Lord Dunsany Drama Analysis
Lord Dunsany’s writing consists of many elements found in his early reading of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, of Hans Christian Andersen, and of Greek mythology. His religious temperament was formed intuitively by the beauty and terror of mysterious fictional worlds rather than by formal theology. Dreamlands of mystery and mythology, filled with marvels and the exotic, confrontations between gods and heroes—or mere mortals—these were the center of most of his works. He found such subjects attractive in part because without them, life was less fun, less exciting, less colorful. While he managed to retain a childlike wonder at the vastness of the universe and the power of external forces which people disregard at their own peril, Dunsany was also a well-educated, sophisticated man of the world, and this dichotomy shows through. Just when his work seems ready to lapse into sentimentality, irony, satire, or an unexpected twist is encountered. Instead of bemoaning the dimness of the Celtic Twilight, Dunsany celebrated the adventuresome spirit of humankind. He continually pointed out that the dawning of the Age of Reason may have been announced, that worship of industrialization and technology may have swept the earth, but whenever humans become too confident in themselves and think they have safely pigeonholed the universe, the universe will surprise them by upsetting their pet ideas.
In his essay on playwriting, “Carving the Ivory” (1928), Dunsany claims that, as a playwright, he follows no formal rules of dramatic composition. He merely carves the play, “the ivory block,” as a sculptor carves his material. The result is a finished shape which assumes a natural form, refined to its fruition as if no authorial hand were implicated in its making. Dunsany wrote quickly, with little revision—A Night at an Inn, for example, was completed between his noon meal and teatime—but his preoccupation with the mysteries of aesthetic romanticism is quite deceptive. The poetic language of his plays, often delivered in perfect hexameters, and their effective rhetorical devices reveal a thoughtful and cunning artist at work, adept at rendering a limpid style.
It may always be difficult to evaluate Dunsany’s work fairly, since it is an admixture of so many strains. Audiences conditioned by the work of filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg may not object to the speaking statues or the ominous laughter of the gods, and audiences accustomed to Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and T. S. Eliot may enjoy the stylized soft-edge mysticism—unfortunately, the two types rarely overlap.
In his search for eternal values in imaginative expression, Dunsany produced a body of work of considerable diversity and quality. His private mythological universe may seem too arcane for today’s taste, but it is one of surprising richness and beauty. Dunsany’s provocative plays are models of sophistication and verbal precision and certainly deserve more recognition than they have been afforded.
The Glittering Gate
The Glittering Gate, which Dunsany said he had written chiefly to please Yeats, is not characteristic of Dunsany’s work. It opens in a lonely place of rock suspended in an abyss hung with...
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Lord Dunsany Short Fiction Analysis
By Lord Dunsany’s own admission, much of his writing aims at recording and sustaining moods that are dreamy, lyrical, nostalgic, anti-industrial, and, at times, wry; he preferred the outlandish products of the imagination to records of the actual as matter for art. The way in which Dunsany expresses these moods is especially important to the effect that his works produce. Modeled in part on the style of the King James Bible, his prose is rhythmic and musical. It is laden with mythically stylized names and is occasionally sentimental, but this tendency toward the saccharine is offset by the dashes of mild comic irony with which his tales are spiced. Such irony, along with the occasional use of modern details, tempers the remote and exotic quality of the experiences recounted in the stories.
To provide a groundwork for his fictional moods, Dunsany developed what is often called a “mythology.” To some extent, this label is inaccurate because Dunsany did not evolve an organized theology. Yet central to much of his work is the sense that the world is ruled by various gods of Dunsany’s own devising, that these gods control the works of humans but may themselves be controlled by the chief of destroyers, Time. Hence, his nostalgia is informed strongly by a sense of doom or fate, and his tales often have downbeat or elegiac conclusions. These conclusions, however, delight Dunsany’s fans because they often include an unexpected twist of action or theme. Dunsany will turn some aspect of fairy tale or mythic convention back on itself; as Lin Carter suggests, he will reject the happy ending and give the reader instead one that comes nearer to the disappointments that time creates in actual experience. Perhaps the source of this technique is the advice that Yeats is reported to have given Dunsany when the latter began writing drama, that Dunsany always seek in a play to work toward surprise.
