Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sir Walter Scott, Playwright

In 1799, the Scottish writer Walter Scott published a translation of Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen. It was the first publication to which Scott—who was later made a baronet in 1820—put his name.

Scott is better known as a novelist, but when he published his first novel, Waverly, in 1814, he made sure to leave the work anonymous. It was poetry and poetic drama that Scott considered his serious literature.

The eighteenth century was an age of reason, but as Scott's biographer John Buchan has pointed out, the public's desire for romance had never died out. The more fantastic elements of literature survived in the ballads Scott collected, and in the legends that formed the basis for his epic poems and for his plays.

In 1817, Scott began work on what eventually became his play The Doom of Devorgoil. Not published until 1830, the melodrama was derided by the Dublin Literary Gazette as "shallow" in comparison to the author's other works. However, it has some striking lyric passages, including this song found in Act I, scene i:

            Admire not that I gain'd the prize
                        From all the village crew;
            How could I fail with hand and eyes,
                        When heart and faith were true?

            And when the floods of rosy wine
                        My comrades drown'd their cares,
            I thought but that thy heart was mine,
                        My own leapt light as theirs.

            My brief delay then do not blame,
                        Nor deem your swain untrue;
            My form but linger'd at the game,
                        My soul was still with you.

The second scene switches to a Gothic setting, inside Devorgoil Castle, "in which there is much appearance of present poverty, mixed with some relics of former grandeur." Scott shows his familiarity with the conventions of Gothic drama, as well as a desire to utilize the stage effects available at the time to advance his story and achieve dramatic effects. For instance, in Act II, scene ii, he includes a footnote explaining how to portray lightening striking a suit of armor on the wall:

I should think this may be contrived by having a transparent zig-zag in the flat scene, immediately above the armour, suddenly and very strongly illuminated.

In Act III, scene iii, a ghost appears, first as an indistinct shape, then gradually materializing. Again, Scott demonstrates his intense interest in stage devices when he writes:

As they advance towards the Figure, it is more plainly distinguished, which might, I think, be contrived by raising successive screens of crape. The Figure is wrapped in a long robe, like the mantle of a Hermit, or Palmer.

The addition of "I think" seems to indicate Scott was unsure of how practical his solution might be. Still, he plainly was interested in how the play might be performed on stage. In the final scene, Scott wanted the entire castle to be flooding with water, but unsure how this could be managed, he added the footnote:

If it could be managed to render the rising of the lake visible, it would answer well for a Coup de théâtre.

Not all of Scott's plays were Gothic melodramas. He dedicated his poetic one-act drama MacDuff's Cross to the very serious playwright Joanna Baillie. Scott greatly admired Baillie, and wrote in the prelude of the play:

                                                —But, to thee,
            Joanna, why to thee speak of such visions?
            Thine own wild wand can raise them.

The story takes place at the ancient monument of MacDuff's Cross. The monk Ninian explains the rules surrounding the landmark:

            Know then, when fell Macbeth beneath the arm
            Of the predestined knight, unborn of woman,
Three boons the victor ask'd, and thrice did Malcom,
Stooping the scepter by the Thane restored,
Assent to his request. And hence the rule,
That first when Scotland's king assumes the crown,
MacDuff's descendant rings his brow with it;
And hence, when Scotland's King calls forth his host,
MacDuff's descendant leads the van in battle:
And last, in guerdon of the crown restored,
Red with the blood of the usurping tyrant,
The right be granted in succeeding time,
That if a kinsman of the Thane of Fife
Commit a slaughter on a sudden impulse,
And fly for refuge to this Cross McDuff,
For the Thane's sake he shall find sanctuary;
For here must the avenger’s step be staid,
And here the panting homicide find safety.

References to the same history immortalized by Shakespeare indicate that Scott's literary aims are much higher in this short play that in The Doom of Devorgoil. The same is true of the plot, which both idealizes clannish blood feuds and shows them melting into a more civilized Christian forgiveness.

Though Scott's plays have never proven popular, many of his novels, including Rob Roy, were successfully adapted into plays, which is also true of some of his longer poems, such as The Lady of the Lake, now probably best known in its incarnation as an opera—La donna del lago—with music by Rossini. Despite Scott's ambitions as a playwright, he was much more successful with providing other dramatists with source material than with writing plays of his own.