Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “The American Drama,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIII: Literary Criticism - part 06 (1902), pp. 33-73


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THE AMERICAN DRAMA.

[American Whig Review, August, 1845; cf.(1) Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, August, 1839.]

A BIOGRAPHIST of Berryer calls him “l’homme qui, dans ses description, demande le plus grande quantite possible d’antithese,” — but that ever-recurring topic, the decline of the drama, seems to have consumed of late more of the material in question than would have sufficed for a dozen prime ministers — even admitting them to be French. Every trick of thought and every harlequinade of phrase have been put in operation for the purpose “de nier ce qui est, et d’expliquer ce qui n’est pas.”

Ce qui n’est pas: — for the drama has not declined. The facts and the philosophy of the case seem to be these. The great opponent to Progress is Conservatism. In other words — the great adversary of Invention is Imitation: the propositions are in spirit identical. Just as an art is imitative, is it stationary. The most imitative arts are the most prone to repose and the converse. Upon the utilitarian — upon the business arts, where Necessity impels, Invention, Necessity’s [page 34:] well-understood offspring, is ever in attendance. And the less we see of the mother the less we behold of the child. No one complains of the decline of the art of Engineering. Here the Reason, which never retrogrades or reposes, is called into play. But let us glance at Sculpture. We are not worse here, than the ancients, let pedantry say what it may (the Venus of Canova is worth, at any time, two of that of Cleomenes), but it is equally certain that we have made, in general, no advances; and Sculpture, properly considered, is perhaps the most imitative of all arts which have a right to the title of Art at all. Looking next at Painting, we find that we have to boast of progress only in the ratio of the inferior imitativeness of Painting, when compared with Sculpture. As far indeed as we have any means of judging, our improvement has been exceedingly little, and did we know anything of ancient Art in this department, we might be astonished at discovering that we had advanced even far less than we suppose. As regards Architecture, whatever progress we have made has been precisely in those particulars which have no reference to imitation: — that is to say, we have improved the utilitarian and not the ornamental provinces of the art. Where Reason predominated, we advanced; where mere Feeling or Taste was the guide, we remained as we were.

Coming to the Drama, we shall see that in its mechanisms we have made progress, while in its spirituality we have done little or nothing for centuries certainly — and, perhaps, little or nothing for thousands of years. And this is because what we term the spirituality of the drama is precisely its imitative portion — is exactly that portion which distinguishes it as one of the principal of the imitative arts. [page 35:]

Sculptors, painters, dramatists, are, from the very nature of their material — their spiritual material-imitators-conservatists-prone to repose in old Feeling and in antique Taste. For this reason — and for this reason only — the arts of Sculpture, Painting, and the Drama have not advanced — or have advanced feebly, and inversely in the ratio of their imitativeness.

But it by no means follows that either has declined. All seem to have declined, because they have remained stationary while the multitudinous other arts (of reason) have flitted so rapidly by them. In the same manner the traveller by railroad can imagine that the trees by the wayside are retrograding. The trees in this case are absolutely stationary but the Drama has not been altogether so, although its progress has been so slight as not to interfere with the general effect — that of seeming retrogradation or decline.

This seeming retrogradation, however, is to all practical intents an absolute one. Whether the Drama has declined, or whether it has merely remained stationary, is a point of no importance, so far as concerns the public encouragement of the Drama. It is unsupported, in either case, because it does not deserve support.

But if this stagnation, or deterioration, grows out of the very idiosyncracy of the drama itself, as one of the principal of the imitative arts, how is it possible that a remedy shall be applied — since it is clearly impossible to alter the nature of the art, and yet leave it the art which it now is?

We have already spoken of the improvements effected in Architecture, in all its utilitarian departments, and in the Drama, at all the points of its mechanism. “Wherever Reason predominates, we advance; where mere Feeling or Taste is the guide, we remain as we [page 36:] are.” We wish now to suggest that, by the engrafting of Reason upon Feeling and Taste, we shall be able, and thus alone shall be able, to force the modern drama into the production of any profitable fruit.

At present, what is it we do? We are content if, with Feeling and Taste, a dramatist does as other dramatists have done. The most successful of the more immediately modern playwrights has been Sheridan Knowles, and to play Sheridan Knowles seems to be the highest ambition of our writers for the stage. Now the author of “The Hunchback” possesses what we are weak enough to term the true “dramatic feeling,” and this true dramatic feeling he has manifested in the most preposterous series of imitations of the Elizabethan drama by which ever mankind were insulted and begulled. Not only did he adhere to the old plots, the old characters, the old stage conventionalities throughout; but he went even so far as to persist in the obsolete phraseologies of the Elizabethan period — and, just in proportion to his obstinacy and absurdity at all points, did we pretend to like him the better, and pretend to consider him a great dramatist.

Pretend — for every particle of it was pretence. Never was enthusiasm more utterly false than that which so many “respectable audiences” endeavoured to get up for these plays — endeavoured to get up, first, because there was a general desire to see the drama revive, and secondly, because we had been all along entertaining the fancy that “the decline of the drama” meant little, if anything, else than its deviation from the Elizabethan routine — and that, consequently, the return to the Elizabethan routine was, and of necessity must be, the revival of the drama. [page 37:]

But if the principles we have been at some trouble in explaining are true — and most profoundly do we feel them to be so — if the spirit of imitation is, in fact, the real source, of the drama’s stagnation — and if it is so because of the tendency in in all imitation to render Reason subservient to Feeling and to Taste it is clear that only by deliberate counteracting of the spirit, and of the tendency of the spirit, we can hope to succeed in the drama’s revival.

The first thing necessary is to burn or bury the “old models,” and to forget, as quickly as possible, that ever a play has been penned. The second thing is to consider de novo what are the capabilities of the drama — not merely what hitherto have been its conventional purposes. The third and last point has reference to the composition of a play (showing to the fullest extent these capabilities) conceived and constructed with Feeling and with Taste, but with Feeling and Taste guided and controlled in every particular by the details of Reason — of Common Sense — in a word, of a Natural Art.

It is obvious, in the meantime, that towards the good end in view much may be effected by discriminative criticism on what has already been done. The field, thus stated, is, of course, practically illimitable — and to Americans the American drama is the special point of interest. We propose, therefore, in a series of papers, to take a somewhat deliberate survey of some few of the most noticeable American plays. We shall do this without reference either to the date of the composition or its adaptation for the closet or the stage. We shall speak with absolute frankness both of merits and defects — our principal object being understood not as that of mere commentary on the individual [page 38:] play — but on the drama in general, and on the American drama in especial, of which each individual play is a constituent part. We will commence at once with

TORTESA, THE USURER

This is the third dramatic attempt of Mr. Willis, and may be regarded as particularly successful, since it has received, both on the stage and in the closet, no stinted measure of commendation. This success, as well as the high reputation of the author, will justify us in a more extended notice of the play than might, under other circumstances, be desirable.

