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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review October 1914

Galsworthy's Idea of Tragedy

page 26

Galsworthy's Idea of Tragedy.

If I had one prayer to make, it would be, Good God,
give me to understand.—"The Pigeon."

In 1900 Mr. W. L. Courtney, at present the editor of The Fortnightly Review, delivered a series of lectures upon "The Idea of Tragedy." These lectures make the most admirable and inspiring reading, even to the humblest student of the drama.

The author, after discussing the inception of the tragic idea in Greece, concludes that "tragedy is always the clash of two powers—necessity without, freedom within; outside, a great, rigid, arbitrary law of fate; inside, the undefeated individual will, which can win its spiritual triumph even when all its material surroundings and environment have crumbled into hopeless ruin."

The same theory, he suggests, holds good in regard to Shakeperean tragedy. But there is this distinction: Tragedy is still the fruit of struggle, but the struggle is no longer one between man and an external relentless fate, but between man and the warring elements within him. Every man is his own potential enemy. In the domination of a man by an unworthy passion lies the Shaksperean idea of tragedy: "As in the ancient, so in the more modern dramatist, there is always the obscure desperate conflict between the individual and what for him appears destiny and fate. . . . But if we ask what this fate or destiny was in the conception of our English dramatist, there is only one answer. Destiny is nothing but the man's character—not an external, but an internal agency," Thus, the tragedies of Romeo and Antony are born of their blind unreasoning loves: the ambition of Macbeth, the jealousy of Othello, the egotism of Lear are productive of those tragic incidents in their lives, which Shakspere has permanently enshrined in his tragedies.

It is most interesting to notice how the idea of tragedy as changed since Shakspere wrote. The modern world, page 27 and more especially the nineteenth century, has witnessed the spread, to an extraordinary degree, of what we will call humanitarianism. The gospel of the brotherhood of man is everywhere taught, its principles everywhere expounded, its influence upon contemporary thought a great and predominant one. A hundred years ago, if a man stole a horse, he was hanged; to-day, in all probability, he would be detained for reformative treatment. In Shakspere's day the man who wrote treasonously of the Sovereign was burnt at the stake; to-day he is returned to Parliament. In a word, in the long period that has elapsed since Burbage walked the boards of the Globe Theatre, we have perhaps grown gentler than our forefathers, but at the cost of becoming genteel, and the change has not been a profitable one for the writer of tragedy. Tragedy, in its essence, must deal with the elemental facts of life—love, death, birth; but the modern world has an instinctive distrust of the elemental.

A recognition, a frank acknowledgment of this change in the public conscience enables us to realise and appreciate the Ibsenistic idea of tragedy, and it is Ibsen, among the moderns, who still exercises the most direct and powerful influence upon the English dramatist of to-day. "What, in fact," asks Mr. Courtney, "is Ibsen's idea of tragedy? As far as I can see, it is the failure on the part of a given individual to achieve his mission." All men have in them the potentiality of greatness; many men of genius are born who are pioneers in the march of civilization; we look to some outstanding figures for progress in every form of human activity; for such a one to fail in his life work is a tragedy, and such a failure is the motive of the Ibsen tragedy.

With these facts fresh in mind, we turn with added interest to the examination of the dramas of one of the most interesting of modern English playwrights. John Galsworthy has now written nine plays. Of these, he describes one only—"Justice"—as a tragedy, but at least three of his other plays are tragedies in form. These are "Strife," "The Fugitive," and "The Mob." In his remaining plays, the note of tragedy is frequently struck. Indeed, a certain poignancy, vaguely suggestive of page 28 tragedy, is characteristic of all Galsworthy's plays. It is therefore well worth inquiring—What is Galsworthy's idea of tragedy?

