MRS. WEBSTEWS NEW DRAMA.* IT is probable that the critic who opens a new poetic drama, does so with some of the feelings with which he might approach a latter-day painting of a Holy Family, or an attempt to re- produce in modern guise the Pauathenaic procession of the Parthenon. He is conscious that the artist, whatever his pre- vious achievements, has entered a region as perilous as it is fascinating, and that his prestige is somewhat endangered upon a form of art native to a more favoured and gracious day, and
Disguises; a Drama. By Augusta Webster. London C. Kegan Paul and Co. which, in the present century, only now and then, and in the hands of great genius, has lost the exotic air which mostly- clings to it. He remembers the absolute failures here of re- spectable talents, the relative failures of great ones, and where a high reputation had been gained, with what exceptional. rapidity it sometimes faded away. He is not encouraged by the indifferent success, in proportion to the genius of their authors, of (e.g.) Byron's Cain, Coleridge's Remorse, or Mr.. Tennyson's Harold. He suspects, further, that the work has been composed in independence, perhaps in scornful independ- ence, of the dominion of the Stage; a dominion which, if it sometimes injures the philosophic roundness of development, or suppresses those fine contemplative pauses in the action which_ few of Shakespeare's followers so well as he knew how to introduce,. compensates by its very insistance on the law of simplicity and directness, cutting off otiose as well as profound reflection, and straggling episode as well as refined circumstance. He specu- lates whether he is to be introduced to the perversely imagina- tive poet, with his undramatic luxuriance of description and, prolonged interludes of sentimental inactivity; or to the scholarly poet, beguiled by antiquarianism, the malignant spirit of such men, to treat his drama as a bit of versified history,— the obsequious slave of time and place, and faithful acolyte of his authorities, whom he duly refers to in notes, and quotes in
an appendix. The drama which Mrs. Webster has just published, though
not obnoxious to the expressions we have just used, nevertheless impresses more, upon the whole, by its poetic' than by its dramatic qualities. The language, while rarely eloquent, and still more rarely recalling the wonderful abandon which is oftener, perhaps, found in some of the less familiar Elizabethans- than in Shakespeare, is full of ',felicitous turns, and admirably terse. If not precisely "inevitable," it continually shows a most excellent choice. Take this, of war :— " CLAUDE.—Dost thou not love it ?
AYMERY.— In the rush of fight, When the strong, sudden passion, lightning-quick, Leaps out and life is storm, when, swept past sense„ Save the wild will for battle and mastery,
We whelm upon the foe, and, man to man, Know but the breathless moment and our honour,. I love it, yes ; after, before, I loathe. Oh God, to think for what small self-bent aims, What mouthy feuds, what wanton policies,
We let death loose, and tread a world to ruins !"
Or this :— " Oh, let me speak! How could I less than love,
Being near thee day by day and hour by hour; Watching thy life, like to a steadfast stream, With limpid waves at play upon its strength; Feeling thy radiance of a summer sun That calls some blossom from the harshest wastes ; Learning thy beauty, listening for thy laugh ; Hearing thy heart in words ? But, while I loved,
I said, 'This is not love—'tis reverence—
'Pis friendship—'tis a brother's happiness.' So, as to an oarsman, with his idle chants Dulling the loud far rapids, who looks round And sees but smoothness and goes cheerly on,
Till lo! the crash and whirlpool ! this has come."
Before enlarging what we have said upon the dramatic qualities of the poem, we will briefly sketch the plot. The scene is laid. in Aquitaine and the little republican township of Saint Fabien, which preserves a stubborn independence in spite of coveting neighbours; to Whom, however, en revanche, its wild woods offer a pleasant retreat when they weary of state, or' when home difficulties make welcome the protection of men' incapable of treachery or fear. Such a situation it is whicir opens the play, and indeed determines its whole course. AymerY, nephew of the powerful Count de Peyriac, seeks in peasant's disguise this congenial retreat ; for there hangs over him a political marriage, the fruit of a cradle betrothal, and the burden of anticipation will be lightened by communion with this uncorrupted race among their native woods. This is a thoroughly modern note, and in truth Aymery, though placed among circumstances at least several centuries distant—an anachronism which we should be the last to blame—shows the' modern bias in many other ways than in this Rousseau-like sentiment of nature. He in nowise shares, for example, that chivalrous view of war which we, whether through enlarged humanity, or the higher nervous susceptibility of a more luxuri-
ous and cultivated age, begin also to repudiate :— "War to me,
Seems, justly waged, the seasonable wound That heals a worse disease, and yet a wound Whereat all nature sickens."
