know what whore is. Next the 

devil adultery 
Enters the devil murder. 

FRANCISCO DE MEDICI (weightily) : Your unhappy 

husband is dead. 
VITTORIA (who arranged the murder) : O he's a 

happy husband : 
Now he owes nature nothing. 


The gruesome detail of the crime is recalled to her. 

MONTICELSO : And look upon this creature was his 


She comes not like a widow; she comes armed 
With scorn and impudence : is this a mourning habit? 
VITTORIA : Had I foreknown his death, as you 

I would have bespoke my mourning. 

The tension grows as Vittoria warms to her defence, 
but the net closes about her. Never for a moment 
does her magnificent bluff desert her. 

MONTICELSO : If the devil 
Did ever take good shape, behold his picture. 

VITTORIA : You have one virtue left, 
You will not flatter me. 

FRANCISCO DE MEDICI : Who brought this letter? 

VITTORIA : I am not compelled to tell you. 

MONTICELSO : My lord duke (her far amour) sent to 

you a thousand ducats 
The twelfth of August. 

VITTORIA : 'Twas to keep your cousin (her murdered 

From prison. I paid use for 't. 

MONTICELSO : I rather think 

'Twas interest for his lust. 

VITTORIA : Who says so 

But yourself? If you be my accuser 
Pray cease to be my judge : come from the bench. 

All her arts and wiles will not avail her. The case 
is clear. She is sentenced to confinement in a house of 

VITTORIA: A house of convertites! What's that? 
MONTICELSO (brutally) : A house of penitent whores. 


VITTORIA (who will have the last word) : Do the 

noblemen in Rome (she is a Venetian) 
Erect it for their wives, that I am sent 
To lodge there? 

Can such dialogue be called " an essentially barbarous 
product"? Is it not, in point of drama, as impressive 
as, shall we say, the trial scene from St. Joan ? Always 
remembering that St. Joan is a real tragedy. 

Vittoria Corombona, despite her name and her 
setting, is English to the core, and was presumably 
recognised as such. We call the play a poetic idealisa- 
tion. There is a type of mind that must take every- 
thing literally, and it may be that even in those days, 
when imagination was, as it were, second nature, 
there were people who refused to waste their sym- 
pathies on " a lot of foreigners." For their benefit 
(upon this supposition) the so-called Domestic Tragedy 
found a place in the repertory. Two plays of this 
class, Arden of Fevcrsham and The Yorkshire 
Tragedy, are among those that from time to time 
have been ascribed to Shakespeare. Arden might well 
have been drawn by the hand that created Othello 
if Shakespeare haa been in the habit of repeating 
himself. The Domestic Tragedy practically confined 
itself to the study of bourgeois Othellos and their 
wives, guilty or innocent. Thomas Heywood, its most 
distinguished exponent, produced a new kind of sensa- 
tion with his masterpiece A Woman Kitted with 
Kindness, in which the hero-raisonneur, convinced of 
his wife's infidelity, deliberately refrains from taking 
the " unwritten law " into his own hands. (As the 
title of the play indicates, his spouse, anticipating the 
second Mrs. Tanqueray, did not survive the treat- 
ment.) Already we miss the colour, as we recognise 
the modern cunning, of this embryonic problem play. 
There is something incongruous, too, in such austere 
treatment of the plain man and woman of that period. 


We are reminded that the Elizabethans, while dis- 
regarding the technical rules of classical drama, con- 
formed in general to Aristotle's assertion of one (tragic) 
law for the nobility, another (comic) for the lower 

Comedy is necessarily cruel, but there are limits to 
its cruelty. The squalid domestic interiors of the lower 
orders of those days were certainly no laughing matter. 
The realistic comedy, which flourished from the 
beginning to the end of the period, and which deals 
so intimately with the lives of the poor, is notable for 
its scenes set in places of public resort in streets and 
fields and taverns where private woes could be dissi- 
pated in a hectic sociability or drowned in sack. 
Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor already shows 
this predilection for the open air in a cleaner and 
countrified community. Porter's Two Angry Women 
of Abingdon is even more vivid as a portrayal of 
rustic manners. But London was of course the main 
inspiration. The doctrinaire comedv of humours might 
well have evaporated in words, out for its gradual 
establishment on this terra firma. It was a hazardous 
enterprise to take Ben Jonson as literally as he took 
himself at his word. Chapman alone of the immediate 
disciples may be said to have justified his courageous 
loyalty to his master's opinions; certainly in All Fools 
and May Day he reproduced Jonson 's formula as 
brilliantly as in The Widow's Tears he aired his own 
native frenzy of cynicism. But the metropolitan scene 
drew even Jonson in the end; his superb panoramic 
view of Bartholomew Fair crowns the achievement of 
the London group of comedies. Chapman and Marston 
collaborated with him in the looser composition of 
Eastward Ho, a friendly counter-blast to Dekker's and 
Webster's Westward Ho, and which in turn called 
forth a Northward Ho by the same authors. Dekker, 
solo, contributed his immortal Shoemaker's Holiday, 
endearing himself to us in a personal sense achieved 


by no other of Shakespeare's fellows. In collaboration 
with Middleton, he further enriched our realistic 
London comedy with The Roaring Girl, already re- 
ferred to. Miadleton, wanting his restraining hand, 
gave us in A Chaste Maid in Cheap side perhaps a 
little too much of the seamy side of a good thing. But 
it seems ungrateful to cavil. These plays give us some- 
thing more than drama, more than art they are docu- 
ments of the first social-historical significance; a potted 
life of the times. Old London is brought before the 
mind's eye more vividly than any phono-film could 
have rendered it. Yet we must note that it was never 
a mere " slice of life " reproduction; it was a vehicle 
for the communication of vital satirical ideas. 

We seem to have strayed far from Fletcher, but one 
Elizabethan dramatist leads easily enough to almost 
any other, and proceeding now to Massinger by way 
of the curiously impersonal Middleton, it occurs to us 
that we might as fitly have introduced this great name 
as one with which Fletcher was associated more fre- 
quently if not more fruitfully than with Beaumont. 
Massinger collaborated with Middleton (and Rowley) 
in a play The Old Law, the theme of which could 
hardly have been conceived by any of his comrades. 
We are here lifted above realities into a realm of fan- 
tastic ideas; but neither fantasy nor the ideas intrude 
on the artistically convincing story of a society where 
the common notion that old fogeys are a nuisance is 
carried to the logical extreme of simply killing off 
everybody at a fixed age limit. The simplicity of it is 
the Massinger touch. No idea seems too extravagant 
for Massinger to exploit with a straight face, and a 
persuasive imagination. As a contriver of plots on a 
gigantic scale, not even Shakespeare can match him, 
and there is mental meat in those plots. His easy- 
flowing verse hurries us past the wildest improbabili- 
ties, but it is all very stimulating and even enlighten- 
ing up to a point. He appears himself to have been 


