The pattern of modernist aesthetics on the dramatic stage which saw a vogue in 20th century Europe did not simply emerge sans prototype or influence. We may trace the elements which make a dramatic piece categorically modernist to a certain archetype, and for our purpose of examination the most patent of which is Manfred (1816-17) by Lord Byron (1788-1824), a work that is as much an insult to realism as it is a model of lyrical Romantic excellence. Manfred introduced to the English canon a new set of anti-rules for the author of drama. To the modernists, art is not meant to produce katharsis or follow any kind of rules. In his 1948 essay, Squares and Oblongs, W.H. Auden writes that “being esthetes, the Greeks were naïve psychologists. Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful but because it is like himself.” (Auden 214) Therefore modernist drama seems to strive to be pleasing to the author, putting the interest of the audience last. However, this does not necessarily mean it should be offensive or boring, modernist drama is pleasing in its own anti-Aristotelian way. In modernist drama there is less of an emphasis on telos. Aristotle writes in his Poetics that all drama should have a beginning, middle and an end, what he considers, a “whole”. In other words, the telos should be meaningful and graspable by the audience and all events in the plot should work magnetically toward an end. In this sense, according to classical standards, the essence of a drama is plot. To an audience accustomed to such an artistic corset, modernist drama is less preferable. T.S. Eliot once said in 1933, “The kind of literary law in which Aristotle was interested was not law that he laid down, but law that he discovered. [These are] laws, not rules”. Therefore the philosopher is respected for his categorizing and naming, but he in no way makes the rules of art. Firstly, Aristotle is not an artist and secondly, how can there be any rules?
The modernist dramaturgs, beginning with Byron and Shelley, in a tone as sardonic as it was erudite, sought to shatter Aristotle’s rubric; they made the art they wanted to make, not the art that would necessarily leave the audience with a cathartic reaction. Classically, tragedy seeks to please a bourgeois audience methodically. In tragedy a character of high social order falls from a great height to a great depth. As a result, the audience is in a sense crushed and the katharsis is activated. The audience of Manfred, were it performed on stage, would not have the equipment to react to it within the history of drama. The rhetoric is written according to a classical poetics of meter and rhyme and highly unrealistic, hence evoking the classics while untying the knot Aristotle tied between drama and realism. Subsequently there is less emphasis on the phenomenon of plot and action and more meaning invested in language. Whereas Aristotelian drama should witness the fall of a hero from great social heights in order to produce katharsis, Manfred flips its collar at the bourgeoisie, seeking creative inspiration from elsewhere; and while this ethos is both protested and admonished by various subsequent dramatists, the rubric that sociology is a more dynamic if not pragmatic discipline than aesthetics is precedent, as is the denial to purpose for therapeutic katharsis in art. There is a story that when Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley attended a production of Hamlet, they walked out in the middle because it was overly melodramatic – an insult to their intelligence – and made too much of an effort to please the bourgeois audience.
As Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), another Romantic poet and writer of verse-dramas (a contemporary of Byron) writes in the preface to his mock-epic, (playing intertextuality with Aeschylus), Prometheus Unbound (1820), “Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.” (Shelley 702) Dually noted, both Prometheus Unbound and Manfred, the classical setting of the former and the gothic setting of the latter concurs with a modernist sentiment. Furthermore, Byron’s closet-drama happens on an ethereal plane, (written in the heyday of gothic art in Victorian England) evoking supernatural spirits to grant the Faustian protagonist preternatural powers is not altogether new, yet reflects a strong revulsion of the material world by the artist and a revulsion of Christian and religious ethics. In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley writes, “We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian Religion.” (Shelley 701) All of these bastions of modernist drama: the anti-audience; the anti-telic or aleatory; the non-rhetorical or arhetorical; the anti-heroic or picaresque; the embracing of the supernatural and artificial over the natural, as observed in Lord Byron’s Manfred will be explored in this essay by an examination of various subsequent works of modernist drama. I shall examine the works of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, identifying what characteristics makes them modernist, and compares them to Lord Byron’s Manfred.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’ a Shakespearean epigraph precedes Byron’s dramatic poem. Written between 1599 and 1601, Hamlet, from whence the epigraph is taken played a pivotal role in derailing an Aristotelian poetics of drama—as did King Lear, as John Keats once wrote, “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth – examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout…(Keats 862). Firstly, it introduces to its dramatis personae a ghost, therefore crossing the ethereal and material worlds, siding with the former; and secondly, by fiddling with the crux of tragedy: the imitation of an action, that is to say, in Prince Hamlet’s saga, delay is over action, and as follows, tragedy becomes the opposite of the modern. As for the preference of the ethereal over the material, Manfred, the protagonist of Lord Byron’s dramatic poem invokes six spirits who personify corporeal elements. Cries Manfred in Act 1, Scene 1:
Mysterious Agency!/ Ye spirits of the unbound Universe!/ Whom I have sought in darkness and in light—/ Ye, who do compass earth about, and dwell/ In subtler essence—ye, to whom the tops/ Of mountains inaccessible are haunts,/ And earth’s and ocean’s cave familiar things—I call upon ye by the written charm/ Which gives me power upon you—Rise! Appear!
Continuing his dialogue in iambic pentameter, Manfred wishes that the spirits—which eventually appear, speaking in rhyme and engaging in a dialogue with the protagonist—would grant him forgetfulness to ease his pain of relentless regret:
If it be so.—Spirits of earth and air,/ Ye shall not thus elude me: by a power,/ Deeper than all yet urged, a tyrant-spell,/ Which had its birth-place in a star condemn’d,/ The burning wreck of a demolish’d world,/A wandering hell in the eternal space;/ By the strong curse which is upon my soul,/The thought which is within me and around me, /I do compel ye to my will.—Appear!
Manfred, the protagonist, lives in a cottage in the Bernese Alps. The seven spirits he summons are not able to cure Manfred’s guilt by giving him the power to forget. In Act I, Scene II, he attempts suicide by leaping from the cliffs of the Jungfrau:
Such would have been for me a fitting tomb;/ My bones had then been quiet in their depth;/ They had not then been strewn upon the rocks/ For the wind’s pastime—as thus—thus they shall be—In this one plunge.—Farewell, ye opening heavens!/ Look not upon me thus reproachfully—/ Ye were not meant for me—Earth! Take these atoms!
He is however saved by a hunter. Eventually, after refusing to submit himself to any external forces, especially religion, he dies in the end in his castle. Before his death, he is visited by an Abbot of the church who tries to convince him to repent for his sins as a cure for his guilt. The Abbot tells him:
All this is well;/ For this will pass away, and be succeeded/By an auspicious hope, which shall look up/With calm assurance to that blessed place/ Which all who seek may win, whatever be/Their earthly errors, so they be atoned:/ And the commencement of atonement is/The sense of its necessity.– Say on– /And all our church can teach thee shall be taught; And all we can absolve thee, shall be pardon’d.
Says the Abbot:
I came to save, and not destroy—/ I would not pry into thy secret soul; But if these things be sooth, there still is time/ For penitence and pity; reconcile thee/ With the true church, and through the church to heaven…
But through Manfred, Byron refuses religion, he refuses salvation and Christianity. Lord Byron once wrote in his private journal in protest to the message of the Gospel:
A material resurrection seems strange, and even absurd, except for purposes of punishment; and all punishment, which is to revenge rather than correct, must be morally wrong. And when the World is at an end, what moral or warning purpose can eternal tortures answer? Human passions have probably disfigured the divine doctrines here, but the whole thing is inscrutable. It is useless to tell me not to reason, but to believe. You might as well tell a man not to wake but sleep. And then to bully with torments! and all that; I cannot help thinking that the menace of Hell makes as many devils, as the severe penal codes of inhuman humanity make villains.