“The Sword of Welleran”
Most of Dunsany’s themes and characteristics are well represented in a story that the writer himself included in his 1954 selection of his favorite stories, “The Sword of Welleran.” Like many of Dunsany’s narrators, the teller of this tale is a temporary visitor to the lands of fantasy. He tells the reader about his dream of a transcendently beautiful city called Merimna, a city in the midst of a plain and opposed by enemy peoples who are kept at bay only because of their fear of the heroes of Merimna: Welleran, Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and Irain. These heroes died more than a century before the events narrated in the story, but their statues reign over the city and fool the tribes that want to invade Merimna for her treasure. It is worth noting that, while Dunsany fills in the background to the adventure that he plans to narrate, the style and tone and pacing of the first few pages engage the reader with the story’s nostalgic urgency. Like all works of fable and myth, the land of Merimna is complete in its own motivations and deeds, however highly romanticized. Hence, the reader is prepared for the strange events that befall a child named Rold, who becomes fascinated by the legend of Welleran’s greatness.
The king of one of the Cyresian tribes suspects that the heroes of Merimna are dead, and he sends two spies to determine whether his suspicion is correct. When they discover that Rollory and the rest are only statues, the spies return to their king, who collaborates with three other monarchs to attack Merimna. As the enemies wait, the night before battle, Dunsany describes the fall of evening with typically slow-paced lyricism. Fortunately, in Paradise the souls of Merimna’s heroes are aware of the danger to their city, so they enter the dreams of the sleeping inhabitants of Merimna to stir them to defense. In particular, Welleran causes Rold to take up his ancient sword and join the people gathered on the plain before the city. As a group, they wake, fight, and eventually massacre their enemies in the night battle.
To this point the story is a straightforward and conventional fantasy tale, but in the final page Dunsany establishes a contrast between the emotional demands of the human condition and the fairy tale justification for slaughter. When the people of Merimna see in daylight “the hideous things that the sword of Welleran had done,” they share the mood of Rold, who laments over the slain enemies. Dunsany notes, “Thus wept the people of Merimna in the hour of their great victory, for men have strange moods.” They mourn, too, because Welleran is dead, unaware that their dead heroes have engineered the saving of their city. Then Dunsany counters their dismay and points out their nonheroic insignificance when he ends the story with the image of the souls of Merimna’s five heroes traveling back to Paradise. Hence, one of Dunsany’s recurrent points is suggested: that there is much about supernatural reality that the people of the present, even of a...
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Lord Dunsany 1878-1957
(Full name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett) Anglo-Irish short story writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and autobiographer.
For additional discussion of Dunsany's life and works, see TCLC, Volume 2.
Remembered primarily for his early works, including the short story collections The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and A Dreamer's Tales (1910), Dunsany is considered one of the most significant early twentieth-century contributors to modern fantasy literature. In numerous dramas and works of fiction he examined such subjects as the nature of time and human existence and formulated an individual mythology that influenced such later supernatural fiction writers as H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber.
Dunsany was born in London and spent his early childhood in Kent. He was educated at Cheam School, Eton College, and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and served in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. In 1899 Dunsany succeeded his father to become the eighteenth Baron Dunsany and took up residence in his ancestral home in County Meath, Ireland. There he enjoyed a leisured life characterized by such pursuits as hunting, riding, and playing chess. A prolific author, Dunsany wrote quickly and often completed a story in a single afternoon. At the request of W. B. Yeats, Dunsany wrote his first drama, The Glittering Gate, which was produced at the Abbey Theater in 1909. During World War I, Dunsany returned to military service with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his discharge he visited the United States, where his works enjoyed great popularity, and he returned to writing, completing a volume of stories inspired by his battle experiences. During the Second World War, Dunsany lectured in literature at the University of Athens, Greece, until the region was evacuated to escape approaching hostile forces. He published two volumes of memoirs in the mid-1940s and continued writing into the 950s. Dunsany died in 1957.
