Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Tortesa the Usurer,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 27-30


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[page 27, continued:]

TORTESA, THE USURER: A PLAY. BY N. P. WILLIS. SAMUEL COLMAN, NEW YORK.

[Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, August, 1839.]

“TORTESA” is, we think, by far the best play from the pen of an American author. Its merits lie among the higher and most difficult dramatic qualities, and, although few in number, are extensive in their influence upon the whole work; pervading it, and fully redeeming it from the sin of its multitudinous minor defects. These merits are naturalness, truthfulness, and appropriateness, upon all occasions, of sentiment and language; a manly vigour and breadth in the conception of character; and a fine ideal elevation or exaggeration [page 28:] throughout — a matter forgotten or avoided by those who, with true Flemish perception of truth, wish to copy her peculiarities in disarray. Mr. Willis has not lost sight of the important consideration that the perfection of dramatic, as well as of plastic skill, is found not in the imitation of Nature, but in the artistical adjustment and amplification of her features. We recognize a refined taste upon every page of “Tortesa.” Its points, too, are abundant, and scatter vivacity and brilliancy over the play. That the excellences of which we speak are great, cannot be more forcibly shown than by allusion to some of the innumerable faults which are still insufficient to render these excellences obscure.

The plot is miserably inconsequential. A simple prose digest, or compendium, of the narrative, would be scarcely intelligible, so much is the whole overloaded with incidents that have no bearing upon the ultimate result. Three-fourths of the play might be blotted out without injury to the plot properly so called. This would be less objectionable, if it were not that the attention of the reader is repeatedly challenged to these irrelevant incidents, as if they were actually pertinent to the main business of the drama. We are not allowed to pass them by, in perusal, as obviously episodical. We fatigue ourselves with an attempt to identify them with the leading interests, and grow at length wearied in the fruitless effort. When we perceive Zippa plotting and counterplotting upon every page, it is impossible not to think that she is plotting to some purpose. She does nothing, however, in the end; and for any effect upon the play, might as well never have existed. An instance of this is seen in the last act, where the whole of the second scene is introduced [page 29:] for the purpose of informing her, by means of Tomaso, of the danger of Angelo. She rushes from the stage exclaiming that she has it in her power to save his life; and of course, in the trial scene, we naturally expect some important interference on her part. The judgment is rendered, however, without her interposition. The conclusion of the play, too, is much in the same way. The audience cannot be brought to believe that all the scheming and counter-scheming here introduced is in the slightest degree essential, since the entire difficulty might have been settled by a single word from the Duke, who is favourably disposed to all parties.

The old manœuvre of the sleeping draught calls “Romeo and Juliet” somewhat too forcibly to mind. The idea, too, of the deception practised upon Tortesa by means of the portrait is borrowed apparently from the “Winter’s Tale,” and is, moreover, absurd. No person could have been thus deceived, and the spectator cannot imagine any such deception. “The back wall of the scene,” we are told in the stage directions, “is so arranged as to form a natural ground for the picture;” but this is obviously impossible, except in regard to a single point of view — the illusion would be dispelled by the slightest movement on the part of Tortesa. There are a great many other improbabilities which entirely destroy the vraisemblance — but we have not space to point them out. The characters, generally, are deficient in prominence — in individuality. Zippa is a positive failure — we can make nothing of her. Tortesa is outrageously inconsistent. It is impossible to reconcile the utter blackguard of the first scenes with the lofty self-sacrificing spirit who figures in the last. The conception, too, of the revulsion of [page 30:] feeling on the part of the usurer is a very antique conception at best. But we repeat that, in spite of these and a hundred other serious blemishes, we esteem “Tortesa” as by far the best American play. Mr. Willis, we are happy to perceive, has nearly altogether thrown aside the besetting sin of his earlier days — the sin of affectation. This was his worst enemy — vanquishing it, he has nothing to fear. Mr. Colman cannot be too highly praised for the beauty of this publication, which forms a volume of his “Dramatic Library.”

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Tortesa the Usurer)