The following analysis of Paolo and Francesca was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 99-105.
It is a remarkable fact that although, since the very beginnings of drama, plays have been written in verse, the legitimacy of the "poetic drama" is still called into question. There is, however, some ground for such a discussion, yet it is undeniable that if a play be good drama and good poetry it is "legitimate." Perhaps because of the naturalistic tendency of [recent years], during which the English poetic drama has been at its lowest ebb, more "closet drama" than acting pieces have been written than would otherwise have been the case, merely because the form had fallen into disfavor with theater-goers. When the great Victorian poets -- Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Matthew Arnold -- wrote plays, they had only the vaguest notions of the exigencies of the stage: Queen Mary, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, Atalanta in Calydon, and Empedocles are written to appeal rather to the ear and the intellect than to the eye and the more elemental emotions. These poets were either unaware that the dramatic form was totally different from the lyric or epic, or they did not care to write plays for the stage, preferring the "dramatic poem." For the most part they failed to distinguish dramatic dialogue from lyric and epic verse. Browning's lines in A Blot in the 'Scutcheon reveal character, but they fail to indicate "spiritual action." The resultant play gives one the impression of reading a number of the poet's "Dramatic Monologues," strung together upon a thread of story: in other words, he ganes nothing through casting his thoughts in what appears to be play form.
Shakespeare affords us the finest example of dramatic dialogue: in the lines he reveals character, creates atmosphere, indicates spiritual action, and advances the story. The following random quotation from Macbeth will serve as illustration of the point:
- ...The raven himself is hoarse
- That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
- Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
- That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
- And fill me, from the crown to toe, top-full
- Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
- Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
- That no compunctions visitings of nature
- Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
- The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
- And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
- Wherever in your sightless substances
- You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
- And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
- That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
- Nor heaven peep through the blanket of dark,
- To cry, "Hold, hold!"
- (Enter Macbeth.)
- Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
- Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
- Thy letters have transported me beyond
- This ignorant present, and I feel now
- The future in the instant.
Stephen Phillips, in Ulysses, Herod, and Paolo and Francesca, has shown some gift for dramatic dialogue; and as a dramatist, many particular scenes from these plays give evidence of a sense of the theater and considerable skill in developing a plot. Still Paolo and Francesca, in many ways this poet's finest effort, is far from a good play -- in any sense of the term -- chiefly because Phillips the poet stands out above Phillips the dramatist.
Most poetic plays are modeled, with certain modifications, upon the plays of ancient Greece or those of the age of Elizabeth, and Stephen Phillips, being an Englishman, follows -- even in Ulysses -- Elizabethan models.
As the story of Paolo and Francesca is well known -- it appears in Dante's Divine Comedy -- we are prepared for such mystic forebodings (technically speaking, "preparation") as occupy the greater part of the brief first act. First, Paolo's desire to leave, his brother's anxiety, then the scene with Lucrezia, and that immediately following, with the blind Angela. There is no need to leave the audience in doubt as to what the story is to be: Angela's words supply the necessary warning:
- His face was dim: a twilight struggles back.
- I see two lying dead upon a bier--
- Slain suddenly, and in each other's arms...
- ...He shall be
- Not far to seek: yet perilous to find.
- Unwillingly he comes a wooing: she
- Unwillingly is wooed: yet shall they woo.
- His kiss was on her lips ere she was born.
And Stephen Phillips, the dramatist, adds the stage-direction: "Francesca, in passing, pauses and offers trinket to Angela, who shudders, letting it fall. Exuent all but Angela, who remains starting before her." If there was the least shadow of doubt in the mind of the audience as to the truth of Angela's words, her action would dispel it.
So far, the story is compact and moving. The second act is well developed up to the second scene, which takes up the plot as it was left in the first act. Giovanni is made aware of the identity of Francesca's fated lover. Then the scene changes -- Shakespeare's method again -- to a more or less "comic relief" scene, written in prose. This interlude is followed by Paolo's soliloquy.
The soliloquy in modern plays is considered to be a confession of weakness on the part of the dramatist. It had hitherto been used largely as a makeshift by the dramatist who was unwilling or unable to reveal character or advance his plot by other and more natural means. Yet in the poetic drama it is permissible -- that is, if it reveals character, creates atmosphere, or advances the story. Obviously, Paolo's speech reveals some character, but as a dramatic expedient its insertion at this critical point must be considered a blemish on the play. The point for the dramatist was, how to get Paolo to return to Francesca? The struggle goes on in Paolo's mind, and the poet has only to give words to the lover's thoughts and emotions. But in a play that is not sufficient. Just how this end was accomplished is not our business or intention to determine; yet the fact remains that a monologue is not sufficiently convincing, especially as the monologue leaves us in doubt as to the character's immediate intentions. Here is the end of the speech:
- I cannot go; thrilling from Rimini,
- A tender voice makes all the trumpets mute.
- I cannot go from her: may not return.
- O God! what is they will upon me? Ah!
- One path there is, a straight path to the dark.
- There, in the ground, I can betray no more,
- And there forever am I pure and cold.
- The means! No dagger blow, nor violence shown
- Upon my body to distress her eyes.
- Under some potion gently will I die;
- And they that find me dead shall lay me down
- Beautiful as a sleeper at her feet.
The break at the middle of Act II was justifiable because of the contrast it afforded. The third act, however, should intensify the plot, draw the attention to the central idea, not because of a certain law of dramatic technique, but because the human mind demands this sort of synthesis. To start a story, develop it a little, then stop it, then play around it, is not only bad art but bad psychology: we demand a logical continuation of the story when it is once started. In place of this we have another contrast scene, which opens the act, then Giovanni's entrance, and his rather unconvincing errand; the coincidence of his overhearing Paolo, then Paolo's soliloquy, and finally Giovanni's scene with the messenger. This is all very ragged. Then -- Scene 3 -- there is a good dramatic scene. Note the "atmosphere" lines:
- FRANCESCA: I cannot sleep, Nita; I will read here.
- Is it dawn yet? (Nita sets lamp down.)
- NITA: No, lady: yet I see
- A flushing in the east.
- FRANCESCA: How still it is!
- NITA: This is the stillest time of night or day!
Toward the end of the act, the poet's mistake in crowding too many incidents into a small space becomes only too apparent; not only does the crowding confuse, but it occupies space which should be given, we feal, to the love scene. We are told, it is true, that the two "have to each other moved all night," but how much more telling and convincing would have been a longer scene between the lovers, such as D'Annunzio gave in his Francesca da Rimini!
That admirable love scene which should have supported the third act is placed instead in the otherwise admirable fourth.
There are lyrical passages throughout, not many it is true, which do not contribute to the story. Can you pick these out? On the other hand, there are dramatic lines and passages which are peculiarly apt and effective.
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