Harvard Classics, Volume 18: Modern English Drama

This volume of the Harvard Classics, focusing on the best drama from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, is both a collection of classics of the English language and a volume that highlights the limitations of something like the Harvard Classics. Since this volume was put together in 1909, it missed out on plays from the late 19th and 20th centuries which would have displaced some of the weaker plays in this volume. That’s no fault of the people putting the collection together, they took the relatively bare landscape of English-language drama from after the English Civil War through the Napoleonic wars and selected the six best representatives of that century and a half timespan. However, the difference in time between today and when the collection was assembled means that important contributions to the English dramatic canon by Shaw, Miller, Beckett and Stoppard aren’t in contention for spots in this volume.

The collection begins with Dryden’s All for Love. The preeminent poet in England after the death of Milton, Dryden has already been an important component of the Harvard Classics for his translations of Plutarch and Vergil. This play, however, is an original work that draws heavily from Shakespeare and Plutarch. All for Love tells the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria after the Battle of Actium. Dryden takes the tense historical scene of the besieged lovers and adds a new element to the drama, Antony’s wife, and Octavian’s sister, Octavia. With Antony, his wife and his mistress all present, all set against each other and with the armies of Agrippa about to engulf them all, the personal drama stays at a fever pitch. Antony is portrayed as a man torn between despair, a desire to reconcile with his Roman roots and his love for Cleopatra. All for Love is distinctly different from the rest of the collection as it is more a hearkening back to the Greek and Elizabethan forms than a foreshadowing of things to come.

With that said the second play in the collection, A School for Scandal, by Richard Sheridan, could not be more diffierent from the high drama in the final days of Ptolemeic Egypt. A School for Scandal is a comedy of manners lampooning the British upper classes. The comedy relies on hidden identities, mistaken assumptions and secret machinations to weave its humor. The crux of the story leans on the perception and misperception of affection between husbands, wives, bachelors and maidens. It is a tough story to read through casually, as the intricacies of identity vary quickly and regularly throughout the play.

In my opinion, the other comedy in this collection, She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith told a simpler, better contained story that certainly did not lack in truly funny moments. The pretense of the story is two old friends are putting up their son and daughter as a prospective marriage, and the son is traveling to meet the daughter to see if romance takes off. In a story that could only take place in the pre-modern period, the son ends up at his intended’s home, thinking it was an inn instead of the home of a family friend. Hilarity ensues as it is unveiled that the son also is very nervous around women of high birth. This is where the “stooping to conquer” element comes in, as the host’s daughter plays a maid to win the love of the doubly-duped guest. All of these misconceptions lead to misunderstandings and weave with a secondary plot to come to a head at the end of the play. Ultimately, the play is a fine example of the 18th century romcom.

The next play in the collection, Shelley’s The Cenci, could not have a more opposite demeanor. Oedipus, Antigone, and King Lear are rolled into one drama that is seldom performed due to the darkness of the subject matter. The play is based on the true story of an Italian noblewoman who was raped by her father, conspired to murder him and then was found guilty of murder by the Pope. The main element of artistic power here is Shelley’s brilliant verse that is so compelling and captures the spirit of the characters involved in this unfolding tragedy. At every step of the way Shelley’s verse paints an emotional portrait of people under the worst stresses imaginable enduring different types of suffering.

The fifth play in the collection, Browning’s A Blot in the ‘Stucheon is one of the weaker members. The drama of the story is very reminiscent of Euripides in its simplicity and the role of chance in comparison with the other dramas of its age. The dramatic framework of a couple entering into an arranged marriage who were already secretly seeing each other clandestinely only turns into a drama when the woman’s desire to keep her guardian and brother from knowing about the pre-marital affair. Fate intervenes to turn a possibly comedy into a tragedy, resulting in the deaths of all three lead characters.

The final play, Lord Byron’s Manfred, stands out from the rest. Manfred tells the story of a superman who has, through intense study and training come to rise above the mortals around him. Searching for more, Manfred consults with demons and clergy to accumulate more strength, but in critical opposition to Faust, Manfred refuses to submit himself to any being, even God himself, in exchange for more. While not a triumph of storytelling, Manfred serves as a bridge between Milton’s Satan and Nietzsche’s ubermensch and represents an important development in the artistic expression of morality.

While Manfred was a response to Faust in many ways, the next volume of the Harvard Classics focuses on this story. Both Goethe’s and Marlowe’s version are presented against each other along with two other plays by Goethe. Once I’ve finished those four plays, I’ll be embarking on Dante, I Promessi Sposi, The OdysseyTwo Years Before the Mast, a collection of Burke’s writings, and a volume of JS Mill & Carlyle. Once I’ve finished all of those, I’ll officially be half-way through with the Harvard Classics.

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