Gilbert Norwood.

Euripides and Shaw with other essays online

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Greek Tragedy








First Published in ig2Z



TWO of these essays were originally
lectures. " Euripides and Shaw " was
delivered in 1911, ''The Present Re-
naissance of English Drama" in 1913. I
have to thank the Literary and Debating
Society of Newport (Mon.) and the Editor
of the Welsh Outlook • respectively for per-
mission to reprint them. Both have been
revised, and the second has been brought
up to date.

For the Index I am indebted to the kind-
ness of my friend, Mr. Cyril Brett.






Euripides and Shaw: A Comparison

The Present Renaissance of English Drama 49

The Nature and Methods of Drama . 109


. 211



OUR subject can best be understood
if viewed, in the first instance, his-
torically. Both Euripides and Mr.
Bernard Shaw have been voices of an
age of reaction, of an age which stood in
marked and recognized contrast to the era
which had immediately preceded it. Let
us begin then with the briefest historical
survey and endeavour to compare these two

It is usually hard or impossible for any
man to describe, perhaps even to under-
stand, the history and spirit of his own
generation. But the present epoch is ex-
ceptional; it can be understood even by
those who live in it if they keep before
their eyes a strong contrast, precisely the
contrast which it is my present business to
indicate. There is a real gulf between us and
the middle of the nineteenth century. In Eng-


land, at any rate, the march of affairs broke
into a kind of hand-gallop, ending with a
leap over a chasm which can hardly be
defined, into a morass from which we have
not yet found our way. This jerk in our
progress, this turning-point (to use a more
decorous metaphor), is to be found in the
Education Act of 1870, a piece of legislation
which has already given results of gigantic
importance, generating and letting loose
energies, the history of which has hardly
more than begun. But their activity has
already shaken society. On many momen-
tous subjects it is impossible for us to think
or act as we thought and acted fifty years
ago. The present age is severed from what
is called the Victorian era with a complete-
ness which is truly amazing when we con-
sider the fewness of the years ; but not
more amazing than the extent to which
analogous conditions enable us to enter
into the spirit of an epoch so far sundered
from us in time as the age of Euripides.
We can understand Pericles better than we
understand Palmerston.

It will be enough for our purpose if we
confine ourselves to pointing out the differ-
ence in spirit between the present time and


the Victorian age. Consider the legislation
of two generations ago, the tone and the
implied assumptions of statesmen, of orators,
of political and social theorists ; the for-
mulae, sometimes not expressed but often
definitely proclaimed, which ruled the differ-
ent classes of society in their inward life
and their outward contacts. Above all,
consider the literature of those days — ^the
writers who were not only great but also
popular, and who therefore voiced the opinions
and emotions of their less articulate fellows
— Dickens, Macaulay, Wordsworth, Tenny-
son. Add to these that invaluable chronicle
of manners and customs, the back numbers
of Punch. Are we not already far enough
removed from them to observe, in spite of
their manifold differences, a unity of spirit,
a definite tone ? Above all we are conscious
of a robust faith in everything Englisli
and of the nineteenth century, a certainty
that all the men of the past have been but
so many coral insects building up that
perfect structure which has at last emerged
above the waters of humiliation and experi-
ment into the sunshine of the Great Exhibi-
tion. England is the heir of all the ages
and the centre of space. From London


there is a slight fall to the provinces, and
then again to Scotland and Wales, with a
deep but isolated depression to mark Ireland.
The level falls rapidly as we come to " for-
eigners," among whom the French have a
bad pre-eminence. Farther down the slope
are Germans, Americans, and then the rest
of Europe. Thus at length we reach the
dim collections of humanity known as
" natives," whose territory provides the
Englishman with a species of drill-hall in
which to exercise his celebrated bull-dog
virtues and enjoy to the full the luxury of
patronizing people who can never annoy
him by rivalry.

Even the greatest of the popular writers
were not untainted by this childishness.
The more free an author was from it, the
harder was it for him to gain a high reputa-
tion in his own day ; Carlyle is an example,
and Shelley above all. In the work of
those who really struck the imagination of
their contemporaries, in writers like Macaulay
and Tennyson, there is a tone of gentlemanly
arrogance, of urbane self-satisfaction, which
impels one to echo Sydney Smith's wistful
remark : "I wish I were as sure of anything
as Tom Macaulay is of everything."


