Monday, September 2, 2013

The (Briefly) Most Famous Speech in English Drama (Shakespeare Excluded)

I was recently reading Douglas by John Home. The first act is mostly unremarkable. We see Lady Randolph in a loveless marriage. She tells her confidant, Anna, that she previously had been wed to the son of the great Lord Douglas, who married her under an assumed name. After her husband died in battle, she gave birth to a son, but the boy disappeared with his nurse, and both were assumed dead. Lady Randolph breaks off the story with the entrance of the villain, Glenalvon. This much is all typical of 18th-century melodrama.

In the second act, however, the young Norval appears. More astute audience members can probably guess that this shepherd boy is actually Lady Randolph's long-lost son, and the heir of Douglas. What struck me most about this act was a footnote proclaiming that Norval's first big speech "was once perhaps, Shakespeare excluded, the most famous speech in English drama." I'll give some selections:

My name is Norval; on the Grampian hills
My father feeds his flocks, a frugal swain,
Whose constant cares were to increase his store,
And keep his only son, myself, at home,
For I had heard of battles, and I longed
To follow to the field some warlike lord;
And heaven soon granted what my sire denied.
The moon which rose last night, round as my shield,
Had not yet filled her horns, when, by her light,
A band of fierce barbarians, from the hills,
Rushed like a torrent down upon the vale,
Sweeping our flocks and herds....

The other shepherds flee, but Norval pursues the bandits and kills their chief. He continues:

Returning home in triumph, I disdained
The shepherd's slothful life; and having heard
That our good king had summoned his bold peers
To lead their warriors on the Carron side,
I left my father's house, and took with me
A chosen servant to conduct my steps....

You get the idea. It isn't brilliant writing, but it was good enough to excite audiences in the pre-Romantic era. The play premiered in Edinburgh in 1756, and opened at Covent Garden in London the following year. This is well before the publication of Lyrical Ballads and the launch of Romanticism in England, so this exciting and exotic Scottish tragedy no doubt moved London audiences who were more used to the dull poetry of The London Merchant.

Glenalvon, being a villain, of course plots to bring down this brave Norval, who appears seemingly out of nowhere. In the third act, Lady Randolph discovers the truth that the young stranger is her son, a fact she relates to him in the fourth act. All that remains is for Glenalvon to engineer a fight in which he stabs Norval (in actuality young Douglas) in the back. Lady Randolph's grief drives her over "the precipice of death," and all ends unhappily.

How did a set piece in this play become, even briefly, the most famous speech in English drama, Shakespeare excluded? My guess is by anticipating the powerful Romantic dramas that were to come. The plays of Lewis, Coleridge, and Byron were later able to capture similar sentiments, but with far more skill. Still, Douglas is interesting as an important precursor to Romanticism.