Certainly, these anti-Christian sentiments are reflected in the character of Manfred. The theme of refusing the church may have its roots in Faustian legend, if not the schismatic bards of the pre-renaissance and high-renaissance (who were, of course, Christians); however, it is certainly a trend that has a vogue in modernist drama, to the degree of lampooning the institution of Western religion on grounds that it is materialistic, and embracing the will of the self: humanism. In this respect, Byron’s Manfred is the quintessential Romantic hero in the vein of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, where the protagonist relies only on himself and no external set of values. This ethos anticipates Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and becomes the archetype for a certain rebellious and grandiose type of character known as the Byronic Hero.
“Christianity,” writes W.H. Auden in Squares and Oblongs, “knows of only one predestined life like the lives of the mythical heroes of Greek tragedy and this life is (a) not a myth, (b) not a tragedy. Further, esthetic values have nothing to do with its ritual representation; whether the Mass is well or badly sung is irrelevant…” (Auden 211) Hence, the church is held to be overly materialistic and comes off to many of the modernist writers as ridiculous. The materialism of Western religion is also ridiculed in the drama of William Butler Yeats. Take for example, Calvary (1923), which parodies Christian Passion plays, and is written in the style of Japanese Noh theatre which, in itself, is antithetical to Ancient Greek and Western drama.
Yeats was introduced to Noh theatre by his colleague, Ezra Pound. Another of Yeats’ traditional or Celtic plays, adapted for a Noh stage, is At the Hawk’s Well (1916-17); a modern performance of which is shown below:
But for our purposes, we are focusing on Calvary. The salient Noh elements in Calvary are the music and the three musicians being on stage. The instrumentation of the drum, gong, and zither in Calvary that is used by the three musicians for the song of the folding and unfolding of the cloth at the beginning and end of the production is the same as in Noh drama. The dramatis personae: three musicians, Christ, Lazarus, Judas and three Roman soldiers, all wear masks or Deigans, or have their faces made up to resemble masks, as in the tradition of Noh drama. That Christ is made to wear a mask, like Sophocles has his Oedipus wear a mask, suggests that the New Testament is a dramatic tragedy. The Noh elements give the play yet a third dimension. Noh drama is less interested in character (in the sense of Western realism), and instead representative of the soul. Therefore writing Calvary in the fashion of Noh drama creates a fascinating juxtaposition to religious Christian drama. The result is doubtlessly a satire of the Christian Bible. In the beginning of the play the First Musician speaks of Christ, “…The cross that but exists because he dreams it/ Shortens His breath and wears away His strength./ And now He stands amid a mocking crowd…” (Yeats 450) in so doing he is mocking Christianity and Christ by describing the Son of Man, perhaps as a Medieval Knight, as in The Dream of the Rood, or simply suggesting that the whole crucifixion scenario is but a dream. Yeats’ main message in Calvary, however, is revealed at the end:
Christ: And who are you that ask your God for nothing?
Third Roman Soldier: We are the gamblers, and when you are dead/ We’ll settle who is to have that cloak of yours/ By throwing dice.
The cloak therefore comes to represent the materialism of the Church, and charity as the true Christian value. The third Soldier’s reply to Christ also suggests that the symbolism of the cross is so powerful that one does not have to do anything to seek salvation on Earth.
In the final act of Lord Byron’s play the Abbot tells Manfred:
My son! I did not speak of punishment,/ But penitence and pardon; with thyself/ The choice of such remains– and for the last,/ Our institutions and our strong belief/Have given me power to smooth the path from sin/To higher hope and better thoughts, the first/I leave to heaven– ‘Vengeance is mine alone!’/ So saith the Lord, and with all humbleness/ His servant echoes back the awful word.
Manfred denies him:
Old man! There is no power in holy men,/ Nor charm in prayer—nor purifying form/ of penitence—nor, greater than all these,/ the innate tortures of that deep despair,/ which is remorse without the fear of hell,/ But all in all sufficient to itself/ Would make a hell of heaven—can exorcise/ From out the unbounded spirit, the quick sense/ Of its own sins, wrongs, sufferance, and revenge/ Upon itself; there is no future pang/ Can deal that justice on the self-condemn’d/ He deals on his own soul.
