Inquiring further into the fibre of Fletcher, let us pass in brief review another play, a genuine tragicomedy this time, _A Wife for a Month_, written the year before he died, of whose heroine Mr. More says that "from every point of view, ethical and artistic, she is one of the most finely drawn and truest women in the whole range of English drama."
The complication, here, assuredly affords opportunity for the display of sound and manly fibre; and the tragicomedy is instructive in more ways than one: it illustrates Fletcher's skill in construction and his disregard of probability; his sense of moral conflict and his insensibility to moral beauty; his power to conceive characteristic situations and his impotence to construct natural characters; his capability of noble sentiment and poetic expression and his beastly perverseness of fancy, his prostitution of art to sordid sensationalism.
The story of the cumulative torments to which a lustful usurper subjects the maiden, Evanthe, whom he desires, and Valerio whom she loves, is graphically estimated by one of the _dramatis personae_,--"This tyranny could never be invented But in the school of Hell: earth is too innocent." Beside it Zola's _L'Assommoir_ smells sweet, and a nightmare lacks nothing of probability. Ugly, however, as the fundamental assumption is: namely, that the tyrant should permit a wedding on condition that at the end of a month the husband shall suffer death,--and with provision that meanwhile the honeymoon shall be surrounded with restriction more intolerable than death itself; and incredible as is the contrivance of the sequel,--kept a-going by the suppression of instinct and commonsense on the part of the hero, and withheld from its proper tragic conclusion by miraculous cure, an impossible conversion, and an unnatural clemency,--the plot is after all deftly knit, and the interest sustained with baleful fascination. But it would be difficult to instance in Jacobean drama a more incongruous juxtaposition of complication morally conceived, and execution callously vulgarized, than that offered by the scene between Valerio and Evanthe on their wedding-night. In the corresponding scene of _The Maides Tragedy_ (II, 1), Beaumont had created a model: Amintor bears himself with dignity toward his shameless and contemptuous bride. But in Fletcher's play it is this "most finely drawn and truest woman" that makes the advances; and she makes them not only without dignity, but with an unmaidenly persistence and persuasiveness of which any abandoned 'baggage' or Russian actress of to-day might be ashamed. And, still, the dramatist is never weary of assuring us that she is the soul of "honour mingled with noble chastity," and clad in "all the graces" that Nature can give. In the various other trying situations in which Evanthe is placed it is requisite to our conviction of reality that she be the "virtuous bud of beauty": but the tongue of this "bud" blossoms into billingsgate, she swears "something awful," and she displays an acquaintance with sexual pathology that would delight the heart even of the most rabid twentieth-century advocate of sex-hygiene for boys and girls in coeducational public schools.
Two or three of the characters are nobly conceived and, on occasion, contrive to utter themselves with nobility. Valerio achieves a poetry infrequent in Fletcher's plays when he says of the shortness of his prospective joys:
"A Paradise, as thou art, my Evanthe, Is only made to wonder at a little, Enough for human eyes, and then to wander from,"--
and when he describes the graces of spiritual love. And the Queen's thoughts upon death, though melodramatic, have something of the dignity of Beaumont's style. But the minds of the principal personages reflect not only the flashing current but the turbid estuaries of Fletcher's thought. The passion, save for Valerio's, is lurid, and the humour latrinal. To sketch the bestial even in narrative, however fleeting, is inartistic; to fix it on canvas is offensive; to posture it upon the stage is unpardonable. The last is practically what Fletcher has done here; and the wonder is that he appears to think that he is justifying virtue.
No; Fletcher had not the fibre of Beaumont even when he was writing with him; and he did not achieve "a manlier, sounder fibre," after Beaumont had ceased, and he had swung into the brilliant orbit which he rounded as sole luminary of the stage.
I object again,--and the reader who has followed the exposition of the preceding pages will, I hope, object with me,--to the dictum of a German writer of this latter day, that the reason of the degeneracy of _Beaumont_ and Fletcher, ethically, "seems to lie in the narrowing of the drama from a national interest to the flattery of a courtly caste."