The story runs thus: — Tortesa, a usurer of Florence, and whose character is a mingled web of good and evil feelings, gets into his possession the palace and lands of a certain Count Falcone. The usurer would wed the daughter (Isabella) of Valcone, not through love, but in his own words,

“To please a devil that inhabits him” —

in fact, to mortify the pride of the nobility, and avenge himself of their scorn. He therefore bargains with Falcone [a narrow-souled villain] for the hand of Isabella. The deed of the Falcone property is restored to the Count upon an agreement that the lady shall marry the usurer — this contract being invalid should Falcone change his mind in regard to the marriage, or should the maiden demur — but valid should the wedding be prevented through any fault of Tortesa, or through any accident not springing from the will of the father or child. The first Scene makes us aware of this bargain, and introduces us to Zippa, a glover’s daughter, who resolves, with a view of befriending [page 39:] Isabella, to feign a love for Tortesa [which, in fact she partially feels], hoping thus to break off the match.

The second Scene makes us acquainted with a young painter (Angelo), poor, but of high talents and ambition, and with his servant (Tomaso), an old bottle-loving rascal, entertaining no very exalted opinion of his master’s abilities. Tomaso does some injury to a picture, and Angelo is about to run him through the body when he is interrupted by a sudden visit from the Duke of Florence, attended by Falcone. The Duke is enraged at the murderous attempt, but admires the paintings in the studio. Finding that the rage of the great man will prevent his patronage if he knows the aggressor as the artist, Angelo passes off Tomaso as himself (Angelo), making an exchange of names. This is a point of some importance, as it introduces the true Angelo to a job which he has long coveted — the painting of the portrait of Isabella, of whose beauty he had become enamoured through report. The Duke wishes the portrait painted. Falcone, however, on account of a promise to Tortesa, would have objected to admit to his daughter’s presence the handsome Angelo, but in regard to Tomaso has no scruple. Supposing Tomaso to be Angelo and the artist, the Count writes a note to Isabella, requiring her “to admit the painter Angelo.” The real Angelo is thus admitted. He and the lady love at first sight (much in the manner of Romeo and Juliet), each ignorant of the other’s attachment.

The third Scene of the second Act is occupied with a conversation between Falcone and Tortesa, during which a letter arrives from the Duke, who, having heard of the intended sacrifice of Isabella, offers to redeem the Count’s lands and palace, and desires him [page 40:] to preserve his daughter for a certain Count Julian. But Isabella, — who, before seeing Angelo, had been willing to sacrifice herself for her father’s sake, and who, since seeing him, had entertained hopes of escaping the hateful match through means of a plot entered into by herself and Zippa-Isabella, we say, is now in despair. To gain time, she at once feigns a love for the usurer, and indignantly rejects the proposal of the Duke. The hour for the wedding draws near. The lady has prepared a sleeping potion, whose effects resemble those of death. (Romeo and Juliet.) She swallows it — knowing that her supposed corpse would lie at night, pursuant to an old custom, in the sanctuary of the cathedral; and believing that Angelo — whose love for herself she has elicited, by a stratagem, from his own lips — will watch by the body, in the strength of his devotion. Her ultimate design (we may suppose, for it is not told) is to confess all to her lover on her revival, and throw herself upon his protection — their marriage being concealed, and herself regarded as dead by the world. Zippa, who really loves Angelo — (her love for Tortesa, it must be understood, is a very equivocal feeling, for the fact cannot be denied that Mr. Willis makes her love both at the same time) — Zippa, who really loves Angelo — who has discovered his passion for Isabella — and who, as well as that lady, believes that the painter will watch the corpse in the cathedral, — determines, through jealousy, to prevent his so doing, and with this view informs Tortesa that she has learned it to be Angelo’s design to steal the body for artistical purposes, — in short, as a model to be used in his studio. The usurer, in consequence, sets a guard at the doors of the cathedral. This guard does, in fact, prevent the lover from watching the corpse, but, [page 41:] it appears, does not prevent the lady, on her revival and disappointment in not seeing the one she sought, from passing unperceived from the church. Weakened by her long sleep, she wanders aimlessly through the streets, and at length finds herself, when just sinking with exhaustion, at the door of her father. She has no resource but to knock. The Count, who here, we must say, acts very much as Thimble of old — the knight, we mean, of the “scolding wife” — maintains that she is dead, and shuts the door in her face. In other words, he supposes it to be the ghost of his daughter who speaks; and so the lady is left to perish on the steps. Meantime Angelo is absent from home, attempting to get access to the cathedral; and his servant Tomaso takes the opportunity of absenting himself also, and of indulging his bibulous propensities while perambulating the town. He finds Isabella as we left her, and through motives which we will leave Mr. Willis to explain, conducts her unresistingly to Angelo’s residence, and — deposits her in Angelo’s bed. The artist now returns — Tomaso is kicked out of doors — and we are not told, but left to presume, that a fun explanation and perfect understanding are brought about between the lady and her lover.

We find them, next morning, in the studio, where stands, leaning against an easel the portrait (a full length) of Isabella, with curtains adjusted before it. The stage-directions, moreover, inform us that “the black wall of the room is such as to form a natural ground for the picture.” While Angelo is occupied in retouching it, he is interrupted by the arrival of Tortesa with a guard, and is accused of having stolen the corpse from the sanctuary — the lady, meanwhile, having stepped behind the curtain. The usurer insists [page 42:] upon seeing the painting, with a view of ascertaining whether any new touches had been put upon it, which would argue an examination, post mortem, of those charms of neck and bosom which the living Isabella would not have unveiled. Resistance in vain — the curtain is torn down; but, to the surprise of Angelo, the lady herself is discovered, “with her hands crossed on her breast, and her eyes fixed on the ground, standing motionless in the frame which had contained the picture.” The tableau we are to believe, deceives Tortesa, who steps back to contemplate what he supposes to be the portrait of his betrothed. In the meantime, the guards, having searched the house, find the veil which had been thrown over the imagined corpse in the sanctuary, and upon this evidence the artist is carried before the Duke. Here he is accused, not only of sacrilege, but of the murder of Isabella, and is about to be condemned to death, when his mistress comes forward in person; thus resigning herself to the usurer to save the life of her lover. But the noble nature of Tortesa now breaks forth; and, smitten with admiration of the lady’s conduct, as well as convinced that her love for himself was feigned, he resigns her to Angelo — although now feeling and acknowledging for the first time that a fervent love has, in his own bosom, assumed the place of the misanthropic ambition which, hitherto, had alone actuated him in seeking her hand. Moreover, he endows Isabella with the lands of her father Falcone. The lovers are thus made happy. The usurer weds Zippa; and the curtain drops upon the promise of the Duke to honour the double nuptials with his presence.

