Volume VII ~Poems & Dramas by Fiona Macloed
To whose editorial Hospitality I have so often been indebted: and whose Undine following upon The Idea of Tragedy shows that the dramatic poet and the critic of imaginative drama can be one.
"It is Destiny, then, that is the Protagontist in the Celtic Drama. . . . And it is Destiny, that sombre Demogorgon of the Gael, whose boding breath, whose menace, whose shadow glooms so much of the remote life I know, and hence glooms also this book of interpretations: for pages of life must either be interpretative or merely documentary, and these following pages have for the most part been written as by one who repeats, with curious insistence, a haunting, familiar, yet ever wild and remote air, whose obscure meanings he would fain reiterate, interpret."
In these short dramas I have attempted to give voice to two elemental emotions, the emotion of the inevitableness of destiny and the emotion of tragical loveliness. One does not need to know the story of Midir and Etain, of Concobar and Deirdrê, of Deirdrê and the Sons of Usna, in order to know the mystery and the silent arrivals of destiny, or to know the emotion of sorrow at the passage of beauty: as one does not need to know the story of lphigenia at Aulis in order to know the emotion of indignation at kingly guile or the emotion of pity for the betrayed: as one does not need to know the story of the Crowned Hippolytos in order to know the emotion of tragical suspense, as when Phædra's love for the son of her husband is like a leaf on the wind; or in order to know the emotion of bewildered futility, as when Thesus curses and banishes his innocent son and persuades, him the doom of Poseidon. For these emotions are not the properties of drama, which is but a fowler snaring them in a net. These deep elementals are the obscure Chorus which plays upon the silent flutes, upon the nerves wherein the soul sits enmeshed. They have their own savage or divine energy, and the man of the woods and the dark girl of the canebrakes know them with the same bowed suspense or uplifted lamentation or joy as do the men and women who have great names and to whom the lords of the imagination have given immortality.
Many kings have desired, and the gods forbidden. Concobar has but lain down where Cæsars have fallen and Pharaohs closed imperial eyes, and many satraps and many tyrants have bent before the wind. All old men who in strength and passion rise up against the bitterness of destiny are the kindred of Lear: those who have kept love as the crown of years, and seen it go from them like a wreath of sand, are of the kin of Concobar. There is not one Lear only, or one Concobar, in the vast stage of life: but a multitude of men who ask, in the dark hour of the Winged Destiny, Am I in truth a king? or who, incredulous, whisper Deirdrê is dead, Deirdrê the beautiful is dead, is dead.
The tradition of accursed families is not the fantasy of one dramatist or of one country or of one time. The Oresteia of Aischylos is no more than a tragic fugue wherein one hears the cries of uncountable threnodies. The doom of the clan of Usna is not less veiled in terror and perpetuated in fatality than the doom of the Atreidai: and even "The Fall of the House of Usher " is but a single note of the same ancient mystery over which Sophocles brooded in the lamentations which eddy like mournful winds around the House of Labdacus.
Whether the poet turn to the tragedy of the Theban dynasty wherein Laios and Iokaste and Oidipus move like children of fire in a wood doomed to flames; or to the tragedy of the Achaian dynasty, wherein Pelops and Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaos, Helen and Iphigenia, Klytaemnestra prophesying and the prophet Kalchas, are like shadowy figures, crowned with terror and beauty, on the verge of a dark sea where the menace of an obscure wind is continually heard beyond the enchanted shore; or to the tragedy of Lear weeping, where all kingship seems as a crown left in the desert to become the spoil of the adder or a pillow for wandering dust; or to the Celtic tragedy of the House of Fionn, where Dermid and Grania, where Oisin and Malveen, are like the winds and the waters, the rains and the lamentations of the hills; or to that other and less familiar Gaelic tragedy of the House of Usna, where an old king knows madness because of garnered love spilt and wasted, and where a lamp of deathless beauty shines like a beacon, and where heroes die as leaves fall, and where a wind of prophesying is like the sound of dark birds flying over dark trees in the darkness of forgotten woods:--whether one turn to these, or to the doom of the House of Malatesta, or to the doom of the House of Macbeth, or to the doom of the House of Ravenswood, one turns in vain if he be blind and deaf to the same elemental forces as they move their eternal ichor through the blood that has to-day's warmth in it, that are the same powers though they be known of the obscure and the silent, and are committed like wandering flame to the torch of a ballad as well as to the starry march of the compelling words of genius; are of the same dominion, though that be in the shaken hearts of islesfolk and mountaineers, and not with kings in Mykênai, or by the thrones of Tamburlaine and Aurungzebe, or with great fords and broken nobles and thanes.
