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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