This story, as we have given it, hangs better together (Mr. Willis will pardon our modesty), and is [page 43:] altogether more easily comprehended, than in the words of the play itself. We have really put the best face upon the matter, and presented the whole in the simplest and clearest light in our power. We mean to say that “Tortesa” (partaking largely, in this respect, of the drama of Cervantes and Calderon) is over-clouded — rendered misty — by a world of unnecessary and impertinent intrigue. This folly was adopted by the Spanish comedy, and is imitated by us, with the idea of imparting “action,” “business,” “vivacity.” But vivacity, however desirable, can be attained in many other ways, and is dearly purchased, indeed, when the price is intelligibility.

The truth is that cant has never attained a more owl-like dignity than in the discussion of dramatic principle. A modern stage critic is nothing, if not a lofty contemner of all things simple and direct. He delights in mystery — revels in mystification — has transcendental notions concerning P. S. and O. P, and talks about “stage business and stage effect” as if he were discussing the differential calculus. For much of all this we are indebted to the somewhat overprofound criticisms of Augustus William Schlegel.

But the dicta of common sense are of universal application, and, touching this matter of intrigue, if, from its superabundance, we are compelled, even in the quiet and critical perusal of a play, to pause frequently and reflect long — to re-read passages over and over again, for the purpose of gathering their bearing upon the whole — of maintaining in our mind a general connection — what but fatigue can result from the exertion? How, then, when we come to the representation? — when these passages — trifling, perhaps, in themselves, but important when considered in relation [page 44:] to the plot — are hurried and blurred over in the stuttering enunciation of some miserable rantipole, or omitted altogether through the constitutional lapse of memory so peculiar to those lights of the age and stage, bedight (from being of no conceivable use) supernumeraries? For it must be borne in mind that these bits of intrigue (we use the term in the sense of the German critics) appertain generally, indeed altogether, to the after thoughts of the drama — to the underplots — are met with consequently, in the mouth of the lackeys and chambermaids — and are thus consigned to the tender mercies of the stellæ minores. Of course we get but an imperfect idea of what is going on before our eyes. Action after action ensues whose mystery we can not unlock without the little key which these barbarians have thrown away and lost. Our weariness increases in proportion to the number of these embarrassments, and if the play escape damnation at all it escapes in spite of that intrigue to which, in nine cases out of ten, the author attributes his success, and which he will persist in valuing exactly in proportion to the misapplied labour it has cost him.

But dramas of this kind are said, in our customary parlance, to “abound in plot.” We have never yet met any one, however, who could tell us what precise ideas he connected with the phrase. A mere succession of incidents, even the most spirited, will no more constitute a plot than a multiplication of zeros, even the most infinite, will result in the production of a unit. This all will admit — but few trouble themselves to think further. The common notion seems be in favour of mere complexity; but a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find [page 45:] ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass. This we say is the point of perfection — a point never yet attained, but not on that account unattainable. Practically, we may consider a plot as of high excellence, when no one of its component parts shall be susceptible of removal without detriment to the whole. Here, indeed, is a vast lowering of the demand — and with less than this no writer of refined taste should content himself.

As this subject is not only in itself of great importance, but will have at all points a bearing upon what we shall say hereafter, in the examination of various plays, we shall be pardoned for quoting from the “Democratic Review” some passages (of our own which enter more particularly into the rationale of the subject: —

“All the Bridgewater treatises have failed in noticing the great idiosyncrasy in the Divine system of adaptation: — that idiosyncrasy which stamps the adaptation as divine, in distinction from that which is the work of merely human constructiveness. I speak of the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example: — in human constructions, a particular cause has a particular effect — a particular purpose brings about a particular object; but we see no reciprocity. The effect does not react upon the cause — the object does not change relations with the purpose. In Divine constructions, the object is either object or purpose as we choose to regard it, while the purpose is either purpose or object; so that we can never (abstractly — without concretion — without reference to facts of the moment) decide which is which.

“For secondary example: — In polar climates, the [page 46:] human frame, to maintain its animal heat, requires, for combustion in the capillary system, an abundant supply of highly azotized food, such as train oil. Again: — in polar climates nearly the sole food afforded man is the oil of abundant seals and whales. Now whether is oil at hand because imperatively demanded? or whether is it the only thing demanded because the only thing fo be obtained? It is impossible to say: — there is an absolute reciprocity of adaptation for which we seek in vain among the works of man.

“The Bridgewater tractists may have avoided this point, on account of its apparent tendency to overthrow the idea of cause in general — consequently of a First Cause — of God. But it is more probable that they have failed to perceive what no one preceding them has, to my knowledge, perceived.

“The pleasure which we derive from any exertion of human ingenuity, is in the direct ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity between cause and effect. In the construction of plot, for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the points, or incidents, that we cannot distinctly see, in respect to any one of them, whether that one depends from any one other or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is unattainable in fact — because Man is the constructor. The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God.”

The pleasure derived from the contemplation of the unity resulting from plot is far more intense than is ordinarily supposed, and, as in Nature we meet with no such combination of incident, appertains to a very lofty region of the ideal. In speaking thus we have not said that plot is more than an adjunct to the drama — more than a perfectly distinct and separable source [page 47:] of pleasure. It is not an essential. In its intense artificiality it may even be conceived injurious in a certain degree (unless constructed with consummate skill) to that real life-likeness which is the soul of the drama of character. Good dramas have been written with very little plot — capital dramas might be written with none at all. Some plays of high merit, having plot, abound in irrelevant incident — in incident, we mean, which could be displaced or removed altogether without effect upon the plot itself, and yet are by no means objectionable as dramas; and for this reason — that the incidents are evidently irrelevant — obviously episodical. Of their disgressive nature the spectator is so immediately aware that he views them, as they arise, in the simple light of interlude, and does not fatigue his attention by attempting to establish for them a connection, or more than an illustrative connection, with the great interests of the subject. Such are the plays of Shakespeare. But all this is very different from that irrelevancy of intrigue which disfigures and very usually damns the work of the unskilful artist. With him the great error lies in inconsequence. Underplot is piled upon underplot (the very word is a paradox), and all to no purpose — to no end. The interposed incidents have no ultimate effect upon the main ones. They may hang upon the mass — they may even coalesce with it, or, as in some intricate cases, they may be so intimately blended as to be lost amid the chaos which they have been instrumental in bringing about — but still they have no portion in the plot, which exists, if at all, independently of their influence. Yet the attempt is made by the author to establish and demonstrate a dependence — an identity, and it is the obviousness of this attempt which is the cause of weariness [page 48:] in the spectator, who, of course, cannot at once see that his attention is challenged to no purpose — that intrigues so obtrusively forced upon it are to be found, in the end, without effect upon the leading interests of the day.

