Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440
Like such varied Romantic poets as Byron, Shelley, Keats, and William Wordsworth, Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote “ closet dramas,” plays never intended to be performed, but rather to be read as works of literature. His plays have seldom if ever been produced on the stage, and for good reason: Swinburne knew next to nothing about stagecraft, and his poetic dramas betray his ignorance of the practical demands of the theater. They are, almost without exception, too long; the dialogue is often unnaturally poetic, even for verse drama; and the character motivation is too often obscure, with too much background being assumed of the audience.
Atalanta in Calydon
Swinburne very likely got the idea for his most renowned drama, Atalanta in Calydon, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). The myth concerns Meleager, son of King Oeneus and Queen Althaea of Calydon, at whose birth the three Fates decree a glorious life and an early death: Meleager will die, say the Fates, when the brand then in the fire is consumed. To circumvent their prophecy, Althaea takes the brand from the fire and conceals it. Years later, Artemis, goddess of chastity and of the hunt, demonstrates her anger at Oeneus, who has neglected to pay her sufficient homage, by sending a wild boar to Calydon to devastate the fields and vineyards. The world’s greatest hunters are convened to try to slay the boar, among them Meleager, recently returned from Jason’s voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece, and Atalanta, skilled huntress and priestess of Artemis, a native of Arcadia.
Meleager falls in love with Atalanta almost immediately, despite his parents’ misgivings. When he succeeds in killing the boar, he presents the head and skin to Atalanta. His mother’s brothers Plexippus and Toxeus, however, who are angry that a woman should be allowed to join the hunt in the first place, take exception to Meleager’s action and threaten to take the trophies for themselves. Meleager, provoked by their challenge to his manhood and by their treatment of Atalanta, kills both of his uncles in a fit of rage. When Althaea hears the news of her brothers’ murders, she resurrects and destroys the forgotten brand, in effect killing her son. Meleager dies, but not before forgiving his mother and restating his love for Atalanta.
Too much has been made of the play’s classicism. Although it is in many ways a skillful imitation of the plays of the Greek masters Sophocles and Euripides—a Greek chorus, for example, intermittently intones the tragic themes, and the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action are for the most part observed—the most compelling aspects of Atalanta in Calydon are decidedly nineteenth century. The theme of the play is the unavoidable control of fate over human life. More specifically, the play questions the benevolence of gods (and, by implication, the Christian God) who allow human tragedies to occur. Some of the most beautiful passages are those in which the chorus takes the gods to task, and the modern reader cannot but detect in these passages a direct affront by Swinburne to Victorian religious piety.
The play is also fundamentally modern in its treatment of love. Althaea repeatedly warns her son against the snares of love, and the chorus frequently takes up Althaea’s sentiment, solemnly chanting about the dangers of romantic involvement and the attractions of celibacy. Oeneus is concerned specifically with Meleager’s attraction to Atalanta, who is throughout the play presented as a somewhat masculine girl, a worshiper of the goddess of chastity. To Oeneus, Meleager’s devotion to Atalanta is somehow unnatural, and no good can come of it. Toxeus and Plexippus also question Meleager’s sexuality, though in a much more derisively confrontational manner. To them, Meleager’s feelings for Atalanta are unmanly, as is his awarding of the hunting trophies to the chaste huntress. Meleager kills his uncles as much in overzealous defense of his manhood as in defense of Atalanta.
The drama received almost universal acclaim on its publication, giving Swinburne a popular acceptance that he would never again enjoy. Despite its reputation as a masterpiece, however, Atalanta in Calydon is a rather dull poem and a very inadequate piece of drama. The plot is difficult to follow, and the dramatic business of the play is handled ineptly. Except for Althaea, no character is fully enough realized to be convincing; Atalanta in particular is a remarkably shallow creation. The metric adeptness that characterizes Swinburne’s best poems is present in Atalanta in Calydon, but it does not always lend itself to dialogue. One wonders if the play has not received so much attention because it is for the most part “clean,” capable of being discussed without indelicacy. At any rate, it is unhappily short on the Swinburnian genius that the Victorians considered perverse.
Chastelard, Bothwell, and Mary Stuart
Swinburne’s Mary Stuart trilogy is, as has been noted, more the work of a scholarly poet than of a playwright. Swinburne’s obsession with the queen got the better of him in these plays. He seems to have been intent on providing the artistic final word on her life and legend, an intention that becomes most grotesquely obvious in Bothwell, the second installment of the trilogy, an interminable play of surpassing dullness. By far the most interesting of the three is the first, Chastelard, which treats the love triangle between Mary, her future husband Lord Darnley, and the courtier Chastelard. Quite possibly Swinburne wrote the play as an attack on conventional Victorian morality, and as such it succeeds. The love between Mary and Chastelard is as unconventional as the love described in the most daring of Swinburne’s lyric poems. Passionate, highly sexual, and reckless in the extreme, the relationship between the courtier and his queen is a prime example of amour fou, a mad love whose element of danger is irresistibly attractive to the lovers. Mary is treated as a beautiful, dangerous woman, a direct descendant of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Chastelard, one of the most compelling characters in Swinburne’s dramatic canon, is a reckless swain, willing to sacrifice all for the sake of passion. It is Swinburne’s most decadently Romantic play, brimming with suggestions of sadomasochism and sexual cruelty: Parts of it, in other words, are pure Swinburne. Predictably, however, the drama was misunderstood. A reading public that had approved of the neoclassical pomp of Atalanta in Calydon was scandalized by Chastelard, and Swinburne’s reputation as an amoral deviant—a reputation finally and incontrovertibly established by the Poems and Ballads of 1866—was well under way.
Marino Faliero, Locrine, and Erechtheus
Swinburne’s remaining poetic dramas deserve only passing mention, flawed as they are in various ways. Marino Faliero, a deliberate answer to Byron’s play of the same name, is a revenge tragedy set in Renaissance Italy. It is of interest solely as a testimonial to Swinburne’s sustained championship of Italian Republicanism. Locrine is another reworking of a myth, this one concerning a love triangle between a king, a queen, and the king’s mistress. It is fascinating as an exercise in prosody, employing nearly every English stanza form, from the heroic couplet to the Shakespearean sonnet. As a dramatic work, it is embarrassingly bad. Erechtheus, like Atalanta in Calydon an imitation of the Greeks, is too stately and solemn for its own good.
The Sisters is Swinburne’s only attempt at dramatic realism. Set in 1816, it explores yet another love triangle, this one involving two sisters, both of whom are in love with the same man. When the hero, Reginald Clavering, becomes promised to one, the other poisons them both. Swinburne admitted that the play was autobiographical, with Reginald Clavering a direct attempt to portray himself as a dramatic character. The Sisters is at its best a provocative study of love, rejection, and jealousy, but it is more often an awkward tale of courtship among the upper classes.
The Duke of Gandia
The last dramatic work that Swinburne published was The Duke of Gandia, a perverse playlet about murder, incest, and intrigue in the court of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. In it, one sees flashes of the old Swinburne, for the play is deliberately and violently irreligious. It is perhaps telling that so late in life Swinburne chose to write and to publish a play that is monstrous in its view of religion, authority, and familial love. The Duke of Gandia serves as a reminder that Swinburne never lost the decadent rebelliousness that had made him famous during the reign of Queen Victoria.
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