possessed of considerable moral courage. He even dared 
to air his Catholic sympathies in his plays, but artistic- 
ally he shirks the issue again and again, and nearly 
every one of his surviving plays* leaves one witn 
a sense of vaguely frustrated purpose, as though he 
had to make his stones just too good to be serviceable 
to Truth. But the temptation must have been difficult 
to resist. He has such wonderful brain-waves : a night- 
mare vision some might call it prophetic of a prole- 
tarian revolution (The Bondman) : a demonstration, 
forestalling Pirandello, of the relativity of dramatic fact 
and fiction (The Roman Actor) : the evocation of the 
old crusading spirit in the opposition of romantic 
Christian and picturesque Mohammedan ideas (The 
Renegado) : the reflection of the economic-social 
kaleidoscope through distorted mirrors (The City 
Madam). The most popular of his plays, A New Way 
to Pay Old Debts, with its superb portrait of Sir Giles 
Overreach, the profiteer, held the stage well into the 
nineteenth century. Mr. Archer does not fail to note 
that Massinger had " a cleaner, saner mind " than 
some of his contemporaries. And yet, paradoxically, in 
one play at least, The Virgin Martyr, he is guilty of a 
departure from clean-mindedness which some may 
hold to be more reprehensible than the frank porno- 
graphy of the more typical Elizabethans. The play may 
be described as an essay in that modern speciality, 
sexual suggestiveness. The offence is aggravated by 
its origin in a pseudo-religious subject-matter (the 
martyraom of St. Dorothea). Fletcher's pseudo- 
pastoral, The Faithful Shepherdess so subtly con- 

* Unique manuscript copies of a number of Mas- 
singer's plays were, with many others, collected by one 
Warburton, a bourgeois gentilhomme of the middle 
eighteenth century, whose historic cook appropriated 
the lot for use as dish covers. Three out of some fifty 
plays were ultimately recovered. 


trivcd that, had the authorship been anonymous, it 
might have been accepted at its face value as a naive 
plea for chastity is the only other notable example of 
this aberration. Both are latish products, presaging the 
dissolution of a " barbaric " age into the elements of a 
fine-mannered civilisation. 

For as suddenly it had flared up, so, gradually, the 
flame of drama weakened till it flickered. In James 
Shirley (1596-1666), the last of the big pre-Civil War 
dramatists, we find signs of exhaustion and corruption 
alike in comedy and in the other thing. There arc 
echoes everywhere, and situations that suddenly fall 
flat. The language is toning down; we may read whole 
passages of dialogue without being arrested by a single 
splendid image or striking word-coin. But, indeed, 
drama itself had become vieux jeu. Mr. Ivor Brown, 
in his Parties to the Play, has shown how by a sort of 
tri-partite see-saw, the failure of the supply of fresh 
drama automatically raises the status of either actor or 
producer. We have seen how Ben Jonson, in his old 
age, had succumbed to the lure of the fashionable 
Court masque which depended at least as much on the 
novel contrivances of the scenic artist as on the draw 
of his lyrical powers, or even of his great name. The 
drama reduced to this pass is as a Samson shorn of his 
locks. Its strength has evaporated. 

A Samson shorn of his locks, with the Philistine at 
the gate. Or have the roles been reversed? The 
ferociously militant righteousness of the Puritans was 
surely no Philistine force. The Lord was on their side, 
in their word as in His deed. The issue had become 
clearly defined; Cavalier and Roundhead were^prepar- 
ing for the inevitable day, with the theatre as a 
practical bone of contention between them. The 
Puritan Prynne, on 'the appearance (1632) of his 
Histriomastix, a manifesto of prodigious length, 
denouncing the stage and all its practices, had been 
punished with a savagery that nothing less than war- 


fever could justify. But swiftly the tables were to be 
turned. On the outbreak of the Civil War, under party 
pressure that they could not have resisted if they 
would, Parliament proceeded to suppress the theatre 
under penalties which were correspondingly vindictive. 
It is customary to lament this act of fanatical tyranny, 
but a sudden death stroke at least saved the glorious 
age from simply petering out. The best days of the 
Cavalier drama were long behind. If we must criticise 
the policy that put it out of its misery, we can only 
lament that the Roundheads, instead of closing the 
theatres, did not decide to give us a Roundhead drama 
for a change. 


It was not really death at all rather an operation 
necessitating a prolonged period of relative inactivity, 
which, as it happened, gave the patient a new lease of 
life. The Cavalier spirit was no more killed by the 
suppression of its traditional histrionic outlet than by 
the axe that severed the head of its reigning symbol. 
The existing theatres would probably have closed for 
all effective purposes without the intervention of 
Parliament, for its denizens, Royalist to a man, were 
ready enough to serve their king in the field of action 
proper. But peace or war, theatres or no theatres, 
drama never quite dies. For fourteen years it was 
without a home in England. No churcn opened its 
portals to receive a prodigal offspring that might well 
have turned over a new leaf, or at least have re- 
turned an old one. Plays continued to be produced 
sporadically and privately in Royalist circles by refugee 
groups of players; and drama issued in increasing 
volume from the printing-press, encouraging a habit 
of reading plays that presently grew into a fashionable 
craze, to be superseded only by the vogue of the 
eighteenth-century novel. Regular stage history has no 


single item to record between the years 1642 and 1656, 
and the effect of this hiatus was a definite snapping 
of the theatrical tradition. The clouds lifted on a new 
London, with Bankside left in the shade; the home of 
a generation of fervent Cavaliers without a Cavalier 
training Cavaliers (or Conservatives) who had just 
made a revolution. There are capacities in which every 
man is a Conservative; his digestion is conservative, 
and enforces his allegiance for the ritual of eating and 
drinking. So, too, with the ritual of theatrical fare. 
The English public was never so self-consciously con- 
servative as in the ardour with which, reacting from 
the regime of the Commonwealth, it clamoured for 
the good old days and the good old ways; but where 
the senses were concerned the theatrical sense in 
particular there was no foundation of personal 
experience from which the passion to conserve could 
derive impetus, and so the reactionary became pioneer 
in spite of himself. One important reform, almost 
immediately instituted, illustrates the point. There 
was no reason why women's parts should not, in 
Shakespeare's day or, for that matter, in the preced- 
ing Tudor age have been played, and ably played, by 
women; no reason, unless prejudice (which is one side 
of tradition) be accounted a reason. There must have 
been ample feminine talent among the old irregular 
troupes of variety artistes whose partial initiation into 
the mystery of me interlude player had so drastically 
diverted the trend of the drama; but there was never 
any question of enlisting that talent : public opinion 
would not have countenanced so violent a break with 
the ecclesiastical convention that clung about {he least 
and lewdest of its stage pieces. It was a matter of 
habit rather than of principle. The reopening of the 
theatres involved a reopening of the question. In the 
upshot, male impersonators of female parts were 
adjudged unnecessary, even objectionable, and the 
professional actress stepped into the breach without 


any fuss, making herself indispensable almost from 

the beginning. 

