It is not really surprising that Thomas Hardy should have turned his talents to the production of dramatic poetry. There are many indications of an early and lifelong interest in the drama—both folk and professional. Hardy enjoyed plays both in the study and on the stage, and he read widely among the classical Greek, Elizabethan, modern Continental, and modern English playwrights. He was a frequent playgoer in London and knew many theatrical people, among them Harley Granville-Barker, Sir James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. In fact, at one point in his life Hardy had thought of becoming a playwright himself, and as early as 1867, he was considering writing plays in blank verse but postponed this project after being discouraged by the realities of a stage production.
Hardy’s interest in playwriting lay dormant for many years, but, having abandoned the writing of fiction, disgusted by the adverse critical reaction to his later novels, he turned to poetry and drama—his interest in the latter whetted by stage adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Thus, near the end of the 1890’s, Hardy plunged into the writing of a verse drama; “nothing could interfere with it,” as he said, for it was intended for a “mental performance.”
Hardy’s The Dynasts is, along with John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), one of the longest closet dramas in English literature. This vast epic drama, consisting of nineteen acts and 130 scenes, traces the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1815. On publication, The Dynasts was hailed as a major achievement, but subsequent generations have found the massive work more problematic. Indeed, while Hardy’s novels continue to be read and are available in numerous editions in any bookstore, only Victorian scholars are likely to plough their way through the 10,553 lines of The Dynasts. As Hardy’s importance as a novelist increases, his importance as a dramatic poet seems to be fading, despite pleading by some critics to justify The Dynasts categorically either as an epic or as a drama.
The Dynasts, which was published in three separate parts in 1903, 1906, and 1908, was initially untitled and was referred to simply as “A Drama of Kings.” When all three parts of the completed work were published together in 1910, Hardy labeled it an epic drama and gave it the title by which it is now known. Hardy’s title comes from a line on the last page of the final act: “. . . who hurlest Dynasts from their thrones?” As to his choice of this title, Hardy wrote, “it was the best and shortest inclusive one I could think of to express the rulers of Europe in their desperate struggle to maintain their dynasties rather than to benefit their people.”
The Dynasts required all of Hardy’s skills as a writer. Written in a variety of verse forms, the drama tells an epic story with a cast of thousands. Hardy’s forte as a novelist was his ability to tell a story with interest and suspense, and his talent with plot did not desert him here. The Dynasts relates a well-known story—the rise and fall of Napoleon—with vivid and fresh appeal. There are scenes of battle, of political intrigue, and of the ordinary life of the people that provide spectacle on the scale of the films of the late Cecil B. De Mille. Unlike previous closet dramas, such as Lord Byron’s Manfred (pb. 1817), Shelley’s The Cenci (pb. 1819), or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Harold (pb. 1876), Hardy selected a recent historical event as his subject, as he did in his novels, in which the setting is generally only a few decades removed from the telling. In The Dynasts, the time of the action is 1805-1815. Whereas in his fiction Hardy was concerned with the fate of common people in the grips of an indifferent destiny, in the epic drama his concern was to show how princes and powerful men, who often seem to control the fate of the masses, are in turn moved and influenced by the same blind forces that govern the humblest of people.
Hardy’s epic drama was the result of his lifelong interest in Napoleon’s character and career, a subject that had attracted many other writers of his own and earlier generations. It was his intention to do more than dramatize the turbulent period of the Napoleonic Wars; Hardy’s purpose was to show how the events that led up to the period of conflict had been shaped by blind causes rather than human will; the major premise underlying The Dynasts is that all human thought and action are predestined—an expression of the anthropomorphic force that Hardy called the “Immanent Will,” rather than of Divine Providence. Although this was an advanced idea for 1904, it seems to make the drama passé to modern readers, who are not as concerned with questions of ultimate causation as were the post-Victorians.
