Inspired by the most impressive contemporary models and fortified by the principles derived from them, Edward Martyn had perhaps too clear an intellectual formula for his work and an insufficiently coherent aesthetic approach. Adherence to his formula made the work repetitive, two-dimensional, and lacking in vitality. Like so many of his protagonists, Martyn failed to live up to the promise of his ideals. Yet those ideals, particularly in their eschewal of sentimentality, and the works that attempt to articulate them provide an important perspective from which to view the theatrical accomplishments of his contemporaries.
The Heather Field
Martyn made his name as a dramatist with The Heather Field, and his subsequent works consist of a series of not very startling variations on that play. Without being autobiographical, The Heather Field draws on important features of Martyn’s life.
The play is set in the wild country of the author’s native western Ireland. The action takes place in the context of the Land War, as the struggle between peasants and landlords over conditions of tenure was called. The play is not absolutely contemporaneous with the events it relates; the Land War was at its height from the late 1870’s to the mid-1880’s and had simmered down considerably by the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the play’s references to events still fresh in the minds of an Irish audience emphasize Martyn’s rejection of prehistoric material as the vehicle of his vision and have something in common with the belief of James Joyce (another Ibsenite) that art may be won from the life of one’s own unpromising times. This belief is implicit in all of Martyn’s plays. Regardless of whether one accepts that the handling of the belief conforms to the tenets of realism, the plays’ intellectual bases are firmly grounded in realism.
In addition, the protagonist of The Heather Field, Carden Tyrrell, is a landlord, as Martyn himself was. He is given a surname whose Irish associations are as notable in their own right as is the name Martyn. Tyrrell is provided with one of Martyn’s own formative experiences, that of hearing exalted song from the choir of Cologne Cathedral. Tyrrell is also an “improving” landlord—that is, one who takes an interest in his property (which a great number of Irish landlords did not). In fact, the play contains an unexamined paradox concerning Tyrrell’s social commitments: He makes every effort to reclaim land and enlarge his holdings, yet he is notably unsympathetic to the causes of the Land War. This paradox is subsumed under the more divisive and irreconcilable aspects of Tyrrell’s case. Martyn is less interested in his protagonist’s social situation than in his psychological condition. It should be noted, however, that The Heather Field is an important step forward in the representation of typical Irish types not as figures of fun but as serious embodiments of predicaments experienced by the majority of conscious humanity. By remaining faithful to conditions with which he was intimately familiar, Martyn helped to enlarge the stock of Irish dramatic characters. By dignifying stereotypes, he offered the basis for a new dramatic perspective on Irish life.
The plot of The Heather Field is somewhat spare. Tyrrell conceives an overweening ambition to reclaim the wild, infertile areas of his demesne. To this end, he has risked his fortune draining the heather field of the title. This project is, ostensibly, a success: Productive grass has evidently supplanted pretty, barren heathland. As a result, Tyrrell is determined to go forward and put the whole of his property in financial jeopardy in order to expand his reclamation scheme. Barry Ussher, a friend and neighbor, attempts to dissuade Tyrrell from his rash ambition but to no avail. Moreover, Tyrrell’s wife, Grace (like most of Martyn’s protagonists, Tyrrell is unsuitably married, a fate which the author himself assiduously avoided), is aggressively opposed to the scheme, so much so that she attempts to have her husband certified as insane. Only the timely intervention of Barry Ussher thwarts such a development, Tyrrell being so engrossed in his dream of fertility that he cannot perceive Grace’s tactics or defend himself against the two doctors summoned to the house to carry out Grace’s design. As events reveal, however, official certification of insanity becomes a formality. In the third act, spring has come round again and with it the triumph of heather over grass. The result is that Tyrrell, refusing to accept that nature has declined to answer his needs, loses his mind. He cannot tell past from present, or anything else about himself and the real world that has frustrated his dreams.
Establishing a theme that was to recur in Martyn’s work, The Heather Field is a critique of idealism—or perhaps of idealism in a solipsistic formulation. Tyrrell does not recognize that his ambition is flawed on practical grounds. He cannot accept the fact that the world will not necessarily accommodate the needs he foists on it. His indifference to society, both in the polite sense of the word and in the historical sense, throws him back on his own psychic resources, which wilt under the pressure. Tyrrell’s isolation is subjectively crucial and objectively crippling. The belief that the reclamation scheme is the signature of his integrity leads inevitably to his disintegration. As practical dramatic evidence of his situation, Tyrrell seems to exist in the play in order to contest what everyone else says to him rather than adjust to it. The only...
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