The moving spirit in the revival of dramatic activity, 
Sir William Davenant (1605-1668), was himself a 
veteran poetaster, a link, if a very loose link, with the 
old theatre. Under the first Stuart kings, he had dis- 
tinguished himself in contributions to the precious 
Court masque. Already before the restoration of 
Charles II. he had obtained leave to present some 
compositions of his own in emulation of the latest 
Continental novelty, the Italian opera. How this 
bastard art found favour and developed native off- 
shoots in the form of Ballad Opera and Comic Opera 
belongs to another story. Davenant's enterprise, 
inspired by foreign models, culminated in the 
establishment of two licensed playhouses, the originals 
of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, artificially lighted 
and equipped with the modern proscenium that com- 
pletes the break with the traditions of the Elizabethan 
apron-stage. New and compelling influences from 
abroad obscured from the first, if they did not 
obliterate, the memory of the old Bankside regime. 
While in England monarchy and drama alike had 
been temporarily under eclipse, a genius among kings, 
Louis XlV. or France, was cultivating, under his 
personal supervision, that essentially exclusive product 
the neo-classical, heroic drama of Corneille. The 
master's " arrival " with Le Cid in 1636, twenty years 
after the death of Shakespeare, some nine months 
before the death of Ben Jonson, ushered in the great 
epoch of the French Theatre. And as the French 
Court ;was the natural focus of English Royalist 
aspirations, its drama was accepted as a model for all 
patriotic promoters of Restoration revelry. In French 
eyes the Elizabethan drama was irretrievably damned 
by its deliberate violation of the law and order of the 
academic Hellenic. We have seen how this very issue 
had been fought out in the days that preceded the 


emergence of Marlowe, and how the classicists had 
been routed by sheer weight of popular taste. Popular 
taste was no longer the criterion in a theatrcland con- 
sisting of two monopolised and ultra-fashionable 
houses, with corresponding prices of admission. The 
plebeian spectator (m so far as he was privileged to 
join the charmed circle) was disposed to defer to the 
judgment of his social betters, especially as his own 
marked predilection for vulgar fare was indulged by 
continual revivals of old favourites. The poets con- 
formed religiously to the mood and mode of the 
Court. For the nrst decade of the new era, we may 
learn almost everything* worth learning about the con- 
temporary theatre from the impressions of that naive 
and catholic playgoer, Samuel Pepys. During the 
years of his Diary (1659-1669), he reports performances 
of twelve of Shakespeare's plays, twenty-seven plays of 
which Fletcher was sole or part author, seven of Ben 
Jonson's, eight of Shirley's, and a number of other 
minor Elizabethan works. He saw during the same 
period five translations from Corneille, and for new 
native fare of note, several " heroic tragedies," in 
imitation of Corneille, by John Dryden (1631-1700), 
the first official poet laureate and the outstanding 
literary figure of the age. If the old Adam had to be 
appeased by Elizabethan revivals, Dryden was deter- 
mined that for the future, at any rate, English 
dramatists would never again make themselves 
ridiculous (in Versailles) by resorting to the laxity 
of form and content that had satisfied the old Globe 
audiences. If this sounds incredible, we can only refer 
the reader to Dryden's explicit apology for the plays 
of his predecessors in a preface to one of his own : 
" Malice and partiality set apart, let any man who 
understands English, read diligently the works of 
Shakespeare and Fletcher, and I dare undertake that 
he will find in every page either some solecism of 
speech or some notorious flaw in sense. ... I suppose 


I need not name . . . the historical plays of Shake- 
speare : besides many of the rest, as the Winter's Talc, 
Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, which were 
either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly 
written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, 
nor the serious part your concernment" . . . and so on. 
It remains for us to remark that of the various original 
features with which Dryden a great man, as men go 
endowed the drama of his day, this practice of 
writing a preface to each play as it was published is 
the one that has stood him in best stead with posterity. 
His prefaces are still readable. 

The " heroic couplet," with which he sought to 
improve on the free and easy blank verse of his for- 
bears, had its hour upon the stage, and then was heard 
no more. His desperate endeavour to impose formality 
on the erratic English language may indeed be termea 
heroic; it was wasted. As with the dialogue, so with 
the texture of his plays, which, conceived in the spirit 
of the French Court, remain mere exercises in dramatic 
decorum. When we compare (as we are bound to) 
Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with Dryden's 
handling of the same material in All for Love, we are 
left marvelling at the naivete of the man's ambition 
to interpret lire in terms of polite society. His tragedy 
was, however, to make dramatic history in another 
connection. The Rehearsal of the Duke of Bucking- 
ham mercilessly exposed the whole bag of tricks; and 
a century later was transformed by Sheridan into The 
Critic, perhaps the funniest play in the English 

A cause of mirth in others, Dryden is for us less 
successful as a comic poet on his own account. Aiming 
higher than the more famous comic dramatists of the 
age, his pieces, though freely leavened with both wit 
and obscenity, suffer from a self-conscious addiction 
to a hypothetical refinement, producing continual jars 
on our enjoyment. We prefer the wit and obscenity 


undiluted, or at any rate blended with more congenial 
concomitants, as in the more representative writers of 
the Comedy of Manners, presently to be con- 

The reaction against Dryden's self-styled Reforma- 
tion of the stage is marked in the work of the dramatic 
poets who emerge in the years following the close of 
Pepys' diary. The case against the Elizabethans was 
gradually exploded. To put the clock back was another 
kind of problem. A mediocrity, Thomas Shadwell 
(1640-1692), who succeeded to the laureateship, for- 
feited by Dryden at the Revolution, aspired to institute 
a new Jonsonian comedy of humours. His Bury Fair, 
the best of a series of regular annual tributes to the 
master, is attractive enough in its way, but comedy 
was settling into a new groove, and ne laboured in 
vain. Tragedy never really settled anywhere. Both 
Thomas Otway (1652-1685) and Nathaniel Lee (1653- 
1692), after commencing in the pseudo-classic-heroic 
vein, were drawn irresistibly into the old ways, and 
their more successful works were written in frank 
emulation of the form, as well as in the blank verse, of 
the pre-Civil War theatre. Through them, as through 
Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), who followed them, the 
back-wash of the great age throws up its last master- 
pieces. Otway's Venice Preserved is pure Elizabethan. 
His Orphan and Lee's Casar Borgia, if less pure, are 
also less decadent than many of the plays that had 
preceded the close of the period to which they properly 
belonged. Rowe's Jane Shore and Lady Jane Grey, 
fine plays both of them, are almost Victorian in feeling, 
and the Elizabethan technique has been subtly* meta- 
morphosed before its effacement in the deluge that 

On the other side of the Channel, the mande of 
Corneille had fallen on Racine, in default of an 
English candidate, but the entente cordiale was 
strengthened by the emergence, under the same 


benign Royal patronage, of a comic genius, more 
infectious and more cosmopolitan in appeal, indeed 
the Good European par excellence. Moliere's human- 
istic transfiguration of the old Roman comedy was the 
admitted model alike of Goldoni in Italy, of Holberg 
in Denmark, and of Griboyedov in Russia. That our 
own comic poets of the period derived inspiration from 
the same source can hardly be disputed, although the 
extent of the obligation remains a matter of dispute. 
Sir George Etherege (1636-1694), whose Love in a Tub 
(1664) is generally regarded as the first Comedy of 
Manners, was certainly one of the earliest admirers of 
Moliere, just as certainly 'as he was steeped in the old 
cavalier spirit of Ben Jonson and Fletcher. It is claimed 
by John Palmer in his book The Comedy of Manners 
that the school initiated by Etherege is as distinct from 
the one as from the other influence by virtue of a 
subjective element, a trick of endowing the central 
character or characters with the author's own per- 
sonality real or affected and so of conveying his 
particular reaction to the society in which he moved, 
and to the limits of which his comedy is restricted. 
Moliere's characters, to be sure, were carefully selected 
types; so, we have seen, were the representative 
" humours " of Ben Jonson. But we have also seen 
that Elizabethan comedy in general, and Fletcher's in 
particular, achieved its most striking effects precisely 
from a distinctive personal bias, functioning, however, 
for the most part in brilliantly imaginative settings, 
and expanded to embrace almost unlimited relations 
with life. When Etherege initiates us into cultured 
leisured English society after the Restoration, we are 
charmed to discover a piece of genuine " period," pre- 
served for all time, as is the life of Elizabethan London 
in the cycle of realistic comedies noticed in the previous 
section. When Love in a Tub is followed by She 
would if she could (1667), our delight is intensified 
by the increasing cunning of the process, and (need we 