But the poet, the dramatist, is not able--is not yet able--to express in beauty and convey in symbol the visible energy of these emotions without resort to the artifice of men and women set in array, with harmonious and arbitrary speech given to them, and a background of illusion made unreal by being made emphatic.
If one were to express the passion of remorse under the signal of a Voice lamenting, or the passion of tears under the signal of a Cry, and be content to give no name to these protagonists and to deny them the background of history or legend: and were to unite them in the sequence of significant and essential things which is drama in action, but in a sequence of suggestion and symbol rather than of statement and pageant: he would be told that he had mistaken the method of music passing into drama for the method of verbal illusion passing into drama.
And, while this is so, it cannot be gainsaid that he must not seek to disengage from the creature of his imagination these old allies, the intimate name and the familiar circumstance. It may be true that a Voice and a Cry may suffice, not as choric echo or emphasis, but as protagonists in a drama where the passions and energies and unveiled emotions are unloosed, and elemental strives with elemental, till Love and Terror may in very weariness lie down together, and Death and Sorrow and Wrath and Lamentation disclose their own august nakedness, beings standing apart from the mortal wrappings of words and action, of silence and sound and colour and shape, to which our mind compels them. But that is too subtle a dream for realisation to seem possible yet. It is too subtle perhaps even as the insubstantial phantom of a dream, save for those who, hungering after the wild honey of the mind and thirsting for the remoter springs, foresee a time when the imagination shall lay aside words and pigments and clay, as raiment needless during the festivals of the spirit, and express itself in the thoughts which inhabit words-as light inhabits water or as greenness inhabits grass; and in the colours which inhabit pigments, as wild-roses and dew--wet laburnum and white and purple iris gathered from a June morning and hidden in earthenware jars; and in the perpetual and protean energy of Form which, tranced and unique, dreams in clay or sleeps in marble or ivory.
But so long as the imagination dwells in this old convention which imposes upon us the use of events that chime to the bells of the past, and the use of names which are at once congruous and traditional . . . in this convention of episode and phrase in the concert of action and suspense . . . it will be well ever and again to turn to those ancestral themes past which so many generations have slipt like sea-going winds over pastures, and upon which the thoughts of many minds have fallen in secret dews. I do not say for I do not so think, that there might not be drama as moving whether it deal with the event of to-day and the accent of the hour as with a remote accent recovered and with remote event. Some of the dramas of Browning, some of the finer French dramas, some of the short plays of W. B. Yeats and others, are to the point. But, to many minds, there must always be a supreme attraction in great themes of drama as familiar to us as the tales of faerie and wonder to the mind of childhood. The mind, however, need not be bondager to formal tradition. I know one who can evoke modern dramatic scenes by the mere iterance of the great musical names of the imagination --Menalaos, Helen, Klytaemnestra, Andromacê, Kassandra, Orestes, blind Oidipus, Elektra Kreusa, and the like. This is not because these names are in themselves esoteric symbols, or are built of letters of revelation as the fabled tower of Ys was built of evocatory letters made of wind and water, of brownness of earth, of greenness of grass, and of dew, all of which the druids held in the hollows of the five vowels. My friend has not seen any representation of the Agamemnon or the Choephoroi, of Aias or Oidipus at Kolonos, of Elektra or Ion, or indeed of any Greek play. But he knows the story of every name mentioned in each of the dramas of the three kings of Greek Tragedy. So, as he says, why should he go out to see the trivial play of trivial people animated by trivial emotions against a background of trivial circumstance, when he can sit before his fire and see Elektra and Orestes standing appalled before the dead body of Klytaemnestra, listening if the coming steps are the steps of murdered Aigisthos, and cowering when they see the pale immortal faces of the Dioskoroi: or see Oidipus, that proud king, when he hears the first terrible whisper of destiny from the lips of the prophet Teiresias, or when, blind and abased, he lies in the dust, with Iokaste, wife and queen and revealed mother, already 'a silent fruit on the tree of death,' while, beyond, the Chorus raves: or when, as in Aias (as our Cuchulain fighting the waves with drawn sword and foam on his lips, or Concobar in the legendary tale that on the day of the Crucifixion he ran into the woods lopping