Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

It is not really surprising that Thomas Hardy should have turned his talents to the production of dramatic poetry. There are many indications of an early and lifelong interest in the drama—both folk and professional. Hardy enjoyed plays both in the study and on the stage, and he read widely among the classical Greek, Elizabethan, modern Continental, and modern English playwrights. He was a frequent playgoer in London and knew many theatrical people, among them Harley Granville-Barker, Sir James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. In fact, at one point in his life Hardy had thought of becoming a playwright himself, and as early as 1867, he was considering writing plays in blank verse but postponed this project after being discouraged by the realities of a stage production.

Hardy’s interest in playwriting lay dormant for many years, but, having abandoned the writing of fiction, disgusted by the adverse critical reaction to his later novels, he turned to poetry and drama—his interest in the latter whetted by stage adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Thus, near the end of the 1890’s, Hardy plunged into the writing of a verse drama; “nothing could interfere with it,” as he said, for it was intended for a “mental performance.”

The Dynasts

Hardy’s The Dynasts is, along with John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), one of the longest closet dramas in English literature. This vast epic drama, consisting of nineteen acts and 130 scenes, traces the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1815. On publication, The Dynasts was hailed as a major achievement, but subsequent generations have found the massive work more problematic. Indeed, while Hardy’s novels continue to be read and are available in numerous editions in any bookstore, only Victorian scholars are likely to plough their way through the 10,553 lines of The Dynasts. As Hardy’s importance as a novelist increases, his importance as a dramatic poet seems to be fading, despite pleading by some critics to justify The Dynasts categorically either as an epic or as a drama.

The Dynasts, which was published in three separate parts in 1903, 1906, and 1908, was initially untitled and was referred to simply as “A Drama of Kings.” When all three parts of the completed work were published together in 1910, Hardy labeled it an epic drama and gave it the title by which it is now known. Hardy’s title comes from a line on the last page of the final act: “. . . who hurlest Dynasts from their thrones?” As to his choice of this title, Hardy wrote, “it was the best and shortest inclusive one I could think of to express the rulers of Europe in their desperate struggle to maintain their dynasties rather than to benefit their people.”

The Dynasts required all of Hardy’s skills as a writer. Written in a variety of verse forms, the drama tells an epic story with a cast of thousands. Hardy’s forte as a novelist was his ability to tell a story with interest and suspense, and his talent with plot did not desert him here. The Dynasts relates a well-known story—the rise and fall of Napoleon—with vivid and fresh appeal. There are scenes of battle, of political intrigue, and of the ordinary life of the people that provide spectacle on the scale of the films of the late Cecil B. De Mille. Unlike previous closet dramas, such as Lord Byron’s Manfred (pb. 1817), Shelley’s The Cenci (pb. 1819), or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Harold (pb. 1876), Hardy selected a recent historical event as his subject, as he did in his novels, in which the setting is generally only a few decades removed from the telling. In The Dynasts , the time of the action is 1805-1815. Whereas in his fiction Hardy was concerned with the fate of common people in the grips of an indifferent destiny, in the epic drama his concern was to show how princes and powerful men, who often seem to control the fate of the masses, are in turn moved and...

(The entire section is 2,661 words.)