“Tortesa” will afford us plentiful examples of this irrelevancy of intrigue — of this misconception of the nature and of the capacities of plot. We have said that our digest of the story is more easy of comprehension than the detail of Mr. Willis. If so, it is because we have forborne to give such portions as had no influence upon the whole. These served but to embarrass the narrative and fatigue the attention. How much was irrelevant is shown by the brevity of the space in which we have recorded, somewhat at length, all the influential incidents of a drama of five acts. There is scarcely a scene in which is not to be found the germ of an underplot — a germ, however, which seldom proceeds beyond the condition of a bud, or, if so fortunate as to swell into a flower, arrives, in no single instance, at the dignity of fruit. Zippa, a lady altogether without character (dramatic), is the most pertinacious of all conceivable concoctors of plans never to be matured — of vast designs that terminate in nothing — of cul-de-sac machinations. She plots in one page and counter-plots in the next. She schemes her way from P. S. to O. P., and intrigues perseveringly from the footlights to the slips. A very singular instance of the inconsequence of her manoeuvres is found towards the conclusion of the play. The whole of the second scene (occupying five pages), in the fifth act, is obviously introduced for the purpose of giving her information, through Tomaso’s means, of Angelo’s arrest for the murder of Isabella. Upon [page 49:] learning his danger she rushes from the stage, to be present at the trial, exclaiming that her evidence can save his life. We, the audience, of course applaud, and now look with interest to her movements in the scene of the judgment-hall. She, Zippa, we think, is somebody after all; she will be the means of Angelo’s salvation; she will thus be the chief unraveller of the plot. All eyes are bent, therefore, upon Zippa — but alas! upon the point at issue, Zippa does not so much as open her mouth. It is scarcely too much to say that not a single action of this impertinent little busybody has any real influence upon the play;- yet she appears upon every occasion — appearing only to perplex.

Similar things abound; we should not have space even to allude to them all. The whole conclusion of the play is supererogatory. The immensity of pure fuss with which it is overloaded forces us to the reflection that all of it might have been avoided by one word of explanation to the Duke an amiable man who admires the talents of Angelo, and who, to prevent Isabella’s marrying against her will, had previously offered to free Falcone of his bonds to the usurer. That he would free him now, and thus set all matters straight, the spectator cannot doubt for an instant, and he can conceive no better reason why explanations are not made than that Mr. Willis does not think proper they should be. In fact, the whole drama is exceedingly ill motivirt.

We have already mentioned an inadvertence, in the fourth Act, where Isabella is made to escape from the sanctuary through the midst of guards who prevented the ingress of Angelo. Another occurs where Falcone’s conscience is made to reprove him, upon the [page 50:] appearance of his daughter’s supposed ghost, for having occasioned her death by forcing her to marry against her will. The author had forgotten that Falcone submitted to the wedding, after the Dukes interposition, only upon Isabella’s assurance that she really loved the usurer. In the third Scene, too, of the first Act, the imagination of the spectator is no doubt a little taxed when he finds Angelo, in the first moment of his introduction to the palace of Isabella, commencing her portrait by laying on colour after colour, before he has made any attempt at an outline. In the last Act, moreover, Tortesa gives to Isabella a deed

“Of the Falcone palaces and lands,

And all the money forfeit by Falcone.”

This is a terrible blunder, and the more important as upon this act of the usurer depends the development of his newborn sentiments of honour and virtue — depends, in fact, the most salient point of the play. Tortesa, we say, gives to Isabella the lands forfeited by Falcone; but Tortesa was surely not very generous in giving what, clearly, was not his own to give. Falcone had not forfeited the deed, which had been restored to him by the usurer, and which was then in his (Falcone’s) possession. Here Tortesa: —

He put it in the bond,

That if, by any humour of my own,

Or accident that came not from himself,

Or from his daughter’s will, the match were marred,

His tenure stood intact.”

Now Falcone is still resolute for the match; but this new generous “humour” of Tortesa induces him [page 51:] (Tortesa) to decline it. Falcone’s tenure is then intact; he retains the deed, the usurer is giving away property not his own.

As a drama of character, “Tortesa” is by no means open to so many objections as when we view it in the light of its plot; but it is still faulty. The merits are so exceedingly negative, that it is difficult to say anything about them. The Duke is nobody, Falcone, nothing; Zippa, less than nothing. Angelo may be regarded simply as the medium through which Mr. Willis conveys to the reader his own glowing feelings — his own refined and delicate fancy — (delicate, yet bold) — his own rich voluptuousness of sentiment — a voluptuousness which would offend in almost any other language than that in which it is so skilfully apparelled. Isabella is — the heroine of the Hunchback. The revolution in the character of Tortesa — or rather the final triumph of his innate virtue — is a dramatic point far older than the hills. It may be observed, too, that although the representation of no human character should be quarrelled with for its inconsistency, we yet require that the inconsistencies be not absolute antagonisms to the extent of neutralization: they may be permitted to be oils and waters, but they must not be alkalis and acids. When, in the course of the dénouement, the usurer bursts forth into an eloquence virtue — inspired, we cannot sympathize very heartily in his fine speeches, since they proceed from the mouth of the self-same egotist who, urged by a disgusting vanity, uttered so many sotticisms (about his fine legs, etc.) in the earlier passages of the play. Tomaso is, upon the whole, the best personage. We recognize some originality in his conception, and conception was seldom more admirably carried out. [page 52:]

One or two observations at random. In the third Scene of the fifth Act, Tomaso, the buffoon, is made to assume paternal authority over Isabella (as usual, without sufficient purpose), by virtue of a law which Tortesa thus expounds: —

“My gracious liege, there is a law in Florence

That if a father, for no guilt or shame,

Disown and shut his door upon his daughter,

She is the child of him who succours her,

Who by the shelter of a single night,

Becomes endowed with the authority

Lost by the other.”

No one, of course, can be made to believe that any such stupid law as this ever existed either in Florence or Timbuctoo; but, on the ground que le vrai n’est pas toujours le vraisemblable, we say that even its real existence would be no justification of Mr. Willis. It has an air of the far-fetched — of the desperate — which a fine taste will avoid as a pestilence. Very much of the same nature is the attempt of Tortesa to extort a second bond from Falcone. The evidence which convicts Angelo of murder is ridiculously frail. The idea of Isabella’s assuming the place of the portrait, and so deceiving the usurer, is not only glaringly improbable, but seems adopted from the “Winter’s Tale.” But in this latter-play, the deception is at least possible, for the human figure but imitates a statue. What, however, are we to make of Mr. W.’s stage direction about the back wall’s being “so arranged as to form a natural ground for the picture”? Of course, the very slightest movement of Tortesa (and he makes many) would have annihilated the illusion by disarranging the perspective, and in no manner could this [page 53:] latter have been arranged at all for more than one particular point of view — in other words, for more than one particular person in the whole audience. The “asides,” moreover, are unjustifiably frequent. The prevalence of this folly (of speaking aside) detracts as much from the acting merit of our drama generally as any other inartisticality. It utterly destroys verisimilitude. People are not in the habit of soliloquising aloud — at least, not to any positive extent; and why should an author have to be told, what the slightest reflection would teach him, that an audience, by dint of no imagination, can or will conceive that what is sonorous in their own ears at the distance of fifty feet cannot be heard by an actor at the distance of one or two?

