« PreviousContinue »
cared for plays. After nearly forty years spent in London he seems to have retired, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, to his native place. According to a faint tradition he married and had children, ending his days as peacefully as he might; for Ilsington was in the centre of a Royalist district, and is known to have suffered heavily at the hands of the Parliamentary forces.
Ford was more than forty years old when the earliest surviving play written by himself alone was first acted. The Lover's Melancholy, although as a whole it is rather dreary, reveals his peculiar style already at its highest point of development. This style, with its slow, subtle melody, its sudden pauses on the suspension of a long breath, its words that are gestures, has nothing of the half delirious freedom of Marlowe or Beaumont, those strong-winged poets of an earlier and more robust age. This artist wrought, laboriously, cool, lucid lines that are sometimes absolutely frozen. In his second extant play, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Ford touched the highest point that he ever reached. He never after succeeded in presenting an image so simple, passionate, and complete, so free comparatively from mixture of weak or base elements, as that of the boy and girl lovers who were brother and sister. The tragic story is unrolled from first to last with fine truth and clear perceptions. At one point only is it possible to detect any failure in Ford's grasp of the situation. When at the climax of their histories Giovanni stabs Annabella, her feeble exclamation, “Brother unkind !” fails to carry the impress of truth, and falls short of the tragic height of passion to which we are uplifted. Such a failure of insight is rare with Ford, much rarer than touches of extravagant physical horror like the introduction of Annabella's heart on a dagger. It is profitable to compare 'Tis Pity She's a Whore with a rather similar play by Beaumont and Fletcher, A King and no King. Dryden thought that this play was the finest that Beaumont and Fletcher ever wrote ; it is certainly full of splendid rhetoric, tragic or tender, always broad, various and facile in style ; but for the qualities of insight and sincerity, for fineness of moral perception, for the sure and deliberate grasp of the central situation, Ford's play is as far above Beaumont and Fletcher's, with its shifty conclusion, as it is below it in all the qualities which make a play effective on the stage. The Broken Heart is a monument of sorrows, a Niobe group of frozen griefs. There is little movement, no definite plot or story; only this row of heart-broken figures-Orgilus, Panthea, Ithocles, Calantha, with many forms of minor melancholy:
The unity of the play lies in the cumulative touches by which these figures are realised for us, and by which we are lifted naturally to the heroic self-restraint of Calantha. Into Love's Sacrifice, the history of the ardent and reckless Bianca, Ford has put his subtlest work, marred though it is by the feeble and foolish sentiment of the conclusion. The story of the youth who falls in love with his friend's wife, and when he has aroused in her stronger nature a passion far deeper than his own, shrinks back realising his falsehood, is true to nature and wrought with Ford's finest art and insight. But we can only smile when we hear these lovers
“ Hid in a rock of fire, Guarded by ministers of flaming hell"celebrated as miracles of chastity and truth. In so complete a moral collapse as this (unless we choose to regard it as intentional irony), as well as in the occasional touches of forced material horror with which he startles us, Ford shows that he was the child of a society tainted by the affectation of purity, and a court that had ceased to be national and robust—both soon to vanish like a fantastic dream. In Perkin Warbeck he laid aside his characteristic defects, and also his characteristic merits, to achieve a distinct dramatic success. It is the least interesting of his plays for those who care for the peculiar qualities which mark Ford's genius, but it certainly ranks among our best historical dramas. Ford's interest in psychological problems may be detected in his impartial, even sympathetic, treatment of Warbeck; but for the most part this play is an exception to every generalisation that may be arrived at concerning his work. It is of a masculine temperature, with few flaws, and of fine characterisation throughout. These five plays embody whatever is best in Ford's work.
Of his remaining plays, The Lady's Trial contains most that is beautiful in language and character; The Fancies Chaste and Noble has a little that is characteristic, set in a weak and absurd story; The Sun's Darling, a “moral masque," of which Dekker wrote the larger and happier part, exhibits Ford's most level and frigid manner. The Witch of Edmonton, a noble and more human work of art than any of these, was written in conjunction with Dekker and Rowley. It contains a few touches that are unmistakably Ford's, together with much that, without being very characteristic, has been plausibly assigned to him ; on the whole, it is one of those plays, not uncommon at that time, in which two or more writers united to produce something that was unlike their individual work, and often superior to anything they produced singly. Ford's early work in prose and verse may be neglected.
1 The Witch of Edmonton is included with Dekker's plays in the Mermaid Series.
The burden of a passionate and heavy-laden heart—that is the centre of every picture that Ford presents to us; on the painting of it he lavishes all his care. The rest of the canvas is filled in with a rapid and careless hand. His superior persons are generally uninteresting. As to his comic figures, it is for once impossible to go beyond the dictum of Gifford : they are “a despicable set of buffoons.” He is reckless of consistency in action or time, indifferent generally to dramatic effect, but when the mysteries of the heart are in question he elaborates his art to the highest point. The conflict between the world's opinion and the heart's desire he paints and repaints, not as a moralist browbeating the cynical or conventional world, but as an artist, presenting problems which he does not undertake to solve save by the rough methods of the tragic stage. It is the grief deeper than language that he strives to express. He seeks in his own words to
“ Sigh out a lamentable tale of things
Done long ago, and ill done; and when sighs
He is a master of the brief mysterious words, so calm in seeming, which well up from the depths of despair. He concentrates the revelation of a soul's agony into a sob or a sigh. The surface seems calm; we scarcely suspect that there is anything beneath; one gasp bubbles up from