Manfred’s speech also intends a strong sense of anti-religiosity suggesting there is no salvation for a tortured soul, and anyway, in the spirit of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, perhaps it is seen as ridiculous to petition any external spirits for salvation. This perhaps anticipates Existentialism that will be evoked on the stage of 20th century drama by the likes of Sartre, Camus and Samuel Beckett. For instance in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a mysterious character, Godot, who never actually shows up.
The missing Godot does however evoke a strong sense of omnipotence:
Estragon: What exactly did we ask him for?…
Vladimir: Oh…nothing very definite.
Estragon: A kind of prayer.
Estragon: A vague supplication.
Estragon: And what did he reply?
Vladimir: That he’d see.
Estragon: That he couldn’t promise anything.
Vladimir: That he’d have to think it over.
Therefore, it is Beckett’s intention that Godot represents God, and this is evident linguistically. While English was Beckett’s mother tongue, he originally wrote the play in French, in which language the word ‘Dieu,’ means god, hence Godot. Therefore, according to Beckett’s theology, God is an unknown entity who may or may not actually show up, and in this case, he does not.
Another main ethos of modernism is the sensibility of defying nature and hence materialism. In Lord Byron’s play, Manfred says:
My mother Earth!/And thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye Mountains,/ Why are ye beautiful? I cannot love ye./And thou, the brightest eye of the universe,/That openest over all, and unto all/Art a delight—thou shin’st not on my heart
This ethos is echoed in Shelley’s prologue to Prometheus Unbound, as was quoted in my introduction, and the shattering of the Aristotelian artistic ideal which all modernist drama must accomplish; a sense that art need not be born from nature, nor the imagination, but is sui generis, existing on its own, as its own entity.
Byron’s anti-theatre creates a tradition that is emulated and expanded upon perhaps most notably in the modernism of the 19th to the 20th century. The closet-dramas of Byron and Shelley were a watershed for the anti-theatre theatre and the avant-garde dramaturgy of the Theatre of the Absurd. T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes is a comic melodrama with song. This is an ironic label because it is hardly dramatic at all; it is instead an absurd experiment in language. And so in the dramatic poem, Sweeney Agonistes, the language is focused more on rhythm than being altogether rhetorical. Take for instance the song that ends the play:
And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock/ for you know the hang man’s waiting for you./And perhaps you’re alive/And perhaps you’re dead/Hoo ha ha/Hoo ha ha/Hoo/Hoo/Hoo/Knock Knock Knock/Knock Knock Knock/Knock/Knock/Knock.
The playlet is divided into two sections, ‘Fragment of a Prologue’ and ‘Fragment of an Agon’. Initially intended not-for-stage but in a written collection of poetry, you could say the emphasis is on the dialogue, however, the dialogue is often, as demonstrated by the above quote, arhetorical and focused on rhythm. Where as in Byron’s Manfred, Manfred and the other mortal characters usually speak in iambic pentameter, and the spirits speak in rhyme patterns, the dialogue in Sweeney Agonistes is written in free verse. Care is taken by Eliot to remain non-rhetorical with his drama and to ensure that it is defunct as a vehicle for katharsis. The playlet was finally performed on stage at a music hall, where half of the audience was drunk; for this, it was actually received well. Furthermore, in the tradition of Byron’s Manfred, where material values are shunned, the protagonist, Sweeney, sardonically represents shallowness in values by being arhetorical and flat.
Another writer of modernist drama who holds true to the rubric as set forth in this essay’s introduction and loosely paralleled by Lord Byron is Gertrude Stein.