Since those days we have passed through
a profound reaction. The nation which
seemed to believe that Queen Victoria was
immortal has seen her fade into a name to
which there clings already the faintest strange
tinge of unfamiliarity. With that great
figure has departed all the crude but not
ignoble certainty, all the superficial worship
of progress. The heir of all the ages has
cut the entail. Where most we were self-
confident, we question most. We who spoke
with such confidence about far Cathay have
begun to realize how little we know of our
own country. The people that saw a great
light now sits in darkness, half-lit by gleams
of which it knows not whether they are the
radiance of a new dawn or the marsh-fires
of diseased yearning and perverted energy.

It would be an almost warrantable con-
ciseness to remark at this point that, as
for the reaction in which Euripides was a
leading figure, it has been already described ;
that the contrast between the period of his
greatest activity — or, to put it more accur-
ately, of his extant dramas — and the earlier
part of the fifth century B.C. is roughly the
same as the contrast in England. The
magnificent exploits of Athens in the struggle


against Persia, the political power and the
undying glory which she had won by her
victories over the barbarian invaders, had
indeed given an enormous impulse to Athen-
ian patriotism and so to the national art
in its varied forms of the drama, painting,
sculpture, and architecture, an impulse re-
minding us of the flood of pride and energy
which filled the English nation during and
after its contest with Napoleon. But by
the time at which the Peloponnesian War
broke out (the year 431 B.C.), which is also,
roughly, the time of Euripides' earliest
surviving work, this impulse had already
passed away. Athens had begun to descend
from the pinnacle of political and artistic
achievement. She was, indeed, destined
still to be important in politics, and her
literature, both in poetry and in prose,
maintained itself at a splendid height, but
for the time decadence seemed to have set its
mark everywhere else. The Delian League
had become an empire and then a tyranny ;
philosophy was for a while, to all appear-
ance, undermined by the shallow accom-
plishments of the Sophists ; democracy was
becoming ochlocracy. The spectacle of the
rapid fading of so much glory had tainteli


men with that cynicism of which Euripides
often speaks. Like Shaw, he was compelled ^
by the m^gency of his environment and by
the law of his own nature to express the
prevalent sense of moral and intellectual
bankruptcy, but at the same moment to
seek for, and to follow, the road towards a
new, more humble, hope.

Let so much suffice as an outline of tlie
historical conditions which have brought
these two great dramatists into a kinship
of ideas and method. It is now time that
we should study this similarity in a more
detailed manner. The comparison between
Euripides and Mr. Shaw has often been made
and is, indeed, quaintly suggested to us by
the delightful passage in Major Barbara
where Shaw himself alludes to Euripides,
and almost brings him upon his stage in the
person of the professor of Greek. There
are four main features which are to be found
in both dramatists, characteristics of funda-
mental importance in the workmanship and
intellectual outlook of both.

First should be placed a spirit of challenge
to all accepted beliefs. The dramatist sees
around him a whole world of assumptions, a
whole gallery of revered portraits of human

greatness. Jtie is tne very voice oi an age
of questions, and by the law of his nature
he insists on revising all notions however
fundamental, all conventions however uni-
versal, all religious systems however august.
This by no means implies that he thinks
the whole world mistaken. He may, per-
haps, endorse the verdict of ages when he
has completed his examination — ^but not
before. He feels that the world spurns all
truth while it is fresh and stimulating,
embracing it only when, by the force of
obsolescence, it is already becoming error.
Once in every generation at least, a nation
must take stock of its creed and its conduct.
The whole history of human sorrow and waste
is nothing but the admission that such re-
visions have been often and terribly overdue.
It is the deep glory of these two writers
that their self-examination, their sturdy sin-
gularity, their almost fierce determination to
sound and test everything, is as complete
as it can be in a human creature. This
merciless sincerity can endure the last trial
of all : they are both capable of ridiculing
their own reasoned position as if it were the
most superficial pose. Take this passage
from The Doctor's Dilemma. It occurs in

the scene where Louis Dubedat, artistically
a genius but morally a complete scoundrel,
is confronted by a sort of committee of
doctors, who are trying to bring his baseness
home to him :

Louis : You're on the wrong tack
altogether. I'm not a criminal. All your
moralizings have no value for me. I don't
believe in morality. I'm a disciple of
Bernard Shaw.

