Lord Dunsany

by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett

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Lord Dunsany Drama Analysis

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Lord Dunsany’s writing consists of many elements found in his early reading of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, of Hans Christian Andersen, and of Greek mythology. His religious temperament was formed intuitively by the beauty and terror of mysterious fictional worlds rather than by formal theology. Dreamlands of mystery and mythology, filled with marvels and the exotic, confrontations between gods and heroes—or mere mortals—these were the center of most of his works. He found such subjects attractive in part because without them, life was less fun, less exciting, less colorful. While he managed to retain a childlike wonder at the vastness of the universe and the power of external forces which people disregard at their own peril, Dunsany was also a well-educated, sophisticated man of the world, and this dichotomy shows through. Just when his work seems ready to lapse into sentimentality, irony, satire, or an unexpected twist is encountered. Instead of bemoaning the dimness of the Celtic Twilight, Dunsany celebrated the adventuresome spirit of humankind. He continually pointed out that the dawning of the Age of Reason may have been announced, that worship of industrialization and technology may have swept the earth, but whenever humans become too confident in themselves and think they have safely pigeonholed the universe, the universe will surprise them by upsetting their pet ideas.

In his essay on playwriting, “Carving the Ivory” (1928), Dunsany claims that, as a playwright, he follows no formal rules of dramatic composition. He merely carves the play, “the ivory block,” as a sculptor carves his material. The result is a finished shape which assumes a natural form, refined to its fruition as if no authorial hand were implicated in its making. Dunsany wrote quickly, with little revision—A Night at an Inn, for example, was completed between his noon meal and teatime—but his preoccupation with the mysteries of aesthetic romanticism is quite deceptive. The poetic language of his plays, often delivered in perfect hexameters, and their effective rhetorical devices reveal a thoughtful and cunning artist at work, adept at rendering a limpid style.

It may always be difficult to evaluate Dunsany’s work fairly, since it is an admixture of so many strains. Audiences conditioned by the work of filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg may not object to the speaking statues or the ominous laughter of the gods, and audiences accustomed to Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and T. S. Eliot may enjoy the stylized soft-edge mysticism—unfortunately, the two types rarely overlap.

In his search for eternal values in imaginative expression, Dunsany produced a body of work of considerable diversity and quality. His private mythological universe may seem too arcane for today’s taste, but it is one of surprising richness and beauty. Dunsany’s provocative plays are models of sophistication and verbal precision and certainly deserve more recognition than they have been afforded.

The Glittering Gate

The Glittering Gate , which Dunsany said he had written chiefly to please Yeats, is not characteristic of Dunsany’s work. It opens in a lonely place of rock suspended in an abyss hung with stars. Close to the landscape littered with thousands of beer bottles is a golden gate hinged in a wall of granite. Jim, a thief hanged for crimes on earth, wearily and cynically uncorks the bottles, but none of them contains beer. He is joined by Bill, formerly his student of burglary, who has died from a gunshot wound while attempting to break into a house. At various points, there is faint and unpleasant laughter in the background. Bill is convinced that his jemmy, his “old nutcracker” burglary tool, can open...

(This entire section contains 1335 words.)

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the heavenly gate. Beyond it, he hopes to find angels, gold, apples, and his mother. Jim has a moment of astonishment as Bill succeeds in prying the door ajar. As they look out at the emptiness, cruel, violent laughter rises.

Dunsany’s cynicism is apparent in this play, and although many critics downplay this quality in him, it is not uncharacteristic of his work. The case against the gods is one-sided in that the reader or viewer is not allowed to see what eventually happens to “good people”—unless, in ultimate cynicism, Dunsany wishes to indicate that even the best of humankind is, to the gods, no better than Jim or Bill. Each of the characters pays for his actions in the world and is abandoned to a form of punishment particularly suited to him: Jim will be perpetually thirsty, possibly more for hope than for beer, and Bill will never see his mother again. Even in the afterlife, each continues to be true to his criminal nature. Instead of feeling remorse, they seek a way out; they do not give in to the gods any more than the gods give in to them.

The play has parallels to the myth of Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, forever rolling his stone up the mountainside only to have it roll back down again, Jim opens his beer bottles to find them empty. He knows he will not find beer, but he hopes that, if only once, the gods’ trick might not work. His placid statement at the end, as he looks into nothingness, is that it is characteristic of the gods to have arranged such an anticlimax. In a similar way, Sisyphus understands his predicament but must nevertheless repeat the cycle of his condemnation. Jim’s monologue on the meaninglessness of the years and the futility of confinement with Bill is also reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos (pr. 1944; In Camera, 1946, better known as No Exit, 1947).

The Gods of the Mountain

Two closely related plays, The Gods of the Mountain and A Night at an Inn, clearly illustrate Dunsany’s major theme of the arrogance of men provoking retribution at the hands of intransigent gods. In The Gods of the Mountain, set somewhere in the East, a group of beggars, led by Agmar, wish to enter the city to seek riches at a time when the gods seem to be asleep and the divine in humankind seems to be dead. The beggars suggest posing as lords or kings, but Agmar insists that they impersonate gods. Disguised as the seven green jade idols of Marma, they fool a skeptical populace through the will and intellect of Agmar. Dunsany’s admiration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885) is reflected in the characterization of Agmar. Agmar dismisses the idea of subservience to anyone, but when the real gods enter to seek vengeance on the usurpers, Agmar’s genius fails, and all the beggars are turned to stone.

A Night at an Inn

A Night at an Inn, a slighter play, demonstrates that human pride is as dangerous close to home as it is in the mysterious East. Three merchant sailors and their leader, A. E. Scott (the Toff), steal the ruby eye from a green idol, Klesh. The Toff remains aloof and calm on hearing that the priests of Klesh are following them. He says that they will not come until he is ready to receive them. After all, he says, he is able to see into the future. When the three priests appear, the Toff formulates and carries out a clever plan to murder them. The blind idol, however, claims his ruby eye and leaves the inn. Offstage, a seductive voice calls the names of the sailors, and, against their will, they exit into the darkness. On his way out, the Toff comments in despair that he did not foresee this conclusion.

These two works read better than they play. Unlike The Glittering Gate, both melodramas call for the physical presence of the gods, which lessens the mystery considerably in a staged version: The problem for Dunsany was to make the audience believe that an abstraction could operate on the material level; the attention commanded by the idols leaves the message out of focus and depersonalized. In reading, at least, each individual can create his own image of the idols.

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Lord Dunsany Short Fiction Analysis