Having spoken thus of “Tortesa” in terms of nearly unmitigated censure — our readers may be surprised to hear us say that we think highly of the drama as a whole — and have little hesitation in ranking it before most of the dramas of Sheridan Knowles. Its leading faults are those of the modern drama generally — they are not peculiar to itself — while its great merits are. If in support of our opinion we do not cite points of commendation, it is because those form the mass of the work. And were we to speak of fine passages, we should speak of the entire play. Nor by “fine passages” do we mean passages of merely fine language, embodying fine sentiment, but such as are replete with truthfulness, and teem with the loftiest qualities of the dramatic art. Points — capital points abound; and these have far more to do with the general excellence of a play than a too speculative criticism has been willing to admit. Upon the whole, we are proud of “Tortesa” — and her again, for the [page 54:] fiftieth time at least, record our warm admiration of the abilities of Mr. Willis.

We proceed now to Mr. Longfellow’s

SPANISH STUDENT

The reputation of its author as a poet, and as a graceful writer of prose, is, of course, long and deservedly established — but as a dramatist he was unknown before the publication of this play. Upon its original appearance, in Graham’s Magazine, the general opinion was greatly in favour — if not exactly of “The Spanish Student” — at all events of the writer of “Outre-Mer.” But this general opinion is the most equivocal thing in the world. It is never self-formed. It has very seldom indeed an original development. In regard to the work of an already famous or infamous author it decides, to be sure, with a laudable promptitude; making up all the mind that it has, by reference to the reception of the author’s immediately previous publication — making up thus the ghost of a mind pro tem. — a species of critical shadow that fully answers, nevertheless, all the purposes of a substance itself until the substance itself shall be forthcoming. But beyond this point the general opinion can only be considered that of the public, as a man may call a book his, having bought it. When a new writer arises, the shop of the true, thoughtful or critical opinion is not simultaneously thrown away — is not immediately set up. Some weeks elapse; and, during this interval, the public, at a loss where to procure an opinion of the débutante, have necessarily no opinion of him at all for the nonce.

The popular voice, then, which ran so much in favour of “The Spanish Student,” upon its original [page 55:] issue, should be looked upon as merely the ghost pro tem. — as based upon critical decisions respecting the previous works of the author — as having reference in no manner to “The Spanish Student” itself — and thus as utterly meaningless and valueless per se.

The few, by which we mean those who think, in contradistinction from the many who think they think — the few who think at first hand, and thus twice before speaking at all — these received the play with a commendation somewhat less pronouncée — somewhat more guardedly qualified — than Professor Longfellow might have desired, or may have been taught to expect. Still the composition was approved upon the whole. The few words of censure were very far indeed from amounting to condemnation. The chief defect insisted upon was the feebleness of the dénouement, and, generally, of the concluding scenes, as compared with the opening passages. We are not sure, however, that anything like detailed criticism has been attempted in the case — nor do we propose now to attempt it. Nevertheless, the work has interest, not only within itself, but as the first dramatic effort of an author who has remarkably succeeded in almost every other department of light literature than that of the drama. It may be as well, therefore, to speak of it, if not analytically, at least somewhat in detail; and we cannot, perhaps, more suitably commence than by a quotation, without comment of some of the finer passages:

“And, though she is a virgin outwardly,

Within she is a sinner, like those panels

Of doors and altar-pieces the old monks

Painted in convents, with the Virgin Mary

On the outside, and on the inside Venus.” [page 56:]

 

“I believe

That woman, in her deepest degradation,

Holds something sacred, something undefiled,

Some pledge and keepsake of her higher nature,

And, like the diamond in the dark, retains

Some quenchless gleam of the celestial light.”

 

“And we shall sit together unmolested,

And words of true love pass from tongue to tongue

As singing birds from one bough to another.”

“Our feelings and our thoughts

Tend ever on and rest not in the Present,

As drops of rain fall into some dark well,

And from below comes a scarce audible sound,

So fall our thoughts into the dark

Hereafter, And their mysterious echo reaches us.”

 

“Her tender limbs are still, and, on her breast,

The cross she prayed to, ere she fell asleep,

Rises or falls with the soft tide of dreams,

Like a light barge safe moored.”

 

“Hark! how the large and ponderous mace of Time

Knocks at the golden portals of the day!”

 

“The lady Violante bathed in tears

Of love and anger, like the maid of Colchis,

Whom thou, another faithless Argonaut,

Having won that golden fleece, a woman’s love,

Desertest for this Glauce.”

 

“I read, or sit in reverie and watch

The changing colour of the waves that break

Upon the idle sea-shore of the mind.”

 

“I will forget her. All dear recollections

Pressed in my heart, like flowers within a book,

Shall be tom out and scattered to the winds.” [page 57:]

 

“Oh yes! I see it now —

Yet rather with my heart than with mine eyes,

So faint it is. And all my thoughts sail thither,

Freighted with prayers and hopes, and forward urged,

Against all stress of accident, as, in

The Eastern Tale, against the wind and tide

Great ships were drawn to the Magnetic Mountains.”

 

“But there are brighter dreams than those of Fame,

Which are the dreams of Love! Out of the heart

Rises the bright ideal of these dreams,

As from some woodland fount a spirit rises

And sinks again into its silent deeps,

Ere the enamoured knight can touch her robe!

’Tis this ideal that the soul of Man,

Like the enamoured knight beside the fountain,

Waits for upon the margin of Life’s stream;

Waits to behold her rise from the dark waters,

Clad in a mortal shape! Alas, how many

Must wait in vain! The stream flows evermore,

But from its silent deeps no spirit rises!

Yet I, born under a propitious star,

Have found the bright ideal of my dreams.”

 

“Yes; by the Darro’s side

My childhood passed. I can remember still

The river, and the mountains capped with snow;

The villages where, yet a little child,

I told the traveller’s fortune in the street;

The smugglers horse; the brigand and the shepherd;

The march across the moor; the halt at noon;

The red fire of the evening camp, that lighted

The forest where we slept; and, farther back,

As in a dream, or in some former life,

Gardens and palace walls.”

 

“This path will lead us to it,

Over the wheatfields, where the shadows sail [page 58:]

Across the running sea, now green, now blue,

And, like an idle mariner on the ocean,

Whistles the quail.”

These extracts will be universally admired. They are graceful, well expressed, imaginative, and altogether replete with the true poetic feeling. We quote them now, at the beginning of our review, by way of justice to the poet, and because, in what follows, we are not sure that we have more than a very few words of what may be termed commendation to bestow.

