Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Influence of Tennyson's Poems on Arthurian Drama

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Influence of Tennyson's Poems on Arthurian Drama

Article excerpt

Tennyson's Arthurian poems, both the shorter poems and the Idylls of the King, had a significant impact on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture. Art and architecture, music, literature, social organizations and mores, and popular culture all looked to Tennyson's Arthurian works for subject matter and themes. Among literary genres, poetry is, as one would expect, the most influenced by Tennyson's Arthuriana; but there is also a body of drama that is based on Tennyson's Arthurian poems or that incorporates elements of character or plot from those poems. Of course, Tennyson himself did not treat Arthur in drama-though he did write the Robin Hood play The Foresters and other plays on medieval topics. Yet the Idylls of the King is eminently dramatic, and so it is no wonder that it would appeal to dramatists. Patricia Ann Carlson has observed that 'The most definite step toward [Tennyson's writing of ] drama came with the Idylls of the King. Tennyson originally considered making a play from the material but decided to use a nontheatrical, dramatic-narrative technique instead.'1 In a letter of April 5, 1872, Tennyson wrote that he would prefer ' to print the names of the speakers "Gareth" and "Linette" over the short snip-snap of their talk, and so avoid the perpetual "said" and its varieties.'2 There are numerous other scenes that could easily be translated into dramatic form: the misunderstanding, conflict, and reconciliation between Enid and Geraint; the seduction of Merlin by Vivien; Merlin's dialogue with Gareth outside Camelot; the misunderstanding of Lancelot's intentions by the naïve Elaine; Arthur's final confrontation with Guinevere in the nunnery, a scene that Tennyson added to the tradition; and many others.

Given the dramatic nature of Tennyson's Idylls, it is surprising that only a handful of plays are direct adaptations of parts of that work. The Idylls was seen as offering moral example, and so a number of plays based on Tennyson's Arthurian sequence are directed toward children. Because of his youth and the lessons that his story implies, Gareth is a particularly popular figure in drama (and other literature) for the young.3 Moritz Jagendorf acknowledges that in his play 'Gareth and Lynette' (1943) he reworks Tennyson's 'Gareth and Lynette' idyll for children aged eight to fourteen.4 Jagendorf adapts some of Tennyson's verse into the dialogue of the play, as when Gareth tells his mother Bellicent (as she is called by Tennyson, rather than Morgause, the name Malory uses) that Arthur's followers are 'pledged to live purely, speak truly, and right wrongs.'5 In the play, Bellicent grants her son permission to go to Camelot only if he will agree to work as a scullion for a year and a day. She expects him to be too proud to undertake such menial work, but he accepts the condition because 'knighthood teaches that no work is low that is honest.'6 After a few weeks, Bellicent releases Gareth from his vow and sends him armor and a horse. As in Tennyson, Gareth asks to undertake the quest to free Lyonors, and her sister and messenger Lynette is offended that the task should be entrusted to a kitchen knave. Lynette initially insults Gareth; but when he defeats three of the four brother knights who are guarding the winding river, she realizes that he is valiant and noble and she fears for him if he fights Night, the fourth and fiercest. When Gareth confronts Night and exposes him as merely a child and not the dreadful phantom he was reputed to be, she praises his fearlessness and he humbly declares that he only did his duty.7 The short play presents Gareth as an example of someone who will accept even seemingly menial work as worth doing well and cheerfully, and it suggests that he rises to noble and knightly status by simply doing his duty, a moral not unlike that offered by Howard Pyle in his retelling of the tale of Gawain and the Loathly Lady.

James Yeames, the author of The Young Knight or How Gareth Won His Spurs (c. …

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