Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Patrician's Daughter

When J. Westland Marston's tragedy The Patrician's Daughter is remembered today, it's usually due to Charles Dickens. The novelist wrote a prologue for the play to be spoken by William Charles Macready, who played the role of Mordaunt in the original production at Drury Lane in 1842.

Dickens's verse prologue emphasizes the contemporary nature of the play, and praises the author for choosing a modern setting:

  Its solemn music he does not pursue
  To distant ages out of human view;
  Nor listen to its wild and mournful chime
  In the dead caverns on the shore of Time;
  But musing with a calm and steady gaze
  Before the crackling flames of living days,
  He hears it whisper through the busy roar
  Of what shall be and what has been before.
  Awake the Present! Shall no scene display
  The tragic passion of the passing day?

Though playwrights in the nineteenth century occasionally still wrote tragedies in blank verse, they usually did not set these poetic dramas in modern times. This was the innovation of The Patrician's Daughter that Dickens was praising. The phrase "Awake the Present" appears no fewer than three times in his prologue, which can be best summed up in its final three lines:

  Learn from the lessons of the present day.
  Not light its import and not poor its mien;
  Yourselves the actors, and your homes the scene.

In the first scene of the play, the heroine, Lady Mabel, is bemoaning the fact that women have so few choices in modern society. Still, she is determined to make the most of what agency she has. She tells her father:

  Women who marry seldom act but once;
  Their lot is, ere they wed, obedience
  Unto a father; thenceforth to a husband;
  But in the one election which they make,
  Choice of a mate for life and death, and heaven,
  They may be said to act.

Mabel is interested in Mordaunt, who is wealthy, though not of high birth like her. (She's the daughter of an earl.) She seems to regret that her life is not more romantic, though. In the play's second act, she laments to Mordaunt:

  O, would that I had lived in ancient days,
  The times of old romance! Do you not think
  I should have been a heroine?

His response to her is, "Why not be one now?" If women could be romantic heroines in the past, why not today, in modern drawing rooms wearing the clothes of today, not some bygone fashion? Marston's lines seem particularly self-conscious here, as it was the modernity of his verse tragedy that struck people as so novel. Mordant even uses a theatrical metaphor when he says later in the scene:

    Life's great play
  May, so it have an actor great enough, 
  Be well performed upon a humble stage.

We today would not consider Mordaunt from a humble background, but to Mabel's family, he is downright plebeian. Mabel's Aunt Lydia (originally played by Mary Warner) is so set against Mordaunt forming an alliance with her niece she concocts a plan to make him believe Mabel has already professed her love for him. When he asks to be accepted as an official suitor, Lydia tells Mabel that Mordaunt asked for her hand as part of a business transaction. Mabel is repulsed, and the courtship falls apart before it can even begin.

The fourth act skips ahead five years, and Mabel and Mordaunt are now engaged. During a painful scene with a notary, Mordaunt breaks off the engagement as an act of revenge, thinking Mabel and her family had betrayed him in the past. Mabel falls ill, and Lydia comes to regret her actions. In the first scene of Act Five she declares: "I am my niece's murderer!" Eventually, Mordaunt figures out what happened and asks for Mabel to take him back, but by that point it is too late, and she dies in his arms.

The Patrician's Daughter lasted only 11 performances. The experiment with modern verse tragedy did not catch on in the nineteenth century, though numerous poets (like W.B. Yeats) experimented with it in the twentieth.