John Masefield Drama Analysis
John Masefield was always more the poet than the dramatist. His plays nevertheless retain historical interest, both as expressions of his many-sided talent and as reflections of diverse trends in British drama of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.
Very early in his career as a writer, Masefield developed an interest in playwriting. His deep study of Shakespeare and his personal association with Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge instilled in Masefield a desire to revive the English drama as his friends were attempting to rekindle the drama of Ireland by infusing it with the vitality of mythic and folk elements. Masefield saw what could be done with folk materials in plays such as Synge’s Riders to the Sea (pb. 1903) and In the Shadow of the Glen (pr. 1903). His own first play, The Campden Wonder, is a one-act drama in the expressionistic-symbolic mode of Yeats, to whom it was dedicated. Using the colloquial idiom, it deals with a brutal story that Masefield had heard about a hanging in Chipping Campden of three innocent people. This first effort was followed by several more one-act plays: Mrs. Harrison, a sequel to The Campden Wonder and also an exercise in sustained naturalism; The Sweeps of Ninety-Eight, an amusing comedy with a historical background concerning the outwitting of the British Navy by an Irish rebel in 1798; and another short play, The Locked Chest, which is a suspenseful drama about a clever wife who tricks her confused husband.
Good Friday, also written during this period, is a morality play in rhymed verse. Its subject is the Passion of Christ, and Masefield employs an austere style in imitation of the cycle plays of medieval drama, but his modern idiomatic phrases are somewhat out of keeping with the spirit of the original. Nevertheless, the play contains a moving account of the Crucifixion, simple and vivid in its effects:
We were alone on the accursed hillAnd we were still, not even the dice clickedOn to the stone . . .And now and then the hangers gave a groan,Up in the dark, three shapes with arms outspread.
Overall, in the period between 1907 and 1916, Masefield finished ten plays. During this decade, he produced some of his most important dramatic works, including longer, full-length plays such as The Tragedy of Nan, The Tragedy of Pompey the Great, Philip the King, and The Faithful.
The Tragedy of Nan
The first of these, The Tragedy of Nan, was produced at the New Royalty Theatre under the direction of Harley Granville-Barker. It had a long and successful stage run in repertory theaters in England and abroad. Based on a true “country tragedy” of the early nineteenth century, it is a play with the capacity to move audiences. The poignant plot details the plight of Nan Hardwick, an orphaned charity girl whose father is hanged for stealing sheep. She is taken in by a stingy uncle whose family is unkind to her, but her life is made bearable by the attention paid her by Dick Gurvil, a local youth of uncertain moral fiber who has plans to marry Nan. Her chances for happiness are destroyed when her mean-spirited aunt, who wants him for a husband to one of her own daughters, reveals to Dick that Nan is a murderer’s daughter. Fearful that he cannot expect a dowry from Nan and that he will be disinherited by his own father, he breaks off their engagement and marries one of Nan’s cousins. Nan realizes the defective character of her lover, but her pain and humiliation at losing him are nevertheless acute. In an ironic turn of events, it is discovered that her father was the victim of a miscarriage of justice: He was innocent of the charges, and she is paid a large sum of money in compensation for his death. Her former fiancé realizes that she is a richer prize than the cousin, so he turns to her again with a proposal of marriage. In a fury at...
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