This analysis of Michael and His Lost Angel was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 40-43.
Michael and His Lost Angel is Henry Arthur Jones's most ambitious play. Into it he put his deepest convictions, and succeeded in producing a tragic drama of passion which may well hold its own with the finest plays of the time. Bernard Shaw, most catholic of critics, said of the play: "It seems ... to me to be a genuinely sincere and moving play, feelingly imagined, written with knowledge as to the man and insight as to the woman by an author equipped not only with the experience of an adept playwright, and a kindly and humorous observer's sense of contemporary manners, but with that knowledge of spiritual history in which Mr. Jones's nearest competitors seem so stupendously deficient." The play was not a success, owing to difficulties in the original casting, it was said, but the truth of the matter is expressed in Shaw's words: "The melancholy truth of the matter is that the English stage got a good play, and was completely and ignominiously beaten by it."
In his Dramatic Opinions and Essays, Bernard Shaw remarks: "As to the first two acts, I ask nothing better; but at the beginning of the third comes the parting of our ways; and I can point out the exact place where the roads fork. In the first act, Michael, a clergyman, compels a girl who has committed what he believes to be a deadly sin, to confess it publicly to the church. In the second act he commits that sin himself. At the beginning of the third act he meets the lady who has been his accomplice; and the following words pass between them:
- AUDRIE: You're sorry?
- MICHAEL: No. And you?
- AUDRIE: No.
Now, after this, what does the clergyman do? Without giving another thought to the all-significant fact that he is not sorry -- that at the very point where, if his code and creed were valid, his conscience would be aching with remorse, he is not only impenitent, but positively glad, he proceeds to act as if he really were penitent, and not only puts on a hair shirt, but actually makes a confession to his congregation in the false character of a contrite sinner, and goes out from among them with bowed head to exile and disgrace, only waiting in the neighborhood until the church is empty to steal back and privily contradict his pious imposture by picking up and hiding a flower which the woman has thrown on the steps of the altar."
Shaw condemns Michael for not being true to his own conviction: he should either have been sorry, and told Audrie so -- in which case there would have been no play -- or else not have confessed himself wrong. In the latter case, the play would have been tragic in every sense of the word, for society (external circumstances) would have prevented the couple from living as they thought it right to live, but as it is, we have nothing but a weakling, who is at most a pathetic and not a tragic figure.
How far is Shaw's criticism valid? Does Jones intend Michael to be contrite? Is he really "not sorry," as he declares to Audrie? Is the play a true tragedy?
Jones repeatedly asserted that literature and the drama should be inseparable; a play must stand the test of time, and to do this, it must stand the test of print. In his essay on "Literature and the Modern Drama" he says: "If your drama is truly alive, it will necessarily be literature." He continues: "If you have faithfully and searchingly studied your fellow-citizens; if you have selected from amongst them those characters that are interesting in themselves, and that also possess an enduring human interest; if in studying these interesting personalities, you have severely selected from the mass of their sayings and doings and impulses, those words and deeds and tendencies which mark them at once as individuals and types; if you have recast and re-imagined all the materials; if you have cunningly shaped them into a story of progressive and cumulative action; if you have done all this, though you may not have used a single word but what is spoken in ordinary American intercourse today, I will venture to say that you have written a piece of live American literature -- that is, you have written something that will not only be interesting on the boards of the theater, but can be read with pleasure in your library, can be discussed, argued about, tasted, and digested as literature."
Literature, then, in the drama, is not altogether a matter of style, it concerns itself with arrangement, selection, appropriateness to the characters in the mouths of which words are put, and plot. A play may be written with no pretense to style, and yet be good literature. Certain it is that in the plays of Stephen Phillips the language is finer, the style is nearer to perfection than is that of Sardou, yet the Frenchman was a far greater master of dramatic literature than the English poet.
In what respects is Michael and His Lost Angel literature? Can its style in itself take rank as literature?
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