The cast of characters in Hardy’s drama, epic in proportions, is arranged on three levels: first, the celestial abstractions—the Will, the Ironies, the Spirit Sinister, the Shade of the Earth, and the Earth of the Years; next, the great historical figures—Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson, George III, William Pitt, the Younger, and the various kings, princes, and generals of Prussia, Austria, Spain, and Russia (these are the dynasts of Europe, all of whom are concerned only to maintain their rule); and finally, the ordinary people, the suffering masses who are puppets caught in the grip of political and historical forces beyond their control. Hardy makes these lower-class characters his collective protagonists, the heroes of the play. On the other hand, the conquerors and kings, the so-called dynasts, are cast as the antagonists, indifferent to the plight of the people and concerned only with expanding their borders; they side with Napoleon when he is up and combine against him when he is down. In the struggles on the human level among the dynasts and their nations, only England stands above the sordid schemes of the Continental kings as the British defy Napoleon’s design for world conquest. Among the British generals, Wellington emerges as a worthy rival, whose tenacity will prove to be a match for Napoleon’s brilliant strategies.
Of all the characters in the drama, Napoleon is by far the most interesting. He is a complex and evolving personality, whose career as depicted by Hardy is a working out of the Immanent Will in the history of the world. At first, Napoleon functions as an agent of order as he imposes his dream of a unified Europe on the chaos unleashed by the French Revolution. When he crowns himself emperor, however, his decline into egotistical megalomania begins. His march of conquest across Russia is undertaken only for selfish reasons, and from this point on, he is pursued by a Nemesis-like retribution for his overwhelming hubris. The human actions in The Dynasts culminate in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the battle scenes being presented from a panoramic perspective to which only a motion picture could do justice in visual terms. Hardy’s careful historical research, which included interviews with surviving veterans of the Battle of Waterloo, is particularly evident here as every battalion and regiment is cataloged in the best epic tradition. Hardy lavishes admiring detail on the exploits of the Scots Greys, the Black Watch, and the British Grenadiers as they hold the thin red line against the furious but futile charge of the French Imperial Guard.
As the numerous acts of the historical drama are played out, scenes are interspersed in which the spirits play their part, acting as symbols of abstract powers that are personified as actual characters. The Immanent Will influences events through its attendant spirits—the personified Pities, the Years, and the Ironies—but the Will itself, because it stands for the all-inclusive mind or ultimate reality of the universe, is never depicted. Its operation is keenly felt at numerous points in the drama when its human puppets, including Napoleon himself, act on impulses or instincts that they cannot resist.
The Pities, Years, and Ironies are indicative of human traits, attitudes, and perspectives. The Spirit of Pities symbolizes sympathy and altruism. The Spirit of Years stands for objective reason as time places distance between emotions and events. His outlook on human affairs is rationalistic and unsentimental. The Spirit of Pities, with all its compassion, is the obvious foil of the Spirit of Years, who has no feeling.
The debate between the spirits creates the effect of a Greek chorus and lends a traditional dramatic ingredient to the otherwise unique drama. Other allegorical characters, such as the Spirit Sinister, the Spirit of Rumor, and the Shade of Earth, enter the scene and attempt to interpret the meaning of the unfolding historical events. Their debate, however, is inconclusive, and though their final chorus ends with a weak note of optimism, on the hope that the current “rages of the ages shall be cancelled,” to be followed by a future period when human reason will overcome selfish aggression and destructive impulses, it is clear that it will take ages of evolution to turn human instincts of passion into compassion. This evolutionary process, which Hardy termed “meliorism,” was his faint but larger hope for humankind.
The foregoing summary can only suggest the total scope of Hardy’s The Dynasts, which in volume exceeds all the other poetry that he wrote during his career. The work is no less than a poetic representation in dramatic terms of Hardy’s personal philosophy and understanding of history. The magnitude of Hardy’s poem, however, makes it difficult to come to terms with critically and even artistically. Though Hardy issued the caveat that The Dynasts was written for a “mental” staging, he agreed in 1914 to an abridged version that was adapted for a theater production by Granville-Barker, who cut the original to a tenth of its size. The operation was necessary to bring The Dynasts within the practical range of time for a theatrical performance because it is estimated that it would have required two entire days and nights of consecutive stage time to dramatize the whole text. As it was, Granville-Barker’s abridgment was a strain on audiences and actors, and it caused some reviewers to conclude that The Dynasts was an “unplayable play.” Its excessive length was not the only fault found with the stage version: The chopped-up plot lacked any sense of progression, and the play had no climax; even more debilitating was the replacement of Hardy’s philosophical concerns with an overlay of patriotic sentiment that was devised by Granville-Barker to fit the nationalistic mood fostered in England by the outbreak of World War I.