“The Spanish Student” has an unfortunate beginning, in a most unpardonable, and yet to render the matter worse, in a most indispensable “Preface: —

“The subject of the following play,” says Mr. L., “is taken in part from the beautiful play of Cervantes, La Gitanilla. To this source, however, I am indebted for the main incident only, the love of a Spanish student for a Gipsy girl, and the name of the heroine, Preciosa. I have not followed the story in any of its details. In Spain this subject has been twice handled dramatically, first by Juan Perez de Montalvan in La Gitanilla, and afterwards by Antonio de Solis y Rivadeneira in La Gitanilla de Madrid. The same subject has also been made use of by Thomas Middleton, an English dramatist of the seventeenth century. His play is called The Spanish Gipsy. The main plot is the same as in the Spanish pieces; but there runs through it a tragic underplot of the loves of Rodrigo and Dona Clara, which is taken from another tale of Cervantes, La Fuerza de la Sangre. The reader who is acquainted with La Gitanilla of Cervantes, and the plays of Montalvan, Solis, and Middleton, will perceive that my treatment of the subject differs entirely from theirs.” [page 59:]

Now the autorial originality, properly considered, is threefold. There is, first, the originality of the general thesis, secondly, that of the several incidents or thoughts by which the thesis is developed, and thirdly, that of manner or tone, by which means alone an old subject, even when developed through hackneyed incidents or thoughts, may be made to produce a fully original effect — which, after all, is the end truly in view.

But originality, as it is one of the highest, is also one of the rarest of merits. In America it is especially and very remarkably rare: — this through causes sufficiently well understood. We are content perforce, therefore, as a general thing, with either of the lower branches of originality mentioned above, and would regard with high favour indeed any author who should supply the great desideratum in combining the three. Still the three should be combined; and from whom, if not from such men as Professor Longfellow — if not from those who occupy the chief niches in our Literary Temple — shall we expect the combination? But in the present instance, what has Professor Longfellow accomplished? Is he original at any one point? Is he original in respect to the first and most important of our three divisions? “The subject of the following play,” he says himself, “is taken in part from the beautiful play of Cervantes, ‘La Gitanilla.’ To this source, however, I am indebted for the main incident only, the love of the Spanish student for a Gipsy girl, and the name of the heroine, Preciosa.”

The Italics are our own, and the italicized words involve an obvious contradiction. We cannot understand how “the love of the Spanish student for the Gipsy girl” can be called an “incident,” or even a [page 60:] “main incident,” at all. In fact, this love — this discordant and therefore eventful or incidental love is the true thesis of the drama of Cervantes. It is this anomalous “love,” which originates the incidents by means of which itself, this “love,” the thesis, is developed. Having based his play, then, upon this “love,” we cannot admit his claim to originality upon our first count; nor has he any right to say that he has adopted his “subject” “in part.” It is clear that he has adopted it altogether. Nor would he have been entitled to claim originality of subject, even had he based his story upon any variety of love arising between parties naturally separated by prejudices of caste — such, for example, as those which divide the Brahmin from the Pariah, the Ammonite from the African, or even the Christian from the Jew. For here in its ultimate analysis, is the real thesis of the Spaniard. But when the drama is founded, not merely upon this general thesis, but upon this general thesis in the identical application given it by Cervantes — that is to say, upon the prejudice of caste exemplified in the case of a Catholic, and this Catholic a Spaniard, and this Spaniard a student, and this student loving a Gipsy, and this Gipsy a dancing-girl, and this dancing-girl bearing the name Preciosa — we are not altogether prepared to be informed by Professor Longfellow that he is indebted for an “incident only” to the “beautiful ‘Gitanilla’ of Cervantes.”

Whether our author is original upon our second and third points — in the true incidents of his story, or in the manner and tone of their handling — will be more distinctly seen as we proceed.

It is to be regretted that “The Spanish Student” was not subentitled “A Dramatic Poem,” rather than [page 61:] “A Play.” The former title would have more fully conveyed the intention of the poet; for, of course, we shall not do Mr. Longfellow the injustice to suppose that his design has been, in any respect, a play, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Whatever may be its merits in a merely poetical view, “The Spanish Student” could not be endured upon the stage.

Its plot runs thus: — Preciosa, the daughter of a Spanish gentleman, is stolen, while an infant, by Gipsies, brought up as his own daughter, and as a dancing-girl, by a Gipsy leader, Cruzado; and by him betrothed to a young Gipsy, Bartolome. At Madrid, Preciosa loves and is beloved by Victorian, a student of Alcala, who resolves to marry her, notwithstanding her caste, rumours involving her purity, the dissuasions of his friends, and his betrothal to an heiress of Madrid. Preciosa is also sought by the Count of Lara, a roué. She rejects him. He forces his way into her chamber, and is there seen by Victorian, who, misinterpreting some words overheard, doubts the fidelity of his mistress, and leaves her in anger, after challenging the Count of Lara. In the duel, the Count receives his life at the hands of Victorian: declares his ignorance of the understanding between Victorian and Preciosa; boasts of favours received from the latter, and, to make good his words, produces a ring which she gave him, he asserts, as a pledge of her love. This ring is a duplicate of one previously given the girl by Victorian, and known to have been so given by the Count. Victorian mistakes it for his own, believes all that has been said, and abandons the field to his rival, who, immediately afterwards, while attempting to procure access to the Gipsy, is assassinated by Bartolomé. Meantime, Victorian, wandering through the country, [page 62:] reaches Guadarrama. Here he receives a letter from Madrid, disclosing the treachery practiced by Lara, and telling that Preciosa, rejecting his addresses, had been through his instrumentality hissed from the stage, and now again roamed with the Gipsies. He goes in search of her, finds her in a wood near Guadarrama; approaches her, disguising his voice; she recognizes him, pretending she does not, and unaware that he knows her innocence; a conversation of equivoque ensues; he sees his ring upon her finger; offers to purchase it; she refuses to part with it, a full éclairissement takes place; at this juncture a servant of Victorian’s arrives with “news from court,” giving the first intimation of the true parentage of Preciosa. The lovers set out, forthwith, for Madrid, to see the newly discovered father. On the route, Bartolome dogs their steps; fires at Preciosa; misses her; the shot is returned; he falls; and “The Spanish Student” is concluded.

This plot, however, like that of “Tortesa,” looks better in our naked digest than amidst the details which develop only to disfigure it. The reader of the play itself will be astonished, when he remembers the name of the author, at the inconsequence of the incidents — at the utter want of skill — of art-manifested in their conception and introduction. In dramatic writing, no principle is more clear than that nothing should be said or done which has not a tendency to develop the catastrophe, or the characters. But Mr. Longfellow’s play abounds in events and conversations that have no ostensible purpose, and certainly answer no end. In what light, for example, since we cannot suppose this drama intended for the stage, are we to regard the second scene of the second act, where a long dialogue [page 63:] between an Archbishop and a Cardinal is wound up by a dance from Preciosa? The Pope thinks of abolishing public dances in Spain, and the priests in question have been delegated to examine, personally, the proprieties or improprieties of such exhibitions. With this view, Preciosa is summoned and required to give a specimen of her skill. Now this, in a mere spectacle, would do very well; for here all that is demanded is an occasion or an excuse for a dance; but what business has it in a pure drama? or in what regard does it further the end of a dramatic poem, intended only to be read? In the same manner, the whole of Scene the eighth, in the same act, is occupied with six lines of stage directions, as follows: —

The Theatre: the orchestra plays the Cachuca. Sound of castinets behind the scenes. The curtain rises and discovers Preciosa in the attitude of commencing the dance. The Cachuca. Tumult. Hisses. Cries of Brava! and Aguera! She falters and pauses. The music stops. General confusion. Preciosa faints.