great branches from the trees and calling 'A king is fallen to-day, an innocent king is slain, a great king is fallen!') the mad prince runs among a herd of cattle and slaughters the lowing bulls, thinking them to be Agamemnon and Menelaos--or, later, when he stands subtly smiling as though acquiescing to the fair words of Tekmiessa, and then with sidelong eyes goes furtively to the solitary place where he may fall upon his sword? Or, again, he may see Klytaemnestra entering the doorway, with Elektra and Orestes waiting with beating hearts, not as either Euripides or Aischylos has revealed to us; or may see Oidipus staring with sudden scornful wrath at Teiresias, not as either Aischylos or Sopliocles has revealed to us; but a Klytaemnestra, an Elektra, an Orestes, an Oidipus, a Teiresias, as revealed to his own vision that is of to-day, shaped from the mould that moulds the spirit of to-day and coloured with the colour of to-day's mind. And here, he says, is his delight. "For I do not live only in the past, but in the present, in these dramas of the mind. The names stand for the elemental passions, and I can come to them through my own gates of to-day as well as through the ancient portals of Aischylos or Sophocles or Euripides: and for background I prefer the flame-light and the sound of the wind to any of the crude illusions of stagecraft."
It is no doubt in this attitude that Racine, so French in the accent of his classical genius, looked at the old drama which was his inspiration: that Swinburne and Robert Bridges, so English in the accent of their genius, have looked at it; that Echegaray, in Spain, looked at it before he produced his troubled modern Elektra which is so remote in shapen thought and coloured semblance from the colour and idea of its prototype; that Gabriele D'Annunzio looked at it before he became obsessed with the old terrible idea of the tangled feet of Destiny, so that a tuft of grass might withhold or a breath from stirred dust empoison, and wrote that most perturbing of all modern dramas, La Città Morta.
It concurs, then, that there is no inherent reason why a poet of to-day should not overtake the same themes as Aischylos overtook from Phrynicus, and Sophocles from Aischylos and Euripides from all three, and Philoclês and Agathôn and Xenoclês indiscriminately. The difficulty is not in the remoteness of the theme, still less in the essential substance. It is in the mistaken idea that the ancient formal method is inevitable, and in the mistaken idea that a theme sustained on essential and elemental things and therefore independent of unique circumstance can be exhausted by the flashing upon it of one great light., Kassandra and Helen and Iphigenia . . they live: they are not dead. But, to approach them, to come face to face with them, that is not the reward of the most eager mind, or of the most uplifted desire: it is the reward only of genius akin in quality at least with that of those great ones of old who, like drifting Pharos, flashed across the dark seas of antiquity a dazzling illumination on this lifted wave called Helen, on that lifted wave called Andromachê, on these long rolling billows called Agamemnon, or Aias, or Orestes. It is not the themes that have receded, but the imaginations that have quailed.
Merely to parody the Greek tragedians, by taking a great theme and putting one's presumption and weakness beside it--that is another thing altogether. It is difficult after Shelley and Robert Browning, after Swinburne and Robert Bridges, to say that no modern English poet has achieved a play with a Greek heart . . . no play written as a nineteenth century Sophocles or Euripides or Agathôn would have written it. Even on Prometheus Unbound and Atalanta in Calydon, even on Erechtheus, the Gothic genius of the North has laid a touch as delicate as frost, as durable as the finger of primeval fire on the brows of the immemorial rock. Perhaps the plays of Robert Bridges are more truly classical than any modern drama since Racine. But their flame is flame seen in a mirror: we see the glow, we are intellectually warmed by it, but we do not feel it . . . our minds only, not our hearts that should burn, our nerves that should thrill, respond.
The reason, I do not doubt, is mainly a physical rather than an intellectual difficulty. It is the indwelling difficulty. It is the indwelling spirit and not the magnetic mind that is wayward and eager to evade the compelling wand of the imagination. For the spirit is not under the spell of tradition. It wishes to go its own way. Tradition says, if you would write of the slaying of Klytaemnestra you must present a recognisable Elektra and a recognisable Orestes, and Dioskoroi recognisable as Dioskoroi against a recognisable background: but to the spirit Elektra and Orestes are simply abstract terms of the theatre of the imagination, the Dioskoroi are august powers, winnowers of fate, and the old Greek background is but a remembered semblance of a living stage that is not to-day what it was yesterday or shall be to-morrow, and yet is ever in essentials the same.
