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HYACINTH HALVEY

a comedy in one act by Lady Gregory
First performed in 1906

The following analysis of Hyacinth Halvey was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 202-5.

The [author's] note (in Seven Short Plays) tells of the origin of this little play: "I was pointed out one evening a well-brushed, well-dressed man in the stalls, and was told gossip about him, perhaps not all true, which made me wonder if that appearance and behavior as of extreme respectability might not now and again be felt a burden. After a while he translated himself in my mind into Hyacinth; and as one must set one's original a little way off to get a translation rather than a tracing, he found himself in Cloon, where, as in other parts of our country, 'character' is built up or destroyed by a password or an emotion, rather than by experience or deliberation. The idea was more of a universal one than I knew at the first, and I have had but uneasy appreciation from some apparently blameless friends."

Like most of Lady Gregory's comedies, Hyacinth Halvey contains a universal idea or basis: reputation is in a great measure a matter of "a password or an emotion." Hyacinth, having a good reputation thrust upon him, may do as he likes: his good name will cling to him. In this play we laugh at humanity: here is the essence of comedy.

In the realm of what is termed the modern drama, we have seen that classification is becoming more and more difficult. Hyacinth Halvey can safely be termed a comedy, but comedy with a continual tendency toward farce. The characters are undoubtedly "possible," and the situation likewise, yet somehow Hyacinth's unbroken series of failures to lose his good reputation, and Fardy Farrell's unparalleled failures to lose his bad one, lead us to assume that the dramatist is bordering upon farce. Possibly the Irish setting and the good simple people render the episodes sufficiently foreign to enable us to accept the facts, yet these characters are so delightfully human that they must be taken as universal types.

This play, together with Spreading the News, The Jackdaw, and The Workhouse Ward, raises again the question of comedy and tragedy. At the risk of being paradoxical, one might say that a tragedy is a play the closing of which is its goal, the spire of its meaning; a comedy is one the whole of which stands in and by itself, for the sake of its characters, and which has no end. Tragedy shows the struggles of strong individuals against fate (Oedipus) or circumstances (Romeo and Juliet); against themselves (Hamlet) or against others (Julius Caesar and Othello), and must end in defeat. Comedy is not concerned with the outcome; it amuses us from minute to minute: the outcome never seriously matters. Usually the end is the union of lovers, which is the merest convention. Had Hamlet ended in any other way than as it does, the play would have been spoiled or radically changed, had As You Like It not ended with the series of unions, the play would still have had meaning in itself, intrinsic dramatic value. Tragedy points forward to the catastrophe -- it is not a tragedy until the tragic outcome occurs -- comedy is sufficient unto itself.

Lady Gregory has recognized this fact, and has left three or four of her comedies with "hanging" ends. The best examples of this are Hyacinth Halvey and The Jackdaw. In the former, we are shown Hyacinth trying in vain to undeceive the people as to his "character"; a series of incidents demonstrates the utter futility of the attempt. There is no denouement; "Let us therefore ring down the curtain," says Lady Gregory.

Similarly, in The Jackdaw, there is no solution: the police are coming, there will doubtless be an explanation, but that will not interest us. Therefore the dramatist says: "Sounds of feet and talking and knock at the door. Cooney hides under counter. Nestor lies down on top of bench, spreads his newspaper over him. Mrs. Broderick goes behind counter." Then Nestor says: "(raising paper from his face and looking out) Tommy Nally, I will give you five shillings if you will draw 'Tit-Bits' over my feet." -- That is the end.

Notice by way of comparison the elaborate dénouements of Sweet Lavender and The Liars.

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