Dunsany is chiefly remembered for his early fantasy works in fiction and drama that feature an invented theogeny and imaginary geography. First introduced in his short story collection The Gods of Pegāna in 1905, Dunsany's created mythology features exotic settings and a host of deities and royal personages. An atheist, Dunsany nevertheless utilized religious subjects and themes in many of his fantasy works. The Glittering Gate, for example, comments on life after death as two criminals break into Heaven only to discover a vast emptiness. Aspects of time and destiny are considered in such works as If(1921), one of Dunsany's most popular dramas, in which a man is allowed through magic to board a train that he had missed ten years earlier. Events on the train substantially alter the man's life, yet when the spell is broken, he finds that only one day has passed, and his life is unchanged. A Night at an Inn (1916), a work that anticipates the modern horror genre, dramatizes the story of thieves who are pursued by a supernatural entity after stealing the ruby eye of a stone idol. In other works Dunsany utilized satire to examine the relationship of humanity to nature and to present his anti-industrial views. In addition to the themes and mythology developed in Dunsany's works, his prose style is also the subject of critical commentary and has been described as melodic, utilizing poetic language, metaphor, and repetition reminiscent of the King James Bible.
During his lifetime Dunsany achieved his greatest renown in the United States, where he was known as "America's favorite peer" and once had five plays running simultaneously in New York. He first came to prominence through his association with the Abbey Theater and such writers as Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory, yet Dunsany shared few literary characteristics with the Celtic Revival. Critics have noted that, unlike other Irish writers of the period, Dunsany did not depend on Celtic myths and legends as the sources for fantastic elements in his works. Wholly original, Dunsany's mythology is credited with influencing subsequent writers of supernatural fiction including H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu mythos is believed to have been inspired in part by Dunsany's works. While Dunsany's career spanned nearly five decades, his early works continue to dominate critical discussion of his writings, and S. T. Joshi has suggested that this view of his output is too narrow. According to Joshi, "Let us marvel at [Dunsany's] seemingly effortless mastery of so many different forms (short story, novel, play, even essay and lecture), his unfailingly sound narrative sense, and the amazing consistency he maintained over a breathtakingly prolific output.… Dunsany claimed aesthetic independence from his time and culture, [and] became a sharp and unrelenting critic of the industrialism and plebeianism that were shattering the beauty both of literature and of the world … yet retained a surprising popularity … through the whole of his career."
The Gods of Pegāna (short stories) 1905
Time and the Gods (short stories) 1906
The Sword of Welleran, and Other Stories (short stories) 1908
*The Glittering Gate (drama) 1909
A Dreamer's Tales (short stories) 1910
The Book of Wonder (short stories) 1912
Five Plays (drama) 1914
Fifty-One Tales (short stories) 1915
The Last Book of Wonder (short stories) 1916
A Night at an Inn (drama) 1916
Plays of Gods and Men (drama) 1917
Tales of War (short stories) 1918
Tales of Three Hemispheres (short stories) 1919
If (drama) 1921
The Chronicles of Rodriguez (novel) 1922
Plays of Near and Far (drama) 1922
The King of Elfland's Daughter (novel) 1924
Alexander, and Three Small Plays (drama) 1925
The Charwoman's Shadow (novel) 1926
The Blessing of Pan (novel) 1927
Fifty Poems (poetry) 1929
The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (short stories) 1931
Lord Adrian (drama) 1933
My Talks with Dean Spanley (novel) 1936
Rory and Bran (novel) 1936
My Ireland (essay) 1937
Plays for Earth and Air (drama) 1937
Mirage Water (poetry) 1938
Patches of Sunlight (autobiography) 1938
The Story of Mona Sheehy (novel) 1939
War Poems (poetry) 1941
While the Sirens Slept (autobiography) 1944
The Sirens Wake (autobiography) 1945
The Man Who Ate the Phoenix (short stories) 1949
The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (novel) 1950
*The Glittering Gate was first produced in 1909, but not published until 1914, when it was included in Five Plays.
SOURCE: "Beauty and Wisdom," in The Bookman, London, Vol. XLVIII, July, 1915, p. 116.
[An early member of the Celtic Revival, Tynan was a highly regarded Irish poet, novelist, journalist, and critic. In the following essay, she favorably reviews Fifty-One Tales.]
There is one curious contradiction in our national attitude towards the nobility—and it may be a simple kind of poetry and love of the picturesque which is at the root of "loving a lord"—and that is that a titled author's books have no more chance of selling than anyone's else; in fact, if anything, they have less chance. Readers generally seem to regard a title of nobility on a title-page with suspicion. They think a lord very delightful in his place, but they distrust him as a man of letters.