He has an admiration for Republicanism rare among nobles; and the independent townships on the borders of his future kingdom he means not to conquer, but to federate. He has neither the pride of princes, nor the yet subtler and deeper- rooted pride of family. He is no respecter of persons, and chooses to bring deserved disgrace upon his mother, rather than that a poor priest shadld suffer undeserved imprisonment. He is very unworldly, and has something of the blindness, often found in such men, to transactions quite plain to others. Like Dorothea, in Middlemarch, he imagines the love-signs intended for him to be meant for another. Very different is his cousin Raymond. He is only a sketch, a sketch even faultily inade- quate, considering his importance in the drama, but there is no mistaking in the rather faint colours the portrait of a paragon of chivalry, whose conquests of cities and fair ladies have won him the name of the "Victor Raylond." He is the child of his age, and has thriven upon the maternal milk ; while Aymery, an alien nursling, took less kindly to this nurture. In Saint Fabien then, these two meet Gualhardine, the charming grand- daughter of the chief magistrate, Piarres Otamendi, whom Raymond gaily courts with golden speeches, while Aymery un- wittingly wins her silent love. There, too, they meet the young queen Claude, the betrothed of Aymery, also disguised, also a little repugnant to the marriage, also playing truant awhile in the woods, with her ladies Isabel and Alys. The first two acts, which would form almost a complete little drama of themselves, end with the resolute separation of Aymery and Gualhardine, under the bitter sense that they must risk for her countrymen the vengeance of De Peyriac, if his heir should wed another than the queen. "Merciless parting," cries Aymery,—and this is a good instance of the author's refinement of expression :—
"Merciless parting ! each to the other nought ! Less than the carven name upon a stone, For one might sit and weep by it : than the ghost Passed out of reach, that is not, yet we call, And are not all alone."
The next two acts are devoted to the development of a link in the plot which is finally to unite these severed lovers, and bring about that happy ending which is alone in accordance with the character of the construction. This is naturally effected by removing Aymery from the high responsibilities of an heir, and we should be glad to be able to report that Mrs. Webster had used for this purpose some less familiar device than that of a concealed marriage. The Countess Bertrade, Aymery's mother, discloses to him that Raymond is the legitimate, not, as was supposed, the bastard son of her elder brother; is, therefore, true heir to Be Peyriac, and the proper instrument of his am- bitious match-making, as well as a far more willing one. Aymery at once resolves, in spite of his mother's entreaties, to disclose this to Raymond. De Peyriac accepts Raymond as his heir, in- stead of Aymery, and it only remains to persuade Claude to exchange her betrothed, whom she considers poor-spirited, because he thinks war terrible, for the gay winner of lady's hearts. But here the difficulty begins. Claude resolutely re- fuses the hand of Raymond, and Raymond as stubbornly rejects what she does not offer.
In vain the all-powerful De Peyriac storms at the "two children,"—they are inflexible. Being the stronger, he confines the Queen to her palace and Raymond to his chamber. But a garden-wall is leaped, a subterranean passage threaded, and both have escaped, whither but to the friendly republic ? There, too, Aymery, newly released from the dreaded prospect of being king with Claude, has sought out Gualhardine, and secretly wedded her, while the stillness of early morning was yet upon the woods, in a secluded chapel. Be Peyriac, familiar with this resort of Aymery's and Raymond's, but not yet aware of the escape of Claude, is soon upon the spot. He forbids the mar- riage, on the ground of the prior contract by which Aymery was bound,—a contract which he had, indeed, prevailed upon the Pope to annul, but only on the condition that Raymond should take the place of Aymery. But to this neither Raymond nor Claude would consent. And now, like a Lady Bountiful intervening to heal dissension, Claude, who has been standing near, unnoticed in her disguise by Be Peyriac, comes forward, and holds out her hand to Raymond. Long he hesitates, and then slowly takes it :—
" Ah, Claude ! I am too weak against thee thus ! What boots my feigning P All the angry while I loved thee."
And so the "disguises." drop, and the fair issue which they had thwarted comes about. It will be clear from this sketch to what sort of excel lences Disguises pretends, or at least to what sort it does not pretend. The motif and many of the situations are
familiar enough. Since Rousseau, we have become a little hard to impress with spectacles of men surrendering state and power in order to dwell with their simple loves among a noble peasantry. The thing seems so natural, and then it has been done, or at least imagined, so often. We feel a tender and unobtrusive sympathy, but the impressiveness of tragedy has departed from such scenes. And, indeed, a sympathy of this kind, which leads now and then to a winning. pathos, is the feeling most definitely stirred by this play. If, how- ever, this be a defect, there is a method in it. The whole character and construction of the drama assign it to a type with which a very powerful tone of emotion would not accord, and in avoiding this, Mrs. Webster has shown artistic self-restraint. It belongs, in fact, to the class of romantic dramas, of which As You
Like It is one of the finest, and Love's Labour's Lost one of the purest, examples. Even by its fresh woodland scenery, and the glad open-air breeze which blows about its pages, it reminds us of those famous scenes in the forests of Ardennes and of Navarre; and the piquant contrast of peasant and courtier recalls the more brilliant scenes in which Audrey serves for foil to. Touchstone, and the country simplicity of Colin sets in rich relief the courtly wit of Rosalind. No doubt the genius of the nineteenth century comes out in Mrs. Webster's drawing of her republican peasants, who appear fully the equals of their visitors, both in wit and manners, and by much their superiors in honesty. Shakespeare nowhere shows any trace of this thoroughly modern point of view. Where his subject led him nearest to it, as in the Roman plays, he either, as in Coriolauus, draws all our sympathies to the magnificent despiser of the people, or, as in Julius Ccesar, developes the social in entire subordination to the individual aspects of the action, and sinks the political in the psychological significance of Brutus. To.