It is not easy to find a satisfactory answer to this question, but the one we are about to suggest, however inadequate it be, seems to us a conceivable one. Galsworthy looks into the complex system of modern life, as a biologist studies a drop of blood beneath the microscope; he contemplates the vast stream of hurrying humanity; he passes from the homes of the rich to the hovels of the poor, and sees everywhere "blank misgivings," as it were, of creatures "moving about in worlds not realised." All men and women are faced with thousands of perplexing problems; they frequently misunderstand them; they themselves are frequently misunderstood. Of misunderstanding is born disappointment, disillusionment, despair, and finally—death! Thus the lover, who, too late, discovers that the object of his veneration has had to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together, is a figure of tragedy; the woman, who leaves her home to seek her emancipation, and finds that there is only one profession open to a woman of her class, and who, in her disillusionment and despair, finds in death a welcome haven of refuge, is a figure of tragedy; thus also the idealist, who cherishes his ideal in the face of popular misunderstanding and hostility until he meets his death is, too, a figure of tragedy.

It remains for us to examine those plays of Galsworthy's which belong to the sphere of tragedy, with a view to showing that our contention is one which may be reasonably upheld. In "Justice," as has been pointed out by Mr. Shaw, the dramatist has succeeded in writing a tragedy which contains no character vicious in itself. Falder, a solicitor's clerk, is, of his type, perfect; without ambition, yet without vice. The sole thing that differentiates him from the thousands of his fellows is that he has fallen in love with a woman who is ill-treated by her husband. This fact spells tragedy for Falder. In order to fly from the country with Ruth Honeywill, he forges a cheque to obtain the necessary means. Discovery follows. Falder is delivered to justice by his just and page 29 conscientious employer; he is tried by a just and conscientious Judge; he is condemned to three years' penal servitude; and we actually see him in durance vile, where three of the most amazingly just and conscientious men on record—the Governor, Chief Warder, and Prison Doctor—hold counsel, to the end that Falder's lot in prison may be made an agreeable one. After two and a half years Falder is released on ticket of leave. His imprisonment makes him a marked man, and he is unable to obtain employment. As a last resource, he goes to his old employers and asks for a further chance. However, unknown to him, an insurmountable obstacle stands in his way. His old love, Ruth Honeywill, has had to leave her husband, and has been forced by circumstances to earn her living by what the Sherriff in "Blanco Posnet" very acutely terms "the primrose path." Falder, after his release, resumes his perfectly innocent intimacy with her; but his old employers, knowing of the woman's former life, refuse to engage him unless he cuts short his intimacy with Ruth. Their refusal leads Falder slowly to a realization of the ghastly fact that the woman, whom he venerates, has suffered the contamination of the streets. At this moment, when the horror of his disillusionment lies as a thick cloud over Falder, a detective arrives to arrest him for a minor offence, which will mean at the most a short term of imprisonment; but Falder, with the bark of his soul foundering upon the rock of his shattered ideal, sees nothing but unimaginable misery ahead; the fair fruit, the vision of which had lightened the days of his incarceration, has turned to dust and ashes in his grasp. He flings himself down a flight of stone stairs, and is picked up—dead.

It seems to us that the tragedy of Falder is born of his disillusionment. We cannot understand the views of those who contend that the tragedy of "justice" is the tragedy of the separate confinement system. As beautifully as the prison scene is painted, as harrowing as is the picture of the effect of separate confinement upon the prisoner, these scenes appeal to us as being only incidental to the action of the play. Falder has lived through the years of his imprisonment, cheered by the page 30 thought of his love. At the moment when life seems to hold fresh promise for him, when a "vision splendid" of future peace and happiness gleams before his eyes, he becomes aware of the fact that he has been living in a fool's paradise, and the shock of disillusionment is too great; death is preferable to life.

