World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh

By Allardyce Nicoll | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
FROM TRAGEDY TO MELODRAM

THROUGHOUT this period almost every poet, major and minor, sought to contribute to a new drama that should be richer than the old, and every one of them gazed with reverent eyes upon the majesty of Shakespeare. Translations of his works multiplied themselves in profusion; on the stage his dramas won wide acclaim; philosophers and critics found in his scenes a wealth of imaginative magic. This being so, we might have thought that the new romantic drama would have attained its greatest achievements in the land of Shakespeare's own tongue and that from the poets of the English romantic revival would have come masterpieces based on his inspiration.


THE FAILURE OF THE ENGLISH POETS

It is true that every one of these poets made valiant efforts to achieve greatness in the dramatic form. From the earliest group of writers to the latest all tried their hands at theatrical composition. William Wordsworth produced The Borderers (composed 1795-96); Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge collaborated in The Fall of Robespierre ( 1794), and the latter later penned his Remorse ( 1813). Lord Byron has numerous dramas, including the once-popular Manfred ( 1817), among his other works; John Keats wrote an Otho the Great ( 1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley a Cenci ( 1818). Concerning the will towards the theatre exhibited by these men there can be no doubt.

Yet every one of them failed. We may, if we will, discern some virtue in Byron dramatic efforts, particularly in his Marino Faliero ( 1820) and Sardanapalus ( 1821), and some erratic praise has been given to the Cenci, but not the most ardent of romantic critics have dared to find in any of the other dramas matter of abiding interest; even the laudatory comments made by some on Byron's and Shelley's dramas clearly betray a determination to find something to laud, rather than a genuine critical enthusiasm.

This failure to create a vigorous romantic drama cannot be attributed to one cause alone. Byron's plays have much in them

-412-

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