say?) we are tickled by the novelty of a prurience more 
refined (in the literal sense of the word) than the naive 
salacity of the older dramatists. In William Wycherlcy 
(1640-1715) the art is developed on all sides. Love in 
a Wood (1671) is followed by two free adaptations 
from Moliere, The Country Wife and The Plain 
Dealer. The dialogue and (within its restricted range) 
the characterisation are here positively dazzling in 
their brilliance, but, with all allowance for the " man- 
liness " of their author, Mr. Horner, of the former 
play, and Mr. Manly, of the latter, are a pair of cads, 
if the word has any meaning in our dictionary. 
Wycherley's best is surpassed by the best of William 
Congreve (1670-1729). The Way of the World (1700) 
has a perfection of style that makes it, from whatever 
standpoint it is viewed, one of the great plays of the 
English language. But before we have reached it by 
way of his earlier plays, The Old Bachelor, The Double 
Dealer, and Love for Love, and of the robuster plays 
notably The Provoked Wife of Sir John Vanbrugh 
(1666-1726), the freshness has worn off, the paftern has 
become monotonous. If we obtain an occasional 
glimpse into an unhappy, but at least a human situa- 
tion, it is straightway turned with a witty line as in 
Sir John Brute's " Why did I marry? I married 
because I had a mind to lie with her, and she would 
not let me " whence we pass on to the next witty 
line: "Why did you not ravish her?" with its train 
of further laughs. The early cuckoo enchants us, but 
we grow impatient of his notes long before the end of 
the season; even so, we weary of these caged songsters* 
everlasting cuckoldoodledum. We are tired of the 
sniggering, posturing crew of good-for-nothings the 
truewits and the dapperwits and the semi-wits, and 
their butts, and their animal mistresses and their 
pathological hoydens; of their risqul jests and gibes 
that, long before Queen Anne is dead, have become 
chestnuts. We pine for the freedom of the Eliza- 


bcthans, to whom manners were mere "humours"; 
for whom Mirabel and Millamant (the beaux ideals of 
the new school) would have been a pair of nice lovers, 
of subsidiary interest to some tale of arresting human 

In their defence we must remember that none of 
these writers really took himself seriously, or regarded 
his art as more than a kind of social accomplish- 
ment. Etherege was conspicuously of Horseback Hall. 
Wycherley's ambition was satisfied by the conquest of 
one of Charles II.'s mistresses by means of an audacious 
ditty in his first play. Vanbrugh was by profession an 
architect as it nappens, a great one. Congreve, on 
being informed that Voltaire wished to call on him to 
pay his respects, insisted that he would be visited on 
no other footing than as a gentleman. On the failure 
of The Way of the World, he vowed he would write 
no more plays and, though he survived for twenty-nine 
years, he kept his vow. 

George Farquhar (1678-1707), the last of the line, 
has been accused of killing the Comedy of Manners 
by insinuating a degree of morality into an essentially 
immoral art-medium. He was the traitor that sold the 
pass. At least, he might have been tempted to do so. 
Unlike his predecessors, he was dependent on his pen 
for the maintenance of a home. He died at the age of 
thirty, leaving a beloved wife and child without a 
penny. Difficult indeed it must have been, with the 
wolf at the door, to sustain the note of irresponsible 
swagger throughout five acts of ado about nothing. 
Whatever the cause, the " pert, low " fellow, with his 
Irish temperament, did undoubtedly betray some 
genuine feeling, if not too much. It is more to the 
point that he let fresh air into the theatre. Towards 
the end of the late war, the (London) Stage Society, 
by an inspiration, gave a performance of his first play, 
The Recruiting Officer, and those who were present 
will not easily forget the clean sweep it made of the 


cobwebs of multitudinous cares, and particularly the 
exhilarating effect of its country scenes and characters. 
There is something of the same hearty quality in parts 
(only) of his second best play, The Beaux Stratagem. 
If we must shed tears over Farquhar, let it not be for 
the aesthetic shortcomings of his brief and infinitely 
promising achievement. 

But the Comedy of Manners was doomed before 
Farquhar appeared on the scene. The shrill voice of 
the Puritan, stifled in the prolonged mafficking of the 
Restoration, had become articulate in Jeremy Collier's 
Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the 
English Stage, issued broadcast in 1698.* Unlike 
Prynne's ill-rated diatribe, it was relatively brief and 
to the point, and the response was immediate and 
epoch-making or, more accurately, epoch-unmaking. 
Playgoers rubbed their eyes as though awakened from 
some Puck-inspired freak of hallucination. The 
dramatists, surprised into a stammering self-conscious- 
ness, knew not which way to turn in self-defence. 
They might as well have spared their efforts to turn 
in any direction. The tide of public opinion had 
turned, irresistibly to submerge them. Once again the 
Roundheads were masters of the situation. Once 
again, alas, the Roundhead genius neglected to take 
advantage of that situation. 

The first golden opportunity of capturing the theatre 
for spiritual purposes had been lost when the Round- 
heads had chosen to- suppress the theatre. The results 
of that policy were to be discerned perhaps in the 
excesses that followed the inevitable restoration of the 
theatre, which excesses had, in turn, provoked this 
fresh mobilisation of outraged public opinion. A 
second closure was hardly a matter of practical politics. 
The power behind Collier may, however, be said to 

* The more impressive in that Collier was not a 
Puritan at all, but a Tory and a High Churchman. 


have effected more lasting damage than the Puritans 
of the Long Parliament. The hated theatre had been 
discredited, was in disruption. The enemy the 
essential enemy left the theatre to stew in its own 
juice : which it did for the best part of the succeeding 
two hundred years. 




IT would be fanciful to pretend that Puritanical resist- 
ance, whether active or passive, provided the sole or 
even the major grounds of the slump that followed 
the collapse of the last great Cavalier effort in 
dramatic self-expression. At first glance, it would 
certainly appear that, so far from repudiating the 
inevitably chastened theatre,* the Puritans, through 
the agency of artistic mediocrities, actually facilitated 
its descent to bathos. Moral plays were not wanting 
in the reaction that followed Jeremy Collier's Short 
View. Those who witnessed Mr. Nigel Playfair's 
recent revival (1927) of Lillo's celebrated George 
Barn well (1731) will have appreciated a nice adjust- 
ment between artistic, ethical and box-office prin- 
ciples. Better plays of the same school have passed 
more completely into oblivion; plays of competent 
workmanship, occasional sincerity, even earnestness, 
but utterly lacking inspiration. The one play of the 
period that did not lack inspiration, Addison's Cato 
(1714), achieved a record run oy reason of its apposite- 
ness to current political issues much as, by a similar 
chance, a fine modern play, Abraham Lincoln^ suc- 
ceeded in spite of its merits. Cato (face most modern 