But the inconsequence of which we complain will be best exemplified by an entire scene. We take Scene the Fourth, Act the First: —

An inn on the road to Alcalá. BALTASAR asleep on a bench. Enter CHISPA.”

CHISPA. And here we are, half way to Alcala, between cocks and midnight. Body o’ me! what an inn this is! The light out and the landlord asleep! Hola! ancient Baltasar!

BALTASAR. (waking). Here I am.

CHISPA. Yes, there you are, like a one-eyed alcalde in a town without inhabitants. Bring a light, and let me have supper. [page 64:]

BALTASAR. Where is your master?

CHISPA. Do not trouble yourself about him. We have stopped a moment to breathe our horses; and if he chooses to walk up and down in the open air, looking into the sky as one who hears it rain, that does not satisfy my hunger, you know. But be quick, for I am in a hurry, and every one stretches his legs according to the length of his coverlet. What have we here?

BALTASAR. (setting a light on the table). Stewed rabbit.

CHISPA. (eating). Conscience of Portalegre! stewed kitten you mean!

BALTASAR. And a pitcher of Pedro Ximenes, with a roasted pear in it.

CHISPA (drinking). Ancient Baltasar, amigo! You know how to cry wine and sell vinegar. I tell you this is nothing but Vino Tinto of La Mancha, with a tang of the swine-skin.

BALTASAR. I swear to you by Saint Simon and Judas, it is all as I say.

CHISPA. And I swear to you by Saint Peter and Saint Paul that it is no such thing. Moreover, your supper is like the hidalgo’s dinner — very little meat and a great deal of tablecloth.

BALTASAR. Ha! ha! ha!

CHISPA. And more noise than nuts.

BALTASAR. Ha! ha! ha! You must have your joke, Master Chispa. But shall I not ask Don Victorian in to take a draught of the Pedro Ximenes?

CHISPA. No; you might as well say, “Don’t you want some?” to a dead man.

BALTASAR. Why does he go so often to Madrid?

CHISPA. For the same reason that he eats no supper. He is in love. Were you ever in love, Baltasar?

BALTASAR. I was never out of it, good Chispa. It has been the torment of my life.

CHISPA. What! are you on fire, too, old hay-stack? Why, we shall never be able to put you out. [page 65:]

VICTORIAN (without) Chispa!

CHISPA. Go to bed, Pero Grullo, for the cocks are crowing.

VICTORIAN. Ea! Chispa! Chispa!

CHISPA. Ea! Señor. Come with me, ancient Baltasar, and bring water for the horses. I will pay for the supper tomorrow. [Exeunt.

Now here the question occurs — what is accomplished? How has the subject been forwarded? We did not need to learn that Victorian was in love — that was known before; and all that we glean is that a stupid imitation of Sancho Panza drinks in the course of two minutes (the time occupied in the perusal of the scene) a bottle of vino tinto, by way of Pedro Ximenes, and devours a stewed kitten in place of a rabbit.

In the beginning of the play this Chispa is the valet of Victorian; subsequently we find him the servant of another; and near the dénouement he returns to his original master. No cause is assigned, and not even the shadow of an object is attained; the whole tergiversation being but another instance of the gross inconsequence which abounds in the play.

The author’s deficiency of skill is especially evinced in the scene of the éclaircissement between Victorian and Preciosa. The former having been enlightened respecting the true character of the latter by means of a letter received at Guadarrama, from a friend at Madrid (how wofully inartistical is this!), resolves to go in search of her forthwith, and forthwith, also, discovers her in a wood close at hand. Whereupon he approaches, disguising his voice: — yes, we are required to believe that a lover may so disguise his voice from his mistress as even to render his person in full [page 66:] view irrecognizable! He approaches, and each knowing the other, a conversation ensues under the hypothesis that each to the other is unknown — a very unoriginal, and, of course, a very silly source of equivoque, fit only for the gum-elastic imagination of an infant. But what we especially complain of here is that our poet should have taken so many and so obvious pains to bring about this position of equivoque, when it was impossible that it could have served any other purpose than that of injuring his intended effect! Read, for example, this passage: —

VICTORIAN. I never loved a maid;

For she I loved was then a maid no more.

PRECIOSA. How know you that?

VICTORIA. A little bird in the air

Whispered the secret.

PRECIOSA. There, take back your gold!

Your hand is cold like a deceiver’s hand!

There is no blessing in its charity!

Make her your wife, for you have been abused;

And you shall mend your fortunes mending hers.

VICTORIAN. How like an angel’s speaks the tongue of woman,

When pleading in another’s cause her own!

Now here it is clear that if we understood Preciosa to be really ignorant of Victorian’s identity, the “pleading in another’s cause her own” would create a favourable impression upon the reader or spectator. But the advice — “Make her your wife, etc.,” takes an interested and selfish turn when we remember that she knows to whom she speaks.

Again, when Victorian says, [page 67:]

That is a pretty ring upon your finger,

Pray give it me!

and when she replies:

No, never from my hand

Shall that be taken,

we are inclined to think her only an artful coquette, knowing, as we do, the extent of her knowledge, on the hand we should have applauded her constancy (as the author intended) had she been represented ignorant of Victorian’s presence. The effect upon the audience, in a word, would be pleasant in place of disagreeable were the case altered as we suggest, while the effect upon Victorian would remain altogether untouched.

A still more remarkable instance of deficiency in the dramatic tact is to be found in the mode of bringing about the discovery of Preciosa’s parentage. In the very moment of the éclaircissement between the lovers, Chispa arrives almost as a matter of course, and settles the point in a sentence: —

Good news from the Court; Good news! Beltran Cruzado,

The Count of the Cales, is not your father,

But your true father has returned to Spain

Laden with wealth. You are no more a Gipsy.

Now here are three points: — first, the extreme baldness, platitude, and independence of the incident narrated by Chispa. The opportune return of the father (we are tempted to say the excessively opportune) stands by itself — has no relation to any other event in the play — does not appear to arise, in the way of result, from any incident or incidents that [page 68:] have arisen before. It has the air of a happy chance, of a God-send, of an ultra-accident, invented by the play-wright by way of compromise for his lack of invention. Nec Deus intersit, &c. — but here the God has interposed, and the knot is laughably unworthy of the God.

The second point concerns the return of the father “laden with wealth.” The lover has abandoned his mistress in her poverty, and, while yet the words of his proffered reconciliation hang upon his lips, comes his own servant with the news that the mistress’ father has returned “laden with wealth.” Now, so far as regards the audience, who are behind the scenes and know the fidelity of the lover — so far as regards the audience, all is right; but the poet had no business to place his heroine in the sad predicament of being forced, provided she is not a fool, to suspect both the ignorance and the disinterestedness of the hero.