There is not one of the Greek dramas which might not in spiritual identity be achieved to-day by genius that, with equality of power, could perceive the intransiency of the essential and immortal factors in the life of the imagination and the mutability of what is accidental in time and circumstance.
We are, I believe, turning toward a new theatre. The theatre of Ibsen, and all it stands for, is become outworn as a compelling influence. Its inherent tendency to demonstrate intellectually from a series of incontrovertible material facts is not adequate for those who would see in the drama the means to demonstrate symbolically from a sequence of intuitive perception. A subtle French critic, writing of the theatre of Ibsen, appreciates it as a theatre more negative than positive, more revolutionary than foundational, more intellectual than religious. " À ce théâtre amer et see," he adds, " l'âme moderne ne peutétancher toutes ses soifs d'infini et d'absolu."
I think that, there, the right thing is said, as well as the significant indication given. "More intellectual than religious": that is, more congruous with the method of the mirror that gathers and reveals certain facets of the spirit than with the spirit who as in a glass darkly looks into the mirror. " More intellectual than religious" : that is, more persuaded by the sight that reveals the visible than by the vision that perssceives what materially is not visible. "At this bitter and dry theatre of the intellect, the modern soul cannot quench its thirst for the infinite and absolute; : and that is the reason, alone adequate, why to-day the minds of men are turning to a new drama, wherein thoughts and ideas and intuitions shall play a more significant part than the acted similitudes of the lesser emotions that are not so much the incalculagle life of the soul as the conditions energies of the body. The Psychic Drama shall not be less nervous; but the emotional energy shall be along the nerves of the spirit, which sees beneath and above and beyond, rather than merely along the nerves of material life, which sees only that which is in the line of sight.
And as I have written elsewhere, it may well be that, in a day of ourworn conventions, many of us are ready to turn gladly from the scenic illusions of the stage carpenter and the palpable illusions of the playwright, to the ever-new illusions of the dreaming mind, woven in a new intense dramatic reality against "imagined tapestries."
against revealing shadows and tragic glooms and radiances as rea, and as near, as the crude symbols of painted boards and stereotyped phrase in which we still have a receding pleasure.
I think the profoundest utterance I know, witnessing to the fundamentaly sychical nature of the drama, is a pphrase of Chateaubriand which I came upon recently in Book V or his Mémoires . . ."to recover the desert I took refuge in the theatre." That is a central truth, perceived now of many who are still the few. This great writer knew that in the théâtre de l'âme lay the subtlest and most searching means for the imagination to compel realith to dreams, to compel actuality to vision, to compel to the symbolic congregation of words the bewildered throng of wantering and illusive houghts and ideas. By "the desert" he meant that wilderness, that actual or symbolic solitude, to which the creative imagination goes as the curlew to the wastes, or as the mew to foam and wind.
Other writers speak of "nature" and "solitude" as though regarding them as sanctuaries where the passions may, like the wild falcons cover their faces with their wings, and be still. Chateaubriand was of those few who look upon the solitudes of nature as enchanted lands, where terror walks with beauty, and where dreams start affrighted from quiet pools because the shadow of invisible fear falls past their shadowy hair and they see the phantom slipping from depth to depth as a wind-eddy from leaf to leaf. He was of those who looked upon solitude as, of old, anchorites looked upon waste places where the vulture had her eyrie and the hyena wailed and in desolate twilights the lioness filled the dark with the hunger of her young. "Be upon your guard against solitude: the great passions are solitary, and to transport them to the desert is to restore them to their triumph."
But I have wandered from the narrower path on which I set out. Elsewhere, I hope to express more adequately what here I have cursorily outlined, and, also tentatively to illustrate the Psychic Drama as thus indicated. It is because my mind is occupied with many problems of a new drama that I have thus burdened a short play, remembered as it were from some vast unwritten ancient drama, with so lengthy a preface. However, it may stand as the statement of a movement of return on the part of individual thought, that I believe to be indicative of a movement of return on the part of modern thought, to the instinct of organic unity and . . . in the deep sense of the term to a religious inspiration.
Contents of Poems and Dramas