Sir Patrick : Bernard Shaw ? I never
heard of him. He's a Methodist preacher,
I suppose ?

Louis (scandalized) : No, no. He's tlie
most advanced man now living : he isn't

What could be more clear than that Mr.
Shaw, under the flippancy of this, is quite
aware how his own position about morality
— a position he has elsewhere succinctly
defined in the words " morality may go to
its father the Devil " — may become a mere
pose and a justification for any clever black-
guard ? He is always turning on his own
would-be followers. The whole of that
slight amusing piece called How He Lied to
her Husband is an example — a demonstra-
tion of what cheap folly even such a pro-
foundly touching and indeed terrible situa-


tion as that of Candida may become when
transplanted to an atmosphere of second-
hand characters and shoddy thinking.

Turn for a moment to Euripides, and we
find a surprisingly similar case in the
Bacchce, his last and perhaps his greatest
drama. Throughout his life Euripides has
been attacking the traditional beliefs about
the orthodox Olympian gods with every i
resource of his splendid moral earnestness, ,
his intellectual penetration, and his technical !
skill. And yet, at the end of his life, what
does he say ?

I do not rationalize about the gods. Those I

V" . ancestral traditions, coeval with time, which i

are our possession, no reason can over- |

\ throw, not even if subtle brains have dis- i

covered what they call wisdom. I

This passage, which I have translated |

clumsily but as fairly as I can, has often !
been regarded as the poet's recantation of

the convictions and the teaching of a life- ?

time. I, for one, cannot think so. It is il

unsafe to affirm anything more definite than '

this, that the poet is setting himself against |
dilettantism in matters where dilettantism

is fatal. A restless spirit of inquiry into the i

credentials of traditional ideas, on whatever i


subject, had long been general in the more
cultivated communities of Greece. Nothing,
however venerable, could escape a close and
often hostile scrutiny. In this movement
Euripides had taken a leading part, and he
was just as ready in his latest years — ^this
the Bacchce, as a whole, abundantly proves
— to fight for the same cause as he had been
when young. But he was at odds with
those who made a potent medicine their
daily beverage — ^those young wits of whom
Aristophanes says that " the give-me-a-
definition look is coming out on you for all the
world like a rash." Euripides had found
that it w^as as important to restrain, even to
disown, disciples who made his principles
an excuse for their own folly and mis-
behaviour, as to insist on the principles
themselves. ,

But this is only a special case, striking
though it may be as the final proof of
spiritual clearness and candour ; both these
writers know practically no limits to their
range of scrutiny. Think of the number of
typical heroes whom Mr. Shaw turns inside
out — ^the different kinds of men and women
who have been, and are, revered as pillars
of society and stalwart witnesses to the


greatness of humanity. Sergius Saranoff,
the splendid warrior who turns defeat into
victory by a heroic cavalry-charge, and
comes home to the plaudits of his friends
and the rapturous homage of his future bride
— ^how he wilts in the cold dry air of Shavian
criticism ! His cavalry-charge is an insane
act of suicide which succeeds by miracle
because the enemy run short of ammunition ;
his love affair is an elaborate pose of courtly
adoration on both sides ; his melodramatic
affectations are punctured at every turn by
the irony of circumstances or by the contrast
of the real humdrum value of the Swiss
officer whom he despises.

Candida — an even finer play than Arms
and the Man — contains a similar example of
this method. There the character to be
vivisected like Sergius is Morell the clergy-
man. The searchlight is turned pitilessly
upon his weakness and self-indulgence, but
— ^this is a point of vast importance — ^he is
not the ordinary clergyman of theatrical
satire. He is neither the inept fool of The
Private Secretary nor the farcical sham-
ecclesiastic of The Importance of Being
Earnest. He is a good Christian, hard-
working and sympathetic, a fine speaker.


an intelligent thorough man, a man even
with some sense of humour. We see through
him in the end, but it is asuredly not be-
cause we find his goodness to be a fraud,
his sympathy a piece of professional tech-
nique. Morell is no hypocrite grinding his
teeth in the last act ; he will preach just
as well and sincerely to-morrow — nay,
with greater sincerity and effect. He is
found out simply because Mr. Shaw is keen-
sighted enough to disregard conventional
reverence for the popular clergyman and
to see and show us the human being under-
neath, Morell is as good as most people,
but he is not so much better as we thought
and as he thought. He has mistaken bustle
for life, applause for conversion ; we all do
this. The dramatist has turned aside from
such easy quarry as the forger, the child-
stealer, the betrayer of political secrets,
and all the rest of popular villains ; he has
studied ordinary people.