The third point has reference to the words — “You are now no more a Gipsy.” The thesis of this drama, as we have already said, is love disregarding the prejudices of caste, and in the development of this thesis, the powers of the dramatist have been engaged, or should have been engaged, during the whole of the three acts of the play. The interest excited lies in our admiration of the sacrifice, and of the love that could make it; but this interest immediately and disagreeably subsides when we find that the sacrifice has been made to no purpose. “You are no more a Gipsy” dissolves the charm, and obliterates the whole impression which the author has been at so much labour to convey. Our romantic sense of the hero’s chivalry declines into a complacent satisfaction with his fate.

We drop our enthusiasm, with the enthusiast, and [page 69:] jovially shake by the hand the mere man of good luck. But is not the latter feeling the more comfortable of the two? Perhaps so; but “comfortable” is not exactly the word Mr. Longfellow might wish applied to the end of his drama, and then why be at the trouble of building up an effect through a hundred and eighty pages, merely to knock it down at the end of the hundred and eighty-first?

We have already given, at some length, our conceptions of the nature of plot — and of that of “The Spanish Student”, it seems almost superfluous to speak at all. It has nothing of construction about it. Indeed there is scarcely a single incident which has any necessary dependence upon any one other. Not only might we take away two-thirds of the whole without ruin — but without detriment — indeed with a positive benefit to the mass. And, even as regards the mere order of arrangement, we might with a very decided chance of improvement, put the scenes in a bag, give them a shake or two by way of shuffle, and tumble them out. The whole mode of collocation — not to speak of the feebleness of the incidents in themselves — evinces, on the part of the author, an utter and radical want of the adapting or constructive power which the drama so imperatively demands.

Of the unoriginality of the thesis we have already spoken; and now, to the unoriginality of the events by which the thesis is developed, we need do little more than alude. What, indeed, could we say of such incidents as the child stolen by Gipsies — as her education as a danseuse — as her betrothal to a Gipsy — as her preference for a gentleman — as the rumours against her purity — as her persecution by a roué — as the [page 70:] irruption of the roué into her chamber — as the consequent misunderstanding between her and her lover — as the duel — as the defeat of the roué — as the receipt of his life from the hero — as his boasts of success with the girl — as the ruse of the duplicate ring — as the field, in consequence, abandoned by the lover — as the assassination of Lara while scaling the girl’s bed-chamber — as the disconsolate peregrination of Victorian — as the equivoque scene with Preciosa — as the offering to purchase the ring and the refusal to part with it — as the “news from court,” telling of the Gipsy’s true parentage — what could we say of all these ridiculous things, except that we have met them, each and all, some two or three hundred times before, and that they have formed, in a great or less degree, the staple material of every Hop-O’My-Thumb tragedy since the flood? There is not an incident, from the first page of “The Spanish Student” to the last and most satisfactory, which we would not undertake to find bodily, at ten minutes’ notice, in some one of the thousand and one comedies of intrigue attributed to Calderon and Lope de Vega.

But if our poet is grossly unoriginal in his subject, and in the events which evolve it, may he not be original in his handling or tone? We really grieve to say that he is not, unless, indeed, we grant him the need of originality for the peculiar manner in which he has jumbled together the quaint and stilted tone of the old English dramatists with the dégagée air of Cervantes. But this is a point upon which, through want of space, we must necessarily permit the reader to judge altogether for himself. We quote, however, a passage from the second scene of the first act, by way of showing how very easy a matter it is to make a man discourse Sancho Panza: [page 71:]

Chispa. Abernuncio Satanas! and a plague upon all lovers who ramble about at night, drinking the elements, instead of sleeping quietly in their beds. Every dead man to his cemetery, say I; and every friar to his monastery. Now, here’s my master Victorian, yesterday a cow-keeper and to-day a gentleman; yesterday a student and to-day a lover; and I must be up later than the nightingale, for as the abbot sings so must the sacristan respond. God grant he may soon be married, for then shall all this serenading cease. Ay, marry, marry, marry! Mother, what does marry mean? It means to spin, to bear children, and to weep, my daughter! and, of a truth, there is something more in matrimony than the wedding-ring. And now, gentlemen, Pax vobiscum! as the ass said to the cabbages!

And we might add, as an ass only should say.

In fact, throughout “The Spanish Student,” as well as throughout other compositions of its author, there runs a very obvious vein of imitation. We are perpetually reminded of something we have seen before — some old acquaintance in manner or matter, and even where the similarity cannot be said to amount to plagiarism, it is still injurious to the poet in the good opinion of him who reads.

Among the minor defects of the play, we may mention the frequent allusion to book incidents not generally known, and requiring each a Note by way of explanation. The drama demands that everything be so instantaneously evident that he who runs may read; and the only impression effected by these Notes to a play is, that the author is desirous of showing his reading.

We may mention, also, occasional tautologies, such as: [page 72:]

Never did I behold thee so attired

And garmented in beauty as to-night!

Or —

“What we need

Is the celestial fire to change the fruit

Into transparent crystal, bright and clear!

We may speak, too, of more than occasional errors of grammar. For example: —

“Did no one see thee? None, my love, but thou.”

Here “but” is not a conjunction, but a preposition, and governs thee in the objective. “None but thee” would be right; meaning none except thee, saving thee. Earlier, “mayest” is somewhat incorrectly written “may’st.” And we have: —

I have no other saint than thou to pray to.

Here authority and analogy are both against Mr. Longfellow. “Than” also is here a preposition governing the objective, and meaning save or except. “I have none other God than thee, etc” See Horne Tooke. The Latin “quam te” is exactly equivalent.

At page 80 we read: —

Like thee I am a captive, and, like thee,

I have a gentle gaoler.

Here “like thee” (although grammatical of course) does not convey the idea. Mr. L. does not mean [page 73:] that the speaker is like the bird itself, but that his condition resembles it. The true reading would thus be: —

As thou I am a captive, and, as thou,

I have a gentle poler.

That is to say, as thou art and as thou hast.

Upon the whole, we regret that Professor Longfellow has written this work, and feel especially vexed that he has committed himself by its republication. Only when regarded as a mere poem can it be said to have merit of any kind. For in fact it is only when we separate the poem from the drama that the passages we have commended as beautiful can be understood to have beauty. We are not too sure, indeed, that a “dramatic poem” is not a flat contradiction in terms. At all events a man of true genius (and such Mr. L. unquestionably is) has no business with these hybrid and paradoxical compositions. Let a poem be a poem only, let a play be a play and nothing more. As for “The Spanish Student,” its thesis is unoriginal; its incidents are antique; its plot is no plot; its characters have no character, in short, it is a little better than a play upon words to style it “A Play” at all.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 33:]

1.  Vol. X. — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (The American Drama)