Mr. More opines that such an explanation should not be pressed too far; and he suggests that one reason why "we are unable to comprehend many of the persons upon the stage of Beaumont and Fletcher" is that we are similarly unable to comprehend "the more typical men and women who were playing the actual drama of the age." So far as Fletcher's _dramatis personae_ are concerned, there is truth in this; but why couple Beaumont with him? If you omit a character or two in _The Woman-Hater_, which was a youthful _jeu d'esprit_, you shall find very few incomprehensible figures among those of Beaumont's creation. And as to the German mentioned above, Dr. Aronstein, what "flattery of a courtly caste" can he possibly detect in Beaumont's satire upon favourites in _The Woman-Hater_; in that burlesque of bourgeois affectations, _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_ (the Court, too, was still reading the literature there satirized); or in his Philaster, who was a rebel; or in his Amintor of _The Maides Tragedy_, whose fate hinged upon his shuffling subservience to a king, or in the King himself on whom God sends "unlookt-for sudden death," because of his lust; or in his King Arbaces, whose general has "not patience to looke on whilst you runne these forbidden courses"; or in his scenes of _Cupid's Revenge_, which scourge the vices of the Court; or in his Sir Roger and Mistress Abigail and her scornful Lady,--or in his Ricardo and Viola, who are just a lover and his lass, and have never dreamed of Court or King at all?
I wonder whether it may not be possible for us henceforth to give to Fletcher, and the whole Fletcherian syndicate,--the Massingers, Fields, Middletons and Rowleys, Dabornes, and the rest,--the praise and the blame for what they produced, but eliminate Beaumont from the award. One grows weary of the attribution to him of moral irresponsibilities and extravagances in art of which he was, in all that we have learned of his breeding, life, and mental habit the implicit opponent--very much like his brother Sir John,--and of the opposite of which he was in his poetic and dramatic output, as I have minutely demonstrated, the professed exponent. In the broad daylight of philological science and modern historical criticism we should no longer regard Beaumont-and-Fletcher as an indivisible pair of Siamese twins, constructing with all four hands at once the fabric of fifty-three plays, or even of ten, and tongue-and-grooving the boards with such diabolic deftness that each artisan shall for ever be credited with the merits and defects of both. It is, at any rate, time that the world of scholars,--and then the world of readers may follow,--render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
As for Caesar, we concede to him, John Fletcher, once for all, as he may be read in his independent work, by one even running, artistic virtues numerous and brilliant: gaiety, wit, sprightly dialogue; mastery of stage-craft,--of all the devices of captivating plot and rattling 'business,' and all the conventions and theatrically legitimate clap-trap of dramatic types and humours, hallowed by success, adored by the actor, and darling to the public. We concede skill in the weaving of romantic complications, captivatingly cunning, and in the construction of situations irresistibly ludicrous; remarkable inventiveness of sensational adventure and spectacular scene and attractive setting; realism at every turn, and an ability to portray manners, varied and minute. Above all, we admire, and thankfully rejoice in, his smoothness of mechanism, his lightness of touch, his contrivance and manipulation of pure comedy--whether of manners or intrigue,--and in his world of characters, not only laughter-compelling, but endowed with humour themselves and sworn to the enthronement of the Spirit of Mirth.
On the other hand we read on every page of Fletcher's independent contribution to English drama what, perhaps, was not the man himself, but his dramaturgic pose--still for the world the essence of the Fletcher who ruled it from the stage: we read his "shallowness of moral nature," his acquiescence in the ethical apathy and cynicism of the time; his indelicacy; his indifference to, if not irreverence for, the dramatic proprieties,--his subservience to popular taste and favour in an age when "the theatre had ceased to be the expression of patriotism and of the national life and had become the amusement of the idle gentleman and of such members of the lower classes as were not kept away by the Puritan disapproval of the stage." We witness with amusement but with self-reproach his presentation of characters superficial, and superficially refracting the evanescent vanities and heartless vices of Jacobean London, as if representative of actual and general life; his play of emotions feigned or sentimental; his violent contrasts, unnatural conversions, impossible revolutions of fortune; we discern the absence of subtle intuition, the failure to effect profound and lasting impression, the "lack of seriousness and of spiritual poise." We note, in the heroic-romantic dramas, improbability and extravagance; and, in the tragedies, such as _Valentinian_, a total disregard of the unity of interest,--just that muddling of motives of which the editor of _The Nation_ has written,--and therefore the failure to realize unity of effect. There has been no moral sequence: the suspense has been distracted by the variety of emotions stirred. After the hours of strain to which the spectator has imaginatively subjected himself, the relief--what Aristotle calls the catharsis--is not forthcoming: because the intellect has not been clarified but fuddled; the will has not been braced; the feelings appropriate to tragedy--of pity and of fear--have not enjoyed an unthwarted, undiverted outflow. The faculties have been tantalized by manifold, deceptive, agonies of thirst. They should have been centred in one yearning, conducted to one clear spring of medicament, and purged by waters of truth, justice, and sympathy. From Fletcher's _Valentinian_ and _Bonduca_ despite the poetry and the onrush of the dramatic action there proceeds no calm, "all passion spent"; no beauty that is peace. And of the tragicomedies, _The Loyall Subject_ and _A Wife for a Month_, this verdict may be even more readily pronounced.
