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Poets Into Playwrights

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

The Fall of the City. By Archibald MacLeish. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $.50. The Ascent of F6. By W. H. Auden and Christopher Isher-wood. New York: Random House. $1.50. The Alccslis of Euripides. An English Version by Dudley Fitts and Robert FitzGerald. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.25. Ion of Euripides. Translated with Notes by H.D. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00. The Agamemnon of, Mschylus. Translated by Louis MacNcice. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.75.

A fine example of the failure of logic to determine literary trends can be found in the current revival of poetic drama. Logically, the nineteen-twenties, when Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was exerting so strong an influence upon practising poets, could have been expected to introduce that revival. But poets then, resigned in the belief that poetry had long since lost all social use and appeal, relinquished the stage to Mr. Anderson’s weak blank verse and Mr. O’Neill’s weak prose lyricism. If poets wrote plays, they employed prose (as Robinson in “Van Zorn” or Cummings in “Him”); or occasionally poetry, but with little or no thought of stage presentation (as MacLeish in “Nobodaddy”)—dealing in language and symbology not as readily intelligible as even the experimental theatres were obliged to demand. Not till the beginning of the present decade was there a general declaration for a more direct appeal of poetry to a wider audience, with the obvious next-step notion that “the ideal medium for poetry and the most direct means of social ‘usefulness’ is the theatre,” as T. S. Eliot said in 1932.

But the period of fullest interest in Marlowe and Webster and Ford had already waned. Contrary to logical prediction, it is to two principal types of pre-Elizabethan drama that most of the traceable elements in the verse-play revival must be traced. One is the medieval morality, the other the Greek tragedy. The bare allegory of the former, its impersonality, its inclination to launch into ethical disputation, its close contact with the spectator even to the extent of addressing him outright, its concern with man beset by simple universal problems rather than with men involved in complex individual situations—these are among the traits we discover in Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” Day Lewis’ “Noah and the Waters,” MacLeish’s “Panic,” and in two of the plays before us now, MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City” and Auden and Isherwood’s “The Ascent of F6.” As for Greek tragedy, again there is simplicity of narrative and of character delineation, as well as a wealth of adaptable devices like the chorus, the messenger, antiphony, prophecy.

MacLeish’s short play provides easy illustration of this synthesis of classical and medieval elements. His theme is the pitiful, blind, foredefeated, subhuman, yet all-too-human bowing of a people before an invading Conqueror, whose actual hollowness is disguised by heavy clanking armor. When the Conqueror’s visor opens, we learn:

The Helmet is hollow! The metal is empty! The armor is empty! I tell you There’s no one at all there: there’s only the metal: The barrel of metal: the bundle of armor. It’s empty 1 The push of a stiff pole at the nipple would topple it. They don’t see! They lie on the paving. They lie in the Burnt spears: the ashes of arrows. They lie there . . . They don’t see or they won’t see. They are silent . . .

In a Greek play, this action would have occurred off-stage and been reported by the chorus. MacLeish, writing for the radio, finds it convenient to have it reported by the chorus’s counterpart, the Voice of the Announcer, which largely fills in for the listener events past and present, reactions of characters, descriptions of the scene, and apparent moralizing. The Voice of a Messenger is introduced to herald the Conqueror’s approach (even as the Messenger in Aeschylus prepares us for Agamemnon’s return). And there is the Voice of a Dead Woman predicting (even as Cassandra foretells the murder of Agamemnon):

The city of masterless men Will take a master. There will be shouting then: Blood after!

On the other hand, reminiscent of the medieval morality are the play’s brevity and unity and directness, its avoidance of naming characters or studying them as individuals, its debat engaged in by personifications of Passivism, last-minute Defense, and Mass Mind. It is a play of Everyman meeting a temporal god which he himself has created out of ignorance and fear.

In basic theme “The Ascent of F6” is near kin to “The Fall of the City.” Everyman, for Auden and Isherwood, is Michael Ransom (here the characters are named, though they do not need to be), who is already subject to the hollow man-created god, Imperialism. He has looked the god full in its brutally vacant face, has observed with disgust how his countrymen mouth words like Virtue and Knowledge in apology for the god “during the nursery luncheon, on the prizegiving afternoon, in the quack advertisement, at the conference of generals or industrial captains: justifying every baseness and excusing every failure, comforting the stilted schoolboy lives.” We witness the pathetic breakdown of his will as he is induced by his brother (Politics), his mother (Sentiment), a publisher greedy for more than news (Imperialist Propaganda), and assorted Public Opinion, to undertake for the Empire’s prestige and future military advantage the perilous ascent of a mountain known as the F6. As the adventure progresses and is maudlinized by headline and wireless, fascinating glimpses of Ransom and his crew of climbers (representing several conflicting philosophies of life) are interspersed with flashes from the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. A. (ordinary citizens of the Empire: that is, the chorus).

“The Ascent of F6” is inferior to MacLeish’s play in power and poetic beauty. But it succeeds quite as admirably in objectifying the action so that on the surface at least it seems to develop naturally, spontaneously, rather than through the poet’s complex perception of the action (as Henry James remarked about Tennyson’s “Queen Mary,” and as could be remarked about nearly all modern plays in verse). And Auden seldom lapses into blunt didacticism; in the main he abides by his old principle that “poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.”

Arm in arm with the verse-play revival is the new interest in translating Greek tragedy. In the past, performed translations have been stiff or somehow misrepresenting, unperformed ones designed for academicians. Now, taking their cue from W. B. Yeats, who said in 1930 in his preface to “OEdipus,” “I put readers and scholars out of my mind and wrote to be sung and spoken,” translators are attempting not to sacrifice the drama of the tragedies for the poetry, or vice versa; the pervasive spirit for the literal meaning, or vice versa. Success in this difficult endeavor is most nearly realized by Dudley Fitts and Robert FitzGerald in their version of the “Alcestis.” It is a play of many moods, all of which they re-create in extraordinary fullness. The virtues of their work can best be emphasized by pointing out pitfalls in their path which they escaped but which Louis MacNeice and H.D. toppled into. MacNeice preserves the drive and tension of action sequences in the “Agamemnon,” but reflective passages are heavy and uneven. Throughout his translation we are jarred by lines like these from Clytem-nestra’s speech:

Here are the facts first hand. I will tell you of my own unbearable life I led so long as this man was at Troy.

For first that the woman separate from her man

Should sit alone at home is extreme cruelty,

Hearing so many malignant rumors—First

Comes one, and another comes after, bad news to worse,

Clamor of grief to the house.

In these three sentences may be observed MacNeice’s chief faults: in the first, colloquialism pushed absurdly far; in the second, flatness; in the third, needlessly awkward and tortuous syntax (Aeschylus’ own sentences are long and loose but are always easier for a listener to grasp). H.D.’s determined purity of diction and transparency of phrasing render her “Ion” consistently communicative; it is perhaps a pity that these qualities are such a contrast to the style of Euripides himself. To be sure, H.D.’s style is compatible with her interpretation that Euripides was not attacking traditional worship of the Greek deities with savage irony, as most commentators have agreed, but was speaking “through his boy-priest, Ion, with his own vibrant superabundance of ecstasy before a miracle.” Making the play “devotional” rather than ironical heightens the emotional impact of lyrical and dramatic passages, but removes it as far from Euripides’ tone and temper as if one were convinced that Cervantes had Spenser’s reverence for the courtly ideal and so Englished “Don Quixote.” MacNeice’s and H.D.’s translations, despite these shortcomings, are good enough to encourage them to work further in Greek tragedy, but they are not good enough to discourage other modern poets from trying to do better with these particular two Greek tragedies.


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