* By the theatre we mean, of course, the theatrical 
management. The Comedy of Manners was dead. 
An alternative drama had to be manufactured, fail- 
ing a spontaneous supply. 


stage historians) might, in a more generous social en- 
vironment, have inaugurated a new school of English 
tragedy. It proved a mere flash in the pan. Its Roman 
body went marching on through innumerable doggerel 
rechauffes, while its soul dissolved into the elements. 
Perhaps it is not for us to assign causes for the ebbs 
any more than for the flows in the art tides. The Lord 
giveth and the Lord taketh away. One explanation 
of the decline in question has at least the virtue 
of deserving to be the truth, and the appearance 
of presenting at least a facet of the truth. Henry 
Fielding, a literary genius of the supreme order 
the first to appear since Shakespeare made his 
mark as a playwright of budding ideas and ideals. 
His playwriting activity, with its promise of a new 
era in English drama, was abruptly checked by a 
Government whose notorious corruption was chal- 
lenged by those ideas and ideals. The Licensing 
Act of 1737, establishing the stage censorship that is 
still in force, was rushed through for the specific 
purpose. Fielding, effectually banished from the stage, 
embarked on the less hazardous highway of narrative 
fiction, encouraged by the sensational success of 
Richardson's Pamela, and founded a dynasty of great 
novelists. Imaginative writers followed his lead, as, 
before him, they had followed Shakespeare's. This is 
not the place to enter into the question of the cam- 
parative merits of the novel and the play, but it may 
not be irrelevant to point out that the form of the 
novel was no more a novelty in the time of Fielding 
than in the time of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, with a 
wide reading, not alone of English fiction from Chaucer 
to Lodge but of continental novelli sufficiently 
attested oy his pickings from them elected the play 
for his medium and found it adequate for all his 
purposes. If we are not justified in conjecturing how 
far he might have been tempted into other paths 
under the provocation that occasioned Fielding's de- 


fcction, we are at least justified in submitting the facts 
and pointing the implications. 

Drama as a live force died out. The theatres carried 
on. Failing the dramatist, interest in the stage was 
kept alive by the players, and for that we should be 
duly grateful to the players. We are a little grudging 
in our gratitude. Are the mice to blame for the cats' 
absence? Perhaps not, but we may deplore their 
devastating incursions into the cats' preserves. As the 
text of Shakespeare was mutilated for the aggrandise- 
ment of the Dully Bottoms that ruled the theatre 
during the period under survey, so new plays were 
fashioned to meet their exclusively histrionic require- 
ments. To the old moral obloquy that had been the 
heritage of the dramatists from the time of Marlowe, 
was gradually added a new kind of prejudice an 
intellectual contempt; the notion that play writing is a 
mere knack, to be acquired by any fool with the sort 
of happy accident that enables a man to dabble in 
sleight-of-hand or ventriloquism. 

If we seem to be drifting into a discussion of the 
contemporary theatre it is only because, in essential 
features, the West End London stage of to-day has 
changed very little from the stage described by Collcy 
Gibber (1671-1757) in his ingenuous apology for a 
theatrically significant but dramatically negligible 
career, or from the stage satirised by Sheridan some 
years later in The Critic. Sir Fretful Plagiary wrote 
tragedies because the actor-managers of Sheridan's day 
still liked to feature themselves as heroes of pseudo- 
Elizabethan melodramas. 

Sheridan himself (1751-1816), in his famous trilogy 
of masterpieces, and Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) in 
the equally famous She Stoops to Conquer posthu- 
mous issue of the neo-Restoration comedy of Farquhar 
provided the only considerable dramatic literature 
between the early eighteenth and the later nineteenth 
centuries. The perennial inquiry into what's wrong with 



the theatre dates from the Jeremy Collier period, and 
not, as is popularly supposed, from a time whereof the 
memory of man runneth not to the contrary. It was 
not originally a mere silly-season topic. Students of 
drama must have felt indeed that all was lost when 
the divorce between poetry and drama was, as it were, 
made absolute by the emergence of the " dramatic 
poem " and the " poetic drama," whereby the author 
sought to distinguish his work, for the information 
of the cultured public, from the kind of piece that 
merely ministered to the virtuosity of popular stage 
players. It would have been a little awkward to ex- 
plain to an Elizabethan exacdy what was meant by 
a " play for the study." These freak products of 
tmigrt drama, without which the collected editions of 
most of our great poets are obviously not complete, 
tell their own story. There arc scenes in Byron's 
Manfred that touch the heights of great drama, to 
descend abruptly into passages that no earthly audience 
could sit out, and, while we may try to believe on 
principle that, but for the folly of the censor, Shelley's 
Ccnci could be relied upon to " bring the house 
down," we must confess on a closer searching of the 
heart, that it lacks, despite its magnificent qualities, 
the touch of the practised playwright, the touch that 
a Webster or a Massinger could have supplied without 
mental exertion. Born in a more auspicious age, what 
might not Browning and Swinburne have given to 
the theatre! Their adventures on a Tom Tiddler's 
ground, ruled, in fealty to their Lordships of the 
Theatre, by a Mrs. Inchoald and a Sheridan Knowles, 
belong to the chronicles of square pegs in round holes. 
With Stephen Phillips (1868-1915) we arc already on 
the threshold of the new era. After a sudden and 
short vogue (to the credit of Beerbohm Tree), he was 
cold-shouldered out of a theatre that is not yet ready 
for a poetry distinguishable from fat parts for actor- 


The body of this interregnum drama, to be studied 
in its due perspective, should be read (assuming our 
eyesight is equal to the strain) in the format of a series 
in wnich it was preserved for the benefit of stage- 
devotees. Dice's Penny Plays, a folded broadsheet, 
closely filled in microscopic type, provides an appro- 
priate setting for the tags and gags of the prc- 
Robertsonian theatre. It is difficult for us in these days 
to realise the measure in which the earlier pioneers of 
our now renascent drama had to pay for this legacy 
of penny dreadfuls. It is recorded of the late W. S. 
Gilbert, a considerable man of letters in his way, 
that he was apt to take offence on being classified 
as a "playwright," instead of the more dignified 
" dramatist " a pathetic symptom of the inferiority 
complex produced by nearly two centuries of a patently 
inferior drama. 


SIR WILLIAM : Sit down, Trafalgar. This gentleman 
is about to read a comedy. A cheer! (Testily) Are 
there no cheers here ! (ROSE brings a chair.) Sit down. 

Miss SOWER (sitting, bewildered) : William, is all 
this quite ? 

SIR WILLIAM : Yes, Trafalgar, quite in place quite 
in place. (To TOM, referring to GADD and COLPOYS, 
who swagger in at the door) Friends of yours? 

TOM : Yes, Sir William. 

SIR WILLIAM : Sit down (imperatively). Sit down 
and be silent. (GADD and COLPOYS seat themselves on 
the sofa, lit(c men in a dream. ROSE sits on the dress 

AVOMA (opening the door slightly in an anxious 
voice) : Rose 

SIR WILLIAM : Come in, ma'am, come in I (AVONIA, 
still in her pantomime dress, enters) Sit down, 
ma'am, and be silent! 

(AVONIA sits beside ROSE, next to Miss GOWER.) 


Miss GOWER (in horror) : Oh-h-h-h ! 

