In his A Stage for Poetry, Gordon Bottomley, near the end of his life, gave a tidy history of his dramatic career, complete with photographs and sketches of sets and costumes. More important, he left his own record of his dramatic intentions and accomplishments. He divided his works into two parts: “A Theatre Outworn” and “A Theatre Unborn.” The former includes all the major works of his early career, which are written in traditional blank verse and hold generally to the nineteenth century model of heroic drama in aristocratic settings. From this group came Bottomley’s commercial, if limited, successes. The plays that constitute his “Theatre Unborn” are considerably starker, using black or white cloths as backdrops, avoiding the proscenium stage, reverting to classical choric groups in robes, and featuring not aristocrats but characters who are often only partially human—either supernatural or animalistic or both. These theatrical experiments never found a proper audience, but they were not totally alien from Bottomley’s earlier works. The playwright maintained an interest in Celtic mythology that runs through his work until the very end of his career. Although he came too late to be considered a playwright of the Celtic Twilight, Bottomley’s themes and their execution stay true to that late nineteenth century movement’s ideals. Bottomley’s plays, many of them set in Scotland, contain frequent references to humans’ dealings with supernatural creatures who hold power over them. His heroes and heroines are also frequently dreamers, incapable of dealing with the rigors of the real world; such refined sensibility was the romantic legacy to the Celtic Twilight.
Although Bottomley’s work has evoked little interest among critics of his own or subsequent generations, it is an excellent example of the transitional nature of the Georgian movement. Like the work of his contemporary, Yeats, Bottomley’s plays bridged the Victorian and modern eras. He employed ancient Celtic folklore and mythology as subject matter, the verse form of Elizabethan drama, and combined them with the realism and clarity of language characteristic of modern drama. The more realistic content and style already being employed by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, however, had moved Western drama into the twentieth century, while Bottomley’s work remained part of an earlier era.
The Riding to Lithend
The Riding to Lithend is, in many ways, a characteristic one-act play by Bottomley. It features a long dedicatory poem to a prominent contemporary and is based, however loosely, on saga and myth. It includes a small cast of characters, not all of which are entirely or identifiably human, and its female characters are atypically strong, if not ferocious.
The play, written in 1908 but not performed until 1928, opens with a poem to the poet Edward Thomas, who died in World War I. In the poem, Bottomley refers to a visit from Thomas in 1907 during which he encouraged Bottomley to breathe new life into the adventures of the Icelandic hero Gunnar. Bottomley also compares Thomas himself to this early type by emphasizing his Welsh heritage, likening him to one of the heroes of The Mabinogion (c. 1100-1200), the Welsh saga cycle.
The dramatis personae include Gunnar Hamundsson, the hero-warrior; his wife, Hallgerd Longcoat; his mother, Rannveig; three female servants, Oddny, Astrid, and Steinvor; and a female thrall (a slave, taken in war), Ormild. There are also three beggar-women—Biartey, Jofrid, and Gudfinn—and many Riders, or warrior-vigilantes. The play is set in an “eating hall” in Gunnar’s manor in the year 990. The female servants are combing and spinning wool and stitching a royal garment. In many of Bottomley’s plays, an elaborate garment, representing its owner and symbolic of wealth and power, is prominently displayed in the opening scene.
The servant women have a sense of foreboding because all the men of the manor have been sent by Gunnar, rather unwisely it is feared, to a late harvest on the islands nearby. The abnormality of the harvest season is emphasized, and the audience learns that the seemingly capricious decision is in keeping with Gunnar’s irregular hours and habits. He is an outcast from local law, and it is believed that his house is haunted by ghostly victims of his past misdeeds. Despite the foreboding occasioned by the unseasonal harvest, it is noted that Gunnar’s “singing bill” (or sword) is silent, so that imminent danger seems unlikely. (The convention of the enchanted singing sword is prominent in early Northern European sagas and tales, most notably in Excalibur of Arthurian legend.) Once the concept of magic or unnatural power is introduced, there is a reference to a minor clairvoyant character who has foretold Gunnar’s death. So strong is the power of this prophecy that Gunnar’s brother, previously his stalwart lieutenant, has left Iceland as a result, and also to fulfill an injunction imposed on Gunnar to exile himself for three years to atone for political and other misdeeds. All of this is related by the four serving women, who conclude that Gunnar, to defy such a prophecy, must be “fey”—that is, in the power of supernatural forces.
Rannveig enters and, as mother to two sons, one in exile, wishes Gunnar would fulfill the “atonement” and thus avoid being murdered by enraged noblemen. Hallgerd, the source of the trouble, enters preoccupied and angry about her fading beauty. Gunnar and Hallgerd argue over their predicament, and as a defiant gesture she looses her hair from its covering—signifying widowhood. It is then revealed that she was a widow when Gunnar first met, wooed, and won her. Theirs has been a turbulent marriage, and in the past, when Hallgerd stole food so as not to shame her husband in time of famine and in the presence of guests, he publicly humiliated her by slapping her face. By law, he could have killed or maimed her for such an offense. In this and others of Bottomley’s plays, thievery, in keeping with the era and the culture he is representing, is a crime of great import and beneath the dignity of gentlefolk. This instance of thievery was the beginning of the blood feud that has resulted in Gunnar’s being under injunction of exile.
Three witchlike figures from Icelandic myth enter, posing as beggar-women. They admit to traveling by flying through the night sky in a westerly direction (which signifies death), but Gunnar nevertheless agrees to house them for the night. These crones tell of Gunnar’s heroic reputation, which remains solid throughout the country, and explain that there is still one ship by which he can escape. Here it is related that he did try once to leave the country, but his horse threw him and he experienced a vision of his homeland that made him vow to stay.
The crones also engage in traditional witch behavior, taking...
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