Lord Byron: Guide to Dramatic Fiction
Although a number of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s, plays are more easily approached as dramatic poetry than as theatrical drama, the political tragedies are readily accessible to dramatic analysis. His political tragedies are literary explorations of the relationship, in an unregenerate world, of the extraordinary individual to the state. They examine the place of the almost superhumanly proud and passionate man within corporate humanity. They express the fascination with the link between earthly power and individual freedom and fulfillment that manifested itself in Byron’s first speech before Parliament and that would lead him, finally, to his death at Missolonghi. The following discussion centers on three such works, the classically constructed Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice and Sardanapalus, and the gothic, melodramatic Werner.
Of Byron’s dramatic works, Werner most closely resembles the popular theater of his day. Despite being the last play that Byron completed, Werner is the earliest of the plays in terms of initial composition, having been begun during the year preceding Byron’s final exile from England. Byron’s fascination with the story on which the play is based dates from an even earlier period. As he explains in the play’s preface, he had read “The German’s Tale” from the Lees’ The Canterbury Tales at about age fourteen, and it had “made a deep impression upon” him. It “may, indeed, be said to contain the germ of much that” he wrote thereafter, an admission that suggests the importance of the play within the Byron canon, despite the play’s obvious literary deficiencies.
The play’s title character embodies many of the traits of the Byronic hero and has much in common, too, with Byron’s father, “Mad Jack” Byron. As the play begins, Werner is a poverty-stricken wanderer, who, like Mad Jack, has been driven out by his father because of various youthful excesses resulting from the indulgence of his overly passionate nature. Although a marriage that his father considered improvident was the immediate cause of this estrangement, Werner was guilty of other, unstated transgressions before this, transgressions that prepared the way for the final severing of the parental tie. Since then, Werner has been a proud exile, burdened by a sense of personal guilt and too familiar with the weaknesses of human nature to rely on other people for consolation. His love for Josephine, herself an exile, partially sustains him, but his realization that her sufferings are a product of his own foolish actions exacerbates his gloom.
The one embodiment of hope for Werner and Josephine is their son, Ulric, who has been reared by Werner’s father, Count Siegendorf, after Werner’s banishment. Ulric, however, possesses his father’s passions without possessing the sense of honor that would prevent those passions from expressing themselves in hideous crimes. As the play begins, Ulric is missing from his grandfather’s court, disturbing rumors are circulating concerning his possible whereabouts, and the nobleman Stralenheim, a distant relation, is poised to usurp the family inheritance in the event of Werner’s father’s death.
The play’s elements of gothic melodrama are obvious from the opening of the first scene. The play begins at night during a violent thunderstorm, and act 1 is set in “The Hall of a decayed Palace” in a remote section of Silesia. The palace is honeycombed with secret passages, which receive considerable use during the course of the play’s action. The Thirty Years’ War has just ended, rendering the profession of soldier superfluous and lending glamour to professional thievery, that favorite occupation of many a Sturm und Drang hero-villain. Ulric, as we eventually discover, is himself the leader of a band of soldiers turned marauders.
Ulric, another avatar of Byronic heroism, is something of a superman, possessing traits that render him capable of great good and great evil. One of the play’s characters, the poor but honorable Gabor, describes him as a man
Of wonderful endowments:—birth and fortune,Youth, strength and beauty, almost superhuman,And courage as unrivall’d, were proclaim’dHis by the public rumour; and his sway,Not only over his associates, butHis judges, was attributed to witchcraft,Such was his influence.
Ulric’s dual nature expresses itself most clearly in his treatment of the...
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