Such are the excellences and defects of Fletcher. Let us give him all the glory of the former: but stay from burdening Beaumont, who had faults of his own, with responsibility for the latter,--with the unmorality or immorality or extravagant artistry of Fletcher when not associated with Beaumont. With the vices and virtues of Fletcher's rocket, bursting in stellar polychrome, Beaumont had nothing to do. To him justice can be accorded only if he, after these three centuries, be considered alone,--not for ever coupled with Fletcher, but spoken and thought of, and known, as dramatist, poet, man of far sounder fibre, and more virile marrow,--of superior insight, imagination, and art.
Next to Shakespeare, the most essentially poetic dramatist of the early Jacobean period was Francis Beaumont. He had not the learning of Jonson, nor the long career, nor the dictatorial position; nor did he attempt to rival him in comedy, or criticism. But his great poem, _The Maides Tragedy_ is a thousand times more enthralling and poetic than _Sejanus_ or _Catiline_. Shakespeare always excepted, the only author of tragedy in that day whose intuitions and lines of astounding splendour at all compete with, sometimes surpass, Beaumont's is Webster; but the fascination of his _Duchess of Malfy_ is lurid, miasmatic, stupefying; that of _The Maides Tragedy_, breathless and heart-breaking.
In the drama of mingled motive, Jonson produced but one masterpiece that in poetry, valiancy of design, and portrayal of the ridiculous, equals Beaumont's _A King and No King_,--the _Volpone_; but that is not tragicomedy, and it drips venom. All that stands between _A King and No King_ and artistic perfection is the denouement. If the lovers had died, their struggle against temptation still continuing, their passion unfulfilled,--if in the moment of death, they had discovered that their union were no incest after all, Beaumont would have left behind him another consummate tragedy. As it is, to find a parallel in Jacobean literature, outside of Shakespeare, one must turn to Ford's _'Tis a Pity, She's a Whore_. There again with poetic effulgence the problem of incest is dramatized; but how half-hearted the struggle, insincere the moral,--the poetry, purple and unconvincing!
In romantic comedy, between 1603 and 1625, others have produced plays which from the dramatic point of view equal _Philaster_,--Dekker, Heywood, Marston, Chapman, Middleton, and Rowley. Not all even of Shakespeare's romantic comedies come up to _Philaster_ in literary or dramatic excellence; but only Shakespeare has written what surpasses it.
In the comedy that delineates humours, _The Woman-Hater_, as regards both poetry and technique, falls below several plays of Dekker, Chapman, Marston, Middleton, and Jonson, and below the earlier efforts of Shakespeare; but in characterization it is as good as some of Shakespeare's. There is no comic figure in _Love's Labour's Lost_, the _Two Gentlemen of Verona_, or the _Comedy of Errors_, that surpasses Beaumont's Hungry Courtier; and the humorous dialogue and the prose as a whole of _The Woman-Hater_ are more natural, and more intelligible to the modern ear. With Shakespeare's later comedies that in any degree avail themselves of the 'humours' element, or with Jonson's masterpieces in this kind, _The Woman-Hater_, of course, can not be placed in comparison. But if for the nonce, we consider Beaumont's _Knight of the Burning Pestle_, merely in its 'humours' aspect, we must acknowledge that its characters are as clear-cut, as typical of the time and as provocative of laughter as those of _Every Man in his Humour_, which for all its historic significance most people nowadays read, or might read, with a yawn; and that it is less artificial in construction, more human in motive and character, more modern in mirth than _The Silent Woman_,--even though the object of its ridicule be now _caviare_ to the general.
To set Beaumont's burlesque as a comedy of manners beside any of Shakespeare's comedies from 1594 down, would be futile, but of the early Shakespearian plays mentioned above none shakes more with fun than _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_, and not one gives us the flavour of London,--its citizens, their affectations and ideals, their reading, habits and life,--or of England, that the _Knight_ affords in every scene. If Shakespeare instead of writing, say, the _Comedy of Errors_ had written _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_, scholars would now be flooding us with _Variorum_ editions of it, women's literary clubs would be likening him with fervour to Cervantes, and the public might be so well educated to its allusions and ideas that our Hebrew emperors of the theatrical world and arbiters of dramatic vogue would be "starring" it through the country to the delight of audiences that wisely make a show of understanding and enjoying everything that Shakespeare wrote. To what unrealized extent the fate of plays hangs upon the tradition of the green-room, the actor's whim, the manager's enterprise or ignorance, and luck, is material for an essay in itself. I am not asserting that _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_ pretends to poetry, as do all of Shakespeare's plays; but that for chuckling and side-long mirth, and for manners and insight into the life of a rarely interesting period, it is fine comedy, while as burlesque it is equalled by few of the kind in our language and excelled by none.