The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall
Hardy’s final attempt at a dramatic work was a one-act play entitled The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, which was published in 1923. In this play, Hardy’s aim was exactly opposite from the purpose of The Dynasts: Here, he aimed at concentration rather than expansiveness in his choice of plot, characters, and setting, as he consciously tried to observe the unities. His subject for this play is the tragic love story of Tristram and Iseult, whose story attracted a number of nineteenth century authors, most notably Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who had all written versions of the ill-starred romance.
Hardy dedicated his one-act verse drama to the memory of Emma Gifford, his first wife, and the play has associations with the courtship that took place in the spring of 1870 when he and Emma visited King Arthur’s castle, Tintagel, in Lyonnesse—a place he called “the region of dream and mystery.” The legends associated with this area lingered in his mind for fifty years and led to the composition of The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, which he began in 1916 but did not finish until 1923.
Hardy develops the Tristram story in a unique way, though his basic conception of the romance depends on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). The use of the dramatic format forced Hardy to compress a good many details in his version. For example, to maintain unity of place, he has all the action take place at Tintagel. Furthermore, Hardy begins his drama immediately before the catastrophe, the events of his play taking place during the last hours of the lovers’ lives. Moreover, Hardy adds several original details to the story of the doomed couple who are victims of the irresistible and fatal force of love. He employs a chorus (termed “chanters”) and Merlin, the wizard, to provide necessary exposition at the start of the play. We learn that while King Mark has been away on a hunt, Queen Iseult has been called to come to Brittany by Tristram, her lover, who, she believes, is dying. She is prevented from seeing him by Iseult of the White Hands, Tristram’s wife, who informs her falsely that he is dead. Queen Iseult returns to Lyonnesse thinking that her suspicious husband is none the wiser about her flight to Tristram’s bedside; informants, however, have told Mark of her actions. In a subsequent scene, Tristram recovers and comes to Cornwall, traveling incognito, to see Iseult, who is gratified to learn that he is not dead. He lays bare his heart to her, saying that he has been forced into a miserable marriage with Iseult of the White Hands. Shortly thereafter, a strange ship arrives bringing Tristram’s wife, who has followed him on discovering that he has returned to his former love.
In a poignant scene that was added by Hardy, the deserted wife and passionate mistress meet. It is clearly shown by this episode that the theme of the play is the tragedy of mismatched mates. Queen Iseult cannot love Mark, who is cruel by nature; she is compelled by a love potion to love Tristram. Tristram is loved by both women, but he is too weak to do what is right, his fate also having been sealed by the same love potion. Meanwhile, Mark discovers Tristram’s presence at the castle and, catching him in an embrace with Iseult, stabs him in the back with a dagger. The queen plucks the knife from the body of her dying lover and uses it to kill her husband. Then she leaps over the ledge of the castle and plunges to her death in the sea below, providing to the legendary story an ending that was entirely Hardy’s own.
Whatever the intentions of this play, Hardy’s revision of the legend created a great deal more sympathy for Iseult of the White Hands than had previous versions. Hardy was able to renew, in this, his last work, the old formula of tragedy that ruled so many of his own doomed pairs of lovers, from Eustacia Vye and Clem Yeobright in The Return of the Native to Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure—lovers whose destinies were shaped, like Tristram and Iseult’s, by the dual compulsion of character and fate.
The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall was Hardy’s only work written expressly for the stage. It was first produced by the Hardy Players in Dorchester on November 21, 1923. There was also an operatic version produced in 1924, which Rutland Boughton scored. In writing The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, Hardy was perhaps trying to meet the objections of those critics who had indicted him for an inability to write a concentrated play in The Dynasts. In the case of this short poetic drama, Hardy proved that he could indeed create plays for the commercial theater. It is ironic in the best Hardyesque fashion that he succeeded at last with a genre that had been his first aspiration as a literary artist—the poetic drama.