If his work at any point impinges upon
melodrama, it is only that he may the more
startlingly convince us of the truth by its
contrast with theatrical absurdity. Shaw
begins where melodrama leaves off. Most
of us have, in the presence of a child, told


some laughable anecdote which ends abruptly
with a repartee, whereupon the child has
asked, " And what did the other man
say ? " Shaw is for ever telling us what
the other man says and does; often it
is the best part of the story. General
Burgoyne, in The DeviVs Disciple, is de-
scribing to his colleague the plight of his
forces when face to face with the American
insurgents : —

Do you at all realize, sir, that we have
nothing standing between us and destruction
but our own bluff and the sheepishness of
these colonists ? They are men of the same
English stock as ourselves : six to one of
us, six to one, sir ; and nearly half our
troops are Hessians, Brunswickers, German
dragoons, and Indians with scalping-knives.
These are the countrymen on whose devotion
you rely ! Suppose the colonists find a
leader ! Suppose the news from Springtown
should turn out to mean that they have
already found a leader ! ^Vhat shall we do
then, eh ?

Now comes the crushing answer of the
footlights : —

Our duty, sir, I presume.

Loud cheers and a Union Jack in the


background, with quick curtain ? No .
Burgoyne is allowed to reply : —

Quite so, quite so. Thank you, Major
Swindon, thank you. Now you've settled
the question, sir — ^thrown a flood of light on
the situation. What a comfort to me to
feel that I have at my side so devoted and
able an officer to support me in this emer-
gency ! I think, sir, it will probably relieve
both our feelings if we proceed to hang
this dissenter without further delay, especi-
ally as I am debarred by my principles
from the customary military vent for my

Or take a simpler example from The Man
of Destiny, Napoleon is addressing a woman
who has robbed one of his officers of some
papers : —

Napoleon : I am waiting for the de-
spatches. I shall take them, if neces-
sary, with as little ceremony as the hand-

The Lady : General, do you threaten
women ?

Napoleon : Yes.

Is this merely a theatrical trick, the know-
ledge when, and when not, to drop the
^curtain ? Assuredly not. One of Mr. Shaw's
constant aims is to free his hearers from the


dominion of mere phrases. The power of
these catchwords consists in this, that they
impress the surface of the mind with a sense
of dignity, above all of finality. Therefore
the surest way to break the spell is to refuse
to regard them as final, to consider them
open to question ; and, in the drama, to
allow an opportunity of reply. At the same
time as he clears away this verbal lumber,
Mr. Shaw throws off allegiance to the con-
ventional hero, the pillar of society, the
demigod of the stage. His plays are full
of these discredited pundits : Sir Ralph
Bloomfield Bonnington, the great physician ;
Mrs. Dudgeon, the godly mater-familias ;
Napoleon, the Man of Destiny : Broadbent,
the liberal-minded Englishman ; Sir Howard
Hallam, the upright judge ; Morell once
more, and Major Saranoff.
I Euripides will be found to supply a list
/equally long and significant. First let us
look at Achilles in the Iphigenia at Aulis, sl
character not unlike Sergius Saranoff. This I
dazzling Homeric hero, the most glorious |
figure in Greek story, finds himself here in i
an awkward and ludicrous situation. The ,
Greek host has assembled at Aulis, about to
cross the sea to Troy under the leadership