It may be true that burlesques lose their flavour with the passing of their victims. But that does not hold true of the drama of problems perennially recurring and of emotions common to men of every age and clime. Of such drama are _The Maides Tragedy_ and _A King and No King_.
They are not antiquated. And I doubt whether they are stronger meat than some of Shakespeare's plays, all of which are more or less 'arranged'
before they are placed upon the modern stage. As to strong meat, the difference between the Elizabethan taste and the present Georgian is more a matter of variety than of flavour. Our forefathers liked their venison in gobbets, for three hours at a stretch, and washed it down with a tun or two of sack. The theatre-going public to-day likes its game just as high, but it varies the meal with other dishes as highly seasoned,--and washes it down with a foreign-labeled little bottle of champagne. Our ancestors called a depraved woman by a brief bad name, and put it into poetry. We denominate her, if at all, by some euphemistic circumlocution, in prose; but we none the less throng the theatre to see Dalilah play, and we follow with apparent gusto her sinuous enticements upon the stage. We rejoice in problem-plays more erotic, and far more subtly perilous, than those which Shakespeare and Beaumont beheld. We are of an age of uplift, and meticulous reform. We would eliminate fornication and adultery; but not from our plays. They teem with--suggestion. There is nothing neurotic, nothing insidious in _The Maides Tragedy_ and _A King and No King_. The grave of sin is wide open; and the spade that digged it stands in plain view, and is called a spade. On the whole I had rather have the Anglo-Saxon bluntness and gleaming poetry of the Beaumont than the whitewashed epigram and miching-mallecho of the twentieth-century play I saw last night. There is no reason why, properly cut and staged, Beaumont's greatest plays should not yield delight to-day. And as for the reader why should he not turn back to "the inexhaustible treasures" of entertainment offered by these plays. "They were," as says Mr. Paul Elmer More, "they were to the Elizabethan age what the novel is to ours, and I wonder how many readers three centuries from now will go back to our fiction for amusement as we to-day can go back to Beaumont and Fletcher."
I began this book by quoting from an historian of the drama of marked repute: "In the Argo of the Elizabethan drama--as it presents itself to the imagination of our own latter days--Shakespeare's is and must remain the commanding figure. Next to him sit the twin literary heroes, Beaumont and Fletcher--more or less vaguely supposed to be inseparable from one another in their works." And also from the last great poet of the Victorian age: "If a distinction must be made between the Dioscuri of English poetry, we must admit that Beaumont was the twin of heavenlier birth. Only as Pollux was on one side a demigod of diviner blood than Castor can it be said that on any side Beaumont was a poet of higher and purer genius than Fletcher; but so much must be allowed by all who have eyes and ears to discern in the fabric of their common work a distinction without a difference." If I have succeeded in showing that in the fabric of their common work the distinction between Beaumont and Fletcher is measured by a wide and clearly visible difference, I shall be happy. Others, to whom I have repeatedly expressed my indebtedness even when disagreeing with particulars of their criticism, have cleared the way. If in this book anything has been added to their services that may help the world to distinguish these two dramatists not only hand from hand but mind from mind, and to see Beaumont plain, as I see him in the long gallery of his contemporaries, I shall be happier still; but most amply rewarded if, for the future, it may be fittingly recognized not only that Beaumont was the twin of heavenlier birth--the Pollux, but why he was. Then, perhaps, the world of sagacious readers may turn from talking always of Beaumont-and-Fletcher, and protest occasionally and with well-informed reason in the name of Francis Beaumont alone.
 Mr. Paul Elmer More, _The Nation_, N. Y., Nov. 14, 1912, April 24, 1913, May 1, 1913.
 Chapters XXII and XXV, above.
 They are well presented by Miss Hatcher in her _John Fletcher_; and they are again discussed in my forthcoming third volume of _Representative English Comedies_.
 See again Miss Hatcher's work, and G. C. Macaulay, _Francis Beaumont, A Critical Study_, especially pp. 186-188; and my essay on _The Fellows and Followers of Shakespeare_ (Part Two) in the volume mentioned above.