see free citizens painted by a sympathetic hand, we must pass to the last hundred years,—to the (Jots of Goethe's enthusiastic youth, to the Wilhelm Tell of Schiller's still enthusiastic maturity„-to Landor's men of Ancona or Sir Henry Taylor's men of Ghent. Brave and true, very jealous of their honour, vindictive, but never ungrateful, Mrs. 'Webster's peasants are of the same type as these. Deepen the shadows of the picture, substitute for the light, shifting disguises and plots of love the stern stress of war, and Piarres Otamendi might not a little resemble the heroic consul of Ancona. They unite the great qualities of the soldier and the peasant, whose affinity Victor Hugo so finely marks in his picture of the exiled Cid among his humble countrymen :—
"Les rayons du grand Cid sur leurs toits se repandent, 11 eat l'auguate ami du chaume et du grabat : Car avec lea heros les laboureurs s'entendent, L'epee a sa moisson, la soc a son combat."
But it is not merely by the buoyant outdoor air, nor by the piquant contrast of courtiers and peasants, that Disguises sug- gests the manner of the Romantic drama. A constructiotr somewhat loose and free; interest diffused among several groups,
instead of being concentrated upon some Hamlet or Macbeth ; a plot full of surprises, rapid changes, sharp oppositions, and pervaded by a certain delicate air of artificiality or even caprice, which gives the impression that it is the mere charm of variety as much as any deeper law which determines its move- ments; characters, finally, not of the heroic mould which re- tains its purpose with unrelaxing grip to the end, but of a type in which this grim strength of the Puritan passes into the more flexible and versatile nature of Southern Europe ; such are the broad features of the Romantic drama, and of these there is not a little in Mrs. Webster's book. The plot, for example, dis-
tinctly pauses at the end. of the second act. The interest,. again, is certainly not absorbed in any single figure. Aymery- lacks too much the more splendid qualities of a hero, and must, we are inclined to suspect, sometimes have cost his spirited wife a secret sigh, and perhaps been the object of practical jokes from her mischievous brother, Pello. Gualhardine herself, on the other hand, though the most attractive of all, takes too passive a part to command our whole attention; while the apparent significance of Claude rests less upon sympathy than upon her importance in the development of the plot, her rank, and her naively con- •
fideut insistence on it. Then the artificiality appears in the meeting of Claude and Aymery, both having sought, independ-
ently, the same refuge, and concealed with the same pretext
the same emotions, both flying from state to enjoy the wild woods, both disguised, both thinking poorly of each other. This elaborate parallelism, which we are far from intending to blame, recalls the contrast of the ingeniously symmetrical gardens of the seventeenth century with the careless, winding ways of the jardin anglais. Then, again, that tragic intensity which would have accorded as ill with the checkered but no- where profound shadows of the romantic drama as a harsh war- trumpet breaking upon a symphony of pastoral lutes and lyres, is carefully avoided. In the scene which most nearly approaches this, the interviews of Aymery and his mother, the conditions of tragic pathos are on both sides absent. Bertrade does not deserve compassion, and Aymery does not require it. The mother suffers only the consequences of guilty ambition, and of the extraordinary ignorance of her son's nature which per- mits her to disclose it to him. He, on the other hand, in giving up Claude, in giving up royalty, is only the heir of a situation in which the love of justice is admirably in accord with the love of Gualhardine,—a Hercules, for whose choice duty and affection are no longer rivals. Lastly, though it would be absurd to say that these men and women are habitually weak of will, yet even the stubbornest among them are finally swayed with surprising, not to say inexplicable, ease. The metal they are made of stands fast awhile with apparently incorrigible rigour, and then, upon a shock of no extraordinary severity, cracks and reels. The sense that the finale is at hand, and that every one must be sent happy away, seems to fall at once upon all the responsible persons, and induces them hurriedly to transform their habitual severity into good-humour and com- plaisance. De Peyriac accepts with approval the match to which he had been bitterly opposed; the Countess Bertrade, entering with a solemn protest against the threatened daughter- in-law, leaves her with a kiss; Claude, who had throughout professed her resolve never to accept Raymond, entreats him to accept her; and Raymond, who had refused to woo, is not un- willingly won. In all these ways, then, Disguises strikes the note of the romantic drama ; and even its imperfections—such as the incomplete drawing of the relation of Raymond and Claude, and the consequent surprising climax—show but the -defaut of romantic qualite ; the mystery is a little too mysteri- ous, the surprise a trifle too surprising. No doubt, the type of drama to which we have assigned this work is relatively low ; the artificial and the capricious are of inferior value in art to simplicity and law; surprises and disguises, however fascinating, stand below the sheer sincerity of the structure of the highest drama. But relatively to this comparatively low type, it has considerable excellences : the colouring, if not very rich, is picturesque; the character-painting is sometimes subtle, if not profound ; and lastly, that crowning grace of the grand style of drama, that indispensable excellence of the lighter kind, it is "writ in very choice" English.