Stein, like Eliot, was an American ex-patriot who pushed the dramatic form to the limits of abstraction. The play I am referencing is a closet-drama entitled A List. The dramatic poem is partitioned by six sections, all of which are subtitled as lists. The idea behind this or at least the effect is the creation of a work that is as non-suspenseful, non-dramatic and devoid of a cathartic affect as is artistically possible. There are three characters, Susan, Mabel and Martha and then there is one character named Susan Mabel Martha. The first words of the dramatic poem are, “not interesting.” Laughingly, we recall the first line of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “who’s there?” that introduces the ethereal essence of the play; the underlying and all-important sense of mystery. This line and more importantly this play might be the beginning of modernism, especially recalling how important Hamlet was to Lord Byron who – as above mentioned – uses the line, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…” as an epigraph for Manfred. Let’s recall, however, for Stein’s sake there are two hinges that connect Hamlet to modernism, both being evoked by the line, “who’s there?” The first, the ethereal or metaphysical which concerns Gertrude Stein not, the second being a cognition, perhaps of Shakespeare, that he is on the cusp of a new artistic trend, the modernist drama that defies tragedy, and this is doubtlessly what Stein sardonically intends with her opening line in A List, “not interesting,” which is probably the sentiment Gertrude Stein imagined her audience would be thinking. Katharsis, mythos and didactic art, is hence thrown out the window.
Like Stein, Samuel Beckett was a champion of modernist drama who pushed the modernist paradigm to the limit. Waiting for Godot is a prime example of being anti-telic. Within the two Acts there is no per se beginning, middle and end. The play is an absurd series of actions and dialogue that is sequenced arbitrarily, in a deadpan style, but has no magnetic force moving it towards a climax or finale—a telos. The opening words of the play are said by Estragon, “Nothing to be done” and in line 35, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” This sentiment is a motif. “There’s nothing we can do” (ln 62). The anti-teleology is accomplished via a plot that finds the characters stuck in one place for two days. We can liken the action or non-action of waiting in Waiting for Godot, to the non-action of delay in the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet. Throughout the play Estragon tells Vladimir “Let’s go” but Vladimir always reminds him they cannot move because they are Waiting for Godot (line 66).
While it is not always obvious, a substantial amount of subsequent drama in English (and French) was established from Lord Byron’s closet-drama Manfred. This is because certain aspects of the dramatic poem such as the use of meter and rhyme and unrealistic dialogue; minimal action; the writing of parts which cannot be performed by vocalist actors; the revulsion of realism; revulsion from the material world; a focus on the ethereal and the creation of a work from a source other than the bourgeoisie. These aspects of Lord Byron’s Manfred have proven to be springboards for ideas used by successive dramatists who sought to shatter Aristotle’s rubric for writing dramatic poetry in his Poetics such as, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Elliot. While Manfred, meant to be beheld as a script, a poem, and not for the stage does not seem a far cry from other drama in the Western tradition that evinces a strict sense of realism, some of the subsequent drama from the school of modernism is extremely Surreal and abstract. This is because it does not strive to please a bourgeois audience, to produce katharsis, or to have a beginning, middle and an end, with a magnetic telos and a didactic message. Modernist drama is l’art pour l’art.
(In 1848, German composer and music critic, Robert Schumann, put Lord Byron’s obscure gem of a closet-drama to music, and [re]wrote Byron’s tour de force [as a musical] dramatic poem, with a book based on the Deutsch-language translation of the poem. Also called Manfred, it was first performed onstage in Leipzig, Prussia in 1852. The performance below, from Madrid 2018 is, in turn, here performed partially en español. Other musical adaptations of Byron’s Manfred to follow came from Tchaikovsky and even a rare piano score written by Nietzsche).
Written at Bar-Ilan University, Department of English Literature and Linguistics, Graduate Studies Program, 2011-12 (?); edited for TOI blog 2020-’21
(this is an incomplete draft. it is missing a Works Cited. I did my best with links, though, some of the works addressed in the paper are relatively obscure, such as, Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, Stein’s ‘A List’, and Auden’s ‘Squares and Oblongs’. and therefore it is hopeless to try and find some of these titles in a public library, let alone online and in the public domain. hope I don’t get sued.)