of Agamemnon. But contrary winds have
been sent by the goddess Artemis; the
leaders are in despair, the army on the verge
of mutiny. At this point the prophet Cal-
chas informs Agamemnon that the wrath of
Artemis can be averted only if Agamemnon
will sacrifice Iphigenia, his own daughter,
on the altar of the goddess. After much
wretched hesitation the King consents and
summons her from her home in Argos. The
hideous purpose of her coming is concealed ;
Agamemnon sends a message that he wishes
to marry her to Achilles, the son of the
goddess Thetis. But he tells Achilles noth-
ing of this plot. In due time the maiden
arrives, but her father learns with horror
that her mother, his wife, has shared her
journey. Not only is his heart breaking at
the coming slaughter ; he knows that he
will have to face his wife's desperate op-
position. For the moment he contrives to
withdraw, but in his absence Clytsemnestra
and her daughter learn from an old slave the
true meaning of the summons. They decide
to appeal to Achilles, and when he comes
upon the scene Clytsemnestra makes a des-
perate yet dignified appeal. What is his
reply ? He is represented by all tradition


as the son of a goddess, by far the bravest
and strongest of the Greek warriors ; in
Homer the very sound of his battle-cry is
enough to make the Trojans flee. How
does he act now ? Does he bestow three or
four lines of hurried consolation on the
distressed ladies and then, brandishing his
sword, bound away to hew Agamemnon and
his followers into a more reasonable frame
of mind, after which, no doubt, he returns
to marry Iphigenia in sober earnest ? No.
He makes a speech which it is worth while to
quote at length, for its length is important.
And we must remember that all the while a
royal lady is hanging vipon his words in un-
speakable anguish. Thus then Achilles : —

Magnanimously my heart is lifted on
high ; it knows how to be vexed at evil and
to rejoice, not immoderately, in lofty station.
Such men as I are led by deliberate reason
to live their lives correctly with the help
of discretion. Now there are occasions when
it is pleasant not to be too wise, and other
occasions when it is good to have useful
wits. I was reared in the abode of Chiron,
a most righteous man, and so learned sim-
plicity of character. And as for the sons of
Atreus, if they show themselves good leaders,
I will obey them ; if not, I won't. Both
here and at Troy I shall show my freedom



of spirit, while so far as in nie lies I do
deeds of knightly daring. And as for thee,
who hast been shamefully entreated by thy
dearest, in so far as a young man may, so
far will I enfold thee in my pity, and never
shall thy daughter be slain by her father,
when she hath been called mine ; for I will
not give my person to thy husband to weave
his plots withal. For it is my name, even
if it did not draw the sword, that will
jslaughter this thy child. The cause, to be
Ipure, is thy husband ; but myself will be
no longer guiltless, if through me and
marriage with me she must perish — she the
damsel that hath suffered shamefully and
intolerably, and hath in wondrous unworthy
wise been dishonoured. I am the basest
Greek alive ; I, even I, am naught, and
Menelaus is a true man ; I am not the son
of Peleus but of a fiend ; if my name in thy
husband's cause shall slaughter her ! By
Nereus I swear, Nereus reared amid the
billows of the sea, the sire of Thetis my
mother, that King Agamemnon shall not
touch thy daughter, not even with his finger,
not even touch her garment. Or Sipylus,
on the frontiers of Heathenesse, the place
from which these generals trace their de-
scent, shall be a city, while Phthia, my own
home, shall be forgotten on the earth.
Calchas, the soothsayer, shall rue his sacri-
ficial barley-meal and his holy water. Nay,
what soothsayer is a man? Few truths he
speaks, and many lies — and all by chance ;
then, when chance fails him, he is lost. Not


because I wish for this marriage do I speak j

thus ; thousands of girls pursue me for my ;

hand. No ; King Agamemnon has insulted i

me. He ought to have asked my permission |

that my name should be used to ensnare his ]

child ; it was the thought that I should be i

the bridegroom that tempted Clytsemnestra •

most. I would have granted this use of my !

name to the Greeks, if here lay the hitch in ;

their voyage to Troy ; I would not have j

refused to aid the common weal of my |

companions in arms. But now I am a j

cipher in the eyes of our generals — to treat \

me honourably or no is a light matter, j

Soon shall this sword make question, this j

sword which even before I come to Troy \
I will stain with slaughterous drops of gore,

whether any man shall tear thy daughter '

from me. Keep quiet. I have appeared to i

thee a mighty god. I am not one. But I i
will be one.

" Was there ever such a fool ? " you say.

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Online LibraryGilbert NorwoodEuripides and Shaw with other essays → online text (page 1 of 12)