Gordon Bottomley 1874-1948
English poet and playwright.
As a writer of verse drama, Bottomley emphasized poetic language over theatrical concerns. Many of his plays were offered without costumes or props, and the lines recited rather than conventionally acted out. Stylistically and thematically, his works resemble those of the great Irish modernist William Butler Yeats.
Bottomley was born February 20, 1874, in Yorkshire, England, where his education began. However, he suffered from a chronic bleeding disorder, which took him away from a banking career and greatly reduced his activity. He relocated to Silverdale, a Lancashire village near the Scottish border, and in 1905 married Emily Burton from a nearby town. The two were said to have had a profound bond, enjoying literature and the arts.
Bottomley published his first collection of poetry, The Mickle Drede and Other Verses, in 1896 but later attempted to destroy all copies of this book, which he considered to be immature. With The Crier by Night (1902) and Midsummer Eve (1905), he turned to verse drama, setting out to revive the art in England. His early plays were respected for their poetic qualities but did not result in long-lasting productions. His King Lear's Wife (1920), however, was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and became a success despite negative reviews from the critics. Gruach (1921), similar to King Lear's Wife, was written as a prelude to a Shakespeare tragedy. The play was performed at the Atheneum Theatre in Glasgow in 1923 and the St. Martin's Theatre in London in 1924.
Bottomley told an interviewer from Bookman magazine, “I have no biography. Nothing ever happened to me,” and, indeed, he ventured out very little, spending most of his adult life taking pleasure in the paintings and finery that surrounded him. Given the limitations of his physical condition, Bottomley still managed to kindle associations with leading literary figures of the era, including John Drinkwater, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Paul Nash. He also served as president of the Scottish Community Drama Association and vice-president of the British Drama League. Bottomley's last published work was A Stage for Poetry: My Purposes with My Plays (1948), in which he expounded on theatrical concerns and recounted his close associations with two drama teachers, Marjorie Gullan and Duncan Clark.
Bottomley found inspiration in the literature of the past. Besides Shakespeare, he looked to classical Greek and Roman literature, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde for the material from which he formed his plays. The Riding to Lithend, written in 1907 but not produced until 1928, is based on a Norse saga. The hero refuses to join his fellow Icelanders in battle and is ostracized. Britain's Daughter (1921) takes place at the height of the Roman Empire. The English heroine defies the invaders and is taken to Rome as a prisoner.
The two plays based on Shakespeare are regarded as Bottomley's finest works. In King Lear's Wife, Bottomley portrayed the life and death of Lear's neglected wife Hygd in a drama rife with betrayal and greed. Gruach is the tale of Lady MacBeth before she became Lady MacBeth, at the time in her life when she is about to marry a different Scottish nobleman before the man she is destined to wed finally appears.
Encouraged by Yeats's success, Bottomley wrote a great many short verse plays dealing with the extremes of human experience. He felt the influence of Jacobean drama and Japanese Noh theater, and the resulting dramas are said to contain a sense of history and a moral outlook comparable to what is found in Yeats's verse dramas The Shadowy Waters and Deirdire.
Critics who read Bottomley's plays tended to appreciate them more than those who saw them performed. William S. Braithwaite described The Riding to Lithend as “vigorous with passion and character.” Abercrombie called Bottomley “a poet who certainly ought to be better known than he is.” On the other hand, the headline of a newspaper review of King Lear's Wife called it “a Gifted Mistake.”
From a modern perspective, Bottomley's plays are considered poetic successes but dramatic failures. The language is rich and noble, but the characters are not convincing and the plots are not coherent. William V. Spanos described Bottomley as a transitional figure; Bottomley’s use of verse cleared the way for later work by the modernists, including T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Some critics have noted that virtually all of Bottomley's protagonists are female. In this, too, he is a transitional figure, but his efforts do not compare favorably with those of George Bernard Shaw in his Saint Joan and Pygmalion.