"Strife," "The Fugitive," and "The Mob" are all in a marked degree Ibsenistic. "The Fugitive" may almost be described as a sequel to "The Doll's House," and Stephen More, in "The Mob," is a devoted disciple of Dr. Thomas Stockman. The plot of "The Fugitive" is this: An ultra-modern woman, married to a wealthy man of her own station, finds that she and her husband have nothing in common. Quarrel succeeds quarrel, until they finally part. The woman, brought up to a life of ease, manages to live for some time by obtaining employment in a shop, but she is discovered, and seeks oblivion again in other occupations; success does not attend her, and she finally meets a man, an author, who in happier days had paid her attentions. With him for some months she lives in happiness; but his employers hear of the intimacy, and he is threatened with ruin. This comes to the knowledge of Clare, and the unfortunate fugitive is again faced with the problem of how to live. She tries different means with no success, and is ultimately confronted with the alternatives of death or—if we may use the language of Frome—the sale of her body. With the intention of pursuing the profession of Manon Lescaut, she repairs to a racecourse hotel. She is duly "sized up" by an habitue, accepts his invitation to dinner, and agrees to meet him later. He goes out to settle for the dinner, and returns to find that the Fugitive, sickened by the prospect of the endless years of misery in front of her, has fled from all her troubles by taking poison.

We again suggest that the tragedy of "The Fugitive is the fruit of disillusionment, though this moral is not so obvious as it is in the case of "Justice." Clare is the daughter of a clergyman; she marries, expecting the happiness of married life; she is misunderstood by her husband, and disillusionment follows; she leaves the page 31 husband, with whom she cannot live, hoping to find in the larger world other paths to happiness. She is again disappointed, and is forced to realize the fact that the world holds out few hopes for one of her temperament and upbringing with the final, desperate intention of living the only life open to her, the prospect, even then, proves too horrible, the sight of other women—daughters of joy—is too prophetic of what she herself will become, and her final disillusionment leaves her only one course of action.

"The Mob" is Galsworth's latest play. It reveals the direct influence of Ibsen, and many scenes in the play seem echoes from corresponding scenes in "An Enemy of the People." The story is briefly this: Stephen More, a rising young statesman, is a passionate idealist. An English missionary is killed in a savage country. England threatens war, and finally engages in it. More believes that the war is wrong, and his voice is heard from the first in opposition. Popular fury is aroused against the man, who denounces the war, while his countrymen are being killed, and More finally nets his death at the hands of an unruly mob, which has broken into his house.

To be misunderstood is a tragedy. This seems to have been the idea uppermost in Galsworthy's mind in writing the play.

We have left ourselves but little space to discuss "Strife," one of Galsworthy's earlier plays. "Strife," as the name implies, is a drama dealing with a strike. The action takes place near the Trenartha Tin Plate Works, on the borders of England and Wales. A strike has been in progress all the winter, and seems incapable of settlement, owing to the fact that the leaders on each side are men of unflinching determination, who decline to concede one point more than they consider just. However, the matter is taken out of their hands. The men revolt from the leadership of Roberts, and agree to place the dispute in the hands of a Trades Union official for settlement. The employers, alarmed by the suffering caused by the strike, come to the same resolution, in the face of the strong opposition shown by their leader. The best men on either side are thus deposed, the wife of the page 32 strike leader dies a death of agony by starvation, whole people have suffered bitterly through the winner and the gain has been nil to either party. "A woman dead, and the two best men both broken! All this—all this—and what for?" In the first place, there is misunderstanding; misunderstanding begets the bitterness of strife; strife obscures reason and judgment; both parties fight at cross purposes, until they are forced by sheer weight of physical suffering to realise the futility of their struggle; and all this bitterness and misery have been the fruit of the failure of each party to understand and appreciate the aims of the other. Of such elements is the idea of tragedy composed.

It is not surprising that Galsworthy, seeing in the world endless instances of the grief of disappointment, the terror of despair, the agony of remorse, and the other consequences of man's failure to understand the questions with which he is faced, has placed in the mouth of his ruined French adventurer the supplication—"If I had one prayer to make, it would be, Good God, give me to understand.

—P B.B.