SIR WILLIAM (restraining her) : Quite in place, 
Trafalgar, quite in place. (To TOM) Now, Sir ! 

TOM (opening his manscript and reading) : Life, a 
Comedy by Thomas 

Quite in place, this curtain scene from Sir Arthur 
Pinero's ever-memorable Trelawney of the Wells; and 
the missing word is " Robertson." Thomas Robertson 
{1829-71) brought our drama triumphantly out of the 
long tunnel into the daylight of life. Not the full 
daylight; this had to be accomplished by stages. In 
Robertson we view the daylight through rose-coloured 
windows. Quite in place that the achievement should 
be celebrated by one who so ably and loyally carried 
on the good work; quite in place that the portrait 
should DC executed in the master's own manner, 
against a background of true love destined to live 
happily ever after. There is another, a later, manner 
in which the story might have been treated with 
greater fidelity to historical fact. John Galsworthy, 
who actually carried Robertson's technique to its 
logical conclusion, has ventured to " place " poor Tom, 
with an irony that seems a litdc unkind, by the in- 
genious interpolation (in The Eldest Son) of a scene 
from Caste, in rehearsal by a company of patrician 
amateurs, among whom the problem of Caste is 
resolving itself in the light of real life. Robertson's 
own real life was anything but a fairy tale. Success 
came to him only after a heart and health breaking 
grind. It is fashionable to ridicule his work. We know 
so much better these days. He did not labour in 

There is an irresistible charm about his plays, which, 
like all good plays, read well, despite the shorthand 
abracadabra of stage directions in which the printed 
dialogue is embedded. The characters convey some- 
thing of the naivete of figures in Dresden porcelain. 


Every now and then they lapse into lifclessncss. We 
become conscious of a first-class compartment that jolts 
a little dangerously in the morning twilight . . . and 
of the effort of keeping natural after such ages and 
ages in that horrid tunnel, with the fumes still about 
the throat. . . . Till presently they open their eyes, 
the breath returns, and we have another joyous little 
prattle over the cups and saucers. . . . Tne last of 
them, War (1871), was a fiasco. (The reality of the 
Franco-Prussian War exposed the obvious limitations 
of his art.) Tom, aged forty-one, was on his death-bed, 
but the cause was winning all along the line. What 
cause? it may be asked. Perfect Propriety cum 
Romance in the middle of the reign of Queen Vic- 
toria : Coals in Newcastle ! The cause was Naturalism 
in the Theatre, and it was a hard-won victory of the 
first round. Both the Romance and the Propriety were 
to go by the board before the final victory if indeed, 
any victory in the theatre is final. 

Arthur Wing Pinero consolidated the gains, and 
was joined presendy by a young hothead, Henry 
Arthur Jones, fresh from an early triumph in the 
enemy's camp. They carried the Old Guard of 
dramatic critics along by easy progressions in light 
comedy and satire. " Only a simple story of London 
life . . . only a tale of man's sure trust and woman's 
gentle confidence . . . with its alternate ripples of 
honest laughter and its tears of sympathy, with its 
genuine humour and its wholesome, manly senti- 
ment," cooed Clement Scott, the doyen of the circle, 
referring to Sweet Lavender. Side by side, feeling their 
way carefully, the pair gradually extended their scope. 
The seamy side of romance was exhibited in J<5nes's 
Saints and Sinners (1884) and Pinero's Profligate 
(1889), plays that ought to have been melodramas, but 
somehow were not. The conventions of melodrama 
were presendy discarded altogether. The common- 
places of the " advanced " novel transferred to the 


realistic stage settings of Tom Robertson, discussed in 
unequivocal language, produced a tremendous sensa- 
tion. The Old Guard, with a new sense of responsi- 
bility, pronounced them daring, and added a caution. 
" Daring " was the word that echoed at every late- 
Victorian dinner-table. Pinero and Jones found them- 
selves in the full glare of our modern limelight. Oscar 
Wilde (1856-1900) kept them company for a while 
before giving full rein to his irresponsible genius in 
the immortal comedy of late Victorian manners, The 
Importance of Being Earnest. Jones went " all out " 
for the sins of society in Judah (1891). Pinero countered 
three years later with The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, a 
sentimental-serious, psychological study of erring 
womanhood. A leap in the dark, but it landed him in 
safety. Jones, seeking in his turn to go one better, was 
not so fortunate. In Michael and His Lost Angel, 
certainly a better play than Pinero's, he overstepped 
the mark. A minister of the Church of England, suc- 
cumbs to the charms of another man's wife, confesses 
his sin from the pulpit (a stage pulpit !), but does not 
quite whole-heartedly repent it. " Daring " in sex was 
one thing : " Hands off Religion !" thundered the Old 
Guard. There were two dissentients. One was William 
Archer; the other his friend "G. B. S." of The Saturday 
Review. Their voices carried no weight against the 
clamour; the play was withdrawn after ten perform- 
ances. Jones tried desperately to retrieve his faux pas. 
Did the public favour vainly repentant female sinners? 
He would give them a Defence of Mrs. Dane every 
whit as stimulating as Pinero's Woman Killed 
with Kindness; disclose a " past," nay, a single slip, 
under" poignantly extenuating circumstances, bearing a 
retribution immeasurably more cruel than mere death. 
Pinero, with his finger-ends on the public pulse, went 
from triumph to triumph. A discreet experiment with 
a religious motif might have served as an object lesson 
to his rasher rival. The Notorious Mrs. Eobsmith is 


not only an adulteress, but an atheist to boot. In a 
climax of moral abandon she deliberately hurls a Bible 
into the fire. But it does not stay there. A minute 
later, in the nick of time, she is grovelling before the 
grate to bring down the curtain on the rescue of her 
author's reputation. The experiment was not repeated. 
The same " G. B. S." became curiously eloquent on the 
subject of Mrs. Ebbsmith, and his word was beginning 
to carry weight, at least with the intelligentsia. Pincro 
took trie hint, and returned to the more congenial 
Divorce Courts. 

But " G. B. S." would not let that Bible alone. It 
was excessively bad form, and, after all, he was only a 
dramatic critic, but the perverse fellow kept declaring 
that he was on the side of Mr. Jones's "lost angel " 
and Mr. Pinero's atheist, and that these " new " 
English dramatists were not worthy to tie the shoe- 
latchets of an obscene foreigner, Henrik Ibsen by name, 
whose plays Mr. William Archer was just then dili- 
gently translating; finally and paradoxically (as it 
sounded) and with great earnestness, he declared that 
Bunyan was Better Than Shakespeare. The man in 
the street found it a little difficult to reconcile these 
pronouncements. Unashamed blasphemy in itself was 
intelligible and familiar. But what had Bunyan to do 
with such a cause? Bunyan had everything to do with 
it. To appreciate the significance of the Shavian revo- 
lution it is only necessary to re-orientate the position of 
the old Cavalier and Roundhead parties under the 
altered social conditions of the late nineteenth century. 
The bete noire of the Puritan had ever been Con- 
formity, or, in more modern parlance, Respectability. 
Conformity in the days of the Tudor and Stuart 
monarchs, apart from its political implication, was all 
of a piece with the lax morals celebrated in the Eliza- 
bethan and neo-Elizabethan dramas. Conformity in 
the Victorian era involved at least lip-service to the 
domestic virtues, the seventh commandment in par- 


