Page images
PDF
EPUB

a melancholy temperament. This idea has been strengthened by the often quoted couplet from a contemporary rhymer:

"Deep in a dump John Ford was alone got (gat),
With folded arms and melancholy hat."

This, however, may have been intended simply as a caricature. The idea that an early love-affair, referred to in Fame's Memorial, may have influenced him deeply, and induced a settled moodiness, may, with safety, be dismissed. Poets, and especially young poets, have always been prone to prate of their imaginary blighted hopes, and Ford's "flinthearted Lycia " probably caused him little more than a passing pang, if, in fact, she ever actually existed. But that Ford's mind was of a serious cast his curious little manual for every day conduct, The Line of Life, abundantly proves. He appears to have been upon reasonably good terms with his fellow playwrights and poets, as several commendatory verses upon his plays by such men as Crashaw and Shirley are extant, and Ford himself was one of those who burst into mourning song at the death of Ben Jonson, whom he saw fit to style " the best of English poets."

II.

Although Ford may be said to represent the period of dramatic decline, it is indeed a splendid decadence that can boast of such plays as Massinger's Maid of Honour, Shirley's Traitor, and Ford's Broken Heart. Compared with the best work of the Restoration playwrights these dramas are of the very highest order. It is only when we contrast them with the plays of the master dramatist of all time that their true middle position is established.

So far as we know, Ford first challenged public recognition as a poet in 1606 with his Fame's Memorial, an elegiac poem of considerable length upon Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire. Why the young poet singled out this nobleman for the subject of his ingenious stanzas we cannot say. Blount, though a man of much prominence, had died in disgrace, and it does not appear that Ford was acquainted either with him or with the countess to whom he dedicated his elegiacs in a hopelessly involved acrostic, " the worst," according to Gifford, " that ever passed the press." There is nothing whatever here to presage the future dramatist. A command of measure and of poetic phraseology indicates, however, that the author had served his apprenticeship. According to the dramatist's own statement his play, The Lover's Melancholy, published in 1629, was " the first of his that ever courted reader." But during the twenty- three years that intervened between the appearance of Fame's Memorial and this piece, he certainly had been heard upon the stage, if not read in the closet. Indeed it is highly probable that his name, though in conjunction with others, had been seen upon the title-page of dramas now lost. There are extant seven plays entirely of Ford's composition, and an additional two in which he assisted, Decker being his collaborator in one instance, and Rowley and Decker in the other. At least four more are entered under his name upon the Stationer's books, and the titles of three others in which he had a hand have been preserved. Assuming that these dramas constitute the entire bulk of his labors (which is not probable), we have, by which to judge him, something more than half of his actual production. On the theory, perhaps, of the survival of the fittest, it has been argued that the best of his work has come down to us, and it may be that this is a safe presumption.

Ford's masterpiece is unquestionably The Broken Heart, and whether it merits the somewhat extravagant praise bestowed upon it by Charles Lamb, it certainly sets before us in a vivid way some of the most powerful human emotions : love, sorrow, hatred, and despair. Fewer of the dramatist's prevailing faults are here evident than in any other of his plays save Perkin Warbeck. He may not rise to such heights in single scenes, or in detached passages, as elsewhere, but in general effect he is more harmonious and powerful. "Mock pathos" is one of the most serious charges that has been urged against Ford, and though it be granted that in some instances the tenderness may seem strained,and the agony prolonged with melodramatic intent, these objections do not hold against the portrayal of the sorrows of Calantha and the woes of Penthea. In the prologue the dramatist is careful to state that the story

"When Time's youth
Wanted some riper years, was known a Truth."

It is, however, certain that he did not draw the tale from historical sources. Prolific as Sparta may have been in tragedies, it never was the scene of this one. If, as Ford says, the incidents were not of his own invention, he doubtless found them, or the suggestions from which the plot grew, in the now lost romance of some Spanish or Italian writer. What seems not improbable is that, like many another author since, he sought to add to the effect of his fiction by boldly claiming a basis of fact for it. At least he merits high praise for the elaboration, the skillful fitting together, the general working out of the whole. He expended much more pains upon details than was common with him. The subordinate characters are more fully and carefully developed, and the scenes follow one another with a more natural sequence. Then, too, the moments of passion, of the poet's fine frenzy, are more frequent than in other plays. There is far less that is evidently studied. Ford is not a poet who often gives us the impression of having struck off a scene or an act at white heat. We are too likely to feel that his is the work of the cunning craftsman who has weighed and calculated the effect of word, line, and passage. But this is not so in the case of The Broken Heart. Here there is something more than the most perfect artifice, that fine touch of the emotions of which we are so frequently and so thrillingly conscious in reading Shakespere, and which we too often just miss in Ford.

Ford's other tragedies, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Love's Sacrifice, are not likely to attract the casual reader, but to the student of the dramatist both are interesting. Unfortunate in title and revolting in subject as is the first-named play, it is not fair to Ford for us to allow our natural prejudice against it to obscure its manifest merits. The drama unquestionably contains some of the author's strongest writing. The story, taken, like that of Love's Sacrifice, from an Italian source, tells of a brother and sister who conceive a mad passion for one another, and abandon themselves with what Jeffrey calls "a splendid and perverted devotedness" to their unlawful loves. Ultimately the sister is forced into marriage, and the husband discovers his wife's guilt. What could arise from so horrible a situation save despair, frenzy, and murder?—a fitting close for so dreadful a chapter of events. The question likely to suggest itself after the perusal of this awful tragedy is—should such a succession of scenes be made the subject of the playwright's art? It has been said, " better no dramas at all than those with such disgusting themes!" an opinion with which one is inclined to concur. Yet it must be granted that Ford has managed the plot both with dexterity and dignity, considering the delicate matter he has in hand. While we turn from Giovanni with repulsion and loathing, toward the unfortunate and distracted Arabella our sympathies are unconsciously drawn. In the scene where the sister meets death from her brother's dagger the dramatist reaches the climax of tragic power. No passage from any of the old playwrights, save certain memorable ones in Shakespere and two or three in Webster, conveys more of what might be termed the inevitableness of doom than this.

Few graces save those of expression are discoverable in Love's Sacrifice, while all of Ford's most prom

« PreviousContinue »