I think Lord Dunsany's reputation as an author has suffered because of his title. It may even have affected men of letters adversely. They regard with suspicion the entrance of the gilded into their trade. One comes to the title with a prejudice; but, having read Lord Dunsany, one is compelled to admit that here is a man of letters and a poet born; that the art he works at is the art to which he is born; and that, if he were silent, something very beautiful and worth while would be lost to the world.
Now I concede that in his most fantastical fantasies Lord Dunsany is not every man's meat. Indeed, he is far from it. Take "The Gods of Pegāna," for instance. One can imagine the youth of Stevenson's story being shut up on a wet Sunday in a country inn with "The Gods of Pegāna" for sole mental provender. "Golly! What a book!" he would have said.
But the delightful thing about these Fifty-One Tales is that a simple person, not being a wilful Philistine, can understand at least the meaning of some; while to anyone who appreciates the marvels of language, the beautiful and sonorous diction must be a lasting delight. These Tales are each a very little vessel—some are quite...
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SOURCE: "Dunsany," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXVII, No. 3029, July 25, 1923, p. 95.
[A German-born American novelist and critic, Lewisohn served as the drama critic for The Nation during the early 920s and later edited the Zionist magazine New Palestine. In the following essay, he praises the dramas collected in Plays of Gods and Men and Plays of Near and Far.]
It was in 1915 that Stuart Walker's Portmanteau Theater gave the first performances of plays by Lord Dunsany in New York. One remembers especially The Gods of the Mountain and The Sword of King Argimenes. One remembers, across all the intervening years and their many...
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SOURCE: "A Maker of Mythologies," in The Living Age, Vol. 329, No. 4273, May 29, 1926, pp. 464-66.
[Through his work and his charismatic personality, AE was highly influential among the writers of the Irish Renaissance, a generation which sought to reduce the influence of English culture and create a national literature in Ireland. He was central to the rise of the Irish National Theater, and, with W B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory, was one of the founders of the Abbey Theater. In the following essay, which originally appeared in Irish Statesman, AE praises Dunsany's imagination and prose style in A Dreamer's Tales, The King of Elfland's Daughter, and The...
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SOURCE: "The Dramas of Dunsany," in Tuesdays at Ten: A Garnering from the Tales of Thirty Years on Poets, Dramatists and Essayists, 1928. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1967, pp. 13-42.
[In the following excerpt, Weygandt surveys Dunsany's dramas.]
Dunsany has given us a drama new to our literature. It is exotic, aloof, aristocratical, of a beauty so strange and full of wonder that we doubt it sometimes, and question is it beauty, or only a form of the grotesque. His earlier plays are most of them decorations in the Asiatic manner, suggesting now China, and now India, and now the oldest Persian lands. It would seem he had seen, in some previous life perhaps,...
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SOURCE: "One Ireland," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XIII, No. 331, June 26, 1937, pp. 1050, 1052.
[Bowen was an Anglo-Irish fiction writer and critic. In the following essay, she reviews My Ireland.]
Lord Dunsany, perhaps a little disorientated by the largeness of his publisher's invitation, halts and hovers rather over his opening chapters, then drops into his swing and writes an engaging book. High-handed, whimsical, bland, touchy, reactionary, and impossible to pin down to any point, here he has it all his own way—and what a way it is. My Ireland has, throughout, a sort of contrary soundness. It is written to please himself and, please God,...
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SOURCE: "Lord Dunsany: The Career of a Fantaisiste," in his The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 42-86.
[An American editor and critic, Joshi is the leading figure in H. P. Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. In the following excerpt, he traces prominent themes, concepts, and imagery in Dunsany's works.]
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Amory, Mark. Lord Dunsany: A Biography. London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1972, 288 p.
Surveys Dunsany's life and career.
Bierstadt, Edward Hale. Dunsany the Dramatist. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1919, 244 p.
Overview of Dunsany's career; includes the reminiscences of his friends and colleagues, his letters and speeches, and his own reflections.
Chislett, William, Jr. "New Gods for Old" and "Lord Dunsany: Amateur and Artist." In his Moderns and Near Moderns, pp. 171-80; pp. 181-88. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967....
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