ticular, and so absorbed a good deal of the original 
non-conformist element. The Respectable Victorian 
found himself confronted with a dual opposition on 
the one hand, the unprincipled old sinners, and, on 
the other, the ultra-principled pioneers of the Higher 
Life; and one of his weaknesses was an apparent 
inability to distinguish between the two. To be a free- 
thinker and, by consequence, a free-lover was in the 
eyes of the (respectable; world to put oneself in the 
company of profligates, moral degenerates, and "out- 
siders " generally. This free-thinking Puritanism,, 
derived from Shelley, and, stimulated under pressure 
of social problems arising out of modern industrialism, 
had produced a militant humanitarianism (embracing 
feminism, socialism, and the " isms " generally) that 
was ever seeking new ways of reaching the conscience 
of the public; and that ultimately discovered the drama 
by the same sure instinct that guided the makers of 
the early Mystery drama (and of the earlier Mysteries 
that developed into Greek tragedy). It was a religious 
impulse without denomination, and it cut clean across 
the traditions of the commercial theatre. Those who 
were not for it were against it. Pinero's attitude was 
that of the ordinary English gentleman. Jones was a 
representative of the progressive side of Victorianism. 
Both alike were untouched by the spirit that had 
found expression in the plays of Ibsen, the originator 
of this new religious drama. Shaw had commenced 
his career as politician : politics were not wide enough 
to contain his passion for a better world. The outburst 
of vituperation that greeted Ibsen in England deter- 
mined his choice of medium.* "An open drain; a 
loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; 

* By one of Time's revenges, he had previously 
embarked on the career of a novelist, following the 
precedent established by Fielding for creative writers 
of the first order. 


a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open,'" 
raved a transfigured Clement Scott, after the first 
performance of Ghosts. It was an eye-opener for 
" G. B. S." " The unpleasant play's the thing whereby 
to touch the conscience," he must have murmured,, 
and promptly gave us Widowers' Houses, Mrs. 
Warren's Profession, and The Philanderer (complete 
with caricature of Clement Scott), throwing in by way 
of relief some " pleasant " plays, including the " Pre- 
Raphaelite " (he meant pre-John Heywoodian) Can- 
diaa: A Mystery. The first mystery of the secular 


More than a quarter of a century has passed since 
the Shavian clarion was first sounded. Tom Robertson 
and his services to the stage have long since faded 
from the playgoer's memory. Indeed, the public is 
already beginning to forget, not Shaw (the public is 
beginning to know him), but the reforms we owe to 
the barrage of criticism, continuing over many years,, 
with which he prepared the way for his assault of the 
citadel, in the capacity of a creative artist. Some, still 
living, have neither forgotten nor forgiven. As late as 
1914, " A Playwright of the Past," a man honoured 
in his generation, could write : " Mr. Shaw cannot be 
passed by with a bow and a smile. It were rank 
treachery and cowardice to be polite to him. He is a 
public Ganger. He is out to destroy, and must be 

If Robertson served as a vacuum-cleaner ojn the 
material side, Shaw has swept the spiritual atmosphere 
of the drama. The process is still at work, im- 
perceptibly. The Pinero-Jones school continues to 
function, thanks to the breadth and adaptability of 
the technique elaborated by its founders, and extended 
by assimilation in the lively minds of an H. H. Davies, 


an Alfred Sutro and a Somerset Maugham. Mr. 
Maugham, indeed, not infrequently leavens his 
comedies with a tincture of Shavian ideology, with 
incongruous results. For the Shaw and the pre-Shaw 
are as the proverbial East and West.* The criterion 
is the simple one of intention. The objective of the 
orthodox dramatist is the box-office, via sex appeal. 
Shaw and his followers, while not indifferent to 
practical considerations, are moved by a religious 
impulse. The ultimate greatness of Shaw lies in his 
uncomprising integrity of purpose. His relations with 
the theatre may be expressed in the familiar adage 
about Mahomet and the mountain. Gifted with a 
more dazzling and penetrating wit than was ever 
known before, he could hardly have remained un- 
known indefinitely. In an idiom of his own, irresistible 
to the ear, he delivered, as he continues to deliver, his 
message. Accepted as a crank or (alternatively) a 
charlatan, but certainly no bore, the theatre offered 
to meet him halfway. He held his ground. The Court 
Theatre capitulated (1904-1907). Disdaining to in- 
gratiate himself, he despatched his audience with 
Getting Married. Three years later the Duke of York's 
Theatre waited on him. He bestowed his blessing in 
the yet more forbidding shape of Misalliance. This 
determined refusal to cater for the people's mere 
entertainment has characterised his policy from first 
to last. His occasional lapses into pot-boilers or tom- 
fooleries (meaning pieces however slightly flavoured 
with the elements of popular appeal) have invariably 
been atoned for by extravagantly uncommercial experi- 
mcnts H So Pygmalion an aberration for the benefit of 
Beerbohm Tree was followed by Heartbrea\ House, 
and sweet St. Joan by an acidulated " metabiological 

* The honest comedy of St. John Hankin may be 
admitted as a borderline case. 


The mountain remains a mountain still, and 
Mahomet * remains Mahomet. 

What of the followers of Mahomet? 

To pursue the allegory, on all sides of the mountain, 
little hillocks are raising themselves in the name of 
Mahomet. . . . 

The first English Repertory Theatre was founded 
by Miss Horniman in Manchester on September 23rd, 
1907. It collapsed during the war. Since the war, 
under the initiative of Sir Barry Jackson, of Birming- 
ham, this original enterprise has given place to a move- 
ment which was aptly related to the general situation 
in a recent front-page article of The Times Literary 
Supplement (July 28th, 1927).* 

" A student of the drama is to-day embarrassed by 
contradictions. He sees outside the commercial theatres 
of London abundant evidence of experimental activity, 
but inside them, except on rare occasions, a condition 
near to death. ... A playgoer who looks down the 
current list of plays will find that nearly all ask to be 
visited in the same uncritical mood in which we turn 
the leaves of a magazine found in a railway train. , . . 
If there were no evidence but this, a student might 
well despair; but when he looks beyond the box- 
offices, he finds everywhere the outward signs of a 
dramatic renaissance. Throughout the country unpro- 
fessional organisations are encouraging young writers 
and building up a critical, instructed audience. Many 
provincial towns have repertory companies of genuine 
distinction. In London itself, beneath the shadow of 
the commercial playhouses, experiments are . being 
made, regularly and with revolutionary ardour, by 
men and women who command a stage scarcely larger 

* The article is anonymous, but a discerning reader 
will recognise the hand and mind of Mr. Charles 
Morgan, the dramatic critic of The Times. 


than a pocket-handkerchief. Leagues, societies and 
clubs, some useful, some extravagant, but all inspired 
by enthusiasm for the drama, spring up everywhere, 
from the mountains of Wales to the suburbs of 
Glasgow; and printed plays appear, and are read, as 
never before in the history of publishing." 

It has been our endeavour to account for this 
phenomenon. We arc to consider, in the brief space 
that remains, the main features of the contemporary 
(uncommercial) drama. After Shaw, the outstanding 
figure is John Galsworthy.* Both these dramatists enjoy 
an international reputation. Galsworthy " arrived " in 
the third year of me Court Theatre season with The 
Silver Box, a masterly exposure of the cruelty of our 
social system, conceived not at all as a theatrical tour 
de force, but out of the need of a spirit in travail : an 
impersonal spirit. The play, like the plays that 
followed it, has the simplicity of a prayer. Galsworthy, 
practically alone of " advanced " English dramatists, 
utters his prayer in an idiom quite unrelated to the 
Shavian. Technically the last word in naturalism, his 
plays show up the world we live in. But in the process 
they reveal the hand and mind of God, and that is 
why their place is in the repertory of the irregular 
theatre of the mountebank Mahomet. The occasional 
plays of John Masefield, more colourful, less direct, 
have something of the same compassionate intensity. 

The first-born of Shaw by the Court Theatre, 
Harley Granville Barker, demonstrated in The Voysey 
Inheritance that the master's spirit could be distilled 

* J. M. Barrie, certainly not forgotten, has no fixable 
place in the pedigree of English drama. His essence is 
a magic, the source of which is hidden from us, and 
which is like to be buried " certain fathoms in the 
earth" after him, although Mr. A. A. Milne has 
captured some of his whimsicality. 

into a traditional framework, without necessarily im- 
pairing its vitality. The value of this discovery may be 
perceived in much of the drama that has followed, 
deriving from Shaw, but avoiding the fatal mistake of 
aping his unique individuality. Happily the " life 
force," so permeated, allows considerable latitude in 
philosophy as well as in form. Barker himself has 
contributed generously in Quality, if not in quantity. 
The Madras House and The Secret Life open up 
each a new realm of dramatic expression. Similarly 
fastidious, Allan Monkhouse has contented himself 
with an occasional study of a kind of Shavian Hamlet 
in conflict with hard-faced society. The pure religious 
spirit, relieved by a sense of humour, finds expression 
in the work of Lawrence Housman, notably in Little 
Plays of St. Francis. John Drink water has made 
stirring chronicle plays and Halcott Glover magnificent 
historical plays, for Puritans, while C. K. Munro 
expands his message into epic parables of contemporary 
history. The so-called Manchester school, nurtured 
by Miss Horniman's enterprise, specialists in local 
problems in the light of a realistic cum Shavian 
idealism, produced Stanley Houghton, whose mantle 
descended on Harold Brighouse. St. John Ervine has 
enriched, and it may be said, emancipated this class 
of play by an infusion of colour derived from the 
quasi-corresponding Abbey Theatre (Dublin) school of 
dramatists rounded by the combined labours of Synce, 
Yeats, and Lady Gregory.* J. R. Gregson, one of the 
aposdes of the new repertory movement, continues to 
extend the range of this provincial drama to meet the 
needs of a new generation of Intellectuals. 

The needs of a new generation. . . . The one 
common need of every generation is Change. Change 

* Considerations of space preclude any attempt to 
place these Irish dramatists in relation to English 


in spirit as well as in form. Whether or no the Round- 
head drama has come to stay, it cannot hope to mon- 
opolise even the Little Theatre that it has made for 
itself in default of capturing the " real " that is, the 
commercial stage. The Round Head, metamorphosed 
in the High Brow, has already discovered the import- 
ance of not being Shavian, and a new cause invented 
by Gordon Craig has attracted many zealots by its 
mystery and its unpopularity. The cause is the "art 
of the theatre "of the theatre itself regarded as an 
end, rather than as a means : an art, like absolute 
music, independent of "programme," or ulterior 
motive. Two poet-playwrights, Clifford Bax and 
Ashley Dukes, narking back to old aesthetic values, 
show signs of having fallen, consciously or uncon- 
sciously, under the spell of Craig's ideas. Shaw is 
Anti-Christ in their eyes. Yet, withal, philosophy will 
keep breaking into their entertainment. Bax's Mid- 
summer Madness combines pungent satire with the 
authentic charm of the old commedia dcll'artc. In 
The Man with a Load of Mischief Dukes reflects the 
revolutionary ardour of a Beaumarchais through a 
surface of polished euphuism. 

There has been a breakaway in another direction. 
The drama revitalised could hardly fail to recall sooner 
or later its old cavalier proclivities. " I believe I'm the 
humble representative of a new type," asserts the 
puzzled plavwright-hero of Miles Malleson's pre-war 
Youth. ' Tnc temperament of a Huxley, and the 
temperament of a Byron . . ." Of a Puritan and an 
Elizabethan, he means. And a Roundhcad-cwm-Cavalier 
drama .is growing up, as it were, to perpetuate this 
time-honoured cleavage in the national character a 
drama predominantly Roundhead in Malleson, pre- 
dominantly romantic-Cavalier in Howard Peacey : 
at present hopelessly muddled in the enfant terrible 
of die family, Noel Coward. 

The Continent, having absorbed our Shaw, trans- 


mits new influences in exchange. The daemonic spirit 
of Strindbcre, another religious fanatic, completing 
the work of revolutionising the European theatre, 
commenced by Ibsen, has inspired some strange new 
forms of drama, including the much-abused " expres- 
sionism." Chekhov, from Russia, discovered the art of 
stimulating the human spirit by depressing it. These 
tendencies, complicated by post-war disenchantment, 
are reflected in the work of Hcrmon Ould and Scan 
O'Cascy. Not unnaturally they have taken root more 
firmly in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of America. 
The resulting fine plays of Susan Glaspell and Eugene 
O'Neill, heralding a new force in world-drama, are 
themselves outside the scope of this survey, but their 
potential influence on our common language is a 
relevant consideration. 

The English Drama of the immediate future will 
depend upon the vision and the industry of the various 
writers we have named, and if we may name some, 
of many, others of Clemcnce Dane, Richard Hughes, 
Elizabeth Baker, Margaret Macnamara, A. J. Talbot, 
Benn W. Levy, G. D. Gribblc; and of how many more 
working as yet in obscurity? 

But it would be foolish as well as rash to attempt a 
prophecy. Our drama, by some inherent perversity, 
has achieved its highest flights .precisely when the 
auspices appeared least favourable. Suffice it that 
the further outlook, if unsettled, is at least not un- 


OF an immense literature, Professor Allardyce Nicoll's 
recent " historical survey from the beginnings to the 
present time " is clearly indispensable to anyone who 
may wish to pursue the study of English Drama or of 
any part of it in relation to the whole. This work, 
British Drama (Harrap), contains incidentally a care- 
fully selected bibliography, to which we refer the 
interested reader. Acknowledgment has been made in 
the course of the text to one or two other works to 
which the author of this essay is consciously under 
obligation. Such acknowledgment is due also to the 
^editors of Volumes V. and VI. of The Cambridge 
History of English Literature (covering the drama to 
1642). For analyses of modern drama, linking up the 
movement in tnis country with corresponding move- 
ments on the Continent and in America, Ashley 
Dukes' The youngest Drama (Benn) and Professor 
Barrett Clarke's A Study of Modern Drama (Appleton) 
may be recommended. 

A volume of Everyman's Library contains Every- 
man and eight mystery and miracle plays. Many prc- 
Elizabethan plays were published by the Early English 
Drama Society. The more famous plays of trie better- 
known Elizabethan and Restoration dramatists are 
published in the Mermaid series. Plays by modern 
authors may be obtained by reference to any book' 
.seller's catalogue.